|John Dewey in 1902
Interestingly Dewey downplayed the impact of Darwin's ideas on religion, and instead focused on Greek philosophy. He pointed out that for 2,000 years Western philosophy and science had revolved around the concept of "species" or "eidos," a fixed and immutable category that exists in nature. Observing that the individual specimens within a given species all grow and mature into the same archetypical form, the ancient Greeks concluded that each species must have its own specific purpose or aim, ("telos") to conform to the predetermined type. "The idea of eidos, species, a fixed form and final cause, was the central principle of knowledge as well as of nature. Upon it rested the logic of science. Change as change is mere flux and lapse; it insults intelligence. Genuinely to know is to grasp a permanent end that realizes itself through changes, holding them thereby within the metes and bounds of fixed truth. Completely to know is to relate all special forms to their one single end and good: pure contemplative intelligence" (op. cit., p. 34).
This idea of a fixed species having a definite aim and purpose "accounted for the intelligibility of nature and the possibility of science," while at the same time it "gave sanction and worth to the moral and religious endeavors of man. Science was underpinned and morals authorized by one and the same principle, and their mutual agreement was eternally guaranteed" (p. 36).
Dewey went on to say that "the Darwinian principle of natural selection cut straight under this philosophy" (p. 37). If evolution is the result of a purely natural process of selection, "there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force . . . Hostile critics charged Darwin with materialism and with making chance the cause of the universe" (Ibid.).
Dewey pointed out that Darwin's theory had the effect of changing the focus of philosophy. Whereas previously philosophy had been preoccupied with finding the unifying principle of reality, it now focused instead on solving the concrete problems of temporal existence. Dewey, the Pragmatist, saw this as a positive step forward. But it leaves certain disturbing questions unanswered. If the older philosophy "accounted for the intelligibility of nature and the possibility of science" and "gave sanction and worth to the moral and religious endeavors of man," what happens to science, morality and religion under the new way of thinking? Dewey didn't say. But if everything is evolving and there are no fixed categories in nature, how is it possible to make generalizations about anything in either science or morality? There is only the superficial appearance of stability and permanence. Are we not driven to sheer skepticism and nihilism?
At the conclusion of his essay Dewey made an astonishing admission. "But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume – an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them; we get over them" (p. 41). He then went on to observe: "Doubtless the greatest dissolvent in contemporary thought of old questions, the greatest precipitant of new methods, now intentions, new problems, is the one affected by the scientific revolution that found its climax in the 'Origin of Species'"(Ibid.).
But what were "the old questions"? Wasn't it a worldview, the values and ideals, the social and artistic norms, the hopes and aspirations of traditional Western culture? In short, what was "dissolved" was civilization as we knew it.
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