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Chapter 2: Religion and the Limits of Science

THE dogmatic conception of science and the critical conception.

I. APOLOGY OF RELIGION BASED ON THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE — Experience as the unique principle of scientific knowledge — Consequences: limits in the theoretical order, limits in the practical order — Scientific laws, simple methods of research — Limits and signification of the correspondence of scientific knowledge with fact — The latitude that science, so understood, leaves to religion for its development — Letter and spirit: contingent and relative character of religious formulæ.

II. THE DIFFICULTIES OF THE PRECEDING DOCTRINE — The polemic raised by a word: “the failure of science” — In what sense science confesses that she has limits — Precarious situation of religion in this system.

III. SCIENCE CONSIDERED AS PREDISPOSED TOWARDS RELIGION — Religious doctrines as outlined in science itself; the difficulty of maintaining this point of view — The nature of the limits imposed on science: they are not simply negative, but imply a supra-scientific “beyond” as condition of the very aim of science.

IV. REMAINING DIFFICULTIES — The autonomy of science and that of religion remain compromised — The insufficiency of a purely critical method.

Those who try to gain—in order to make of it the sanctuary of religion—a nook infinitely removed from visible realities, concealed in the innermost depths of consciousness, give way particularly to the fear of meeting science on a common ground, where the latter, perhaps, would dispute their right to exist. They are disposed rather to steal away from the conflict than to risk being vanquished. Now, many thinking men, even among the scientists, have begun to ask if this fear is not exaggerated, if science, considered at close quarters and in its concrete form, is not really more favourable to freedom of religious development than certain theories—philosophically rather than scientifically inspired—declare.

We must, in this connection, have regard to the change which, during our own day, has been effected in the idea of science. Only a short time ago, science stood for absolute knowledge of the nature of things. She laid claim to sure and definite knowledge in contrast with variable and individual belief; and, emboldened by the conquests gained through the discovery of her true principles, she saw no limits to her range and power. It was, in short, the old-time metaphysic, with its ambition for perfect knowledge, transferred to the world of experience. But—unlike the æsthetico-rational systems of the Platos and of the Aristotles—it was a metaphysic which eliminated from the principle of things everything recalling human intelligence and freedom, so as to admit therein only material and mechanical elements.

Before such a science, it was natural that religion, if she desired to remain unassailable, should fall back upon a domain where all collision would be impossible.

But is it incorrect to say that this conception of science, as absolute and limitless knowledge, is not maintained, and that the science of to-day has become accustomed to quite another idea of her meaning? Henceforward, is there no cause to ask anew how far science is really adverse to the existence of religion?


Apology of Religion Based on the Limits of Science

After feeling her way for a long time, science has at length determined her method by a kind of natural selection. She has chosen to rest upon experience and upon experience alone. Doubtless, it is a question after having verified the facts, of recapitulating them, of classifying them, of bringing them together and of systematising them. But this logical operation itself has need of experience to guide and to control it.

In adopting this mode of investigation, science has secured advantages that are infinitely precious. She can at length grasp the real, which she was never sure of reaching so long as she restricted herself to analysing and combining concepts which represent things in the mind of man. She obtains knowledge that is essentially useful in practice, experience furnishing man with the means of making nature repeat herself. She escapes from the endless uncertainty and the infinite variety of opinions; she forces herself upon every intellect, and all her acquisitions are, in a sense, definitive.

But these benefits, it may be remarked, have, as counterpart, a limitation of her range and of her philosophical value, which has very important consequences.

The famous speech of Dubois-Reymond, concluding with Ignorabimus, has never ceased, since 1880, to haunt people's minds. Of the seven enigmas that he specified, four at least—said he—were for ever insoluble: viz. the essence of matter and of force, the origin of movement, the origin of simple sensation, and the freedom of the will.

It is because these four problems are outside the range of experience. In fact, however great be the extension claimed for it, experience can reach neither first beginnings, nor final ends. Not only is it—and must always be—incapable of comprehending, in time, a first or a last phenomenon, which is undoubtedly nothing else than a fiction, but there is always the need of knowing to what extent the constant successions that it presents, suffice to explain the appearing of phenomena. Existence only unfolds according to laws because there is in it a certain nature. What is this nature? Is it unchangeable? Why is it determined in one manner and not in another? With what antecedent ought we to connect it in order to explain it experimentally? These questions imply, for science, a vicious circle, and, in consequence, pass beyond it irresistibly. Through experience we verify laws, or relations that are relatively constant between phenomena; but we cannot discover thereby if these laws are themselves merely facts, or if they proceed from some immutable nature which governs facts.

Limited in her compass, science is equally limited in depth. The phenomenon, as she apprehends it, cannot be identified with being. She only succeeds in Sipping it of its subjective and individual elements through resolving it into relations, into dimensions, into laws. But, while the notion of law as the connection between two phenomena, however strange it may appear from the standpoint of reason, is at least clear for the imagination, which easily pictures two objects bound together by a thread, the hypothesis of relations pre-existent with regard to their terms is a non-representable conception, in which the human intellect can see merely the symbol of a thing that it does not understand. And if science tends, all the more, to gain the unanimous adhesion of thinking men through setting aside the notion of subject and of element in order to fasten on that of relation, the opinion is, at the same time, forced upon all minds that this science is not the adequate representation of being, but a certain way of apprehending it, and that there must be some principle of reality in the very forms which she was obliged to discard, so as to reach the kind of objectivity that she had in view.

Manifest in the theoretical order, the limits of science are, in the practical order, still more evident.

The practical life of man, as a rational being, is conditioned by ends that he proposes to himself because they are deemed desirable, good, obligatory. Now, it is impossible for science to offer man, with reference to any end whatsoever, reasons that suffice to make him go in search of it. Science teaches how, through using such means, we are led to such a result. This only interests me if I have decided to pursue that result. Science informs me that many men consider such an end as desirable, good, or obligatory. Does it follow that I ought to think as they do? Have we never seen a man do well just in so far as his thought differed from that of other people? And do those whom we admire as superior, owe this superiority entirely to the acceptance of received opinions? Science establishes facts, presents as fact everything that she teaches us. But, in order that I may act according to my reason, I must represent an object to myself, not as a fact, but as an end, i.e. as a thing which may, conceivably, not be, but which ought to be. It is, therefore, characteristically human to suppose that science is not everything; to give to the words—well-being, usefulness, longing, beauty, obligation—a practical meaning that science ignores.

Does some one urge that science explains these very concepts in reducing them to feelings, to habits, to traditions, and, finally, to delusions of the imagination? Such an explanation, if it is true, is nothing else than the destruction of what we call practical life in the rational and human sense. So long as human life shall continue, it will amount to the denial of this explanation. Practice, wherever found, oversteps the limits of science.

Social life, in particular, cannot be satisfied with the data of science. It needs, in order to reach a high level and to be fruitful, the devotion of the individual, his faith in human laws, in general well-being and in justice, his fidelity to the past and his zeal for the good of future generations. It claims his obedience, his self-denial, if need be his life. Now science, whatever may be said by those who confuse her with the scientist, could never furnish the individual with convincing reasons for self-surrender and self-sacrifice. Even the example of animals—on which many lay stress, but about which many also are disagreed—cannot carry full conviction to a reasoning man, because, thanks to his very intelligence, he discusses the legitimacy of the rule that is enjoined upon him, and succeeds only too well in preventing the wrong which he does to the community from rebounding upon himself. How will science, knowing only fact, persuade an individual in whom egoism prevails over self-sacrifice, that he ought to reverse the relation, and devote himself to a good that does not affect him? Will she try to show that the disposition towards self-sacrifice actually exists in the mind of each individual, as an unconscious echo of the influence of the community upon its members? But self-sacrifice, to be really genuine must be spontaneous. And, as long as men devote themselves to the community, they will do it because they regard themselves as persons and not as mechanical products of the social organisation.

It is in this way that modern experimental science, just because it is based solely upon experience, appears as limited in its range, whether on the side of theory, or on the side of practice. Can science, at least in her own sphere of competency, offer the mind genuine certitude? Even that is contested; and many people believe that, within this same sphere, the value of science ought to be limited.

We ought to emphasise the change which has been produced of late years in the strictly scientific attitude. Science, until recently, was, or attempted to be, dogmatic. In her most rigorous investigations, she considered herself as definitely constituted; in others, she aimed at a like perfection. She sought, at every point, to appear under the form of a system, which, from universal principles, deduces the explanation of particular things. As regards form, Scholasticism was her ideal.

But no science at the present time—not even mathematics—is content with the scholastic pattern. Science, whatever form it may assume for the purpose of exposition or of teaching, is and remains, in itself, an endlessly perfectible induction. It is a question of knowing how this induction is effected.

We must be careful, here, to distinguish between laws and principles which are the result of induction, and the facts which underlie them.

According to the Baconian philosophy, which, for a long time, prevailed among scientists, the laws of nature imprinted themselves necessarily upon the human mind, provided that the latter got rid of its prejudices, and surrendered itself in a docile manner to the influence of things. No active participation of the subject in knowledge properly so called could be traced. The subject was only manifested as such in his feelings, which science was specially bent on disregarding.

The study of the history of the sciences, combined with the psychological analysis of the formation of scientific concepts in the human mind, has led to an entirely different theory.1

Scientific laws and principles have the appearance of being directly drawn from nature, owing to our formal way of stating them: “phosphorus melts at 44º C.”; “action is equal to reaction.” But this dogmatic form, however convenient it may be, only reflects the precise result of scientific study.

Science has, in reality, occupied herself with the search and discovery of hypothetical definitions which enable her to interrogate nature. The property of melting at 44º C. is part of the definition of phosphorus; the so-called principle that action is equal to reaction is part of the definition of force. Not one of the elements embraced in these formulæ, is really given nor can it be given in the exact sense. And, further their combination is not given. But the mind compelled to seek, and to know what it seeks, forms (through choosing and determining the data of experience in a suitable manner) certain definitions which enable it to put exact and methodical questions to nature.

These definitions, moreover, are not all on the same plane. Some of them are particular and derived, some are general and fundamental, as in the preceding instances. The most general definitions are, naturally, the most stable: hence the form of principles which they assume in our speech, and which easily causes them to be taken for absolute knowledge.

Lastly, there is a notion which appears more necessary than all, inasmuch as it is necessary to all, viz. the notion of science itself. This notion is still a definition, fabricated like all the rest. I call science the hypothesis of constant relations between phenomena. Scientific study consists in the interrogation of nature according to this hypothesis. Similarly, a judge forms a conjecture before questioning the accused.

The affirmations which these definitions imply being imagined in order to render interrogation possible and useful, are, and can only be, hypotheses, seeing that it is a question of examining, no longer a determinate individual, able to appear as a complete whole, but Nature—infinite in every direction—whose future manifestations, in particular, cannot be given us. But, so long as the critical study of their origin and their rôle has not been carried out, we confuse these hypotheses with absolute principles: first of all because, having given them the form of the latter, we are inclined to transfer the peculiarities of the form to the content itself; then because certain of these principles are presupposed by all the rest, and that which is essential to our systems, seems essential in itself.

This theory, which the study of the formation of scientific concepts suggests, is forced upon the mind, when we come to reflect that, experience being our sole way of communicating with nature, exact formulæ, on a level with our principles, would constitute an absurdity, if they had to be considered as drawn, just as they are, from nature. From experience alone, ever changing and unstable, we can but derive correspondingly shifting impressions. A systematic intervention of the mind can alone explain the transmutation that science makes experience undergo.

And the mind, in this operation, is so well aware of instituting, through its definitions and its theories, simple methods of research, that it does not hesitate to admit, equally, theories that are different and even contradictory in their fundamental hypotheses, when these theories furnish equivalent conclusions, and are all useful in studying various classes of phenomena.2 It could not be so, if the mind had to see, in the ruling ideas of its theories, the absolute explanation of things.

But, it will be said, whatever may be the origin of science, it is a fact that she harmonises with things, and that she enables us to make use of them. To be able to act on things is to possess some of their own methods of action. Doubtless, our knowledge will probably never succeed in being even with things; but it grips reality more and more closely; even its contrivances, its conventions and its fictions have no other aim than to be adapted to it; and the approximation, always increasing moreover, which it attains cannot be confused with a radical incapacity to reach the truth. Besides, we must come to an understanding over the word truth. Science no longer expects to endow the mind with a close copy of external things, which apparently, just as we suppose them, do not exist. She discovers relations that experience verifies through the senses. It is enough that she may and must be called true, in the human meaning of the word.

Our authors reply: What does this verifiability prove? It is natural that scientific laws should succeed in experience, seeing that they have been invented for the very purpose of enabling us to anticipate the natural course of things. We have, moreover, a convenient trick of conceiving them as successful, even when, in point of fact, they do not succeed. We imagine, in that case, other laws as contradicting the action of those which are admitted. And thus we multiply additions and corrections in order to save the principle to which we are accustomed, until at length, our theory becoming inextricably complicated, we abandon a principle which is no more than an occasion of difficulties, in order to make trial of some other, for which, undoubtedly, the future has a like fate in store.

The fact is, the alleged correspondence between our concepts and experience is, somehow, wrongly defined. We confuse the correspondence of mathematical scientific concepts among themselves (one that can be very precise) with the correspondence of those concepts to experience. Now experience, if we isolate it from the scientific concepts that are mingled with it, is no more than a very vague perception. After all, we only know a thing in so far as the theory concerning it is borne out obviously in practice. But how are we to determine the degree of truth that a hypothesis ought to possess in order to be practically useful? It is a fact recognised in logic, that from false premisses one can deduce a right conclusion. We experience every day that a method may succeed perfectly without having any intrinsic connection with reality. Mnemotechnic processes may be instanced. Therein we have what are called empirical receipts. Who can prove that our science, with its empirical starting-point, does not remain empirical in its results? As it is given us, scientific attainment implies, between science and things, a certain correspondence—not an identity; and a correspondence which, indeed, is only in the end a practical notion.

How, precisely, do our scientific theories present this ill-defined correspondence which is to demonstrate their truth? Through experience, through facts. It is admitted that facts are there, outside the mind, and that the latter discovers the means of shaping its conceptions in accordance with them; and science is called true because we believe that she represents, more and more exactly, this external reality which does not depend upon her.

But the whole of this imaginative construction is artificial. In reality, the fact with which the scientist reconciled, is not something raw and independent of the mind: it is the scientific fact; and this latter, if we look carefully into its formation, appears as having been fashioned already, arranged, constructed in some way, so as to be capable of corresponding with the hypothetical laws that science has introduced into her definitions.

We must distinguish scientific fact from raw fact. The latter, whatever its origin, is only the stuff out of which science carves, in her own way, what she will call facts. A scientific fact is, indeed, the reply in a book of questions; and this question-book is nothing else than the series of laws or hypotheses already imagined by the mind in order to give an account of phenomena that are similar. It is by means of our theories, of our definitions, of an already existent science, that we enunciate, that we determine, that we perceive the facts which arc to take the name of science. These facts are no less handled with a view to their being adapted to theories than the theories are formed with a view to being adapted to facts. The agreement of the theories with the facts is, to an extent that it is impossible to fix, the agreement of those theories with themselves.

This means, after all, that the human mind can only operate according to intellectual rule. And its mode of operation consists (being given certain forms and categories) in finding out if it can be brought into connection with the things which are laid before it. It only knows, it only perceives, on condition of possessing, previously, certain moulds of knowledge, of perception. What is the primary origin of such anterior knowledge? How is it to be described? What is its value? Even in being stated, the problem passes beyond the domain of scientific facts We are merely aware of this—that our knowledge, our perception, can never be other than a rendering in our speech, of the realities which are given us. This holds good equally of facts and of laws; and, also it must certainly be stated that facts are offered us solely under the operation of certain laws, since they can be perceived only through being related by consciousness to types that pre-exist in it.

From this general condition of knowledge, science cannot escape. Even scientific knowledge is and can be no more than a language, by means of which the mind grasps as relatively intelligible, i.e. as recognisable and pliable, the greatest possible number of the objects which are set before it How has this language been formed? What portion of reality is it capable of expressing? With what degree of fidelity? These questions are clearly embarrassing, seeing that the mind can only approach them with the aid and in the name of the very prejudices that we desire to control. At all events, they carry us beyond the domain of scientific experience no less than that of common experience.

From these considerations it may be inferred that science is not an impression stamped by things upon a passive intelligence, but an ensemble of symbols imagined by the mind in order to interpret things by means of pre-existent notions (inexplicable as regards their primary origin), and to gain, by such means, the power of making them serve the realisation of its purposes.

Such a doctrine is, it would seem, much more likely than Ritschlian dualism, to solve, in a rational manner, the problem of the relations between science and religion.

Indeed, according to this doctrine, the living part of science, the sum of positive knowledge symbolised by its formulæ, does not differ at bottom from the kind of beliefs upon which our practical life rests. Science could not, a priori, decree that simple belief ought to be banished from the human mind, since she herself admits it, and retains it in her fundamental notions. Religious belief, i.e. faith, cannot therefore be set aside on the mere ground that it is a belief. Enough for us to realise that it may coexist with science in the same intelligence, that it does not run counter to the beliefs which have actually been adopted on the authority of science.

But, in this respect, modern science allows religion great latitude. She does not claim to bear sway over all forms of being. She confines herself to those sides of it which are amenable to the scientific category, showing no inclination to deny that quite other categories may conceivably encounter (in the real or in the possible) a theme which corresponds to them. The scientist asks: Do we find in things constant relations? Must we infer thence that the wants of the religious consciousness are forbidden? Does there exist any power capable of making the world better?

Not that religion can, henceforward, ignore the teaching of science. Every appeal to science is a pledge of knowing and of reverencing her. It cannot be denied that she subsists to-day upon a certain number of ideas which interest religion, at least as they are presented to us in their concrete reality. The most important, perhaps, is the notion of evolution.

It is very difficult, and raises, doubtless, a metaphysical rather than a scientific problem, to know what, precisely, this evolution is, what it implies and signifies in its origin and in its nature. But it has phenomenal and scientific meaning about which everybody is agreed, viz. that living creatures—and, perhaps, things generally—change, or can change, not only in certain of their manifestations, but in the totality of their ways of being, and that we cannot, a priori, limit the extent of this change. Possibly transmutations take place in the germ, possibly they result from the influence of environment, possibly these two causes co-operate; but it is invariably maintained that there is no longer a fixed difference between the nature of a being and its modifications, and that what are called the essential peculiarities of a species may, henceforward, be conceived as a mere phase of evolution, become relatively stable.

Now there actually exists a whole school of theologians who make it their special aim to bring the external history of religion into agreement with these theories.

They start from a distinction which every thinking man is led to make at all times, and which is, in truth, the basis of life and action as a whole: the distinction between principle and application, between idea and its realisation. We desire with our thought, we realise with things. It follows that there is in any action, in any realisation whatsoever, something besides thought, viz. a material form, which, if external conditions happen to be modified, will necessarily have to be modified correspondingly, under pain of a change in meaning, and of no longer expressing the same thought. Why is it that our writers of the sixteenth century require explanation at the present time, unless it be that the language has changed? In order to say, nowadays, the same thing that they intended to say, we are often obliged to use other words. All action, all life implies this distinction, for life consists in being established by means of the environment in which we find ourselves; and, when this environment changes considerably, the living individual is offered a choice of two things—either to evolve or to disappear.

Religion cannot escape from this law. She aims necessarily at being effectual, and she can only be so through speaking to man in his own words. She only offers the mind a comprehensible meaning, if she, in some way, conforms to the categories which pre-exist in that mind and which constitute its standard of intelligibility. There are, therefore, in all genuine religion two parts, although the point at which the one ends and at which the other begins cannot be indicated exactly: there is religion properly so called—life, will, action; and there is the visible realisation of religion, or the combination of religion in the strict sense with the conditions of existence inherent in a given community. The first element is immutable, in the symbolical sense which this word assumes when applied to a spiritual principle that is essentially living. The second is, inevitably, bound up with the evolution of things.

Not only, then, does the theologian of whom we speak respect the data of science, and refrain from insisting upon the maintenance of such and such a belief under a form which to-day seems impossible; but he incorporates into theology itself the principle that science has definitely established, in particular the principle of evolution.

The creative and regulative conception, as originally presented, remains; but the interpretations which it receives, the formulæ through which it is made outwardly communicable, the institutions which develop its action in the world, are subject to evolution. On the one hand, the causal link which connects the succession of these forms with the primary conception, and the close resemblance which they cannot help retaining (seeing that they are the expressions of one and the same original), guarantee their spiritual unity; on the other hand, the manifestations of religion share the law relating to all living things, in following, as regards their evolution, the world of which they form part.

Henceforward, these expressions which could, originally, be understood in their literal and material meaning, ought to-day, if we would have them preserved, to be understood in a metaphorical sense—thus rendering them compatible, in the only way possible, with the progress of knowledge. For instance, the statements—“He descended into hell, he ascended into heaven”—can only retain their value, if, setting aside a material localisation that is inconceivable to-day, we get behind the imaginary picture to the spiritual meaning: the idea of the union of Christ's soul with the righteous men of the ancient Law, and the final glorification of his humanity.

Moreover, we could not regard this use of allegorical interpretation as futile and chimerical, on the ground that, at all times, threatened doctrines have had recourse to it, and have misused it to a childish extent. Metaphor is the language even of the full-grown man; and, if we look carefully into the matter, we hardly ever use any word in its strict meaning. What is called the life of words is nothing else than the necessity whereby we come to evolve the meaning of words in compliance with the change of ideas, if we would preserve them, through this same change as social life requires. An idea cannot, immediately, create its form; for, in that case, it would not be understood by anybody. It necessarily adopts—at least for a time—the given form which constitutes for existing society the standard of intelligibility; and, by means of this form which was not made for it, it is expressed, through adding to the literal, or substituting for it, a metaphorical meaning.

The existence and the development of religion are then, according to what may be called the Progressive School, nowise disturbed by modern science.

In the groundwork of religion are found the fundamental religious truths which, owing to their essentially metaphysical character, escape from contact with a science whose sole object is the phenomenal.

Religion contains, in addition, several quasi-immediate expressions of these fundamental truths: dogmas and rites which, spiritual in a sense and lived rather than formulated, scarcely admit of conflict with science. Thus it is that Christianity calls God, father; men, sons of God and, as such, brethren one with another; in like manner it teaches the kingdom of God, sin, salvation, redemption, the communion of saints.

There remain particular dogmas and rites. In so far as these contain elements borrowed from the knowledge and from the institutions of a determinate period, they may chance to be at variance with the ideas and institutions of another period. That is no consequence, unless the science and the institutions of yesterday contradict, in some measure, those of to-day. Religion is not responsible for these variations: she cannot be affected by them. She remains identical, while undergoing an external evolution.

Moreover, two modes of evolution are conceivable. Either religion will retain her formulæ as the legacy of a by gone science and civilisation, while disengaging, from their literal and material meaning, any spiritual meaning that can be recovered therefrom. Or, resuming the proud tradition of St. Paul, of St. Athanasius, of St. Augustine, of St. Thomas, of the great organisers of Dogmatic Theology, she will not be afraid of converting to her own use the philosophical and scientific notions of the present age, in order to make of them the symbol—always contingent, doubtless, but directly intelligible for the actual generations—of that religious life which is eternal and inexpressible.


The Difficulties of the Preceding Doctrine

The system which grounds religion on criticism of science, embraced by some with an ardour that is occasionally combative, has raised, for others, strong objections. Some years ago much angry discussion raged around a formula which summed up this system from a controversial standpoint: “the failure of science.”

From the eloquent protests which this war-cry called forth, it is sometimes difficult to derive conclusive arguments. Thus, enthusiasm was shown in enumerating the great discoveries of modern science, and especially the marvellous applications of these discoveries. But our precise endeavour is to know if these advances, which have reference chiefly to the material side of life, fully realise the promises which the science of yesterday often made with respect, not only to the material, but to the political and moral life of humanity.

Others said: Science has not failed, since no reasonable and genuine science has ever been able to promise what you charge science with not having bestowed. This reply contains the implication that science is not the be-all and end-all of man.

Through these apologies of the modern scientist there runs, nevertheless, a leading idea, which science indeed, impresses more and more upon the mind: that of the impossibility of assigning any limit to her progress. No doubt there are immense differences between the physical order and the moral order, between animal communities and human communities. But are we bound to infer that the distance which separates inorganic matter from living matter, or real movement from abstract mechanics, is insurmountable? And, besides, continuity is shown, more and more, between these apparently separate realms. Why should we debar the future from thoroughly establishing the coincidence of science with being, under all its forms?

It is urged that, of all the inventions which science has given us, not one satisfies the moral needs of human nature, and that the science of the future will not prove more adequate in this respect, seeing that such needs are extra-scientific.

But it is a mistake to lay too much stress on this objection. The acquisition of certain truths has created in the mind of the scientist a distinct feeling of assurance and of competency. To this standard, henceforward, he refers every intellectual activity: and, consequently, he regards as vain and illegitimate those inquiries which do not conform to it. It is true that he no longer ventures, as formerly, to enunciate absolute results, unrelated to our means of knowing; he declares, indeed, that all science is relative. But this expression must be taken in its true sense. It does not mean that, outside the domain in which science moves, there is another domain—that of the absolute, in which it would be allowable for other disciplines to have full play: on the contrary, it warns human intelligence against venturing into any region that would be inaccessible to science. For, if a thing is unknowable for science, such an object is, a fortiori, unknowable for every other discipline. And, strong in the sense of a competency which belongs to her alone, where she says—I know, science means: here is knowledge for the human mind; and where she says—I do not know, she would have us understand: here let no one claim to possess knowledge!

It is, therefore, by no means clear that modern science, notwithstanding her diffident mien, is more favourable than dogmatic science to the free development of religion. From the standpoint of science, religion is merely a collection of arbitrary conceptions; for she can only assume the form of science, and—even then—not without risking her integrity, as the example of Scholasticism shows. As to the inward principle of religion, it cannot, obviously, be compared with the truths of objective experience, to which alone science gives heed. And it is not enough to urge that what we wish to maintain, beyond the limits of science, is not another science, but a belief. A belief, from the scientific standpoint, has value only if it is, at one and the same time, based on the observation of facts and adjusted to a meaning that science can accept.

Restricted to the domain that, apparently, science has given up to it, religious belief cannot, even within these limits, make sure of its independence and its freedom of development. Every scientific advance threatens it. The believer follows anxiously the vicissitudes of the scientific explanation of things, expecting to see, here a fissure disclosed, there a gap filled up. He provokes, through his intemperate zeal for adaptation and accommodation, a comparison that is unfavourable to his own cause. For, in contrast with the resolute and triumphant advance of science, he can but offer the suspense and timidity of belief; and religion seems no longer to exist save as an honoured name, which once had a great deal behind it, but which is to-day a mere remembrance that the piety and imagination of the faithful strive to embellish, still, with the colours of reality.

Such are the dangers which threaten religion, if she is limited to the search for those advantages which may accrue to her through scientific gaps. According to several philosophers and scientists, however, these dangers are unreal. We threaten religion with them because we persist in considering science as hostile; but, in this way, we yield to prejudice. Instead of arguing so freely on science and her conditions, let us examine some of her most important results; and we shall find that, even within her own limits, science shows a religious tendency. We must examine this way of looking at the matter.


Science Considered as Predisposed Towards Religion

Notwithstanding the reputation for Materialism and Naturalism which often clings to science, there are not a few philosophers and scientists by profession who persist in denying that the methods and contents of science are opposed to the principles of religion. Some of them—not among the least influential—deem it possible to maintain the Scholastic view of the two ways, different with regard to their beginning, convergent with regard to their direction, and find, in modern scientific doctrines themselves, the rudiments of religious dogmas.

It is thus that certain scientists discern, in actual evolutionism, the indication of the religious dogmas of the Divine Personality, of the Creation, of the Fall, of the efficiency of Prayer and of the soul's Immortality.3 A like eminent physicist4 gives, as the outcome of modern science, the Lord's Prayer and the essential points in the Creed of Christendom.

As a rule, however, it is in a less direct manner that men of to-day seek in science an introduction to religion. The point over which discussion prevails, is the character and the exact significance of the limits of science. Do these limits represent a pure negation, an absolute negation, so that, beyond her own special province, science forbids us, emphatically, to look for anything, to imagine anything? Or do they merely offer a relative negation—what Aristotle calls a privation, the want of a thing which is demanded required, implied by the very fact of our being aware of it?

According to the thinkers with whom we are now dealing, the limits of science represent, strictly, for the human mind, the privation of a knowledge which would be necessary in order to convert our science into complete knowledge. Science knows enough to realise that she is not self-sufficing. Her principles are negative concepts, indeterminate as regards their content. Now, it is impossible for the human mind not to wonder what a thing is, when taught simply that it is neither this nor that. It is, therefore, quite clear that science herself (not some psychical activity external to science) involves the possibility of a knowledge superior to scientific knowledge. “Reason's final move,” said Pascal, “consists in recognising that there are an infinity of things which go beyond her.”

And, in the first place, as regards her meaning and general methods, why need we say that science wages war against religion? Science endeavours to submit phenomena to laws, i.e. to regularity, to persistence in change, to order, to logic, to correspondence. She seeks simple and universal laws, to which she may reduce the diversity and intricacy of the laws of detail. In this very way she is disposed to see in the world a process that is one and harmonious, i.e. beautiful. And, certainly, a single space—our Euclidean space—appears sufficient to explain all the properties of real extension; a sole law, that Newton, governs the phenomena of the astronomical world. In physics we may, perhaps, be satisfied with two fundamental laws: the conservation of energy and the principle of least action. Science tends toward unity, discovers unity: do we, then, make an arbitrary use of words in saying that she leads Godward?

But, at the same time, she admits that her aim is unattainable. In fact, her principles are only hypotheses obviously tolerated by experience. She can say: no other hypothesis has, hitherto, so successfully endured the verification of facts. She cannot say: this hypothesis is the truth. The very mode of her knowledge—the interrogation of Nature by means of an hypothesis—allows her to find actually sufficient explanations, but not to convert her sufficient explanations into necessary explanations. And, nevertheless, the positive and absolute explanation cannot fail to exist. Science convinces us of it, even while she declares her inability to furnish it.

According to that philosophy which is named mechanical,5 the properties of bodies are explained by a clear and positive principle—that of Matter and Motion, It must be noted that to-day, even among those who maintain the legitimacy of employing the mechanical standard to explain all phenomena, very few presume to say that with sufficiently powerful instruments it would be possible to perceive the movements that they imagine. They make use of motion as the most convenient symbol for the purpose of discovering and expounding the laws of phenomena.

But many physicists consider this very symbol useless, or, at all events, liable to be discarded as a mere auxiliary, with which science has nothing more to do when its rôle is fulfilled. According to them the attempt to reduce to movement the whole of observable phenomena has failed, in spite of the increasingly cunning and intricate contrivances of modern mechanists. The method of real unification has been set forth in Thermo-dynamics, become Energetics. Now, this science is constituted through setting aside the proper nature of things, in order to consider simply their measurable manifestations. Is what we measure extension or movement, or something quite different? That is of little consequence. By means of these measurements we can discover laws, construct theories, elicit principles which enable us to classify known phenomena, and, by way of inference, to put fresh questions to Nature. What more is wanted? Energetics, in gathering all that science contains of the strictly experimental and scientific, and in rejecting every metaphysical and unverifiable residuum, has realised the most perfect form that physical science has yet known.

What, now, is the energy which this particular science takes for her sole aim? It is only a negative idea. It is neither movement, nor any of the concrete realities that we observe. It points to a knowledge which we lack.

It appears possible to embrace, in Energetics, every variety of the modes of change—not only local movement, but physical movements properly so called, i.e. changes of property and of composition: all that Aristotle termed alteration, generation, and corruption, But this possibility can only be applied the form of phenomena. And this form, not having in itself any physical property, the formulæ which represent it would be useless, if phenomena were not in addition, classed according to their strictly physical resemblances and differences, i.e. according to their qualities. Thus the qualitative distinction subsists for the mind of the scientist under the unity and the identity of mathematical treatment.6 What is this notion of quality? Clearly it is, from the scientific standpoint, a mere negative notion: it is the idea of a condition—irreducible to magnitude—of the magnitudes that observation commits to analysis. But it is, at the same time, the idea of a reality, and is, therefore, not a pure negation. It is the indication, given by science herself, of an aspect of being which outstrips the experience of the senses and the methods of science.

Analogous conclusions are to be drawn from Biology. It is to-day the well-nigh general opinion that, if life, in its maintenance, consumes no energy which is peculiar to it, yet it cannot be referred, purely and simply, to physico-chemical forces. This thesis is even, at times, set forth in such precise and positive terms that the domain of Biology would seem to be less limited, as regards the knowledge of being, than that of Physics. In fact, not only are we assured that life exists, and is no simple mechanism, but its definition is given; it is a consensus, a hierarchy, a solidarity of the parts and of the whole; the unification of heterogeneous elements; a creative and controlling idea; the effort to maintain a definite organisation through making use of the resources and combating the obstacles that the environment presents. All these definitions have a positive as well as a supra-mechanical meaning; and, when they are taken as really scientific, it is easy to conclude that science, of herself, introduces us into a world other than that of properly external phenomena.

But we are deceived if we regard these formulæ in so far as they are positive, as genuinely scientific data. On this understanding, they are metaphors derived from the feelings which are bound up, in our consciousness, with the exposition of life. They serve the biologist as a sign, an indication, a formula for specifying a certain class of phenomena, which he calls vital, just as the words—force, mass, attraction, inertia, serve the physicist for specifying the phenomena that he calls physical. But, while psychic symbols were capable, with the physicist, of being exactly converted into mathematical symbols, the terms which define life have preserved, for the biologist, a subjective meaning. That is why, from the strictly scientific standpoint, their signification is only negative. They indicate that the characteristic phenomena of life are not reducible to physical mechanism, are not mechanical under any aspect.

And yet, even the scientific idea of life is not a negation pure and simple: it is the affirmation of an unknown, comprehensible as regards its manifestations, but incapable, itself, of objective investigation. It constitutes the reverse of a thing which necessarily has an obverse. This negative concept which, scientifically, is very efficacious, would disappear, and, with it, the relative explanations that it furnishes, if we considered the positive unknown, of which it is the duplicate, as having no real existence.

The study of the problem relating to the origin of living species determined the development of a theory which, to-day, seems to dominate science entirely, viz. that of Evolution. The differences which distinguished this theory from so-called orthodox beliefs, caused people, first of all, to think that it was in every way inconsistent with those beliefs, and that, since religion implied Providence, Creation, Mind and Freedom, the word evolution could only mean mechanism, brute necessity, materialism.

Meanwhile, the criticism that science herself offered with regard to this theory was not long in showing that the idea of evolution was far from being simple, clear and precise, as could be imagined in the first stage; that it admitted of various meanings; and, at all events, that it was by no means the pure and simple negation of the ideas of Creation, Freedom and Mind, which people had supposed. And, pointing out that the theory of evolution introduced into the world a unity, a continuity, a life, a fecundity, a harmony, a common trend, which the theory relating to fixity of species hardly corroborated, certain scientists and philosophers arrived at the opinion that, far from being opposed to religious ideas, Evolutionism presented, with respect to the world and its development, a conception far nobler and more worthy of a Divine Creator than the traditional dogma of the immutable multiplicity of fundamental forms. This interpretation, sooth to say, goes beyond the scientific meaning of the theory. But it is no exaggeration to assert that the scientist's idea of evolution—to an even greater extent than his ideas of life and of energy—is, in itself, incomplete, and, properly speaking, a negation which implies an affirmation.

At the present time it appears to be established that the form of existence to which we give the name of species, is not immutable and enduring. The chief objection which used to be urged against Darwin viz. that we see species disappear, but do not see them appear, has now been removed. The experimentalist, through quite sudden transmutation, creates species. From one species may be produced several more or less divergent. Nothing, therefore, any longer prevents us, in principle, from regarding the totality of existing species as the outcome of evolution.

What is the significance of this hypothesis?

Evolutionism necessarily raises the question of the origin of variations. It has not been able, so far, to reach, with regard to that origin, solutions that are universally admitted. It wavers between two opinions, which are alike based upon a number of facts and experiences, and which, for this reason, certain scientists seek to reconcile and to combine. According to one of these standpoints (recalling that of Darwin) the initial transmutation takes place in the germ. Certain of these transmutations are preserved, increase and become stable types. According to the other standpoint (actually that of Lamarck) the influence of the environment, and the struggle of creatures to adapt themselves thereto, are the essential causes of the transmutations. And the blending of these two standpoints is quite conceivable. For the idea of modification in the germ does not exclude that of influence of the environment, any more than the idea of influence of the environment exclude; that of modification in the germ. Adaptation to the environment can be reflected in the process of the reproductive cells, as certain experiments show,7 and a transmutation in the germ can be combined with adaptation to the conditions of existence.

Can we say that the concepts employed in these explanations are, in the scientific sense, positive concepts?

The doctrine of variations in the germ explains these variations, either by a kind of spontaneous creation, or by the development, under the influence of some circumstance, of latent pre-existing characteristics. Either creation, or innateness—such are the suggested hypotheses.

The doctrine of reaction on the influence of environment implies, in the living being, either the property of acquiring and of displaying a determinate tendency under the influence of the uniform action put forth by an external cause, or the property of modifying itself, so as to comply with external conditions.

As to the relative fixity of the modifications, it is likened to a habit that the being contracts, whether of itself, or under the influence of a relatively constant environment.

In spite of appearances, the concepts of creation, of adaptation, of preservation, are far from having, here, a positive sense—at least from the scientific point of view. For, whatever is positive in the content of these concepts is subjective, indefinable, incapable of scientific exposition. These concepts mean that we cannot compare the formation of living species with the production of a chemical compound. Indeed, they are much more remote from scientific language than were the concepts implied in the theory of immutable species. In the latter, the living world, like the inorganic world, was made up of definite and unchanging elements, finite in number: the sundry combinations of these elements constituted the hierarchy of classes, On the other hand, living and evolving, no longer merely in each of the individuals which compose it, but in its totality, the vegetable or animal world resembles in appearance only, a material collection—a finite number of fixed and homogeneous unities. The change is therein conceived as radical; and the definite, the stable, on which science is based, are no more than contingent and provisional.

These concepts are, for science, only negations and problem-statements, for they transcend the mechanical standpoint. They suggest the idea of an explanation analogous to that which consciousness takes in regard to its own acts. The living being, according to the adopted formulæ, seeks to maintain and unfold its life; and, in order to accomplish this, it determines itself and modifies itself in harmony with the circumstances which surround it.

Such explanations are usually called teleological. According to an acute philosopher,8 in order to bring them into conformity with the facts, it would be necessary to conceive them as superior, not only to mechanism, but to teleology. Teleology leads to our ranking the vegetable world beneath the animal world, instinct beneath intelligence, when we ought, really, to see therein different developments of one and the same activity. The rich and widely varied process corresponds to the idea of spontaneous creation far better than to the idea of an end conceived in advance and determining the story of the realisation.

Although these views may recall, in some measure, the Spinozistic doctrine of life, it seems indisputable that the positive content of fundamental biological concepts is extra-scientific, and, consequently, that these concepts are, scientifically speaking, merely negative concepts.

It does not follow that science can set aside their positive and subjective signification as useless, chimerical and purely verbal. For, in becoming simply quantitative, exact and objective, these concepts would lose all that characterises them, and renders them helpful to the scientist in his researches and in his syntheses. Kant used to say that, though devoid of substantial value, in the sense that they do not bring us any real knowledge, certain principles have a regulative value, in so far as they enable us to class phenomena and to organise experiences, as if they truly represented the real methods of Nature. This doctrine appears applicable to Biology even to-day. But it shows us science suspended in a reality that goes beyond her means of investigation.

After all, the moral sciences, are, in this respect, especially significant.

These sciences are understood in two ways: either as normative sciences, or as purely positive sciences.

Understood as normative sciences, they furnish directly, by their special content, the guiding principles of human life which we should vainly seek in the physical sciences. They offer or prescribe for man certain ends to be pursued: e.g. the development of personality, duty, happiness, harmony between the individual and the community, justice, general benefit solidarity, union of sentiment. Now it is clear that such aims are not, in themselves, ultimate principles adequately conceived, but that they represent problems of a particular nature—problems which cannot be solved by the aid of experience alone.

According to some people, these aims are nothing else than a vista opening towards the Infinite, towards the Perfect, towards the Divine. If it were so, the moral sciences, through their controlling ideas, would indeed be a true introduction to religion.

Thinkers of another school affirm a much closer analogy between the moral sciences and other sciences. They aim at representing them as just the natural science of man, considered in its moral and sociological manifestations. The moral sciences study the actions of men in their modes and in their causes, as the biological sciences study animal functions and forms of existence. As to practical rules, they are, under this conception, applications of science, but are not part of it. All science, in fact, by virtue of being science, is theoretical: practice precedes it or follows it, but does not, in any way, interfere with it.

So understood, the moral sciences would have a sure way of breaking off every connection with religion: viz. through becoming purely narrative. They would be limited to showing that men have, through the ages, spoken, in such and such sense, of justice, of happiness, of duty, of right, of personality, of solidarity, or of collective conscience, without having to inquire into the origin and philosophical significance of these notions—without considering their value. But a science which is merely narrative, is not, properly speaking, a science. In order to resemble the physical sciences, the science of moral phenomena must become explanatory.

Moral science, at the present time, no longer proposes, in general, to explain conscious life and social life by purely physical causes. Psychology, Ethics and Sociology, without breaking the bonds which connect them with the material sciences, claim their own special principles. We shall, therefore, explain moral phenomena, not only by the physiological and physical conditions of human life, but also by strictly moral causes, such as: the conditions of consciousness; the properties of intelligence and of will; the influence of feelings, of inclinations, of ideas; the peculiar role of such ideas as those of individuality, of happiness, of duty, of equality, of liberty, of tradition, of collective conscience, of solidarity, of humanity, of justice, of harmony, of progress, of reason, etc.

What are these principles? Regarded scientifically, they are only negations. They are subjective phantoms, taking the place of objective causes, which our intellect ignores and cannot apprehend in themselves. All that is precise in the explanations drawn from such principles, amounts to this: the phenomena in question are not explained by the efficient causes which we have at our disposal. By a logical trick—having brought in ideas, ends, conscious life under its intelligible aspect—we clothe these fluid things with formulæ, we treat them as beings and as mechanical forces of a kind, and we make use of them as efficient causes. We then imagine that we have given a scientific explanation. But how are we to determine scientifically the meaning and value of such explanations? Whence comes the moral life, the longing after progress, the wish to create anew and to improve Nature? What is it that we want? Whither are we tending? To reduce all this possibility to necessity, all this ideality to reality, all this contingent future to actual data, is obviously to see in human consciousness nothing but a mystifying power. And, in that case what becomes of the explanations furnished by it? They are no more than illusory explanations of phenomena that are themselves illusory.

From the strictly scientific standpoint, these ideas are merely negations—the denial that a mechanical explanation is possible. But here again, and here especially, it must be said that we have to do with imperfect negations which are wrapped up with corresponding affirmations. What use could the scientist make of these concepts, if he were obliged (like the mathematician) to be indifferent as regards their subjective and practical meaning? He gives so little heed thereto that it is this very subjective meaning which he decks with the name of scientific notion. When the astronomer, following appearances, argues on the assumption that the sun revolves round the earth, he knows that he can argue also—and even much more easily—on the hypothesis that it is the earth which revolves round the sun. But the moralist or the sociologist who should endeavour to interpret the subjective appearances with which he is concerned, in objective terms, would find himself transported to the antipodes of the reality which interests him, and would no longer be able to argue about it at all. In order to speak of men, of their individuality, of their personality, of their solidarity, of their individual or collective conscience, we are obliged to assume that these terms mean something—an assumption which from the standpoint of an objective science, is very debatable. The explanations of the phenomena by moral and sociological concepts are nothing else than an ill - disguised appeal to explanations which go beyond the compass of a morality and a sociology that claim to be scientific in the strict sense.

To sum up, according to the philosophers whom we are now considering, the limits of science are not negations pure and simple. Much rather are they the indication of a reality, for us transcendent, without which these very limits would be incomprehensible, and which the scientist ought, more or less, to bear in mind if he would succeed in giving to his concepts a concrete meaning that renders them available. Science, therefore, is not absolutely neutral. She reveals a bent; and, if this bent remains very general, it is at least directed towards the same ends that the religious consciousness postulates.

Religion, henceforward, must no longer be presented as an arbitrary conception, tolerated theoretically, perhaps, by science, but unconnected with her: science even seeks her, without knowing it. And thus, while she freely develops in accordance with her own principles, religion knows that her affirmations, in their general principles, correspond to the postulates of science. She is only too anxious to incorporate, from science, all that can help forward her own work; and it is an observable fact that the thinkers of whom we speak, far from dismissing science as an alien or a rival, invoke her aid with the utmost vehemence, in order to gain, on the historical and natural side, an idea of religion that shall be the truest, most enduring and most complete possible—therefore the most worthy and the most efficacious.


Remaining Difficulties

And assuredly, this way of understanding, and of contriving the reconciliation of religion with science is one of the strongest and most conclusive that can be imagined. It is not certain, however, that it thoroughly satisfies the convictions of the scientist any more than the convictions of the religious man.

In spite of all his efforts to accept unconditionally the teachings of science, without deferring to them in any way, the spiritualistic thinker runs the risk of being disavowed by the scientist, when he interprets the limits of science in a sense that is favourable to religion. If there is one contention upon which science insists as fundamental, it is that she knows not whither she is going. While acknowledging her limits, she does not profess to know anything beyond them; and every attempt to interpret her ignorance, as well as her certainty, arouses her suspicion. Science is essentially jealous of her independence, of her autonomy, of her right to ignore.

On her side, religion continues to wonder at being obliged to ask science for permission to exist. She has, indeed, no intention of raising her voice against the results of scientific demonstration. She has no difficulty in understanding that, between her and science, there ought to be agreement, and that radical heterogeneity is impossible; since, if God exists, he is the cause of the world which, by reason of its laws, is the object of scientific study, and, between cause and effect, there cannot fail to be some relation. But she, on her side, claims autonomy and tree development. Like every living thing, she wishes to be herself, and to unfold from within all her powers. But she is in danger of being restricted in a system which, when all has been said, seems to subordinate to scientific conceptions, religion's right to assert herself.

Neither science, then, nor religion feels herself—in this system based on the limits of science—fully in possession of the autonomy which both alike demand.

It is true that the problem appears to defy the keenest intellect. For it is necessary to discover a way of conceiving religion, at one and the same time, as free to develop herself according to her own principles, and as connected with science through certain intelligible relations. But, if this difficulty appears disconcerting, may it not be because we still picture religion and science as existing side by side in space, and as contending for it after the manner of material things? We try to find out what room science gives up to religion, and wonder if the spatial area occupied by science implies, or does not imply, another space which extends beyond. All these expressions are only metaphors, transcripts of reality in the language of spatial imagination. Can the relation between religion and science be so simple, so closely analogous to material relations? Must it not be, on the contrary, very difficult to grasp and to define? Is it not bound to be, in some way, unique in kind?

But, if this is so, we must, in order to discover it, employ another method—more metaphysical than that which we have just been considering. The latter is strictly critical. It consists in reflecting upon science and upon religion, as they are given us; in asking what are the conditions of existence enjoined on both, and how, being subject to these conditions, they can be reconciled. This method can only, in the end, place religion and philosophy opposite one another, like two powerful rivals who aim at mutual extermination. Perhaps we should be able to discover a relation of a more intimate and more supple kind, if, instead of restricting ourselves to the consideration of religion and science from without, and to the criticism of principles, we sought to understand both of them in their genesis—to give some account of their origin and of the internal principle of their development. For this purpose we should have to make our appeal, no longer only to philosophical criticism, but to philosophy properly so called, to a theory of the first principles of intellectual life and of moral life. This is what a certain number of very acute thinkers have tried to do—thinkers who are as careful to respect the freedom of science as they are jealous for the liberty of religion.

  • 1.

    V. Duhem, La Théorie physique, 1906. E. Le Roy, Un Positivisms nouveau. Revue de métaph. et de mor., 1901.

  • 2.

    See H. Poincaré, La, Science et I'Hypothèse; La, Valeur de la science.

  • 3.

    Armand Sabatier, La Philosophie de l'effort.

  • 4.

    Sir Oliver Lodge, The Substance of Faith.

  • 5.

    Vide Lucien Poicaré, La Physique moderns.

  • 6.

    See Duhem: La Théorie physique, 1906. L'Évolution des théories physiques. Rev. des quest, scientifiques, Louvain, October 1896.

  • 7.

    Bonnier, Le Monde végétal, p. 332.

  • 8.

    Bergson, L'Évolution créatrice. Cf. Rudolf Otto, Naturalistische und religiöse Weltansicht, pp. 214–15.