Herbert Spencer: A 19th Century Darwinian Philosopher on the God Question

Herbert Spencer was a 19th century philosopher (and ally and popularizer of Darwin’s ideas). And for Spencer, beneath all the outward and diverse forms of religion there is a grappling by humans with an Ultimate Mystery that resists explication, and consists of only three possibilities, all of them equally mind-boggling:

  • The universe is self-existent, and has always been here;
  • the universe had a beginning, but it made itself; or
  • something external to the universe made the universe.

Religion, however complicated its forms, is a wrestling with this mystery, this truth. Here’s how Spencer puts it (in Part 1 of his First Principles ): 

“Respecting the origin of the Universe three verbally intelligible suppositions may be made. We may assert that it is self-existent; or that it is self-created; or that it is created by an external agency. Which of these suppositions is most credible it is not needful here to inquire. The deeper question, into which this finally merges, is, whether any one of them is even conceivable in the true sense of the word.”

In other words, both science and religion come up against impasses, or aporias, when it comes to comprehending certain ultimate things (one of them being the origin of the universe). In Part 1 of his First Principles, Spenser then discusses other conceptual impasses (or aporias ) in turn (such as the relation of matter and consciousness). It’s actually a good read, and reminds us that to be a believer in evolution (that the universe is old and plants and animals change over time) need not lead one to hasty atheist conclusions about the universe as a whole, the origin of information in the first cell, or the origin of mind.

In short, contra Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and Jerry Coyne, one needn’t be a confidence atheist—or faitheist—to be an evolutionist. One can be more like Herbert Spencer or Stephen Gould, who tried to make peace between evolutionary science and religion.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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