Darwin and the Darkling Plain of Doubt


Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817 – 1900) “Pushkin farewell to the sea”

“The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility. Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world.”

~ G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”[1]

On hearing the notion that Christianity is the enemy of science, G.K. Chesterton responded with the following: “It illustrates the precise fashion in which modern man has provided himself with an equally modern mythology.”[2] He noted that practically speaking, that mythology may exhibit “something of the power of a religion.” From science comes one of the great superstitions of our age, its power lying in the fact that it is seen as being anti-superstitious, even by its high priests. “The mere word ‘Science’ is already used as a sacred and mystical word in many matters of politics and ethics,” Chesterton continues, being used in all its abstractions “to threaten the most vital traditions of civilization—the family and the freedom of the citizen.”[3]

Science replaced the traditional authority of the Church during the Enlightenment, ostensibly being free from dogmatic assumptions that hindered progress. Its demand for a “purely mechanical and materialist” accounting of reality was seen as liberating mankind from narrow superstitions.[4] But science alone cannot account for all of reality and to use it to do so leads to a greater narrowing. In his book, Faith, Hope, and Poetry, Malcolm Guite notes that “before the Enlightenment, most people were free to read the world as being itself symbolic and constantly drawing us to truths beyond itself.”[5] During the Enlightenment, the new scientific authorities resisted this approach to understanding the world. They declared war not only on religion but also “on the imagination, and the consequence of that war was a kind of cultural apartheid: the entire realm of ‘objective’ truth was to be the exclusive terrain of Reason at its narrowest—analytic, reductive, atomizing; and the faculties of Imagination and Intuition, those very faculties alone that were capable of integrating, synthesizing and making sense of our atomized factual knowledge, were relegated to a purely private and ‘subjective’ truth.”[6] Yet the best pictures of the world depend precisely on the ability to synthesize raw data from multiple disciplines and this requires the use of our imaginative faculty as well as reason. Arguably, the best science does, too.

Reason and imagination are so intertwined that to downgrade one, necessarily impacts the other. Charles Darwin’s own account of his loss of faith reveals this. One cannot help but notice that his skeptical hermeneutic also led him to total uncertainty. Modern science’s practical myth is one of illusions, from the apparent design in Nature to our most profound experiences of love and joy. Mathew Arnold captured well this sentiment in his poem “Dover Beach” when he wrote that despite all appearances to the contrary, this world is one of illusions for at its heart it has “neither joy, nor love, nor light, /Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”[8] Let us trace how Darwin arrived at this point.

During the Enlightenment, not only science, but theology began to be approached in highly reductive ways in an effort to avoid being relegated to the subjective realm.[9] Theologians became increasingly suspicious of the imaginative faculty, seeing it as somehow more fallen, more unruly than Reason. The result was that the personal and poetic aspects of Scripture were condensed to abstract and propositional doctrines.  The modern mind came to expect that the best evidence must fit into syllogisms, data points, and probability functions. More and more, moderns grew uncomfortable with the story-like, personal elements of Christian revelation. Guite observes, though, that “the ‘ideological argument’ of syllogistic theology is no less ‘fallen’, provisional, and seen through a glass darkly than any of the resonant and mysterious images available to the imagination.”[10] And, like the Science myth that pretended to be dogma-free and precise, such a stripped-down theology is dangerous, for it “pretends to a precision, a finality that it cannot deliver, and this, ironically, is what makes it potentially more idolatrous than the images of which it is so suspicious.”[11] Idolatrous and ultimately unsatisfying. This is the dominant theology during the time of one of modernity’s most important agnostics, Charles Darwin.

“By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make sane man believe in the miracles,” Darwin wrote in his autobiography, “and that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do the miracles become,—that the men of that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible to us, … I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as divine revelation.”[12] He reports that his loss of faith was gradual, as gradual perhaps as the evolutionary drift of his model. “I found it more and more difficult, with the free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me.”[13] One wonders if it was really a lack of evidence or his own lack of imagination that was the ultimate cause.

C.S. Lewis noted that “nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her,” that “the structure of the examination is like a stencil” that determines how much of the truth we will ultimately see.[14] It is possible that Darwin’s expectations for exactitude in religion were influenced by the exactitude he thought he had found in science. But as Guite notes, “in order to describe some aspects of our being human, an ‘inexactitude’ may be, paradoxically, more adequate—indeed, more exact—than a supposedly exact expression.”[15] Poetry and story are the best vehicles for such inexactitude, not propositional statements. Human experience cannot be reduced to a set of syllogisms or mathematical equations. To do so, one must either deny or dismiss much of our daily lives as either unimportant or, worse, illusory. This is precisely what Darwin’s model does. Ironically, Darwin’s demand for absolute certainty will yield greater uncertainty, not only in religion but also science.

It should come as no surprise that Darwin wrote that after his loss of faith, he looked upon “the grandest scenes” of nature “like a man who has become color-blind,” no longer moved to the wonder such visions normally evoke.[17] Darwin passes over his color-blindness without so much as a thought as to whether or not it might be a clue that his model was inadequate, that it failed in its accounting for all of reality. He will make a similar pass when it comes to the human reasoning faculty, as we will see, both being beyond the reach of his stencil.

Because of the “tragedy of our fallenness,” there is an element of uncertainty in all of life, but when an outlook ends in total uncertainty, one must ask if our model is not itself suspect.[18] It is interesting to note that in the end, Darwin opted for more uncertainty, ending with a doubt as plain as that in Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” “Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason, and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight,” he wrote, “This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into the futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity.”[19] He continues, “But then arises the doubt, can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?”[20]

By insisting on rooting out all ambiguity, Darwin ended up blotting out even his own thoughts. “There is a thought that stops all thought,” Chesterton wrote, “that is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”[21] We must never forget that in searching for the truth, one must begin from a place of trust and “commitment to counterbalance its element of systematic skepticism.”[22] Our world has been designed such that our longings for transcendence, “the deep inward conviction & feelings” that Darwin dismissed as fictitious, are more than mere wish fulfillment or useful fictions. [23] The very epistemology upon which Darwin’s doubt rests demands transcendence to preserve it from self-destruction. It is inescapable. If a philosophical outlook destroys confidence in the human reasoning faculty – if it uses reason to destroy Reason – it might be the useful fiction, not supernaturalism. It is, after all, an act of faith to insist that Reason has any relation to reality at all. Something must stand over and above us like the “sun at noonday” that shines with a brilliance that helps us see more clearly.[24] Otherwise, we are left here on Arnold’s “darkling plain.”[25]

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” ~C.S. Lewis from “Is Theology Poetry?”

“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. It only appears at the end of decadent ages like our own: and already Mr. H.G. Wells has raised its ruinous banner; he has written a delicate piece of scepticism called “Doubts of the Instrument.” In this he questions the brain itself, and endeavours to remove all reality from all his own assertions, past, present, and to come. But it was against this remote ruin that all the military systems in religion were originally ranked and ruled. The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defence of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first. The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify: these were all only dark defences erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable, more supernatural than all— the authority of a man to think.” ~G.K. Chesterton, “The Suicide of Thought,” Orthodoxy


“The Sun” 1909 by Edvard Munch

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 24.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, Oct. 9, 1920.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Malcolm Guite, 145.

[5] Ibid., 160.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] More here: “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink?” https://www.nature.com/news/does-evolutionary-theory-need-a-rethink-1.16080

[8] Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold,” Poetry Foundation, Accessed February 20, 2018, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach.

[9] Malcolm Guite, 4.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] Charles Darwin, “Autobiography,” The Portable Atheist, ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2007), 94.

[13] Ibid.

[14] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 223.

[15] Malcolm Guite.

[16] Ibid., 12.

[17] Charles Darwin, 96.

[18] Malcolm Guite, 12.

[19] Charles Darwin, 96.

[20] Ibid.

[21] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 28.

[22] Malcolm Guite, 6.

[23] Charles Darwin, 95.

[24] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 24.

[25] Mathew Arnold, “Dover Beach.”