Cosmology and Philosophy

December 8, 2010 at 3:19 pm Leave a comment


Your philosophy is an inextricable concomitant of your cosmology.  Charles Darwin knew this all too well.  Most people are at least passingly familiar with Darwin’s seminal work, The Origin of Species.  In it, he proffers a framework for understanding the origins of human life – and all life – using his mechanism of evolution by natural selection.  In his own words, here is Darwin’s theory in a nutshell:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive, and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected.  From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form. (Origin of Species, p. 29)

Darwin begins with the assumption that life, at its root, is a struggle for survival.  He then concludes that those who win the struggle for survival carry on while those who lose the struggle do not.  This is natural selection.  Moreover, those who win the struggle for survival propagate more of their kind and develop “modified” characteristics which further benefit them in their struggle.  This is evolution.  Over time – indeed, over lots and lots of time – these beneficial characteristics continue to evolve so radically that whole new species arise from common ancestors while other, weaker species die out.  This, then, is the origin of species.  This is the origin of our species.  We are the product of the cold hand of evolution by natural selection.  This is Darwin’s cosmology, that is, his view of the laws of the world and, by extension, the cosmos.

But how you view things cosmologically inevitably informs how you view things philosophically.  That is why, after publishing The Origin of Species, Darwin published The Descent of Man, a philosophical take on his cosmological theory.  Thus, Darwin lamented according to the presuppositions of his cosmological theory of evolution:

We civilized men do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.  There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox.  Thus, the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind.  No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. (Descent of Man, p. 168)

Darwin laments that humans work against evolutionary progress through wrongheaded ignorant attempts to save and care for those which natural selection would eliminate.  If evolution by natural selection is the incontrovertible law of the forward progress of life, then to work against it by tending to the weak and sick is to take life backwards rather than forwards.

Most people, of course, are not nearly so bold connecting cosmological evolution to philosophical evolution as was Darwin.  Allowing our sick and maimed to die in the name of natural selection would appall the vast majority us.  And yet, Darwin is simply teasing out the philosophical inevitabilities of his cosmological presuppositions.  He is being perfectly consistent.  Why aren’t we?

The fact of the matter is, the way one views the universe informs and, finally, dictates the morals and ethics one holds.  Darwinian evolution, if it is perceived to be the engine behind the improvement of life, cannot be meddled with by the likes of so-called “do-gooders” who are not really doing good at all.  For such people are slowing evolution’s forward march by caring for the lesser evolved among us.

Christianity, of course, has a very different view of humanity’s place and value.  According to Christianity, human beings are not merely the products of an inexorable evolutionary march, eventually to be displaced as the kings of the cosmos by a better and higher form of life thanks to natural selection.  Rather, we are specially created by God “in His own image” (Genesis 1:27) to be the caretakers of His creation (cf. Genesis 1:28-31).  Thus, we can, and are even bound, not by some unfathomably lengthy evolutionary progress, but by the intentions of our Creator.  And one of His intentions for us is “to love mercy” (Micah 6:8).  So, we are merciful to each other.  We care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Your philosophy is an inextricable concomitant of your cosmology.  So what is your cosmology?  One that is driven by evolution by natural selection?  Or one that rejoices in the merciful, creative hand of our God?  How you answer that question makes all the difference in how you view your life…and the lives of others.

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