Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Alfred Russel Wallace: Spiritual Rationalist?




While I am the first – and as far as I know, the ONLY - “Spiritual Rationalist” – I find that many historical figures could be described as sympathetic to “Spiritual Rationalism,” even though – needless to say – they probably wouldn’t embrace every tenet of my philosophy.

With that in mind, last night, I was scrolling through the Wikipedia page of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace is usually credited – along with Charles Darwin) as the co-discoverer of the Theory of Evolution. However, it seems that Wallace – despite his stance on evolution - could easily be described as a true “Spiritual Rationalist.”


According to Wikipedia, in the mid-1860s…
Wallace became a spiritualist. At about the same time, he began to maintain that natural selection cannot account for mathematical, artistic, or musical genius, as well as metaphysical musings, and wit and humour. He eventually said that something in "the unseen universe of Spirit" had interceded at least three times in history. The first was the creation of life from inorganic matter. The second was the introduction of consciousness in the higher animals. And the third was the generation of the higher mental faculties in mankind. He also believed that the raison d'être of the universe was the development of the human spirit.
Whoa! Even though most scientists would consider Mr. Wallace to be a “Darwinist” – and Wallace himself used that word to describe himself – it would seem that Wallace is actually a proponent of Intelligent Design.

In fact, Wallace’s perspective is very similar to what I wrote last month in my essay, Intelligent Design is Not "God of the Gaps:" A Rumination

Life is a true mystery, and any honest scientist will admit as much. What is "Life" – the mysterious essence which turns inert matter into volitional consciousness (and keeps that consciousness churning every second of every day until death)? We don’t know… We aren't even close to explaining what "Life" is - never mind its origin. So while it's fair to reject a “God of the Gaps” argument for purely material phenomenon, when it comes to Life we shouldn’t automatically reject it because Life itself strongly suggests at least a partly non-material dimension. We have to keep our minds open to the possibility of a divine origin and plan…

The fine-tuning of the Universe began with the Big Bang 14 billion years ago. So why can’t there be a fine-tuning of Life with the creation of the first cell 3 billion years ago? And once we accept that possibility, it becomes OK to consider the chance that there was some monkeying around with the creation of human beings

Beyond evolution, though, Mr. Wallace was also sympathetic to the “reality” of spirituality.

Wikipedia again…

Wallace began investigating spiritualism in the summer of 1865, possibly at the urging of his older sister Fanny Sims, who had been involved with it for some time. After reviewing the literature on the topic and attempting to test the phenomena he witnessed at séances, he came to accept that the belief was connected to a natural reality. For the rest of his life, he remained convinced that at least some séance phenomena were genuine, no matter how many accusations of fraud sceptics made or how much evidence of trickery was produced…

Wallace's very public advocacy of spiritualism and his repeated defence of spiritualist mediums against allegations of fraud in the 1870s damaged his scientific reputation. It strained his relationships with previously friendly scientists such as Henry Bates, Thomas Huxley, and even Darwin


Wallace’s perspective on evolution AND spirituality was guided by a fearless commitment to reason, and a willingness to follow the facts wherever they go… As he wrote in the preface to the first edition of On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism

From the age of fourteen I lived with an elder brother, of advanced liberal and philosophical opinions, and I soon lost (and have never since regained) all capacity of being affected in my judgments either by clerical influence or religious prejudice. Up to the time when I first became acquainted with the facts of Spiritualism, I was a confirmed philosophical sceptic, rejoicing in the works of Voltaire, Strauss, and Carl Vogt, and an ardent admirer (as I still am) of Herbert Spencer. I was so thorough and confirmed a materialist that I could not at that time find a place in my mind for the conception of spiritual existence, or for any other agencies in the universe than matter and force. Facts, however, are stubborn things. My curiosity was at first excited by some slight but inexplicable phenomena occurring in a friend's family, and my desire for knowledge and love of truth forced me to continue the inquiry. The facts became more and more assured, more and more varied, more and more removed from anything that modern science taught or modern philosophy speculated on. The facts beat me. They compelled me to accept them as facts long before I could accept the spiritual explanation of them; there was at that time "no place in my fabric of thought into which it could be fitted." By slow degrees a place was made; but it was made, not by any preconceived or theoretical opinions, but by the continuous action of fact after fact, which could not be got rid of in any other way.

According to Wallace enthusiast Charles H. Smith...

Wallace distilled the teachings of spiritualism in a number of his later writings. Excerpts from several of these follow for the sake of illustration and later reference:

...
The universal teaching of modern spiritualism is that the world and the whole material universe exist for the purpose of developing spiritual beings--that death is simply a transition from material existence to the first grade of spirit-life--and that our happiness and the degree of our progress will be wholly dependent upon the use we have made of our faculties and opportunities here...

..
.we are, all of us, in every act and thought of our lives, helping to build up a mental fabric which will be and constitute ourselves in the future life, even more completely than now. Just in proportion as we have developed our higher intellectual and moral nature, or starved it by disuse, shall we be well or ill fitted for the new life we shall enter on. The Spiritualist who...knows that, just in proportion as he indulges in passion, or selfishness, or the reckless pursuit of wealth, and neglects to cultivate his moral and intellectual nature, so does he inevitably prepare for himself misery in a world in which there are no physical wants to be provided for, no struggle to maintain mere existence, no sensual enjoyments except those directly associated with sympathy and affection, no occupations but those having for their object social, moral, and intellectual progress--is impelled towards a pure and moral life by motives far stronger than any which either philosophy or religion can supply...

...our condition and happiness in the future life depends, by the action of strictly natural law, on our life and conduct here. There is no reward or punishment meted out to us by superior beings; but, just as surely as cleanliness and exercise and wholesome food produce health of body, so surely does a moral life here produce health and happiness in the spirit-world...

...
all the material imperfections of our globe, the wintry blasts and summer heats, the volcano, the whirlwind and the flood, the barren desert and the gloomy forest, have each served as stimuli to develop and strengthen man's intellectual nature; while the oppression and wrong, the ignorance and crime, the misery and pain, that always and everywhere pervade the world, have been the means of exercising and strengthening the higher sentiments of justice, mercy, charity, and love, which we all feel to be our best and noblest characteristics, and which it is hardly possible to conceive could have been developed by other means...

...Not only is a healthy body necessary for a sound mind, but equally so for a fully-developed soul--a soul that is best fitted to commence its new era of development in the spirit world. Inasmuch as we have fully utilised and developed all our faculties--bodily, mental, and spiritual--and have done all in our power to aid others in a similar development, so have we prepared future well-being for ourselves and for them...

I agree with nearly all of that, and having learned of Wallace’s philosophy, I’m not surprised that while Wallace is the co-discover of evolution, only Darwin gets the full credit. After all, Darwin was a committed materialist and an atheist-leaning agnostic. Wallace, meanwhile, was neither. And worse, Wallace's embrace of Spirituality was a product of reason, NOT faith. That raised the everlasting ire of the Scientific Elite. If Wallace was someone like Dr. Francis Collins – an advocate of keeping science and faith totally separate – the Scientific Elite might have tolerated Wallace. But Wallace had too much integrity for that. And for that, we should thank him.

Was Alfred Russel Wallace a “Spiritual Rationalist?” Yes, I think so.

6 comments:

Justin said...

GREAT observations! That is definitely ID and spiritual rationalism, without a doubt.

My master's thesis included a heavy focus on the worldview and teachings of the early Spiritualists, particularly on the seminal work of Andrew Jackson Davis, who was called the Prophet of Spiritualism.

Unfortunately (IMHO), that original beauty of Spiritualism was later highjacked by the Theosophists. The Theosophists, esp. Blavatsky, got their start in American Spiritualism, but redirected it towards their made-up Easternized mumbo jumbo, including the toxic reincarnation dogma.

Like you, I find the idea of spiritual progression attractive and uplifting. However, I find the idea of Hindu reincarnation abhorrent.

Todd White said...

Thanks, Justin! Your Master’s thesis sounds fascinating. If you feel comfortable sharing it, would it be possible to get a copy?

Regarding the Theosophists…Yes, it does seem that the Theosophists emerged as the dominant strain of Spiritualism in the late 1800s, and while I’m not an expert in Theosophy, from what I do know about it, I would agree that it was a “toxic” strain of Spiritualism that set the movement back permanently.

I’m not sure to what you’re extent you’re familiar with Rudolf Steiner, but he’s a fascinating character. In the early 1900s, he was basically the Number Two leader of Theosophy, but then he broke with the movement to move it in a more Christian direction. He called his philosophy “Anthroposophy.” Anthroposophy was pretty big from about 1908-1913, and seemed on the cusp of a major cultural breakdown, but then World War One broke out, and even after the war ended, Anthroposophy never really recovered.

Last year, I read a book about Steiner, and indeed, I was very impressed with the quality of his thinking. His original work is rather stilted and hard going, though.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolf_Steiner

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthroposophy

http://www.amazon.com/Rudolf-Steiner-Man-His-Vision/dp/0850303982

John Landon said...

Wallace was intelligent about the questions of materialism and spirituality. He began to see that natural selection wasn't enough to explain the evolution of man, and began to sense a larger dimension to life, going so far as to pursue 'spiritualism', a logical decision for its time, thought of as a scientific enquiry, but discredited now.
Wallace shows the bottom line on the evolution of man: natural selection can do the job.

Justin said...

The thesis of my thesis is that religiousity is inherent in the human condition, and will not be displaced or eliminated by modern scientific progress. I substantiated this argument by detailing the evolution of the New Age tradition, which incorporates scientific breakthroughs as religious symbols into its sacred worldview. I started with Andrew Jackson Davis (who was rooted in Sweedenborgianism), and followed the strands to Blavatsky, Edgar Casey, Joseph Campbell, and others.

It is actually a work of original scholarship in its field, but as I stopped at the master's level, it hasn't really gone anywhere. Aside from the bookshelf in my living room, the only printed copy is in the stacks at Arizona State, which you could access via inter-library loan, presumably.

I heard of Steiner from a pal in college who attended one of his Waldorf schools, which sounded great to me. I've never read him though. Thanks for the tip.

Todd White said...

Justin: Yes, I agree: Religion is inherent in the human condition and will never be displaced by science. If science hasn’t killed religion yet, it never will. After all, the Scientific Establishment has been advocating a materialist paradigm for decades, and despite their best efforts, religious attitudes haven’t suffered a bit, except in Europe, where I suppose the religious impulse gets re-channeled into strange causes like Gaia worship and other left-wing causes. And since the materialist paradigm is breaking down even as we speak, a religious revival is probably more likely than a religious collapse.

I’m not familiar with Andrew Jackson Davis, but I know a little about Swedenbourg, who sounds like the “Real Deal” in terms of mystics. Steiner too. The Colin Wilson book is short – probably about 150 pages – but its meaty and insightful. I recommend it.

Todd White said...

John: Why do you think Spiritualism was discredited? I agree that Spiritualism WAS discredited – at least according to the history books. But given that the Spirtualists were clearly “onto something” (based on what I know about them), what caused them to fade away so quickly, never to be heard from again (although there’s been a slight revival recently)?