The Watershed Century, 17th or 14th ?

        Many observers accept the standard wisdom that modern times entered with the scientistic rationalism of the 17th century. They see the definitive mind-body split resulting in the mechanization of the universe set in stone with Newtonian physics and Descartes’ definition of matter as res extensa opposed to mind as res cogitans.

          But, I see modern “disenchantment” as the cumulative effect of the endemic dualism of the west, … a disenchantment that became clearly noticeable in the 14th century.  The enlightenment, in my view, simply put the capstone on a process already well underway.  It is my contention that from ancient times, western christian ideology contained elements that were so out of touch with reality as to be ultimately untenable – a catastrophe waiting to happen. 

         The catastrophe occurred in the 14th century.  This all became agonizingly clear when Wes­tern christians found themselves categorically incapable of accepting the plague of 1348 as a random occurrence; and the result was an avalanche of anguish and alienation from which the west never recovered.  The “God” of Augustinian providence and predestination, eternally insulted by “original sin,” came to be seen as a punitive monster “Spirit,” alien to this world of matter and eternally hostile to humankind.  That disenchanted universe ruled by a distant, angry, narcissistic “God” was the one I was raised in.  But it had began three hundred years even before Descartes and Newton.  Many still live in it today.

         Consider:  (1) There is just as profound a hatred and fear of the “flesh” in Augus­tine of Hippo (5th c), Francesco Petrarch (14th) and Thomas à Kempis (15th), as you will find in any “modern” post-enlightenment writer.  Alie­n­ation from the body and a disdain for matter was not an invention of the 17th century.  (2) There is a deeper cynicism about the ability of reason to assure itself of the traditional elements of the religious world-view, namely the existence of “spirit,” and the afterlife of reward and punishment, in the Franciscan William of Ockham (d.1348) than in René Descartes and Isaac Newton.  By making a fetish of the triumphs of “reason,” the enlightenment actually reaffirmed a philosophical belief in “spirit” that the 14th century had claimed could no longer be “proven.”  And (3) there was more skepticism about the operations of divine providence in Juliana of Norwich and Geoffrey Chaucer (1385) than in Alexander Pope (18thc) or John Milton.  The breakdown of the “Alchemist” vision of a divinely permeated sacred universe was well underway by 1400. 

         It is my opinion that the marked increase in the persecution and expulsions of Jews, the expansion and intensification of the inquisition, the birth of a money economy ruled by usury and avarice in which the Church itself was a major player, the perpetration on a massive scale of outrageous injustices on primitive  peoples accomplished with the open complicity of the Church – all phenomena of the 15th and 16th centuries, before the enlightenment – were symptoms of the breakdown of the hieratic vision and communitarian spirit of mediaeval christianity.  In the 17th century the separation of “God” from material creation, begun in the 14th, was completed by the advent of “modern science.”  The enlightenment scientists believed that “God,” like a clockmaker, had set the material universe in motion, but otherwise had nothing to do with it, because “He” was spirit, and “it” was matter.

         To my mind, 17th century rationalism gave dualism a new lease on life by “scientifically” confirming the separation of the spiritual from the physical, – quarantining spiritual elements and preventing them from being contaminated by the dead passive docility of matter.  Matter became a flat and transparent mechanism, absolutely devoid of life, and “spirit” was encouraged to flourish “in its own sphere” unaffected by any intrusive clamor arising from matter (the body) which it was destined to conquer and discard.  The “spirits” whose existence a discredited platonism could no longer guarantee in the 14th century, were set firmly on their feet by Descartes’ cogito in the 17th, under the rubric of reason as precisely that-which-conquered-and-controlled-matter and therefore had to be there.  Thus, it re-esta­blished the independence of the mind separate from the body more securely than ever before.  “Spirit” now, enjoyed a renewed respect as “reason,” the power that rendered matter tractable and transparent.  It was an age of inevitable other-worldliness as spirit became even more convinced that it did not belong to this material world and struggled in vain to understand why it was here at all.  Escape, i.e., “salvation” and its foretaste in religious or esthetic rapture, alone made any sense.  Our life belonged to another world.  And death was accepted by being absorbed into the universal disdain for matter and the body.  Does this sound familiar?  It was the traditional christian spirituality, in all fundamentals unchanged since Augustine’s time.  I was born into this vision.  It’s what religious life was all about.

        Why is this of any more than academic interest?  Because it dispels the myth that what “disenchanted” the world was “modern science” and not “religion.”  I contend that the enlightenment mindset was a subroutine of perennial christian ideology.  The “modern” world-view was the culmination of a growing disenchantment latent in Roman christian thinking from early on, and which burst forth like the pustules of the plague when the Augustinian doctrines of “original hostility” and the corruption of the flesh came to dominate the perception of the world in the 14th century.  It was the 14th century that saw the fatal crack in the world-view built on an untenable, pathological dualism.  If the West was not shizoid and alienated throughout the prior millennium, it was only because these monstrous elements of Augus­tine’s theology – original sin and divine predestination – had never before been given such exclusive authority to explain events.

        Earlier, in the 9th century, as expressed by Eriugena in the imagery of the Cappadocian Fathers, material creation was called the “theophany” of “God,” the outward expression of “God’s” creative immanent presence.  All this evaporated in the searing conflagration of the plague.  The Plague could not be explained in Roman (Augustinian) categories without declaring that a non-resident “God” was insulted, enraged and pitilessly punitive.  The culprit, in other words was and, to my mind, remains, Roman christian ecclesiastical ideology which always clutched a flesh-hating dualism and an absurd insulted “God” to its bosom.  The enthusiasms of the 17th century simply reaffirmed and set on a more solid intellectual footing, the very same human self-loathing that tormented christians since ancient times.  It’s what drove Origen to castrate himself.  That was 235 c.e.  The enlightenment reinforced and intensified these elements of the western chris­tian view of the world.  And in that view “matter,” and our flesh with it, was lower than excrement, hated by “God,” corrupt by nature and deserving of punishment.  The sufferings of life for human beings were explained as the abiding wrath of “God” torturing us in the dungeon of our own flesh.  How “disenchanted” can you get?

         It was Augustine’s conception of what “original sin” had done to corrupt the human body and all material creation with it, that wracked Petrarch’s soul in the 14th century, that fed Thomas à Kempis’ world-hating isolation in the 15th, that explained Luther’s contorted “justification” in the 16th, that provided the subject for Pascal’s pensées in the 17th in which he called marriage “the lowest of the conditions of life permitted to a christian.”  The “disenchantment of the world” was the demonization of matter and with it the human body; it was a central element of western christianity’s “spirituality” since at least the third century of the common era.  The enlightenment simply recapitulated it all in a new key: the key of Cartesian geometry. 

         There are many thinkers who see the Enlightenment as the force that turned us away from a sacred universe to one that was dead, flat, inert and devoid of any divine presence.  I present this commentary as a defense and explication of my own position.






    A friend sent me two DVD’s.  One called “The Incorrigible Dr Berlinski,” and the other contained the testimony of a group of academic “experts” lobbying for “intelligent Design” (ID) during a Kansas state controversy over teaching evolution exclusively.  I’ve watched them both twice.  I was already familiar with much of the argumentation I heard.  Without getting into a lengthy technical discussion, there are two aspects that I would like to relate to, one positively, and the other negatively.


     (1) Positively:  I am in total agreement that there are gaps and lacunae in the Darwinian evolutionary picture … i.e., that the simple formula of random variation plus natural selection is not sufficient to explain macro-evolution.  The inclusion of mutations in the category of variation also does not cut it. 

    In my second book, The Mystery of Matter, currently under way, I try to tackle some of these issues and offer what I call an expanded Darwinism or a Lamarckian modification of Darwinism that tries to explain how variation is not entirely random … and that it is the evolving species themselves that participate in the direction of variation, making what Darwin called profitable variations available for natural selection to work with.  But even in this case, whatever involvement there is of “mind” is entirely restricted to the conscious capacities of the evolving creatures themselves which are totally subordinate to the drive to survive.  There is no “master-mind” directing the flow of evolution toward any other “end.”  The very notion is a contradiction in terms because “mind” is a function of survival. 

   There are others who “tinker” with and “tweak” Darwinism to make up for the over-simplicity of Darwin’s vision.  I am in favor of revising Darwin in this sense.


    (2) Negatively:  The critique of Darwinism that I heard on the DVD’s however, did not move in that direction.  What I heard was that the gaps in the Darwinian vision open immediately to the alternative of “Intelligent Design” which is just another word for “creationism.”  I disagree with that.


The Theology


    I have a problem with “creationism” and for me it’s first a theological / philosophical problem, well before it becomes a scientific problem.  And it’s the same problem presented by naïve providence which I criticized in An Unknown God.  Think about it.  The entire Thomist doctrine of providence as the disposition of secondary causes insuring that the functioning of the universe will be seamlessly accomplished by both the Primary and secondary causes acting simultaneously and in full autonomy is completely vitiated by the expectations of a naïve providence micro-managing little miracles.  The constant recourse to divine intervention apart from the natural order, the infusion of immortal souls metaphysically independent of the human reproductive function, miracles of healing in response to prayer, grace as the internal “movings” of the spirit, and all suchlike mechanisms render Thomas’ definition of providence as the “ordering of all things to their proper end” an empty exercise. 


As I see it, the theory of continuous creation of species by intelligent design throughout the time-line of pre-history (species do not appear in the fossil record all at once, so ID would have to contemplate a “time-released” creation by a designer “God” who paces his creative work to make it appear as if some form of incremental speciation were occurring. …  absurd, on the face of it!) reproduces exactly this same anthropomorphic “God” that Thomas warned us does not exist.  To my mind it is a theory that in order to claim that “God” has left irrefutable proof of “his” presence, intelligence and “power” for the benefit and convenience of our educational controversies, is willing to sacrifice the true scope of divine generosity and the true nature of “power” which is a self-emptying Love, the total sharing of divine creativity itself.


   The result has been in the West the picture of a “God” made in our image and likeness … a God of physically coercive power (the kind of power that impotence must have recourse to), who “created” and therefore “owns” everything, unequivocally paternal, domineering and controlling, issuing commandments from a “will” as whimsical, arbitrary, and unaccountable as any of the tyrannical autocrats that have ruled us in the style of the Roman Emperors since time immemorial.  This narcissistic “God” has created the model for the exercise of human authority and private ownership at all social levels from the highest powers to the lowliest human family.  We live in paternal dictatorships across the board because we model our societies on the “God” we worship.  And that “God” has been imagined as a benevolent dictator who micro-manages the universe as “his” private property.  


    To suggest, on the other hand, a “maternal” imagery, in which “God” makes her creative existence absolutely and unreservedly available for creatures to use and enjoy in whatever way they may devise … is simultaneously to project a model that suggests that those that exercise existence, should function with the same creative power born of kenosis, the power coming from the same open-handed generosity and total self-dona­tion, that characterizes the Gift and the Giver.  This “God” coerces no one.  When this “God” gives, “she” gives … for “keeps.”  What She gives, she “gives away” and no longer “owns.”  She owns nothing.   This “God” has no private property.

In all cases, observe, we become like the “God” we project. 


   And even if I were to take the words “intelligence” and “power” as anything more than evocative, poetic, irremediably anthropomorphic metaphors to apply to “God,” I would have to say the “God” of Darwinian evolution who lets the creatures themselves elaborate (create) the forms and functions that they need to exist, is infinitely more “intelligent” and clever, infinitely more capable and “powerful” than the frantic little designer deity that must personally impose a “purpose” that is recognizably rational by human standards to every new development on the planet.  So, well before we look scientifically at the claims of “Creationism,” my notion of the “kenotic” God symbolized in the powerlessness of Jesus’ “obedience unto death,” is offended by this scientifically baseless theory which has nothing going for it other than the recorded myths and legends of ancient semi-nomadic near eastern people who lived almost 3,000 years ago.


The Science


    Now let’s look at the “scientific” adequacy of creationism … without getting into detail.. 

    The proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) claim theirs is an alternative “scientific” hypothesis.  As “science,” therefore, it is required to meet all the criteria that apply to any scientific theory, including universality of application and testability.  But creationism cannot be tested. 


Nor does it even enjoy the extrapolation available to the evolutionists.  For in the case of Darwinism, actually observed morphological changes can be reasonably extended to apply beyond the known concrete cases, while in the case of creationism, there is no observed creation ex nihilo anywhere, not even on the smallest scale, necessarily attributable to an intelligent divine designer, and certainly no justification for applying such a theory universally.  There is no evidence that there is anything else functioning in speciation than the organismic adaptation to changed circumstances.  


As far as the apparent introduction of “purpose” in the design of organisms is concerned, there is nothing evident here except by analogy with human rationality.  There is no evidence that any intelligence was functioning in the choice and disposition of these organisms.  I read a book recently about ant colonies called Ants at Work by entomologist Deborah Gordon.  With a team of assistants, Dr Gordon spent 17 years monitoring the behavior of harvester ants in the Arizona desert.  She concluded that for all its overall efficiency and apparent central organization, the ant colony has no central control functioning much less programs that could remotely be called intelligence.  The queen gives no orders to any ants whatsoever regarding the operation of the colony as a whole.  Each individual ant adjusts its own instinctive programming according to conditions that are local to its own mini-environment within the nest, and the cumulative effect of such micro-reactions creates what appears to us as overall rational planning, purpose, intention, etc.  Similarly, recent explorations in chaos theory seem to confirm that random interactions at certain levels of volume and intensity can have a cybernetic (feedback) effect that produces a predictable stability that can appear to human observers as “intended purpose.”  The appearance of rational intention is in itself no proof of its presence or influence.


There is nothing so far unearthed in nature that absolutely demands the action of an intelligence in its creation.  Without having even one incontrovertible piece of evidence of the existence of intelligent design of species, the ID claim can only be an act of pure speculation … absolute guesswork (or faith) with no scientific basis whatsoever.  That does not prove it false … but it means the propositions of the creationist position are not scientific and therefore creationism cannot be called nor taught as science.


Darwinism, on the other hand, however incomplete, can claim to be a scientific theory.  As evidence of the actual functioning of evolutionary processes continues to emerge from observed data, despite the gaps and lacunae, the plausibility of evolution has slowly been raised to ever higher levels of probability that, at this point in time, have come to be considered sufficient by many to persuade them of its truth.  That does not constitute a total proof either.  But scientifically speaking, Darwinism enjoys a measure of scientific probability, where creationism does not.  Creationism is not scientific, and has no right to be taught as science.