You are here

Chapter 2: Herbert Spencer and the Unknowable

I. THE DOCTRINE OF H. SPENCER ON SCIENCE, RELIGION, AND THEIR RELATIONS — The Unknowable, science and religion — Evolutionism, religious evolution.

II. THE INTERPRETATION OF THE DOCTRINE — The motives which guided H. Spencer — The relation between the theory of religious evolution and the theory of The Unknowable — The negative Unknowable and the positive Unknowable — H. Spencer and Pascal.

III. THE VALUE OF THE DOCTRINE — Is The Unknowable of H. Spencer merely a residuum of religion? The value of feeling according to H. Spencer — Moreover, the doctrine has a rational foundation — The weak point in the system: The Unknowable conceived from a purely objective point of view. H. Spencer allows it too much or too little.

IN our estimate of what is most original in Herbert Spencer's philosophy, we cannot include his speculations concerning religion. Roughly speaking, they occupy only a small space in his works. But, if it is always interesting to understand the ideas of a great thinker in regard to this subject, there are special reasons for seeking to know what Herbert Spencer written about it.

He belonged to a family of preachers and professors, wherein religion was deemed the matter of first importance. On his mother's side he was connected with an old French Huguenot family—that of Brettel. His great-grandfather was John Brettel, who, as personal friend of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, applied himself to the task of spreading that doctrine. His mother, Harriet Holmes was a woman of great piety: although a Methodist she rigidly observed the rites of the Church of England. George Spencer, Herbert's father, was keenly interested in religious matters. Originally attached to Methodism, he seceded from it on the plea of not finding therein the inward religion that he needed, and went over to the Quakers. His religious disposition was expressed in a veritable repugnance towards ecclesiastical rules and ceremonies.

To these influences Herbert Spencer was far from being insensible. In his facts and Comments, as well as in his Autobiography, he shows that religious matters have an increasing hold upon his affection. It is with reflections about religion that the Autobiography ends. In this way, the scientist who, by means of his immense studies, rendered himself capable of attempting that wonderful synthesis of the sciences with which his name remains connected, was no less qualified, on the side of life and thought, to discuss the relations between religion and science.

It is not only because it expresses an important side of the philosopher's own mind that the teaching of Herbert Spencer in regard to religion is interesting. That teaching is summed up in what Huxley has called Agnosticism. Now. Agnosticism is one of the most important forms of philosophical thought as it exists to-day. What is Agnosticism? For some, it is a mysticism which is afraid of lowering God by setting Him within our reach; for others, it is only an esoteric name behind which atheism is concealed. Agnosticism is a particular solution of the problem which the relations between religion and science involve; this problem we are bound to examine, and, if we are to study it in a concrete manner, we could not do better than consider it as expounded by Herbert Spencer.


The Doctrine of H. Spencer on Science, Religion, and their Relations

It is essentially in the opening part of First Principles, entitled “The Unknowable,” and in those parts of The Principles of Sociology which treat, at one time of the psychological data or bases of sociology, at another of the evolution of ecclesiastical institutions, that the passages concerning religion and its relations with science are to be found.

The last word of Herbert Spencer's philosophy may be expressed as follows: there is for us, incontestably, at the centre and origin of all things, an Unknowable—a principle, that is, which we can neither set aside nor reach. This doctrine binds together religion and science.

It often seems as if religion and science were opposed to one another: hence many people are driven to believe that the principles underlying these two? are radically irreconcilable. For all that, we are compelled to note that both are equally given in experience as genuine realities.

It would be an error to regard religion as an artificial affair, manufactured by the mind through the accidental caprice of its imagination. Religion has been suggested to man by the very things of his experience; it is the spontaneous reaction of his thought, of his heart, of his soul, in response to the control exercised over him by the external world.

On the other hand, science, in like manner is not the artificial and quasi-supernatural contrivance imagined (maybe through imperfect understanding) by those who glory in opposing it to the knowledge of the multitude. Science is common everyday experience itself, become, in the process of its natural evolution, more precise, more connected, more instructive, and far more capable than common experience of overstepping, in its affirmations, the limits of actual perception.

Science and religion have, then, one and the same origin: both are generated naturally in the human mind, by reason of its relation with the world; they are, to the same extent, realities, spontaneous manifestations of nature: it is, therefore, nonsense to inquire if the existence of the one is compatible with that of the other. They are able to coexist seeing that they do coexist! The only problem is that of seeking out the reason and meaning of this coexistence.

If we adhere to the examination of particular determinations, be these religious or scientific, we prove, indeed, flagrant contradictions between them, and we can only deem unnatural and feeble those efforts in the way of conciliation that ingenious exegetes strive to multiply. But the accidental cannot make us forget what is essential. In order to arrive at a clear appreciation of science and religion, we must consider, not their particular and contingent expressions, but their most general and most abstract propositions: perhaps, in this way, they will turn out to be quite reconcilable.

The special dogmas offered by the various religions (dogmas that often bring them into conflict with science) express, in reality, not supernatural revelations but the endeavour of the human mind to imagine, in a manner agreeable to its categories and methods, what is absolute and infinite: this task is forced upon it by feeling. Now, all these formulæ—be they ever so learned, ingenious, or acute—turn out to be incapable of supporting the analysis. They appear satisfactory so long as we consider them from a poetical and sentimental standpoint, without strictly defining the meaning of words and the connection of ideas. But it is no longer the same when we seek to imagine them and to demonstrate them in a precise fashion.

For instance, let the question be in regard to the origin of the world—one of those questions which religion, in its various forms, usually attempts to solve. If we determine with precision the explanations that this problem allows, we find that they are reduced to three. We may assume, either that the world exists from all eternity, or that it has created itself, or that it has been created by an external power. Now, submitted to philosophical criticism, not one of these three hypotheses is really intelligible: each of the three conceals within itself logical incompatibilities, each is intrinsically contradictory. It is impossible to realise them in thought—to use the forcible English expression. These results have been, according to Herbert Spencer, definitely established through the criticism of Hamilton and of Mansel. Examination of the other determinations that theology claims to impose on primal being—unity, freedom personality, brings us to like conclusions.

That is why the object of religion, the absolute in so far as we try to picture it as existent, is incomprehensible, unthinkable.

What shall we now say about science? Is it not, contrariwise, clear and obvious—from beginning to end—in its principles, in its reasonings, in its results? Not so, in Herbert Spencer's view! Science, in her definitive task of reducing quality to quantity, cannot dispense with such notions as space, time, matter, movement, force, seeing that they are the necessary conditions of quantity. But all these notions, if we attempt to realise them in thought, end, likewise, in contradictions.

Try for instance, to imagine clearly, i.e. to understand with precise and absolute determination, what existence implies, whether space or time. If space and time really exist, there are, with respect to their nature, only three possible hypotheses. They must be either entities, or attributes of entities, or subjective realities. But not one of these three hypotheses can be developed without contradiction. Spencer, once again, adopts the results of Kantian and Scottish criticism.

That which is true of space and of time is equally so of the other primary data of science. Do we endeavour, tracing back the course of universal evolution, to conceive matter as having existed originally in a state of complete diffusion? We find ourselves confronted by the impossibility of imagining how it has reached that state. Do we turn our gaze towards the future? We are debarred from assigning limits to the succession of phenomena spread out before us. If, on the other hand, man looks into himself, he finds that the two ends of the thread of consciousness are beyond his reach. He can only comprehend the production of a state of consciousness after that state has already slipped by; and the disappearance of the conscious into the unconscious eludes him in like manner. The essence, the genesis and the end of all things are hidden from us. All our science leads to mystery in the long run.

There is, then, a resemblance, a bond, between science and religion. Both of these, when we dive into their principles, imply the unknowable, the unthinkable. Religion takes its rise in this unknowable, which it struggles fruitlessly to define. In vain, on its side, would science resolve on establishing itself within the region of the definable and knowable. The greater its progress and demonstration, the more obtrusive becomes that unknowable which it was bent on eliminating. Where religion begins, science ends, They turn their backs on one another, and yet they are reunited.

But would not the notion of the absolute, in which science and religion are thus reconciled, be a pure negation? Would not this unknowable, this unthinkable be reduced to an abstraction, to a nonentity? If this were so, the reconciliation that it effects would be only a word.

It is the peculiar merit and originality of Herbert Spencer to have established, as a positive reality, that Unknowable which, for his predecessors Hamilton and Mansel, was only a negation. He has declared, he has maintained that the Absolute is unknowable: he has not concluded thence that we can affirm nothing in regard to it. Between knowledge, properly so called, which grasps the thing in its full determination, and total ignorance which reduces the thing to a name devoid of meaning, Herbert Spencer has put an inter medium, viz. to know the thing in so far as it is perceived under its most general aspects.

In order to establish, in this sense, that the absolute can be positive and yet unknowable, Herbert Spencer distinguishes between positive consciousness and definite consciousness. We are mistaken in thinking that the first necessarily implies the second. This opinion rests on a logical error. A thing can, in reality, very well be at once positive and indefinite. And it is precisely to the affirmation of a consciousness at once indefinite and positive that we are led in examining this unknowable—the postulate of both science and religion.

When I say that the absolute is unknowable, unthinkable, I mean that it cannot be realised in thought, known under a concrete form, set up as an object of definite knowledge. What does this impossibility signify?

Let us assume that the mind intends to think the absolute. It will necessarily be obliged to attribute to it certain determinations. For instance, it will have to suppose it either as limited or as unlimited. These two attributes are contradictory. The mind will, therefore, be bound to choose between them. Now, analysis demonstrates with uniform precision, on the one hand, that I am obliged to think of the absolute as limited since it cannot possibly be unlimited; on the other hand, that I am obliged to think of it as unlimited since it cannot possibly be limited. If, therefore, I try to imagine the absolute, Ifind myself in presence of two contradictory absolutes—the one limited, the other unlimited. But this suit is not the last word in the analysis.

If the limited and the unlimited are opposed to one another, it is only in so far as there is, behind them, a subject which brings them together, compares them, and judges them incompatible; in other words, it is in so far as there is a consciousness behind them. Accordingly, the limited and the unlimited, regarded no longer through the medium of words that isolate them from one another, but through the mental agency that is presupposed in every concept, are not totally inconsistent. After they have both been annulled, in so far as they are objects of definite consciousness, there remains the consciousness implied in this very fact of being aware: a consciousness indefinite and, nevertheless, positive. To affirm that definite consciousness of the absolute is impossible, is, ipso facto, to affirm the existence of a positive indefinite consciousness of that absolute.

The method of Herbert Spencer is, not that of formal and scholastic dialectics, but a concrete method of inference. He starts from what is empirically given, and eliminates therefrom all that cannot be imagined as existent. He stops when, like the chemist, he finds himself in presence of an irreducible residuum. Now, underlying the absolute, he discovers, in this way, an indefinite consciousness. Predicated by this consciousness, the absolute is, indeed, something that is real and positive, though unknowable.

And so, the reconciliation of religion and philosophy is effected, not by means of a word, but in a real manner: it is not negative, but positive. Whatever may be the intrinsic nature of their connection, there exists for us a living unity, viz. consciousness, which assures us of its reality.

Religion proceeds from the affirmation of the absolute, and she has truth on her side, seeing that we have a positive consciousness of this same absolute. Science cannot succeed in dispersing the mystery by which, in the fullest sense, she is surrounded; and this incapacity is, indeed, irremediable since we have, and must continue to have, only an indefinite consciousness of the absolute.

This doctrine of the relations between religion and science, nevertheless, is only in some degree the metaphysical introduction of the system. The system, properly so called, gravitates towards the idea of science. It aims at establishing the synthesis of the sciences by means of principles which are taken from the notion of the knowable.

The sciences class objects according to their resemblances—seeking for the reduction of those vague and incomplete resemblances which are qualitative, to the complete and exact resemblances which mathematicians call equality and identity. The sciences, by themselves, only attain to a partially unified knowledge. Philosophy tends to unify knowledge in a complete manner. Its instrument is the law of evolution, which the sciences exhibit, and which the analysis of our notion of the knowable makes good.

The sciences study facts, all the facts; and, finally, incorporated in philosophy, they see these facts range themselves, in every province, under that law of evolution which is the common principle of being and of knowing. Following this law, taken in its most general sense, all things pass necessarily, progressively, from a state of incoherent homogeneity to a state of definite and coherent heterogeneity.

The various religions are submitted to the law of evolution in the same way as all other phenomena. Thus religion, which was set opposite science in First Principles, when it was a question of seeking for its ultimate object, is now—as a phenomenon given in space and time—ranged purely and simply among the wholly analogous things that science and philosophy study.

The problem to be investigated at this point, according to the philosophy of evolution, is the phenomenal genesis of ecclesiastical institutions.

The starting-point of religions after the historical method, the elementary fact which, through diversification, produces their infinite variety, is simply, in Herbert Spencer's view, the idea of what we call the double. Man sees his image or double in the water. Similarly, he sees himself in a dream, just as he sees in a dream the image of other men. This double, while resembling the original, is not necessarily identical with it: man's first impulse is to regard the one and the other as two distinct beings. Now, when sleep has passed away, what becomes of the double? Man has a natural disposition to believe that he is not annihilated, that he is simply removed, he will, perhaps, reappear in another dream. Consequently, when death comes, man readily believes that this mysterious self subsists, and that it remains more less like his ordinary self—therefore, more or less like the visible being of which it was the double. Thence issues the belief in ghosts, in supernatural beings, in their power, in their influence over human life. Such is the historical origin of religions, according to Herbert Spencer: and, here, he is in agreement with the Epicureans.

From this belief are derived dogmas, rites, ecclesiastical institutions.

Every real being has its double, capable of being considered as a ghost. The inferior ghosts come, in time, to be grouped under the domination of superior ghosts called gods; finally, these latter are themselves subordinated to a single God. These supernatural powers man has sought to picture to himself, in the act of rendering them accessible and propitious: out of this desire have sprung mythologies, forms of incantation, practices and organisations, which, being afterwards (according to the same law of evolution) developed for what they were worth in themselves, sometimes preserved only faint traces of their origin.

Thereafter, when they are no longer upheld on the ground of their first intention, by reason of the too definite evolution of men's beliefs, these institutions continue as social bonds: in this way evolution confers upon them a character of prime importance. Henceforward, the religions of the world represent the continuity of social life; and so there is, for individuals, a special concern in reverencing them.

The general trait of religious evolution is seen in the increasing preponderance of the moral element over the ritual or propitiatory element, as well as in the increasing elimination of those anthropomorphic qualities which were originally attributed to the first cause; at bottom, this is the tendency to consider dogmas as pure symbols, and to replace them by the consciousness, at once indefinite and positive, of the absolute.


The Interpretation of the Doctrine

Such is the substance of Herbert Spencer's teaching on religion and its relations with science. What significance has it? Is this teaching, in view of his work as a whole, merely an accessory part, or is it the expression of profound ideas which are vitally connected with his system?

We are tempted to infer that speculation of this kind is of no moment in comparison with the vast synthesis of the sciences, which is Herbert Spencer's particular achievement; that, in short, its significance is chiefly negative.

Doubtless one can easily find, in First Principles, the materials of a theory of The Unknowable. But it must be noted that Herbert Spencer did not, originally, intend to preface First Principles by speculations in regard to The Unknowable. It was because of the fear that his general doctrine should be interpreted in a sense unfavourable to religion, it was in order to avert the reproach of atheism, that Herbert Spencer, on reconsideration, added that first part.

Moreover, this theory of The Unknowable, as its very name indicates, informs us that God, the first cause, and the special objects of religion, are entirely inaccessible to our understanding. Their reality, no doubt, is implied by the phenomena that we observe. But what is an existence deprived of every kind of being? What is an absolute that has to be described as absolutely unknowable? Do we not find therein (in spite of the philosopher's own denials) a mere abstract term—the wholly negative expression of an impossibility?

So far as the doctrine relating to the historical genesis of religion is concerned, we are, indeed presented with something that is precise, positive and developed. But is not an abstraction based on its scientific value (a value that is much contested at the present time) the very negation of a really objective foundation of religion? Do we not see all the components of the various religions reduced, in this way, to a puerile and erroneous belief, viz. belief in the reality and in the survival of those phantoms which dreams suggest to us? Does not religion thus become, purely and simply, a chapter in the natural history of man?

In order that we may thoroughly grasp Herbert Spencer's thought in regard to these different points, we must apply to the interpretation of his doctrine that method of internal criticism—of explaining the argument by the argument itself—which Spinoza wished to see applied equally to the Bible and to Nature.

What are the considerations which have instigated the theories of Herbert Spencer concerning religion? By examining the motives of his teaching, we are more likely to understand its genuine meaning.

If we consult the philosopher's Autobiography—so frank, so spontaneous, so spirited, so rich in details as regards the inner working of his mind—we see that these motives were as follows.

We note, first of all, the impression made upon him by the Bible and by the sermons of those preachers who expounded the sacred text. A thousand things, in this so-called revelation, appeared to him ground of offence. What an enormous injustice to punish the disobedience of the one Adam by condemning the whole of his innocent posterity! And how can it be right to make an exception in favour of a small number of men, to whom is revealed a plan of salvation which the rest of mankind have no means of knowing? How extraordinary is the assertion about the Universal Cause from which have proceeded thirty million of suns with their planets—that, on one occasion, it took the form of a man, and made a bargain with Abraham, promising to obtain territory for him, in the event of his rendering loyal service! How can God find pleasure in hearing us sing His praises in our churches, or get angry with the infinitely little beings of His own creation, because they omit to speak to Him constantly about His almightiness?

Such reflections appear frequently in Herbert Spencer's record. What motive inspires them? As to this there can be no doubt. Herbert Spencer is shocked by the disproportion that he discovers between traditional beliefs about God, and that character of infinity which his reason attributes to the First Cause. Can we call this an irreligious sentiment? Does it show indifference over matters of religion? The very freshness and quality of his diction manifest the serious and profoundly religious aspiration which suggests to him these attacks on religion.

This kind of criticism only concerns certain stories and dogmas belonging to a particular religion. Let us turn to criticism of another type, stated with insistence in the Autobiography. I possessed, says Herbert Spencer, as innate in my mind, the consciousness of natural causality. “It seems as though I knew by intuition the necessity of equivalence between cause and effect—perceived, without teaching, the impossibility of an effect without a cause appropriate to it, and the certainty that an effect relevant in kind and in quantity to a cause, must in every case be produced.” This mental disposition led me to reject the ordinary idea of the supernatural; and I thus came to regard as impossible everything called miraculous, i.e. everything conceived as contrary to the causality of nature.

The earlier motive was drawn from special doctrines, put forward officially as religious. The latter has its source in the nature of science: a priori, science excludes the supernatural.

Is there, in the principle of natural causality which Herbert Spencer here invokes, an insuperable hindrance to religious beliefs? It is not likely; for there are abundant examples of philosophers, who, to a very clear consciousness of the natural connection of phenomena, have added a very deep sense of religion. We can point to the Stoics, in bygone days, and—among men of modern times—to a Spinoza, to a Leibnitz, to a Kant. As a set-on we may instance the Epicureans, who, admitting solution of continuity in the thread of phenomena, denied all interference of the gods in the occurrences of this world.

What, then, is the consequence of the doctrine of natural causality, looking at it from the religious standpoint? This doctrine forbids us to picture God and Nature as two adversaries struggling in the lists with a view to exterminating one another. It does not allow us to think of the divine action as consisting in a destruction of natural forces, or to regard the action of created beings as a revolt against divine power. But a conception of natural and supernatural, wherein God and Nature are thus likened to two men in conflict, is manifestly childish; and it is not for casting aside such notions that we can be charged with irreligion. Besides, the doctrine of natural causality is by no means exclusive: for many minds it implies a universal principle of order, of unity, of life and of adaptation—a principle which, as regards the laws of nature, stands in a superior relationship, like that of cause to effect, or that of original to copy. Does the connection existing between the different moments of a mathematical demonstration exclude the existence of a mathematician, whom we presume to be the author of that demonstration?

In order that natural causation may admit of such an interpretation, a condition is, nevertheless, requisite. Nature, in the scientific meaning of the word, must not, herself, be considered as the absolute.

Now, this is just the position taken by Herbert Spencer. He himself declares that our natural laws (the world that is presented to us) are but symbols of Real Being, and that it would be contrary to all philosophy to set them up as absolute. There is, accordingly, room—beside his faith in natural causality—for faith in a principle which is superior to that causality: such a principle would be exactly at one with the object of religion.

Further, let it be noted that Spencer does not infer: I was bound to reject every idea of the supernatural; he makes the simple admission: I was led to reject that idea of the supernatural which usually prevails. He classes himself with those who while they entirely disbelieve in miracle as violating the laws of nature, consider themselves justified in maintaining the genuinely supernatural principles of religion—thinking, indeed, that they are, in their disbelief, more religious than those who represent God as a bad workman constantly engaged in amending his work.

But we cannot content ourselves with the examination of Herbert Spencer's own meaning: it is necessary to consider in themselves his theory of The Unknowable and his theory of religious evolution. To several expounders it appears that this latter, which is, in short, the positive and scientific part of the doctrine, does away with the objective value of the religious idea, and that, in this way, it makes illusory and purely verbal the former theory of an absolute yet unknowable reality.

What, then, from the standpoint of scientific philosophy, is religion, according to Herbert Spencer? It is the natural development, conformable to the general law of evolution, of the delusion about the double: the development, that is, of an elementary fact, which, besides being natural in itself, is even vulgar and insignificant.

In order to measure the real consequences of this argument, we must look at it from Herbert Spencer's own standpoint.

Natural evolution, as he understands it, is no mere mechanical phenomenon. Doubtless it is supplied with materials in the shape of facts separated from one another like atoms; and it collects these materials from the outside, grouping around an elementary fact those connected facts which are furnished by the surrounding medium. But it does not produce any aggregates whatsoever. It engenders pliant, modifiable beings, which are gradually adapted to one another. In reality, it is immanent in each element of nature as a tendency towards universal equilibrium and correspondence.

It follows thence that all the definite and relatively stable products of evolution have, in themselves, a certain value and dignity; for all represent a moment, or mode (the only possible and proper one in a given point of space and of time) of that universal mutual adaptation which is the supreme law of nature. We find here, it would seem, a principle familiar and dear to Anglo-Saxon folk: existence, simply as such, when it is sure and deep-rooted, when it is maintained and defended energetically, manifests or confers a right. And thus religious phenomena, in so far merely as they are, as they continue, as they appear endowed with generality and with vitality, give evidence, according to Herbert Spencer's teaching, of their conformity to the medium in which they subsist, of their legitimacy, of their value.

These same phenomena, moreover, in virtue of their existence and durability, are data or conditions to which the other modes of existence must be adapted. The opening part of First Principles is not confined to explaining how religion is bound to be reconciled with science. It shows, in like manner, how science ought to reverence whatever is essential in religion. While he condemns theology for making light of the laws of nature, Herbert Spencer is no less disparaging in regard to the pride of a science which pretends to abolish mystery—that sure token of the absolute.

Thus the very test of time, to which existing religions have been submitted, is a pledge of their value. But in what sense do these phenomena have a value? Are they calculated to interest the really religious consciousness, or must we see in them mere superstitions devoid of meaning, subsisting on the level of those mechanical forces or blind instincts with which we meet in the course of nature?

Herbert Spencer would appear to see no value—from the standpoint of religious consciousness—in the earliest stage of religious development: viz. primitive man's belief in the reality of the images presented to him in dreams. Would not this childish origin cast a slur upon the entire evolution? Do not beliefs and institutions which are only the development and adaptation of a clumsy superstition, remain (even while possessing some practical utility) imaginations without rational significance?

Perhaps this inference is less rigorous than it seems at first glance. Could not evolution, in the long run, transform this very origin, and change error into truth? That is not the reply, however, that Herbert Spencer makes. His own way of refuting the objection is to be found in that chapter of The Principles of Sociology which is entitled “Religious Retrospect and Prospect,” as well as in certain articles contributed to The Nineteenth Century (1884). This refutation is as follows:

The inference would be right, if the premises were true. But, contrary to what, perhaps, most of my readers imagine, there is, in the primitive notion out of which religions spring, a germ of real knowledge. There is suggested to us in the primitive conception, be it ever so faintly, this truth—“that the Power which manifests itself in consciousness is but a differently conditioned form of the Power which manifests itself beyond consciousness.” Our first impulse is to confound this Power with the image of self that certain natural phenomena introduce to us. Now this confusion is not an absolute mistake. For it is very true that there is an energy within us, and that this energy is one with the universal energy. The evolution that our primitive hypothesis ought to undergo in order to become a philosophical proposition, need not, therefore, be a complete transformation; it is sufficient if we eliminate from this hypothesis every anthropomorphic accompaniment. Reaching the last stage in our refining process, we recognise “that force as it exists beyond consciousness cannot be like what we know as force within consciousness”; and that yet they must be different modes of an existence which is one and the same.

The doctrine of The Unknowable is thus connected expressly, by Herbert Spencer himself, with the theory of evolution. In view of this it matters little that the philosopher did not, originally, have the intention of writing a chapter on The Unknowable as the foundation of his First Principles. The Unknowable may be termed the soul of evolution. For it is because Being, at bottom, is One, that the beings of nature find, in mutual adaptation, an end that is realisable.

But will this doctrine of The Unknowable, which is all that Herbert Spencer offers to souls thirsting for religious knowledge, succeed in depriving us of every religious outlook that is positive, real, intelligible and efficacious? Is it any better than a hollow formula—a residuum drawn from the discussion of antinomies?

Is not this doctrine, on further examination, quite as abstract and void as it appeared at first sight?

According to Herbert Spencer, consciousness brings us to The Unknowable—that consciousness which is the persistent and necessary ground of all our conceptions, of all our reasonings, of all our analyses, of even our most radical negations. If this is really so, it is likely that the system will be found to contain some rudiments of a positive metaphysic. And we actually meet with such rudiments in examining it.

From the first we are aware of a pronounced idealism piercing through our author's negations. Let us turn to First Principles, and examine the beginning of Part II. (“The Knowable”). We shall see there that the starting-point of all our ideas (as much those relating to the external world or non-ego, as those relating to the internal world) is to be found exclusively in our states of consciousness. It is pointed out that these states of consciousness are of two kinds: vivid states or perceptions, and faint states such as the phenomena of reflection, of memory, of imagination, of ideation. The first present indissoluble connections, and the unknown power which they manifest we call non-ego; the second present dissoluble connections, and the power therein expressed we call ego. On both sides we see that consciousness is the sole origin of knowledge. Consciousness is the channel through which the action of The Unknowable has to pass in order to be manifested to us. When Herbert Spencer shows that the phenomena of the non-ego can modify the phenomena of the ego, and that the converse is impossible, it is, with him, tantamount to saying that one of the two modes of consciousness can operate on the other.

In so far as it derives all our knowledge from consciousness, this system is idealistic. In its method of determining the relationship of the ego to the Absolute, it reveals a pantheistic tendency. We are informed, in the preface to The Principles of Psychology (1870), that the ego which subsists uninterruptedly in the subject of states of consciousness is a portion of The Unknowable. Moreover, speaking of the Eternal Energy from which all things proceed, Herbert Spencer declares, “It is the same Power which in ourselves wells up under the form of consciousness.”1 Psalms cxlviii. 8. The ego, then, if it is not the Absolute-in-Itself, is the Absolute for us, i.e. the most immediate expression of It that is given us.

Herbert Spencer goes further still. As regards that which is beyond consciousness, and which we cannot reach—the Absolute-in-Itself, called by him The Unknowable, does he regard It purely and simply as unknowable? Will he say, for instance, that we do not know in the least whether It is Spirit or Matter, whether It is Personal or Impersonal? Herbert Spencer has put this question to himself, and he offers the following reply to it in First Principles:

“This [i.e. Agnosticism], which to most will seem an essentially irreligious position, is an essentially religious one—nay; is the religious one, to which…all others are but approximations. In the estimate it implies of the Ultimate Cause, it does not fall short of the alternative position, but exceeds it. Those who espouse this alternative position, assume that the choice is between personality and something lower than personality; whereas the choice is rather between personality and something that may be higher. Is it not possible that there is a mode of being as much transcending Intelligence and Will, as these transcend mechanical motion?”

Does not this conception of Herbert Spencer recall to us how Pascal prescribed the threefold classification of body, mind and love, in the celebrated saying: “The infinite distance between body and mind typifies the infinitely more infinite distance between mind and love?” And may we not say that the agnostic philosopher's system betrays, at this point, a spiritualistic and mystical tendency?

That Herbert Spencer regarded these ideas as genuinely important, and actually set his heart upon them, is what his whole life attests.

If he has been repelled by the formal aspect of traditions, dogmas, rites, institutions, under which religion was presented to him, he has, all along, been on his guard against confusing form with essence; and it is in the name of religious truth itself that he condemns superstitions and practices from which the spirit has departed.

Throughout life, he admitted the legitimacy of those beliefs which were based pre-eminently on feeling, so long as they were moral and practical, rather than theological, in character. He always alluded in terms of the greatest respect to the belief in immortality and future rewards. He speaks of “the truth, ever to be remembered, that during a state of the world in which many evils have to be suffered, the belief in compensations to be hereafter received, serves to reconcile men to that which they would otherwise not bear.”2

In proportion as his thought developed, Herbert Spencer, far from becoming more indifferent, was more attentive in regard to religious matters, more impressed with their lofty import and their preponderating authority in the life of man. This is the way in which he introduces the notion of infinite Space, while he is tracing the progress of philosophical investigation:3

“And then comes the thought of this universal matrix itself, anteceding alike creation or evolution, whichever be assumed, and infinitely transcending both, alike in extent and duration; since both, if conceived at all, must be conceived as having had beginnings, while Space had no beginning. The thought of this blank form of existence which, explored in all directions as far as imagination can reach, has, beyond that, an unexplored region compared with which the part which imagination has traversed is but infinitesimal—the thought of a Space compared with which our immeasurable sidereal system dwindles to a point, is a thought too overwhelming to be dwelt upon. Of late years the consciousness that without origin or cause infinite Space has ever existed and must over exist, produces in me a feeling from which I shrink.”

Reading this passage, do we not again revert to Pascal in the recollection of some such thought as this: “If our sight fails at this point, let us pass beyond it by means of an imagination that will sooner grow weary in conceiving, than nature in supplying The entire visible world is but an imperceptible speck in the vast lap of nature.”

And not only was the religious spirit, under its abstract and philosophical form, recognised by Herbert Spencer with increasing clearness. He made no secret of having become, in time, somewhat less severe in his attitude towards dogmas and institutions, i.e. towards the concrete and given form of religion. This change of judgment possessed him to such an extent that he was led to make it the subject of his concluding remarks in the Autobiography. These remarks may be summarised in the following manner:

Three causes, he tells us, have been at work in determining the important modification in my ideas about religious institutions.

The first lay in my sociological studies. These studies compelled me to recognise that, always and everywhere, in real life “the control exercised over men's conduct by theological beliefs and priestly agency, has been indispensable.” In fact, the necessary subordination of individuals to society has been maintained only through the help of ecclesiastical institutions.

In the second place, I have learnt that it is necessary to distinguish between the nominal creeds of men and their real creeds. The former can remain more or less stationary; the latter, as a matter of fact, change and are adapted insensibly to the fresh needs of societies and individuals. Now, it is the real creeds (far more than the nominal) that matter. That is why I am now of opinion that it is wise to respect, in a general way, the creeds of mankind, “and further, that sudden changes of religious institutions, as of political institutions, are certain to be followed by reactions.”

But continues Herbert Spencer, “largely, if not chiefly, this change of feeling towards religious creeds and their sustaining institutions, has resulted from a deepening conviction that the sphere occupied by them can never become an unfilled sphere, but that there must continue to arise afresh the great questions concerning ourselves and surrounding things; and that, if not positive answers, then modes of consciousness standing in place of positive answers, must ever remain.

“We find, indeed, an unreflective mood general among both cultured and uncultured) characterised by indifference to everything beyond material interests and the superficial aspects of things. There are the many millions of people who daily see sunrise and sunset without ever asking what the Sun is. There are the university men, interested in linguistic criticism, to whom inquiries concerning the origin and nature of living things seem trivial. And even among men of science there are those who, curiously examining the spectra of nebulæ or calculating the masses and motions of double-stars, never pause to contemplate under other than physical aspects the immeasurably vast facts they record. But in both cultured and uncultured there occur lucid intervals. Some, at least, either fill the vacuum by stereotyped answers, or become conscious of unanswered questions of transcendent moment. By those who know much, more than by those who know little, is there felt the need for explanation.”

At this point Herbert Spencer calls up the mysteries inherent in life, in the evolution of living beings, in consciousness, in human destiny—mysteries, says he that the very advance of science makes more and more evident, exhibits as more and more profound and impenetrable; and then comes this final passage:

“Thus religious creeds, which in one way or other occupy the sphere that rational interpretation seeks to occupy and fails and fails the more the more it seeks, I have come to regard with a sympathy based on community of need: feeling that dissent from them results from inability to accept the solutions offered joined with the wish that solutions could be found.”


The Value of the Doctrine

Such being the real meaning of Herbert Spencer's doctrine, what shall we say as to its value?

According to several contemporary philosophers, belonging to the school of advanced positivism, it is very certain that the philosophy of Herbert Spencer reveals a decided religious tendency; we are quite justified in identifying his Unknowable with the creating God or Providence of actual religions. But that very fact indicates the weak side and obsolete part of the system—the part which it is the critic's special business to distinguish and eliminate.

In reality, say these philosophers, The Unknowable of Herbert Spencer is not a scientific principle: it is a residuum, a late survival of that imaginary entity which, under the name of God or First Cause, has, from time immemorial, formed the basis of religions and of metaphysical theories. And it is not a residuum that can be passed over. For, if maintained in the way suggested, it upholds what was essential in religion and metaphysics: viz., the inaccessible presented as object for man's speculation and possession. In truth, even the reservations and negations of Herbert Spencer are delusive. In so far as the initial error is maintained, the entire philosophy is compromised. So long as the source of infection continues, the disease only awaits the opportunity of breaking out and pervading, yet again, the whole organism. Accordingly, it is but too true that Herbert Spencer remains a theologian. To this extent he belongs to the past. His Unknowable ought to bear company, in the realm of nothingness, with all those phantoms which human reason has cast out. For, the only unknowable is the unknown, i.e. something that to-day we know not, but that to-morrow we shall, perhaps, know.

This objection, which has its origin in the very doctrine of evolution, was, of course, familiar to Herbert Spencer's mind. He, as much as any man, was accustomed to see the truth of yesterday become the error of to-day. But he acknowledged limits in the possible alteration of men's beliefs. According to him, the sheer impossibility of imagining the contrary of certain propositions imposes on the mind—whatever this may involve—adhesion to those propositions. We know, he has told us, that a proposition presents the highest degree of certainty, when its negation is inconceivable. Now, it is precisely in regard to The Unknowable, that he recognises such an inconceivability. Henceforward, for him, The Unknowable is a datum, it is given along with our mental constitution itself.

Is the impossibility thus felt by Herbert Spencer a delusion of his fancy, an indolence of his mind, a consequence of his individual temperament? It is remarkable that we find a similar attitude, a like insurmountable resistance to negation, not only in the experience of a Luther or of a Kant, but in the experience of many a contemporary thinker. Let us look, for instance, at the way in which Professor William James closes his famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience:

“I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist's attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I so this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds. Assuredly, the real world is of a different temperament,—more intricately built than physical science allows. So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the over-belief which I express. Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to His own greater tasks?”

Herbert Spencer is by no means alone in realising the impossibility of allowing either that science is self-sufficient or that it is sufficient for us. But, it may be said, we have to do, here, with a phenomenon which is explained psychologically—one to which we cannot attribute any importance. It is simply the application of a law which governs the relations existing between reason and imagination. A celebrated English moralist, Leslie Stephen, has stated this law as follows: The imagination lags behind the reason. When the reason has already demonstrated the fallacy of an opinion, the imagination, i.e. the heart, enamoured of this opinion, perseveres therein during a more or less lengthy period. Their evolution, in fact, requires an amount of mental labour which, though it has to be accomplished eventually, cannot be accomplished all at once: for harmony of the mind with itself is the supreme law, and, of the two powers thus brought face to face, reason is that which will not change.

The non possumus of Kant or of Herbert Spencer rests, such critics declare, on nothing but the law enunciated by Leslie Stephen. Without doubt, it is very real and very sincere; but, in view of the progress of human reason, it is bound to succumb.

Is this estimate really made good?

In the first place we may ask ourselves if it does not imply a vicious circle, if it does not take for granted, in advance, the negative solution of the very problem that Herbert Spencer raises. He (Spencer) wonders if the condemnation of certain traditional elements of religion involves the condemnation of their principle. The critics make reply: Since the various religions offer the appearance (even as regards their first principles) of hopelessly decaying structures, they ought to be utterly demolished—their very ruins should be cleared away and consigned to oblivion. And, since every religious belief is entirely empty and delusive, the constant effort to find therein something good and true can only come, it is evident, from the tardiness of imagination and feeling in following the lead of reason. Such a reply is not a demonstration; it is only an argument put forward as the contrary of another argument.

Moreover, is it true that the impossibility affirmed by Herbert Spencer proceeds exclusively from feeling, and has no sort of rational basis?

There can be no doubt that Herbert Spencer has given, in his philosophical doctrines—especially in those which have a practical bearing, an important place to feeling. With the majority of Englishmen, he saw in reason, properly so called, an instrument rather than a principle of action, and reserved to feeling the power of instigating the soul. But it does not follow that his theory of The Unknowable rests exclusively on feeling.

The groundwork of the theory of knowledge taught by Herbert Spencer is to be found in the radical identity of the most precise knowledge and the ordinary ideas of the multitude. As ordinary ideas disclose a mingling of feeling and of reason, it cannot be doubted that every kind of knowledge, for Herbert Spencer necessarily contains these two elements which are only disunited through a logical abstraction. And when the question is raised as to the final ground of certainty, there is, for Herbert Spencer, only one possible answer:—that, alike in the sphere of science and in the sphere of metaphysics, certainty rests on feeling, on feeling which is truly natural and not to be coerced.

Our only course, apparently, is to join Herbert Spencer in affirming that a radical separation of reason and feeling cannot be upheld, unless we mean to confine reason to dialectical reasoning alone, and to re-establish that circumscription of the human soul which modern psychology has taken so much trouble to refute. Reason, as we know it in experience, determinate and efficacious, is not something given once for all—an isolated attribute (eternal and immutable) of the human soul. It is something that becomes and grows, that is fashioned and trained. It is cultivated through being supplied with truths, as Descartes saw. It receives a twofold training in science and life. It contrives, prescribes, condenses and determines relatively whatever tends to make more real, more beneficial, more human, more striking, the development of man's complete powers—experience, feeling, imagination, desire, will. Thus it ought to be our supreme guide in practice as also in theory.

It is certainly to reason understood in this manner, rather than to disconnected feeling conceived in the blind and sluggish sense of an abstract rationalism, that Herbert Spencer makes appeal, in order to learn if it is possible for man to deny The Unknowable. Even though, in his opinion, it would not be strictly illogical to affirm that the phenomenal world is sufficient—that science has the power and the right to scatter all mysteries, such a contention would be unreasonable, extravagant. Man would have to renounce his highest faculties, those which, more than all the rest, make him man, before he could be brought to allow that what he knows or can know is the sum-total of being and perfection.

It is, then, foolish to reproach Herbert Spencer with having contradicted himself in maintaining a supersensible reality as object of religion, over against the given world as object of science; foolish to have recourse to the theory of residuary organs and biological survivals in order to explain this so-called contradiction. As soon as it is seen that Herbert Spencer relies, not upon science pure and simple, but upon science interpreted by reason, this contradiction vanishes. For upon human reason itself, as it has become in contact with things, is inscribed the affirmation of an invisible reality—a reality which surpasses all that can be given us in experience.

But the supersensible of Herbert Spencer—regarded as transcendent and inaccessible—possesses this kind of being, in the highest degree. Herbert Spencer calls it The Unknowable. We are debarred from realising it in thought. We fall, he is persuaded into insoluble contradictions—we can no longer see our way, when we go beyond the simple affirmation of the First Cause. Therein, perhaps, is to be found the debatable side of his doctrine.

In fact, as we have several times had occasion to remark, Herbert Spencer could not maintain that absolute transcendence and unknowableness of the fundamental Principle to which his inferences led him. His Absolute is force, power, energy, the infinite, the source of consciousness, the common ground of the ego and the non-ego, that which transcends intelligence and personality. Having regard to such terms, can it be claimed that this Absolute is entirely unknowable; and, if the predicates that Herbert Spencer has fearlessly attributed to It are legitimate, is it certain that these rudiments of knowledge are incapable of progress and development?

In order to estimate the value of Herbert Spencer's agnosticism, we must examine its principle. That principle is objectivism. Herbert Spencer is bent upon the employment of an exclusively objective method as the condition of all science, of all real knowledge. He sees in facts the one source of knowing; and we are only justified in calling “fact” whatever is perceived or perceptible as an external thing, placed opposite the knowing subject: whatever can be grasped as a complete entity—fixed and separate: whatever is clearly expressible by a concept and by a word.

When once this doctrine of knowledge has been admitted, we are, of course, impelled towards the view that the supersensible, if existent, is unknowable. For it is evident that we cannot here assume one fragment of being beside other fragments—an object, in the meaning that adherents of objectivism give to that word. Between it (the supersensible) and the world of science thus conceived, there is no possibility of transition. If the supersensible exists, it must hover in vacuity, infinitely removed from all those objects which are accessible to our means of knowing. For the objectivist, therefore, the Absolute either is not, or is, literally, outside the world and transcendent.

We have now to ask if absolute objectivism is a possible and legitimate standpoint. Doubtless, the possibility of such a standpoint is the postulate of science: in virtue of it she sets herself to extract from nature certain distinct and quite limited images which she can arrange beside one another, compare, graduate, put in opposition, assimilate. But, can it be said that science reaches that complete objectivity which is her aim? Must we not rather hold that she herself, like everything else human, furnishes an example of compromise between the possible and the ideal? Does she ever obtain data entirely free from subjective elements, or results in which the concrete meaning implies no borrowing of feeling? Even if, in the mathematico-physical sciences, the human mind approaches perfect objectivity, and sometimes delusively infers there from that the “perfection” has been realised, does it follow that what succeeds in one branch of knowledge is possible and adequate in all the other branches? Why should all the sciences be constructed after the same pattern, and why should the said pattern be necessarily physical? Is a single case, then, sufficient for the establishment of an induction? Why should science make exception to this rule: that the human mind has to mould its conceptions in accordance with realities, and must not make realities depend on the shaping of its conceptions? Why, in science itself, should not the method be adapted to the object?

It is not clear that, in the physical sciences, all employment of the subjective method is actually eliminated, or that it ever can be eliminated. But we see plainly that the sciences dealing with things moral would be impoverished and perverted, if we really sought to treat them according to a purely objective method. How, in particular, could we know by such a method what is specific and distinctive in religious phenomena? To consider these from the outside would be to reduce them, in so far as they concern the individual, to certain nervous phenomena; while, on the social side, they would be merely a collection of dogmas, of rites and of institutions. We should try to explain them by some elementary phenomenon borrowed from every-day experience, such an experience, for instance, as the naïve belief in the abiding reality of the double. But are there only elements of this kind, i.e. phenomena that are external, disconnected, definite and measurable, in actual religions—in the whole series of the religions which have been developed throughout the ages, in religion as it prevails in our very midst? Are we to reckon as nothing the inward life of Buddhist or Christian—a life of such intensity, such depth, such fruitfulness? Is not Mysticism a form of the religious life? Is Protestantism without interest? And is it not time, at this point, to bring forward once again Shakespeare's famous lines:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Religion would appear, then, to be essentially the connecting link between the relative and that Absolute—Infinite and Perfect—which Herbert Spencer conceived. It is, at the same time, the endeavour to develop, and bring nearer to perfection, subjective life and knowledge: the conviction in regard to the communion of a being that is external, particular, limited, uncertain, with the common Source of all existence—that Source which, according to Herbert Spencer, wells up, and is, in some way, presented to us in consciousness.

We cannot rest content with objectivism, because, in reality, subject and object are nowhere actually separated. In order to grasp the object separately, we have to abandon ourselves to an artificial consideration of it, after the mariner of a mathematician stating the terms of a problem. As we find them given by nature, in other words as they are, the object and the subject make but one. In order to bring itself into harmony with things, the human mind effects many an abstraction, many a reduction of beings to concepts, of which, for the most part, it can give no account. Now, religion is the secret consciousness of the reality of life, i.e. of the soul, and its connection with those beings which, as perceived by our understanding, seem to impinge on each other mechanically, like the atoms of Democritus.

For this reason, religion cannot be made to consist purely and simply in the mute recognition and adoration of that which is Unknowable and Transcendent Herbert Spencer offers us too much or too little, and the extreme naturalists not unreasonably reproach him on that account. If the Humanity (Grand-Être) of Auguste Comte is an incomplete and unstable conception, seeing that man is, in essence, a being who goes beyond self, there is still greater reason why we cannot, with Herbert Spencer, place men in presence of the Being whence all things proceed, and then tell them that they can neither understand nor depend upon this Being in the smallest degree.

Let us call to mind the sentence already quoted: “Is it not just possible that there is a mode of being as much transcending intelligence and will as these transcend mechanical motion?”

In the act of stating such a proposition, we go beyond it. How, if we imagine that such a mode of being is possible, are we to refrain from wishing that it may be, not only possible, but real? How can we refrain from seeking the means of converting this possibility into reality? What is reason, what is the human will, if not the attempt to symbolise that which is ideal, and to bring it within the limits of our world and of our life? Is not the natural and necessary complement of Herbert Spencer's saying to be found in that other saying: ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου, γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου, ὡς ἐν οὐρανῳ̑ καὶ ἐπὶ γη̑ς4 in other words—Let us pray and do our utmost that this divine kingdom of truth, of beauty and of goodness which human reason comprehends so imperfectly, may not be an ideal only; that it may come within our reach, that it may be realised, not simply in the Unknowable and in the transcendent region of the Absolute, but in the world wherein we live wherein we love, wherein we suffer, wherein we labour; not simply in Heaven, but on Earth—καὶ ἐπὶ γη̑ς?

  • 1.

    Quoted by A. S. Mories in Haeckel's Contribution to Religion. etc, (London, 1904).

  • 2.

    Autobiography, vol. i. p. 58.

  • 3.

    Facts and Comments, 1902, pp. 204–5.

  • 4.

    Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in Heaven so on Earth.