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Flight from the Absolute: A Heavyweight Look at the Negative Impact of Modern and Postmodern Philosophies

Casey Luskin

flight-from-the-absolute-cynical-observations-on-the-postmodern-west-volume-i.jpgAt Discovery Institute, we are often sent unsolicited books by authors, and I must confess that we don’t always have time to review them all or give them the attention they deserve. Last year I received a two-volume set by Paul Gosselin, Flight from the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West, which is a detailed examination of the impact — ultimately negative — that secular modern and postmodern philosophies, including Darwinian thinking, have had upon the West.

Philosophy is not my field, and together the two volumes come to over 900 pages and 1300 endnotes — so I haven’t had time to read Gosselin’s extremely well-documented arguments in detail. I’m not even going to attempt a comprehensive review here. However, because Gosselin’s work nicely covers the positive influences of religion on the founding of science — a topic we’ve been discussing quite a bit here recently while reviewing the inaccurate history told in Cosmos — his books are well worth taking a brief look at.

In the first volume, Gosselin reviews many key founders of modern science who had deep religious convictions and were inspired in their scientific investigations by their faith in a rational God who created an intelligible universe. The first scientist he covers is Galileo, offering the following commentary:

Galileo Galilei is one of the most revered figures in the modern religion’s pantheon. Moderns sing the praises of his development of the heliocentric theory of the solar system and his courageous opposition to the Inquisition. Galileo is seen as the ultimate archetype of opposition to obscurantism and religious prejudices rooted in an unscientific and authoritarian Christianity. A modern “martyr” in the war between science and religion, Galileo is an icon around which revolve many modern stereotypes. According to modern mythology, he was the first to give us a taste of the “forbidden fruit” of knowledge. But is this the historical Galileo or a repackaged version, a vehicle for modern prejudices or political correctness? (pp. 118-119)

According to Gosselin, the “real Galileo” did not see his science and standing against religion. He quotes Galileo saying:

I say so as to the truth of the knowledge which is given by mathematical proofs, this is the same that Divine wisdom recognizes; but I shall concede to you indeed that the way in which God knows the propositions of which we know some few is exceedingly more excellent than ours. Our method proceeds with reasoning by steps from one conclusion to another, while His is one of simple intuition…I conclude from this that our understanding, as well as in the manner as in the number of things understood, is infinitely surpassed by the Divine; but I do not therefore abase it to so much as to consider it absolutely null. No, when I consider what marvellous things and how many of them men have understood, inquired into, and contrived, I recognize and understanding only clearly that the human mind is work of God’s, and one of the most excellent. (Galileo quoted on p. 119)

Gosselin further quotes Galileo explaining that our minds and scientific methods of investigation are gifts that God intended us to use:

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations. (p. 119)

Galileo is thus a prime example of an early scientist who believed that a supremely intelligent God created humanity with the very faculties needed to study and understand nature. He was inspired to study nature as a result. Gosselin observes that “Examples of such thinking, among scientists of the period, are commonplace.” (p. 119) He then mentions Johannes Kepler, whom he quotes as likewise stating:

The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics. (p. 120)

Later, he turns to Newton, explaining that “Newton’s work finds its basis in assumptions derived from the Judeo-Christian cosmology.” (p. 121) He quotes the French historian of science Pierre Thuiller explaining how Newton’s theological motivations not only were no bar to good science, but actively led to it:

Over time, Newtonian physics has emerged as the archetype of true scientific research, detached from religious or metaphysical speculations. But in fact, Newton based his work on Christian beliefs, linking the order found in nature to the intelligence of the Creator. The second edition of Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy is explicit: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being…This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; … He endures for ever, and is every where present; and by existing always and every where, he constitutes duration and space.” (p. 121)

Gosselin also recounts the many scientific and mathematical accomplishments of the religiously devout 17th-century mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal. Gosselin points out that “By twelve, he [Pascal] had discovered on his own several theorems appearing in Euclid’s Elements … [a]t the age of eighteen, he invented and marketed a calculating machine, a forerunner of today’s computers, which was put to administrative and scientific tasks … [and later] made many scientific discoveries amongst which, the laws of atmospheric pressure and hydrodynamics, the arithmetical triangle and the hydraulic press.” (p. 121)

Because of Pascal’s great scientific and mathematical contributions, Gosselin notes that “In computer science, the Pascal programming language was named in his honor” (p. 121) — something near to my own heart as I was once fluent in Pascal programming. To show Pascal’s deep religious devotion, Gosselin quotes from Pascal’s great treatise Pens�es, as follows:

The God of Christians is not a God who is simply the author of mathematical truths or of the order of the elements; that is the view of heathens and Epicureans. He is not merely a God who exercises His providence over the life and fortunes of men, to bestow on those who worship Him a long and happy life. That was the portion of the Jews. But the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Christians, is a God of love and of comfort, a God who fills the soul and heart of those whom He possesses, a God who makes them conscious of their inward wretchedness, and his infinite mercy, who unites Himself to their inmost soul, who fills it with humility and joy, with confidence and love, who renders them incapable of any other end than Himself. (pp. 121-122)

Gosselin also covers James Clerk Maxwell who “saw no contradiction between his Christian worldview and scientific research.” (p. 122) He quotes a prayer written by Maxwell:

O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Thy name in all the earth, who hast set thy glory above the heavens, and out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast perfected praise. When we consider Thy heavens and the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou has ordained, teach us to know that Thou art mindful of us, and visitest us, making us rulers over the works of Thy hands, showing us the wisdom of Thy laws, and crowing us with honour and glory in our earthy life; and looking higher than the heavens, we may see Jesus, made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour, that He, by the grace of God, should taste death for every man. (p. 122)

Early scientists like these thought they were using God-given mental faculties to understand the intelligible world God had created. And of course, they studied far more than physics and mathematics. Another scientist Gosselin discusses is Carl Linneaus, who invented our modern system of biological classification. He quotes the French Encyclopaedia Universalis noting that “With Linnaeus, as is the case with Newton, faith is not an obstacle to science. Religious conviction sanctions scientific research, it provides the presupposition of the unity and harmony of creation.” (p. 120) He then quotes Linneaus stating:

Not only divine Scripture, but also sound reason teaches us that we must look with amazement on the machine of the universe produced and created by the hand of the infinite Artist. … Neither art, nor genius, can even imitate a single fibre of the endless tissues that make up each body. The smallest filament, in fact, shows the Finger of God and the Artist’s signature.(p. 120)

Gosselin observes that “we have discovered further levels of complexity that Linneaus, or even Darwin, could not have imagined.” (p. 121) In a passage that could easily be used to describe the new Cosmos series, he concludes: “Before the twentieth-century, this symbiotic relationship between science and Christianity was the norm, but since then the Enlightenment and modern propaganda have ‘buried’ it, keeping such facts out of view.” (p. 122) According to Gosselin, this is just another way that modernist philosophy has engaged in a form of intellectual fracking — trying to mine history to find datapoints bolstering a materialistic worldview, but in the process destroying the theological, philosophical, and other intellectual foundations that, historically speaking, built the West.

In any case, the quotes from above gives just a small taste of what’s to be found in Gosselin’s treatises. If you’re looking for an extremely well-documented examination into how secular modernism and postmodernism — and especially Darwinian thinking — have harmed the West, you’ll probably want to add the two volumes in Flight from the Absolute to your collection.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.