§ 1. The cosmological argumet
If we are unable to derive knowledge of God's existence from the bare concept of perfection, we may perhaps hope to infer His existence from our experience of the world. But here we must distinguish between particular experiences and general experience (or experience as such). The ordinary religious man, so far as he argues at all, would probably argue to God's existence from particular experiences of what he takes to be manifestations of a divine purpose—from the beauty of the hills, from the marvellous construction of living things, and so on. But it is possible to argue from some characteristics of all objects of experience—from a categorial characteristic, as it may be called. Thus it may be held that all objects of experience must have a cause, and therefore there must be a first or uncaused cause, to which we give the name of ‘God’.
Even if, as is often done, we begin with one particular existent thing—for example, myself—and maintain that since this must have a cause, there must be a first cause, we are not arguing from any special characteristic distinguishing this object of experience from others: we are arguing from a universal or categorial characteristic—the characteristic of being caused—which it shares with all other finite objects of experience; and we start from this particular object only because we know that it exists.
All arguments of this type are varieties of what is called the ‘cosmological’ proof: they seek to make an inference from some categorial characteristic of an experienced object or objects to the universe or cosmos as a whole, and so to the God who is its cause or ground. Because they appeal to experience, they can begin with something known to exist and thus escape the paradoxes of the ontological argument. Yet they appeal—and this is the essential point—not to a rich and full and diversified experience, but to its bare bones. The inference, so to speak, is not from the living body of experience, but only from its skeleton. Hence the cosmological argument is arid, and it may be asked whether it is worth while trying to make these dry bones live.
If the ontological proof is described as the argument from perfection, the cosmological proof may be described by contrast as the argument from imperfection. In it we have no need to struggle from a mere concept to existence; for if we begin with the imperfect, we have only too much assurance that it exists. But the imperfect must here be taken to be the incomplete, the finite, the contingent. The imperfect or contingent is what it is only because of some cause or ground beyond itself; and all objects of experience are in this sense imperfect. A perfect being, on the other hand, is supposed to be its own ground or cause; and this is why men have thought they could argue from the concept or essence of a perfect being to its existence without having recourse to anything beyond the concept itself.
The cosmological proof, as an argument from imperfection, must also be contrasted with the argument from design. The argument from design too rests on experience, but on a more rich and diversified experience—on experience of perfections in the world. An inference may be made, for example, from the perfection of living creatures to the perfection of their designer or creator. Such an inference rests on a particular experience of some objects in the world, not on a general experience of finite objects as such; and the perfection from which it argues is a special kind of perfection—the perfect adaptation of organs to what is supposed to be their purpose.
If the cosmological argument holds at all, it must hold for any world in which objects are the effect of causes other than themselves. Hence it would be valid even if the only world we experienced were Hell—provided we were able to trace a relation of cause and effect between one torment and the next. As we should hardly be justified in conceiving as God a first cause whose sole known product was an Inferno, it seems that the cosmological argument, even if it can prove the existence of something, cannot prove without the aid of further premises that this ‘something’ is God. The difficulty is thus, so to speak, the reverse of that found in the ontological argument; for this, even if it may have a more adequate conception of God, is unable to prove the existence of anything.
In order to remedy the fatal defects of these two arguments when taken separately it is not surprising that men should run them both together—or confuse one with the other. Such a procedure should be subjected to the closest scrutiny. We are not very likely to get one valid argument by combining two that are in themselves invalid; and if we are serious in our attempts to support religious beliefs by a theoretical proof, we must be very sure that the proof is not fallacious.
§ 2. The five ways of St. Thomas
If the cosmological argument, in its many forms, were solely of historical interest, we might pass it by in respectful silence. At present it finds little support or even consideration outside the followers of neo-scholasticism, but we cannot say that it is everywhere abandoned. The Roman Catholic Church is heavily committed to the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas by the encyclical Aeterni Patris of Pope Leo XIII in 1879, not to mention others of more recent date. Furthermore, although modern man may not find this type of argument convincing, at least it does not strike him as merely artificial—which the ontological argument most certainly does. Even the relatively unthinking may find themselves asking questions about the origin of the world and of themselves. If the present distaste for metaphysics and for religion itself were to give way to some other fashion, the old questions, and even the old answers, might arise from their graves and show signs of renewed life. To the sophisticated they may appear moribund, even if they are not wholly dead; but at least they are not unnatural, and we are not entitled to assume that they can throw no light whatever on the intellectual factor in religious experience.
The classical exposition of the cosmological argument may be found in the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas—in the famous ‘five ways’ of proving the existence of God.
As we are here concerned only with forms of the cosmological argument, two of these ‘ways’ may be ignored; for one is an argument from design, and another an argument from the inferior value of finite things—from their imperfection in a narrower sense than the one I have used. Even if we chose to regard the second as a special form of the cosmological argument, we should be unlikely to find it more convincing than the others.
We have therefore only three ways of argument to consider. The first is from the fact of motion to the existence of a first or unmoved mover. The second is from finite things as effects to the existence of a first or uncaused cause. The third is from finite things as contingent beings to the existence of a non-contingent or necessary being. And, according to St. Thomas, whether we speak of a first mover, a first cause, or a necessary being, this is what all men speak of as God.
It is obvious that the first argument is only a particular application of the second, which in its turn is only a particular application of the third. As the first argument is thus the least abstract, a brief summary of it may serve as the most concrete illustration of the general line of thought.
According to St. Thomas, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by something else; and if that something else is in motion, it too must be put in motion by something else. But this regress, he tells us, cannot go on to infinity because then there would be no first mover, and therefore no other mover—that is, there would be no movement at all. Consequently there must be a first mover put in motion by no other; ‘and this everyone understands to be God’.
We need not examine this argument in detail. The proof is based, not merely on the metaphysics of Aristotle, but on his physics; and the not inconsiderable advance of physics since his time makes it necessary, at the very least, to readjust the whole argument. The more general proofs may not be affected to the same extent, but all the ‘five ways’ can be understood properly only by reference to an Aristotelian background (such as the doctrine of the four types of cause). With great honesty and acuteness St. Thomas used the best knowledge available at his time to support and expand doctrines which he believed were already firmly established by revelation. But there is no blinking the fact that much of what he took for granted would be questioned, or denied outright, by most philosophers and scientists of the present day.
§ 3. The conditioned
We must try to look at the cosmological argument in a general way without troubling too much about its varied historical forms.
The argument starts by assuming that we know something to exist. This ‘something’ is not uncommonly taken to be myself, partly because accomplished doubters have found it harder to doubt their own existence than that of other things, and partly perhaps because we have a personal interest in our own existence. But we can begin just as well with any object of experience if we are certain that it is not a mere product of our imagination. We are trying to get down to some hard fact with no nonsense about it.
Whatever we may choose as our starting point, we are not concerned with its special characteristics. What interests us is merely that its existence depends on something else. This we express variously by saying that it is finite or limited or incomplete or imperfect. We can put this point more technically by saying that it is contingent. The whole argument is sometimes described as the argument from the contingency of the world or—more briefly—as the argument from contingency.
The word ‘contingent’ has many different meanings, which it is impossible to pursue here. We may say that a thing is contingent if it might have been otherwise. My existence is said to be contingent if I might not have existed. But this is not enough for the cosmological argument. In it we assume that anything contingent is dependent on something else. It would not be what it is but for something else; and indeed it must be what it is because of something else.
This is puzzling. The contingent is opposed to the necessary—opposed to what is taken to be necessary in itself or to what could not conceivably have been otherwise. Yet the contingent is also said to be necessary—necessary, not in itself, but subject to some condition or cause other than itself. The contingent is thus the relatively necessary: it is opposed to the non-contingent or absolutely necessary.
Perhaps we are making too heavy weather of all this. For the purposes of the argument—it may be thought—I have only to assume that I should not be what I am, and indeed that I should not be at all, but for some cause other than myself. And the same would apply to any object of experience.
The relation of effect to cause is certainly the simplest case to keep in mind when we try to follow the cosmological argument. But the argument itself is aiming, as we shall see, at something more general, something harder to put in ordinary words. It takes the cause to be the condition or ground of the effect and not merely to be something that invariably precedes the effect in time. What it is concerned with is the general relation of the condition to what it conditions; and it takes the relation between cause and effect to be only one case of this more general relation (which may be called the relation between the condition and the conditioned or even between ground and consequent). We speak of cause and effect only when the cause precedes the effect in time. But there are other cases where the condition does not precede in time what is conditioned by it. For example, if we think that space is the condition of motion, we do not mean by this that space must first exist by itself and that motion comes into existence later as its effect.
Thus, speaking generally, the contingent is what depends on a condition other than itself; hence it may be described also as the conditioned (as opposed to the unconditioned or the absolutely necessary). But we should not assume that its condition must necessarily be its cause or must precede it in time. The reason for insisting on these complications will be seen later.
It must be said at once that to many modern philosophers all this is a complete muddle. They do not regard causes as the condition of their effects; and they consider it sheer confusion to speak of one real object as the condition of another. Like David Hume, they are unable to perceive any ‘real connexion among distinct existences’. For them the whole assumption confuses purely logical relations with real ones.
This is a formidable objection. It is hard to deny that supporters of the cosmological argument fell into confusions of this type; and it is certain that they did not adequately consider the difficulties. We may not be prepared to accept the objection as it stands, and we may believe that the philosophy of these critics is itself inadequate and unsatisfactory, but we cannot afford to dismiss as unimportant the questions which they raise.
It would, however, take us far beyond our present scope even to touch on the fringe of these problems. All that need be said here is this. The cosmological argument rests on the common-sense assumption that things which exist do so under a condition—for example, they exist only if they have been caused to exist by something else. If this assumption is mistaken, the argument fails.
§ 4. The unconditioned
If we can conceive a contingent being, it requires no supreme effort of metaphysical genius to conceive a non-contingent being—a necessary or unconditioned being. At the very least we are all able to prefix the word ‘non’ to the word ‘contingent’, and to equate the combined word ‘non-contingent’ with the word ‘necessary’. But why should anybody want to do this? We may perhaps be able to understand why, if we go back to the more concrete relation of effect to cause.
We find that something exists, but we think it might not have existed, and we wish to understand why it exists. It exists, we may be told, because it has been caused to exist by something else. But this ‘something else’ too might equally not have existed, and so in its turn must have been caused to exist by another ‘something else’. We seem to have embarked on an infinite regress; and if this is so, we shall never find any cause that is not just as contingent as the thing with which we began. Hence we get no satisfactory answer to our original question, and we remain as dissatisfied as we were at the beginning, seeking an explanation, but finding none. We are tempted to say that if the world is to be intelligible, we must in time come to a first cause which has no further cause, one which is not contingent but absolutely necessary—which does not need to be explained by anything else, but is, so to speak, its own explanation and the explanation of everything else.
But there is more to the argument than this. Let us suppose that the regress is infinite—that we could go back and back from one contingent cause to another for ever and ever. Even so, if some contingent being exists, then all its preceding causes must have existed; for otherwise it would not be at all. We are therefore logically obliged to conceive the sum total (or totality) of its causes. What is more, we are obliged to conceive that totality as itself existent—in the sense that all its members must have existed. But this totality of causes, if it is a totality (whether infinite or not), can by definition have no further cause. Considered as a totality it must therefore itself either contain or be an uncaused existent. If so, it must itself either contain or be a non-contingent or unconditioned or necessary being. In short, if something exists, a necessary being exists.
This may help to explain why men come to use the concept of a non-contingent or unconditioned or necessary being, and why they feel entitled to say that a necessary being must exist. If we allow further that the totality of conditions for any contingent existent must be the universe or cosmos, we begin to understand why this is called the cosmological proof. What we have not yet been able to understand is why it should be regarded as a proof of the existence of God. To see this we must take another step.
§ 5. Time and the unconditioned
We seem to be faced with two alternatives, to each of which there are serious objections.
On the first alternative we suppose that we could in time come to a first cause, and that this first cause would be the first member of the whole series of causes. If this is so, the first cause—or at least its causal action—must be an event in time, and this at once gets us into difficulties.
Every time seems to be conditioned by a previous time—can we seriously think of a time which had no preceding time, of a present without a past? Is there any sense in asking ourselves ‘At what time did time begin’? And since time can be known only by the events in it, can we seriously believe that there could be any event without a previous event? The sole reason why we entered on our argument was the supposition that every event must have a preceding cause. Why should we abandon that supposition now—unless we do so merely because we are getting tired? And if we are prepared to do so now, why should we not regard every event as a first cause and a necessary being in itself? Why should we ever have started out on this weary pilgrimage? It seems that if there can be a first cause or a necessary being, this must be something that cannot exist in a part of time at all—it must exist outside time altogether, and so can never be an object of experience.
But perhaps it might exist throughout the whole of time: we might be able to regard the whole infinite series of causes itself, if not as a first cause, at least as an uncaused or unconditioned or necessary being. This is our second alternative, but it seems no less unsatisfactory.
St. Thomas, it will be remembered, says roundly that the regress of causes cannot go on to infinity; but he might not have been so sure of this if he had not already learned from revelation that the world had a beginning in time. We may hesitate to say a priori either that the world must, or again must not, have a beginning in time—still more to say that time itself must, or again must not, have a beginning. But even if we allow that the totality of causes is infinite; even if we allow that as a totality it can have no farther cause; it still seems absurd to say that a totality of causes each of which is admittedly contingent must itself be unconditionally necessary. If we do say so, can we attach any positive meaning to our statement?
We can get no light on this question from experience, for we experience nothing but contingent events. If the totality of contingent events could be an object of experience, it too would be a contingent event like any other. Hence on this second alternative also it seems that we must look beyond experience, beyond events in time and even beyond the totality of events in time, if we are to find any being which can plausibly be described as non-contingent and as necessary in itself. We must also look beyond events in space, although space has been neglected for the sake of brevity.
Considerations of this kind have led men to believe that if the world is to be intelligible, there must be a non-contingent and necessary being which is not itself in space and time, but which is the first cause of all contingent beings in space and time. Since the word ‘cause’ has always a reference to time—the cause precedes the effect—it is here applied by analogy to what is timeless, to the ultimate condition or ground of all conditioned beings. This ultimate condition, we are told, must itself be unconditioned and so must be a necessary being. It is this necessary being to which we give the name of ‘God’. If anything exists, He must exist. The whole spatio-temporal cosmos is itself contingent: it has its ground in a God who exists necessarily and is neither spatial nor temporal.
When we say that God is a necessary being, we do not mean merely that we must necessarily assume Him to exist if the universe is to be intelligible. God is not necessary merely as the postulated cause of some effect, nor could He conceivably be necessary as the effect of some cause. What we mean is that God is necessary, not relatively to something else, but absolutely and in Himself. If the universe is contingent—and this is the whole point of the argument—it must have an uncaused cause, an unconditioned condition, an ungrounded ground; and only a being necessary in Himself can be such a cause or condition or ground.
§ 6. Necessary being
In the cosmological argument we begin with a contingent thing known to exist and we progress by means of three steps—or perhaps we should say jumps. First we jump to its condition in time and space. Then we jump to the totality of its conditions in time and space. And finally we jump right outside time and space to an unconditioned condition, which we describe as a necessary being. These jumps become progressively more difficult—or at least they become more and more repugnant to many modern philosophers. But even if we can dispose of all objections, where have we finally landed? We made each jump because we felt our footing to be precarious. Have we found firm ground at last?
Our conclusion appears to be curiously negative. We are told indeed that God exists and is the cause or condition or ground of the universe. All these terms admittedly can apply to God only by analogy; but when we ask for further light on their meaning as applied to God, we seem to be answered by pure negations. God does not exist in time and space; and He has no cause, no condition, no ground, other than Himself. Even when we are told that He is a necessary being, we are not using the word ‘necessary’ in the sense in which it is applied to contingent beings. As applied to God it does not mean ‘necessary subject to a condition’: it means ‘necessary subject to no condition’. When we drop the condition which is ordinarily supposed to make necessity intelligible, do we get an absolute necessity which can be regarded as supremely intelligible? Or are we merely playing with words?
So far the concept of God as an absolutely necessary being is entirely vague and indeterminate. Something is supposed in some sense to exist, but we are told nothing more about it except what it is not. If we are to mean anything definite, we must make the negative concept of a non-contingent or necessary being into a positive one. How is this to be done?
The first step is to say that a necessary being is its own ground, its own condition, its own cause. This statement is itself sufficiently bold, and we may wonder in what sense, and with what justification, these words are now being used. If we ask what all this means, we are invited to take yet a further step. A necessary being is one whose non-existence is inconceivable—that is, it is one whose essence is the ground of its existence.
These words have a familiar ring. We have been edged back gradually to the old ontological argument, which we are now asked to take for granted. The non-existence of a being can be inconceivable only if we possess a concept which guarantees the existence of its object—the concept of an essence which is also a ground of existence.
Unless we can show that we possess such a concept—whether it be the concept of a perfect being, a supreme being, or a most real being—the whole cosmological argument must fail to prove the existence of an absolutely necessary being in any positive sense. If our previous discussion was sound, there is no concept which can guarantee the existence of its object. And if we could prove by analysis of any concept that its object must necessarily exist, there would be no need to bolster up our proof by an appeal to the dubious inferences and indeterminate concepts and mainly negative conclusion of the cosmological argument.
If this is true, it is hardly necessary to remind ourselves that even if the cosmological argument were valid, it would not be a proof of the existence of God. Since it would hold for any universe, however diabolical, in which there were contingent beings, the most it could prove without further premises would be that a being existed with the divine attribute of self-sufficiency. Even the ontological proof would not be a proof of the existence of God unless the concept of perfection were a concept of more than self-sufficiency—or unless it could be shown that it is impossible for the devil to be self-sufficient.
To sum up—the cosmological argument cannot prove the existence of God without the aid of the ontological argument, and this may be the underlying reason why the ontological argument had to be invented. If the ontological argument is valid, the cosmological argument is superfluous. If the ontological argument is invalid, the cosmological argument must be invalid too. The religious man has to walk by faith and not by sight; and in view of the difficulty of this discussion he may be tempted to thank God that it has pleased Him not to save His people by means of dialectic.
§ 7. Metaphysics
Metaphysical arguments, as was pointed out earlier, may look very different within the context of a whole philosophy; but if those we have considered are fair samples, it is hard to resist the conclusion—at least the provisional conclusion—that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated by pure metaphysics. Quite certainly it cannot be demonstrated by any kind of scientific proof; and if we have made up our minds to listen only to scientific proofs, there is no more to be said.
How is it that supremely able men have entertained such difficult concepts and indulged in such abstruse arguments, asking themselves unanswerable questions about the physical universe as a whole, and about what may lie beyond it? Some modern philosophers appear to hold that these problems spring from elementary confusions about words, but this view is perhaps a trifle ingenuous. Others regard interest in these questions as pathological. The nature of the disease in question is seldom diagnosed in any detail, but we are sometimes offered a system of philosophical therapeutics which professes itself able to effect a cure.
There are critics inconsiderate enough to throw doubt on the scientific character of the therapeutics; but there is a prior question to be raised. Is an interest in such ultimate matters properly diagnosed as a form of mental disease, or at least of mental disability?
It is certainly not unnatural or artificial to ask questions of the kind described; but if these questions cannot be answered, it may seem plausible to condemn them as diseased. It is not unnatural, but it may be diseased, when men with weak heads on a precipitous path keep thinking about the dangers of a fall or are unable to avert their eyes from the fatal depths below. They may be well advised to keep their eyes on the immediate situation, and their minds on the next step. On the precipitous path of life perhaps some men will fare better if they do the same. Even from a religious point of view Cardinal Newman could say
‘I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me’.
But perhaps he would not have felt this to be a religious attitude, had he not been aware of the encircling gloom as well as of the kindly light. If a philosophical therapeutics has been devised to circumscribe the view of those who are afraid to face the distant scene, we may wish it every success. Yet it may be unhealthy to induce an artificial myopia, as it is unhealthy to ignore or forget hidden feelings of fear or guilt. The best way to deal with hidden troubles is to bring them into the open; and in intellectual matters the fatal error is to deceive ourselves, whether by pretending we have solved a problem when we have not, or by pretending that there is no problem to solve.
All these questions, and the concepts—or ‘Ideas’—they employ, spring inevitably from the drive in our own thinking towards wholeness or completeness. This movement in thinking is supremely healthy: without it thinking would stop altogether instead of going on, as it does, from cause to cause, from narrower to wider generalizations, from isolated observations to systematic theories. This process is precisely what men have regarded as the function of reason, without, if I may say so, imagining that reason was a mysterious entity exercising some sort of pressure—or prod—on what we think or do. We are only carrying on the same function if we ask ourselves whether the process itself could be completed, and what kind of knowledge we should have if it were. It is true we fall into error or illusion if we suppose that by such reflexions we can acquire scientific knowledge of ultimate reality; but the cure for this can only be a deeper understanding of what it is that we are doing.
It may be a positive gain to grasp the limits of scientific reasoning, and indeed of all human reasoning. If we try to work out the logical implications of our scientific thinking and to apply our fundamental concepts, not to a part of reality, but to the whole, we are bound to fall into contradictions and paradoxes—to meet difficulties we are unable to surmount and questions we are incompetent to answer. In particular we are bound to ask whether the world as it is known, or even as it could be known, to science is intelligible, and whether we are entitled to entertain, however obscurely, the concept of a ‘something’ beyond time and space, or at least of a blank—perhaps even of a vaguely God-shaped blank—outside the bounds of our ordinary experience. It is not too hard to see how concepts of the kind we have examined must arise from the very nature of human thinking, and how they have to be used in thinking about God, if we think about Him at all. It is not even too hard to see how they must be mainly negative, and how they must be inadequate to anything that could be regarded as an ultimate reality.
There are many to-day who regard such thinking with repugnance, and they are justified in saying that the manipulation of such concepts—though it has certainly a logical grammar of its own—can become pretentious, dogmatic, and even silly. They have every right to concern themselves with more mundane affairs; but if they say there can be no other world than this, they go too far and become dogmatic in their turn: we are not entitled to say a priori that the boundaries of science must be the boundaries of reality.
Metaphysical arguments, however invalid as proofs, at least bring us face to face with a question—a question we seem unable to answer with a plain ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. They force us to consider unverifiable possibilities which seem at least to be conceivable, and yet in another way to be inconceivable by us. Even the word ‘possibility’ is itself ambiguous. We require no metaphysical arguments to assure us that God is not possible, if by saying that something is ‘possible’ we mean that it could be experienced as a finite object in time and space; for to describe God as possible in this sense would be self-contradictory. Yet the thought of a being who is not temporal, not spatial, and not contingent—and even of one who is the ground of his own reality—is at least logically possible in the sense of not being self-contradictory. That men have actually entertained this concept is indubitable; and perhaps they are obliged to entertain it unless they stop their thinking at some arbitrary point. They are unable to prove that an object exists—still less that it must exist—in correspondence with their concept; and the best of them are acutely conscious that if it does exist, no concept of theirs can be adequate to its reality. Their dry conceptual thoughts take on the colour of what may be called rather an inkling or a surmise—perhaps even of a personal conviction and a basis for action. If this should happen, they can reasonably claim that their belief is at least as immune from scientific refutation as it is incapable of scientific proof.
§ 8. Metaphysics and religion
This kind of thinking may seem thin and dry and dusty to a religious man who is no philosopher: it is utterly remote from his warm convictions, his holy peace, his ecstasy and despair. Yet here too the philosopher may be working out, on a high level of abstraction, a kind of thinking actually present in religious experience itself. If his thinking is mainly negative, we should not forget that what is thought as negative may be felt as positive. Even as negative, these thoughts serve at least to bring out the ultimate mystery of the universe without which religion is impossible.
Religious experience is intimately bound up with a feeling of dependence. The religious man does not speak of the finite and the contingent, but he feels himself to be weak and helpless; and as he contemplates the forces which master him, and the endless chain of causes which have made him what he is, he is acutely conscious of his own insignificance. Yet he may also be uplifted as he realizes that in spite of his insignificance he is able to contemplate these forces and in a way to rise above them. In so doing does not he too cherish, however obscurely, the thought or feeling of a supreme reality which is above and beyond this endless chain of meaningless causes and effects, a reality without beginning or end and without cause or ground other than itself? Indeed is it not at least partly by this thought or feeling that he finds himself brought, as it were, into the presence of a mysterium tremendum, at once utterly near and utterly remote, at once fascinating and fearful by its very incomprehensibility, and yet the whole in which alone his imperfect life could find its meaning and completion?
At least to some philosophers even this kind of metaphysical thinking, with all its dryness and abstraction, seems to come very near to religious experience—perhaps almost against their will. No one has done more than Immanuel Kant to discredit the traditional proofs as a source of knowledge, and no one has been more hostile to the view that feeling can give us insight into the ultimate nature of reality. Yet, although he is not commonly regarded as an emotional writer, he is moved to speak of unconditioned necessity as ‘the very abyss of human reason’. ‘We cannot’, he goes on, ‘ward off the thought, nor yet can we endure it, that a being, conceived as the highest of all possible beings, should, as it were, say to itself ‘I am from eternity to eternity; beyond me is nothing save that which exists solely by my will; but whence am I?’ Here everything gives way beneath our feet.’
All of this may be subject to different interpretations. We may discredit such metaphysical thinking as a mere rationalization of an obscure experience made up mainly of desires and emotions, conscious or unconscious; and we may discredit the experience because of weaknesses in the metaphysical thinking to which it gives rise. No other conclusion is possible if we have made up our minds to be content with scientific thinking and to admit nothing more. We may even say that all this argumentation is only a device for enabling us to believe anything we please. On the other hand, we may think that such an attitude is itself dogmatic and arbitrary—the product of an irrational determination to close one's mind to possibilities suggested by experience and even by thinking itself. From a purely intellectual point of view the obvious solution is to suspend judgement; but there may be other points of view as well.
Even from a theoretical point of view our examination of the thinking in religious experience is manifestly incomplete. The traditional arguments are supposed to be valid for any one who thinks about any kind of universe, or at least about any kind of ordered universe in which there are finite beings. Religion, as we know it, arises in our own particular and variegated universe, and it is this curious world of ours that now falls to be considered if we are to round off our sketch of the intellectual element in religious faith.