Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Are the gods indifferent?

It’s an old question, at least as old as Prometheus. Are the gods indifferent or is there something in the scheme of things that cares? The ancient tale of Prometheus neatly parses its reply – yes and no. Zeus is indifferent to humanity; we are small change. But not Prometheus. His concern for our plight leads him to give us fire, which as Aeschylus explains is more than the warming flames of the hearth. It is both science and technology, which moves us beyond victimhood and gives us agency.

Jump forward some 2,000 years to the middle decades of the 18th century. We find the same yes and no. On the one hand is Kant’s Universal Natural History, where he extends Newton’s Principia to explain the origins of our solar system. Any dispersed cloud of matter would collapse in on itself because of gravity. Any asymmetry would cause the condensing mass to spin about its center…spinning faster and faster as the cloud condenses until the force required to hold it together exceeds gravity. At that point some matter is spewed out, becoming the planets, the rest continued to collapse, making our sun.

On the other hand is the Comte de Buffon, who saw things differently but arrived at the same point. Long ago–Buffon would use rates of cooling to estimate some 75,000 years ago, far greater than a biblical 7,000 years–the sun was struck by a comet, the collision spewing forth the planets.

While both of these theories drew from Newton, they offered deeply different views of the workings of the universe. For Buffon the universe is Zeus-like, humanity and the solar system a matter of little consequence. The earth and its fellow planets were the debris of a cosmic accident. Across the vastness of space, imagined as a three-dimensional billiard table, one ball had careened into another. But Kant’s universe is Promethean. Not by mere accident, but by the very nature of things, a chaotic random concourse of matter achieves order. Matter, cold and indifferent to the needs of life, becomes the nurturing earth. Like the ancient myth, the Enlightenment, too, said both yes and no.

Our last item is a Cambridge tale. It begins with the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, Professor of Geology. A master scientist who forged a new way to structure the earth’s history, Sedgwick’s research led to geological systems, the chapters of the earth’s history such as the Cambrian and Devonian.

As president of the Geological Society, Sedgwick delivered an address in 1831 where he denied a central hypothesis of Cuvier’s influential work: that the signs of flooding scattered over much of the world are evidence of a single grand flood. Sedgwick explained this was not to deny Genesis, but instead to read it as a moral account. Just as one should not deny the truths within the story of Eve and the apple in the Garden of Eden because snakes don’t talk, nothing handed down in Noah’s tale justifies our looking for physical evidence of a great flood. Noah’s deluge is a moral, not a physical event.

Elsewhere, in his Discourse on the Studies of the University (1832), Sedgwick makes clear his Kantian leanings. Science and reason assure us the universe is designed with harmonies evident all around us. The Creator had taken great care in fashioning the universe.

As we chalk in Sedgwick as Promethean and Kant-like, we know there were Zeus and Buffon-like voices in the early Victorian era. Years later William Whewell would write to a friend, J.D. Forbes, how hard it was to maintain in 1864 what he had so confidently felt earlier about the harmony of a providential and a scientific history of the world. He acknowledges a reconciliation of science with the religion is still possible, but it is not so clear and striking as it used to be. And he touchingly adds “But it is weakness to regret this; and no doubt another generation will find some way of looking at the matter which will satisfy religious men.”

“It is both science and technology, which moves us beyond victimhood and gives us agency.”

Why, we may ask, had it become so hard to believe the gods are not indifferent? Darwin is one prominent reason. While the notion that life had evolved was not new in 1859–several theories had been offered earlier in the century–Darwin had given it a new and far more compelling form. He had, in effect, shattered Buffon’s comet into countless shards of change, shards so small they approached Newton’s “fluxions.” They spewed forth across the generations of life in so many directions at once that one couldn’t speak of a goal so much as a random concourse.

Yet, while we may well imagine Buffon’s cynicism was such that he would have enjoyed the indifference of the gods and even more the discomfort of true believers, Darwin was no cynic. History has largely painted him as a ‘Darwinian’: Nature was red in tooth and claw, and marked by the indifference of the gods. But this is mistaken. There was a moral push to his work. He had uncovered a saving grace in life’s random coursing, one that placed sympathy for the plight of others deep within the human character. In short, Darwin believed evolution guaranteed that humans are innately good. Disraeli had put the question this way: are we descended from apes or angels? He was on the side of the angels. It turns out Darwin was as well.

And so the structure of things in Victorian Britain was not as indifferent as Zeus might have had it.

From Prometheus to Darwin’s Descent of Man, story-teller and scholar have sought to answer this most fundamental question on the indifference of the gods, and regularly whispered—both yes and no.

Featured image credit: Charles Robert Darwin Scientists 62911 by WikiImages. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *