Delivered over the course of 1891 and 1893, George Gabriel Stokes's Gifford Lectures focused on the question of Divine Design, which he defined as God's Will and creation itself. Stokes contrasts Design with materialism, which posits that all life and all inorganic phenomena are caused by natural laws, and nothing more. Stokes rebuts that view by arguing a materialistic conception of the universe cannot explain why certain natural laws exist, such as the law of gravitation. It can only describe the phenomena we observe in the form of mathematical theories. Answering the why question relies on a type of knowledge that extends beyond the ken of science — it relies on faith. Indeed, Stokes argues such a question can only be answered by appealing to the supernatural — a God that created both functional and beautiful things for the physical and psychological well-being of His creatures. In his Gifford lectures, Stokes takes a particular interest in criticizing the materialistic view of life that he thinks is engendered in Darwinian natural selection. He also takes a particular interest in emphasizing the role Christian Revelation plays in limiting the types of knowledge claims that scientists think they can make. A deeply religious man and a renowned physicist and mathematician, Stokes tries desperately to combine his religiosity with his determined belief in the existence of natural laws.
KEY WORDS: Supernatural, God's Will, Revelation, Phenomenal world, Design, Darwin, Natual Selection, Christian faith, Death, Ether
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Sir George Gabriel Stokes is unprepared to fulfil the requirement Lord Gifford had set out in his last will and testament: that no Gifford lecturer should rely upon the supernatural to expound upon their natural theology. Natural theology was to be based on rational evidence, Gifford had stipulated, not on mysticism. Stokes, however, feels this stipulation too restricting.
In his Gifford Lectures, entitled “Natural Theology,” Stokes argues the “supernatural” — understood by him to be God's Will — plays a fundamental role in both religion and science. It constitutes the primary cause, the cause of all other causes, underlying the natural laws that scientists are familiar with, such as the law of gravitation. It is this supernaturalism that holds out a promise for life after death, Stokes argues, at least for the Christians who adopt the doctrine of Revelation. To exclude Revelation — the idea that God revealed himself and his plan in the life and death of Jesus Christ — would be to do a serious disservice to both theology and science. Stokes laments “the unreasonableness of any such à priori rejection of all that transcends the ordinary sense as we observe it.”
In his early lectures, Stokes focuses on those aspects of the phenomenal world — human structures such as the eye, and environmental structures such as the planets' orbits and the Earth's seasonal weather patterns — for which science had developed some systematized natural laws. Yet, he explains, such laws do not, and cannot, explain why such structures exist. That question can only be solved by reference to a transcendental will — a divine Design — which Stokes calls the primary cause of everything.
For example, consider Newton's theory of gravitation, which Stokes says “is so simple that we hardly think of it as requiring to be accounted for.” Scientists often tend to think of such laws as “self-existent.” Yet, he says, “we cannot help feeling that they themselves require explanation…when we have ascended as far as we are able from phenomena to what we call their causes, we are at last brought up by reaching a stage when we can proceed no farther; when we are obliged to take the highest laws that we have arrived at as postulates, and reason deductively from them.”To clarify his point, Stokes uses the analogy of a clock. Were an alien to come to a place where there were watches, and look at the watch, he might through consistent inquiry figure out how the thing operates. He might determine the mechanisms of the ticking hand and the time intervals the device measures. But he would not be able to determine why the clock was made in the first place; he could not rationally or scientifically deduce from his observations the primary cause of the clock. Similarly, Stokes argues in his 12th lecture, “The mysterious property of gravitation — the effects of which, in the actual condition of our lives, meet us at every turn — is accordingly something which we must regard as superadded to the mechanical properties of matter.” The abhorrence some of his contemporaries expressed towards such a theologically-minded argument constituted a grave disservice to science as a craft seeking ultimate truth, Stokes concludes.
Another theme that runs concurrent with Stokes's Design arguments is his scepticism toward natural selection, and interpretations of Darwinism that he feels end in little more than a simplistic, materialistic view of the universe. Stokes argues that if natural selection could be completely proved, it would destroy the idea of Design. Thankfully, it cannot. Were Darwin's postulates to be taken as “self-existent and uncaused” they would then paint a purely materialistic picture of the existence of life. But, he says, “The evidence of design afforded by the adaptation of organs to their functions and of living creatures to their environment is not thus eliminated unless we assume that this process [natural selection], which we can actually trace only a little way, is capable of indefinite extension backwards.” Yet, fossil evidence cannot prove that to us, he argues.
On the other hand, by fitting natural selection into a theistic world picture, we can merge evolution with theism. For example, Darwinism cannot prove the molecules and atoms in our universe (which underlie the chemical changes our bodies require to sustain life) were not a Divine creation. But we might assume that the act of creation took many millennia, and is perhaps still on-going. Thus, natural laws, including natural selection, do describe something of what is going on in the world. They simply fail to describe the origination of that world.
In his latter lectures, Stokes deals specifically with the issue of Revelation. The Christian faith alone, he says, allows for Revelation, and in so doing holds out the possibility of human recovery. Coming from a literalist perspective, Stokes argues that all humans are fallen creatures; we were created perfectly and purely, but through our own human will we began to sin and have ever since fallen deeper into a degraded state. Yet, this account of morality gives rise to a difficult paradox for natural theologists: Does this mean the good and almighty God of Christianity, creator of all, is also the author of sin? And furthermore, Stokes asks: Why must humans — each of whom is born with the capacity to find things out, to scientifically rationalise, to technologically improve their lives, and to progress in their understanding of the natural world — die so early? “Man's capacities seem developed for indefinite progress,” Stokes comments. So why would a God, who granted us these fantastic mental capacities, be so wicked as to demand death so quickly?
There are two possible answers to these questions. The first comes from materialistic evolutionists, Stokes says. They would argue that humans were not created by God at all, but rather evolved from lower species into the rational beings they are today. But once they die, they are dead. There is no after-life, precisely because there was no before-life — we were not unborn souls in God's divine kingdom. We were simply unevolved species. Therefore, there is no need to justify God's seeming brutality in ending our lives so early.
Stokes thinks such accounts of the origins of life are rubbish; he relies, rather, on Revelation to provide an answer. Only through Revelation, he argues, can we have any hope for the future, because the doctrine of Revelation tells us there is a here-after, and through Death we regain our moral purity. In sum, Stokes argues, our mortality is due solely to our poor moral choices. Were we to have remained pure, as God had created us, we would have lived indefinitely.
Stokes presents this as a quasi-scientific proposition. The role of natural theology, he says, is to observe our behaviour and its negative consequences, then outline what our duties are — that is, which actions must we take in order to regain our morality in the image of God's goodness? By pointing out these duties, however, natural theology still cannot tell us what lies beyond death; we can only know that by allowing for Revelation — a transcendental belief in the supernatural — thereby satisfying ourselves that there is something beyond death and towards which we must morally strive.
In his final lectures, Stokes focuses more specifically on areas of science with which he is most familiar — the question of gravity, optics, and chemical composition (or the question of the existence of molecules, atoms and elements). In particular, he deals with the luminiferous ether. Both as a scientist and religious believer, Stokes stuck to the theory of the ether, and even went so far as to state in his first Gifford lecture in 1893 that its existence was an uncontested fact: “We cannot feel it, or smell it, or weigh it, and yet we have overwhelming evidence that it exists. And one most important object which it fulfils is that of informing us of objects at a distance through the sense of sight.”
Near the end of his lecture series, Stokes also gives a detailed discussion of chemical composition, and relates it to the ether in terms of its insensibility. He explains that it is by no means clear what the “elements” are: are they composed of distinct atoms and molecules, whereby each element is fundamentally distinct from the other, or are they at core composed of a common, continuous substance? As a scientist, Stokes tended to agree with the continuous view — that all matter was fundamentally the same and composed of infinitely divisible ether. As a Gifford lecturer, he argues this debate shows there is no one definite explanation in science. Often science comes to a point where it cannot decide between rivalling theories, precisely because those theories relate to insensible things. He argues:
Even if we speculate on the ultimate unity of matter, and suppose that at one time it existed in the state of separate atoms, all alike, more elementary than the molecules, or even the atoms of the chemist, endowed with combined affinities of an intensity answering to their elementary nature, and that from these atoms were formed by an evolutionary process the elements of the chemist, and from these elements a variety of compounds still the question arises — Whence came this inconceivably vast array of primordial atoms, bearing in their perfect similarity to one another the character of manufactured articles, and endowed with these intense affinities of combination?
The “ether” and the question of “chemical composition” both constitute prominent metaphors throughout Stokes’s lectures. They represent the insensible — that which cannot be observed or perceived, yet something which we necessarily believe in. Stokes concludes the phenomenal truth of the world — its real ontological nature — may very well lie beyond our sensory capacities. Science, as a perceptive art, is fundamentally limited in terms of what it can say or prove about the world. This should make scientists realize they are not “justified in rejecting what is asserted …on the ground of evidence in part, at least, professedly supernatural merely on the ground that it is supernatural.” On Stokes's view, then, both science and religion ultimately rely upon a leap of Christian faith. For as he concludes, “The more the human will is conformed to the will of God, the more ready will the mind be to apprehend the truth of God.”