Edward Hitchcock.

The religion of geology and its connected sciences online

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verbal logic of the schools, as little capable of producing conviction as
any of the wildest and most absurd of the technical scholastic reasonings
on the properties, or supposed properties, of entity and nonentity."

In the second place, it has been argued with much apparent plausibility,
by Dr. Paley, that wherever we find a complicated organic structure,
adapted to produce beneficial results, its origin must be sought beyond
itself; and since the world abounds with such organisms, it cannot be
eternal; that is, the mere existence of animals and plants proves their

Now, without asserting that there is no force in this argument, I have two
remarks to make upon it. The first is, to quote the reply to it, which
such a writer as David Hume has given, in language which I have just
repeated. "For aught we can know _a priori_," says he, "matter may
contain the source or spring of order originally within itself, as well as
mind does; and there is no more difficulty in conceiving that the several
elements, from an internal unknown cause, may fall into the most exquisite
arrangement, than to conceive that their ideas in the great universal
mind, from a like internal unknown cause, fall into that arrangement. To
say that the different ideas, which compose the reason of the Supreme,
fall into order of themselves, and by their own nature, is really to talk
without any precise meaning. If it has a meaning, I would fain know why it
is not as good sense to say, that the parts of the material world fall
into order of themselves and by their own nature. Can the one opinion be
intelligible while the other is not so?"

Fairly to meet this reasoning of the prince of sceptics is not an
achievement of dulness or ignorance. In order to do it triumphantly, we
want, what Dr. Paley could not find, a distinct example of the creation of
numerous organic beings by some cause independent of themselves. I say, he
could not find such an example; for on a question of natural theology, he
did not think it proper to appeal to the Bible; nor had geology, when he
wrote, revealed her astonishing record on this subject. But as it is now
developed, it puts an end to all controversy as to the origin of the
organic world.

My second remark, however, on this argument is, that even admitting its
correctness, it only proves the commencement of organic natures, but does
not show that the matter of which they are composed may not have been

In the third place, an argument against the eternal existence of matter
has been derived by Sir John Herschel, one of the most distinguished
natural philosophers of the day, from the atomic constitution of bodies,
as made known to us by chemistry. This science makes it certainly
probable, that even the infinitesimal particles of matter have a definite
and peculiar shape, and size, and weight, in each of the elements. "Now,"
says this writer, "when we see a great number of things precisely alike,
we do not believe this similarity to have originated, except from a common
principle independent of them." "The discoveries alluded to effectually
destroy the idea of an external self-existent matter, by giving to each of
its atoms the essential characters at once of a manufactured article and a
subordinate agent."

To this argument the atheist's reply would be essentially the same as that
last considered; and in one respect it would even be more forcible,
because the atomic constitution of bodies, being less complex, is less
obviously the result of foreign agency, and may more easily be regarded as
the necessary property of eternal matter. On the other hand, however, it
is more obviously an attribute of the original constitution of matter than
organic structure; and if it does require an independent agency for its
production, it seems difficult to conceive of the existence of matter in a
previous state. So that, in this point of view, this argument is more
forcible than the last; and it is no small evidence that it has real
strength, that it comes to us from one of the most acute and impartial
minds in Europe.

In the fourth place, it is maintained that the idea of an eternal
succession, or chain of being, which the atheistic advocates of the
world's eternity defend, is highly absurd, and even mathematically false.

The atheist mainly relies upon this notion of an eternal series of things;
for if he can defend that opinion, he will overturn the main argument of
the Theist for the divine existence, viz., that from design in the works
of creation. On this ground, therefore, he should be fairly met. Has he
been so met by the reasoning that has usually been employed to refute his
opinion? As a fair sample of it, I will here quote the leading points of
the argument, as given by one of the most popular and able theologians of
our country. "It is asserted by atheists," says Dr. Dwight, "that there
has been an eternal series of things. The absurdity of this assertion may
be shown in many ways."

"First. Each individual in a series is a unit. But every collection of
units, however great, is with intuitive certainty numerable, and,
therefore, cannot be infinite."

"Secondly. Every individual in the series (take for example a series of
men) had a beginning. But a collection of beings must, however long the
series, have had a beginning. This, likewise, is intuitively evident."

"Thirdly. It is justly observed by the learned and acute Dr. Bentley, that
in the supposed infinite series, as the number of individual men is
alleged to be infinite, the number of their eyes must have been twice, the
number of their fingers ten times, and the number of the hairs on their
heads many thousand times, as great as the number of men."

"Fourthly. It is also observed by the same excellent writer, that all
these generations of men were once present." - _Dwight's Theology_, vol.
ii. p. 24.

How is it possible that such reasoning should have satisfied logical and
philosophical minds? Would it not be equally good to disprove the
demonstrated principles of mathematics which relate to infinite
quantities? For in mathematics an infinite series of units is a familiar
phrase; and it is also common to speak of one infinite quantity as twice,
or ten times, or many thousand times, greater than another, and that, too,
in just such cases as the one referred to above.

True, mathematical infinites are in some respects different from
metaphysical infinites; but it is the former that belong to this argument,
since the supposed infinite succession of organic beings forms a
mathematical series.

An acute writer in our own country, however, has recently attempted to
show that "there can be no number actually infinite, and therefore no
infinite number of generations."[11] That the mathematician cannot
actually present before us the whole of an infinite series, is indeed most
certain; for such, power belongs only to an Infinite Being. But does the
fact that man's faculties are limited, prove that an arithmetical process
cannot be carried on from eternity to eternity? Because man cannot put
upon paper the series of numbers representing the miles in infinite space,
or the hours in infinite duration, is there, therefore, no such thing as
infinite space, or infinite duration? Certainly not, if this reasoning be

In spite, however, of such mathematical metaphysics, is it not an
intelligible statement of the atheist, when he says of any generation of
men and animals in past time, that there was another that preceded it and
unless you have matter-of-fact proof to the contrary, how will you
disprove this assertion? You may show him that practically he can never
exhibit a series, even of numbers, extending eternally backward; but he
may, in return, challenge you to put your finger upon the first link of
the chain of organic nature. If you attempt it, he will reply that other
links preceded the one you have named, and that, as far as you choose to
run backward, he can go farther; in other words, by the very supposition
which he makes, he excludes a beginning to organic nature, and, therefore,
all reasoning which assumes such a beginning is of no force against his
conclusions. If a series which may thus be extended indefinitely backward
be not infinite in a metaphysical sense, it is to common sense.

Let me not be thought to be an advocate in any sense for the unsupported
notion of an infinite series of organic beings. But the question is,
whether those who, in spite of common sense, have maintained this opinion,
have been fairly refuted by such metaphysical evasions as I have quoted.
The truth is, that, in order to end this dispute, the Theist needs to
bring forward at least one example in which the commencement of some race
of animals can be fairly pointed out; and I know not where such an example
can be found, save in the Bible and geology.

In the fifth place, the changing state of the world has been regarded as
incompatible with the world's eternity. This argument is thus stated by
Bishop Sumner: "If the universe itself is the first eternal being, its
existence is necessary, as metaphysicians speak; and it must be possessed
of all those qualities which are inseparable from necessary existence. Of
this nature are immutability and perfection. For change is the attribute
of imperfection, and imperfection is incompatible with that Being, which
is, as the hypothesis affirms, independent, and, therefore, can have no
source of imperfection. To suppose, therefore, of the first independent
Being, that it could have existed otherwise than it is, is no less
contrary to the idea of necessity, with which we set out, than to suppose
it not to exist at all."

This reasoning is not destitute of plausibility. For there is scarcely any
lesson more forcibly impressed on short-lived man than the mutability of
the world. And it is indeed true that change is its most striking
attribute. But when we look at the subject philosophically, we find that
all this mutability is consistent with the most perfect ultimate
stability; nay, that the change is essential to secure the stability.
Apart from what revelation and geology teach, these changes in nature form
cycles, which, like those in astronomy, are perfectly consistent with the
eternal permanence of the general system to which they belong. In the
motions of the heavenly bodies, a considerable amount of irregularity and
oscillation about a mean state does not tend to the ruin, but rather to
the preservation, of the system, provided the anomalies do not extend
beyond certain limits. It is just so with other changes that are going on
around us. All of them are, in fact, as much regulated by mathematical
laws as the perturbations of the heavenly bodies; although those laws are
more complicated and difficult to bring out in distinct formulæ in the
former case than in the latter. Yet even in astronomy, it is not many
years since the mutual disturbances among the heavenly bodies were
supposed to be the certain precursors of ruin to the system. It was not
till the famous problem of the three bodies was solved, by the use of the
most refined mathematical analysis, that astronomers learnt the true
operation of those causes of disturbance among the heavenly bodies which
exist in their mutual attractions. It was then found that, so balanced are
they in their action, and so narrow their limits, that they can never
affect the stability of the system; or, rather, they secure that
stability. It is, indeed, true, that when changes in nature go on
increasing or decreasing in magnitude indefinitely, they clearly indicate
a beginning and an end to the system to which they belong. And it was on
this principle that the earlier astronomers predicted that the celestial
perturbations would ultimately bring the universe to a state of chaos.
They found, for instance, that the moon's orbit was decreasing in size,
and they inferred that, ultimately, that luminary must come to the earth.
But they now know it to be mathematically certain that, after a long
period, the diminution of the orbit will cease; it will begin to expand,
and go on expanding,-until the opposite point of oscillation is reached,
when it will again diminish; and in this manner, if God's will permit,
perform its eternal round. Just so it is with all the irregularities of
the solar system.

"Yonder starry sphere
Of planets, and of fixed, in all her wheels,
Resembles nearest mazes intricate,
Eccentric, intervolved, yet regular;
Then most, when most irregular they seem."

And so it is with all the natural changes which we witness around us, and
with all which science shows us to have taken place on the globe,
excepting some which geology discloses, and perhaps one which astronomy
renders probable. Let us look at some of those changes which the argument
under consideration regards as inconsistent with the world's eternity.

Nearly all the changes in nature with which we are acquainted belong to
three classes, - the mechanical, the chemical, and the organic.
Astronomical changes are purely mechanical; and hence the ease with which
they may be calculated by mathematics. The universal system of death,
which reigns over all animals and plants, is the result of organic laws;
and it is this which probably gives to man the strongest impression of the
transient nature of sublunary things. But just consider the antagonist
agencies to this universal destroyer. I refer to the equally universal
system of reproduction, and to the law by which permanence of species is
secured. The consequence is, that, while every individual animal and plant
dies, the species survives. In the whole history of the animals and plants
now existing on the globe, only eight or ten certain examples are on
record in which a species has become extinct, and those are some large
birds, such as the dinornis and dodo, once inhabitants of the Isle of
Bourbon and New Zealand. Every one of the human family, every elephant,
every ox, every lion, &c., die, but man, as a species, still lives; and so
does the elephant, the ox, and the lion; and most obviously this is a law
of nature. How easy, then, for the atheist to evade the force of your
argument against the world's eternity, drawn from the ravages of death! He
has only to suppose the havoc of individuals by death always to have been
repaired by the equivalent operation of reproduction, and that these two
agencies have been balanced against each other from eternity; and how will
you prove this impossible, except by the absurd metaphysical arguments
already considered?

Atmospheric and aqueous changes often, and, indeed, generally, appear more
chaotic and destitute of a controlling force than any others in nature.
When the winds are let loose from their prison-house; when the heavens
become dark, and the clouds, rent by the lightnings, pour down their
contents, and the swollen torrents carry desolation down the mountain's
side and over the wide plain; when the ocean rolls in upon the land its
giant waves; when the tornado sweeps all before it, in rich tropical
regions; or when the sirocco sends its hot blast, loaded with sand, over
the devoted surface, - in all these cases, how difficult for us to conceive
that all this uproar among the elements is limited and controlled by laws
as fixed and unalterable as those which regulate the heavenly bodies!
Nevertheless, it must be so; and although the winds and the waters seem to
be rioting at their pleasure, there are, in fact, at work antagonist
agencies; which will confine their wild war to a narrow field, and soon
bring them again into peaceful submission. For such has always been the
case, and the limits of their irregularities are no wider now than six
thousand years ago. In other words, the repressing agency has always been
superior to the destroying force, when the latter has risen to a certain
limit; and I doubt not but the profounder mathematics of angelic minds
might as easily calculate the anomalies and perturbations of winds and
waves as the formulas of La Place can determine those of the solar system.
And if such constancy has existed for six thousand years in meteorological
changes, - of all others in nature apparently the most irregular, - why, the
atheist will ask, may not that constancy have been eternal? And with equal
reason may he ask the same in respect to all changes resulting from
mechanical, chemical, and organic laws, which we witness in nature, except
those which come within the province of geology, and even concerning some
of those; and what changes in the material world do not result, directly
or remotely, from one or two, or all of these laws? Yet, in regard to all
these changes, there is no inconsistency in supposing them to have gone on
in an eternal series; and hence they furnish no proof of the non-eternity
of the world.

In the seventh and last place, the recent origin of society, as shown by
historical monuments, is regarded as evidence of the recent origin of the
world. This argument was well understood as long ago as the days of
Lucretius, who states it very clearly in the oft-quoted lines, -

"Si nulla fuit genitalis origo,
Terrarum et coeli, semperque eterna fuit,
Cur, supra bellum Thebanum et funera Trojæ,
Non alias alii quoque res cecinere poetæ?"

This argument, though it has been met by a plausible reply, is certainly
of great importance in its bearing upon the recent origin of the human
race, which, as we shall shortly see, is a point of much interest. But it
is obvious that it proves nothing respecting the origin of matter, since
this might have had an eternal existence before man was placed upon it. We
need not, therefore, be delayed by its discussion.

Such is a fair summary, as I believe, of the arguments usually adduced,
aside from the Bible and geology, to prove the non-eternity of the world.
I am not prepared to say that they amount to nothing; but I do believe
that they perplex, rather than convince, and that some of them are mere
metaphysical quibbles.

They do not produce that instantaneous conviction which most of the
arguments of natural theology force upon the mind; and it is easy to see
how a man of a sceptical turn should rise from their examination entirely
unaffected, or affected unfavorably. Let us now, therefore, turn to
geology, and inquire whether its archives will afford us any clearer light
upon the subject.

And here we must confess, at the outset, that geology furnishes us no more
evidence than the other sciences of the creation of the matter of the
universe out of nothing. But it does furnish us with examples of such
modifications of matter as could be effected only by a Deity. Suppose,
then, we should be obliged to acknowledge to the atheist, that we yield to
him the point of matter's eternal existence, if he pleases, because we can
find nowhere in nature decisive evidence of its creation, and then take
our stand upon the arrangements and metamorphoses of matter. Or, rather,
suppose we say to him, that we shall not contend with him as to the origin
of matter, but challenge him to explain, if he can, without a Deity, its
modifications, as taught by geology. If that science does disclose to us
such changes on the globe as no power and wisdom but those of an infinite
God could produce, then of what consequence is it, so far as religion is
concerned, whether we can, or cannot, demonstrate the first creation of
matter? I can conceive of no religious truth that would be unfavorably
affected, though we should admit that this point cannot be settled. Let
us, then, at least for the sake of argument, admit that it cannot be, and
proceed to inquire whether, aside from this point, geology does not teach
us all that is necessary to establish the most perfect system of Theism. I
shall select four examples from that science, each of which is independent
of the others in its bearing upon the subject, since in this way the
argument will become cumulative; and if some are not satisfied with one
example, the others may produce conviction.

In the first place, geology teaches that the time has been when the earth
existed as a molten mass of matter, and, therefore, all the animals and
plants now existing upon its surface, and all those buried in its rocky
strata, must have had a beginning, or have been created. I should be
sustained by many probabilities, were I to go farther, and maintain that
the time was when the globe existed in a gaseous state - an opinion very
widely adopted by able philosophers of the present day. But as this view
is more hypothetical than my first position, which makes the earth a
liquid mass, and as nothing would be gained to the argument by supposing
it in a gaseous state, I shall not press that point. That it was once in a
state of fusion is probable from the very great heat still remaining in
its interior. But more direct proof of this results from the facts, now
admitted by almost all geologists, that the unstratified rocks have all
been melted, and that the stratified class have all, or nearly all, been
the result of disintegration and abrasion of the unstratified masses. A
striking confirmation of this opinion is the spheroidal figure of the
earth, - a figure precisely such as the globe would have assumed in
consequence of rotation, had it been in a fluid state. In fine, so many
and so decisive are the facts which point to the original igneous fluidity
of the globe, that no competent judge thinks of doubting that all the
matter of which it is composed, certainly its crust, has some time or
other been in that state. It is, however, the opinion of some geologists
of distinction, that the whole of it was not in fusion at the same time,
and that its different portions have passed successively through the
furnace. But this view of the subject scarcely affects my argument, since
at whatever period the fusion of any part took place, the destruction of
organic life, if it existed, must have been the consequence. The essential
thing is, to show that such was once the state of the earth that animals
and plants could not have existed on it. For if such was the case, their
creation must have been a subsequent operation; and if this did not
require an infinite Being to accomplish it, no result in nature would
demand his agency.

To prove the original igneous fluidity of the globe, we might have adopted
another course of argument. All will admit that the present temperature of
the interior of the earth is far more elevated than that of the
surrounding planetary spaces. The inevitable result is, from the known
laws of heat, that its radiation into the celestial spaces is constantly
going on, and consequently the earth's temperature is being constantly
lowered. Who can tell us now when this process of refrigeration commenced?
If no one, then there must have been a time when the heat was great enough
to fuse the whole globe. And the facts already stated confirm such an
inference. For all the efforts hitherto made to show that the earth may be
passing through regions of various temperatures, in its march around the
centre of centres, amount to nothing more than dreamy conjecture.

In order to feel the force of the argument, sustained by so many facts in
geology, just picture to yourselves this vast globe as a mass of liquid
fire. From such a world every thing organic must have been excluded, and
every thing combustible consumed, and only such combinations of matter
have existed as incandescent heat could not decompose. Compare such a
world with that now teeming with life, and beauty, and glory, which we
inhabit; and say, must not the transition to its present condition have
demanded the exercise of infinite power, infinite wisdom, and infinite
benevolence? You can, indeed, conceive how a solid crust might have formed
over the vast fiery ocean, by the simple radiation of heat; and then, too,
by natural laws, might the vapors have been condensed into oceans and
clouds, while volcanic force within might have lifted up our continents
and mountains above the flood. But what a picture of desolation and ruin
would such a world present, while unadorned with vegetation, and with no
voice of life to break the stillness of universal death! Here is, then,
the precise point where we need the interference of a Deity. Admit, if you
please, that atheism, with its eternal matter and the laws of nature at
command, might form a world without inhabitants. Who does not see, that to
bestow organization, and life, and instinct, to say nothing of intellect,
upon brute matter, is the loftiest prerogative of Jehovah? especially to

Online LibraryEdward HitchcockThe religion of geology and its connected sciences → online text (page 13 of 39)