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12: The Theistic Arguments

ON the theistic view the world is interpreted as expressing the mind of God. But theism has been reached in various ways at different times. The old proofs for the being of God have long since fallen into disfavour; they have passed the stage in which critical minds find them convincing; and they are approaching the stage in which men generally cease to find them interesting. Opinion has set against them, and is now tending to set away from them altogether as doctrines the life of which has gone out. They were once very much alive, however; and the reason of the changed attitude towards them is itself a question of some interest. This reason is, of course, in the first place, the destructive criticism of Hume and, still more, of Kant. But, although this is the main reason for the neglect of the traditional proofs, it is not a wholly adequate reason. When we look into the Humian and Kantian criticisms we see that they are directed not simply against the old forms of argument, but against any possible arguments for a knowledge of the ultimate nature, or of the whole, of things. Now their attack upon metaphysical knowledge generally has not met with the same wide acceptance as their refutations of the particular theological proofs. From the point of view of an agnosticism, such as that in which Kant's first Critique issued, it is clear that the proofs are without validity. But they are discarded or quietly disregarded by many who do not share this Kantian view of the limits of knowledge, and whose own doctrines are equally open to the criticisms of Kant.

It would seem therefore that Kant's destructive criticism does not altogether explain the existing dissatisfaction with the traditional proofs. The full explanation must be sought further afield, and involves, so it seems to me, the distinction between religious belief and theological argument. In its origin and throughout much of its history, religion (including the belief in God) is independent of the demonstrations of the being of God offered by philosophers and theologians. Hume himself, in his Dissertation on ‘The Natural History of Religion,’ was perhaps the first clearly to draw attention to the distinction between the historical causes of religious belief and the theoretical arguments which point to theism. He set the example, which has been followed of late with fruitful results, of tracing the early stages of religious belief. He utilised such facts as were at his disposal, and his psychological imagination helped him to fill out the picture. His most important generalisation was that polytheism preceded theism in the order of history. This is an important result, from the philosopher's point of view. It means that the unity of the world-order, which is the first point to be brought out or assumed in the theistic arguments, appears only at a late stage of historical development, and did not give rise to the belief in God. If we compare this result with the view of Hume's earliest English predecessor in the field of comparative religion, we cannot fail to be struck by the superior insight of the later writer. Herbert of Cherbury's De Religione Gentilium broke into a new field of enquiry by its survey of faiths and their development; but its general idea is completely rationalistic and unhistorical. The true and rational conception of God, which holds the first or highest place in his thought, must also, he thinks, have been first in time in the minds of the human race. He holds, accordingly, that all faiths which fall short of or go beyond this pure and rational creed are mere aberrations or corruptions—the inventions of a crafty priesthood. Though he was the first to open up the field of historical religion which later times have cultivated both extensively and intensively, Herbert of Cherbury's fundamental thought was really unhistorical. He did not see the necessity for a clear distinction between the historical succession and the logical order—which is not a succession in time. In this he resembled most of his followers in the age of rationalism, as well as his Scholastic predecessors. And these were the periods in which the traditional proofs were in the ascendant among philosophers and theologians.

The religious consciousness of those periods—Scholastic and Cartesian—had inherited the idea of one God as the creator and ruler of the universe; the historical antecedents of this idea and of the religious consciousness generally were unknown to or ignored by the thinkers of the time. The religious idea of God was taken over by philosophy, without question as to its origin, and used for expressing the final explanation of reality which philosophy was able to give. The procedure was not necessarily vicious. There cannot be one view valid for religion and another and quite different solution for the philosophical problem. But the procedure must not be followed blindly; philosophy must not take over the religious idea of God without recognising that this idea has been reached on another path than that of rational thought.

Elsewhere1 I have drawn a distinction between what I have called two ways of theism—the theism of the religious consciousness for which God is in some manner an immediate object; and the theism of philosophical theory in which the idea of God is arrived at by a process of reflective thought and functions as an explanation of reality. The two ways cannot permanently diverge and yet each be valid along its own lines: for the religious consciousness is just one aspect of the human consciousness. But they do not display unbroken harmony. Religion is not the monopoly of speculative thinkers, and the object of common worship at any time may be incredible to the man of trained intelligence. At such times there is strain and conflict between religion and philosophy, and the strain may issue in progress for both. On the other hand, when the religious consciousness and philosophical thinking are directed to the same object, and are at one in their conception of it, we have what is called an age of faith. The Scholastic period is often described as such. The period between Descartes and the latter part of the eighteenth century—the years in which Rationalism was in the ascendant—are not generally described in the same way. They exhibited in an acute form, though on a somewhat limited field, the strain of religious conflict. And yet, as regards the one point I have in view—the conception of God—this period also might be called an age of faith. For philosophy and religion were then very much at one as to the way in which God was understood and in accepting belief in him as valid.

Thus it happened that, during the period when the theistic arguments, or certain of them, were commonly regarded as sound and convincing, two contemporary characteristics of thought may be noted. In the first place, Kant's criticism had not yet discredited the competence of human reason in questions of metaphysics and theology. And, in the second place, the idea of God was present to thinkers in advance of their argument, and regarded by them as a primitive and permanent possession of the human consciousness, so that they were predisposed in favour of the idea. What they had to do was to demonstrate that this idea had a real object. The objections to which the theoretical arguments were subjected first by Hume and afterwards by Kant weakened the arguments themselves. But the views arrived at in Hume's ‘Natural History of Religion’ were fitted to strike at the root of something which lay behind the arguments—the idea of the one God, which they took over from the common religious consciousness before going on to prove the divine existence. Hume set out to show that this idea was not primitive and not universal, but the offspring of strange superstitions; and he ended with the suggestion that by “opposing one species of superstition to another,” we should “set them a-quarrelling; while we ourselves, during their fury and contention, happily make our escape into the calm, though obscure, regions of philosophy2”—a region in which we may be content to suspend our judgment, seeing that “the whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery.”

The investigations into the origin and history of religion which have been carried out since Hume's day have added vastly to our knowledge, but they have, not finally removed that perplexity in which Hume found himself. If we ask what is the bearing of the development of religion upon the claim to truth made in religion, we find ourselves confronted by two, or even by three, different answers from those whose knowledge of the subject qualifies them to speak. We have, in the first place, the view that religion had its origin in an attitude which implied misunderstanding of the causal connexions of things, that its history is only slightly, if at all, related to the truth of its dogmas, and that we are even justified in drawing the inference that, whatever purposes it may have served in the past or even may serve in the future, it has no grasp upon truth and its object is illusory. In the second place, other enquirers hold that the religious consciousness has had from the beginning a certain connexion with objective reality, and that the history of religion displays, on the whole, a progressive revelation of this reality. These views are directly opposed; but it is possible to hold a third view according to which the history of religion does not justify any kind of inference either to the truth or to the falsity of religious doctrines.

It does not fall within my plan or my competence to examine these views and to attempt to decide between them. But it is relevant to draw attention to them. They may serve to remind us of the limits of our present enquiry when compared with the whole field of the philosophy of religion. And the difference of opinion which they display has a bearing on the method which it behoves us to adopt. Having regard to the varieties of the religious consciousness, and the problems involved in its interpretation, we cannot simply accept from it the idea of God, as we find that idea at certain times or in certain persons, and then proceed to consider the place which that idea occupies in philosophical or reflective thought, and the grounds for holding that it has a real object. But this is just what was done by those who used the traditional arguments. They began with an idea of God, which they proceeded to define, for the most part without meeting with much controversy, and then went on to give proofs of the being or existence of God. When doubt or difference arises concerning the idea of God itself, the basis of the argument is shifted, and the proofs themselves lose their cogency and may even cease to interest us. Thus it becomes necessary to adopt a different way of approaching the question.

We are seeking to understand reality—if possible, as a whole; and our beginning must be made from reality as it is known to us. We have found that the parts of reality are all connected together; there is no absolutely independent unit among the objects of experience; in this sense, therefore, reality as known to us is a whole. The problem is, How are we to understand this whole? This is definitely a philosophical question, to which theism is one possible answer, namely, that the whole and all its parts are dependent upon one Supreme Mind. Pantheism is another solution and differs from theism in the thoroughness with which it strips the finite many of every vestige of independence or individuality, and in its reluctance to qualify the One as mind. Still another type of solution may be found in the varying forms of Pluralism, which accentuate the reality of the many in a way which contrasts with pantheism, and either deny the existence of One Supreme Mind or else regard that supreme spirit as only primus inter pares.

Each of these different theories is an attempt to arrive at a view of reality as a whole—what has been called a synoptic view. Analysis and synthesis are employed in the theoretical process by which they are reached, but are insufficient of themselves to form such theories. Nor are they on the same level as scientific theories, in which objects are classified and referred to the laws or formulæ which describe them. They are views of the universe as a whole, and the universe cannot be put into a class or compared with other objects: for there are no other objects, and there is no class larger than itself. It is unique, a ‘singular event3,’ as Hume called it. Hume's criticism of the cosmological argument will be referred to later. But there is profound truth in this suggestive comment of his. We cannot refer the universe to any class higher or wider than itself; it has no similar and no other; all classes and concepts must be found within it, not outside it. We are seeking to understand it, and such understanding must be from within, not from without. We are ourselves parts of the universe, or factors of it, and an outside view of it is impossible. The only understanding of it possible for us must be an inner view—such as all synopsis is—and the synoptic effort will be a struggle to get as near as possible to the heart of the universe, its inner principle. Thus the problem which confronts us should not be put in the form, Does God exist? but rather in the form, How is the universe to be understood and interpreted?

The various theistic arguments commonly put the question in the other way which, I think, is the wrong way. They start with a definition of God, and then distinguish certain lines of argument along each of which we are supposed to arrive at the conclusion that God exists. And each line of argument is supposed to have independent validity and to point to the same conclusion. Further, these lines of argument imitate the part-to-part advance of scientific proof, and the transition in them to a view of reality as a whole is obscure or questionable. We shall therefore expect to find defects in the traditional proofs, though it may turn out that they make important contributions to that view of the whole which we are endeavouring to form. For all the proofs begin from some part in the divided whole of reality and seek in their conclusions to transcend the limited or partial and reach the unconditioned or complete.

This is the case even with the Ontological Argument, though it starts from an idea than which none greater can be conceived. It begins with a distinction which, once made, is always hard to reconcile—the distinction between idea and existence. With this distinction both Anselm and Descartes began, and the general view of both is that there is one idea so great as to spurn the distinction and necessitate the existence of its corresponding object. Anselm sought long and earnestly for a simple form of proof, free from learned complexity, which would show that and what God is. And what he found is the following argument4: God is a Being than which no greater can be conceived. Such is our idea of God. But that than which no greater can be conceived cannot be in the understanding alone (that is, it cannot be a mere idea), for if it were only in the understanding, then something further could be conceived as belonging to it, namely, real existence; and this existence in reality as well as in idea would be a greater thing than ideal existence only. That is to say, if that than which no greater can be conceived were only in the understanding, there would be something still greater than it, which assuredly is impossible. Something, therefore, without doubt, exists than which no greater can be conceived, and it is both in the understanding and in reality.

Such is the sum and substance of Anselm's argument as he first stated it. It was afterwards re-stated by him in somewhat more technical terms in reply to a critic. But even in its first form it cannot be refuted by a reference to the difference between the idea of a hundred dollars and the actual existence or possession of a hundred dollars. Kant's example, as Hegel remarked5, appeals at once to the ordinary understanding; for there is nothing the plain man can grasp more clearly than the difference between the idea of money and money in pocket. Hence the success of Kant's illustration, which has been taken as a sufficient refutation of Anselm's proof. Yet it really misses the point of that proof, which was an effort to discriminate between the idea of God and all other ideas. Nor was Kant's argument new. He was anticipated by a contemporary of Anselm's, Gaunilo by name, who used a more elaborate illustration. And this is the way in which Gaunilo answered Anselm. “Some say that there is somewhere in the ocean an Island which—as it is difficult, or rather impossible, to discover what does not exist—is known as the Lost Island. It is fabled to be more amply supplied with riches and all delights in immense abundance than the Fortunate Islands themselves. And although there is no owner or inhabitant, yet in every way it excels all inhabited lands in the abundance of things which might be appropriated as wealth. Now, let any one tell me this, and I shall easily understand all that he says. But if he then proceeds to infer: ‘You can no longer doubt that this most excellent of islands, which you do not doubt to exist in your understanding, is really in existence somewhere, because it is more excellent to be in reality than to be in the understanding only, and unless it were in existence any other land which does exist would be more excellent than it, and so that which you have understood to be the best of islands would not be the best’—if, I say, he wishes in this way to compel me to assent to the existence of this island, and to suppose that there can be no more doubt about it, either I shall consider that he is in jest, or I shall know not which I ought to consider the more foolish, myself if I grant it to him, or him if he thinks that he has, with any certainty at all, proved the existence of that island. He must first have shown me that its very excellence is the excellence of a thing really and indubitably existing, and not in any degree the excellence of a something false or dubious in my understanding.”

Now this illustration, and the criticism it conveys, are not sufficient to refute Anselm's argument, any more than the hundred dollars comparison is. True, I have an idea of an island than which none is more excellent, as Kant had an idea of a hundred dollars than which there were no better dollars in the bank at Königsberg or anywhere else. But then you cannot say that there cannot be conceived anything greater than the most excellent of islands, or the best of dollars, and this is how God is conceived.

Gaunilo's objection, it may be remarked, comes nearer the point than Kant's does. Anselm had argued that existence must belong to one idea, though to one only, namely, the idea of that than which nothing greater can be conceived. To say, as Kant does, that the idea of a hundred dollars does not involve their existence, is quite irrelevant, for we can easily conceive greater things than a hundred dollars, and, in a tolerable coinage, any one hundred dollars is not better than any other. On the other hand, Gaunilo's idea of a perfect island was at least the idea of something perfect or complete of its kind. Nothing greater of its kind could be conceived. We can however conceive something of a greater kind—perfect of its kind and also of a kind more perfect. And it was only when nothing at all more perfect or greater could be conceived that Anselm's argument applied. Anselm was therefore quite right in replying to Gaunilo that he had missed the point of his argument. It applies only to the absolutely greatest, not to things like islands which may be perfect in some limited respect. And he was quite safe in undertaking that, if his critic could apply his argument to anything else, then “I will both find for him that lost island, and I will give it to him, and secure him against its ever being lost again.” According to Anselm there is only one thing of which it can be said that it cannot be conceived in the understanding without actually existing in reality; and this is the greatest thing conceivable.

But, although he has given an answer to his critic, this does not mean that Anselm has made out his case. Because anything else can be conceived without also existing, it does not follow that the greatest conceivable cannot be so conceived but must also exist. In the case of everything else, existence can be separated from essence; but not, he urges, in the case of the idea of God. This is the doctrine as afterwards put succinctly by Descartes, who asserts that existence follows from the essence of God or the Perfect Being just as equality of the sum of its angles to two right angles follows from the essence of a triangle6. Existence, that is to say, is one of the qualities which go to make up perfection; the all-perfect must possess it as well as the others. This form of the argument, however, is met by the criticism of Kant that existence is not itself a quality or factor in perfection; and this once more might be countered in the same way as before by the assertion that what holds in every other case does not hold in the case of the all-perfect or of that than which there can be nothing greater.

But, although the replies are unsatisfactory, it does not follow that the case of Anselm and Descartes is made out. It is agreed that idea does not involve existence in any case except one: the one case, which is in dispute, being the idea of that than which nothing greater can be conceived, or of the all-perfect. Is there any ground for the assertion that this idea involves existence, although no other idea does? Can we distinguish in this respect between the idea of the all-perfect being and the idea of a perfect island?

The opposition of views can be put more simply and without technicality by a method of statement in which existence may be applied to both the objects compared. When I think of the lost island than which there is no other island more excellent, I may and often do think of it as existing. But because I think of it as existing—vaguely conceived as situated in some undefined part of the ocean—I am not justified in asserting its existence, nor do I assert that it exists. Similarly, when I think of God than whom there is no being greater, I think of him as existing. But does that justify me in asserting that he does exist? It is for Anselm and Descartes to show that it does, and why. And this they are never able to do without going outside the content of the idea with which they started and to which they profess to restrict the argument.

There are two motives underlying the Ontological Argument, and the intellectual affinities of these two motives are not the same. The first is the demand that our highest ideal, the best and most perfect being which we can conceive, shall not be severed from reality; and it is clearly a mistake to clothe such a demand in the dress of an apodictic proof which can be demonstrated from the mere content of the idea. In type it belongs to what is called the Moral Argument, which will be examined later. The other motive is the intellectual desire for completeness in our conceptions; but here we do not begin with an idea separated from reality, and then proceed to argue that it includes reality. The idea has reality from the first, both as my idea and as based on an apprehension of a reality other than the idea, whether of the world without or of the self as living and active. If what is required is to explain the existence of my idea, the argument passes into the cosmological variety with Descartes, when he asks what can have caused this idea in my mind of an all-perfect being. As significant of reality, again, the idea we have of the real world is found to be inadequate to reality as long as there is anything which it does not comprehend; and hence it is expanded to the idea of an ens realissimum or of that than which nothing can be greater. In this case also the idea is firmly rooted in existence: the question is whether it has been expanded in a legitimate manner, and especially whether we are logically justified in maintaining that our highest ethical predicates belong to the being that is the ground or principle of the existing world. And this question also belongs to the examination of the cosmological argument, or of its amplification in the teleological argument.

The Cosmological Argument is not, like the ontological argument, faced by the difficulty of making a transition from idea to existence. It begins with the idea of the world, or of portions of it presented to our experience, so that existence is from the first given with the idea. It connects this idea with the conception of God, and uses the conception of cause as the nexus. God is regarded as First Cause of the world. In the argument put forward along these lines, there are four points that seem open to attack and to defence: the validity of the causal concept in general; the validity of applying it to the world as a whole; the validity of calling a halt in the regress of causes, and saying that, at this particular point, we have reached the First Cause; and the validity of the identification of this First Cause with God.

Without entering upon these various lines of enquiry, we may look upon the problem in a more direct way and ask, To what kind of conception does the interpretation of the world lead us when we try to understand it as a whole? For this question, also, the critical point is the application and meaning of the causal concept.

It is particular events or happenings that give rise to the enquiry into causes. We are impressed by a change, a new fact, and ask for its cause. But, even when another event has been identified as the cause, we have not yet reached science—as the man of science understands the word. Science seeks the universal, and utilises the conception of causation only as a means of arriving at a universal law or formula. The ideal of all the sciences is a characteristic that has been attained in full measure only by certain branches of physics—the discovery of a formula which will serve to describe the facts already observed and enable us to predict future facts correctly. The sciences aim at expression in mathematical terms, and, when they have succeeded in finding the appropriate formulæ, their work as sciences is done: their universal is reached. If we regard physical science generally as having to do with the world as a whole, in so far as it is material, then its goal will be the discovery of a formula adequate to comprehend and describe all the processes of nature. In this result the time-process becomes unimportant; and the question of a First Cause does not arise, because the causal problem has been transformed and left behind. The one positive result for a more general interpretation is that the physical universe is an orderly system of a very precise kind, its various forms and appearances being capable of determination by a process of rational calculation. However it has come to pass—whether or no it be legitimate to ask the question how it has come to pass—it is a rational system.

At the same time this order describes for us only one aspect of the actual world. It is, in the last resort, merely quantitative. The qualities of things and their differences, the concrete facts of nature and life, remain in their qualities untouched and undescribed by its formulæ. Something has been dropped out in the process of generalisation by which the formula was reached, as something always is dropped out in every generalisation from particular facts. Thus, in any particular sequence of events, we are not merely interested in the theorem that, in the redistribution of energy, its quantity remains constant; this proposition assures us of order, without throwing any light on the particular quality of the events; it does not exclude the possibility of the same equation being preserved by another alternative sequence qualitatively different; and that there should be change at all is, of course, for it an ultimate fact. The formula gives only the quantity or ‘how much’ of anything, not its qualitative individuality.

Now even our physical enquiries (as distinct from their results as finally formulated) are never purely quantitative; they are always concerned with concrete and therefore qualitatively determined facts and sequences; this is more obviously true of biological and still more obviously of mental and social investigations. These all proceed on the postulate that each new fact or event has its ground or explanation in something antecedent. The world-process—whether in its physical history or in its human history—would be unintelligible apart from this postulate. Whatever our subsequent generalisation and formulation of the result, our enquiries depend on the postulate that the course of the world is continuous and that its state at any moment finds its explanation, somewhere and somehow, in its immediately preceding state. And, as the time-factor enters here, it is impossible to avoid the antinomy of first beginning or infinite regress.

Hume's reference to the world as a unique or singular event7 has already been mentioned and its significance acknowledged. The use which Hume makes of it is to put out of court any interpretation of the world as a whole or enquiry into its cause. We have no ground, he thinks, for saying that it has any cause. The idea of cause is just a name for our subjective tendency to pass to a certain idea when we have frequently had a similar impression in like circumstances. Of two events (that is, strictly, two impressions) one—let us say, heat—has frequently followed the other—say, flame. After the sequence has been often enough repeated, then when the impression ‘flame’ recurs, we tend to form the idea ‘heat’; and so we say that flame is the cause of heat8.

Now there are two characteristics of this analysis. The first is that the notion cause is made purely subjective, descriptive of a process in our own minds, and that it can have no just claim to be regarded as indicating a connexion in objective reality. The second characteristic is that the notion is derived from an accumulation of instances in our experience—frequently described as uniform or invariable sequence. The latter characteristic is clearly much less essential than the former for the interpretation of objective reality: for if causation has no legitimate application to objective reality at all, it is unimportant whether, in its illegitimate application, it be derived from experience of a uniform sequence or not. Nevertheless, in his criticism of the cosmological argument, as in his criticisms generally, Hume applies only the superficial feature of the explanation of causation at which he had arrived, and not its more essential character. There has been only one world in our experience, not a number of worlds which might have yielded a uniform sequence, and therefore we can say nothing about its having a cause; whereas he leaves it to be assumed that of any event in the world, where similar events may be found, we may quite properly ask for a cause. In truth, however, his own analysis leaves him no right to do so. Cause is but a customary tendency due to mental association, and the notion is without objective validity. He saw this himself in his first book, where he was in earnest with his subject, and he acknowledged that his theory left all events in the world loose and separate, so that natural science was involved in the same ruin as natural theology.

Natural science assumes the legitimacy of the causal enquiry not as the consequence of a generalisation from uniform experience, but as a means towards its generalisations. And history—whether it be the history of the earth or of nations—can be a subject of investigation only when the causal principle guides each step in the enquiry. Every event has to be understood as arising out of and determined by something antecedent to it. Here time is implied. But even in this meaning of cause, we must note, the notion of power does not seem to be essential; and the natural sciences have long ago dispensed with it in their doctrine of method. Power is a notion derived from our own conscious experience when changes follow upon voluntary effort. In nature, however, we observe changes only and not the power that produces them. If the world be interpreted in terms of mind, then it will also be regarded as realising, not only in its regular laws but also in its continuous changes, the idea of a mind to whom this power of realisation will be attributed. But unless and until it is interpreted in terms of mind, it would seem illegitimate to introduce the notion of power in investigating nature. We are limited to the determinate sequence of antecedent and consequent.

When we follow out this causal sequence, it is clear that we cannot avoid facing the difficulty that either the regress must be infinite or else there must be a stage which is cause only and not effect. What is to be said of this ancient antinomy? This much may be asserted of the first alternative. If we say that the regress has gone on from infinity, the position may be maintained; but it is not a solution, it answers no question, gives no explanation or interpretation of the world or its cause. It simply means postponing any answer sine die. If on the other hand, we assert a First Cause, then we must mean by cause something very different from our meaning when we say that the state of the world at one moment is the cause of its state at the next. The cause which is not also an effect is a very different conception from the cause which is also an effect of something else. The distinction is not a mere distinction of time; it is a distinction of the ground or reason.

The assertion of a First Cause, therefore, really means that our ordinary conception of cause is inadequate to the explanation of reality as a whole. We have been looking for an explanation by tracing each stage back to its antecedent, and we find or think we find in the antecedent the ground of the consequent. But the explanation is always by something else which stands equally in need of explanation, and therefore is no explanation at all until that something else is explained. To say that the regress is infinite does not give any explanation and only stops the quest for one. To say that there is a First Cause is an awkward expression for the doctrine that the true explanation must be sought not simply in any antecedent, but in some characteristic of the process as a whole. As long as we regard the First Cause as simply accounting for the beginning of the world-history, it fails to account even for that beginning: for we are forced to ask, What made the beginner begin and begin just then? Only the contents of the world can show us that it has a meaning which requires some other kind of explanation than antecedent events. The Cause we seek must be not merely First Cause but Final Cause.

Bearing these points in mind can we say that the cosmological argument proves anything? And if so what does it prove? The argument everywhere depends upon the notion of cause. But ‘cause’ is used in two different senses, and from one of these senses something essential to the meaning of the term as commonly used has been eliminated. When cause is understood as mathematical physics might use it, causation is reduced to an equation. Not only is the notion of power or force absent from it, but the time-factor also becomes unessential: so that it is probably better not to use the term ‘cause’ at all in this connexion. The net result of this mode of enquiry is that the world must be regarded as an orderly system, whose order is open to our understanding. Order, therefore, and an adaptation between this order and the human mind are what we have a right to assert about the world. The latter characteristic connects this argument with the teleological. But, even apart from this adaptation, the existence of order raises the central question. Either it is due to a mind or consciousness by whom it is conceived and made manifest in the facts of the world, or it is not. The former alternative gives an explanation of the order in the world, and we understand the explanation because mind as we know it in ourselves is also a source of order. But it does not justify us in calling by the name of God this mind that controls the world until we are satisfied that goodness as well as understanding belongs to it. Is the other alternative excluded, however? Is it impossible that law or order should itself be the ultimate conception behind which we cannot go? The suggestion is that law in nature, or the order of the world, should be regarded as an eternal principle, like the Platonic ideas, which in some manner determines the way in which things behave and are known by us. The full difficulties of this mode of explanation become apparent only when we take into account the order of values as well as the order of nature: so that for a decision of the main question we are driven beyond the cosmological argument as commonly understood.

Cause has a fuller meaning in the investigation of the historical evolution of nature or of man. When we consider events in their concrete happening, especially when we seek to understand the active process in which life and mind appear and which they strive to dominate, then the time-problem enters; the order of occurrence is no longer unessential; the sequence cannot be reversed; the cause precedes, and the effect is explained by reference to it. In these enquiries we assume that the present state of anything is to be explained by its antecedent state and by its environment, and as there is no environment for the world as a whole, its present state must be explained simply by its own past. This process of explanation must either go on indefinitely, or else the world must depend upon an ultimate reality to which not the first stage only but every stage of the world's history is due. Here again we are presented with an alternative. But one of the alternatives—that of infinite regress—gives no real explanation. If the explanation of one event, or state of the world, A, consists in a reference to a preceding event or state B, then we have not explained A unless B is something that we understand. And if our understanding of B consists simply in a further reference to another event or state C, and that requires to be explained in the same way, and so on indefinitely—then we have no explanation at all. The assertion of an infinite regress of causes is only a means of putting off indefinitely the answer to an awkward question.

The ultimate reality, to which the other alternative leads us, is not more necessary to explain things in their beginning than to explain any stage in their development. In respect of their dependence on the ultimate reality, the distinction between the creation and the preservation of things is unessential. The cosmological argument, therefore, so far as it is an application of the time-sequence involved in causation, is in this way transcended. It will depend on the view we reach concerning reality as a whole whether we assert that the world had a beginning in time or not. In either case we shall have no right to speak of time as a reality or form of reality independent of the ultimate. And when time is taken into account, we shall not look in one direction only. It has been too much the habit to explain the world by a backward view only, in the attempt to reach a first cause. The process fronts the future, and we must ask how far the search for a final cause may contribute to its explanation.

For this reason I do not regard the Teleological Argument (as commonly stated) as being in principle distinct from the Cosmological. We have already seen that the elements of value in the Ontological argument are, also, really interpretative of the world if we take that word in its widest sense as inclusive of man, his knowledge and his ideals. So that the various traditional proofs are in essence all of them efforts after the interpretation of the world, and may therefore be regarded as forms of the cosmological argument. But the teleological proof has its distinctive character, and that is to found upon certain special features in the contents of the world, those namely which seem to reveal the presence and realisation of purpose, and therefore to justify an inference to intelligence and to benevolence in the ultimate reality of which our world is the manifestation. It is not possible to do justice here to this important and venerable argument. All that can be done is to bring out some leading features of it, as they appear in the light of recent criticism.

The teleological argument has commonly been narrowed down to the discovery of certain marked adaptations, sometimes fairly obvious, sometimes more recondite, which are displayed in nature. These are taken to prove the intelligence of the Designer of nature, while their service in supplying the needs of man is held to show his goodness. The argument, as is well known, has been profoundly affected by the progress of knowledge, especially in biology. In the first place, the Darwinian theory of natural selection has had the effect of giving an alternative and entirely different explanation of the facts of adaptation. It is admitted that adaptations to the needs of living beings are a pervasive feature of nature; but this, it is held, is the result of an age-long, semi-mechanical, process. The organisms which did not display adaptations have been weeded out simply by their inability to survive in the given environment, while those have flourished best which happened to be best suited to their circumstances. And, in the second place, research, especially into the causes of disease, has revealed countless instances of adaptation whose only h—man purpose—if we attribute purpose to them—seems to be that they should be the carriers of agony and death9.

These facts and that theory deal a shrewd and indeed fatal blow to the old-fashioned teleology. The age of Paley and the Bridgewater Treatises is past. If teleological reasoning can be justified at all, it must revise its method and premisses in the light of modern biology. And the revision may show that it is possible even for natural selection to vaunt itself overmuch.

Natural selection may be confidently accepted as a vera causa; but we must look more closely to see what it does and what it does not do. I have called it semi-mechanical, for it is not entirely mechanical: it always involves non-mechanical, that is, vital processes on the part of the organism under investigation: it assumes heredity, the tendency to variation, and the impulses directed to self-preservation and to race-continuance, which in various ways determine the behaviour of different organisms. None of these impulses has been reduced to purely mechanical or to physico-chemical processes. It may be argued therefore that, even if external adaptation is absent, life and therefore purpose are always present and assumed. Further, the environment of every organism and every species is also in large measure organic, and therefore exhibits its own internal purposive activities; while there is no proof that even inorganic nature, although a mechanism, may not so far resemble the machines of man's making as to have mind behind it. Taking all the factors therefore which are implied by the term natural selection, we must admit that they involve something more than mechanism.

Of equal importance is the fact that there is much that natural selection cannot do. It is limited to life-preservation, it cannot account for wider interests and their growing ascendancy. Thus we have an interest in knowledge, and, led by this interest, we may become convinced, for example, that the theory of evolution is true, that is, that our idea on this point has objective validity with regard to the cosmic process. But this theory, or the belief in its truth, does not in any way preserve the lives of those who hold it or give them any appreciable preference in the struggle for existence. The intellectual interest which it exhibits is on a level beyond the operation of natural selection. Here therefore is something of intellectual value to us, and indicative of a harmony between our intelligence and the order of nature; and yet natural selection does not vindicate it. If that is a reason for distrusting it we must relinquish the theory of evolution and with it most of what has been urged in criticism of Paley. But if we still hold to the theory of evolution and reject ordinary teleology, we must nevertheless admit that there is an adaptation (not accounted for by natural selection) between our reason and the actual cosmic order—a design greater than any Paley ever dreamed of. And it is not of intellect alone, but also of morality and the whole world of intrinsic values, that we may have to assert adaptation between our minds and the universal order.

The order of truth which the intellect discovers and the order of moral values which the reason acknowledges are objective characteristics of reality, and they are reflected in the mind of man. Yet natural selection has little to do with their recognition, and nothing at all to do with the presence and power of their higher developments. The selective processes of nature do not specially favour the individuals who cherish these values most highly, or reward them for devoting their lives to the service of such ideals. It is not owing to natural selection, but rather in spite of it, that the mind of man affirms its affinity with truth and beauty and goodness, and, undismayed by opposition, seeks its home among ideals. To them as well as to nature the mind of man is adapted; and this adaptation can neither be explained nor explained away by biological laws. Its significance will occupy us later.

The second criticism to which I have referred is a more serious objection to teleological reasoning. Throughout the organic world there are many instances of adaptation which have the appearance of being ingenious contrivances for inflicting suffering, and few artifices are more elaborate than those which enable the meanest of organisms to prey upon the lives of men. The facts of dysteleology, as it has been called, cannot be denied; nor is there any royal road to their explanation. They may have been favoured by natural selection; but that does not make it easier to regard nature as manifesting the mind of God. Of these facts in their detail I have no explanation to offer; though I shall have something to say immediately about their general bearing on our problem. But one thing may be admitted at once. The purpose of the world—if it have a purpose—cannot be simply to give the inhabitants thereof what is called a good time. Paley's view of God as an all-wise omnipotent creator, whose sole end in creation was the happiness of his creatures, cannot be the true view. Yet, consistently with the hedonistic philosophy, nothing else can have been his aim; and hence the demand, favoured by J. S. Mill, for a God of limited powers. If the problem of pain can be solved, without denying the unity of power in the universe, it will only be in connexion with a doctrine of values far removed from hedonism. In this way the second criticism of teleology, as well as the first, leads on to the consideration of the moral argument.

  • 1.

    Hibbert Journal, vol. XI (1913), pp. 567 ff.

  • 2.

    Hume, Essays, ed. Green and Grose, vol. II p. 363.

  • 3.

    Hume's word was ‘effect’; but the word is misleading as it implies its correlative ‘cause.’ See below.

  • 4.

    See the extracts in Caldecott and Mackintosh's Selections from the Literature of Theism (1904), pp. 1–9, and in Daniels, Quellenbeiträge und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Gottesbeweise (Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, Band VIII, Heft 1–2) (1909), pp. 5–20.

  • 5.

    Philosophie der Religion, 2nd ed., vol. I, pp. 213–14. (Eng. transl., vol. II, p. 353.)

  • 6.

    Descartes, Meditations, v; Philosophical Works, Eng. tr., vol. I, p. 181.

  • 7.

    “It is only when two species of objects are found to be constantly conjoined, that we can infer the one from the other; and were an effect presented, which was entirely singular, and could not be comprehended under any known species, I do not see, that we could form any conjecture or inference at all concerning its cause.…I leave it to your own reflection to pursue the consequences of this principle.”—Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, sect. xi, ed. Selby-Bigge, p. 148 (Essays, ed. Green and Grose, vol. II, p. 122); cp. Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, part ii, ed. McEwen, p. 44 (Human Nature, ed. Green and Grose, vol. II, p. 398).

  • 8.

    Hume, Human Nature, book I, part iii, sect. 6, ed. Selby-Bigge, p. 87, ed. Green and Grose, vol. I, p. 388.

  • 9.

    But this point was not overlooked by Hume, who spoke of “the curious artifices of nature, in order to embitter the life of every living being.”—Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, sect. x, ed. McEwen, p. 126. (Human Nature, ed. Green and Grose, vol. II, p. 436.)