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Lecture 1. The Final Problem.


MY first words must give expression to the emotion which I feel on finding myself once more admitted to speak officially within the walls of this ancient university, with which, as student, graduate, and professor, I have been connected for sixty years. For it is sixty years in this November since I first cast eyes of wonder on the academic walls which now carry so many memories in my mind, and which to-day are associated with an extraordinary responsibility. In the evening of life, in reluctant response to the unexpected invitation of the patrons of the Gifford Trust, I find myself, in the presence of my countrymen, called to say honestly the best that may be in me concerning the supreme problem of human life, our relation to which at last determines the answers to all questions which can engage the mind of man. No words that I can find are sufficient to represent my sense of the honour thus conferred, or the responsibility thus imposed, upon one who believed that he had bid a final farewell to appearances in public of this sort, in order to wind up his account with this mysterious life of sense.

The final problem and Simonides.

It is an appalling problem which confronts me, and, indeed, confronts us all, for all must dispose of it in the conduct of life; and I am now required to handle it intellectually. One may not be ready to say with Pliny, that all religions are the offspring of human weakness and fear; and that what God is, if indeed God be anything distinct from the world in which we find ourselves, it is beyond man's understanding to know. Yet even the boldest thinker, when confronted by the ultimate problem of existence, may well desire to imitate the philosophic caution of Simonides, when he was asked, What God was?—in first demanding a day to think about the answer, then two days more, and after that continuously doubling the required time, when the time already granted had come to an end; but without ever finding that he was able to produce the required answer;—rather becoming more apt to suspect that the answer carried him beyond the range of human intelligence. Often in the course of these last months I have wished that I could indulge in this prudent procrastination, taking not more days only but more years to ponder this infinite problem. But after the threescore years and ten, this is a forbidden alternative, if I am to speak in this place at all. I see now near at hand

“The shadow cloak'd from head to foot,

Who keeps the keys of all the creeds.”

Forms in which the final problem of the universe may be expressed.

It is the ultimate problem about the universe that is at the heart of a philosophical Theism. The ideal of this Theology is “the true intellectual system of the universe,” as Cudworth puts it. It virtually asks what this illimitable aggregate of ever-changing things and persons really means, if indeed it means anything. What is the deepest and truest interpretation that can be put by man upon the immeasurable actuality in which I found myself participating when I became percipient, and with which I have been in contact and collision ever since I began to be conscious? This is, surely, the most universally human question that can be raised: no man can escape from giving some sort of response to it, consciously or unconsciously, in his life if not in speculative thought. “In what sort of environment, and for what purpose, do I exist?” might be taken as the form in which the final question about the universe of reality expresses itself, when it is looked at on its human side. What finally is thus universe, to a dim perception of which I awoke when I became conscious, and in which I am now struggling? It seems to be for ever changing the appearances it presents to me. What may be the origin and outcome of this endless flux? Is the principle which finally determines all events reasonable, trustworthy, divine? or is the universe, on the whole and in the end, chaotic and misleading, with a transitory semblance of physical order only? or must I remain for ever ignorant about this, and therefore unable to adopt either of those alternatives? And if I adopt one of them, do I thus get any light shed upon my present duties, or upon my final destiny, as myself a part of the mysterious Whole?

The ultimate problem disturbs modern thought.

It is this problem of the ultimate meaning and purpose of the universe, or whether indeed there is any purpose or meaning in it, human or other, that, as I have said, lies at the heart of the subject that has been handed over to Gifford lecturers, for free but always reverential discussion. It is a many-sided problem, which each lecturer is expected to discuss at his own point of view, with the advantage to truth of its being thus looked at on many sides—a problem, too, that is surely more than usually disturbing thought and faith in this outspeaking era of European and American civilisation.

Lord Gifford's instructions for dealing with it.

When I engaged in this work, I turned to Lord Gifford's Deed of Bequest, in the hope that it might contain articulate directions with regard to the object-matter to be investigated, the intended method of investigation, and the chief end of the proposed inquiry. I found, under each of these three heads, particular instructions, but more or less ambiguous. It may be convenient to consider them in this opening lecture, as an introduction to the present course. It is a form of introduction that is perhaps not uncalled for by popular misconceptions about what we have got to do, and about the method of doing it, which criticism of former Gifford lecturers has brought to light.

It is the Infinite Being, and so an absolutely unique object, that we have to inquire about.

As regards the matter of inquiry, it is an object absolutely unique that is put before us. Indeed, in the ordinary sense of the term, it cannot well be spoken of as an “object” at all; for it cannot be made visible and tangible; nor is it finite, as all objects studied in the natural sciences must be, and as the word object itself seems to imply. This unique object, if object it may be called, is thus spoken of in the Deed of Foundation:—“God, the Infinite, the All, the First and Only Cause, the One and the Sole Substance, the Sole Reality, and the Sole Existence”; more particularly, “the nature and attributes of God,” and “the relations which men and the whole universe bear to God.” “Science” of all this is “Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term.” Such at least is Lord Gifford's definition of this sort of Natural Theology.

The Infinite Being is to be inquired about in scientific method and spirit.

Next I am told something about the method of procedure in conducting this Unique investigation concerning the Infinite Reality. For it is strict scientific method that is enjoined, according to the analog of the natural sciences, unrestrained except by evidence, with consequent obligation to follow facts, in pursuit of whatever is found on the whole to be true or reasonable. As thus:—“I wish the lecturers to treat their subject as a strictly natural science, the greatest of all possible sciences, in one sense the only science—that of INFINITE BEING; without reference to, or reliance upon, any supposed special, exceptional, or so-called miraculous revelation. I wish it to be considered as astronomy or chemistry is…The lecturers shall be under no restraint whatever in their treatment of their theme. For example, they may freely discuss (and it may be well to do so) all questions about man's conceptions of God or the Infinite; their origin, nature, and truth; whether man can have any such conceptions; whether God is under any or what limitations; and so on,—as I am persuaded that nothing but good can result from free discussion…The lecturers appointed shall accordingly be subjected to no test of any kind, and shall not be required to take all oath, or to make any promise of any kind; they may be of any denomination whatever, or of no denomination at all (and many earnest and high-minded men prefer to belong to no ecclesiastical denomination); they may be of any religion or way of thinking, or, as it is sometimes said, they may be of no religion; or they may be called sceptics, agnostics, or free-thinkers,…it being desirable that the subject be promoted and illustrated by different minds.” So much for the temper in which the study of Infinite Being, or the final interrogation of the Universe, is expected to be pursued by Gifford lecturers.

The inquiry may be made the means of man's highest wellbeing and upward progress.

Finally, our code of directions suggests that a broad social purpose of utility, using the word “utility” in its highest sense, is to be kept in view throughout the inquiry. This is indeed the chief end, in the intention of the founder, of the existence of those lectureships, concerned with what, as above defined, he calls “Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term.” It is a human and practical more than a purely speculative or intellectual purpose. For we find as follows:—“I having been for many years deeply and firmly convinced that the true knowledge of God—that is, of the Being, Nature, and Attributes of the Infinite, of the All, of the First and only Cause, the one only Substance and Being; and the true and felt Knowledge (not mere nominal Knowledge) of the relations of Man and of the Universe to Him—being, I say, convinced that this knowledge, when felt and acted on, is the means of man's highest wellbeing, and the security of his upward progress,—I have therefore resolved to institute and found, in connection if possible with the Scottish universities, lectureships, for the promotion of the study of the said subjects, and for the teaching and diffusion of sound views regarding them, along the whole population of Scotland.” This means that a man's faith or doubt about the final realities shows what he really is, and makes him what he really is.

Let us face facts fully.

It is, accordingly, with this deeply human purpose in view, and in the scientific spirit which seeks for truth, truth only, and truth all, that we ought now to address ourselves to the ultimate problem of the universe, involving as it does Infinite Being, and constituting “Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term.” We are in quest of the wisest and truest answer available for a being such as man is to the one supreme human question—In what sort of universe, and for what final purpose, am I existing? Am I able, and indeed obliged in reason by the facts and conditions of the case, to put a religious or theistic interpretation upon the universe, as truer and more comprehensive than any merely physical or material interpretation; or, on the contrary, do the facts, interpreted according to the conditions of reason, forbid me to recognise a final conception higher than the physical, or that which is now apt to be called exclusively the “scientific” conception? Either way I must follow as facts and reason oblige me to go. “Things are what they are,” as Bishop Butler says, “and the consequences of them will be what they will be; why, then, should we desire to be deceived?” Let us face facts, seeking only to know what they are, and, as far as we can, what they really mean.

Recognition of the ultimate mystery of the universe characteristically human.

I. Look first at the Infinite Reality with which the final problem of existence is concerned. The mystery of his own existence, and of the universe in which he finds himself, seems to be a mystery only to man, among known sentient beings; and it is a conscious mystery only to a few men. “With the exception of man,” as Schopenhauer says, “no being wonders at its own existence and surroundings.” To the brute, if destitute of self-consciousness, the world and its own life are felt, naturally and uninquiringly felt, as a matter of course. But with man at least life becomes a thought in which even the most degraded may be moved to feel an interest. Men show themselves dimly conscious of the thought in the rudest forms of religion. A sense of the ever-abiding presence of the enigma of existence—shown in the form of wonder as to what we are ourselves, what our surroundings mean, why we are what we are, why we are so surrounded, and what we are destined to become—is more consciously the motive to intellectual philosophy in the minds of the thinking few. But it is the awe involved in the vague sense of man's final dependence, amidst the Immensities and Eternities, and the more precise sense of moral responsibility for the way we conduct our lives, that gives rise to religion, so that religion more readily than purely intellectual curiosity finds a response in human sentiment.

A merely physical solution of the mystery seems self-contradictory.

It is the virtual presence of the Infinite that gives distinctive character alike to philosophy and to religion. It is in their common concern with Infinite Reality that both are distinguished front ordinary knowledge and special science. We are accustomed in the sciences of the material world to a feeling of intellectual satisfaction, when we are able to refer unexpected events in nature to preceding sense-presented phenomena, on which they are believed naturally to depend, and by which, as their finite and perceptible causes, they are at least provisionally explained. Put it is something deeper than this provisional satisfaction that moves philosophical curiosity, and that is latent in religious reverence or worship. For the complete or final meaning of the infinite universe of reality cannot be discovered by referring its illimitable reality to other universes, in the way material phenomena are referred to their natural causes. There can really be only one universe. The desired science of its supreme meaning would be therefore absolutely unique science. The universe, when regarded in its divine principle, cannot be treated as if it were only a finite term in a causal succession. It is not like a visible event in one of the physical sciences, as to which when a place has been found for it in some sequence that is believed to be part of the customary order of events, physically scientific interest is then satisfied, and the phenomenon, so explained, ceases to perplex. But in asking for an explanation of the totality of existence presentable in time, we are not trying to find a phenomenon to explain another phenomenon—the already experienced to explain the newly presented. Philosophic wonder and religious reverence are states of mind which seem to call us out of this experience altogether, and require us to deal intellectually with the infinite reality, with which narrow and ephemeral human experience is mysteriously charged. To try to reach out beyond the natural evolution of the visible universe itself, and to treat the entire evolution as if it were only a finite effect in an ordinary causal succession, when one considers the attempt, seems to imply that one can have experience of universes; and this surely involves a contradiction. For the universe, including its supreme principle, must be all-comprehensive; yet it seems as if I must get outside of it, and out of myself as a part of it, in order to speculate about it, and solve the problem of its origin, meaning, and purpose. At the most it is only an infinitesimally small part of what exists that can be presented to each man's senses, or even to the race of mankind; and during an infinitesimally short time too, in the case of each person, or even to all men. Surely Omniscience is the only form of science in which the final reality call be met, one is ready to say.

David Hume's suggested difficulty about this.

This cardinal difficulty in dealing scientifically with the final problem perplexed David Hume, the most intrepid theological and philosophical thinker that Scotland has produced. For it seems to me that the logical dimension of the problem of “Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term” was realised by an Edinburgh citizen of last century more fully than by any preceding modern thinker, unless perhaps Spinoza. This is how David Hume makes Philo speak, as an interlocutor, in the “Dialogues on Natural Religion:”—“If we see a house,” Philo argues, “we conclude with the greatest certainty that it had an architect or builder; because this is precisely the species of finite effect which we have experienced to proceed from that species of [finite] cause.” As to this familiar argument itself, let me interpolate the remark, that even here the reasoner takes for granted, without scientific proof, that man does know enough about the universe and its ultimate principle to be certain that it is a universe in which like sorts of natural effects must proceed from like sorts of natural causes—that the natural procession of events must be always orderly, and therefore intelligible—that the universe must be physically trustworthy. Waiving this, however, Philo thus proceeds,—“Surely you will not affirm that the universe bears such a resemblance to a house that we can with the same certainty infer a cause, or that the analogy is here entire and perfect. Can you think, Cleanthes, that your usual phlegm and philosophy have been preserved in so wide a step as you have taken, when you have compared the universe to houses, ships, furniture, machines; and from their similarity in some circumstances inferred a similarity in their causes.” This suggests in short that it does not follow that because you can infer the finite or caused cause of a house, a ship, a piece of furniture, or a machine, you can also, and in like manner, infer the absolute cause or principle of the universe.“Thought, design, intelligence,” he continues, “such as we discover in men and other animals, is no more than one of the innumerable springs and principles in the universe, which as well as a hundred others, such as heat and cold, attraction and repulsion, fall under daily observation. It is a [natural] cause by which some particular parts of nature, we find, produce alterations on other parts. But can a conclusion with any propriety be transferred from [finite] parts to the [infinite] whole. Does not the great [infinite] disproportion bar all comparison or inference…But, allowing that we are to take the operations of one part of nature upon another part, for the foundation of our judgment concerning the origin [and purpose] of the whole (which never can be admitted), yet why select so minute, so weak, so bounded a principle as the reason and design of animals living upon this planet is found to be? What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call thought [consciousness] that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe? So far from admitting that the operations of a part can afford us any just conclusion concerning the [infinite] whole, I will not allow any one part to form a rule for another part, if the latter be very remote from [unlike] the former…And if thought, as we may well suppose, be confined merely to this narrow corner, and has even here so limited a sphere of action, with what propriety can we assign it for the original cause [absolute principle] of all things. The narrow views of a peasant, who makes his domestic economy the rule for the government of kingdoms, is in comparison a pardonable sophism. But were we ever so much assured that a thought or reason, resembling the human, were to be found [to-day] throughout the whole universe, and were its activity elsewhere vastly greater than it [now] appears on this globe; yet I cannot see why the operations of a world now constituted, arranged, adjusted, can, with any propriety, be extended to a world which was in its embryo state, and only advancing towards that constitution and arrangement. Nature, we find, from our limited experience, possesses an infinite number of springs and principles which incessantly discover themselves on every change in her position and situation. And what new and unknown principles would actuate her in so new and unknown a situation as that of the [original] formation of a universe, we cannot, without the utmost temerity, pretend to determine.” So far David Hume.

The presence of evil and of death in the universe intensify human interest in its final problem.

Notwithstanding this obstacle to our getting into relation with the final principle of the universe, there are facts in experience that intensify, if they do not give rise to intense longing for at least a practical explanation of what the whole thing means for us, and what it is finally to issue in for us. What probably most quickens this inquiry, and rouses men out of the sensuous indifference that is confirmed by the mere custom of living, is, in the first place, the seeming chaos of suffering and sin that is mixed up with life; and, in the next place, the vanity that appears to be stamped upon each person's share in the whole transaction, through the fact that every human being is confronted by his own approaching death. The presence of evil and of death in the universe excites painful wonder, and excites also a sense of absolute dependence. Evil and death are chief difficulties, moreover, in the way of a solution of the final problem. If this conscious life of ours—in which we become individually, for a time at least, part of the actual reality, without being able to avoid our fate—if this were an endless and a perfect life, the interest man could take in the ultimate problem of things would be more speculative. The gaunt spectre of Evil would not then disturb the harmony of experience and of our ideals. Neither should we be confronted by the mystery of our own prospective disappearance from this visible scene—

“To die,—to sleep;—

To sleep! perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause.”

The mystery of an endless individual conscious life.

Philosophy has been described as a meditation upon death. It is in this light an expansion of what the gentle and religious English essayist represented according to popular conceptions in the “Vision of Mirza.” But the common faith in immortality seems incredible to those who are accustomed to take the postulates of mechanical materialism for regulating their final interpretation of reality. Their world is found to be in constant change, in which all that is individual seems naturally to be transitory. Is it not contrary to all the analogies of present experience, we are asked, to suppose that I who lately began to be shall never cease to be, or that I shall not be refunded into unconscious existence as in the centuries before I was born? Whatever is generable must surely be perishable. My soul if immortal must have existed before my birth, and if its existence then noways concerns me now, as little will its existence after death. Our unconsciousness before the natural organisation of our bodies seems, according to analogy, a sufficient proof of a similar unconsciousness when the organisation naturally dissolves. What arguments can justify prevision of a sort of existence which no human being ever saw, or which no way resembles what any member of the human race has ever experienced? In man as in all other animals the sentient principle and the body seem to have all in common, and should we not conclude for this reason that, in all that is animated, sentiency depends upon the visible organism? “When it is asked,” says the sceptic, “whether Agamemnon, Thersites, Hannibal, Varro, and every stupid clown that ever existed, in Italy, Scythia, Bactria, or Guinea, are now alive,—can any man think that a scrutiny of nature will furnish arguments strong enough to answer so strange a question in the affirmative?” Then how can this infinite personal existence be reconciled with any sense of personal identity, or with memory of its immeasurable past in the eternal future? If it is difficult for a grown man to identify himself with the new-born babe which once he was, how is this difficulty increased when the person has become millions of years old? What practical identity can there be between Plato at Athens and Plato a hundred millions of years hence? And, above all, what means a personal consciousness that is endless or infinite, thus transcending time? Is not an infinite succession, whether of conscious states or of events of any sort, an impossible supposition? What scientific verification of a conclusion so stupendous is conceivably possible? Even the crucial instance of a man who has died and been restored to life telling his experience of what follows death fails, for he could not have had experience of the endlessness of his life, which of course is infinitely more than its continuance for a time, after his body dies. It is questions of this sort that the mystery of physical death is apt to suggest to those who are accustomed to assume that the natural interpretation of the world is its deepest interpretation. The infinite conception is alien to their universe. In abstract idealism, on the other hand, an escape from the hypothesis of absolute annihilation is sought, by substituting the immortality of abstract reason for the immortality of the individual man, as, in like manner, an abstract existence of God is substituted for the only sort of divine existence that is practically interesting to men.

Plato's allegory of the Cave illustrates this life of sense.

Man's position in relation to that final mystery of the world, which gives rise to philosophy, and which evokes religious faith and hope and worship, may be taken as represented in Plato's famous parable of the Cave. Which things are an allegory, for in them the philosophic Greek figures the contrast between the infinite realities of existence and the constant succession of changes in our transitory life of sense. So that, with respect to what exists absolutely, men in this mortal state are not unlike those who are getting educated in the Cave, looking on shadows, with their eyes turned away from the light which reveals the final reality.

An atheistic universe.

A man's interest in a final settlement of the problem of life seems to be connected by Schopenhauer too exclusively with a vague desire for “some kind” of existence after the man's physical death. “We find,” he says, “that the interest which philosophies and religions inspire has always its strongest hold in the dogma of some kind of existence after death; and although the most recent systems seem to make the existence of God the main point, and defend this most zealously, yet in reality this is because they have connected their faith in a future life with God's existence, and regard the one as inseparable from the other. Only on account of this supposed future life is the existence of God practically important to man. For if one could sustain belief in one's own unending existence in some other way than by faith in God's existence, then zeal for the existence of God would at once cool; and if conversely the absolute impossibility of immortality for man were proved, the zeal would give place to complete theological indifference. Also, if we could prove that our continued existence after death is absolutely inconsistent with the existence of God, men would soon sacrifice God to their own immortality, and become zealous for atheism, in order to retain their hope of a future life.” Does not all this proceed upon a wrong idea of what ought to be sought for, in seeking to assure ourselves of the “existence of God”? Does it not involve a misconception of what ought to be meant by the word God? A universe without God is really a universe without meaning, law, or order; without reason—either supremely immanent in it, or supreme and external to it—and therefore even physically uninterpretable; without purpose, and therefore without moral reason at the root of its thus ultimately chaotic evolutions. It is a universe which, for aught we can with reason believe, may be charged in future with purposeless misery to us all, and to all other sentient beings, transcending the most terrible woes which the most wretched human beings have experienced in the past. It is a universe without reasonable hope; and on the supposition that each conscious life in it must be endless, it may become to all a hell of endless suffering, from which there is no escape into unconsciousness. Without the divine or perfect principle of order at its centre, man would be in a worse condition than that of the unhappy inquirer whose thoughts are paraphrased by Pascal. Who has sent me into this scene of existence in which I now find myself living, I know not; what the true meaning of my surroundings may be, I know not; what I really am myself, I know not. I am in a bewildering and terrifying ignorance of all things, and know not how to interpret any of the experience through which I pass. Encompassed by the fathomless and frightful abysses of Immensity and Eternity, I find myself chained to one little corner of their boundless extent; without understanding why I am here rather than there, now rather than then; with infinity and unknown powers all around, which may at any moment cause me to disappear like a shadow. The sum of my knowledge, after the utmost experience that I can have of the infinite reality in which I am living, is, that I must in a short time die; my highest wisdom seems to consist in nothing better than a fruitless meditation upon the insoluble mystery of death. Faith in the absolute supremacy of active moral Reason—that is, faith in God—is the only unconditional satisfaction in this perplexity.

A universe in which the divine principle of order is wanting must be an insane universe.

It is told of Bishop Butler that in conversation with his friend Dean Tucker he one day startled his companion by asking, Whether nations and other societies of men, as well as individual men, might not occasionally be liable to fits of insanity? “I thought little at the time of that odd conceit of the Bishop,” the Dean remarks; “but I own I could not avoid thinking of it afterwards, and applying it to many cases of nations and their rulers.” Butler's “odd conceit” is apt to suggest, in the train of thought I am now following, a question not unlike his, with regard, not to nations only, but to the ever-changing world, with which we are all continually in contact and collision in the real experience of life. May not the supposed cosmos, to a dim perception of which we all awake in the first exercise of our senses, be really the manifestation of an unknown Power that is, or at least that may become, the source of an irrational and infinitely cruel human experience. We have no absolute guarantee against this virtual insanity, when we lose active moral Reason as the Supreme Principle, with the consequent disappearance, sooner or later, of natural as well as moral law in the procession of events. Under such conditions, can we even justify the vulgar faith, which, alike in daily life and in the previsions and verifications of science, takes for granted, without logical proof, that man knows enough of his surroundings and of himself to be able safely to assume that he is living in an intelligible unity, in an actuality the evolutions of which are fit to be reasoned about. For it may then be that, after all, one is living in what may turn out at last a physical and moral Chaos instead of a physical and moral Cosmos? May not the dogma of order in nature—reason or law immanent in things—be a mistake for purposeless unreason, so that all our applied logical and ethical conclusions shall, either in this or in some future life, be baffled by capricious unreason at the heart of the whole?

Contemporary philosophical idealism.

Much of the philosophical and religious thought of the past is, unconsciously if not consciously on the part of the thinkers, the issue of endeavours to find the best form of answers to questions like those now suggested. Reflecting men have been moved to the final inquiry because they wanted to find reasonable security that the commonly supposed Cosmos is not finally Chaos, so that the world may be trusted in, as for all human purposes sufficiently interpretable, and that its phenomena are to some extent truly interpreted by man. This in its own fashion is the dominant note of contemporary Idealism, which in its own way seeks to show that experience is coherent in the organic unity of reason, so that no rightly exercised human being can be put to permanent confusion by the irrationality or the immorality of the Supreme Principle. To do this is really to try to show that God, or Perfect Moral Reason, is constantly immanent at the heart of things and their infinite contingencies.

The question which “Natural Theology in the widest meaning of the term” has got to consider.

Is this theistic solution of the problem of the universe the truly philosophical one—the most reasonable that is open to man, and sufficient for human nature? Is the immeasurable reality in which I find myself living and moving and having my being rooted in Active Moral Reason, and therefore absolutely worthy of faith; or is it hollow and hopeless, because at last without meaning? According to the answer practically given to this question, our surroundings and our future are viewed with an ineradicable expectation and hope, or with literally unutterable doubt and despair. It is this question that “Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term” has to determine.

What is meant by the “strictly natural method of science”?

II. Think next about the Method of procedure we are desired to follow when we are trying to find whether, and if so, on what grounds, it is determinable. Lord Gifford's Deed of Foundation, as we saw, recommends one way of dealing with the final problem of existence, while it particularly warns us against another and favourite way of doing so, as inconsistent with genuine inquiry and honest thought. In dealing with the ultimate principle of the universe—the problem of Infinite Being—it is to be disposed of, we are told, according to the “strictly natural” method of “science”; according to methods as strictly natural as those adopted in the sciences of astronomy and chemistry, which are expressly mentioned as examples of the use of the right method. This is one instruction. The other condition is that we must pursue the inquiry “without reference to, or reliance upon, any supposed special, exceptional, or so-called miraculous revelation.”


Each of these conditions, when so stated, seems to involve ambiguity.

Natural theology is not “natural” in the way astronomy and chemistry are.

In the first place, it seems plain, even from what has already been said, that this absolutely unique “science of Infinite Being,” or science of the universe of things and persons in their ultimate relation to their divine principle, cannot be a science of “nature,” or of finite causes, in the same way as astronomy and chemistry are natural sciences. For these two, and others like them, are special sciences; that is to say, they are sciences of finite portions of external nature, their facts receive their full natural explanation in inductively ascertained sequences of physical causation, in which the inferred cause is imaginable, presentable in sense, and fit to be experimented on and used. But Infinite Being—the final Principle of the universe—that in virtue of which the universe is a universe, and which keeps it a universe—this cannot be treated as merely a portion of nature. For that would be to divest it at the outset of its absolutely unique character—to reduce “Infinite Being” to the level of the finite phenomena in which the astronomer and the chemist see illustrations of outward natural law. Indeed this very uniqueness is expressly presupposed in those words of the Foundation Deed which speak of “Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term,” as being properly “the only science”—“the one universal science”—thus distinguishing it from, and even contrasting it with, special sciences of portions of nature, like astronomy and chemistry. Theology, as Aristotle saw, is truly that in which all philosophy culminates: for theology deals with the universe in its absolute totality (if the word totality may be so applied) or infinity: the other two are concerned, one with the finite orbs of heaven that occupy immensity, the other with the elements, or kinds of matter, that enter into their constitution. The first is infinite in its scope: the second and third concentrate themselves upon their selected portions of what is finite.

The ordinary meaning of “nature.”

Therefore, when a theology is (somewhat misleadingly) called “natural,” and when Gifford lecturers are enjoined to treat this subject as “a strictly natural science,” I am obliged to infer that the important adjective “natural” does not mean that the Infinite Being, the object of study and inquiry, is to be included in nature—unless this ambiguous word is used in an all-comprehensive meaning—not as a synonym for things presentable in space and time, which are supposed to be connected by physical causation. It is the visible “agents” within this causal system which natural sciences, such as astronomy and chemistry, are employed in seeking for, and in interpreting through their connections with other finite terms in the same causal system—connections of which so-called natural causes are virtually the signs. In the ordinary meaning of the words “nature” and “natural,” the Infinite Being of natural theology is supernatural; and theology is concerned with what is supernatural or metaphysical. The implied analogy between the theology that is called “natural,” and special sciences like astronomy and chemistry, must, therefore, mean something different from their being all three concerned with causes that are presentable to the senses, and representable in imagination.

The dogmatic assumption that there is a supernatural revelation disallowed.

I conclude, accordingly, that the intended meaning of “natural,” in Lord Gifford's deed, is found more fully in the next injunction:—“I wish the lecturers to treat their subject…without reference to, or reliance upon, any supposed special, exceptional, or so-called miraculous revelation.” That means, I suppose, that, just as “astronomy and chemistry”—the two named examples of “natural” sciences—are bound to be formed by man's own methodical observation of events in nature, and his own freely formed inferences, founded on calculation of events—so, the theology which is “natural” must be all through the issue of a human interpretation of human experience of the really existing universe of things and persons; determined by principles of reason, known to be ultimately true in their own light; independently of words that are dogmatically assumed, only on the authority of living men, or of a book in which they appear, to express infallibly some of the reason or purpose that is latent in the universe. We know that there is no similar claim blindly accepted as authority for a supernatural and therefore infallible astronomy, or a supernatural and therefore infallible chemistry, which would supersede rational investigation. In like manner, blind reliance on a dogmatically supposed source of infallibility in matters of religious thought must be put aside by the Gifford lecturer; so that all the three sciences—the two special ones now named, and the unique science of Infinite Being—must alike make their final appeal to reason in experience, and not merely to traditional authority as such, which can never be the final court of appeal for a reasonable being, on any question, natural or supernatural. So what is meant, perhaps, is, that instead of deprecating reason, or a reasoned experience, in theology, reasonableness must finally direct us, in this as in everything else, if we are reasonable beings. But this of course need not imply that conformity of the individual judgment to external authority must in all cases be unreasonable, or that it may not in some cases be the only human way of getting to truth.

But supposed supernatural revelations are at least part of the history of mankind.

So I do not interpret the terms of this Foundation as putting an arbitrary restraint upon reason, by withdrawing from its regard a part of what is reported to have happened in the history of the world,—including those signal examples of religious experience, in Palestine and elsewhere, which claim to be the issue of what is called “supernatural interposition,” and of which so much Hebrew literature is the record. Whether natural or supernatural, in any of the several meanings of those ambiguous terms, this human experience is a portion of the world's history, and therefore a portion of that revelation of the final meaning and purpose of things which is to be sought for in the facts of history. “God,” as Locke says, “if He makes the prophet, does not unmake the man.” He leaves him to judge, as a reasonable being, of the so-called inspirations, whether they be divine, and therefore finally authoritative, or not. Man's assent to the truth or divinity of any proposition, on any subject, must of course be justifiable either by the ordinary conditions of scientific proof; or if it is something that transcends this proof, it must still be finally sustained by something, whether called natural or supernatural insight, that can be recognised by reason as reasonable—in the form, it may be, of faith or trust, which seems to be the highest form that reason takes in man. Consult reason we must, when we go to the root of any matter, and with its leave determine whether the so-called “exceptional” revelation is really divine. And if reason finds, either intuitively or by reasoning, that it is reasonable to regard a so-called supernatural revelation as divine, reason itself then declares for it, and makes the “supernatural” revelation one of its own dictates.

Reason and faith.

It is still the office of reason to judge under what conditions it is reasonable to accept personal authority as revelation of divine meaning and purpose, and also to interpret the meaning of the words in which the revelation is presented by the person who delivers it. Whatever God, who is immanent reason, really has revealed is certainly true; we are obliged in reason to accept that, for in doing so we are accepting reason itself. But that this which claims to be divine is really divine cannot be ultimately determined blindly: reason must judge whether on the whole it is reasonable to transform it into one of its own dictates. Now reason can never permit the mind to reject a greater evidence, in order to embrace what allow us to entertain probability in opposition to absolute certainty. No evidence that any authoritative revelation is divine can be so clear and so certain as are the universal and necessary principles of reason; and therefore nothing that is absolutely inconsistent with what is self-evidently reasonable has a right to be received as a matter of faith. Whatever is divine revelation ought to rule all our opinions, and can claim assent in the name of reason. “Such a submission as this of our reason to faith,” as Locke says, “takes not away the landmarks of knowledge; this shakes not the foundations of reason, but leaves us that use of our faculties for which they were given us.” But it must be remembered that what Locke here means by “reason” seems to be discursive thought or reasoning, measured by nature, in the narrow meaning of nature. Reason, in the wider meaning of the term, becomes at last faith, in a finite experience of the universe; and its own ultimate constitution, mostly latent or dimly conscious in men, may be regarded as really a divine or supernatural revelation, to which reason in its narrower meaning, or the understanding that judges according to external nature, is necessarily subordinate.

What is meant by “supernatural”?

One feels the need for some Socratic questioning when the words “natural” and “supernatural” are employed, and opposed to one another, or when they are placed in relation to reason. What conception of “nature” and “reason” is taken, when theology is called natural or rational, and only as such admitted to academical treatment; as the “one only science,” or queen among the sciences? Is there a difference in kind between what usually happens in “nature” and any event in nature, however extraordinary, that can be supposed to occur in the history of an ultimately reasonable universe—a difference such that, on account of it, certain events may be called supernatural and miraculous? Must not all that can enter into the history of the universe be regarded by the theist as natural, in the higher meaning of “nature”? and must not all possible events, whether called natural or supernatural, be consistent with the perfect rational ideal—the intellectual system of the universe? Nay, is not supernaturalness, in another view, the characteristic of man, so far as he is a moral agent, and to that extent independent of physical nature? Is not “miracle”—when the term is applied to any physical event, e.g., the resurrection of a dead man—a relative term, dependent on the limitations of human experience and human intellectual grasp; so that, in proportion as intelligence and experience are widened, events called supernatural or miraculous would be seen by the eye of reason to take their places in the perfect order of the Divine intellectual system;—but still at a point of view transcending that share of the reason that is latent in experience in which a human being can consciously participate? In the view of Perfect Intelligence can any event, even the actual resurrection of a dead man, or any other not less extraordinary, seem miraculous or wonderful, and not rather in natural conformity with the perfect reason and purpose immanent in things? Looked at from the centre of things, either nothing should be called supernatural, or all should be called supernatural. Supposed events or experiences are called miraculous by men, because they are of a sort which transcends those processes in the universe to which men are accustomed, and to the aggregate of which the term “nature” is commonly confined. I suppose that a dim idea of this sort may have been in Bishop Butler's mind, when he suggested that there cast be no “absurdity in supposing that there may be beings in the universe whose capacities and knowledge may be so extensive as that the whole Christian dispensation [commonly called supernatural or miraculous] may to there appear natural,…as natural as the visible course of things appears to us.” If all that happens, or that can happen, in “external nature” is the immediate issue and expression of supreme active reason, immanent in all, the distinction between natural and supernatural in the end disappears; but not therefore the distinction between what is physical or sensuous and what is spiritual; nor is the rational possibility shut out of uncommon, and by man incalculable, events actually occurring, because involved, in a way unapproachable through his conceptions, in the perfect order which final reason in nature presupposes: whether they have actually occurred or not is of course a question of fact and historical evidence. But it is premature to raise these questions: they must be met later on.

Are not event “natural” and “supernatural” relatively to the intelligence of the percipient?

In the meantime I would ask you to consider, whether any “special” revelation of God that is possible must not be regarded as in itself an expression of reason, and therefore natural, when “nature” is taken in its high meaning, as comprehending all that happens, conceived according to the final intellectual system of the universe. This may be unimaginable; but, if the universe is in its ultimate principle divine, it cannot contradict reason. Also, must not everything, however natural, at last become for man infinite or mysterious, so that in this high meaning of “nature” all theology must be “natural” theology? This recognition of rationality, we are learning to see, is an indispensable presupposition of human intercourse with the realities. “Upon the first establishment of Christianity,” Cleanthes remarks, in Hume's Dialogue, “nothing was more common than declamations against reason. All the [sceptical] topics of the ancient Academics were adopted by the Fathers of the Church. The Reformers embraced the same principles of reasoning, or rather declamation; and all panegyrics on the excellency of faith were sure to be interlarded with some severe strokes of satire against natural reason. Locke,” he adds, “seems to have been the first Christian who ventured openly to assert that faith was nothing but a species of reason; that religion [intellectually considered] was a branch of philosophy; and that a chain of arguments similar to that which established any truth, e.g., in morals, politics, or physics, was always employed in discovering all the principles of theology, natural and revealed. It is now avowed by all pretenders to reasoning and philosophy that atheist and [universal] sceptic are almost synonymous. And as it is certain that no man is in earnest when he professes the latter principle, I would fain hope that there are as few who seriously maintain the former.” This suggests that immanence of rational order, not irrational and capricious interference with order by the Supreme Power—which would involve final scepticism—must be presupposed as the foundation of all “revelations” of the meaning and purpose of the universe, and of our chief end in it, whether the revelations are called natural or supernatural.

Experiential faith in the rationality or divinity of Christianity.

And it is not inconsistent with the principle on which Goethe objected to Hegel for “bringing the Christian religion into philosophy, although philosophy has really nothing to do with it”; inasmuch as “Christianity is found in experience to have a might of its own, by which dejected, suffering humanity is re-elevated from time to time.” Nor is it inconsistent with the fact, that when we, on the ground of this experience, recognise its divinity, we see that it is raised above abstract philosophy, and that it needs no further support therefrom. For in this, which after all is argumentative appeal to “experience,” the tried spiritual efficacy of Christianity, proved by the consequences of its admission into the world, is taken by reason as what renders it acceptable in its sight, so that this religion is thus found to be practical reason, or reason in the highest form that can enter into human experience.

Illustrations of the dependence of human conduct upon our final interpretation of existence.

III. Further, Lord Gifford's Deed, as I have said, gives the motive for his encouragement of this “natural science” of “Infinite Being.” It was because he thought he saw in the best solution of the final problem of existence the means of man's highest welfare, and security for his upward progress; and he also saw that this knowledge could be thus valuable only when it was genuine conviction, “really felt and acted on,” not merely speculated about, in abstraction from human life and social regard. And I think it may be granted, that the conception of the final meaning and purpose of life that is (consciously or unconsciously) adopted in fact by each man, mainly determines what that man is and what he does. Thus if one supposes himself to be only passive in the necessitated process of nature, in his ultimate conception of the universe, then morality and immorality become meaningless words, and Fatalism, as the logical, is apt to become the practical issue. So, too, our behaviour to ourselves and to other men, and our judgments of human actions, should differ widely as the materialistic or the spiritualistic, the pessimist or the optimist, conception of existence is adopted, and made to govern our lives. Also, unless we presuppose that active moral Reason is latent in the universal evolution, we can justify no interpretation put upon any event, and that whether, according to the analogies of experience, the event is common or extraordinary: it is all physical chaos, under a present illusive semblance of cosmos; deceptive moral chaos, with only a semblance of moral order in the form of harmony with the illusion of conscience of man—so that the possibility of the universe containing divine revelation, call it natural or supernatural, is foreclosed.

We may inquire either, How men have dealt with the final problem, or Whether men are at all entitled to dispose of it religiously.

It must surely be with a sense of weighty issues that we address ourselves to the consideration of the final and universal problem which in faint outline I have now put before you. In the treatment of it, either of two objects may be kept mainly in view. We may concern ourselves either with the history of the gradual development of the religions of the world, or we may examine the philosophic basis of the adopted solution, negative or constructive, of the final problem. I may investigate either the gradual outcome in history of religious hopes and fears, the consequent modifications of religious thought or belief, and the customs and rules of conduct in which these feelings and thoughts have expressed themselves; or I may inquire into the ultimate relation to reason of all religious hopes and fears, thoughts and convictions, ritual and conduct. The one inquiry is exemplified in Hume's ‘Natural History of Religion,’ the pioneer of that historical science of comparative religion which is characteristic of the nineteenth century; the other is the subject of Hume's ‘Dialogues concerning Natural Religion,’ in which we are brought face to face with the ultimate questions which underlie all religious phenomena.

Is the theological conception of the universe an anachronism and absurd?

Lecturers on the Gifford Foundation, in this and the other Scottish Universities, have hitherto, I thick, mostly inclined to the historical treatment of their high problem. Deeply interesting as that is, it leaves in the background the supreme human question—Are religious beliefs, or any of them, true? Is religious worship and faith and hope the transitory illusion of certain stages in history, or is all this a permanent attitude of feeling and will, consistent with reason; and if so, by what criteria may its reasonableness, and its best intellectual form in human consciousness, be determined? Is truth in such matters, and if not in any other matter, capable of being, either naturally or supernaturally, realised in the mind of man? Is the religious conception of the universe an illusion, explicable indeed as a physical effect that is characteristic of certain stages of human development, but becoming an anachronism in a civilisation like that of modern Europe and America, which is apt to see the only criteria of what is true in verified previsions of events naturally evolved, under the merely physical or mechanical conception of existence?

The second of these inquiries prominent in this Course.

I wish to take the second of these two points of view in the treatment of the universal problem. I proceed accordingly to inquire about the philosophical foundations of the different final interpretations of existence—all religious, if religion means vague recognition by man of a power or powers in the universe superior to his own; but not all theistic, or properly religious. The Philosophy of Theism, not the Natural History of the religious phenomena presented by mankind, is our appropriated subject—but with the history taken in occasionally, in verification or illustration of philosophical conclusions. The moral interest of the facts revealed in the history lies in the intellectual validity and worth of the faith and thought by which they are inspired. Religion, in its monotheistic form, presupposes that human experience of what is real admits of a deeper interpretation than that offered in the mechanical causalities of material science. Theistic faith claims for man a right to recognise the universe of the Real as supremely a moral or spiritual unity, incompletely comprehensible, that may reasonably be rested in and reverenced. Religious phenomena may be found, by one who does full justice to his humanity, to be insufficiently treated, when regarded only as physical growth or evolution, the scientific ordering of which, for the satisfaction of scientific curiosity, is taken for our whole concern with them. One still longs to be satisfied regarding their absolute and eternal value for man. He wants to know whether he is duly submitting to the reasonable limitations of human experience, when he is putting a religious meaning upon experience, and treating this as its final and highest meaning. Is religion, or the idea of absolute dependence on, and moral responsibility to, the Supreme Power of which the changing universe is a revelation, an intellectually legitimate state of mind, the expression of man's deepest relation to the realities of existence? Is the faith, hope, and love which it involves, in its progressive development, the practical solution for man of his final problem?

Aids to reflection on the Philosophy of Theism.

In what follows I will try at least to supply some incitement to reflection suggested by questions of this sort, frankly facing difficulties apt to arise in the minds of thoughtful persons, always seeking to keep the reality of things in view, and satisfied to make the best of glimpses of truth that may be within our reach.

From the book: