You are here

Lecture 1. Moral Foundation of Theism.

Philosophy of Theism distinguished from Science of Religions.

I BEGIN to-day a second series of lectures on the Philosophy of Theism. Last year I offered an Introductory Course, meant to awaken reflection to what is involved in Natural Theology, “in the widest sense of the term.” So conceived, it appeared to be concerned with the ever-pressing human problem, concerning the final trustworthiness and intelligibility of the universe in which we are living; the problem which underlies all human life, but especially in its religious experience. For, the meaning, reality, and worth of religion—in any of its degrees of development, above all in Christianity, professedly its catholic or absolute form—merges, as an intellectual inquiry, in this central question of philosophy, about the ethical value, and the intellectual relations of the individual self, the outward world, and God—the three existences of which the universe of reality is instinctively supposed to consist. The demand for Natural Theology, not in the narrow or exclusively physical, but in the universal or philosophic sense of the term “natural,” is a demand virtually for the rationale of instinctive trust in the final principle of the universe,—the Power we all have practically to do with, in our daily experience through the five senses and in our consciousness of individual personality. The Natural Theology that is philosophical is not merely a history of religion, or a comparative science of religions as they appear in the historical evolution of the world—phenomena to be described and classified according to their natural causes: it is the historical evolution translated into the deepest and truest thought which man's power of interpreting the microcosm or universe of his own incompletely intelligible experience permits. The terms of the Gifford lectureship not only admit but expressly include, among the subjects which the different lecturers are invited to make choice of for discussion, that which I have chosen—namely, Theistic Philosophy, with its eternal problems. This, as distinguished from historical Science of Religions, is more than enough to fill two courses such as ours. I pretend to offer only a series of Theistic Studies, as aids to reflection for those who are trying, as many now are, to realise intellectually, whether or not we are living and moving and having our being in an essentially divine universe—that is to say, in a universe that in its final principle is morally trustworthy, and that is more or less interpretable by man, in an exertion of theistic or religious faith, as well as of physical faith.

Either sceptical alienation from a wholly uninterpretable universe, or reconciliation through a reasonable moral faith in the universal Power.

The way in which this final question is disposed of, when expressed in terms of philosophy, seems to separate men as representatives of two opposite tendencies. There are those whose dominant disposition is to think of the universe agnostically, so that even the physical experience through which we are all daily passing becomes at last “a riddle, an enigma,” an every way “insoluble mystery”: there are those, again, whose life is one of deepening moral trust, even sympathetic intercourse with the Power that is continuously revealed in the temporal evolution of nature, and in the spiritual or supernatural constitution of man. The whole history of mankind may be read as the history of a struggle between final distrust and final trust. The one disposes to sceptical alienation from an uninterpretable universe; and life is then contemplated, according to the individual temperament, with easy indifference or with pessimist despair. The other inclination of mind is towards reconciliation with the universe in hopeful moral faith; even if it must be faith combined with incomplete scientific understanding of the Whole, and with inability to translate itself fully into sensuous conception. Do not aspirations in human nature, combined with the intellectual weakness of man, hinder both the tendency to alienation, or the tendency to reconciliation from being carried practically to the extreme of Universal Nescience, on the one hand, or Omniscience, on the other? Men could not live even a life of sense if they treated the universe as wholly uninterpretable; and the perfect comprehension, which would supersede faith, involves either the deification of man or the degradation of the infinite reality.

Philosophy of Theism essays the adjustment of the perennial struggle of Scepticism with Faith.

The Philosophy of Theism is necessarily the centre of this perennial struggle between what, when fully thought out, becomes the empty negation of total Scepticism, and the final Faith that we are living in a universe that in its deepest reality is morally trustworthy, to which man may be reconciled without necessarily contradicting reason, and although the Faith play never be exchanged by man for perfect comprehension of the threefold totality—ego, the outward world, and God—in a human philosophy emptied of all mystery.

The presence of the Infinite in the universe tends to a Destructive or a Constructive issue, according to the way in which it is regarded.

The idea of the infinite in quantity that is irresistibly forced upon us when we try to understand finally the space through which our bodies move, the duration in which our lives are spent, and the causation which determines ceaseless change, is what gives uniqueness at last to our physical experience. Now, this idea of the infinite or mysterious quantity of existence in space, duration, and causation, according to the way in which it is handled, may nourish either sceptical nescience or religious faith. Looked at in one way, it alienates man from the universe in which he finds himself: it shakes trust in it, as in something that cannot be intellectually grasped, on account of its infinite size, as well as its physical unbeginningness and unendingness. So that also in its changes, because already in its inexhaustible infinity, the changing universe seems to evade intelligence when one asks for its character and purpose. This final scientific incomprehensibility of that to a dim perception of which we are first awakened in sense, and call “real,” produces perplexity and paralysis—a presumption that life is meaningless, and the world uninterpretable and therefore unapproachable—because we find that we must remain for ever baffled by the mysteries involved in its immensity, eternity, and endless causal regress. Yet the same negative idea of the infinity, or mysterious incompletability, of existence, under which all seems to lose itself at last in causal mystery, becomes the very minister of moral and theistic faith, when what is causal mystery for the scientific understanding is handled in reverential humility, and is found to open room for, and even justify, theistic as well as physical faith in the Power that is at the root of all. For the consequent conviction that man cannot become omniscient is then apt to make the subject of this conviction disposed to accept an understanding of things that is at last determined by practical substitutes for omniscience that may be found in the moral and spiritual constitution of man. The universe is seen to be too mysterious for us to interpret it even in part and physically, unless we submit understanding to the authority of human nature as a whole, which includes man emotional, and man acting supernaturally in volition, as well as man thinking scientifically, and at last necessarily baffled in so thinking. The littleness of self, and the mystery of physical evolution, is relieved by the elevating sense of the infinite reality, even with the element of venture which limited knowledge necessarily involves. In this disposition of mind it seems as if—

“Our destiny, our being's heart and home,

Is with Infinitude, and only there;

With hope it is, hope that can never die,

Effort and expectation and desire,

And something evermore to be.”

The mysterious Boundlessness which envelops and governs our whole temporal experience, so regarded, opens the way to reconciliation with the Reality, instead of alienating us; for it gives room to reverential ascent towards the living God, on the “altar-steps” that “slope through the darkness” of infinity.

Illustrations of the Destructive and constructive influence of the idea of Infinity.

Thus its infinity, or physical incompletableness, makes the final problem of the universe look foreign to the scientific understanding, and, exclusively at its point of view, envelops us and our surroundings at last in an impenetrable darkness, which dissolves faith. Yet, otherwise regarded, this final margin of mystery becomes the light of life; because the apology for the faith instead of perfect science, without which life cannot be lived. One finds the Infinite casting its dark shadow in Lucretius and in David Hume, in Schopenhauer and Herbert Spencer: Philo, in Hume's ‘Dialogues concerning Natural Religion,’ is indeed the special spokesman of those who judge reality unapproachable on account of it, and the whole discussion in the ‘Dialogues’ is depressed by its shadow. Infinity turns its divine side to Plato and Pascal, to Descartes and Bacon and Locke, to Kant and Hegel and Lotze, and to the great religions thinkers, especially of Christendom; it unconsciously inspires martyrs and saints of the Catholic Church; it is latent even in the physical faith of the leaders of modern natural science, and in the common experience of the senses in all human beings.

The central idea of the first series of lectures.

The crisis of the struggle between Doubt and Faith turns at last upon whether the idea of the infinity or necessary boundlessness of the universe of reality is taken by its theistic or its atheistic handle. The immanence of mysterious infinity in human experience is the occasion of the struggle. This thought was in my mind throughout the Introductory Course. It is implied in its two opening lectures; it pervades the negative exposition and criticism of universal materialism, panegoism, and pantheism, with their resolution into universal nescience, in the five following ones; and it colours the constructive criticism to which the three concluding lectures incline. In now pursuing the construction, I will try in this and the four next lectures to show the ground on which the finally theistic interpretation of the universe rests, and the harmony of this interpretation with the highest human exercise of reason. The five concluding lectures are meant to deal with the obstacle to theistic or absolute trust and hope in omnipotent goodness that is presented by the Evil which man finds mixed with Good in his experience of life.

Atheism, Theism and Pantheism, as competitive final conceptions.

Modern thought confronts us with three responses to the final question about the reality and meaning of the universe. One of these is the atheistic or sceptical, which confesses total inability to find meaning or intelligible principle at the root of the temporal evolution in which we find ourselves involved: human experience seems an unintelligible flux or succession of accidents. Opposite to this is the religious or theistic conception, according to which the evolving universe is the constant expression of ever-active moral reason, so that we are living and moving and having our being in a perfect moral providence; and our final relation to the operative Power is a personal relation, because involving moral responsibility. Intermediate between the meaningless universe of the sceptic, and the morally or personally constituted universe of the theist, is the final conception of an impersonal, non-moral, physically determined universe; in course of evolution by Unknowable Power, the supposed centre of the unethical or necessitated natural causation, which gives a sort of continuity to the perpetual flux; a continuity supposed to imply that one thing somehow comes into existence through another thing, but in which all are only things, not persons. Proper personality, with its implicate of moral responsibility, is here excluded as that for which there is no intellectual room: physical causality instead of spiritual morality must be the last word of a universe thus emptied of moral trustworthiness. This is ambiguously called the pantheistic conception and interpretation of human experience: those who adopt it are commonly found fluctuating between the universal nescience of the sceptic and the trust in moral order of the theist, in proportion as its merely physical “religion” declines into total distrust, or becomes invigorated by practical acceptance of the ethical postulates that constitute theism.

which of these three is the most reasonable attitude towards the changing universe of reality?

The spirit of the time asks which of these three attitudes reason justifies as the final interpretation of life. Must we become alienated from what we experience, in a feeling of the meaninglessness of the whole, or is reconciliation possible on reasonable terms? If the last, what is the best form of reconciliation that a thoughtful and good man can reach, for co-operating as it were with the Supreme Power in the infinite, or finally mysterious, universe of reality that is assumed to exist; and how may this harmonious relation be best expressed in terms of philosophy? Is it a wholly physical relation of one thing to another thing that is alone discoverable; or is it ultimately the moral and religious relation of one person to another person—myself in personal relation to absolute moral obligation divinely personified?

Am I only a thing or am I also a person?

The answer to this question turns much upon the true answer to the question: Am I only a thing, or am I also a person? Am I obliged, by a necessity of moral reason, to believe that I originate all acts for which I can reasonably be blamed or praised; or, on the contrary, if I would not indulge in illusion, must I think of what are called “my own” actions in a wholly physical or non-moral way; acknowledging that they are not really mine, but vaguely actions of Supreme Unknowable Power: there being nothing in me that is supernatural, nothing for which, as its ultimate cause, I alone am responsible? Is the Power that is supreme and final manifested only in and through continuous natural phenomena—events dependent on other events, which other events are in like manner dependent on their natural antecedents, all refunding themselves at last into an unintelligible unbeginningness? May not the Supreme Power be more fully revealed in and through free moral agents, called persons; so related to the Supreme Power that each of them is able to bring into existence what ought not to exist, what accordingly is not necessitated to exist, but may be brought into existence, in opposition to the Supreme Power, by an intending act of the individual person who brings it into existence; who is nevertheless, as the final cause of his own moral and immoral acts, under absolute moral obligation to the personal or moral Life of the Universe?

And therefore finally in a moral relation to an Infinite Personality, or active more Reason?

I must now ask emphatically whether the deepest and truest available interpretation of human experience is—that in which all experienced reality is regarded merely as physical cause and potentiality,—in which self-conscious life itself is only a physical event in the continuous evolution of sense-presented nature? Is not a deeper and truer interpretation found rather when all is finally interpreted in the light of moral reason, or what is popularly called conscience, with its sense of remorse and self-satisfaction for what is done personally, and its absolute imperativeness? If this last is the final meaning, we indeed find ourselves in a universe that is physically unintelligible in the end, in its Mysterious regress into the unbeginning past, and its not less mysterious progress into the unending future, but which—notwithstanding this mystery of its physical infinity or necessary incompletability—assumes moral trustworthiness and practical intelligibility when it is regarded as the revelation of absolute moral obligation conceived as personal;—so that its secret, concealed in the inevitable mystery of physical causality, is practically revealed, as far as man is concerned with it, in the voice of conscience with its sense of eternally underlying righteousness alone. Is not this the conception of the Whole, which—I do not say by strict logical necessity of the understanding I must take—but which I ought to take? To think of the universe into which I enter in all my concrete experience as inevitably involving in it, at the extreme of man's intellectual resources for the inquiry, the idea of Duty, and its correlative personal freedom, is to realise that I am a spiritual person, and not merely a physical thing. It is, correlatively, to think of the universe as the revelation to me of moral Personality, and not merely as an unbeginning and unending succession of physical changes. Is not this the interpretation which developed conscience and developed religious instinct may be said to put upon what would otherwise be physical as well as moral chaos? This moral personification of the physically infinite universe translates its scientifically insoluble problem into one that is morally or practically soluble. Natural science leaves us at last as it were in an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere. Conscience, with its implicates of personified moral obligation, and supernatural spirituality in man and God, enables man to read the daily drama of life in the evolution of inorganic and organic nature, as finally moral intercourse of individual person or moral being with Infinite Personality—concealed yet thus revealed; and shows us ourselves to ourselves as living in what is more than the infinite machine, because also, under its higher ideal, the free order of moral Providence.

So that moral Reason practically resolves for man the final physical mystery of unbeginning and unending change.

Conscience, it has been said, not only teaches us that God is, but what God is. It expresses the voice not of surrounding incognisable Power but of surrounding morally trustworthy Power; a voice that accordingly sustains faith even in a natural order that will not finally put us to confusion, when we trust it in the actions of common life, or in scientific verifications; inasmuch as we then find ourselves participating in a providential system of active perfect moral reason, instead of being always face to face with a finally inexplicable physical necessity. In this recognition of eternally living moral obligation, I can find myself at home everywhere, because everywhere in a morally principled universe, which gives to the most distant place, and the remotest time, a significance, and thus a homeliness, that transforms and reconciles the otherwise alienating; physical infinite. This life is the light of men, that “lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” One may “take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost part of the earth,” only to find there the same personified moral obligation which is the supreme conception here, and so may everywhere recognise and rest in God. For in this sense “God dwelleth within all things.” According to a great Christian divine, God is above all things, beneath all things,—above by power, beneath by sustentation, within by subtlety,—ruling above, containing below, encompassing without, penetrating within,—everywhere sustaining by ruling, ruling by sustaining, penetrating by encompassing, encompassing by penetrating,—everywhere personified moral obligation of individual persons. This is the language of the higher religions, or religion in its ethical development, with its highest and absolute form in Christianity. The nodes of the first appearance of religion in the individual or in the race, in the crude forms of fetichism and polytheism, and the inferior conceptions of primitive morality, are really irrelevant to the validity of religious and moral ideas in their advanced state of development. Their justification lies in what they are now found to be: this is not discredited by the incoherence of their early manifestations, either in children or in the childhood of the race. The faint forms under which the now matured contents and implicates of either physical or spiritual experience were first manifested must not prejudice their rational authority as speculative and practical principles, at their present stage. The mathematical calculus is not treated as illusion because infants and some tribes of savages, as well as whole tribes of animals, have got no distinct idea of number. The moral and scientific conceptions, on which educated intelligence now relies, are presented in living form in history in very various degrees: we apply them in their articulate form, not in their embryo state. And so we find God in the idea of Good, enriched by experience, and Personality becomes the supreme conception, because Moral Obligation is found to be absolute. The ideal issue, not the fact that the ideal has been gradually unfolded, is what is truly significant for philosophy and religion. The human organism may have come naturally out of protoplasm; but man is not merely protoplasm now, as we find him personified in great physical discoverers, or in moral and religious geniuses.

Kantian moral Theism.

That the final interpretation of the universe is reasonably taken under a moral or theistic conception, not a wholly physical one, virtually coincides with Kantian philosophy; although Kant has been claimed as one of the two pioneers of modern agnosticism, on the ground of the destructive criticism which lie directs against traditional theistic dialectic, as logical proof of the existence of God. His analysis of pure reason seems to end in showing that absurdity is involved in every endeavour to read the riddle of the universe. Whether its final mystery is approached cosmologically, in the argument for a First Cause, teleologically, in the argument from signs of design, or ontologically, from the idea of absolute perfection, it refuses to yield up its secret to human understanding. And if Kant had ended with this, his authority might be produced in support of the sceptical ideal of life in a universe of which man can at last affirm nothing, in which furthermore he can do nothing that implies faith in its trust-worthiness or in his own; for one can find as little moral support in the empty categories of pure reason as a wholly empirical view of things. But Kant surely means more than this; at least his philosophy in its completeness is not necessarily inconsistent with its in complete first chapter. The physically scientific understanding is not the whole of reason, nor the limit of man's practical participation in reason. If man were only physically scientific, the secret of the world would be so much out of his reach that he could not justify the moral confidence that is implied even in its physical interpretation. For existence, with its unique quasi-quantitative infinite in space and duration, and its causal mystery, becomes incapable of being handled at all, when it is dealt with as a wholly physical problem. The unbeginning and unending material rebels against the categories of an intelligence measured empirically by sensuous quantity: when finite intelligence is thus required to do infinite work, it must either become paralysed by the paradoxes that arise in its consequent attempt to image the necessarily unimaginable—to put eternity within time, or immensity within place—as the exclusively physical speculator has to do. Man in the fulness of his spirit—man moral and religious, as well as man the scientific thinker—must be in exercise, when he is confronted with his final question; and a spiritual and practical interpretation, in which the physically scientific one merges in the end, is what has to be looked for, in intelligence like the human, that is intermediate between physical omniscience and physical nescience.

Physical or scientific reason culminating in moral reason.

Natural science, accordingly, is checked by reason, when the naturalist proposes to take the final question about human experience of reality exclusively within his own province. The check is best administered, Kant's reasoning seems to imply, by showing the contradictions in which we are landed if we insist upon approaching the infinite reality, not with our entire spiritual humanity, but only with the data and presuppositions of pure reason measured by sense. Faith only in this gives support indeed to the working hypotheses on which scientific progress turns; but then even this cosmical faith is possibly misleading in the end, unless man can virtually put moral trust in the supreme principle of the universe, and regard experience finally, not as an aimless procession of customary sequences, which may in the end play him false, but as manifested moral order or providence. Even physical interpretation, in its faith in the steadiness of the natural order, and the adaptation of that order to human intelligence, proceeds practically, if unconsciously, upon a moral and religious interpretation of the Whole. Human nature forces us to acknowledge in existence more than physical nature, as the condition of its own spiritual health. I do not say that pant so expresses the matter; but the full meaning of his philosophy, when moral reason is found supplementing the inadequacy of scientific understanding, is, I think, in analogy with this position.

For physical faith in natural order presupposes moral faith in the universal Power.

This finally moral or theistic of the temporal drama of existence cannot be scientifically proved: physical order, which is assumed in all physical verifications, is itself assumed without reason when moral and religious faith in the universal Power is withdrawn: without this deeper faith the temporal process may be supposed at any time to subside into chaos, in the innumerable contingencies of agencies out of the reach of our physical experiments; so that the root of all merely physical experiment may itself turn out to be a broken reed, as far as only sensuous intelligence reveals it. Even the agnostic naturalist is virtually expressing an unconfessed moral faith, when he proceeds upon the efficacy of what is called “scientific verification”; for he is taking for granted that scientific intelligence will not be finally put to confusion when it shows trust in the supreme principle of the universe, in its inductive ways of dealing with the procession of events. Their past custom of sequence is not in itself reason, unless it is so reinforced by moral faith as that the universe is practically looked at as manifestation of ever active moral reason, and therefore incapable of imposing upon us diabolical illusion, when we daily trust in its physical uniformities.

A moral trust in the changing universe of reality unconsciously implied in Descartes's argumentative vindication of the trustworthiness of the human mind.

An idea of this sort may be found at the bottom of that vindication of the veracity of human perceptions and intelligence which Descartes suggests in his autobiographical account of his own philosophical recovery from a state of tentative doubt about everything. How do I know, he had asked himself, that even in what my mental faculties most certainly assure me of, they play not after all be deluding me? My relation to my surroundings may be finally determined, not according to perfect moral order, but according to diabolical caprice. How can I be sure that I have a body, merely because I now see what I call my body, or how can I be sure that other living organisms exist outside my own? How can I justify the faith which I indulge in, that the customary course of nature is so reliable that I may act in the expectation that, under what seem to be similar conditions in future, I may expect similar issues to those which were evolved under like conditions in the past? What real assurance can a man have when he projects his thought into the past through memory; or into the past, the distant, and the future in scientific expectation? Why may not the physically scientific understanding always deceive in the future although it may never happen to have deceived in the past? How do I know that waking perception is not as illusory as a dream in sleep? For all these may be experiences in a universe in which the Supreme Power is enacting a diabolical fraud.

The trustworthiness of experience presupposes, that the existence presented to us in our senses and in consciousness is finally fit to be believed in.

But if, instead of this fundamental doubt, I deliberately presuppose the final supremacy of God, or active moral reason, I am only giving reflective expression to the faith that is at the root of all other faith, deeper than which I cannot go. If God or living goodness, is supreme, external nature and my faculties cannot thus conspire to delude me. For this would be to suppose that the changing universe and my nature are in contradiction to one another, so that I should be obliged throughout all experience to believe a lie. The only presupposition that forbids the entrance of this total scepticism is the presupposition that God, or active moral reason, is practically omnipresent or omnipotent. The trustworthiness of my faculties, and so the physical interpretability of the universe, presupposes the action of morally perfect spiritual Power at the heart of the Whole.

This is not a conclusion from presented phenomena, but recognition of a necessary postulate.

This is not an argument, Descartes tries to make it one, and it becomes circular. It is only the overt expression of a presupposition, without tacit assent to which, in some form, human knowledge and life must dissolve in total doubt or ignorance. The truth that one finds in the heart of this so-called argument for the trustworthiness of the human mind is, that the existence of God is presupposed in the reliableness of experience. If I do not, at least tacitly, indulge in this moral faith, I cannot even make a beginning. Unless I believe that I am justified in interpreting the manifestations of existence as manifestations of what, in its ultimate principle, is personified moral order and goodness, phenomena cannot be interpreted, even physically, as in the natural sciences, and in the common-sense perceptions and acts of daily life. Agnosticism in religion and morality carries in it universal agnosticism, including physically scientific paralysis as well as religious paralysis. Cosmic faith depends on moral faith in the universe of reality; and moral faith, in its religious form, is theistic or practically personal faith. Otherwise even what men cannot help believing and seeing to be true may be false—an illusory intellectual necessity. Unless we take for granted that we are born into infinite moral order or moral providence, the universe and our interpretations of those of its manifestations that enter into our temporal experience, may all in the end put us to confusion; and surrender us to idle dreams, with the contingency of a future of unbroken purposeless misery, or final discord between moral conduct and happiness. I cannot indeed logically argue all this, by an argumentative appeal to a speculatively demonstrated God, but I virtually assume God in practically presupposing the absolute reign of order. When I am sure that life cannot be a lie, this means that I cannot help believing that God exists, that obligation to goodness is supreme and eternal, and that this supreme and eternal obligation may be thought of as the perfect will of active moral Reason. I am tacitly assuming that the whole cannot be a devil's drama, notwithstanding the lurid appearances which the sentient beings on this planet often present. Faith in the final harmony of moral principle and expediency, or in moral trustworthiness at the root of experience, is thus the ultimate practical postulate of human life.

Mr Herbert Spencer.

The commingling of inevitable ultimate ignorance with partial knowledge—the infinitely unknowable yet spiritually experienced God—in man's final interpretation of the world, suggests the ultimate conception adopted by Mr Herbert Spencer, as the basis of a synthetic philosophy. I name with the utmost respect this distinguished living representative of philosophical or theological inquiry, to which he has devoted a long life, with indomitable intellectual persistency, and a noble honesty of purpose of which there are few examples—combined in him with a largeness of speculative aim and architectonic tendency that, even at a distance, still reminds one of Aristotle or Hegel, and among Englishmen of Bacon, although one misses the splendour of philosophical imagination, and the classical culture of the author of the ‘Advancement of Learning.’ Mr Spencer attracts the average intelligence of the practical Anglo-Saxon mind, much as Auguste Comte found response in a like popular constituency in France, and then throughout the world. Dissimilar in many ways, these philosophers are not unlike in the fortune of their repute—undue depreciation at first in the academical coteries of Europe, exaggerated credit then and since among the multitude. As Comte has been called the philosopher of the half-educated, so too it may be said of Mr Spencer without disrespect; for the function is a high one. They will both in time take their dice place, intermediate between extremes of depreciation and deification.

Seeming Science and Religious Nescience.

The consummation of Mr Spencer's speculation is that the dual universe of material and mental phenomena is the temporal manifestation of eternally Unknowable Power. Accumulated arguments and illustrations pave the way to his conclusion that the Reality underlying appearances is totally and for ever inconceivable, from the very nature of human intelligence. Common-sense, he tells us, asserts the existence of a Reality; objective science proves that this reality cannot be what we think it; subjective science shows why we cannot think it as it is, and yet are compelled to think of it as existing; and in this final assertion of a Reality utterly inscrutable in nature, Religion finds an assertion essentially coinciding with its own. We are somehow obliged to regard every phenomenon presented in experience as the manifestation of Power by which we are acted on; Omnipresence is indeed unthinkable, yet, as experience discloses no bounds to the diffusion of phenomena, we are unable to think limits to the presence of this Power; while the criticisms of science teach us that it is Power incomprehensible. And this consciousness of incomprehensible Power is the very consciousness that constitutes Religion. Religion, he further suggests, has vainly struggled to unite more or less science with its inevitable nescience, while Science has tried to keep hold of more or less of this nescience, as though it were bound to convert it into Science. Permanent peace between Religion and Science is possible only when Science becomes convinced that its explanations are proximate and relative, and when Religion becomes convinced that the mystery it contemplates is absolute and therefore for ever inexplicable. Accordingly, Mr Spencer would divorce Science and Religion in the distribution of goods, assigning to Science all human knowledge, such as it seems to be, and reserving all human ignorance, such as it must be, to Religion. Religion is thus the unintelligible Feeling in which Knowledge that is only relative or seeming at last inevitably merges.

Empty sense of Unknowable Power, as the final attitude towards the presented universe.

Consciousness of being always in the presence of wholly unknowable Power seems to be Mr Spencer's final attitude towards the infinite universe of reality in which we are having our being. Strictly interpreted, this is an expression of thorough-going agnosticism or total nescience; and this, as I have repeatedly suggested, leaves no room for any man to express himself at all about anything otherwise than in the form of question—if even thus, for purely sceptical interrogation necessarily dies in the birth; it can only be a still-born question. But the Spencerian philosophy consists of more than universal questioning. Its favourite assertion of eternal Unknowableness is combined with many other professedly reasoned assertions. The unknowable Power is affirmed to be a “manifested” Power: we are told that “the Power manifested in the universe is unknown and unknowable.” But how can Power that makes itself “manifest” in the material and spiritual phenomena that compose the temporal succession be wholly unknown? That looks like the self-contradictory assertion, that the Power is at once manifested and not-manifested—that we know that it exists, but without being able to predicate anything of it, not even its existence, or at least its “existence” only when the word is emptied of all meaning. That which manifests itself must be known, as far as the manifestation or revelation goes. That the infinite reality stretches without limit beyond the manifestations that are presented in the physical, moral, and religious experience of men—including, of course, the necessary postulates involved in this experience, need not transform light that may be within the experience into the darkness of necessary and eternal total ignorance. Even if it could do this, so long as there is light enough remaining to enable one to make the one negative assertion of eternal unknowableness, he must have enough of knowledge about the Power manifested in the universe to justify this negation. But Mr Spencer retains a good deal more than this wholly negative knowledge. His Unknowable Power reveals itself in a way that, on his own showing, admits of a whole hierarchy of sciences being formed to represent the philosophical meaning of its experienced manifestations: human sciences of the revelations which the Unknowable Power makes of itself are presented by Mr Spencer in elaborate co-ordination. The Unknowable Power is so much manifested that he thinks he is able to generalise its evolutionary and involutionary laws—integrative and disintegrative—expressed in the history of its manifestations, and thus to describe one noteworthy characteristic of its customary behaviour. It seems to be a Power which, in its sensuous manifestations, is found revealing itself, slowly and gradually, in evolutionary and involutionary order. At a stage in this process, states of human consciousness are found emerging, in persistent correlation with organic movements; so that the successions of external phenomena are accompanied by corresponding simultaneous psychical phenomena. The hierarchy of the natural sciences in which those manifestations can be co-ordinated is surely a standing proof that the Power thus revealed in the universe is not in every way unknown and unknowable. The verified contents of the sciences of matter and mind are a considerable contribution to our interpretation of the Power—an interpretation in which men put trust, and thus express faith in its morally reliable behaviour of the Power, in this part of their intercourse with it.

“Manifested” Power cannot be wholly unknown and unknowable Power.

How far the revelations of the Supreme Power that are within human reach—in the physical, æsthetical, moral, and religious experience that men have, with its necessary rational implicates—how far these carry man, on his way towards omniscience or infinite knowledge, is of course a further question. Enough that the latent Power is not wholly unmanifested or unrevealed. It is doubtless only a physical God and a physical religion that we have in the sequences of sense-presented evolution, interpreted in the natural theology commonly called natural science, sustained as it is by the attenuated moral or religious faith which tacitly enters even into physical faith. For this gives only a boundless and endless universe of things—not including persons at all, in the moral and spiritual meaning of personality. It seems to have for its last word Mr Spencer's own assertion, that the Power whose temporal manifestations are thus scientifically generalised is “an Existence which fills all space and time.” I find this unproved proposition in one of his latest and not least interesting utterances, contained in a criticism of Mr Balfour in the ‘Fortnightly Review.’ But to affirm of the Power revealed in the universe of our experience, so much as is affirmed when we are told that it “fills all space,” and must therefore be extended, looks like a really illegitimate incursion into the region of the unknowable.

Oscillation between finally non-moral Power and a final universal Nescience, i.e., between Pantheism and Pyrrhonism.

This philosophy seems to oscillate inconsistently between that phase of Pantheism which interprets the universe as at last significant through its phenomena of “Divine” Thing, or infinite non-moral Power, and the absolute Nescience in which the Power is wholly unmanifested and undetected by reason. Yet there is in it latent theistic faith, so far as the ever-changing universe is treated as worthy of confidence, reliable, or what may be taken for a true revelation of the Supreme Power, at least in the evolution of physical phenomena;—so far a trustworthy universe, not a capricious and diabolical universe, that may at any moment paralyse human activity and intelligence, perhaps by transforming itself into chaos and still keeping us in life.

Infinite or mysterious moral Personality.

Mr Spencer ends in the cosmic or physical faith, that men are things, causally connected under Infinite Power, but without rising into the moral and religious faith, that men are persons, having their being in absolute moral correlation with what is finally conceived as moral personality, or personified goodness,—without recognising man in his spiritual personality as the most significant “manifestation” of the Power that is supreme. Because man cannot finally comprehend Reality in its necessarily infinite or incompletable physical order; and because he finds himself, when he tries to do this, involved in a tissue of unintelligible propositions, therefore nothing can be really known either speculatively or practically,—this seems to be the outcome of Mr Spencer's argument. I find myself in contact and collision with an evolving and then dissolving universe, of which I am at the same time a part—an unbeginning and unending evolution, it may be—in which I cannot by all the methods of wholly physical inquiry discover final meaning or purpose: therefore I must dismiss as unwarranted the theistic interpretation in which all is recognised as the manifestation of morally trustworthy, or, as we say, personal agency. For its theistic final interpretation seems to mean for Mr Spencer, that the Power at the centre of the infinite universe must have a personal life so like man's own as that it is the theatre of successive conscious states. And as a person, whether called finite or infinite, can be conscious, he takes for granted, of only one state at a time, divine Omniscience is dismissed as an absurdity. The Omniscience that has to comprehend Boundlessness in space and time, either in a single intuition, or in a succession of conscious acts, cannot consist, it is virtually argued, with any idea we can have of personal life and conscious knowledge either in man or in God.

Is a Divine Brain needed in a theistically interpretable universe?

The inference, on grounds of this sort, that the universe does not admit of being at last morally or religiously interpreted by man, or as being regarded, for and by man, as practically manifested Spirit, reminds one of the quaint conceit of Du Bois Raymond, who refused to believe in God until he could find somewhere in space a huge brain, like the human, with warm arterial blood and ganglia, proportioned to the infinite greatness of the Mind that was dogmatically supposed to need cerebral organisation. As if the final Power in the universe could not be practically Spirit, or moral Obligation and Goodness personified, unless embodied in an organism like the human. It seems hardly less reasonable to insist that if man's final relation to the Whole is supposed to be a moral and personal relation, the Supreme Principle must be the subject of successive conscious states of personal life, like those of men.

Examples of a human knowledge of that which in itself passes human knowledge.

This finite, or for ever incomplete knowledge of what at last infinitely passes finite knowledge—moral and practical knowledge of what is at last physically incognisable by the knower—is illustrated all round the horizon of human experience. Take examples: One can demonstrate the geometrical relations of figures, although the Immensity toward which all finite places, shapes, and sizes inevitably carry thought is found to transcend human understanding; yet human understanding does not, on this account, reject Euclid as a bundle of unwarranted and illusory conclusions. Again, I am obliged to think of events as before and after, and I find that I call make reasonable use of a, chronological table, while I cannot fathom the mystery of the two eternities into which I am necessarily carried, when I reflect upon the temporal evolution of the changes in which the supreme Power is revealed to me. So too the manifestations of natural causality that are presented in sense are treated as interpretable in science, and for practical human purposes; yet they are all at last involved in the impenetrable causal mystery of unbeginning regress and endless progress. In these instances I seem to say, Si non rogas, intelligo. I sufficiently understand the manifested Power, if I am not obliged, as the condition of understanding its manifestations, to reduce to sensuous intelligence the mystery into which these resolve themselves. Is it otherwise with man's moral or religious faith in what the universe finally is? This too suggests questions which man can as little answer, about a consciousness or superconsciousness that is as remote from the human as Immensity is remote from the spaces comprehended in our finite figures, or as Eternity is remote from the temporal successions that can be measured in our tables of chronology. I am not obliged to be agnostic as regards either the spacial manifestations of the universe, or its temporal manifestations, because Immensity and Eternity, physically regarded, present a multitude of questions which man can never answer. May not the continuous self-consciousness of persons, in their moral and religious experience, with its necessary postulates, reveal, what is even eternally true—as it were in a relative eternal truth—while its problems only perplex man with contradictions, when he tries to realise, under the terms of his limited physical experience, a consciousness or superconsciousness that, as infinite, must be for him finally mysterious, and of which, in Mr Spencer's words, “not even the highest mental attributes conceivable by us” are adequate predicates. I do not see why, “unless I wish to be deceived,” I must surrender as delusion either a physical or a fully theistic faith in the Real, only because human knowledge cannot become an infinite intelligence of infinite experience; or because man's intelligo disappears when he tries to transform it into the Omniscience from which faith and mystery are wholly eliminated.

Are men reduced to despair in a morally uninterpretable universe?

Yet so it seems to Mr Spencer. Those who, like him turn away from a finally uninterpretable universe in despair, so think and act, he tells us pathetically, “not because they wish to do this, but because they must”: self-deception seems to him the alternative. “There is no pleasure,” he goes on to say, “in the consciousness of being an infinitesimal bubble, on a globe which is itself infinitesimal, compared with the totality of things. Those on whom the unpitying rush of changes inflicts sufferings, which are often without remedy, find no consolation in the thought that they are at the mercy of blind forces, which cause, indifferently, now the destruction of a sun, and now the death of an animalcule. Contemplation of a universe which is without conceivable beginning or end, and without intelligible purpose, yields no satisfaction. The desire to know what it all means is no less strong in the agnostic than in others, and raises sympathy with them. Failing to find any interpretation himself, he feels a regretful inability to accept the interpretation they offer.” But these striking sentences of Mr Spencer can hardly be said after all to describe an uninterpretable universe: they express positive knowledge that the force at work is “blind,” and that human life is conducted on a globe that is “infinitely small” compared with some (so far) known “totality”; and they imply that enough is knowable about the manifested Power to justify some human assertions about reliable realities, “which must not be abandoned for deceiving fancies.” They express, in short, a physical faith, while they discard as self-deception the moral trust that is the implied guarantee of physical trust—both, it is true, logically unproved and unprovable, but justified in practical reason by the fact that human life without them is baseless, and its ideal unapproachable, so that each faith is a permanent practical need of Man in his final relation to the Whole.

Sensuous Faith and Spiritual Faith.

Theistic or moral faith in the ever-changing universe, without doubt, is not equally developed in all men, nor so widely as physical faith in common experience and in the natural sciences. It may be asked, How and why is this so? Coleridge offers one answer in his ‘Aids to Reflection.’ “It is not in our power,” he suggests, “to disclaim our nature as sentient beings,” but it is more or less “in our power to disclaim our nature as moral beings.” In recognising the finally ethical and spiritual constitution of the universal reality, “I assume a something, the proof of which no man can give to another, yet every man may find for himself. If any man assert that he cannot find it, I am bound to disbelieve him. I cannot do otherwise without unsettling the very foundations of my own moral nature. The reasoners on both sides commence by taking something for granted. But the pure physicist assumes what, according to himself, he neither is, nor can be under an obligation of moral reason to assume. If he uses the word obligation, he can mean only physical necessity. To overthrow faith in aught higher than physical necessity is the very purpose of his argument. He desires you only to take for granted that all reality is included in physical nature, and he may then safely defy you to ward off his conclusion—that nothing real is excluded.” This thought of Coleridge is exemplified in the individual men who are types of man at his best and highest—who represent constituents of humanity which, while normal, are yet not universally developed—felt and seen by saint and prophet, in others unawakened or obscured. They recall words long ago uttered in Palestine, which present in one aspect the moral foundation of theism—“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see god.”


The eternal divine gospel that God is love may lie taken as another expression for that perfect moral trustworthiness of the final principle of existence, which has been presented in this lecture as the essential principle of theistic faith, and the infallible foundation of all human intercourse, through experience and its rational implicates, with the Power that is universally manifested—quem nosse vivere.