Faith & Science
Against Surrender: Richard M. Weaver’s “Metaphysical Dream”
While today it would be more common to speak of a person’s “worldview,” philosopher Richard Weaver (1910-1963) spoke equivalently of a “world picture,” a “metaphysical dream,” or an integrative “vision.” I like vision or dream best, since they conjure something more than a dry-bones philosophical perspective that can be adopted or discarded easily if you change your mind about things. Just as you can be woken involuntarily from a good dream, or you may be unable to wake from a bad one, so too with a vision that explains to you how the world works — what’s above, what’s below, what came before you and what will come after. Once shattered, it is not easily reconstructed.
In this series we are discussing Weaver’s philosophy, a pillar of modern conservatism that stresses, in a way that may surprise many conservatives, the corrosive effects of Darwinism on Western culture. (See Parts I, II, and III, here, here, and here.) Whether a person is a liberal or a conservative, religious or secular, he needs a vision — and we all have one. It’s impossible to relate to the world without it. The problem comes if the vision you walk around with in your head is artificially foreshortened (like that of materialism) or, what’s far more common with modern people, including religious ones, fractured in the way a schizophrenic’s personality is fractured.
Weaver taught English at the University of Chicago but he’s best known for a trilogy of slim philosophical books: Ideas Have Consequences (1948), The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953), and the posthumous Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time. For anyone who has followed the Darwin debate, his discussion is surprisingly contemporary. It holds up well. In Ethics of Rhetoric, for example, he’s got a chapter deconstructing the legal tactics evident from a transcript of the Scopes trial: “Dialectic and Rhetoric at Dayton, Tenn.”
Weaver could have had in mind the uses that are so often made of the 2005 Dover case. He writes about how “the truth of the theory of evolution or any scientific theory can never be settled in a court of law.” At Dayton, the Scopes defense was to try to defend evolution’s truth rather than showing that the defendant hadn’t done what he was accused of doing, namely breaking the law of the state of Tennessee.
In another chapter, “Ultimate Terms in Contemporary Rhetoric,” he chided people who employ phrases like “Science says…” The formulation “depends upon a bland assumption that all scientists meet periodically in synod and there decide and publish what science believes.” He observes that such thinking reflects, pathetically, “the deeply human feeling that somewhere somehow there must be people who know things ‘as they are.'” Once, religion was “the depository of such knowledge, but now, with the general decay of religious faith, it is the scientists who must speak ex cathedra, whether they wish to or not.”
Even conservatives and religious folk now commonly look to “science” to fulfill that role and expect their religion to fall in line with whatever the mythological unidentified “scientists” say.
In Visions of Order, Weaver explains why even a layman who is a serious and thoughtful person has a right to question prevailing scientific opinion and, in particular, on the matter of Darwinian theory. Man, he explains, has periodically gone through “dark nights of the mind” in which he seemed to understand less about himself than previous generations did. Darwin was helping to draw down another such “dark night.” What “man tells himself he is”: this is an all-important determinant of culture, of what man does and “may even predetermine what he can do.” Weaver writes:
The dominant mood has been to accept what “science says” as an ipse dixit and then to see what, if anything, can be salvaged after its pronouncements have been conceded. It is my conviction that we do not have to fall back so far. We can offer defense and even attack at some of the outer works….[W]e can show that some of the scientific claims are not scientifically based or are not rationally argued.
The future quality of our culture will be a function of whether man’s self image may or may not be “saved.” Weaver identified a prime threat in “Darwin’s theory of the descent of man,” the effect of which was to “place man squarely in the animal kingdom” so that “[m]ore than likely what this revelation inspires in the average consciousness is the thought, ‘Well, if we are animals, let’s be real ones.'”
With regard to evolution, a layman may hesitate to venture any criticism:
The amount of study given the theory has been so extensive, the alleged proofs are from so many sources and are so massive in appearance, and the evolutionists have so much “liberal” opinion on their side that the average person who is still reluctant to accept its implications feels that he may as well shrug in hopelessness and say, “I surrender.”
Surrender is of course the stance advocated by most mainstream conservative and religious thought today. More on the details of Weaver’s critique of Darwin in my next post.