Huxley on the laws of God

Dodging more irrelevant attacks from melanogaster (who will no doubt open his artillery again later) I contributed to this thread on BioLogos, which is part of a re-run of the series by Kathryn Applegate on randomness. Like last time round, people raised the only really significant issue about it – how does it fit with God’s sovereignty – and like last time round, and like similar questions raised with others like Darrel Falk, Dennis Venema etc the author’s response has been a deathly silence.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s biography of Darwin, and am struck once again how all the important issues regarding the evolution-creation interface were raised 150 years ago, and are still as relevant now despite the changed battle-lines and intellectual climate.

In particular I was struck by a reference to an 1844 predecessor of Origin of Species in the form of a popular-level work by Robert Chambers called Vestiges of Creation. Although onside with Darwin regarding the big issue of evolution (or transmutation of species as it was then called) the book raised the disapproval of the latter and the wrath of his compatriot Huxley. A typical offending passage was this:

The idea, then, which I form of the progress of organic life upon our earth, is that the simplest and most primitive type, under a law to which that of like-production is subordinate, gave birth to the type next above it, that this again produced the next higher, and so on to the very highest, the stages of advance being in all cases very small – namely from one species only to another; so that the phenomenon has always been of a simple and modest character.

Darwin’s particular objection was to the inevitability of progress, since his developing theory found room for degeneration too (though it remains interesting how much it was formulated, and of course marketed, as a theory of progress). No doubt he was quietly pleased that there was in the book no place for natural selection, as he feared losing his priority even from worthier scientists than Chambers.

But Huxley’s objection, held also by Darwin though less vehemently, was to the invocation of a natural law as the underlying powerhouse of evolution. To quote Himmelfab:

What particularly offended him was the “pseudo-scientific realism” of this philosophy of nature: the notion that science and theology could be reconciled by the simple expedient of having God create laws which the universe would then obey. Laws thus became the “angels or demiurgoi, who being supplied with the Great Architect’s plan, were permitted to settle the details among themselves.”

Now I’m not perfectly sure what the great scandal was in Huxley’s mind. Unlike Darwin, but like Richard Dawkins, he had a metaphysical agenda which ranked higher than his scientific concerns: it’s clear his sympathy for natural selection began primarily because it seemed to do away with God. So Chambers’ mixing God and science together may have been enough to provoke his ire.

But what strikes me is how similar his summary is to the prĂ©cis of theistic evolution often given by its supporters. We see the incoherent idea of “freedom in creation”, in this case illustrated as the personal relationships between the various laws God had instituted to allow them a creative hand in life’s progress. We also have the vaguely-drafted concept of laws within nature tending towards the progress seen in evolution, which could quite justly be compared to as-yet-unobserved laws of self-organisation, such as those apparently accepted by BioLogos people in the convergent evolution scheme of Simon Conway Morris. Such a “legal framework” appears the closest many TEs come to accepting God’s (possible) influence over evolution, so that it might, for example, eventually fulfil God’s desire to create mankind.

If I read Huxley aright, he has seen through this to arrive at the obvious truth that this would make such laws demiurges, co-creators doing a more, or less, competent job under delegation. Huxley, I suppose, was loath to leave room for any gods, even demiurgic laws, and for all his religious uncertainty I think the same is true of Darwin. But for the theist the conclusion is the same, but the implication the opposite: such a system would in effect be polytheism, and the wholeness and divine goodness of a world created by the perfect God replaced with one permeated by the errors of God’s co-creators.

Chambers’ precise ideas have passed into a largely forgotten history – but the intrinsic weaknesses of his ideas live on in the mainstream of modern theistic evolution.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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