The Enlightenment is Dead: Chapter 3  –  Darwin, Dewey, and Relativism

Darwin’s Positivist Epistemology

Despite the failed attempts of Enlightenment epistemology to account for science, an atheistic view of science came to dominate the scientific establishment and other academic disciplines in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  This triumph came through a scientist rather than a philosopher, but his attraction was his application of a philosophical idea to the science of biology.  Darwin is credited by most intellectual secularists nowadays with having destroyed the design argument for God by discovering a natural mechanism known as “natural selection” or “survival of the fittest” that explains away all need to see intelligent design in nature.  What is not generally known is that Darwin’s devotees in the latter part of the nineteenth century generally did not accept natural selection.  They believed in Darwin’s claim of naturalistic transmutation of species, but they looked for their own mechanisms.  Darwin didn’t know about genes since they had not been discovered yet.  Not until the neo-Darwinian synthesis of genetic theory with natural selection in the 1930’s and 40’s did natural selection become widely accepted by evolutionists.[1]

During the hundred years before Darwin, there were Enlightenment philosophers whose commitment to a naturalistic account of science led them to propose that all life arose from a simple aquatic organism that gradually evolved into all the diversity of organisms over millions of years, such as Denis Diderot and Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.[2]  Similarly, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, rather than being based on the empirical discovery of a mechanism for the transmutation of species, was the unavoidable product of his pre-commitment to an anti-supernatural, empiricist epistemology.  That epistemology, which required immediate dismissal of any appeal to God as a scientific dead-end, was the source of his initial popularity in the late-nineteenth century scientific community, which already had largely rejected Christian ways of viewing the world in their profession.  Darwin eliminated design from science by defining science to exclude it, saying that “it is not a scientific explanation.”[3]  Science historian Neil Gillespie writes,


Darwin . . . found scientists becoming more and more positivistic, and made them aware of the implications of this for biology.  He made them evolutionists; but, ironically, he could not make them selectionists.  As Chauncy Wright noted, “It would seem, at first sight, that Mr. Darwin has won a victory, not for himself but for Lamarck.”  It is sometimes said that Darwin converted the scientific world to evolution by showing them the process by which it has occurred.  Yet the uneasy reservations about natural selection among Darwin’s contemporaries and the widespread rejection of it from the 1890s to the 1930s suggest that this is too simple a view of the matter.  It was more Darwin’s insistence on totally natural explanations than on natural selection that won their adherence.[4]

Even Christian theologians of that time were willing to accept the anti-theistic methodology of positivism in the area of science, allowing the connection between God and nature to gradually vanish like the smile of the Cheshire cat.

Darwin followed the empiricist epistemology of David Hume as well as Auguste Comte’s version of it, known as “positivism.”[5]  In 1838, thirty years before the Origins of Species was published, Darwin appealed to Hume’s view in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding that both human and animal thought arises from a combination of sense experience and instinct.  Darwin wrote: “I suspect the endless round of doubts & scepticisms might be solved by considering the origin of reason, gradually developed, see Hume on Sceptical Philosophy.”[6] Positivism views naturalistic, empiricist science as the only real, reliable knowledge.  Comte’s Positivism accepts Hume’s thesis that all knowledge comes through experience, but it ignores the philosophical problems that Hume discovered in naturalistic empiricism while making the triumphalist claim that it is the highest stage of intellectual development.

As a naturalistic empiricist, Darwin defined “science” as relating facts to laws of nature, and thus a supernatural explanation for the origin of species was ruled out a priori.  “When Darwin began to consider the problem of species extinction, succession and divergence, he did so as an evolutionist because he had first become a positivist, and only later did he find the theory to validate his conviction.”[7]  Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of evolution with Darwin, yet he is not lauded as widely as Darwin because Russell said that such things as the human brain and organs of speech cannot be explained apart from an intelligent designer.  Darwin was outraged that Wallace did not toe the naturalistic line, writing to him that it amounted to murdering their theory of evolution:  “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own & my child.”[8]   And then a couple of weeks later, Darwin wrote to Wallace:  “I differ grievously from you. . . . I can see no necessity for calling in an additional & proximate cause in regard to Man.”[9]

With any supernatural intervention ruled out by Darwin’s definition of science, the transmutation of species by natural laws was about the only explanation available for the history of life on earth.  Naturalistic transmutation could be gradual, or it could include miraculous-looking jumps from one species to another; but Darwin’s application to biology of Charles Lyell’s principle of uniformitarian geology, that only present processes at present energy levels can be used explain geological formations,[10] left Darwin with gradualistic evolution as the only option.  This was a philosophical deduction, before any evidence in the field was gathered.

Life and the Universe show spontaneity:
Down with ridiculous notions of Deity!
Churches and creeds are all lost in the mists;
Truth must be sought with the Positivists.

Wise are their teachers beyond all comparison,
Comte, Huxley, Tyndall, Mill, Morley, and Harrison;
Who will adventure to enter the lists
With such a squadron of Positivists?

There was an ape in the days that were earlier;
Centuries passed, and his hair became curlier;
Centuries more gave a thumb to his wrist—
Then he was Man, and a Positivist.

Mortimer Collins (1872)

While it was not the acceptance of natural selection that initially did it, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was seen as demolishing the design argument for God’s existence.  Prior to Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, Enlightenment philosophy had influenced the intellectual class to be skeptical of miracles and the inspiration of the Bible; but the design argument was still widely persuasive as proving that a god was necessary, even if it was a finite god, to at least give some direction to the origin and development of life.  This describes Darwin’s own attitude as a young, rich, cultured English gentleman in the early 1800’s.  Stephen Jay Gould calls Paley the “intellectual hero of Darwin’s youth.”[11]  But some time prior to embarking on the H.M.S. Beagle to the Galapagos Islands, Darwin became persuaded of the positivist view of knowledge, which, with Lyell’s gradualism and some questionable ideas about the nature of God, led him irresistibly to evolutionary theory.[12]

Hume had famously argued against the design argument a hundred years before Darwin based on what could logically be extrapolated from sense experience.  Based on limited experience, he said, we cannot affirm a universal Creator.  We have seen that Hume’s empiricist theory of knowledge undermines all knowledge, not just knowledge of God.  But it seemed to many that at least Hume’s argument against design might allow for a finite god, and there seemed to be no other explanation for the complexity of living creatures than an intelligent designer. [13]  Then Darwin’s theory appeared on the scene and undermined the need for even such a limited god.  As Richard Dawkins has said put it, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”[14]

At the same time that Darwin’s book was topping the best sellers list and making God-denying positivism the standard of all knowledge in academia, Christianity was retreating into a pietistic shell, one that excluded concern for God’s creation in favor of just being concerned about worship meetings and getting souls to heaven.[15]  The religious escapists implicitly made a deal to hand over earthly life to the secularist powers.  The escapists thought that they had secured a safe-haven for themselves, but the secularist claim that the cosmos is all there is, was, or ever will be meant that secularists would not stop until they annihilated God.  With atheism emboldened and Christianity cheerfully retreating, the outcome was inevitable:  the assumption of the truth of atheism in every major area of power and influence in the twentieth century.

Darwinism fit in perfectly with the spirit of the age.  While theistic faith waned, progress through technology and exploration kept going.  Darwin’s idea of naturalistic evolution completed the picture of secular progress for the whole biological world.  Of course, in the twentieth century, progress through science and the waning of Christian faith accelerated further, and so did acceptance of Darwinism.

Evaluating Darwin’s scientific case would be too lengthy to be dealt with here.[16]  But even if the appearance of design in living organisms can be explained away by an empirically verified mechanism of purely natural laws, it does not explain the possibility of empirical knowledge and the existence of laws of nature, which as I will argue, still requires the existence of God, a universal Creator.  John Lennox points out that the discovery of a mechanism does not exclude an agent as the designer of the mechanism:

The basic issue here is that those of a scientistic turn of mind like Atkins and Dawkins fail to distinguish between mechanism and agency.  In philosophical terms they make a very elementary category mistake when they argue that, because we understand a mechanism that accounts for a particular phenomenon, there is no agent that designed the mechanism.  When Sir Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravitation he did not say, ‘I have discovered a mechanism that accounts for planetary motion, therefore there is no agent God who designed it.’ Quite the opposite: precisely because he understood how it worked, he was moved to increased admiration for the God who had designed it that way.[17]

Even though Darwin ruled God out of science with his philosophically-influenced hypothesis of species transmutation, his scientific theory did nothing to resolve the problem of knowledge that naturalistic philosophers had been unsuccessfully wrestling with.  Darwin simply assumed a bankrupt positivist epistemology and developed a theory of biological development that fit it.

In fact, Darwin’s theory of evolution creates an additional epistemological problem for naturalism (assuming for the sake of the argument, contrary to the thesis of this book, that rationality is not impossible in terms of the naturalistic worldview) that Darwin recognized:  “But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”[18]  Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has presented this as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism:  Because naturalistic evolution favors behavior that is advantageous for survival and not true beliefs, natural selection has no way to favor true, non-adaptive beliefs over false but adaptive beliefs.  Therefore, the probability that our minds deliver true beliefs given naturalistic evolution is low or inscrutable.[19]  Some other prominent atheist philosophers have recognized the same thing.  Thomas Nagel writes that “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermine their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself.”[20]  Steven Pinker likewise says, “Our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth.  Sometimes truth is adaptive, but sometimes it is not.”[21]  And Richard Rorty comments, “The idea that one species of organism is, unlike all the others, oriented not just toward its own increased prosperity but toward Truth, is as un-Darwinian as the idea that every human being has a built-in moral compass.”[22]  Darwinists often dismiss belief in God as an evolutionary adaptation from humanity’s past, but if an idea being a product of evolution undermines its truthfulness, then all human ideas are unreliable, including the idea of evolution.  Theodore Dalrymple observes, “We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar:  all beliefs, including this one, are the product of evolution, and all beliefs that are the product of evolution cannot be known to be true.” [23]


Darwin, Dewey, Einstein, and the False Claim that “Everything is Relative”

Philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey was inspired by Darwin’s theory to make the hasty generalization that, because one particular object of study is not fixed (species), therefore nothing is fixed at all about the world.  In his essay, “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy” (1910), Dewey writes that, by overturning the belief in fixity of species, Darwin overturned the whole idea of fixity in nature that came down to us from Greek philosophy through its view of the eidos, the “type” in living things and nature, which was later adopted by Christian thinkers.  Dewey argued that rejecting fixity in nature should lead to an epistemology that defines “truth” as nothing more than experimental verification.  But verification is time-conditioned; whereas “true” is not, not in ordinary language at least.  Dewey’s view means, as Greg Bahnsen points out, that the assertion that “there were 17 billion ants in the world in 459 B.C.” cannot be said to be true because it has not been experimentally verified, even if there really were 17 billion ants in the world in 459 B.C.[24]  Dewey’s definition of truth makes the concept completely human-centric and cannot account for an objective world independent of human observation.  But Dewey still wanted to acknowledge an objective world for scientists to study, saying that “the cognitive never is all-inclusive.”[25]  As Bahnsen describes Dewey’s dilemma:

Dewey was hopelessly caught in a dialectic tension:  objects of knowledge are created by rational inquiry (the real is rational), and yet the intended objects of experience exist independently of cognitive control and reconstruction (the cognitive is never all-inclusive).  This reflects the rational-irrational antimony of all secular thought.[26]

Modern secularists have made the same claim about Einstein’s theory of relativity as Dewey made about Darwin.  They say that his theory of relativity overturned absolute laws in nature, morality, art and politics.  Einstein, however, repudiated the idea that his theory should be applied to human society:  “I believe that the present fashion of applying the axioms of physical science to human life is not only a mistake but has something reprehensible to it.”[27]  With respect to the scientific theory itself, Einstein’s theory made predictions in physics more mathematically precise, and he did not discard all constants.  He posited that time and space were relative, but he replaced those constants with the constant of the speed of light in a vacuum.[28]  A second absolute in Einstein’s special theory of relativity is the spacetime interval.  The contribution of space and time will differ between two observers with different velocities, but the spacetime interval will be the same for both.[29]  Einstein rejected the implication that his scientific theory undermined the concept of order in nature.    Einstein was so awe-struck by the ability of mathematics to describe and predict natural phenomena that he insisted that “God does not play dice with the universe” in his rejection of quantum indeterminism, and he endorsed Spinoza’s philosophy of timeless, unchanging “substance” as the source of all reality.

Even quantum indeterminism is not as indeterminate as some atheist popularizers have made it out to be.  Similar to Lennox’s observation about Darwinism’s reliance on laws of nature, quantum physics assumes the existence of natural laws while doing nothing to explain their origin.  The atheist popularizers appeal to relativistic quantum mechanics to claim that the universe could have popped into existence out of nothing.  But theoretical physicist and philosopher David Albert points out that physicists assume that quantum fields are the “eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world.”  The laws of quantum theory “take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible, . . .  [but] they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or why there should have been a world in the first place.  Period.  Case closed. End of story.”[30]  Quantum indeterminism does not overturn the first law of thermodynamics, that energy/matter cannot be created or destroyed.  Energy can become matter or vice versa in accordance with Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2.  When the atheist popularizers say that matter can pop into existence from nothing, they really just mean that matter can form from energy, which is always there.  To quote David Albert again, that “is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves.” [31]

[1]  Nancy R. Pearcey, “’You Guys Lost’:  Is Design a Closed Issue?,”  in Mere Creation:  Science, Faith, and Intelligent Design, ed. William Dembski (Downers Grove, IL:  Intervarsity Press, 1998).

[2]  For Diderot and other French philosophes, see Vartanian, Diderot and Descartes, pp. 107-124, 203ff.  For Erasmus Darwin, see his book Zoonomia.  More generally, see Conway Zirkle, “Natural Selection before the ‘Origin of Species,'” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, (25 April 1941) 84 (1): 71–123; and essays by Arthur O. Lovejoy:  “Some Eighteenth Century Evolutionists. I.” The Popular Science Monthly 65 (1904): 238-251; “The Argument for Organic Evolution before The Origin of Species. I” The Popular Science Monthly 75 (1909): 499-514.

[3]  Charles R. Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 4th ed. (London: John Murray, 1866), p. 513.

[4]  Neal C. Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 146-47.

[5]  On Comte, Ibid., pp. 53-54, 140.

[6]  Charles Darwin, Notebook  N, p. 101.

[7]  Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, p. 46.

[8]  Letter to Wallace, 27 March 1869, responding to Wallace’s letter to him on 24 March 1869.

[9]  Letter to Wallace, 14 April 1869.

[10]  Lyell said that geologist should follow the rule that “no causes whatever have from the earliest time to which we can look back, to the present, ever acted but those now acting, and that they never acted with different degrees of energy from that which they now exert.” (Letter from Lyell to Roderick Murchison, 1829).  Lyell, however, rejected the transmutation of species.

[11]  Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 230, cf. p. 116.  See Nora Barlow ed., The autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1882: with original omissions restored (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969), p. 87.  Also see, John Lennox, God’s Undertaker, p. 81.  Although, Benjamin Wiker argues that Darwin was dishonest when writing about the extent of his earlier religiosity:  The Darwin Myth:  The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Washington, D.C.:  Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2009), pp. 147-50.

[12]  For Darwin’s theological arguments for evolution, see below, pp. 101, 128ff.

[13]  See, for example, John Stuart Mill, “Theism,” Three Essays on Religion (London:  Longmans, Green, Reader, And Dyer, 1874) p. 172.

[14]  Marxism, or some modified socialist view, has also significantly contributed to the intellectual fulfilment of most modern atheists.   While Darwin is seen as eliminating the need for God in nature, Marx provides the intellectual class with a vision of equality in human society without God.  Together, they allow atheists to be intellectually fulfilled engineers of a better world. Even though the two views share a view of progress through natural forces, they are incompatible in other ways, as Richard Dawkins, who holds to both, has pointed out – see the companion section on ethics.   Evolution apologist Douglas Futuyma writes: “By coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous. Together with Marx’s materialistic theory of history and society and Freud’s attribution of human behaviour to influences over which we have little control, Darwin’s theory of evolution was a crucial plank in the platform of mechanism and materialism – of much of science, in short – that has been the stage of most Western thought.”  Evolutionary Biology, 2nd ed. (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, 1986), p. 3; quoted in John Lennox, God’s Undertaker, p. 87.

[15]  Even though H. Richard Niebuhr characterized Calvinist theology as “transformational” of culture in his famous book, Christ and Culture (1951), and this has a great deal of warrant, leading American Calvinist theologians in the nineteenth century, like Charles Hodge in the North and James Henley Thornwell in the South, advocated the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church.”  By this they meant that the church should only be concerned with worship services and getting souls to heaven.  (Although Hodge published a critique of Darwinism and concluded that Darwin’s rejection of teleology amounted to atheism: What is Darwinism?, 1874.)  As Niebuhr explains in his book, other Christian theologies have a hands-off view of the material world already built into them (e.g. Lutheran two-kingdom theology).

[16]  See Appendix A:  “Major Empirical Problems for Evolution.”

[17]  John Lennox, God’s Undertaker:  Has Science Buried God?  (Oxford, England:  Lion Hudson, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 932-940, p. 45.

[18]  Letter to William Graham (July 3, 1881).

[19]  Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[20]  Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos:  Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 27.

[21] Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: Norton, 1997), p. 305, quoted in Peter S. Williams, A Faithful Guide to Philosophy:  A Christian Introduction to the Love of Wisdom  (Milton Keynes, UK:  Paternoster, 2013), p. 201.

[22]  Richard Rorty, “Untruth and Consequences,” The New Republic (July 31, 1995), p. 36.

[23]  “What the New Atheists Don’t See:  To regret religion is to regret Western civilization,” City Journal (Autumn 2007),

[24]  Bahnsen, “Pragmatism, Prejudice, and Presuppositionalism,” p. 251.

[25]  John Dewey, Experience and Nature (Chicago: Open Court, 1929), p. 24; quoted in Bahnsen, “Pragmatism, Prejudice, and Presuppositionalism,” p. 253.

[26]  Bahnsen, “Pragmatism, Prejudice, and Presuppositionalism,” p. 254.

[27]  Quoted in Peter Novick, That Noble Dream:  The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 139.

[28]  Nancy Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science:  Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Books, 1994), chapter 8, “Is Everything Relative?:  The Revolution in Physics.”

[29] s² = x² + y² + z² – c²t².  Jason Lisle, The Physics of Einstein: Black Holes, Time Travel, Distant Starlight, E=mc^2 (Aledo, TX:  Biblical Science Institute. Kindle Edition: 2017), pp. 90-91.

[30]  David Albert, “On the Origin of Everything: ‘A Universe from Nothing’ by Lawrence M. Krause,” The New York Times (March 23, 2012),

[31]  Ibid.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter an e-mail address