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Lecture Sixth. The Idea of God as the Beginning and the End of Knowledge.

Mr. Spencer's way of Reaching Infinite by Abstraction — Its Likeness to the Method of the Mystics — Logical Error of Mysticism — Necessity of Combining Synthesis with Analysis — That the Development of Knowledge is Organic, and therefore at once Progressive and Regressive — The Idea of God as the Ultimate Principle — Kant's Three Ideas as at once the Presuppositions and Objects of Knowledge — That Principles are not necessarily Objects of Faith as opposed to Knowledge — Illustration from Ethics — God as the First Principle and the Ultimate Object of Knowledge.

WE have now considered the main elements of Mr. Spencer's view of religion, and of the relations of the religious idea to experience. We have seen that in his view, the essence of religion lies in a ‘consciousness’ of the infinite which can never become knowledge, and that, on the other hand, what we call knowledge is for him a double consciousness of the finite which can never be brought into harmony with itself. The finite is thus supposed to be presented to us in two independent modes of inner and outer experience, which confront each other in irreconcilable opposition, so that it is impossible either to reduce one of them to the other, or to explain both as the forms of a higher principle. In opposition to this view, I endeavoured to show that the two modes of finite experience of which Mr. Spencer speaks, the consciousness of the objective world and the consciousness of our own subjective life, are essentially related to each other; and, indeed, that neither of them has any meaning or content apart from this relation. Consequently, every step we make in the knowledge of either is a step in the knowledge of the other, and also of the principle of unity which is presupposed in both. Thus our intelligence—as indeed is implied in its being a self-conscious intelligence—moves in a continual cycle; and all the knowledge it can gain either in the experience of the outer or of the inner life, must ultimately cast new light upon the principle from which it starts. God, or the infinite, is the presupposition of all our rational life, and, therefore, the knowledge of God is the final goal to which it tends.

In order to give a little further illustration to this theme, which is of fundamental importance in the philosophy of religion, it may be useful again to call attention to the defect in Mr. Spencer's method which leads him to an opposite result, and makes him regard the infinite, which he acknowledges to be the presupposition of all knowledge, as in itself unknowable. MR. Spencer, as I have already pointed out, accepts the principle of Spinoza that “determination is negation.” Under the conditions of human thought, it is impossible to determine what anything is, except by the negative process of distinguishing it from other things, i.e. of saying what it is not; and a negative process as Mr. Spencer thinks, is necessarily one which is always carrying us farther and farther away from the positive nature, or real being of things. Hence it follows that, in order to reach that reality which is without negation, that absolutely real being which is beyond and beneath all other being, we must invert this process and get rid of those determinations that hide it from us. Our regress upon the infinite is thus a process of abstraction, in which we strip away all the determinations of the finite; and the infinite upon which regress is made is simply the pure ‘being,’ the abstraction of bare position or affirmation, which remains when we have taken away all distinction and relation from its simple unity with itself. As in the dawn of Greek philosophy the Eleatics reduced the content of philosophy to the simple principle that ‘all is one,’—as if, in the all-embracing intuition of the whole, every difference was lost or submerged; so Mr. Spencer lets every distinction of the finite, even the last distinction of self and not-self, drop away, and rests in the emptiness of the infinite, as if it alone were the reality of all realities.

Now we should scarcely have expected to find Saul among the prophets, or an apostle of modern science among the mystics. But the great error of mysticism was just this, that it thought to reach the deepest reality, the absolute truth of things, by the via negativa, the way of abstraction and negation; in other words, that it tried to approach the infinite by turning its back upon the finite, and not by seeking more thoroughly to understand the finite. Hence the mystics supposed that the highest idea—that which comes closest to the truth of things—must necessarily be that which has least content; and they treated pure being, the simplest of all abstractions, as representing something more real than is to be found in any specific form of existence. To them, this simplest of all thoughts seemed to have a depth of mysterious significance which no other thought could claim; and when they were baffled in the effort to fathom this self-made mystery, they immediately proceeded to explain their failure by the limitations of the human mind, and the unsearchableness of God. In truth, they were “seeking the living among the dead.” The astronomer who denied the existence of God, because he had swept the heavens with his telescope and had not been able to find Him, was a wise man compared with those who supposed that He was hidden in the emptiest of all our ideas, and who blamed the weakness of their mental vision, because they could not find Him there. For, of a truth, there is no mystery of any kind in the idea of ‘being’ in the abstract, except its abstractness, i.e. its imperfection. But this imperfection or incompleteness is such, that, whenever we think of it, we are forced to go beyond it, and to give it some farther determination or characterisation, in order that we may bring it nearer to our thought. Strained to this extreme of abstraction, our thought springs back like a bent bow, and seeks to fill up the void with matter. But this means not that ‘pure being’ is incomprehensible, but rather that it is only too easily comprehensible: not, indeed, as an independent reality which is complete in itself, but as an element in a greater whole, which we may distinguish but cannot separate from its other elements. To attempt to fix it in abstraction is therefore to deprive it of whatever meaning it has. And to complain that when we have thus isolated it, we cannot discover in it the fulness of reality—which we naturally expect the highest principle of thought and reality to possess—or to blame the human mind for its incapacity to see such fulness in it, is to shut our eyes and complain that darkness is not visible. It is not the weakness, but the strength of the intelligence that prevents it from treating a part as if it were a whole, a relative term as if it existed apart from everything else.

And this leads me to say that the error of mysticism—the supposition that the via negativa, the way of abstraction, will lead to the highest truth, or indeed to any truth at all—is one of the most pernicious errors in philosophy. Abstraction or analysis is an element in scientific method, but taken by itself it will produce nothing but a mere external arrangement of things by genera and species—what is called in logic a ‘tree of Porphyry,’the tree that of all others best realises the nursery rhyme: “This is the tree that never grew.” Only in so far as the comparison of many facts enables us to detect in them a principle of unity which dominates all their difference and explains it, can abstraction lead to any valuable result. The abstracting or analytic process, by which unity is separated from difference, is nothing without the synthetic process, by which unity is discerned in difference, as the principle which at once originates and overcomes it. The true method, therefore, is a method which combines analysis and synthesis in one, and which moves forward by a perpetual systole-diastole, at once towards a higher unity of thought and towards a more complete determination and articulation of all the facts embraced under it. It is, as Mr. Spencer himself has done much to show, a process both of differentiation and of integration; and its aim is to make knowledge not merely a system, but an organic system, in which every part is seen in its due relation to the other parts, because it is seen to be determined by the one principle which gives life to the whole. In this process abstraction and analysis have undoubtedly a great part to play: for what science and philosophy want is to rise from the particular to the universal; or, in other words, to reduce to one simple explanation many facts which previously have lain scattered and unrelated. But this simplification is valuable only because it enables us to see our way through many details and complexities which have hitherto resisted all the efforts of our thought, but which become pliant and intelligible to him who has grasped the law of their variation. If, after we have reached such a universal or law, such a simple explanation of many complex phenomena, we are sometimes at liberty to dismiss many of the particular details from our memory, and to regard ourselves as possessing in the law the substance and kernel of them all, this is only because in the law we have a clue to guide us to the particulars which at any tune it may seem necessary to verify. For the claim of any law or principle to be regarded as representing the truth of things in a higher degree than any of the particulars that fall under it, lies not in its abstractness, but rather in its concreteness, i.e. in the fact that it is the brief abstract or quintessence of many particulars; that, in short, it is the fertile source to which may be traced and by which may be explained, not only the particular effects whence our first knowledge of it was derived, but an indefinite number of other effects which were not at first present to us.

Now all this has a definite application to our subject. For, if it be true that the necessary method of our thought is synthetic as well as analytic, that, in other words, its object is to bring many particulars to a focus in one thought, and so to detect the one simple principle that underlies all their difference, then the universal, the one in the many, cannot be taken as a mere product of our own mind, but must be regarded as the most real of all things, and indeed as the source of all other reality. And this must above all apply to the object of religion, which Mr. Spencer calls by the name of the infinite. If the infinite, as he maintains, is the ultimate unity to which all things must be referred, and if the consciousness of it underlies all our knowledge, it cannot be right to take it as an empty abstraction or generality, which in itself is indeterminate and incapable in any way of determining itself. If our consciousness is necessarily one with itself in all its difference, and if the factors that make it up, the objective and the subjective consciousness, are necessarily bound together, so that one of them cannot be conceived without the other, then the idea which, as Mr. Spencer confesses, is the keystone of this unity, the principle that makes it one consciousness, cannot be empty and indeterminate. On the contrary, as it is implied in all our other consciousness, and as it is that which gives unity to all our other consciousness, so it must, be the most fertile of all principles—that by which all other principles must ultimately be explained, and without reference to which, no other explanation can finally satisfy us. Just because it is the primary truth upon which all our intellectual and practical life is built, it must be that which casts light upon everything, and upon which everything reflects back light. If it is the most universal of ideas, it must at the same time be the one which is fullest of meaning and that which, indeed, is continually fertile of new meanings; for its universality means not merely that it excludes nothing, but that it includes and explains everything. In a sense such a universal may be beyond knowledge; not, however, because it is too vague and general for definite thought, but for the opposite reason, that it is inexhaustible. It hides itself, if at all, not in darkness but in light. It is the ground on which we stand, the atmosphere which surrounds us, the light by which we see and the heaven that shuts us in. It is not only in all, but to all, and through all.

Intra cuncta nec inclusus,

Extra cuncta nec exclusus.”

But, just for that reason, everything we know is a contribution to the knowledge of it, and nothing can he really known apart from it. For if it be true that our intelligence is organic, it cannot grow but by the evolution of its first principle, and every differentiation of its organs and functions must bring with it, or after it, a new integration; which in this case means a deepening knowledge of the principle itself.

Perhaps I may make this point a little clearer by saying that the growth of knowledge, and the development of our intelligence that goes with it, is at once a progressive and a regressive process. By this I mean that the effort which gives rise to all science and philosophy—to find the unity of law under the difference of facts, and the unity of a higher principle under the difference of laws—is an effort to verify and realise in detail that which, by our nature as rational beings, we practically assume front the first. The earliest writer who pointed definitely to this view, though he did not fully express it, was Kant. Kant said that the impulse which stimulates us to seek knowledge, and the principle that guides us in acquiring it, are both ultimately due to three ideas bound up with all our consciousness—the ideas of the world, the self, and God. These ideas are the first presuppositions of our intelligence, and at the same time they mark out the highest ends at which that intelligence can aim. We assume, to begin with, the unity of the world in all the diversity of its phenomena, or rather we go upon the tacit assumption of it; for even to the most uncultured intelligence it is one world, in one space and one time. Yet to demonstrate the unity of the world, to exhibit the necessary interconnexion of all its changing phases, the reciprocal relations of all its parts and laws, is the last goal of science. We assume, again, the identity of the self through all its various and constantly changing stream of thoughts and feelings; for no rational being can think of there being more than one self, one centre of consciousness within him. The very conception of a “varied many-coloured self,” as Kant once put it, i.e. of a self which is not an absolute unity through all the diversity of its experience, would involve a scepticism fatal to all thought or knowledge. Yet to work out this apparently simple presupposition of all our life—to show the identity of the self as realised in all the diversity of its powers, and maintained through all the changes of its intellectual and moral history—is the never perfectly attained goal of all psychology. Lastly, the intercourse of the soul with the world always presupposes an ultimate unity, a principle which is revealed in all their difference and which overcomes it; and the consciousness of this unity has underlain all the religious life of man in all ages. Yet to make intelligible in detail the complete correlation of the inner and the outer life, and to show how the ever renewed conflict and reconciliation of the self and the world become the means to the realisation of that principle of unity, which is continually Working in both, would be to attain the highest aim of all Philosophy and Theology; it would be to perfect religion and bring it to complete self-consciousness.

These ideas are thus at once the beginning and the end of our rational life. At first, therefore, they are rather presupposed than distinctly thought of or expressed: or, at least, the thought and expression of them are for a long time very inadequate and incomplete. At first, they seem too near to man, to be in any proper sense known to him. Just because they are one with the very existence of his intelligence, he takes them for granted without thinking of them, or believes in them on evidence which is altogether insufficient. He accepts them without criticism, in any shape in which they may be presented to him, and without discerning their real character and meaning. Yet from the first they show their presence in his spirit by the efforts which they force him to make, to discover some kind of self-consistent explanation of his life and of the world in which he lives, and to connect both with some power which he represents as divine. It is, however, only through a long process of development that the influence of these ideas makes itself felt in restraining and guiding the wayward movement of phantasy, by which the first naïve answer is given to the questions of the immature intelligence. And a still longer process is necessary before such imaginative solutions of imperfectly conceived problems can give place to definite canons of scientific method, and definite efforts of philosophic reflexion, to grasp the ultimate truths of reason. Yet every step toward the conception of the world or of any part of it as a system, every step toward the comprehension of the unity of the intelligence in all the variety of its activities, every step toward a rational view of the relation between the intelligence and the intelligible world, is a step toward the verification and, in an etymological sense, the demonstration of the principles of unity presupposed in the whole process. The process of knowledge is therefore, as has been said, at once a progressive and a regressive process. It is an advance towards a completer synthesis of the ever increasing multiplicity of phenomena which are presented to us in experience, and at the same time it is a new return upon the principle or principles of unity which are presupposed even in the simplest perception of these phenomena. Thus every movement of scientific or philosophic synthesis, as it is the reduction of a manifold to a simple form, is the recovery of the unity of the intelligence out of the dispersion of facts; and it is therefore a practical verification of the presumption of unity involved in our first apprehension of them. In advancing towards a completer view of things, in bringing more and more of the facts of the universe within his thought, man is not, so to speak, losing himself in the object, or taking into his mind an alien matter: he is only providing the appropriate nutriment for his growing intelligence. For the facts which he appropriates in knowledge are by the same process transmuted into the substance of the mind that grasps them, and so become the means to the development of the ideas which constitute it as a mind. Thus all experience is a process by which we discover what is really meant in, or implied by, the consciousness of the world, of self, and of God—the three ideas which, in their unity and difference, form the circle within which our spiritual life always revolves.

A farther light may be cast on this subject, if we bring it into connexion with a familiar controversy in relation to the first principles of knowledge. Mr. Spencer's assertion that the absolute or infinite is unknowable, though the idea of it is presupposed in all other knowledge, may remind us of the old argument of the sceptics that the principles of knowledge must be matters of faith, because we cannot go beyond them or explain them by anything else. We cannot, it was argued, know the principles of knowledge, as we know other things by their means. We explain facts by tracing them to other facts as their causes, but how can we ask for any cause for the principle of causality itself? We call say that there must be a for any consequent, but how can we speak of a reason for our requirement of reasons? The effort to prove the principles of knowledge seems necessarily to involve a petitio principii. Hence it is not unnaturally maintained that these principles are unknowable, and that the intelligence, which in all its action is guided by them, can never turn upon them or seek for any evidence for their truth.

Now there is an answer which has been sometimes given to this objection, and which is good so far as it goes, but not, I think, quite satisfactory. It may be said—it is already said by Aristotle—that the principles of knowledge cannot be less truly known than what we apprehend by means of them. The old lady who, being afraid that an insecure bridge would break down under her, got herself carried over in a sedan chair, might give a lesson to those who think that what is known through a principle can be better known than the principle itself. The principles of knowledge are not like the tortoise which supports the world, but which requires something else to support itself. For there is no space beneath them into which anything could fall. By the very nature of the case they are the boundaries of the intelligible universe. If we cannot know them, it is only in the sense in which we cannot see light, because there is nothing else than light to see it by. If Diogenes used a lamp at noon-day, at least it was not to seek for the sun. The proof of the principles of knowledge can only be what Kant called a “transcendental deduction,” i.e. it can only be a regressive argument which shows that every other truth depends upon them, and must be proved by means of them. All experience goes on the assumption of them, whether that assumption be made consciously or unconsciously; and, if they are not true, there is nothing true. No argument from fact can possibly be brought against that on which all facts rest. But as little can a direct argument for them be based on any fact. The sceptic is to be refuted only by showing that there is no place left on which he can erect his batteries.

This reply is good so far as it goes; but it is not quite satisfactory. For it would naturally lead to a conception of the process of knowledge as twofold in character; as consisting, on the one hand, in a process of reasoning back to certain principles, and, on the other hand, in a process of using these principles to connect facts, and so reasoning forward by means of them to new results. On this view the method of philosophy, which seeks to establish first principles, would be essentially different from the method of science, which seeks, on the basis of these principles, to determine the relations of phenomena to each other. Knowledge would be imaged to us as a line with a fixed beginning and no end. Before us would lie an infinite series of results which we Might go on gradually bringing within the sphere of our knowledge, but behind us would lie only certain simple principles, and perhaps finally only one principle, of which we could learn nothing more after we had once apprehended its meaning. Now this idea of knowledge is, I think, based on a false analogy. For every increase in our knowledge, at the same time that it opens to us a new prospect, and brings within our view a new field of experience, also throws new light upon the meaning of the first principles on which science is based. Aspice, respice, prospice. Every advance in scientific knowledge, while it involves a new comprehension of the facts present to us in our experience, involves also, as has often been remarked, a prophecy of the future. But, moreover—what has been less often considered—it involves a retrospect, or as Plato called it a reminiscence, of something that has been from the beginning. This reminiscence is, however, no mere recollection; for it enables us to see the meaning of the past in a way we did not see it while we were in it; in other words, it supplies us with a new interpretation of the principles on which we have all along been proceeding. Hence the true image of our growing knowledge of the world and of ourselves is to be found in the development of a germ, which shows what is in itself the more fully and clearly the more material it assimilates from the outward world, and which, while adapting itself to its environment, is continually increasing the sphere of its own life. What is implied in an advance of science is not merely that we derive new conclusions from old premises, or that we reduce new facts under the same old principles, but that we come to see the old principles themselves under a new aspect, just because we go back upon them from a widened view of the world. Why do we count a knowledge of the particular laws of nature higher and more valuable than a knowledge of the facts that fall under them? It is not only because it gives us a clearer apprehension of these facts and a greater command over them, but also because these laws stand nearer to the highest principles of our thought, and throw a more direct light upon them. Thus, all the knowledge of particular causes which we acquire, is a contribution towards a better knowledge of the principle of causality, and of its place in relation to other principles as an explanation of reality; and ultimately every discovery of a special law of causation has its main value in throwing light on this higher problem. For, indeed, the settlement of this problem means nothing less than the determination of the limit, if there be a limit, to the mechanical view of the world.

This truth, i.e. that the highest end of a science is the developed knowledge of its principle, may be further illustrated by reference to the science of ethics, For, as Socrates showed, there are certain primary conceptions involved in all our moral judgments; and these conceptions when analysed resolve themselves into different aspects of the idea of a summum bonum or highest end, for which all rational beings exist and act. Now all our effort to comprehend the facts of the moral life is useful mainly as it helps us to develop this idea, and to bring to a clearer consciousness all the elements that are contained in it. Thus, the science of morals returns upon the principle which is involved in the moral consciousness, and its highest value is just that it enables us to define that principle. Its advance is a cyclical movement, which yet is not a circulus vitiosus, because the circle is a complete one, that does not leave outside of it any fact with which morals is concerned; but a mind that has consciously traversed the circle stands in an entirely new attitude to the principle, and may be said to possess it in quite a different sense from one that has not done so. Although, therefore, the process proves nothing outside of itself, yet it is a real development of thought; and this, of itself, is the highest kind of proof of the principle in which the development begins and ends.

Now this truth has its highest application in relation to the idea of God, as the principle of unity in all consciousness; especially if we consider that idea in connexion with the subordinate ideas of self and notself, which constitute its primary difference. In one sense, the boundaries of knowledge remain always the same; for the identity of the self, the manifoldness of the world, and the principle of unity-in-difference which manifests itself in both—these three ideas, in their opposition to, and their connexion with each other—form a circle from which thought call never escape. But, in another sense, each and all of these ideas are new in every age, not only because new material is continually being brought within the circle so described, but because the assimilation of that material is at the same time the process by which the nature of the circle becomes manifested, and its boundaries even more clearly defined. Thus the permanence of the three great limiting ideas by which our whole life, theoretical and practical, is governed, does not exclude the vicissitudes of a long process of development, in which each of them takes into itself the most varied content, and becomes in a sense transformed by assimilating it. But the transformation is always organic, always held within the limits of the identity of one life; and its last result is therefore only a more adequate consciousness of the meaning and relative value of the ideas by which it was guided and stimulated in all its progress. Thus what, in one point of view, are the starting points and first presuppositions of knowledge, are in another point of view to be regarded as the ultimate truths in which the whole process of knowing finds its terminus. We cannot say a single rational word without expressing or implying a principle of unity which manifests itself in and through the difference of self and the world; and the utmost goal of all our knowledge, nay, we may say of our whole rational life, is to discover what is contained in that principle. Self, Not-self, God—these three ideas—mark out the sphere within which the movement of our spirits is confined; and all that we can attain by the utmost effort of our spirits is to realise a little more clearly what we mean by the Self, by the Not-self, and by God.

The general result of what has just been said is that the process of knowledge is not the mechanical building up of a structure upon foundations that are once for all fixed and secure, but that it is the development of a germ which never acids anything to itself without transubstantiating it or changing it into its own form; and which turns the outward conditions of its environment, even those that seem at first to be most unfavourable, into an opportunity for the exercise of its own powers, and the expression of its own life. But such development involves a continual new return upon itself, upon the principle of unity that was hid in the germ, so that in all its expansion it may be said to be only becoming more truly itself.

Now what is the germ in this case, in the case of the conscious or rational life of man? It is obviously nothing else than the principle of unity whish shows itself in the opposition and connexion in all the conflict and reconciliation of self and not-self; and that, as we have seen is just what is implied in the idea of God. Of course, as I have already repeated more than once, it is not meant that all religion, or indeed any religion which is not reflective, is clearly or fully conscious of this unity in all our consciousness of objects and of ourselves, which continually lifts men above the finite, or forces them to seek for something stronger, higher, better, something which contrasts with immediate reality and is regarded as more real than it. It is only the presence of the unity, the totality, the infinite, in man's consciousness that can awaken even a suspicion of the imperfect, the limited, the partial character of his finite existence. But if this infinite, as Mr. Spencer rightly holds, is the beginning of consciousness, the presupposition of everything else, if it is for us the first principle of all knowing and being, them, by the very nature of the case, it must be also the last principle of which all our existence and all the existence of the world to which we belong, is the manifestation, and of which all our thoughts and science is the interpretation. In this sense it is no mere pious metaphor, but a simple expression of the facts to say, that all our life is a journey from God to God, and that in Him we live and move and have our being. All our secular consciousness can only be the explication or, if we prefer the Spencerian word, the differentiation, of the primitive unity presupposed alike in consciousness and self-consciousness, and all that it can achieve by his activity is, so to speak, to furnish materials for the religious consciousness. In other words, the results of the process must be ultimately reinterpreted in the light of the unity which they presuppose; and they cannot but remain imperfect and abstract till they have received this reinterpretation. Let us state as broadly as we please the facts of man's ignorance, his error, or his sin; let us darken as we please the picture of his thoughtlessness, his immersion in the finite, his sensuality that enslaves him to the world, his vanity that shuts him up in himself—and we cannot easily exaggerate any one of these things—yet it is not for a moment to be supposed that he can escape form God, or cease to live in Him. How the divine unity can be consistent with the free play of the life of man may be a hard problem, but in our anxiety about its solution, let us not forget the conditions of the problem itself. Man is free, in so far as he is free, just because he partakes of the divine nature, i.e. because he cannot be conscious of himself except in relation to God; and if he could cut the bond of union, neither the consciousness nor the problem of freedom could exist for him at all. To see all things in god is thus not the pious dream of an idealist philosophy. In what other light could we see them, but either that of the unity which is the light of all our seeing, or of some principle which is a secondary consequence of that unity? To act with God as our end may seem to be a rare and exceptional thing, but in so far as He is the end which is beyond all other ends, and in so far as the satisfaction of the self that is within us can only be found in the attainment of this absolute end, we may fairly say that all action is ultimately a seeking for God. As Plato said, there is no man who does not desire the good, and is not unwillingly deprived of it, As St. Augustine said: “Thou halt made us for Thyself, and our souls are ever restless till they rest in Thee.”