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Part II: Natural Theology: For Freedom

Lecture VI: Creation


In the first series of his Gifford Lectures Dr. Webb asked what relation the myths of Plato bore to his philosophy and answered the question as follows:

The myth is not concerned, strictly speaking, with the same subject-matter as Philosophy, but rather takes the place of History, where a historical question in asked, but the materials for a historical answer are lacking.

How did the world come into being? How did society begin? What will happen to our souls after death? It is to such questions as these that Plato offers replies in the form of myths. Philosophy cannot answer such questions, any more than it can tell me where I dined this day last year or where I shall dine this day next year. For an answer to the former of these two inquiries I should consult my personal memory or my journal; and if I wished for information about something that happened before I was born, I should seek for the history books. But if what I want to know must have happened at a time whereof there is no record extant, what can I do? The best I can do, says Plato, is to frame a myth, a story which, if not the truth, will at any rate be like the truth. But this cannot merely mean that it is to be like what actually occurred, for ex hypothesi I do not know what did occur, and hence cannot tell what would be like it and what not.

What it means for Plato, however, is not doubtful. It means that the myth is to be in accord with those conclusions as to the general nature of things which I derive not from History but from Philosophy. Just as you could not tell me where and on what I dined this day last year, but could confidently assert that it was not in fairyland and not on nectar and ambrosia, so too we are sure that whatever took place in the unrecorded past must have been consistent with what we know to be the eternal nature of Reality; whatever we have reason to think is incompatible with the eternal nature of Reality we have reason to think did not occur in the past and will not occur in the future.1

This passage is the most illuminating commentary I know on the stories of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis. I understand from those who have studied the matter that the story in Chapter I comes down to us in the form which it took after the exile of the Israelites in Babylon in the sixth century B.C., while Chapter II contains an earlier, pre-exilic version. Both, in so far as they are narrative in character, in so far, that is, as they describe apparent happenings in this world of time and space, ‘take the place of history, where a historical question is asked, but the materials for a historical answer are lacking’. The question to be asked about them is to what extent they are ‘like the truth’ in the sense of being ‘consistent with what we know to be the eternal nature of Reality’. In view of what I have been saying in earlier lectures, this will mean to what extent they were in accordance with as much of the nature of eternal reality as had been revealed to our spiritual ancestors before and after the Babylonian Captivity.

Any attempt at a direct answer to that question belongs to a later stage in these lectures. What concerns us now is the source of the stories which have come down to us in their present form. The researches of Old Testament scholars have made it clear that they are drawn from the mythology current among the people for whom they were written, but have been revised so as to bring them in line with contemporary prophetic teaching about God. In other words, they gave for their day and generation the religious interpretation of the commonly accepted ideas about the origin of the universe and how this planet had arrived at its present condition.

The lesson to be drawn is that in order to be truly biblical theologians we should attempt to do for our day and generation what they did for theirs. We should not confuse the minds of our children by putting before them on Sunday a picture of the past completely different from that which they have been learning in school from Monday to Friday. Two things have happened since the compilation of the book Genesis. By the researches of historians and scientists some pages of the lost diary have been recovered: we may believe that the ideas about the past which we have to interpret are more like what actually occurred than were those which the biblical writers shared with their contemporaries. And we who are Christians believe that in Jesus Christ there has been given to us a fuller revelation of God than was known to the Old Testament prophets. For us the results of scientific and historical research take the place of the mythology presented to the writers of Genesis. What we have to try to do, if we would be biblical theologians, is to interpret them in the light of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

My task is now to set forth, as best I can, the material to be interpreted, leaving the development of its Christian interpretation for my second series of lectures next year. It is inevitable, however, that what I now say will give a description of what I see with the eye of a Christian believer, a description which involves an element of interpretation. That cannot be helped. As we have seen in previous lectures, every human utterance is coloured by the outlook of the speaker. All one can do is to avow one's standpoint, and thus give the hearers opportunity to discount one's discolouring.

I have just said that what corresponds to the commonly accepted mythology of the days in which Genesis was written are the commonly accepted results of scientific and historical research. If I now begin my description by calling our idea of creation evolutionary, I must take care to avoid misunderstanding, of the sense in which I use that term.

The word evolution first became widely current in these islands as a result of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Owing to the then prevalent ideas of revelation and of the authority of the Bible, and to the lack of the distinction between empirical fact and its interpretation brought out by Dr. Webb in his discussion of myths in Plato, it was commonly assumed, both by followers of Darwin and by their opponents, that acceptance of his evolutionary hypothesis involved disbelief in creation by God. This notion still lingers on, especially on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, with the result that to an American audience what I mean by the word ‘evolution’ might be better understood if I used the more cumbrous term ‘process character’. Again, I am no scientist: I have neither the wish nor the ability to express any opinion on questions concerning the mode of evolutionary development which may be at issue between Darwinians, Lamarckians, or other schools of scientific thought. Nor, thirdly, is my use of the word ‘evolution’ to be held to imply, with etymological strictness, that in the process of development the later stages have been contained within and unpacked from the former—a subject of which I have heard no better discussion than was given by Mr. Joseph in his Herbert Spencer Lecture of 1924.2 All that I mean to assert by saying that we have an evolutionary idea of creation is that we commonly take it for granted that the world of our experience has come into its present condition through a series of changes in which inorganic matter, organic matter, vegetable life, marine life, animal life and human life followed one another in chronological sequence. This is the view which I believe the researches of scientists require us to hold, which our children imbibe from their teachers at school through the week, which we must take as material for interpretation on Sunday.

‘In the history of European thought’, says Professor Collingwood in the book which I have found the most valuable of his published works, ‘there have been three periods of constructive cosmological thinking’. He then goes on to compare and contrast what he calls ‘The Modern View of Nature’ with those of ancient Greece and the Renaissance, summing up as follows:

Modern cosmology, like its predecessors, is based on an analogy. What is new about it is that the analogy is a new one. As Greek natural science was based on the analogy between the macrocosm nature and the microcosm man, as man is revealed to himself in his own self-consciousness; as Renaissance natural science was based on the analogy between nature as God's handiwork and the machines that are the handiwork of man…; so the modern view of nature, which first begins to find expression towards the end of the eighteenth century and ever since then has been gathering weight and establishing itself mote securely down to the present day, is based on the analogy between the processes of the natural world as studied by natural scientists and the vicissitudes of human affairs as studied by historians.

He then goes on to say that in the two earlier periods

The question was: How are we to find a changeless and therefore knowable something in, or behind, or somehow belonging to, the flux of nature-as-we-perceive-it. In modern or evolutionary natural science, this question does not arise.… Its presuppositions had undergone a revolutionary change by the beginning of the nineteenth century. By then historians had trained themselves to think, and had found themselves able to think scientifically, about a world of constantly changing human affairs in which there was no unchanging substrate behind the changes, and no unchanging laws according to which the changes took place. History had by now established itself as a science, that is, a progressive inquiry in which conclusions are solidly and demonstratively established. It had thus been proved by experiment that scientific knowledge was possible concerning objects that were constantly changing. Once more, the self-consciousness of man, in this case the corporate self-consciousness of man, his historical consciousness of his own corporate doings, provided a clue to his thoughts about nature. The historical conception of scientifically knowable change was applied, under the name of evolution, to the natural world.3

When I use the word evolution I use it in the same sense in which it was used by Collingwood in the last sentence I have quoted. When I say that it is natural to us to-day to have an evolutionary outlook, I mean that the world of our experience, of which in our thinking we have to try to make sense, presents itself to us as an observable series of changes in space and time. If I have rightly understood what has been going on in my own lifetime, there has been a change in the picture that is commonly taken for granted. When as a boy I first began to take an interest in the views of scientists, they seemed to describe the universe as a vast container within which material objects were moving about exchanging shares in a constant total supply of energy. Now the container has disappeared, and so has the ultimate distinction between the material objects and the energy. Fundamentally the universe appears to be a stream of energy flowing through space-time and getting itself differentiated into organisms of varying complexity. When the evolutionist, looking back over the process up to date, catalogues successive kinds of object as organic matter, vegetable, marine, animal and human life, he is distinguishing different forms, different modes of existence, into which the fundamental energy has become organized.

The question is not whether evolution in general is compatible with divine creation. It is whether the particular course which evolution has in fact taken is such that to interpret it by a doctrine of divine creation will enable us to make sense of it. Here one source of possible misunderstanding must be cleared out of the way at once.

In the last century the accepted notion of biblical revelation was not the only idea held in common by the disciples of Darwin and their opponents. All took for granted what Collingwood calls the renaissance idea of nature. ‘Natural science was based on the analogy between nature as God's handiwork and the machines that are the handiwork of man’. This had been most clearly exemplified in the teaching of the deists, for whom the universe had been manufactured, wound up, and set going by God acting in the manner of Paley's celestial watchmaker. In the minds of Christians who revised their picture in accordance with the requirements of scientific research, substituting an evolutionary process of differentiation for the assembling of separately manufactured species, there lingered the belief that if they were to think of evolution as God's creative activity, they must think of it as having originated in some single creative act which set the whole process in motion. This belief is not yet dead. If I understand them rightly, the question whether the evolutionary process derives from some definite and datable moment of beginning is a matter of debate among physicists, some of whom seem to think that on the answer depends the possibility of thinking of it as divine creation. In this they are mistaken. It should become clear in what follows that the question whether the space-time universe is God's creation is quite distinct from the question whether or no it had such a definite datable beginning. In raising the one I must not be thought to be concerned with the other.


What, then, is the question before us? To understand this we must take up the second of the two problems I mentioned briefly at the end of my third lecture, what I then called ‘the fundamental problem for all thinkers… that of the relation of time to eternity’.

Collingwood finds the clue to the contrast between our way of thinking and that of the Renaissance and of ancient Greece in our ‘conception of scientifically knowable change’. The Gifford Lectures of Samuel Alexander and John Laird both illustrate his meaning. These philosophers do not assume that in order to construct a metaphysic, in order, that is, to find an intelligible meaning in the universe of our experience, they must postulate an ‘unchanging substrate behind the changes’. For both of them, if the word creation were to be kept, it would not denote a relation between the universe and a transcendent Creator; it would mean that the observable history of the universe evinces developments that imply the inner working of something which it would be reasonable to call the principle of creativity, that the changing universe is ‘deiform’.

I am not myself convinced that this conception of scientifically knowable change involves as a corollary the resolution of substance into function. Collingwood holds that this is so,4 and in many quarters to-day it is taken for granted.5 To my mind Dr. Austin Farrer's Finite and Infinite6 shows that the matter is not so simple as this. It may be true of the world of sub-personal creatures as studied by the natural sciences. But the universe also contains men and women, and human personality is such that we have to recognize in it an element which persists as the subject of changes, for which the word substance is thus an appropriate term. We do not have to choose between the conceptions of substance and of scientifically knowable change. If we are to be genuine empiricists we must acknowledge within the world of our experience the existence of both: our aim must be to arrive at such an understanding of both that we can see how they fit in together so as to make sense.

I was saying in my last lecture that the history of human thought is the history of the truth seeking to find expression through minds conditioned by the outlook of their times and places.7 We study the work of our predecessors in the hope that we may be able to discount some of their discolourings, leaving it to those who shall come after us to discount our own. As we look back, we must be as eager to conserve what is of permanent worth as we are to revise what was of transient value. To call the problem before us the fundamental problem for all human thinkers implies that what is essentially the same problem appears in different forms in different ages. In its most general form it may be said to arise from asking the question whether this space-time universe, taken by itself, will make sense by satisfying the demand of our minds for a self-justifying whole.8 To those for whom there could be no scientifically knowable change the question took such forms as asking whether the fact of motion requires the postulate of a prime mover, or whether a world of finites wherein essence and existence are separable requires the postulate of an infinite reality in which or whom the two are one. Our starting-point is neither the fact of motion (as it might have been pictured to exist within the unmoving nineteenth-century container of energy), nor the unintelligibility of finitude. It is the conception of the universe of our experience as a stream of energy undergoing successive changes in space and time.

Our primary obligation is to grasp the nature of the process as accurately as we can, neither ignoring nor distorting any element in our account of it. But we cannot rest content with accepting the result as brute fact. If we are to justify the first steps we have ever taken towards trying to discover what happens and why, we cannot stop short in the effort to see how it fits into a pattern which is such that we are content to have it so. We cannot make an absolute divorce between judgments of value and judgments of fact, for in the long run the validation of every judgment of fact depends upon a judgment of values.

All that I have said in previous lectures of the nature of human thinking is equally true in both fields. In morals and aesthetics, as well as in science and philosophy, the history of human thought is the history of the truth seeking to make itself known to, and to find expression through, minds conditioned by the outlook of their time and place. For Christians, as for the prophets, advances in moral sensitiveness and moral insight bring a fuller grasp of God's revelation of Himself.9 The objectivity we can claim for our judgments of value is parallel to that which we can claim for our judgments of fact. To repeat what I have said before: we ‘accept what we can see with the eyes of twentieth-century Europeans, leaving whatever further purging and clarifying may be necessary to men of other climes and later ages. We may feel pretty sure that certain of our apprehensions are irreversible or irreformable, but such assurance is, strictly speaking, a matter of faith rather than of sight’.10

On the positive side, our moral judgments do undoubtedly claim an objectivity parallel to those of fact.11 I may quote Mr. Weldon:

I do not, therefore, mind saying that some political behaviour is obviously right, or wicked, or silly. ‘Obviously’ is used here in the way in which it is correctly used of observations made by people with normal eyesight in a good light. In these conditions it is pointless to ask ‘How do you know that this pillar-box is red?’ It seems to me equally pointless to ask: ‘How do you know that it is wicked to torture human beings or animals?’ But I think it is a mistake to use words like ‘intuition’ or ‘self-evident’ in describing such statements since these suggest that there is something odd about them which needs explanation. There is nothing odd about them at all. They are perfectly clear.12

Obvious and clear they may be to Mr. Weldon and most of his readers here. But what if there be men elsewhere for whom the political interests of the state provide the criterion for moral judgments?13 How are we to decide between them? There is no short cut—unless we are to adopt the totalitarian maxim that might is right, and end differences of opinion by enforcing silence on opposition. In morals, as in other fields of study, we must have patience enough to lay along side of one another our various judgments, explaining what we see and how it is that we see it so, and asking which view will best fit in with the rest of our experience to make sense of the whole.

We come back to the subject of our present inquiry, this universe which through the empirical study of the sciences is revealed to us as a stream of energy becoming organized into different kinds of existents as it flows through space and time. How are we to think of it in a way which will make sense? Can we get a point of view from which we can see that every detail of everything that happens or has happened fits in and makes a coherent intelligible pattern?

If this space-time universe, this developing process, be the whole of reality, I do not see how we can ever get beyond the acknowledging of it as brute fact. Change follows change, and it so happens that among the products of the process are we human beings, with our capacity to observe and think about what is going on, to make moral and aesthetic judgments. I can see that in such circumstances our observations of matters of fact, and generalizations based on them concerning the way in which things are likely to go on happening, might achieve a certain degree of objectivity. But I do not see how our judgments of value could ever be more than the expression of our own subjective tastes; and those the tastes of finite creatures conditioned, during the brief span of their existence, by the outlook of our time and place. In theory, the last word would rest with the existentialist; in practice, with the dictator.

How are we to find any ground for believing that when Mr. Weldon says that it is wicked to torture human beings or animals, or that it was wicked to send people to Belsen or Buchenwald, he is (to use his own words) ‘at least trying to make a reliable report about the world and not one about his own emotional condition’? How are we to have any grounds for holding that the accepted standards of morals or art in any one age or culture are either better or worse than those in another? If reality be nothing more than a process of change, how can it mean anything to say that there is either progress or retrogression, either improvement or deterioration?

Now suppose that, in order to answer such questions as these, we postulate the existence of an eternal perfect reality as the standard by which to judge things and events in space and time. At once two further questions arise: (i) How could we have the knowledge of such reality which would enable us to use it for the required standard? and (ii) Would belief in it solve our fundamental problem?

(i) We need not delay long over the first of these questions. The usefulness of the postulate does not depend on our having an impossible kind of knowledge. We clearly cannot use it as a standard in the same way as one might take a piece of cloth to a shop in order to match its material, texture, colour and design. What is meant by asserting the existence of an eternal perfect reality is that value judgments are attempts to apprehend an objective reality as it is partially and imperfectly revealed to us through particular things and events. It is simply another way of saying what I have already said: that to claim objectivity for judgments of value is to make an act of faith precisely parallel to that which we make in the case of judgments of fact. In my last lecture I was arguing that on such an act of faith depends our belief that we can have assured results in scientific, historical or any other kind of inquiry.14 When saying that advance in knowledge comes through men gifted with a flair for diagnosis I anticipated our present discussion by including as instances (along with Newton, Einstein, Lister and Pasteur) Michael Angelo and Beethoven. Let me once again make my fundamental act of faith that the history of human thought is the history of reality making itself known to us through human minds conditioned by the circumstances of their time and place. What I have now been saying is that in this process judgments of value are involved on a par with judgments of fact. Without this addition our judgments of fact might achieve that degree of objectivity which obliges us to acknowledge brute fact; we could not hope ever to arrive at the knowledge which will fully satisfy our desire for understanding, the knowledge that leads us to ask no further why what is should be so.

(ii) But will the acceptance of this postulate solve our fundamental problem? Will it enable us to make sense of the universe of our experience when that universe is thought of as a stream of energy flowing through space and time, manifesting itself in the things and events of the history of this world in which we play our part? Alas! no. We can no longer avoid facing the ultimate mystery of our existence, the mystery which no man can dispel, the question to which no human being has an adequate, an intellectually satisfying answer.

To justify our first step in attempting to understand the world we live in we have to assume that whatever is and happens fits together into a pattern that makes sense. If it is to make sense, the pattern must be logically self-consistent and of such intrinsic value that we welcome its existence and cease to ask further for reasons why it should be so. In order to have some ground for faith in the objectivity of our judgments we postulate the existence of an eternal, perfect reality. So far, so good. But now, if indeed there be this eternal, perfect reality, what on earth is the point of the existence of this space-time process at all? If it is in any way contributing to the fullness of being, or richness of content, of the postulated transcendent reality, then we are back where we were: the ultimate reality is in process of change, there is no knowing whether for better or for worse or what those words really ought to mean. If it is not, if in the long run nothing of eternal import shall have been accomplished through the history of this universe in space and time, then all the long ages of evolution, all the strugglings and strivings of human effort, our ‘life with all it yields of joy and woe and hope and fear’, are nothing but a sheer waste of time. In either case, nothing makes sense. Victory goes to the existentialists and the dictators, to Amaryllis and Neaera.

We can only avoid this dilemma by not thinking deeply enough to get down to it. If, for instance, we stop short where Freud bases the whole scientific outlook on the denial that there are any occurrences which fail to come within the causal sequence of things,15 we do not get beyond the contemplation of brute fact observed from outside. If, on the other hand, we assert the existence of a transcendent reality which is intelligible in virtue of its self-authenticating goodness, we are at a loss to see how this world and our life in it can be more than such stuff as dreams are made of. Useful work may be done in scientific research without raising ultimate questions about the intelligibility of the universe; the religious Platonist may not find in practice that his belief in the other world evacuates his earthly life of meaning. But the man who has been bitten by the bacillus philosophicus cannot help asking awkward questions that they have left unasked, and one question leads to another until he comes up against this one and finds it unanswerable.

The history of philosophy is the history of human thought wrestling with this problem. Idealists like Bradley, Bosanquet and Pringle-Pattison, for whom the intelligibly rational is the real, strive to find ways of upholding the importance of events in space and time. Others, like Alexander and Laird, for whom pre-eminently the space-time universe is the reality which they must seek to understand, strive equally hard to find ways of discovering and expounding its intelligibility.

It is against the background of this unsolved and so far insoluble problem that we have to see the Christian doctrine of creation. It has its place among other attempts to find a way of intelligibly relating this universe to an eternal perfect reality. Its irreducible difficulties are not peculiar to itself, the wanton products of incorrigible religious obscurantism. They are shared with its fellows, and are not to be resolved by abandoning the doctrine in favour of some alternative which is free from them. There is no such alternative. The only way of escape is to stop short of thinking deeply enough to discover that the reason why these doctrines or theories have these difficulties is because they are attempting to hold within their embrace the ultimate mystery of our existence, the fundamental problem confronting all human thought, Christian and pagan, religious and secular. They do not have their origin in our thought, but in what we are trying to think about.

Given this universe of our experience, and the postulated eternal perfect reality, how are we to think of the relation between them? Attempts to answer this question inevitably proceed by experimenting with some relationship known to us within this universe which may possibly turn out to be analogous to that for which we are looking. Neoplatonism experimented with the idea of emanation, the relation of the sun to its rays, of its source to a stream. Idealism generally experiments with the relation of reality to appearance, or with that of an enduring unity of a self-conscious self to the successive phases of its experiences in time. The doctrine of creation takes for its analogy the human experience of making things, the experience of the potter with the clay, of the poet with words, of the musician with sounds. In its developed form the doctrine admits that the analogy is not complete: there is no relationship in our experience precisely similar to that required by the postulate. All our experience of making is of re-ordering co-existent material. For us to-day the straight analogy would be a modern version of ancient Greek dualism, one in which the imposition of form on matter reappears as the organization by the Creator of coexistent energy in patterns of varying complexity. We shall see later that there is a place for this idea within the doctrine of creation. But it cannot be the meaning of the doctrine itself. For it is not enough to think of the Creator as eternally coexistent with a stream of energy undergoing changes in time. It is the very existence of that stream of energy, of space-time reality, which has to be explained, which has to be shown to be more than brute fact, to be worth while. Creation must include the bringing into existence of the matter which is to take on different forms, of the energy which is to be organized into organisms.

What, then, are the essential points in the idea of creation? First and foremost comes thinking of the postulated perfect eternal reality as personal, that is to say, as One whose actions express His self-conscious intelligent will. Secondly, if creation is to mean absolutely the bringing into existence of this universe, ultimate explanations are to be sought in terms of the will of the Creator. We shall be on the wrong lines if we make it our immediate aim to discover or devise a metaphysical system in which the eternal and the temporal can be seen to be related to one another in a logically consistent pattern. It may be that there is such a pattern; indeed, the belief that there is is the presupposition of all our thinking. But for those who think of the universe as created, their primary task is to try to learn what they can from its actual nature of the aim of its Creator in creating it. Only when this has been done shall we be in a position to ask whether as a result we are on the way to the satisfaction of our metaphysical demands—demands which, perhaps, will only fully be satisfied when we pass from the limited vision open to us in this world to be spectators of all time and all existence.

So much for what the idea of creation is and what it implies. For us at the moment, as natural theologians, it is a hypothesis, a hypothetical postulate postulated in the hope that it may help us to move towards an understanding of the world we live in and our life within it. Put briefly, it is the belief that God, for some purpose of His own, calls into existence the universe, giving it the being and the mode of reality which that purpose requires. What we have to do is to examine the nature of the world, asking whether it is such that this postulate will give us its most reasonable explanation.


Prominent among elements in our experience which demand explanation are what we call contingency and freedom. By contingency I mean the apparent fact that often there is an open possibility of things happening this way or that; by freedom the apparent fact that it often rests with us human beings to decide which way it shall be. I call these apparent facts because we cannot without further examination take it for granted that they are what prima facie they seem to be. There is no place for them either in a materialist metaphysic according to which everything that happens falls within a determinate causal sequence of things, or an idealist metaphysic in which everything must be the expression of a rational good will.

Let us begin our examination with our experience of freedom at its best, i.e. when fully conscious of what we are doing, we make up our minds to do something and do it; when the explanation of why we have done it will be given in terms of the end we were aiming at. Suppose, for example, that we have been unable to shake off the cold we have caught, that it has developed into a fever, and that on reading the thermometer we have decided to call in a doctor. If anyone should ask why we have sent for him, the answer would be that it was in order to obtain the advice and treatment that would enable us to get well again as quickly as possible.

Our making of such decisions, and acting upon them, implies that we live in a world in which there are events of at least two kinds. There are those which belong to the causal sequence of things, for which the explanation is sought by looking back to happenings in the past which have produced the circumstances of the present. Of such were the catching of the cold and its development into fever. There are also those which result from our making up our minds to certain actions and carrying out our intention, for which the explanation is sought by asking what we were aiming at in the future. I shall speak of events as belonging respectively to two different orders, the causal and the purposive.

One form of determinism is the denial of this distinction, the assertion that all events ‘come within the causal sequence of things’, that whenever we think that we are freely making up our minds to a decision we are in fact moved to it by psychological factors of which we are not consciously aware, that the reasons we give for our actions are illusory ‘rationalizations’ of non-rational wish-fulfilments. No one who has studied the evidence can deny that there are cases when this is the true account of the matter. But it does not necessarily follow that it is true of all: we have to beware of the temptation to jump to the conclusion that, because some things we thought were A's turn out on examination to be B's, there are no A's at all. For practical purposes the value of the psychological analysis is the help it can give towards distinguishing rationalizations from genuine decisions.

Professor Cook Wilson used to point out the widespread confusion due to taking for granted the assumption that all things fall within this causal sequence. He would instance the naive question of an inquirer who asked, after some particular explanation of a man's action had been disproved: ‘If it wasn't that that moved him, what was it?’—a question which, in assuming that there must be some answer of the causal kind, failed to grasp the complexity of the universe of which we are trying to make sense.

To recognize the occurrence of events in the purposive order is to take a step towards a fuller grasp. It should be noted that at the present stage of our inquiry the two orders, the causal and the purposive, have equal status as postulates postulated in order to try to account for our experience being what it is. When we ask for the explanation of an event, the kind of answer we shall get to our question will depend on the order to which it is to be assigned. To the question: ‘If it wasn't that that moved him, what was it?’ the answer may be: ‘You shouldn't ask what he was moved by, but what he was aiming at’.

The events of the purposive order are, as a matter of fact, more intelligible to us than those of the causal. We experience them, so to speak, from the inside, while the others are only observed from without. Let me quote from what I have written elsewhere about the tossing of a coin.

When the initial impulse has been given which sends the penny spinning in the air, its movements proceed according to determinate mechanistic sequence, and whether it ultimately comes down heads or tails is only unpredictable by us because we have no instruments of adequate complexity and refinement to make the necessary observations and calculations. But suppose we discover that the coin has been loaded so as to ensure its falling with a certain side up. We should naturally think that factors of another order had entered into the situation, factors which are not patient of the same kind of measurement and calculation as those which govern the behaviour of the coin after it has left the spinner's hand.…

In refusing to accede to the request that we should regard the loading of the coin as parallel to its subsequent movements in the air, we are not making an obscurantist refusal to abandon the unknown for the known. We know very well what it means to cheat—better, indeed, than what it means to be sent spinning through the air. Even when we do experience the latter sensation, it remains inexplicable brute fact to us until interpreted in terms of will; a football game is easier to understand than a railway accident, and the universe does not become more explicable if collisions on the football field are regarded as obscure examples of what happens when a crowd of people is hit by a tornado.16

Certain idealists, realizing the inadequacy of mechanistic determinism to account for the whole of our experience, take as the key to its understanding the occurrence of events in the purposive order of which we can give an explanation which leaves the inquirer completely satisfied. If only we could show that everything that happens is explicable in this way, we should be in sight of our metaphysical goal. To do this, they argue, we must show that neither contingency nor evil are really what they appear to be. When the intelligibility of an event is derived from its being the fulfilment of a rational purpose which we approve as worth while, there is in it nothing either of chance or evil. If everything that happens is of this kind, then those events which appear to us to be evil or to come about by chance cannot really be what they seem. It must be that, as finite creatures whose outlook is coloured by the conditions of our time and place, we do not see them as they are. The aim of philosophy is to achieve a point of view from which it can be seen that everything happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It is a world which is as determinate as the world of causal sequence, but the determinism is of a different order. It may be called axiological determinism as distinguished from mechanistic.

The question before us is whether such an idealist metaphysic will give a satisfactory account of the actual world of our experience, an account in which nothing is ignored, distorted, or explained away as being something other than itself. There is some truth in it: how much, I hope to show in due course. But contingency and evil are elements in our experience too stubborn to be disposed of by finding a point of view from which they will appear not to be what they seem.

We have been thinking about our experience of freedom at its best. Unfortunately our actual exercise of our freedom is by no means always at its best. What am I to make of the occasions, the all too frequent occasions, when I stupidly made a fool of myself, or when I sin?

Some of these, as we have just seen, may rightly be explained by a psychological analysis which reveals that they fall within the causal sequence. But if the value of this analysis is that it enables us to distinguish between such compulsive behaviour and genuine decisions of our own, what am I to say of the genuine decisions which are either stupid or sinful, those which I cannot account for by explaining the worth-while end for which they were taken, of which I can only say either ‘I've made a fool of myself’, or ‘My fault, my own fault, my own great fault’?

Take first the decisions and actions which are sinful rather than stupid. If a man comes to me with a confession of some evil deed that he has done, my first impulse may be to try to find some excuse for him which will ease his burden of self-reproach. At first sight this may seem to be the charitable line to take. ‘My poor fellow’, I may be inclined to say, ‘you mustn't blame yourself. That's all a mistake. What you think was your own action was the inevitable reaction to those circumstances of one psychologically conditioned as you have been’. Undoubtedly I should be right to try to see how far I could go towards helping him along these lines, but if I go too far I shall reach a point at which he will rightly interrupt. ‘Look here’, he will say, ‘I know you are meaning to be kind, but actually you are insulting me by treating me as something less than a man. Good or bad, I insist on being treated as a man responsible for what I have done, not as a thing moved hither and thither by forces acting upon it’.

‘Very well’, I may reply, ‘we will agree that you were not moved by anything of that sort. It was your own decision, your own act. What reasonable explanation can you give of why you did it?’ What am I to say if he answers: ‘I can give no reasonable explanation at all. I can describe the circumstances which led me to do it—the difficulty I had got into which I lied myself out of, or the desirable object which I committed theft or adultery to possess—but I knew it was wrong. I knew it ought not to be done, and I did it. I can give no reasonable account of it because what I did was itself unreasonable. It is no good my trying to explain it away as having been something other than it was. I can only say that I am responsible for having done something of which no reasonable account can be given. I have sinned’.

So much, to begin with, for sins. What of mistakes, of actions for which I can only account by saying ‘I've made a fool of myself’? Sometimes, indeed, the explanation of the particular form of the mistake may lie within Freud's ‘causal sequence of things’. Such mistakes need not necessarily be the expression of hidden wishes, they may be due to the fact that our minds and physical organs form habits of moving along particular grooves. I do not think, for example, that during my life in America I was moved by patriotic or anti-republican sentiments when, in taking a service, I inadvertently said ‘O, Lord, save the king’, instead of ‘O, Lord, save the State’. Again, in the early days of my ministry, on one second morning of the month, I remember hearing myself say in St. Mark's Church, Portsmouth, ‘upon the ungodly He shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, storm and treacle’. Whether the cause be hidden wish, or habit of thought and speech, the particular form taken by the mistake may be due to factors of that kind. But in so far as words which I have been heard to utter are to be accounted for on these lines, are what we may describe as words spoken at random, they cease to be treated as my words. ‘My’ words are those which I consciously use with the intention of expressing what I have in mind to say. What ‘I’ contributed on these occasions was lack of attention to what I was doing and that, as an event in the purposive order, is, like sin, something of which no reasonable account can be given. The nearest we can get to it is to say that the event did not belong to the purposive order at all: my inattention was due to some physical cause such as overtiredness or dyspepsia. I can make no such excuse when my actions show that what I have contributed has not been mere inattention but positive stupidity, when it is really I who have made a fool of myself, and what I have made a fool of is really myself. All I can say is that I have acted unreasonably. How can I give a reasonable account of that?

The fundamental act of faith of the philosopher is that everything that is or happens somehow fits together so as to make sense. For this to be so it is commonly assumed by both materialist and idealist that everything that happens must be either an event in the causal sequence or the expression of a good purpose. They may differ in that for the materialist the causal order alone is ultimately real while the idealist has greater respect for the purposive, but both agree that only what is rational can really be real. The aim of philosophy is to find the point of view from which it can be seen that apparent irrationalities such as sins, random words and deeds, and stupidities are not really what they seem.

This comes out in their dealing with the idea of chance. It is taken for granted by both that there cannot really be any such thing. Genuine contingency has no place either in the determinate sequence of the causal order or in a world in which everything that happens is the expression of intelligent good will. There is, however, one sphere in which we do undoubtedly have experience of chance that really is chance, and that is when we deliberately create conditions in which it shall be so. I have already referred to the way in which we toss a coin to decide how to start a game. I have pointed out that once the coin is spun, what follows is a determinate sequence of events in the causal order. I have also reminded you that any attempt to reduce the unpredictability of the outcome would be regarded as cheating. Whether we toss coins or tennis racquets, hold out concealed pawns or cut packs of cards, we deliberately create conditions in which the decision of what is to be done is left to chance.

It has long seemed to me that this familiar experience has not been given by philosophers the attention it deserves. Philosophy, as the attempt to understand the world of our experience, must at all costs avoid the temptation to explain away awkward facts which will not fit in with theories. The a priori argument: nothing irrational can be real, chance is irrational, therefore chance cannot be real must come to terms with what we actually do on football fields and tennis courts, at chess boards and card tables.

The word ‘real’ here is equivocal. For the materialist it would mean what exists and happens in the space-time universe, what is observable through the senses and is patient of study by scientific method. To be rational and real means ‘to come within the causal sequence of things’. To idealists, for whom there are events which belong to the purposive order, to be rational means to be the expression of an intelligible purpose. In so far as this space-time universe presents us with apparent irrationalities which cannot be explained on grounds either of physical cause or intelligible purpose, it cannot as it stands be accepted as real. What we call the world of our experience must be the mode in which the reality that is really real appears to us finite beings as we look out from our station within it. For neither materialist nor idealist is our prima facie experience of contingency and freedom an apprehension of the real. For the one it is illusion due to our not having yet discovered the causal explanation of acts we think to proceed from our free choice. For the other it is an illusion due to our inability to see with the eye of a timeless spectator of all time and all existence.

In idealist metaphysics the place of the idea of creation is taken by the thought of a process in which the eternal God is expressing Himself to Himself: we human beings are self-conscious organs of His self-expression who from our limited point of view cannot realize the rationality of the irrational things we feel ourselves to be doing or to have done. What we think to be acts of our free choice, chosen from among other possibilities in a world of genuine contingencies, are really events predetermined by God who can see, as we cannot, how luminously intelligible they are in their place in the pattern of the whole. While for the materialist what appears as the purposive order is the causal order in disguise; for the idealist both orders alike are such stuff as dreams are made

This idealist metaphysic is not, to my mind, really a doctrine of creation at all. To say that this universe is the mode in which the eternal God is expressing Himself to Himself in what appears to us as space and time is not the same thing as to say that it owes its existence to the will of God, that God has called it into existence for some reason of His own, and has given to it the mode of reality which that purpose requires. The idealistic metaphysic springs from an attempt to conceive a system which shall include both God and the universe, showing how each is related to the other, and how everything in each must be what it is in order that the whole may be an intelligible system. Now, if the doctrine of creation be true, this is the pursuit of a will-o'-the-wisp. The aim of philosophy is to make sense of the universe of our experience. For this the philosopher must try to take into account everything that is or happens, neither contenting himself with certain elements within it nor explaining away what will not fit in with his theories. But to include God within the universe of our experience, the universe which in every detail is to be understood, explained, and made sense of, is the parallel in philosophy to a theologian's demand for the kind of revelation he thinks God should provide.

To take the idea of creation as our clue to the understanding of the universe, is to look for its ultimate explanation in terms of divine purpose. We have to learn what we can of that purpose from the revelation of Himself which God has given us. Our immediate task is to learn what we can as natural theologians from the world in general. I have called your attention to the fact that for the rationally intelligible purpose of promoting fair play we often deliberately create conditions in which chance decides what shall be done. For a rational purpose we introduce an element of irrationality into the course of events. In the purposive order we have indubitable experience of chance that really is chance. If, then, in attempting to think of the relation of God to the universe we draw our analogy from our experience of purposive activity, perhaps we may be able to find within it a place for such irrationalities as contingency and freedom. Perhaps in God's plan of creation they are needed to perform a function similar to that for which we invoke chance, and for that reason He has given to the universe a mode of reality which admits of their being really themselves.

Our task now is to ask how far this supposition will help us towards understanding why the universe as we experience it is what it is.

Appended Note

Some fuller explanation is needed of what I think about moral judgments and what we should mean by the word conscience.

The fundamental question is whether such judgments are apprehensions (or misapprehensions) of objective fact or merely the expression of subjective feelings of disapproval or approval. This used to be put in the form of asking whether conscience is an exercise of reason or an emotion.17

Essentially I believe a man's conscience to be a rational activity, to be, in Kant's phrase, his practical reason. By that I mean that it is his power of distinguishing right from wrong in situations involving moral issues, and that the issues to be decided are as objective as are those between truth and falsehood dealt with by Kant's speculative reason. There is a parallel between the two modes of rational activity in that both alike need and can receive education. A child can learn the multiplication table or that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another, but it needs education in that field to be able to calculate strains and stresses in, for example, naval engineering. Similarly a child can be taught that if he sees someone accidentally drop a purse he should pick it up and return it to his owner rather than try to slip it unobserved into his own pocket, but there are situations in which it takes a trained mind to unravel the complexity of their moral issues.

There is, however, a difference between the use of the reason in the two fields. We are so made that the apprehension of a moral truth brings with it a specific feeling which may be called the sense of obligation. To learn that twice two is four may, as the saying goes, leave me quite cold; but I cannot see the dropped purse without feeling that I ought to give it back to its owner. That we have this feeling is shown by the fact that so many people regard it as the essence, if not the whole, of what we should mean by conscience. As against that I would maintain that it is a feeling consequent upon the apprehension of the moral issues of the situation. Just as to grasp the truth that an angry bull is rapidly advancing upon me would produce in me a feeling of fear, so the apprehension that something ought or ought not to be done produces in me the feeling of obligation. This truth is obscured by the fact that often we are so conditioned by the habits of our moral upbringing that in our actual reaction to a situation we may only be aware of it as a matter of feeling without realizing that our feelings are based on a tradition of moral judgment.

Ideally our reason and our feelings should always coincide, the reason rightly apprehending what ought to be done and generating the appropriate feeling. In theory, when they disagree, the decision should he with the reason, as when St. Paul had to withstand St. Peter to the face and point out that if he had really grasped with his reason the implications of the saving work of Christ he must overcome his inherited feeling of obligation to avoid eating with Gentiles. Unfortunately the matter is not so simple. Imagine a man brought up in the traditions of Christian morality, who by his reading and thinking has reached a stage at which his reason tells him that much of that morality is based on outworn tabus no longer deserving of respect. Imagine that man, at that stage in the education of his reason, in a situation in which he has to decide whether or no to act on that conviction. I can imagine a case in which he might be withheld from so acting by the strength of inherited feeling. ‘I know it is all nonsense’, he might say, ‘but I can't do it without feeling a loss of self-respect’. I submit that in such a case the truth may be that the tradition against which he is revolting may be based on a deeper and fuller grasp of the issues involved than he himself has as yet been able to attain. When we say that in the last resort the decision must lie with the reason we do not necessarily mean the reason of this or that particular man.

I can see no way of giving an answer to the question whether in all cases (as with St. Peter) the inherited feelings should give way to the requirements of the reason or vice versa. In morals, as in other fields of possible knowledge, we are in the midst of a process in which the truth is seeking to find expression through minds conditioned by the outlook of their time and place. There is always the possibility that new evidence may require the revision of existing ideas, and it is impossible to say in advance whether the truth will be found on the side of the upholder of what is old or of the advocates of what is new.

It may be worth while to add that as a matter of terminology I find it useful to make the following distinction between the use of the words good or evil and right or wrong. I try to keep good and evil for what in itself is intrinsically good or evil, using right and wrong for what ought or ought not to be done in the particular circumstances of a case. When a man is faced with a choice of evils, the choice of the lesser evil may be caned right but not good. What is wrong is always evil, but what is right is not always good. The non-pacifist may agree with the pacifist that war is always evil; what withholds him from pacifism is his inability to predict that circumstances will never arise in which a country may be faced with a choice between war and an alternative which is morally worse, in which case to go to war might be evil and yet right.

  • 1.

    C. C. J. Webb: God and Personality (London, 1918), p. 168.

  • 2.

    Published in H. W. B. Joseph: Essays in Ancient and Modern Philosophy (Oxford, 1945), pp. 1, 9, 12.

  • 3.

    R. G. Collingwood: The Idea of Nature (Oxford, 1945), pp. 1, 9, 12.

  • 4.

    Op. cit., p. 16.

  • 5.

    See, e.g., W. P. Witcutt, Return to Reality (London, 1954), p. 51, footnote.

  • 6.

    London, 1943. See especially Part II.

  • 7.

    See above, Lecture V, p. 114.

  • 8.

    See above, Lecture II, p. 37.

  • 9.

    See above, Lecture V, p. 106.

  • 10.

    Above, Lecture V, p. 99.

  • 11.

    See appended note, p. 145.

  • 12.

    T. D. Weldon: The Vocabulary of Politics (London, 1953), p. 16. cp. pp. 43, 99.

  • 13.

    See above, Lecture III, p. 59.

  • 14.

    Above, Lecture V, pp. 99 ff.

  • 15.

    See above, Lecture II, p. 24.

  • 16.

    Towards a Christian Philosophy (London, 1942), pp. 76–8.

  • 17.

    Cp., e.g., H. Rashdall: Is Conscience an Emotion? (London, 1914).