Chapter XIV | The World and Its Design
§ 1. The common world
The world is a large subject. It is coupled with the flesh and the devil as a source of temptation. Here it has to be considered as the vast stage on which men and women are said to be only players. There is a sense in which every human being—perhaps even every conscious animal—lives in a world of his own. But our concern at present is with what we take to be the common world—the world in which we all live together, the world of common sense.
The common world is also the world of science, which may be regarded as a kind of glorified or systematized common sense. In these days we all take it for granted that the world is described most accurately by scientists, and many of their ideas have seeped through into our ordinary thinking. Popular science bulks so large in the modern outlook that our present topic might be described as the world of science, or the world of the scientist, considered from the limited point of view of common sense. But we have also a special purpose in mind: we are trying to see what bearing this common world of ours has on religious belief. Does it give any support to the argument from design—perhaps the most widely accepted of all the arguments on which men have based their belief in the existence of God?
So large a subject can be treated only summarily at the best, but there is a special difficulty at the present time. Science is advancing with such ever-increasing rapidity that the layman is left breathless if he tries to trail along behind. What he says about it, if not sheer platitude, is likely to be antiquated and even absurd. I will endeavour to avoid absurdity, so far as I can, and will use circumstantial detail only in order to bring the obvious home to the imagination. If I borrow some of the details from Mr. Fred Hoyle's book on The Nature of the Universe, it is because he is so good at making his theories vivid. Even if the details are mistaken, this will not affect my argument.
Since I first drafted this chapter, it has been suggested that Mr. Hoyle's figures should be doubled; and there has also been discovered by means of radar the presence of who knows how many new stars invisible to any telescope; but even if the figures given here had to be multiplied by a million million, the effect on the mind of the ordinary layman would not be noticeably different.
§ 2. The great and small
Perhaps the first thing that strikes us about the world is its sheer size. Distances are so great that the astronomical figures in which they are expressed leave us numbed.
The diameter of our earth is some 8,000 miles, and those of us who have travelled as much as 1,000 miles can form some dim picture of its extent. We may perhaps grasp vaguely something of what is meant when we are told that the sun is 90,000,000 miles away; but even then we have scarcely begun our celestial explorations. If we are not to be overwhelmed with meaningless agglomerations of cyphers, we have to measure distances by the time light takes to travel over them. Light moves at the modest speed of 186,000 miles a second, and it takes about eight minutes for a ray of the sun's light to reach the earth. Hence we may say that the sun is eight light minutes distant from us; but with our modern telescopes we can see, or at least photograph, stars which are 1,000,000,000 light years away. Within this observed range there are some 100,000,000 galaxies, each one containing anything from 100,000,000 to 10,000,000,000 stars comparable with our sun. Theoretically, we could observe galaxies which are 2,000,000,000 light years away. Beyond the theoretical limit of possible observation—though this statement must be taken as controversial—there may be constellation upon constellation, and galaxy upon galaxy, continuing indefinitely for ever.
Why is it that these further systems could never be observed, no matter how much we improved our instruments? According to Mr. Hoyle, it is because these galaxies are moving away from us faster than light. This he expresses—for reasons hard for the layman to understand—by saying that while these bodies are not themselves expanding, the space between us and them is stretching with a speed greater than that of light. If so, the light they radiate can never reach us even in an infinite period of time.
Time, like space, appears to go on and on and on for ever. Our own galaxy is said to have come into existence some 5,000,000,000 years ago; and even our earth is believed to have had a life of something like 3,000,000,000 years. The history of man himself may have to be ‘measured, not in centuries, but in tens and perhaps in hundreds of thousands of years’. In such a context the individual human span is utterly dwarfed; and even the most stable institutions like the Roman Empire or the Christian Church or human civilization itself seem to be momentary bubbles on the vast ocean of physical events.
If we turn to consider what is contained within so small an object as a drop of water, we soon come again to measurements by which the imagination is overwhelmed. There are said to be millions upon millions of molecules in a drop of water, but even a molecule is a relatively large object to modern physics. Each molecule of water contains two atoms of hydrogen to one of oxygen. If we confine ourselves to the hydrogen, an atom of hydrogen has under normal conditions a diameter of about a hundred-millionth of a centimetre. Even so, this atom, although it is the simplest of all atoms, is itself a kind of solar system containing a central nucleus and a revolving electron. The whole atom is supposed—if this view is not already out of date—to be a hundred thousand times as large as the electron; and the electron is said to go round its tiny orbit about 7,000,000,000 times in a millionth of a second.
Some writers have taken comfort in the thought that if man is insignificant when compared with the vastness of the universe, he is himself vast in comparison with the electrons of which his body is composed. To many of us the second statement is no less disturbing than the first.
§ 3. Energy
In contemplating the universe we are confounded, not merely by the vastness of its extent and duration, the smallness of its constituents, and the speed of its motions, but also by its energy or power. Here too we have our own tiny human standards of measurement, which come within the scope of our senses and imagination—the effort necessary to lift a weight, to propel a motor-car, to fire a gun, or to explode a shell. In these days we have had to face fearfully the explosive power of an atomic bomb and to recognize that new and better bombs are on the way. But the explosion even of a hydrogen bomb is as nothing compared with the explosions which take place in nature—for example, in the stars known as supernovae. When such a star explodes, the effect is equivalent to the explosion of a million million million million hydrogen bombs all going off at the same time. Most of the material is blown out into space as a cloud of incandescent gas, which moves at the speed of several million miles an hour and radiates as much light as all the 10,000,000,000 stars in our galaxy put together.
According to Mr. Hoyle, such a supernova was a companion star to our sun. When it exploded, the bulk of its matter moved off into space, and the few remnants left within the gravitational influence of the sun formed a rotating circular disk out of which the earth and other planets were condensed. Our quiet earth was born in the extremity of violence.
There are some who bold that not only our planetary system, nor even our own particular galaxy, but the whole of our known universe started life a finite time ago in a single explosion. On this theory the universe is steadily running down, and all life on this planet will ultimately perish of cold. Mr. Hoyle takes a different view. He holds that the universe is formed by what he calls a process of condensation; and that as galaxy after galaxy moves beyond the range of the theoretically observable universe, this universe, so far from emptying, will still contain as many galaxies as before by the continuous creation of new galaxies to take their place. That is to say, the new galaxies will be condensed out of a background material which is continually appearing from nowhere, is not made out of anything, and in that sense is literally a new creation. But this, even when supported by his belief that there is life on many planets belonging to many suns in all these many galaxies, affords no ground for human optimism. The vast forces of the universe will go grinding on, and all life will ultimately perish in the solar system, not because the sun will become too cold, but because it will become too hot—so hot that the very oceans on the earth will boil. The sun itself will expand in this grilling process till it swallows, first Mercury, then Venus, and finally the earth.
§ 4. Law
Whether these illustrations are accurate or not, the continuance of human life depends on a precarious balance of forces wholly beyond our control, and the power and vastness of the universe are such as to confound the imagination of man. Yet the fact remains that man, in spite of his insignificant size and weak vision and feeble power, has been able to form such theories, to make such measurements, and to check and correct them by the observation of phenomena within the range of his senses. He is able to do this, provided he has the necessary intelligence and training, only on one supposition—the supposition that the same laws hold throughout the universe. The third outstanding characteristic of our world, and the one which is the condition of our knowing the others, is what is variously described as the uniformity of nature or the reign of law.
These phrases conceal many ambiguities, against which we must be on our guard. We must not let ourselves suppose that the word ‘reign’ implies a ruler or the word ‘law’ a lawgiver. The very notion of law is subject to modification, and we are now forbidden to speak of causal laws or of those laws of interaction between physical bodies which were good enough for our grandfathers. We are no longer allowed even to speak of things or bodies, but only of events. Perhaps we might express the universal prevalence of law by saying that events are similar in different parts of space or of space-time, or even—with Mr. Hoyle—that one bit of infinite space will behave in the same way as any other bit. Yet in this too there are obvious ambiguities. Even if the same laws prevail throughout the universe, their manifestations may be amazingly different. The prevalence of law and order does not mean blank identity everywhere, and still less does it mean an unbroken peace. The explosion of a supernova is as much an instance of law as the gentle falling of a drop of rain.
However difficult it may be to define our terms, science proceeds on the assumption that it is possible to discover laws in nature. The scientist is not content with elementary generalizations: he seeks to bring ever wider ranges of phenomena under ever more general laws and to formulate these laws mathematically—as when Newton brought the fall of an apple and the motion of the moon under the one law of gravitation. Similarly, Faraday gave a formula to cover the phenomena of electricity and magnetism, and then Clark Maxwell provided a higher formula, which covers, not only electromagnetic waves, but light as well. Einstein in his latest work has attempted, whether successfully or not, to formulate a law covering not only the phenomena of electro-magnetism but also those of gravitation. In the last few years—I quote Professor Bronowski—men have discovered that ‘gravitation does not get everywhere instantly, but travels in waves like electro-magnetic waves, and at the same speed, which is the speed of light’. It seems only yesterday that I put a question on the speed of gravitation to the two Haldanes, father and son, and was told with a kindly smile that in science such a question could not properly be asked.
These brief allusions may serve to illustrate, not merely the rapidity of scientific advance, but the law-abiding character—if such a phrase can be used—of the universe, a character at once assumed and confirmed in every scientific success. If we did not assume this, we could know nothing about the universe at all.
§ 5. Nature and law
It is in relation to this world of unimaginable vastness, energy, and law, that we have to examine the argument from design—the ideological proof, as it sometimes is called. On the basis of the design supposed to be found in nature men have inferred that the world must have a maker or creator, and that this creator must be, not only most powerful, but also most wise and most good in His choice of means and ends.
This theological inference undoubtedly mirrors a process of thought and feeling present in religious experience itself. The religious man finds God, or feels God, to be revealed in nature, perhaps without arguing at all; and he is ready to consider the argument from design with great respect. But it must be said at once that the modern scientific attitude is—to put it mildly—most unpropitious to any argument of this kind. Even to discuss the question will be taken by many as a sign that one is, not merely tender-minded, but soft-headed. The theologian here is trespassing into the domain of science itself, and he should not be surprised if he is treated as a marauder.
The argument from design, it must be remembered, did not arise originally in the scientific world that has here been so summarily described. Nothing could be more primitive than the tendency to look for a mind or spirit behind all the happenings in nature. It may seem that the teleological proof of God's existence, even if more sophisticated and refined, is a survival of primitive animism and must now be jettisoned as useless lumber. Some modern thinkers would even regard statements about the mind of man himself as a similar survival and would be happy to get rid of the concept of mind altogether. It is inevitable that they should have no use for any reflexions on the mind of God.
Even if we are not prepared to accept so drastic a repudiation of all past thinking, it must be admitted that the physical universe, as we know it to-day, offers no cheerful prospect for theological arguments based on teleology. Suppose we grant that all this vastness and energy has an intelligent being as its maker and ruler, the means seem utterly disproportionate to the end (or telos) if this is taken—in accordance with tradition—to be the happiness or the salvation of man. The Infinite, no doubt, is not to be judged by our straitened ideas of economy; but if we are looking for an argument to God's wisdom, and not merely to His power, we can hardly pretend to find it in all this reckless prodigality. The argument from design must rest primarily on the prevalence of law and order throughout the universe.
Why should men argue from the laws of nature to the presence of design and so to the existence of a wise creator? The laws of nature are descriptive—not prescriptive like the laws of men; and it is sometimes suggested that the argument is based on confusing two different senses of the word ‘law’. This explanation—so far as I know—is not supported by empirical evidence: Greek philosophy already distinguishes very sharply between law (as convention or prescription) and nature. What seems more likely is that men failed to distinguish between mechanical and teleological laws: even to this day the word ‘mechanism’ suggests a machine intelligently constructed in accordance with a design or purpose. It is not unnatural to suppose that the alternative to design or purpose or intelligence would be pure chance and so chaos. The argument is not scientific, but neither is it verbal: it rests on the analogy either of human action or of the machines made and controlled by men. As philosophers, if not as scientists, we are at least entitled to ask what are the implications of there being laws of nature.
A subtler form of the same argument is based on the suppositions of science itself. The scientist assumes, not only that there are mutually consistent laws of nature, but that these can be brought under higher or more general laws. This assumption was originally made with the minimum of evidence—it bears some resemblance to a religious faith. It has been confirmed amazingly by success, but it still remains an assumption, and indeed an assumption without which there could be no science at all. Does the scientist himself suppose, even if unconsciously, that the universe is adapted to our human intelligence? Or at least can we say, more modestly, that it looks as if the universe were so designed as to be intelligible to scientific thinking?
This has the merit of talking about a particular design, and not merely of design in general. It is certainly most surprising that the universe seems in the mind of man to be coming, as it were, to consciousness of itself; and some of us may still feel—to use no stronger word—that this could not have happened by accident. But from the scientific point of view all this is utterly naive, and we are getting hold of everything the wrong way round. What we ought to say is that the human mind is adapted to understand the universe—not vice versa; and even this is so only because the minds (or the bodies) which failed to understand were eliminated by a process of natural selection. The unintelligent were unable to survive. This contention diminishes, if it does not wholly remove, the mystery of what has happened; but it concerns the nature of man rather than the nature of the world.
Apart from more fundamental difficulties, an argument to the wisdom and goodness of God cannot rest merely on the prevalence of law, or even on the prevalence of discoverable laws: it must depend on the character of the laws that in fact prevail.
§ 6. Nature and design
It is in the laws governing the life of organisms that men have seemed to themselves to discover the most convincing evidence of intelligent design in nature.
This has the initial disadvantage that these laws—the laws of biology—apply only to the tiniest fraction of the whole universe, even if we suppose life to exist on other planets than our own. If we can find evidence of design in living organisms, we still have to connect that limited design with the design of the universe as a whole, and it is obvious that this will be far from easy. The subject is too vast for summary treatment, but a few elementary considerations may be put forward on the level of common sense.
Words like ‘design’, ‘plan’, and ‘purpose’ are taken from our descriptions of human action and are applied by analogy to organic life and ultimately to the universe as a whole.
Even as regards human action these words are not free from ambiguity. They may suggest something thought out consciously beforehand, like the blue-print made by an architect before he begins to construct a house. But we all know that as a rule action is not in the least like that. If we sometimes think first and act afterwards, we at least as often act first and think afterwards. Nevertheless if an action is to be regarded as our action, we must at the time be conscious of what we are doing or are trying to do: we must will our action as an action of a certain kind. We call such an action ‘purposive’ without committing ourselves to the view that it was all thought out beforehand. We also call any observed action of others ‘purposive’ when it looks as if it had a design or plan and as if there were an attempt to adjust means to an end. In using this language we do not commit ourselves to a belief that the design or plan or purpose was thought out beforehand, but we do suppose that other men, like ourselves, are aware of what they are trying to do. Apart from this supposition we should not regard their actions as human actions, but as mere animal behaviour.
When we extend the use of a word like ‘purpose’ to cover the functioning of an animal organism, we drop the idea of conscious purpose altogether. If we are simple enough to say that the purpose of the stomach is to digest, we do not mean that the stomach is conscious of what it is trying to do—much less that it has thought out beforehand a purpose or design or plan of digestion. Nor do we mean that God has made the stomach to fulfil a purpose in accordance with His wise design: this would be at most an inference from the facts we are trying ingenuously to describe. We all recognize, even the simplest among us, that we are here using the word ‘purpose’ only by a kind of analogy with conscious human purpose. We are supposing that the stomach has a function, the function of digestion, and that this function is to be understood only within the total activity of the whole organism. The stomach looks as if it had a design or plan, as if it were aiming at a purpose, as if there were an attempt to adjust means to an end; and beyond this we do not intend to go.
The word ‘function’, or even the word ‘purpose’, is not just a comfortable word like ‘Mesopotamia’. It really is hard for the layman to see how a science like medicine can distinguish between health and disease without some reference to the functions or purposes of the bodily organs. It would never occur to him that the stomach was not subject to mechanical law; but he does suppose that in the structure and functioning of such a bodily organ there is something which cannot be explained by mechanical law alone, as the motion of a cricket ball can be explained by the motion of its parts. Even when he is told that the functioning of organs can be explained by a combination of mechanical laws and natural selection—by the fact that animals with organs which fail to function are simply killed off—he does not readily believe this. He still tends to think there must be something more—something which makes the organ develop as a whole in a body which develops as a whole and is not a mere aggregate of parts.
We can understand the impatience of the scientist when he is told that this ‘something more’ must be the will of God or even a principle of life. These are not scientific hypotheses at all: they cannot be tested by any experiment; and it would be the death of science if we were content to explain why anything is what it is by saying that it was made so by the good pleasure of God. We make a real advance if we can say that some special gene has the function of making the whole develop as a whole, the organism develop as an organism. Yet even here, so long as we use words like ‘function’, ‘whole’, and ‘organism’, we are using biological rather than physical terms—unless these terms have also to be introduced into physics.
A vast amount of nonsense has been talked on this subject, and I have no ambition to add to its bulk; but some things seem to be fairly clear. The scientist—very rightly—claims to push the mechanical explanation of life as far as it will go. He also repudiates the use of words like ‘purpose’ and ‘design’ because of the very crude meanings sometimes given to them. What is not so clear is whether he repudiates the distinctions intended by those who used these words with greater subtlety or merely claims that he can state these distinctions with more precision.
Some philosophers hope that we shall be able ultimately to reduce the laws of biology to those of physics; but it is doubtful if this is a scientific belief or even a scientific assumption—it is sometimes derided by biologists, although their language is not always free from ambiguity. A most distinguished biologist, having impatiently denied that biology had any use for purpose, was heard a few moments later speaking blandly about the purpose of the eye. When the discrepancy was pointed out to him, he was merely puzzled; and it was hard not to believe that he was using the word ‘purpose’ in different senses in the two different contexts.
Modern biologists still use freely expressions like ‘organization’ and ‘self-regulating systems’. So long as they do so, without also using them with the same meaning in physics, we are perhaps entitled to say that they still assume living organisms to have a distinctive character—the character that was meant, however obscurely, by those who formerly spoke of ‘purpose’ and ‘design’. But the new terms do not commit us, as the old terms were sometimes wrongly supposed to do, to a mind which has purposes and executes designs.
No doubt it is still open to us to argue that organisms or self-regulating systems could not exist without a divine maker. We can still claim that there is something very remarkable about the growth and reproduction of living things and about the mutual dependence of their parts. But we are unlikely to maintain that there is a special divine intervention in each case. The argument must be rather that a universe which contains such perfections must be the work of a divine agent; and what we now know about the imperfections of living organisms makes the argument more difficult.
§ 7. Nature and beauty
Men have also found evidence of design in the fact of natural beauty—in our aesthetic experience of the world. Apart from the theoretical consideration of magnitude and energy and order and life the direct aesthetic contemplation of nature—for example, of ‘this brave overhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire’—is in itself an experience akin to worship. In it nature looks like art: nature looks as if it were designed for human delectation and wonder, and this experience of nature may be felt as communion with something familiar and friendly and comforting and even holy. From this direct awareness of natural beauty philosophers may pass to the thought that nature is adjusted or adapted to the aesthetic needs of the human mind or, in religious language, that it is a revelation of divine beauty—that the Heavens declare the glory of God.
Such a thought, although it may draw out the implications of a direct experience, is worlds away from a scientific theory. From the point of view of science, if this terminology is permitted at all, it is the mind which is adapted to nature. Aesthetic sensibility does not, like scientific intelligence, have an obvious survival value, unless possibly as bound up with sexual attraction; but the intensity of aesthetic delight may be regarded as a mere outgrowth or accident, like that intensity of physical pain which seems to have no direct utility in the process of evolution.
§ 8. The argument from design
In the argument from design—or the physicotheological argument, as it is sometimes more grandiloquently called—we seem first of all to derive the concept of purposiveness from our acquaintance with human action and to apply this concept by analogy to the living organisms observed on the surface of our planet. We then, by an immense leap, extend it to cover the whole of the vast universe, perhaps on the ground that this also is governed by law, although by law of a different kind; and we may feel this extension to be confirmed by our experience of the beauty in nature. Finally we argue that purposive activity in beings without intelligence must be directed by an intelligence outside and beyond themselves; and so we pass, because of the magnitude and power and order and beauty of the world, to the existence of an all-powerful and all-wise intelligence, to which we give the name of ‘God’.
Let us look summarily at this argument in a spirit of complete intellectual detachment.
It is obvious that an argument based throughout on analogies is unscientific. If we say that the universe as revealed to us by science must have an omnipotent and all-wise creator, or that God must be a mathematician, we pass to a totally different point of view where we can no longer devise mathematical formulae and test them by empirical observation. You may feel, and I may feel, that a world like this necessarily has a creator, or at least probably has a creator, or—to put it in the most modest way—possibly has a creator; but in such statements words like ‘necessarily’, ‘probably’, and ‘possibly’ have no longer their ordinary scientific meaning. It is difficult enough to say what we mean by these words even in their ordinary sense; but, to confine ourselves to the word ‘probably’, there is in it at least a reference either to the mathematical calculation of chances or to observed repetitions or to both. In what we are now saying there is neither. Our statement seems to be based on some obscure feeling in ourselves. We feel that so amazing a world cannot just have happened to exist for ever and ever, and cannot have come into existence by pure chance. Hence we seek to find its explanation in something outside itself.
Even so, our own analogies suggest that the world may have an architect or builder (if not many architects or builders) rather than a creator—that it may be made out of pre-existent materials rather than created out of nothing. But here we must remember that the different strands of argument for the existence of God are all interwoven; there is a danger that we may be picking out the individual threads and then declaring the fabric to be shoddy. If we suppose that every ordered universe must have as its ground a non-temporal, non-spatial, unconditioned, and self-sufficient being, we are bound to suppose this of our own ordered world. On such a supposition we are already beyond the analogy of a human architect and are at least closer to the concept of a creator. What the argument from design has to show is only that this creator must be wise and benevolent; and this it has to do from the study of our own particular world. The burden of proof is then lighter, though it would still be hard to infer absolute wisdom or absolute benevolence. On the other hand, if the argument from design depends on the validity of the cosmological and ontological proofs—if perhaps its limitations led to their invention—then it must stand or fall as they stand or fall; and we have not been able to show that they can stand.
If we set aside this supreme difficulty, and are willing to assume the existence of a creator, can we discern in the universe we have described a divine plan or purpose such as warrants an inference to His supreme wisdom and benevolence?
From the vastness, energy, and order of the world we can perhaps infer that its creator must be of immense power and intelligence. Yet even if we suppose that we are entitled to judge the universe by our human standards of what is best, it seems impossible to claim that we are able to grasp intellectually the aim and purpose of all this vastness and energy and order or to assess the excellence alike of its means and of its end. Few of us are ready to assert with St. Thomas that bodies act ‘always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result’. It is significant that even he has to add the honest, but disquieting, qualification ‘nearly always’—so reminiscent of the captain of the Pinafore; but the whole phrase seems meaningless unless we are able to specify the end. We have seen no sign, apart from the bare fact of our own existence and our capacity for scientific discovery and aesthetic appreciation, that the whole creation is directed to the attainment of values we can appreciate or understand. Still less is there any indication that the purpose of the universe is the welfare of living organisms or the perfection of the human race.
Even within the limited range of animal life we have to face the fact of pain: some animals, for example, have to die slowly as overgrown horns or tusks press gradually into their brains. The horrors of nature are as real as its delights, and even if pain is overbalanced by pleasure, this can be of little comfort to a creature dying in agony. We have here events not to be understood by human standards of kindness; and few of us will think the problem made any easier by the explanation, sometimes put forward even to-day by men of intelligence, that the pain of animals has been inflicted by God as a consequence of Adam's disobedience. An easy rational solution of problems like these is as unsatisfactory from a religious, as it certainly is from a scientific, point of view. If we are to be intellectually honest, we must frankly admit that we can detect no purpose or meaning in the vast distances and wild eruptions of the universe—and certainly no purpose centred on the welfare of man. Even in our own little world as judged by our own human standards, while there is much to call forth our admiration, there is also much that is wholly at variance with ideas of human kindness.
The argument from design has in the past made claims to be closely based on science, but science can have no direct part in discovering God. Science is concerned with facts and laws, not with purposes and values. It can find relations between different parts of the universe, but it ceases to be science if it tries to find relations between the universe and God—perhaps even if it begins to speak about the universe as a whole. If philosophy seeks to follow closely in the steps of science, it must impose upon itself the same limitations. If it refuses to be bound by such a self-denying ordinance, if it endeavours to think out the implications of what I have called the drive in our own thinking towards wholeness or completeness, what can it offer us? Certainly not a scientific proof or demonstration of God's existence or God's goodness, but at the most a mystery, a paradox, a question, a surmise, and perhaps a hope.
§ 9. Religious experience
It is hard to know what to make of all this from the point of view of religion. Men cannot worship size or duration or energy or even law. Yet contemplation of these things, and still more contemplation of the marvels of life and the beauty of nature, arouse emotions and attitudes which are not merely akin to those of religion but are elements in religious experience itself. Here too the dry argumentation of the traditional philosopher seems to express, however inadequately, something of the intellectual factor in religious life.
Before the vastness and energy of the universe man cannot but feel his own insignificance and helplessness. Even his shudders at its violence and seeming remorselessness are not unlike those attributed by Otto to consciousness of the daemonic. However insignificant and baffled he may feel himself to be, these very feelings spring from his own ability to grasp the laws of nature, and so to measure the immeasurable, to weigh the stars in a balance. The spectacle of universal law is itself awe-inspiring, but the power of being able to grasp such law carries with it a kind of exaltation. Thus man is uplifted as well as cast down; and as he strains to envisage the whole universe of which he is dimly conscious, a whole beyond his powers of imagination and even of thought, he experiences an emotion which is at least akin to reverence. Little wonder if he feels himself to be in the presence of a mystery, perhaps in the presence of a mind infinitely greater and other than his own.
By some thinkers such an attitude is considered worthy of rebuke. Professor Susan Stebbing, for example, reprimanded Jeans and Eddington, not merely—perhaps with justice—for the confusion of their thought, but also for the impropriety of their emotions or of the emotions they tried to convey to others. As she pointed out, the imaginative contemplation of the universe revealed to astronomers is to be distinguished from direct awareness of the beauty of the night. Both of these experiences may arouse something like religious emotion—they may even reinforce one another; but for some reason she commended the second as much as she condemned the first. Like a just, but kindly, schoolmistress, she combined her reprimand of Jeans and Eddington with a little pat on the back to Kant because—according to her—his well-known awe before the starry heavens was a simple aesthetic experience which could be enjoyed by any ignorant shepherd. Seldom can magisterial commendation have been less deserved. Had she taken the trouble even to glance at the context, she would have seen at once how wrong she was. What moved Kant was not merely what he calls ‘the noblest spectacle presented to the eyes of man’, but rather its connexion with the endless magnitude of worlds upon worlds and galaxies upon galaxies and with the boundless times of their periodic motions, their beginning and their duration. Failure to appreciate such emotions may spring, not from clarity of thought, but from lack of imagination, or at least from an unwillingness to exercise it. It is easy enough for some of us to close our minds, but this practice should not be elevated into a philosophic virtue.
We have to recognize a similar distinction—and this is particularly true in our contemplation of living things—between our direct enjoyment of the beauty in nature and our quasi-aesthetic admiration for the adjustment of part to part and of the whole to its environment. Besides our aesthetic pleasure in the shape and colour and flight of a swallow we may also have, as it were, a technical admiration for the perfect efficiency of its wing-structure—an admiration comparable to the reverence which a good engineer has for his engines. These emotional experiences in combination (as is well brought out by Kipling in M'Andrew's Hymn) lead very naturally and easily to an attitude of worship, especially when they are connected with the mystery of the world as a whole and with a feeling of thankfulness that these wonders should be given to us without any effort of our own.
But what of the darker side of human experience—of the pain and suffering and waste and cruelty and savagery of animal life? Does the religious man shut his eyes to all of this and seek in religion for a way of escape?
Plain and honest men cannot but have a proper feeling of repugnance when a theologian or philosopher ignores the horrors of the world—still more when he tries to have it both ways and tells us that the good in the world is a proof of God's goodness, while the evil shows that we cannot expect to understand the mystery of the divine will. It would be more reasonable to say that the religious man seems to himself to see some things as a manifestation of divine goodness and hopes one day to have a similar vision even of the things that baffle him now. It is hard to speak of this problem without smugness and self-deception, but even this simple, and perhaps ingenuous, rational solution does not adequately describe religious experience. The religious man, even apart from his darker thoughts of sin, is genuinely troubled by the evil in the world, and this trouble seems almost to be a part of his religious faith. Religious faith is not to be identified with a shallow optimism: it seems to contain in itself an element more akin to tragedy. The suggestion may be a foolish one, but it almost seems as if the bafflement inevitably experienced in the effort to understand the size and power and order of the world were as inevitably experienced in the effort to appreciate its goodness—and as if this very bafflement were an essential factor in religious experience itself.
Religious experience, made up as it is of thought and emotion, is certainly a source of religious conviction. Some may compare it in its own sphere with the practical assumption of the scientist that the universe is governed throughout by discoverable law. They may even claim it to be a kind of divination of the nature and existence of God. To the scientific mind this so-called divination is at best an assumption which can in no way be confirmed; the thoughts into which it is articulated are manifestly fallacious; and the emotions are merely so many psychological events to be scientifically explained. The religious and scientific points of view are fundamentally opposed. There seems no hope of a reconciliation unless from a philosophy which is at least not unwilling to consider what can be said or believed about the universe as a whole and about the different points of view from which it can be contemplated.