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Lecture 7. Universal Nescience: David Hume.


IN preceding lectures we have passed through various phases of thought regarding the ultimate problem of existence. The first phase was an inquisitive one. What sort of universe is this in which I find myself living and moving and having my being? In what sort of reality do I find myself sharing; and what is likely to be the issue of the venture, which, without leave asked or given, I find myself obliged to make in being obliged to live? The next phase was dogmatic. I found myself taking for granted, in accordance with prevalent belief or opinion, that consciousness means myself; and myself, too, percipient of innumerable things outside of my inward life; and absolutely certain, moreover, that this inward self-conscious and percipient life is dependent upon Something Eternal, more definitely the Eternal Mind called God. Our third phase was scientific, in the narrow physical meaning of the word science: science, so understood, seemed to lead to the conclusion that you and I are ephemeral material organisms, composed of molecules in motion, and that we are living and moving and having our being among other molecular organisms, each somehow endowed with conscious life while it lasts, but its short self-conscious life only a passing event in the universal molecular history which makes up all that exists. The fourth phase of thought through which we passed was more reflective. In it we saw that the universe, resolved at last into molecular motions, was after all not so satisfying to reason as it seemed at first; and that instead of the percipient ego and its perception of outward things absolutely depending upon outward things in their atomic constitution, the molecularly constituted things were themselves unintelligible without active and percipient consciousness in me. Accordingly, instead of supposing with the materialist that I am living and moving and having my being as only an insignificant organism among other organisms, in a purely outward universe, it seems true, in a deeper sense, that all visible things, including my own organism, exist in my mental experience or at any rate that they depend for their existence and activity on some percipient mind that is having actual sensuous experience. I found that Panegoism had at least as much to say for its proposition, that the outward world is all really living in me, as Pan-materialism had for its assumption—that my percipient life is only an accident which has occurred in the endless history of a dark unconscious universe of molecules and aggregates of molecules in motion or in growth. Still deeper reflection, however, showed the insufficiency both of this empirical materialism and this empirical egoism, by reducing each, when taken apart, to an absurdity. This deeper reflection seemed to lead us nearer to a true philosophy, which should contain the answer to our original inquiry about the final meaning and destiny of existence. Neither the molecules moving in space and time, nor the perceptions of them and of myself of which I was conscious, could, I now thought, be the last word about the absolute reality. They, and I, and all other percipient beings like me, were ephemeral, as far as I had experience of them; and as nothing ephemeral could, it was assumed, be the absolute reality, one was led to think of molecular things, and self-conscious persons, with Spinoza, as interdependent modifications, co-existing consubstantially, either under mathematically necessary relations of infinitely extended thought, or else as the unique absolute reality—the unica substantia or perfect Divine Being, in which they really exist, as seen at the eternal centre, in an indeterminate or undifferentiated unity. Or else escaping from the rigid geometrical conceptions of Spinoza, one might think of them as transitory phenomena, under relations of time rather than of space, evolved by an utterly inscrutable Power, eternally manifesting itself in phenomena; yet a Power which, notwithstanding, is eternally hid from us behind those appearances, and in which the appearances—often consisting of suffering conscious and percipient lives—are all finally absorbed.

The pantheistic necessity and unity contradicted by moral experience.

But the pantheistic unity and necessity seemed to be broken up by inevitable pre-suppositions of human action, necessary implicates of all moral experience, which make us refuse to call evil good, or to see deity in disorder, virtue in crime, and truth in error. I even say to see truth in error; for if human experiences, under the disparaging name of “imaginations,” are themselves modes of the perfect being, how can they be condemned as illusions, or how can there be any error if all is divine?

Absolute Nescience, or the reductio ad absurdum alike of pure Materialism, pure Egoism, and pure pantheism; each of which, nevertheless, serves a purpose.

Universal Nescience seems to be the reductio ad absurdum of each of the three philosophical attempts to reduce to unity that triplicity of existence which is dimly presupposed in the common faith. Pan-materialism, Panegoism, Pantheism, each so far true in what it affirms, are all challenged as inadequate and inconsistent expressions of human experience, or on the ground that they reach verbal consistency through inadequacy. In the ages materialistic and egoistic atheism and empiricism, and pantheistic rational necessity, in some form of each, hold their ground, for each expresses in part what is real; and each I daresay has in its own way contributed to a deeper and truer intelligence of the universal problem. It is probable that for some minds each may continue to be found satisfying in the future as in the past. But each leads logically into universal scepticism.

Universal Nescience or Scepticism.

Universal Nescience—doubt about everything, the mental paralysis involved in a universal scepticism—is accordingly the next condition of mind I would ask you to enter into provisionally. Is it our only remaining alternative? Must we in the end subside into the impotence of a speechless suicidal scepticism, or is there another position which man is able to occupy?

Is the problem of the universe and of human life in the end in every way insoluble?

A sixth and negative phase of thought meantime succeeds to the five already passed through: it is one in which faith is professedly eliminated. The inquisitive mood in which we placed ourselves at the outset, it would now seem, was vain. A point of interrogation becomes the symbol of human life, in relation to itself and to the outside universe and to God. I cannot really tell what sort of universe this may be into which I have been ushered. My existence may or may not be dependent on the eternal existence of the Being who was believed to bring me and all else, except this Being, into appearance. The sum of passing appearances may or may not be explicable, as the issue of innumerable molecules in motion: the same may or may not be at last sufficiently described in terms of my inward life; or each of them metaphorically as outward and inward sides of the same Something. The reality is Something hid behind both the molecular and the conscious appearances—concealed, not revealed by them—for this is indeed what the pantheistic phase of thought and faith in the end amounts to: the geometrically necessary ultimate unity of Spinozism, and the evolutionary physical unity of less rigid forms of pantheism, disappear alike in undifferentiated unity. I find no ultimate issue other than nescience of abstract pantheistic reasoning, or of the pantheistic feeling of mystery;—neither speculative nor emotional pantheism is an adequate or self-consistent interpretation of life and moral experience, so it leaves me finally in doubt. Whether there is or is not at the centre of existence supreme living mind of God now appears as a speculation less capable of being brought to an issue than the question about a plurality of inhabited worlds. Like this famous question, it must remain an abstract question about a concrete matter of fact that lies wholly out of the range of sensuous experience; and as all inquiries about matters of fact must be determined by experience and not by abstract thought, both questions are for ever indeterminable. Whether a living Person is the supreme Power seems even more indeterminable than the question about the existence of persons analogous to human beings in the other planets: for an improved experimental apparatus may some day conceivably bring one or more of the planets so within human experience that men can determine whether or not it is the scene of an intelligent population; but wider experience can never relieve the incomprehensibility of the infinite existence within which men awaken into consciousness, if it is an incomprehensibility that is imposed by the very constitution of a human knowledge of the concrete universe. The supposition that man can so get outside of the universe and of his own private consciousness as to have the infinite reality within his intellectual grasp; and then find, by this ecstatic experience, what its universal principle is, and whether it is a trustworthy principle, and ours, by participation in it, a trustworthy intelligence,—this can never come within the range of human, or indeed of finite, power. Paralysed thought withdraws the final problem, as one which must have made its appearance only through an obstinate unreflecting delusion. At the best this discovery can only warn us emphatically to address ourselves to practical and provisional interpretations of the small fragment of world-appearances and their uncertain relations which human experience in the five senses presents, leaving the substance of the infinite reality in a darkness which these transitory appearances do nothing to remove.

Agnosticism: demands logical proof instead of ultimate moral faith.

To think of life and the universe thus is, according to the favourite conventional expression, to look at existence agnostically, or to be an agnostic. This, we all know, is the name suggested by Professor Huxley to express his own mental attitude to the problem of “natural theology, in the widest meaning of the term”; and it has passed current because it expresses a vision or conception of the universe that has returned into fashion in this latter half of the nineteenth century. “When I reached intellectual maturity,” Mr Huxley tells us, “I began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist.” This, I suppose, was to ask whether his own last word about life and experience was that of the atheistic materialist and atheistic individual egoist; or that of the theist, by whom the three existences are finally postulated; or that of the pantheist, who sees in the finite universe an illusory succession of changes in a really unchangeable metaphysical unity. “I found,” he goes on to say, “when I put this question to myself, that the more I reflected, the less ready was the answer. At last I came to the conclusion that I had neither lot nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain Gnosis—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence: while I was quite sure I had not; and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of agnostic. It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the gnostic of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant.” “Agnosticism” is otherwise described by the inventor of the name as a method of intellectual procedure, rather than as a state of doubt about the final meaning and purpose of life and the infinite reality. It is a method, we are told, “the essence of which lies in the application of a single principle, which is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively this principle may be thus expressed:—In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively:—In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” Agnosticism, according to this account of it, is a term invented to express dutiful submission of human belief to the limits imposed by logical understanding and experience,—rejection of all assertions and denials that are inconsistent with this purely intellectual integrity.

Agnosticism made a question-begging term.

It is difficult to see how this intellectual integrity can be the distinctive mark of agnostic scepticism without question-begging. In the present case the very point in dispute is, whether any positive assertion about the final meaning and purpose of life and experience is reasonable. That many unreasonable assumptions and conclusions, positive and negative, about the sort of universe we are born into, its principle or want of principle, its purpose or want of purpose, have more or less prevailed, is a superfluous truth. But it still remains for criticism and proof that all positive assertions of this sort must be unreasonable assertions. To assume this at the outset, in a question-begging definition, is almost to illustrate agnosticism in the act of defining it: it is to determine a matter of fact not by proof, but by an arbitrary definition of the word agnostic.

Theological fallacies.

It is of course true that the theological conception of existence has given birth to abundance of fallacious reasoning. The theistic interpretation of things has been often the issue either of abstract metaphysical arguments, in which a disputed matter of fact is settled by manipulation of abstract propositions; or it has been the outcome of irrelevant facts, in the form of insufficiently tested human authority—the authority of mankind in general, or of men reputedly good and wise; or it has been credited to the account of those facts in history, which suggest that religious faith has been a means of increasing individual happiness and the prosperity of communities. Nay, without even the semblance of an appeal to reason, it has been sustained by superstitious reverence for the words of a book accepted as infallible, or for the dogmas of a society which claims infallibility. In all this the final appeal to reason and experience is either evaded, or rested on a narrow foundation. Abstract propositions can never show us what exists in fact; at the most they can show only what must be fact, in case conditions of which only experience can inform us are actually fulfilled. So it is argued that as to authority, it is worthless when it relates to what can never come within the range of human experience. No man can ever actually see the Eternal Spirit, or hear him speak; or see those who saw him, or who heard his voice. Tradition reports the occasional occurrence of physical miracles; and animal organisms which seem to involve adaptation of means to ends are familiar to us all. But man cannot know enough about the ultimate constitution of the universe to justify him in concluding that the reported signs and wonders, even if they really did come within the experience of a human being, must be understood to mean the active interference for a purpose of the supposed Eternal Mind; and as for Paley and the curiously constructed organisms, we now know enough about the natural history of cosmical changes to justify the conclusion that their curious construction may be the gradual issue of ordinary natural growth; so that divine creative irregularity would be superfluous. It is unnecessary, the sceptic says, to prove the absence of supernatural interference; the proof of a negative is always difficult: it is enough that there is no proof of more than natural sequence, and that the admission of more without reason is contrary to reason. Assumption is not argument. Least of all can the burden of human life be rested on the dogma that what seems to be useful for man must therefore be true; or that a belief ought to be accepted merely because it relieves desires and aspirations of the believer; or because its reception seems to make its recipients happier. To make the wishes of men a test of the reality of the thing wished for, is to reverse the method of science, and to substitute indulgence in agreeable anticipation for intellectual insight. An Infinite Being that, by the very nature of human experience, can never present itself in that experience, even if it exists, must be to man as though it were not; and when men suppose that they are having experience of Infinite mistaking unhealthy states of consciousness for something above them which they choose to call divine. Knowledge of unexplained human feelings is not properly named when it is called knowledge of God.

The assumption that man must for ever remain ignorant of all beyond phenomena of sense reverses the teaching of Bacon, Descartes, and Locke.

This Agnosticism, thus confident that man must for ever find in the ultimate problem of life and experience his one insoluble mystery, is in curious contrast with the absolute certainty that was claimed for theistic faith by the illustrious spokesmen of philosophy in the first period of the modern philosophical revival. I hope that to refer to them is not an unreasonable recognition of authority. “Depth in philosophy,” Bacon says, “bringeth men's minds alone to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate, and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity: nay, even that school which is most accused of atheism doth most demonstrate religion; that is the school of Leucippus, and Democritus, and Epicurus—for it is a thousand times more credible that four mutable elements and one immutable fifth essence, duly and eternally placed, need no God, than that an army of infinite small portions, or seeds unplaced, should have produced this, order and beauty, without a divine marshal.” Then hear Descartes: “With respect to God, if I were not preoccupied by prejudices, and my thought beset on all sides by the continual presence of the images of sensible objects, I should know nothing sooner nor more easily than the fact of God's existence. For is there any truth more clear than the existence of a Supreme Being, or of a God, seeing it is to His Essence alone that existence necessarily and eternally pertains? But although the right conception of this truth has cost me much close thinking, nevertheless now I feel not only as assured of it as of what I deem most certain, but I find further that the certitude of all other truths is so absolutely dependent on this one, that without the knowledge of God it would be impossible ever to know anything else…For if I do not first know that there is a God, I may suppose that I have been so constituted by mere nature as to be deceived, even in matters which I apprehend with the greatest seeming evidence and certitude; especially when I recollect that I have frequently judged things to be true and certain which other reasons afterwards constrained me to reckon as wholly false…I now clearly see that the certitude and truth of allscience depends on knowledge of God and on that alone; so that as before I knew God I could have no perfect knowledge of any other thing. But now that I know God, I possess the means of acquiring knowledge of innumerable matters, as well relative to God as to corporeal nature.” Next take Locke: “We cannot want a clear proof of God as long as we carry ourselves about us; since He has plentifully provided us with the means to discover and know Him, so far as is necessary to the end of our being, and the great concernment of our happiness…It is plain to me we have a more certain knowledge of the existence of a God than of anything our senses have not immediately discovered to us. Nay, I presume I may say that we more certainly know there is a God than that there is anything else without us. But though this be the most obvious truth that reason discovers, and though its evidence be (if I mistake not) equal to mathematical certainty, yet it requires thought and attention; or else we shall be as uncertain and ignorant of this as of other propositions which are in themselves capable of clear demonstration.” So far Bacon, Descartes, and Locke, three early leaders of modern thought. How comes it that what they, in the seventeenth century, regarded as self-evident reality, or at least demonstrated certainty not less cogent than mathematical, should in the nineteenth century be judged by speculative physicists to be wholly and for ever incognisable by men?

It boldly claims for its parents, I Hume and Kant; and the theory of knowledge which was proposed by Locke.

The history of European thought in the interval goes far to explain the revolution through which what was accepted as the supreme certainty by the intellectual leaders of the seventeenth century has become the supreme uncertainty of the physical theorists who aspire to lead philosophic thought in the nineteenth. Professor Huxley thinks that with “Hume and Kant,” the great authorities of the eighteenth century, presenting themselves as advocates of the insolubility of the final problem of the universe, it cannot be “presumptuous” to hold fast by this opinion. Agnosticism is for him new only in name. He thinks it is a new name for the philosophy of Hume and Kant: their philosophy has now determined the limits within which a positive human knowledge of the universe must be confined. And their message is reported to be, that men can know reality only so far as they have sensuous experience of it: without this experience knowledge is only a sham—an empty abstraction. Except so far as the three commonly postulated existences—outward things, myself, and God—are actually presented in experience, no positive conclusions regarding any of them can be drawn: our assertions about them must all be negative.

The Kantian Philosophy as a whole not agnostic, seeing that Kant offers moral reason for supermundane realities.

Kant is associated by Professor Huxley with Hume as one of the two leaders of agnosticism. This is on account of Kant's theory of causality, and his application of it to natural theology. But Kant's intellectual negation of theological knowledge does not necessarily mean that his philosophy as a whole is theologically negative. To assert the contrary is scarcely to do justice to it as a whole; for it implies that his total thought is not consistent with itself—that his second great work was intentionally a vain attempt to restore what he had destroyed in his first. But the arguments in the first Critique against the possibility of a theological solution of existence through a causal construction of sensuous experience by the logical faculty, which neither demonstrate nor disallow the existence of God, do not foreclose the more practical argument from man's moral experience, in the later Critique, and in this is to be seen the complementary issue of the Kantian inquiry as a whole. Hume, not Kant, is the modern representative of what is called agnosticism. It is thus formulated by Hume:—“When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humour, which it is impossible ever to satisfy.” And Hume sees that this agnosticism involves total nescience, and not merely theological nescience.

The Pyrrhonism of Hume is theological agnosticism thought out.

For in truth the revolution in our conception of the universe of reality which was proposed by Hume, in his ‘Treatise of Human Nature,’ is a great deal more bold and thorough than the later agnosticism which claims him as its parent: it involves the complete disintegration of knowledge of every sort, not of theology only. It issues in dissolution of reasonable reality in a scepticism which leaves men impotent and speechless; or, if expressed in speech, it must be speech in the form of a question, never in the form of a proposition, either affirmative or negative, on any matter whatever. The “Que sais-je?” with the even balance as its symbol, which Montaigne adopted to express the hopeless universality of his spontaneous doubt or ignorance, represents all that Hume finds at last in sensuous “experience,” at the close of a reflective analysis of its contents. The only philosophically lawful sort of intellectual life for man, according to Hume, is a life of question-putting, with no answers about anything. Experience consists—if it can be spoken of as a “consistence”—not of what is substantial, but of isolated appearances, empty of substance or reality. We can have no experience of a substantial material world; we can have no experience of substantial personality in the form of a self; we can have no experience of the unica substantia in the heart of the whole. The whole at the most is a succession of empty shows, too insignificant to be worth fighting about, so that martyrs of all sorts are madmen. The essence of wisdom, as with Montaigne, is to oscillate, to doubt, to inquire, to feel sure of nothing, to make one's self responsible for nothing. It was the lesson of Pyrrho of old. If actual sense is for us the measure of the universe, experience is only the feeling of each moment. What is not felt at the moment cannot be a part of it: this experience is transcended whenever assertions are made regarding the past, the distant, or the future; even in memory, and in the supposition of the existence of permanent things behind the present phenomena which are attributed to the permanent things; in the supposition, too, of a permanent self behind the momentary sensations which are supposed to be in some way connected with this spiritual substance of which there is no experience; or when assertions are made about Divine Substance, also unexperienced, on which the other two illusions are supposed to depend, while this last is itself the chief illusion of all.

Interrogation, not proposition, the only legitimate expression of universal nescience.

If belief must in all cases be confined within the transitory actual feeling of the moment, and if feeling, under this stringent limitation of reality, cannot be interpreted as the sign of aught beyond itself, it seems to follow that our only possible intellectual expression must be a transitory interrogation. All assertion about what is outside the limit of present feeling must be unproved assertion. Intellect can at the most only have strength enough to extinguish itself. Intelligence can only be a momentary experience of the impossibility of intelligible experience, if even so much as this.

Hume himself finds in his felt needs what practically arrests his scepticism.

Hume seems to find outside of argument a practical counteractive to this intellectual suicide. An intense view of the disintegration of a knowledge that is limited to the isolated impression of the moment at first disposed him “to reject all belief and reasoning,” so that he “could look upon no opinion as more probable or likely than another,” especially any opinion concerning the ultimate meaning of the universe. “Where am I, or what am I?” he asks. “From what cause do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who has any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.” But if “experience,” in the narrowest meaning of the word, when made the criterion of reality, brought him to this pass, “experience” in a wider meaning, and including the mental experience of an irresistible faith, carried him out of what he calls his “philosophical melancholy and delirium.”

A universal disintegration of reasoning by reasoning is self-contradictory, and practically impossible.

For it is impossible for a human being to subside practically into Pyrrhonism, or total inability to assert. There is the “secret force in nature” of which Pascal speaks, which sustains the weakness of our finite understanding, and arrests “philosophical delirium.” The sceptic who declines the attempt to interpret for action any of the appearances presented in experience, because reality in its infinity is incomprehensible by man, must cease to live. This total scepticism, it has been well said, can never be more than an amusement of the understanding: its only serious effect must consist in exercising acuteness, and in humbling the pride of dogmatism: no human mind can permanently acquiesce in it: by professing to render all the principles of reasoning and conduct equally uncertain, it leaves all opinions in the same degree of certainty or probability, relatively to each other, which they occupied before. David Hume himself discovered in faith or trust the only extrication from the sceptical dilemma that seems available for finite intelligence with finite experience; and even his attenuated faith carries in it the rudiments of the three commonly postulated existences—self, the outer world, and God.

In all reasoning about the absent from present experience, a step must be taken which is “not supported by any argument.”

It is instructive to trace the steps which led Hume to what he calls a “sceptical solution of sceptical doubts” about the possibility of finding meaning in experience. It is Pascal's case: those who pretend to doubt everything are confounded by natural faith, while dogmatists who claim infallibility are confounded by sceptical criticism. The finite intelligence of man, incapable of comprehending the infinity of existence, is instead, Hume finds, “carried by custom” to believe in objects and events that “lie beyond the present testimony of our senses and the records of our memory.” In all human reasonings from experience, he finds that a step is taken in a faith “which is not supported by any argument or process of the understanding;” and yet it is sanctioned as a step that is reasonable: though not obliged by argument to take the step, one is induced to do so by “another principle of equal weight and authority” with argument. All “inferences from experience” are really examples of trust in uniformities that are customary in the experience which we seek to interpret. Hume, accordingly, reconstitutes the experience which his sceptical criticisms had disintegrated. We are inevitably disposed, he virtually says, to put trust in the universe, when it addresses us in its tried uniformities, confident that if we do so our intelligence will not be put to confusion by the issue. Now this faith in the past customs of nature is virtually, and so far, faith in God immanent in nature. It is in the exercise of this reliance on the surroundings amidst which we live and move and have our being that men are able to transcend immediate and momentary experience, and to bring into a larger or scientific experience what was never actually present in their senses, and was, therefore, not recorded in their memories. We are carried blindly by custom to expect, and expectation is in all cases a faith. This may mean that we put so much trust in the reality that envelops us, and in which we participate, as to recognise that this credit is reasonably given; although we cannot demonstrate its reasonableness, or demonstrate that what is continually manifesting itself in our lesser or immediate, and also in our larger experience, in which the lesser is inductively interpreted, is a revelation, so far as it goes, of the Infinite Reality. We put trust in the customary behaviour of the universe, because without this trust we could not live even the life of sense, while we find nothing that is self-contradictory implied in our doing so. The faith works in harmony with our circumstances. It is “an operation of the soul” which seems to meet the order in which the universe is wont to be experienced. It is as unavoidable in its occurrence as it is to feel the passion of love when we receive benefits, or hatred when we meet with injuries. In all these operations alike, Hume sees what he calls “a species of natural instinct,” which no reasoning is able either to produce or to prevent.

All inferences about matters of fact are ultimately expressions of faith in the trustworthiness of the ever-changing Universe.

Hume even suggests a theory of the natural law under which this faith in natural law arises in the minds of men. The faith itself he describes as a feeling of trust in reality, which can be understood only by our being actually conscious of it. “Were we to attempt a definition of this belief or faith, we should perhaps find it an impossible task; in the same manner as if we should endeavour to define the feeling of cold, or the passion of anger, to a creature who never had any experience of these sentiments. Every man is every moment conscious of the sentiment represented by it. It is that act of the mind which renders realities, or what is taken for reality, more present to us than fictions, causes them to weigh more in the thought, and gives them a superior influence on the passions and imagination. Belief consists not in the peculiar nature or order of ideas, but in the manner of their conception, and in their peculiar feeling to the mind. It is impossible perfectly to explain this feeling. We can go no further than assert that belief [in reality] is something so felt by the mind as to distinguish ideas of the judgment from mere fictions of the imagination. It gives them weight and influence; enforces them in the mind, and renders them the governing principles of our actions.” A recognition of the practical trustworthiness of the universe—for so the mental state now under consideration might be described—is, according to Hume's theory, a natural issue of the fact that real events outside our minds follow one another in steady order. The past natural history of our surroundings occasions faith in the continuance of their natural order—that is to say, in their interpretability. Put whatever the occasion of the rise in us of this faith may be, the matter of relevant concern is,—that the faith does naturally come into exercise, and that the expectation which it involves finds a response in our experience of surrounding reality. The universe, in short, is so far comprehended, when it is found in fact to correspond to the expectant judgments of man: man and his universe are united in an experienced harmony. Man's power to interpret, verified by this experience, suggests that the outward succession is determined by laws which correspond to laws that regulate his own interpreting mind; for otherwise he could not become its interpreter. Is not this interpretability of nature another expression for its immanent divinity, its final supernaturalness in germ? For it meets and so far satisfies the human feeling of absolute dependence on the otherwise unknown Supreme Power, herein no longer unknown, but so far and thus revealed, in a real revelation of what in its infinity passes knowledge. One can almost read this within the lines even in Hume.

They presuppose an established harmony between our thoughts and the course of nature; so that all natural evidence is fundamentally cosmic faith.

In the “correspondence” that appears between our trust in natural order and the facts of that order, he sees “a kind of pre-established harmony.” It is a “harmony” between “nature and the succession of our ideas: though the powers and forces by which the universe is governed be wholly unknown to us, yet our thoughts and conceptions have still, we find, gone on in the same train with the other works of nature. Custom is that principle by which this correspondence has been effected…Had not the presence of an object excited in us the idea of the objects commonly conjoined with it [in nature], all human knowledge must have been limited to the narrow sphere of our memory and senses; and we should never have been able to adjust means to ends, or employ our natural powers, either to the producing of good or avoiding of evil.” And that a universal purpose, as well as a universal order, is latent in this trust in the universe, even Hume suggests. “Those who delight in the discovery and contemplation of final causes,” he continues, “have ample subject to employ their wonder and admiration,” in contemplating the harmony between our expectations and the course of things. For the “wisdom of nature” has implanted in us an instinctive faith, “which carries forward the thought in a correspondent course to that which she has established among external objects, though we are ignorant of those powers and forces on which this regular course or succession of objects totally depends.”

David Hume and Herbert Spencer.

The three primary postulated existences are virtually implied, each in a thin attenuated form, in these notable words—“self” and “outward things” distinguished, yet in an established harmony with each other; and withal a rudimentary faith in order and purpose embodied in the whole, but with ignorance otherwise of the Power to which the order and purpose are due. The Supreme Power is credited with “wisdom,” because wisdom is manifested in this established harmony; yet, as with Herbert Spencer, so with Hume, “the power which the universe manifests to us is utterly inscrutable.” But one may ask, How and why “utterly” inscrutable, when the “wisdom” latent in its “powers and forces” is acknowledged? Its very manifestations must not be spoken of as if they concealed it, when they are its revelation and embodiment. Is not the opposite conception the issue of a defect in the comprehension of the homo mensura principle? The revolution in the method of interpreting existence for which Hume claims credit, in his ‘Treatise of Human Nature,’ may be said to be,—substitution of the concrete homo mensura for the abstract Divina Mensura principle of Spinoza. But by Hume only a shadowy film of the homo is taken into account, with the result, as Thomas Carlyle puts it, that to him life and the universe “was little more than a foolish Bartholomew Fair show-booth, with the foolish crowding and elbowings of which it was not worth while to quarrel, the whole would break up and be at liberty so soon”;—himself “with factitious half-false gaiety taking leave at death of what was itself wholly but a lie.”

Hume's reason for regarding religious worship as irrational.

In David Hume, the gentle benevolence which charmed his friends, which Henry Mackenzie has pathetically illustrated in the story of ‘La Roche,’ was united to a temperament to which religious life was by his own account foreign. Warm in friendship, he was indifferent in religion, with a natural repugnance to every sort of enthusiasm, founded on the narrow rationalism of an understanding measured by external sense. We see this in his objections to devotion and prayer, and as he himself tells us, to “everything we commonly call religion, except the practice of morality, and the assent of the understanding to the proposition that God exists. It must be acknowledged,” he adds, “that nature has given us a strong passion of admiration for whatever is excellent, and that the Deity possesses these attributes in the highest perfection; and yet I assert that God is not the natural object of any passion or affection. He is no object either of the senses or imagination, and very little of the understanding; without which it is impossible to excite any affection. And, indeed, I am afraid that all enthusiasts mightily deceive themselves. Hope and fear perhaps agitate their breasts when they think of the Deity; or they degrade him into a resemblance with themselves, and by that means render him more comprehensible. Such an affection cannot be required of any man as his duty. Neither the turbulent passions nor the calm affections can operate without the assistance of the senses and [sensuous] imagination; or at least a more complete knowledge of the object than we have of the Deity. In most men this is the case; and a natural infirmity can never be a crime.”

Hume's difficulty about the theistic conclusion of Cleanthes.

This recognition of “natural infirmity” as non-moral may be taken as tacit acknowledgment that the ground of morality lies in supernatural freedom. But apart from this, of which more afterwards, this argument for the impossibility of religious devotion “in most men” is interesting when taken in connection with the sympathy which Hume nevertheless avows for the intellectual position of Cleanthes, one of the three interlocutors in his ‘Dialogues on Natural Religion.’ It is Cleanthes who takes the part of reasoning himself into faith in omnipotent and all-wise Deity, as the supreme principle in existence, by an induction from our experience of the order and mechanism that reign in the world. To his mind, “the most agreeable reflection which it is possible for human imagination to suggest is that of genuine theism; which represents men as the workmanship of a Being perfectly good, wise, and powerful, who, having implanted in us immeasurable desires of good, will prolong our existence to all eternity in order to satisfy these desires.” Some of this suggests analogous reasoning of Kant's, but I introduce it here on account of Hume's expressed sympathy with the conclusion, combined with his hesitation to receive it as truth, on account of the absence of adequate human experience in verification. “I could wish,” he remarks in one of his letters,—“I could wish that Cleanthes's argument could be so analysed as to be rendered quite formal and regular. The propensity of the mind towards it,” i.e., the support it has in human experience—“unless that propensity were as strong and universal as that to believe in our senses—will still, I am afraid, be esteemed as suspicious foundation. ‘Tis here I wish for your assistance: we must endeavour to prove that this propensity is somewhat different from our inclination to find our own figures in the clouds, our faces in the moon, our passions and sentiments even in inanimate matter. For such an inclination [as this last] may and ought to be controlled, and can never be a legitimate ground of assent.”

The limit of experience according to David Hume.

The legitimacy of an extension of “experience” which takes in and accepts as part of it the moral and religious sentiment of mankind, is in the question at issue with modern agnosticism, and it is interesting to find Hume struggling with it. It is difficult to determine what his final opinion was, or how far below the thin surface of external sense experience he meant to go. That a principle of intelligence is supreme in the universe, however little an object of human understanding this principle may be, was sometimes strongly maintained by him. “The whole frame of nature,” he asserts in his ‘Natural History of Religion,’ “bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational inquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief for a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine theism.” Perhaps the key to Hume's negations may be found in a remark which his friend Boyle (recorded by Hill Burton) reports that he made, when fit was alleged that he had “thrown off the principles of religion.” To which the good David replied: “Though I throw out my speculations to entertain the learned and metaphysical world, yet I do not think so differently from the rest of the world as you imagine.” But this about Hume personally is by the way. I return to agnosticism.

Is the religious “leap in the dark” more irrational than the inductive?

The scientific agnostic, we now see, is ready to take the inductive leap in the dark through faith in a natural order believed to be immanent in his sense surroundings; this leap is essentially an act of faith, and not the result of a purely logical process of reasoning, emptied of all trust. Is he not also required, under pressure of moral or spiritual necessities which remain latent in some men, to regard as also reasonable that still deeper interpretation of the universe which makes it at last the supernatural manifestation of supreme moral purpose? That to do so us fallacious only “because it substitutes faith for reasoning” cannot per se be pleaded in arrest of this further leap in the dark. For every step in the physical interpretation of the external world equally involves the substitution of trust for a perfect rational insight of the infinite contingencies of nature. Boasted inductive verification in natural science is finally an act of faith, not of reasoning; for we cannot prove by abstract argument that what has happened even a million times must therefore happen again. The agnosticism that retains physical science is not really a protest against faith; it is only an arrest of faith at the point at which faith advances from a purely physical to the moral and religious interpretation of life and the universe. Is an arrest of faith at this point justified by reason, or by the experience of mankind? I must try to answer this question in the three following lectures.

From the book: