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Regarding this kindle edition: Translation by J. Arthur Thomson and Margaret R. Thomson Editor/ Introduction: Rev. W.D. Morrison Publishers: Williams and Norgate Ltd., 1907 The work was originally published in German in 1904. There is no information given about the publisher of this kindle version, other than the phrase on the cover: “A public domain book”.
There is a one way live Table of Contents. You can go to the chapter, but then you can’t go back. The footnotes though, do allow you to return to your original position).
This is a very in depth recounting of contemporary debates regarding evolution and conflicting ways of interpreting the world, the religious and the scientific.
Otto starts out by contrasting the naturalistic and religious interpretations of the world, to define the relations that exist between the two, the contradictions, and the possibility of harmonizing the two. We should be able to give to natural science and to religion what is due to each. His reference to religion as religious feeling captures part of what Otto is expressing. That there is another element involved that is not suited to analysis by natural science.
The first few chapters are very well written and define naturalism (Otto defines two kinds of naturalism: one, a deification of nature that is almost animistic, and the other represented by natural science). It is the latter that he primarily deals with here.
Once Otto starts getting into arguments about natural science and more specifically about the theories of evolution and descent (which he distinguished from each other) the book gets weaker. A lot of what he writes here seems dated, not as relevant as it would have seemed to Otto’s intellectual contemporaries when first published. It involves a lot of intellectual controversies around the interpretation of Darwin’s theories and the challenges they posed to the religious conception of the world (not necessarily just the Christian). A lot of these controversies which may have been of great interest at the time, have since faded.
So the middle of the book really comes out seeming weaker and rather dated. Reading the first few chapters (1-4) and the last few chapters (10-12) is probably the most worthwhile way to approach the book. They are constantly articulate and I ended up highlighting many passages in my copy.
Something I noted while reading this book was the remarkable number of scientists and other writers in Germany who wrote on the matter and thought quite deeply on such things. Reading Otto’s survey of mostly German writers of his day makes you appreciate the depth of the German intellectual landscape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Something that seems quite astounding compared to today. That cultural change itself is of great interest, even if it’s not the point of this book and the author would not have foreseen it.
A great deal of concern is for teleology – the importance of not just causes but purposes. Darwin’s theory only looked at causes and seem to imply that there is nothing more than that, no purpose was present. Or at least no evidence for a purpose. Otto believes that teleology is a legitimate and justifiable path of inquiry.
Does a higher wisdom (God) guide this process? Does the progression towards complexity imply (or necessitate) a purpose guided by a higher power?
He also writes about the creative power of consciousness and it’s pre-eminence above the materialistic. That the world of the external and the material is not necessarily our first and most direct data, it’s derived from and only discoverable through consciousness.
All that just to get to the conclusion that it’s a mystery, deeper than our material knowledge. And religion knows this. This is all written with complete conviction.