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Reason, Will, Appetite, and the End of Education

Until 1859 it was the general consensus among most intellectuals that a god was needed to explain existence because, even though astronomy, physics, chemistry, and even geology could be explained to their satisfaction by natural processes, surely life was an otherwise inexplicable miracle.

Then came Darwin’s On The Origin of Species.

Here was the final triumph of the Enlightenment. If a mechanism had been found even for life itself, surely now we could stop all this silly talk about needing a god and could get on with living in the world as it is – free of the terror of hell and the church and the imposed moral code of those who keep us from progressing.

I may as well admit publicly that Darwinism and the wider evolutionary theory that has replaced it (after all, by his death even Darwin had begun to revert back to Lamarckianism since his theory did not have the explanatory power he had hoped) has been a preoccupation of mine since somewhere around fourth or fifth grade.

I’ve often wished I could take a couple years just studying the scientific theory and the data that support it. I don’t like just reading Christian responses to it and I’m not comfortable with the mutual hubris too often suggested by “both” (as though there are two) sides. But either natural selection or God has kept me from being able to do so to date.

And maybe that’s actually good, because when I think about evolution and Darwinism, I don’t just think about it as a scientific theory. My primary interaction with evolutionary theory is in its application, and that in two ways.

First, I am an educator, a consultant to classical schools. And second, I live in an age and a culture permeated by the habits and assumptions of the absolute naturalism for which Darwinism or at least evolutionary theory serves as the linchpin.

I have drawn one conclusion about which I am deeply convinced. If naturalistic evolution is true, then humans are not adapted to live in the world it has brought about.

I have stumbled across dozens of demonstrations and evidences of this conviction, but since my thing is education, I would like to focus on that for the rest of this post.

My conviction is this: when you apply naturalistic evolutionary teaching to education, you undercut education itself.

One clarification: I’m not talking about what you teach in science class. In science students should learn three things. First and most importantly, they should learn how to conduct scientific work, i.e. they should learn how to do the sort of research that is “science.” Second, they should learn the theories that have arisen from that sort of research, such as Quantum Mechanics, Newton’s physics, Mendel’s genetic theories, and Darwin’s and the Neo-Darwinists theories of evolution. Third, they should learn the powers and limitations of the scientific method.

Only the first option is really essentially science. The second is the scientific tradition or the history of science. It should be learned so students see science as a flesh and blood human activity in which they can share and so they can see the excitement and love that goes into scientific labor.

The third, the powers and limitations of the scientific method, is not a matter science can decide. It’s a metaphysical and moral question. Science cannot set its own limits, though it can influence the awareness of the domains that do set its limits. It can also demonstrate its limits, which is what typically gives rise to philosophical thought anyway.

In that context, evolution should be taught in the science class as part of the scientific tradition – as part of what scientists generally believe. Whether they are right or wrong can be explored through the first and third options. The second option will show students that scientists are often wrong, so they don’t need to lose their faith in something other than science because of the conventional claims of popular science.

Enough on science class for now. I’m a great deal more concerned about how the application of naturalistic evolutionary assumptions to education has undercut it.

Here let me be simplistic so I can end this blog post mercifully and pick it up again later with specific applications and instances of my thesis.

Prior to the rise of naturalistic materialism in the 18th and 19th centuries, western education applied (not always very well) the Christian classical understanding of human nature. That is to say, everybody believed that humans were flesh and blood and something more.

Many of the Greeks and Romans believed that at least some humans possessed a “divine spark.” The Jewish-Christian tradition taught that humans were the divine image, created by God after His likeness.

This is silliness to the naturalistic materialist, childish ideas from the infancy of the race. At best, it is a metaphorical explanation of the inexplicable to those who needed an explanation but didn’t know as much as we do.

As the divine image, humans were believed to possess both reason and will. As made of clay after the pattern of animals, humans also possess appetites. The wonder of man was that he was, to use Pascal’s phrase, “Neither angel nor beast.”

Like angels he possessed intellect in the soul. But he was no angel, though he could be angelic. Like the beast he possessed appetites and physical needs. But he was no beast, though he could be bestial.

Reason and will were regarded as distinctive qualities, spiritual and even miraculous.

With the Enlightenment, the nature of reason and will are gradually altered. Will was reduced gradually to appetites, such that now when people think about the will at all they confuse it with the appetites (more on this later, I hope).

Reason was also reduced. To read Plato or Aristotle or the Psalmist or the Preacher is to encounter a very different faculty of perception than the conventional notion of reason presents. Maybe we can see it by comparing Socrates with Dr. Spock.

Reason to the Christian classical tradition is the faculty that perceives reality, transforms it into a spiritual substance, and plants it in the soul in what they used to refer to when they used the word knowledge. The goal of reason was to harmonize and to integrate. It included everything in its reflection.

Modern conceptions of reason are generally unrefined, but probably the best summary would be to suggest that they seek the standards established by Descartes. You know something, according to Descartes, only if you can know it with certainty and precision. (As a fertile aside, I’m struck by the similarity of Descartes’ standard with those of the sophist Thrasymachus in the first book of Plato’s Republic).

To the modern, in other words, reason is the non-emotional side of the person, and it seeks certainty and precision, which tends to lead it down mathematical and logical paths to the exclusion of all else.

No wonder Rousseau, the Romantics, and the post-moderns are all so contemptuous of the powers of reason.

Contrast that with the words of Solomon in his collection of Proverbs or the wonder of the Book of Job. Contrast it with the Symposium of Plato in which Socrates emphatically establishes love alone as the only sound guide for reason.

Reason treated as a computational skill is a great deal less than what the Christian classical tradition meant by reason.

Let me vainly attempt to define reason and will in a more useful fashion. Reason is the faculty by which the human soul perceives and orders reality. It’s God-given purpose is to enable us to fulfill our stewardship as the pastors, lords, kings, and stewards of the creation.

The will is the faculty of the soul by which we pursue our own perfection, which is the glory of God.

Reason perfects itself in wisdom.

The will perfects itself in virtue.

When Darwin was believed to have demonstrated that humanity descended through an evolutionary process so that God was no longer a necessary concept and the soul was “a needless hypothesis,” any Christian classical conception of reason and will were dismissed.

Knowledge was no longer regarded as the internalization of an external object into a soul that no longer existed through a contemplative process that no longer could happen. Now it was, as Dewey said, “the adaptation of an organism to its environment.”

The will was no longer regarded as the faculty by which the individual overcame his appetites, but as a supreme appetite to propagate the species.

Consequently, the twentieth century is the story of the neglect of reason and will and the exaltation of appetite. It may be that modern education is summarized in that single sentence.

I’ll explore this more in later posts. Please help me by letting me know where I’m uninformed or not making sense.

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