I just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe where I have been going for 15 years. As usual the trip involved giving lectures at state and national universities in addition to presenting a paper at two conferences on Charles Darwin. I lectured on moral philosophy with political implications and worldviews & the arts. It is rather exciting to see young university students in this rather atheistic context make connections that, for the most part, have been ignored or denied by those in the academy. At one point in the lecture titled “Worldviews and the Arts” we discussed Paul Gaugin’s work titled Whence Come We? What Are We? Whither Do We Go? The question this posed was how to answer these three important questions if nature is all there is. I had made the point that without the transcendent in which our values, ideals, morals were grounded, it was impossible to find meaning in life. One young lady wondered why she could not live by her own ideals. But another replied, that they would still not be universal (or transcendent) as they would only be hers. In addition, she was asked, how would she live with others who had different ideals to which she had no answer. The conclusion was that particulars alone are insufficient to answer the questions of meaning in general and the three questions in particular. In fact, it became clear as responses were pushed to their logical conclusion all that would be left is relativism.
This highlights what I believe to be a very important point, a point which I wonder if evangelicals fully appreciate or understand. If all that exists are particulars, then it is impossible to ground any universal meaning in particulars as particulars by definition are changing. I think Richard Weaver was right when he wrote: “The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably – though ways are found to hedge on this – the denial of truth. With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of ‘man the measure of all things.’” (Ideas Have Consequences). Philosophically the name given to the denial of universals is nominalism. While I think most Christians would affirm the idea of universals (and I would hope this includes the idea of essences) I fear that too often our response to the naturalistic arguments fail to make use of this point.
There are implications that go beyond the questions of morality and meaning. This discussion touches the evolutionist claim that the process of evolution is able to bring about new species. I have been arguing for some time that this claim would only take root where the idea of that which transcends experience has faded from view. That is, the Platonic notion of the Forms, or what I would call essences (one does not have to accept all the details of Plato’s Forms to accept the idea—as Augustine did). Aristotle was right when he spoke of the formal cause, namely, a thing is what its essence determines it to be. I was amazed this week as I was reading Dawkins new assault on theism—The Greatest Show on Earth. He quotes the late Ernest Mayr’s suspicion as to why it took evolution so long to find acceptance. His thought was, according to Dawkins: “The culprit was the ancient philosophical doctrine of—to give it its modern name—essentialism. The discovery of evolution was held back by the dead hand of Plato [Dawkins’ language]” He is precisely on point. I think Mayr’s suspicion that the notion of essences was the philosophical foundation for the idea of fixity of species. The conclusion of Enlightenment thinking is there is nothing existing above experience.
I wonder at times if evangelicals really understand the critical importance of their own affirmation of universals as understood within a Christian worldview.