Wednesday, August 26, 2009

SLJ: Wells on Spencer

[SLJ is writing about Vatican I and cosmology]

As to the prophetic character of the definition which had pantheism for its target, this should seem abundantly clear in view of the deification of the earth and of the universe which is turning into a vogue nowadays. To make matters worse, the vogue is fanned time and again by those who should know better. They would profit by studying John Henry Newman whom they often take for their theologian. He proved himself a saintly prophet when in 1838 he spoke of pantheism as "the great deceit which awaits the Age to come."

It was, however, a curious facet of the schemes and their discussions at Vatican I that in connection with that definition nothing was said about new cosmogonies. By the time of Vatican I, Laplacian cosmogenesis had become a chief vehicle of pantheism, especially through its recasting by Herbert Spencer. According to it, the universe had its origin in a supposedly homogeneous fluid, a primordial nebula. Scientists knew only one thing about it, namely, that it was nebulous, but then as now such defects in scientific parlance were readily overlooked by the public increasingly eager to be saved by science. And that cosmogony certainly seemed to assure the naively unwary that since that primordial nebula was homogeneity incarnate, it needed no explanation. The reasoning merely lulled the mind into believing that the universe with such a starting point needed no Creator. For the mind is awakened only when it is confronted with specifics, the very opposite to homogeneity.

It seems indeed that the periti at Vatican I may have missed a good point or two concerning Creed and Universe. At any rate, scientists at that time were not too eager to speak of the universe as such. For most of the time, Laplace's theory meant a discourse only about the evolution of the planetary system, where it failed miserably, a point amply shown by the time of Vatican I. Worse, it was not from within the Neo-Thomist revival sparked after Vatican I that there came the most incisive rebuttal of a cosmogenesis with a homogeneous starting point. It was, of all people, H. G. Wells, a professed agnostic and sometime atheist, who noted, though only a generation after the death of Herbert Spencer: "He [Spencer] believed that individuality (heterogeneity) was and is an evolutionary product from an original homogeneity, begotten by folding and multiplying and dividing and twisting it, and still fundamentally it."
[SLJ Universe and Creed 17-19]

Note: See also chapter 2, "Nebulosity Dissipated" in SLJ's God and the Cosmologists and chapter 6, "The Angular Barrier" in SLJ's Planets and Planetarians: A History of Theories of the Origin of Planetary Systems . The Wells quote is from his First and Last Things: Confession of Faith and Rule of Life.

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