Since I last spoke here Civilization has received a shock under which it is still staggering. For four years and more1
its whole machinery was dislocatednot less in the region of speculative effort and scientific discovery than in that of economic production and social life. Universities depleted, Professors devoted to war work, Science immersed in destructive invention, the voice of philosophy almost stilledstudents flocking to the trenches to fight and diesuch for four years was the tragic spectacle with which we all became so unhappily familiar. That, in such circumstances, the authorities of this great University, engaged as they were in reknitting the broken threads of academic life, should have desired me, even before peace was signed, to complete the half-finished series of my Gifford Lectures, is a rare and most valued compliment.
The task, however, has been delayed by many causes and beset with many difficulties besides those inherent in the subject. Some of these were personal, some were connected with University arrangements, but not least among them is the interval which has separated the first set of lectures from the second. Brief though the period may seem in retrospect, these tremendous years have dug a chasm between the past and present, more profound than any due to the mere revolution of the seasons. Even those here to-day who were among my kindly auditors in the spring of 1914 can hardly be expected to retain any very clear recollection of the argument which in Theism and Humanism I endeavoured to lay before them. To most of you who hear me for the first time even the faint assistance of these war-worn memories is denied; and for them at least it is necessary that I should begin the new course by a brief explanation of the point of view developed in the oldfor it is this point of view which supplies the centre round which all the following discussions will turn.
There was a phrase much in favour a generation ago, though less heard in recent yearsthe conflict between theology and science. This sometimes referred, of course, to the modifications which textual criticism, historical research, increasing knowledge of paleontology, anthropology, and comparative religions were thought to require in the ordinary presentation of religious doctrines; sometimes, and more fundamentally, to the alleged incompatibility of natural law and supernatural governance. With these matters I am not for the moment concerned. What I desire to speak of now is a more subtle form of antagonism, comparatively recent in origin, and largely due to the sheer increase in the range and depth of our scientific outlook. We all know, but we do not always remember, how great this increase isand how modern. The ancients no doubt laid important foundations in mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, and anatomy. But they were foundations merely. For say sixteen hundred years2
or more after they were laid, no important superstructure was attempted. Much was known of the practical arts of lifeof architecture, road-making, ship-building, navigation, agriculture, medicine. But of the system of nature regarded as a vast and complex web of interrelated causes and effects, reaching outwards into unlimited space, and backwards through unlimited time, the ancients knew but little, and their mediaeval successors knew still less. These were interested in the marvels of the material world, but cared little for its laws: so that after (say) the death of Ptolemy, philosophy, theology, and ethics had no serious rival in the minds and interests of thinking men. Even the cosmic theories of the Stoics, or the atomism of the Epicureans, were little more than the material setting of their ethical systems, and whether true or false, were neither arrived at nor supported by any process of experiment or calculation which the modern man of science would for one moment admit to be scientific.
Now no one is, I suppose, inclined to minimise the prodigious change which, since the Renaissance, scientific discovery has made with ever accelerating speed, not merely in the social and economic conditions of mankind, but also in their cosmic outlook. Yet I think that there is one result of this movement not always sufficiently consideredperhaps because it cannot be properly described as a growth either in knowledge or in power, and is emotional rather than intellectual or practical in quality. I may best indicate its character by reminding you that the physical universe now supplies what it hardly supplied before, an object capable of absorbing the interest and filling the imagination of the greatest among mankind. It was not always so. If five hundred years ago a man experimented in chemistry, it was to turn lead into gold. If he studied the stars, it was to tell fortunes for a patron. But if he was a student and a thinker, a lover of knowledge for its own sake, a searcher after truth because it was truth, he had little choice but to be a scholastic theologian or a heterodox philosopheruntil, indeed, the revival of learning permitted him, if he preferred it, to turn grammarian or commentator. He was unable, like the modern student, to steep himself to the lips in the knowledge of Naturenot merely, or chiefly, because he would probably have been burnt had he made the attempt, but because the attempt was at that time inherently impracticable. No massive body of natural science was then in being; nor came it into being till the modern era was far advanced. Remember that even the eighteenth century, the era of complacent enlightenment, which piqued itself on substituting science for superstition and reason for enthusiasm, enjoyed but a comparatively narrow outlook on matter and on man. The nineteenth century was well on its way before the wave theory of light and the atomic constitution of matter were effectively appropriated by science. Electromagnetism made no great progress till its third decade. The conservation of energy was not thoroughly established till near 1850. The Origin of Species was not announced till nine years later. The message of the spectroscope was not scientifically interpreted till 1860, and it would, I suppose, be correct to say that men of science did not habitually think in terms of evolution till well into the second half of the Victorian epoch. The modern theories of atomic structure, the fundamental explanations of matter and of mass, are the work of investigators still in the prime of life.
It is evident, I think, even from this summary survey that in the twentieth century we look out upon a natural world incomparably richer, more varied, more interesting, and more impressive than did Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, Copernicus in the sixteenth, Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth, or Cavendish and Lavoisier in the eighteenth.
We need not be scientific experts to realise how far experimental fact has surpassed the most extravagant fancy in ministering to our appetite for wonders. And if this be true of our knowledge of nature, something like it is true of our knowledge of man. To be sure our acquaintance with his unwritten history is trifling even now. The distribution and characteristics of existing races; the evidences of ancient migrations; rare ruins of unknown antiquity; some weapons, ornaments, and tools; a few bones; the graves where prehistoric man was buried; the pictured caves wherein he dwelt; the remains of animals on which he fed, constitute, I suppose, the main legacy left us by countless generations of our human predecessors. The story which these and other relics tell us is meagre enough; but at least they prove that there is a very long story to tell. Even three or four generations ago history meant the biography of a few favoured peoples through a few hundred years, drawn largely from annals imperfectly sifted, and legends sometimes too greedily swallowed, sometimes too hastily despised. But with the recent growth of knowledge we have at least gained some faint notion of the scale of thingswe can conjecture the sort of temporal relation which the brief flashlight of documentary history bears to the long-drawn darkness of man's unrecorded past, and which this, in its turn, bears to the aeons lightly played with by the geologist and the astronomer. The id lest of us may now enjoy a glimpse into an historical perspective denied, in the time of our great-grandfathers, to a Gibbon or a Niebuhr.
Bearing all these things in mind, I suggest to you that some part at least of the alleged conflict between Theology and Science is not a collision of doctrine, but a rivalry of appeal; and that so far as Science, or rather scientific Naturalism, is concerned, the strength of that appeal is largely modern. For without professing dogmatic agnosticism, may not the scientific student speak somewhat as follows to one who is defending the theistic point of view? You truly tell me (he might say) that man at his best cannot live content in the narrow prison-house of here and now. He longs for commerce with the infinite; and to meet his needs you give him a Deity who is endowed with all the attributes which, in your view, can excite admiration and reverencewho is omnipotent, just, and loving. You may be right and, in any case, I acknowledge that no such perfections belong to the Natural Universe which absorbs my interest and moves my admiration. But is not your Deity somewhat remote and his reality somewhat doubtful? May I not be properly content with an object which, while certainly real and certainly present, is infinite in its magnitude, inexhaustible in its variety, and beyond comprehension in its fulness? Do not its marvels sate our imagination, its riddles baffle our intellect, its beauties shame our art? Will not this suffice?
If you tell me that amid all these wonders little room is found for reason or for righteousness; that beyond the infinitesimal circuit of one small planet, and an infinitesimal fraction of measurable time, we have no scientific ground for supposing that reason and righteousness exist at all, why should I dissent? You may say, if you will, that to a well-trained imagination the worth of one conscious spirit outweighs the worth of an infinity of material worlds. It may be so. For myself I make no attempt to compare these incomparables. Yet I cannot treat the universe, though in the main it be no more than brute matter, as of small account. Mere size, as such, possesses quality as well as quantity; and to me the vast fabric of unthinking Nature, quite apart from its complexity and its mystery, seems, even in quality, sublime.
True, it is not moral. There are those to whom it seems immoral. But, nevertheless, it may be a fitting nurse of the most admirable virtues. To devote days and nights to the pursuit of truth, to be sustained in this arduous endeavour by the hope that when truth is found it may conduce, as Bacon prophesied, to the relief of man's estate, is an object great enough to satisfy our noblest aspirations. And though as knowledge grows the importance of man seems proportionately to shrink, though his history, seen in due perspective, is but a negligible episode in the endless flow of cosmic change, this also may provide a fit incentive to the exercise of the Stoic virtues. Dependent on a world which is indifferent or hostile, sustained by no glowing hopes for his future or for the future of his race, he may yet, in the practice of unrewarded worth, possess in patience his unconquerable soul.
So might a scientific student speak, with no prejudice against Theism, but doubtful whether it is now more than an incongruous relic of a vanishing past, not to be forced without violence into the framework of modern knowledge.
His appeal, we must admit, has weighta weight which is not likely to diminish as time goes on. Consciously or unconsciously it moves vast numbers amongst the educated and half-educated dwellers in many lands, the nominal adherents of many religions. The man who is troubled about miracles, the man who stumbles over the Higher Criticism, the man who is repelled by the traditional forms in which religion is enshrined, or wearies of the well-worn phrases in which it is familiarly expounded, turns instinctively for relief to the newest learning. There he hopes to find a creed unembarrassed by haunting perplexitiesa creed logical, lucid, convincing. Bare it may be of the spiritual elements which purify and console; but at least it is moulded upon visible realities, it conforms to unsophisticated reason, it proudly claims to be scientific, and stands unshaken on experience.
In my judgment he is mistaken; he will find no such creed. And I see no simpler method of proving this than by taking his own reflective beliefs about Nature, Morality, and Beauty, and showing him that their values cannot be maintained unless we are prepared to pass beyond themthat unless they be transcended they must surely wither. This way of approaching the world problems can hardly give us a philosophy; but it need not on that account be despised by philosophers, while it may perhaps appeal to some members of that not inconsiderable multitude who think that metaphysical speculation is even less worth the attention of serious persons than popular theology itself.