August 18, 2007

Caught in the Middle: Richard Nixon on Evolution

I was wandering through the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC last month when I stumbled upon an incredible find: an essay written by Richard Nixon as a college senior. In this essay, Nixon explores the profound questions that his generation wrestled with. Their families and churches had saturated them in religion. Their professors taught them science, and then explained that the two were incompatible. The church offered no clear response.

What would their conclusion be? The future of America hung in the balance.

Below is Nixon's story, the cry of a generation.

What Can I Believe?
Richard M. Nixon, October 9, 1933
Whittier College, Whittier, California

Self analysis must certainly be the most difficult and the most revealing study that a college student can undertake. Being a supposedly educated senior, I thought that it would be quite a simple matter to put my beliefs in writing. Upon looking further into the problem I found that far from being a logically minded college student, I was completely lost in attempting any close analysis of my ideas and methods. However, I shall place my ideas about certain philosophical problems before the reader and let him see what a jumbled mess can be made of a man's brain and ideas by a modern college education.

The first problem which comes up is a matter of method. Which method do I use, or better, which method does my intelligence tell me to use. In making a short study of English philosophers during the past year I became an intense admirer of David Hume. Hume's method, more than that of any other philosopher of whom I know was the most logical, the most scientific. Bacon had described the scientific method but had not used it. Hobbes and Locke had attempted to work without letting tradition and preconceived ideas interfere, but they too failed. Hume, however, took absolutely nothing for granted. He tested all systems of thought by experiment and reason. Therefore, in view of my limited knowledge of methods of thought, I must accept that one which appears most logical and reasonable to me. The scientific method is the one my experience tells me to use. Taking nothing for granted, arriving at conclusions through experiment, using these conclusions as the basis for an hypothesis, and then proving the hypothesis by more experiment. This is my method, the scientific method as near as I can describe it.

But immediately I find myself confronted with an unanswerable problem. Logic tells me to take nothing for granted, but what can I do with religion? My starting point should be something which conforms to the scientific ideal, not a God or a force whose reality is ascertained by intuition. The true scientist would have no arbitrary starting point. He would experiment and reason with the purpose of finding one. Years of training in the home and church have had their effect on my thinking however. My parents, "fundamental Quakers", had ground into me, with the aid of the church, all the fundamental ideas in their strictest interpretation. The infallibility and literal correctness of the bible, the miracles, even the whale story, all these I accepted as facts when I entered college four years ago. Even then I could not forget the admonition to not be misled by college professors who might be a little too liberal in their views. Many of those childhood ideas have been destroyed but there are some which I cannot bring myself to drop. To me, the greatness of the universe is too much for man to explain. I still believe that God is the creator, the first cause of all that exists. I still believe that He lives today, in some form, directing the destinies of the cosmos. How can I reconcile this idea with my scientific method? It is of course an unanswerable question. However, for the time being I shall accept the solution offered by Kant: that man can go only so far in his research and explanations; from that point on we must accept God. What is unknown to man, God knows. I shall use the scientific method to arrive at the concepts I can; then I shall call that great unknown world, God's world.

Now I am ready to choose an hypothesis with which to work. It is still my firm belief, due perhaps to my early training, that God created the universe as it is. There have been changes in the cosmos, in living creatures, etc., but I still believe that changes have been within the different "classes" themselves. For example, human beings were created as they are, although their physical and mental beings have changed through the ages! I know that this idea is a laughing stock among competent scholars, but in view of my past education, or lack of education, I can maintain no other theory. Let me hasten to say, however, that this view is not unsusceptible to further development. I am no longer a "seven day-er"! In declaring that God created the world, I am only acknowledging that my own mind is not capable of explaining it in any other way. How God created the world, I do not attempt to say; I am not able to understand that problem. I believe, however, that I should make an attempt to understand as much about the world as I possibly can. With this purpose in mind, I am going to attempt to prove the evolutionary hypothesis. The concept of growth and improvement seems to fit into my scheme of thought exceedingly well. I am not able to say what evolutionary theory I intend to use. What I do wish to do is to give a fair trial to all of them and to either accept or reject them on their merits. Undoubtedly, of course, my concept of God as the creator will interfer with my impartiality, but it is certain that I shall attempt to make that interference as small as possible. God then is my starting point, my great cause or what you will: I shall attempt to use the scientific method in proving an evolutionary hypothesis as to the origin and development of the universe. Certainly, there could be no more jumbled set of ideas than these. Let us hope that further study will unravel some of the crossed threads of my thought!

Firstly, I am confronted with what to me is the greatest problem of all. What is the purpose of all this study? Where am I heading for? Why not go ahead living and forget this problem of existence? We humans differ from the lower animals in that we are curious about such things. We are never satisfied with just living. We must know why we live. My purpose in making this study of philosophy is to get a clearer picture of how I came to be on this earth, and to learn what my purpose in life is; I used to accept the the biblical account of man's natural depravity and his predestination on to heaven or to hell. My education has taught me that the bible, like all other books, is a work of man and consequently has man made mistakes. Now I desire to find a suitable explanation of man's and the universe's creation, an explanation that will fit not only with my idea of God but also with what my mind tells me is right. I want to know why I am here in order that I may better find my place in life.

With this illogical method, starting point, hypothesis, and purpose, I am entering into the field of philosophy. Where my study will lead I do not know, but certainly any system of ideas would be better than this absurd collection of science, religion and philosophy that I now have!

One in a series of essays prepared for the course, "Philosophy of Christian Reconstruction". It's interesting to note that Whittier College was, in fact, a Quaker institution.


Josh Champagne said...

Thought-provoking. This was the generation where a massive worldview shift occurred. Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

where did you get this text from? Did you copy it down while you were in the museum?