Natural Science and Religion | Asa Gray | Christianity – Other, Life Sciences | Sound Book | 2/2



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Asa Gray was a highly-regarded botanist at Harvard University and a friend and collaborator of Charles Darwin. As a Christian, Gray was concerned with the disconnect developing through the nineteenth century between the growing understanding of the natural world and the traditional worldview assumed by orthodox Christianity. This book presents two lectures he gave to theology students at Yale College in which he argues that a disconnect is not inevitable, but that a Christian perspective can and should incorporate current understanding of the world provided by natural science. – Summary by BarryGanong

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section four of natural science and religion by ASA gray this LibriVox recording is in the public domain lecture 2 the relations of scientific and religious belief part 2 suppose now that we are shut up to nature for the evolution of the forms of living things as theists we are not be barred from the supposition of supernatural origination media or immediate but suppose the facts suggest and inferentially warrant the conclusion that the course of natural history has been along an unbroken line that account for it or not the origination of the kinds of plants and animals comes to stand on the same footing as the rest of nature as this is the complete outcome of Darwinian evolution it has to be met and considered the inquiry what attitude should we Christian theists present to this former scientific belief should not be a difficult one to answer in my opinion we should not denounce it as a theistic 'el or as practical atheism or as absurd although from the nature of the case this conception can never be demonstrated it can be believed and is coming to be largely believed and it falls in very well with doctrine said to have been taught by philosophers and Saints by Leibniz and mouthwash Thomas Aquinas and Agustin so it may possibly even share in the commendation bestowed by the Pope in a recent sensible if not infallible allocution upon the teaching of the angelic doctor and make a part of that genuine philosophy which the Pope declares to stand in no real opposition to religious truth seriously it would be rash and wrong for us to declare that this conception is opposed to theism our idea of nature is that of an ordered and fixed system of forms and means working to ultimate ends if this is our idea of in organic nature shall be abandoned or depreciate it when we pass from mere things to organisms to creatures which are themselves both means and ends surely it would be suicidal to do so we may and indeed we do question gravely whether all this work is committed to nature but we all agree that much is so done far more than was formerly thought possible we cannot pretend to draw the line between what may be and what may not be so done or what is and what is not so done and so it is not for us to object to the further extension of the principle on sufficient evidence I trust it is not necessary to press this consideration though it is needful to present it in order to warn Christian theists from the folly of playing into their adversaries hand as is too often done but I am aware that we have not yet reached the root of the difficulty we are convinced theists we bring our theism to the interpretation of nature and nature responds like an echo to our thought not always unequivocally broken confused and even contradictory sounds are sometimes given back to us yet as we listen to and ponder them they mainly harmonize with our inner idea and give us reasonable assurance that the god of our religion is the author of nature but what of those you will say who are not already convinced of his existence we thought that we had an independent demonstration of his existence and that we could go out into the highways of unbelief and compel them to come in that the invisible things of him from the creation of the world were clearly seen being understood by the things that are made so that they are without excuse we could shut them up to the strict alternative of divinity or chance with the odds incalculably against chance but now Darwinism has given them an excuse and placed us on the defensive now we have as much as we can do and some think more to reshape the argument in such wise as to harmonize our in eradicable belief and design with the fundamental scientific belief of continuity in nature now extended to organic as well as inorganic forms to living beings as well as inanimate things the field which we took to be thickly sewn with design seems under the light of Darwinism to yield only a crop of accidents where we thought to reap the golden grain we find only tears the outlook is certainly serious yet not altogether disheartening perhaps we cannot now safely separate the wheat from the tares but must let them grow together unto the harvest nobody expects in this world to ascertain the limits between design and contingency nobody expects to demonstrate any design except his own to himself by consciousness he cannot really prove his own to his bosom friend though his assertion may give his friend and his actions may give his enemy convincing reasons for inferring it but we are sure that every intellectual being has designs that the reach and pervasiveness of design must be in proportion to the wisdom and that the designs of the author of nature if any there be must be all pervading and fathomless yet if they be wrought into a system of adaptations some of the adaptations themselves may be such as irresistible to suggest their reason to our minds at least they suggest reason even if we fail to apprehend or wrongly apprehend the reason the sense that there is reason why is as innate in man as that there is cause whereby now to adopt the apt words of francis newman quote after stripping off all that goes beyond the mark of sober and cautious thought there remained in this world Fitness's innumerable on the largest and the smallest scale in which alike common sense and uncommon sense see design and the only mode of evading this belief is by carrying out the cumbrous epicurean argument to a length of which Epicurus could not dream we cannot prove we are told that the i was intended to see or the hand to grasp or the fingers to work delicately of course we cannot but what is the alternative to believe that it came about by blind chance no science has any calculus or apparatus to decide between the two theories common sense not science has to decide and the most accomplished physical student has in the decision no advantage whatever over a simple but thoughtful man close quote arrangements innumerable extending through all nature sub serving all ends of course involve innumerable contingencies the theist is not expected to have any definite idea of the respective limits of these he can only guess at the limits of intention and contingency in the actions of his nearest neighbor the non-theist gains nothing by eliminating instances unless he can eliminate all design from the system until he does this he gains nothing by showing that particular fitness has come to pass little by little and under natural causes he cannot point to a time where there were no fitness apparent or latent and if he argues that all Fitness's were germinal in the nebulous matter of our solar system he does not harm our case the throwing of design ever so far back in time does not harm it nor deprive it of its ever present and every efficient character for as has been acutely said quote if design has once operated in rare matera has in the production of a first life germ how can it stop operating and undesigned formation succeeded it cannot an intention in nature having once existed the test of the amount of that intention is not the commencement but the end not the first low organism but the climax and consummation of the whole close quote I am NOT going to re-argue an old thesis of my own that Darwinism does not weaken the substantial ground of the argument as between theism and non-theism for design in nature I think it brought in no new difficulty though it brought old ones into prominence it must be reasonably clear to all who have taken pains to understand the matter that the true issue as regards design is not between Darwinism and direct creationism but between design and fortuity between any intention or intellectual cause and no intention nor predictable first cause it is really narrowed down to this and on this line all maintainer x' of the affirmative may present an unbroken front the holding of this line secures all the weakening of it in the attempted defense of unofficial and now untenable outposts and dangers all I have only to add a few observations and exhortation addressed to Christian theists if intention must pervade every theistic system of nature if we give credit to mr. Darwin when in this regard he likens his divergence from the Orthodox view to the difference between general and particular Providence is it safe to declare that his theory and his denial at particular forms were specially created are practically atheistic 'el I might complain of this as unfair it is more to my purpose to complain of it as suicidal it is in effect holding a theistic conception of nature for our private use but acting on the opposite when we would discredit an unwelcome theory or else it is trusting so little to our own belief that we abandoned it as soon as any weight is laid upon it as soon as you do this by conceding that the evolution of forms under natural laws militates against design in nature you are at the mercy of those reasoner's who looking at the probabilities of the case from their own point of view coolly remark that quote on the whole therefore we seem entitled to conclude that during such time as we have evidence of no intelligence or volition has been concerned any events happening within the range of the solar system except that of animals living on the planet close quote you may say that implicit belief of intention in nature affords an insufficient foundation for theism but you are not asked to ground your theism upon it or upon the whole world of external phenomena you may reiterate that you cannot believe that all these events have occurred under natural laws nothing hinders your assuming what you need from the supernatural but allow that the need of other minds may not be identical with yours as I have said before what you want is not a system which may be adjusted to theism nor even one which finds its most reasonable interpretation of theism but one which theism only can account for that it seems to me you have an excellent judge a gifted adept in physical science and exact reasoning the late Clerk Maxwell has reported to have said not long before he left the world that he had scrutinized all the agnostic hypotheses he knew of and found that they wanted all needed a God to make them workable when you ask for more than this namely for that which will compel belief in a personal divine being you asked for that which he has not been pleased to provide experience proves that the opposite hypothesis is possible some rest in it but few I think on scientific grounds the affirmative hypothesis gives us a workable conception of how the world of forms and means is related to the world of Werth's and ends the negative hypothesis gives no mental or ethical satisfaction whatever like the theory of the immediate creation of forms it explains nothing you inquire whether are we to look for independent evidence of mind and will quote concerned in natural events happening within the range of the solar system close quote certainly not to the court of pure physical science for that has ruled this case out of its jurisdiction by assuming a fixed dependence of consequent upon antecedent throughout its domain there are plenty of phenomena to which it cannot assign known causal antecedents but it supplies their place at once either by assuming that there is a physical antecedent still on guests or by inventing one in a hypothesis it deals in effects and causes and knows nothing of ends it has no verdict to render against our case for it does not entertain it and has no jurisdiction under which to try it but it's wiser judges do not insist that theirs is the only Court in the realm we have not to go beyond nature for a jurisdiction which may be likened to that of equity since it enforces specific performance and which adds to causes and effects the consideration of ends biology takes cognizance of the former like physics of which it is on one side apart but also of ends and here ends which mean intention become a legitimate scientific study the natural history of ends becomes consistent and reasonably intelligible under the light of evolution as the forms and kinds rise gradually out of that which was well nigh formless into a consummate form so do biological ends rise and assert themselves in increasing distinctness variety and dignity vegetables and animals have paved the earth with intentions the study and the estimate of these is quite the same under whatever view of the mode in which the structure and beings that exemplify them came to be the highest of these exemplars is himself conscious of ends he pronounces that critical mono syllable I I am I will I accomplish ends I modify the outcome of nature here at length is something on the planets which has been concerned in events and in my opinion it is just now a good and useful theistic view which connects this something with all the lower psychological phenomena that preceded and accompanied it our wills in their limited degree modify the course of nature subservient though that be to fixed laws by our will we make these laws subserve our ends we momently violate the uniformity of nature but we do not violate the law of the uniformity of nature is it not legitimate is it not inevitable that a being who knows that he is a will and a power and a successful contriver should explain what he sees around and above him by the hypothesis of a higher and supreme will a will which has disposed things in view of ends in establishing nature and which may it need be disposed to particular into time dens either with or without perceptible suspension of the law of the uniformity of nature the question I ask has been adversely answered substantially as follows it may be that in the first instance men can hardly avoid predicating a being who has done and is doing all this nevertheless a trained mind soon reaches the incongruity of it at least quote has concerns any events which have happened within the range of the solar system close quote for the belief that a supernatural power has so acted contradicts that very belief in the uniformity of nature upon which all scientific reasoning and practical judgments rest to this it is well rejoined that the ultimate scientific belief on which our reason reposes quote is that belief in the uniformity of nature which is equivalent to a belief in the law of universal causation which again is equivalent to a belief that similar antecedents are always followed by similar consequence but this belief is in no way inconsistent with a belief in supernatural interference close quote if the principle of the uniformity of nature asserted that every natural effect is and has ever been preceded by natural causes then it would be in terms inconsistent with supernatural interference and a supernatural origination of the system but science does not give us nor find any such principle all scientific beliefs quote are in themselves as true and as fully proved as supernatural interference be possible as they are if such interference be impossible a law does no more than state that under certain circumstances positive and negative certain phenomena will occur if on some occasions these circumstances owing to supernatural interference do not occur the fact that the phenomena do not follow proves nothing as to the truth or falsehood of the law close quote if such interference violates the law of the uniformity of nature the human will and all wills and all direction of material forces to ends are everyday violating it it has also urged that giving particular direction in a special Act would be an addition to the plenum of force in the universe and therefore a contradiction to the recently acquired scientific principle of the conservation of energy the answer may be this it is not at all certain that all direction given to force expense force it is certain that under collocations a minut use of force as pulling a hair trigger or jostling a valve may bring about immense results and finally increments a force by divine action in time of the kind in question if such there be could never in the least be known to science the only remaining supposition that I now think of is the crude one that thought and will are functions of the body secretions as it were the organ through which they are manifested psychical modes of motion then as has well been said they must be correlated with physical modes of motion at least in conception but it is conceded by all sensible thinkers that thought cannot be translated into extension nor extension into thought now since the only conceivable source of physical force is supernatural power still more must this be the only conceivable source of thought there is an old objection which threatens to undermine the ground on which we infer divine will from the analogy of human namely that our wills being a part of the course of nature and amenable to its laws their movements those seemingly free are as fixed as physical sequences upon this insoluble problem we have nothing practical to say except to admit that so much of choice is determined by antecedent conditions in the surroundings by hereditary bias by what has been made for the individual and in wrought into his nature that granting the will has an element of freedom it may be in effect a small factor I can only urge that it is not an insignificant factor as to this appurtenant although homely suggestion came to me in the remark of a humble but shrewd neighbor to the effect that he found the difference between people and people he dealt with was really very little but that what there is was very important so facts and reasonings may shut us up to the conclusion that the will sovereign as it seems to the user is practically a small factor in the determination of events but what there is makes all the difference in the world in man and now as to man himself in relation to evolution I have no time left for the discussion of questions which naturally interest you more than any other but which even with time at disposal are not easy to treat I will not undertake to consider what your attitude should be upon a matter which connects itself with grave ulterior considerations but I will very briefly and frankly intimated what views I think a scientific man religiously disposed is likely to entertain to pursue the illustration just ventured upon the anatomical and physiological difference between man and the higher brutes is not great from a natural history point of view compared to the difference between these and lower grades of animals but we may justly say that what corporeal difference there is is extremely important the series of considerations which suggests evolution up to suggests man's evolution also we may indeed fall back upon mr. Darwin's declaration in the case germane to this that quote analogy may be a deceitful guide close quote yet here it is the only guide we have if the alternative be the immediate origination out of nothing or out of the soil of the human form with all its actual marks that can be no doubt which cite a scientific man will take immediate creation derivative origination will at once be accepted and the mooted question comes to be narrowed down to this can the corporeal differences between man and the rest of the animal kingdom be accounted for by known natural causes or must they be attributed to unknown causes and shall we assume these unknown causes to be natural or supernatural as to the first question you are aware from my whole line of thought and argument that I know no natural process for the transformation of a brute mammal into a man but I am equally at a loss as respects the processes through which any one species any one variety gives birth to another yet I do not presume to limit nature by my small knowledge of its laws and powers I know that a part of these still occult processes are in the everyday course of nature I am persuaded that it is so through the animal kingdom generally I cannot deny it as respects the highest members of that kingdom I allow however that the superlative importance of comparatively small corporeal differences in this consummate case may justify anyone in regarding it as exceptional in most respects man is an exceptional creature if however I declined to regard man's origin as exceptional in the sense of directly supernatural you will understand that it is because under my thoroughly theistic conception of nature and my belief in mediate creation I am at a loss to know what I should mean by the exception I do not allow myself to believe that immediate creation would make man's origin more divine and I do not approve either the divinity or the science of those who are prompt to invoke the supernatural to cover our ignorance of natural causes and equally so to discard its aid whenever natural causes are found sufficient it is probable that the idea of media creation would be more readily received except for a prevalent misconception upon a point of genealogy when the naturalist is asked what the origin of man he can only answer in the words of Cosmo faj and vehicle we do not know at all we have traces of his existence up to and even anterior to the latest marked climatic change in our temperate zone but he was then perfected man and no vestige of an earlier form is known the believer in direct or special creation is entitled to the advantage which this negative evidence gives a totally unknown ancestry has the characteristics of nobility the evolutionist can give one satisfactory assurance as the wolf in the fable was captious in his complaint that the lamb below had muddied the brook he was drinking from so those are mistaken who suppose that the simian race can have defiled the stream along which evolution traces human descent sober evolutionists do not suppose that man has descended from monkeys the stream must have branched too early for that the resemblances which are the same in fact under any theory are supposed to denote collateral relationship the psychological differences between man and the higher brute animals you do not expect me now to discuss here too we may say that although gradations abridged the wide interval the transcendent character of the superadded must count for more than a host of lower similarities and identities for surely what difference there is between the man and the animal in this respect is supremely important if we cannot reasonably solve the problems even of inorganic nature without assuming initial causation and if we assume for that supreme intelligence shall be not more freely assume it and with all the directness the case may require in the field where intelligence at length develops intelligences but while on the one hand we rise in thought into the supernatural on the other we need not forget that one of the three old Orthodox opinions the one held to be tenable if not directly favored by agustin and most according to his theology as it is to observation is that souls as well as lives are propagated in the order of nature here we may note in passing that since the quote theologians are as much puzzled to form a satisfactory conception of the origin of each individual soul as natural ists are to conceive of the origin of species closed quotes and since the Darwinian and the theologian at least the tradition take similar courses to find a way out of their difficulties they might have a little more sympathy for each other the high Calvinist and the Darwinian have a goodly number of points in common view these high matters as you will the outcome has concerns us of the vast and partly comprehensible system which under one aspect we call nature and under another Providence and in part under another creation is seen in the emergence of a free and self-determining personality which being capable of conceiving it may hope for immortality may hope for immortality you ask for the reasons of this hope upon these lines of thought I suppose that they're the same as your own so far as natural reasons go a being who has the Faculty however bestowed a reflective abstract thought super added to all lower psychical faculties is thereby perce altom immeasurably exalted this and only this brings with it language and all that comes from that wonderful instrument it carries the germs of all invention and all improvement all that man does and may do in his rule over nature and his power of ideally soaring above it so we may well deem this a special gift the gift beyond recall in which all hope is enshrined none of us have any scientific or philosophical explanation to offer as to how it came to be added to what we share with the brutes that perish but it puts man into another world in theirs both here and with the aid of some evolutionary ideas we may add hereafter let us consider it must be that the eternal can alone impart the gift of eternal life but he alone originates life now what if that life which reaches so near two hours yet misses it so completely the perplexity this question raises was as great as it is now before evolution was ever heard of it has been turned into something much more trying than perplexity by the assurance with which monistic evolutionists pressed their answer to the question but a better line of evolutionary doctrine may do something toward disposing of it it will not do to say the thought carries the implication of immortality for our humble companions have the elements of that or of simple rational summation and the power of reproducing conceptions in memory and what is even more to the present purpose in dreams once admit this to imply immortality and you will be obliged to make soul coextensive with life as some have done thereby well nigh crushing the whole doctrine of immortality with the load laid upon it at least this is poising the ponderous pyramid on its apex and the apex ontological fallacy for the entire conception that the highest fruit animals may be endowed with an immortal principle is a reflection from the conception of such a principle in ourselves and so the farther down you carry it the wider and more egregious the circle you are reasoning in still with all life goes duality there is the matter and there is the life and we cannot get one out of the other unless you define matter as something which works to ends as all agree that reflective thought cannot be translated into terms of extension matter and emotion nor the converse so as truly it cannot be translated into terms of sensation and perception of desire and affection of even the feeblest vital response to external impressions of simplest life the duality runs through the whole you cannot reasonably give over any part of the field to the monist and retain the rest now see how evolution may help you in its conception that while all the lower serves its purpose for the time being and is a stage toward better and higher the lower sooner or later perish the higher the consummate survive the soul in its bodily tenement is the final outcome of nature may it not well be that the perfected soul alone survives the final struggle of life and indeed then chiefly lives because in it all Worth's and ends in here because it only is worth immortality because yet alone carries in itself the promise and potentiality of eternal life certainly in it only is the potentiality of religion or that which aspires to immortality here I should close but injustice to myself and to you a word must still be added you rightly will say that although theism is at the foundation of religion the foundation is of small practical value without the superstructure your supreme interest is Christianity and you ask me if I maintain that the doctrine of evolution is compatible with this I am bound to do so yet I have left myself no time in which to vindicate my claim which I should wish to do most earnestly yet very deferentially considering wherein to whom I speak here we reverse positions you are the professional experts I am the unskilled Enquirer I accept Christianity on its own evidence which I am NOT here to specify or to justify and I am yet to learn how physical or any other science conflicts with it any more than it conflicts with simple theism I take it that religion is based on the idea of a divine mind revealing himself to intelligent creatures for moral ends we shall perhaps agree that the revelation on which our religion is based is an example of evolution that it has been developed by degrees and in stages much of it in connection with second causes and human actions and that the current of Revelation has been mingled with the course of events I suppose that the Old Testament carried the earlier revelation and the germs of Christianity as the Apostles carried the treasures of the gospel in earthen vessels I trusted as Reverend I am confident it is safe and wise to consider that revelation in its essence concerns things moral and spiritual and that the knowledge of God's character and will which has descended from The Fountainhead in the earlier ages has come down to us through analysts and prophets and psalmist's in a mingled stream more or less tinged or rendered turbid by the earthly channels through which it has worn its way the stream brings down precious gold and so may be called a golden stream but the water the vehicle of transportation is not gold moreover the analogy of our inquiry into design in nature may teach us that we may be unable always accurately to sift out the gold from the earthy sediment but however we may differ in regard to the earlier stages of religious development we shall agree in this that revelation culminated and for us most essentially consists in the advent of a divine person who being made man manifested the divine nature in union with the human and that this manifestation constitutes Christianity having accepted the doctrine of the Incarnation itself the crowning miracle attended miracles are not obstacles to believe their primary use must have been for those who witnessed them and we may allow that the record of a miracle cannot have the convincing force of the miracle itself but the very reasons on which scientific men reject miracles for the carrying on of nature may operate in favour of miracles to attest an incoming of the supernatural for moral ends at least they have nothing to declare against them if now you ask me what are the essential contents of that Christianity which is in my view as compatible with my evolutionary conceptions as with former scientific beliefs it may suffice to answer that they are briefly summed up in the early Creed's of the Christian Church reasonably interpreted the Creed's to be taken into account are only to one commonly called the Apostles the other than I see the latter and larger is remarkable for its complete avoidance of conflict with physical science the language in which its users look for the resurrection of the Dead bears and doubtless at its adoption had in the minds of at least some of the council a worthier interpretation than that naturally suggested by the short Western Creed namely the crude notion of the revivification of the human body against which st. Paul earnestly protested moreover as brethren uniting in a common worship we may honorably edifying ly and wisely use that which we should not have formulated but may undo occasion qualify statements for instance dogmatically pronouncing upon the essential nature of the supreme being of which nothing can be known and nothing is revealed instead of the divine manifestation we may add more to our confession we all of us draw more from the exhaustless revelation of Christ in the Gospels but this should suffice for the profession of Christianity if you ask must we require that I reply that I am merely stating what I accept whoever else will accept him who is himself the substance of Christianity let him do it in his own way in conclusion we students of natural science and of theology have very similar tasks nature is a complex of which the human race through investigation is learning more and more the meaning and the uses the Scriptures are a complex and accumulation of a long series of records which are to be well understood only by investigation it cannot be that in all these years we have learned nothing new of their meaning and uses to us and have nothing still to learn nor can it be that we are not free to use what we learn in one line of study to limit correct or remodel the ideas which we obtain from another gentlemen of the theological school about to become ministers of the gospel receive this discourse with full allowance for the different point of view from which we survey the field if I in my solicitude to attract scientific men to religion be thought to have minimized the divergence of certain scientific from religious beliefs I pray that you on the other hand will never needlessly exaggerate them for that may be more harmful I am persuaded that you in your day will enjoy the comfort of a much better understanding between the scientific and the religious mind then has prevailed yet without doubt a full share of intellectual and traditional difficulties will fall to your lot discretely to deal with them as well for yourselves as for those who may look to you for guidance rightly to present sensible and sound doctrine both to the learned and the ignorant the lowly and the lofty minded the simple believer and the astute speculative you will need all the knowledge and judgment you can acquire from science and philosophy and all the superior wisdom your supplications may draw from the infinite source of knowledge wisdom and grace end of lecture 2 part 2 end of natural science and religion by ASA gray

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