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Lecture XVI: The Unity of Experience

When we speak of conscious experience we are accustomed to think of it as the conscious experience of many individuals, existing in different parts of space and time. We never doubt, however, that it is experience of the same universe, which we regard as an objective universe, existing independently of our own special or subjective experience of it. Apart from this assumption, the language in which we describe it and communicate with one another about it would have no meaning.

We commonly regard it as an objective world of bodies and events, occurring in objective space and time. Or we may regard it as an objective world of life; or else of values of various sorts. To a physicist, chemist, or geologist it appears under one aspect; to a farmer or doctor under another aspect; to a teacher, artist, or clergyman under other aspects. But it appears to be the same world for all, and in this sense an objective world, however we may regard it.

We do not ordinarily regard the different aspects of this world as mutually contradicting one another, for we smooth over the latent contradictions in various ways. We may, for instance, regard its beauty or ugliness as merely ideal or subjective, or matters of convention. Or we may regard the whole of it as a mere passing show, the apparent contradictions in which are ultimately unreal, though for us, with our limited understanding, at present insoluble. But even so, the question remains why it at least appears to us as an objective show, or an objective physical world.

The foregoing analysis has suggested the answer to this question. As we have seen, the physical interpretation as formulated by Newton and his successors does not express reality itself, but only a conception of it which is extremely useful in the perception and furtherance of our interest or the corresponding values. When we compare closely this conception with our experience of even what we call the inorganic world, but far more clearly if we endeavour to apply the same conception to our experience of life or conscious behaviour, it becomes evident that it fails to correspond with this experience. The conception of bodies existing separately in space has to be abandoned when we endeavour to form a coherent conception of living form and activity or conscious behaviour.

This involves the corollary that even in these parts of our experience where the Newtonian conception seems to correspond with the actual experience this correspondence is only superficial. Behind the apparent Newtonian world there must be a world which only reveals itself clearly in our experience as a whole. The Newtonian conception, however useful it is for certain practical purposes, is only a make-shift conception. It cannot represent reality. It somehow appears to us, nevertheless, as an objective makeshift, in the sense that all men can make use of it in so far as it can be used to further their interests. It can also be applied, though its inadequacy is glaringly apparent, to our experience of life and conscious behaviour. Thus we can regard a man or animal as a mass of material localized in space and time, and acting on or being acted on by other similar material. For various sorts of practical purposes, such as those with which an engineer deals, we need not ask too closely where or how the man ends and his spatial environment begins, or where or how his now is separated from his past and future. For many practical purposes these questions are unnecessary, and it suffices to regard him from the Newtonian standpoint.

Thus the Newtonian interpretation is in some way objective in the sense that it is the same for all men. But on the other hand it is merely subjective, in the sense that it is only an artefact or tool which we have invented for the furtherance of our interests. It is not the actual world of experience, but a grossly inadequate representation of it, that the Newtonian conception presents to us. Nevertheless this representation has been of such extraordinary service to mankind that in modern times it has been taken for a true representation of what we meet with in actual experience, and therefore as representing objective truth which would be the same to all observers if they observed carefully enough. The name Realism has also been claimed for philosophy which starts by acknowledging this supposed objective truth.

It is perfectly certain that such philosophy is not only realism but is nothing but a form of idealism which takes abstract ideas, which are only practical devices represented by words, as corresponding with reality. The reality revealed in experience includes the fact that it is conscious expeof one another in space and time does not correspond with this reality.

As we cannot reduce life to mechanism, and yet biological observation is part of our visible and tangible experience, so that we must include its data in a consistent interpretation of experience, biological interpretation comes nearer to reality than physical interpretation. The essential spatial co-ordination which we meet with in biological phenomena does not express the co-ordination in both time and space which we find in all conscious experience; but at least it expresses spatial co-ordination. Biological interpretation seems also just as objective as physical interpretation, in the sense that we naturally make the assumption that it would be the same to all men. It is true that the world of biological interpretation seems on superficial examination to be a world of many different lives struggling against one another and against a physical world in a spatial environment. But this is only because we have become confused by the Newtonian conception in our endeavour to apply biological interpretation. There is no spatial limitation to life; nor is life merely centred in separate organisms or parts of organisms. As already pointed out, one cannot see in detail how the conception of life applies, any more than we can see in detail how the Newtonian conception applies. But the conception of life is just as much an apparently objective conception appealing to all men, and extremely useful for practical purposes, as is the Newtonian conception.

It remains true, nevertheless, that biological conceptions are incapable of describing our actual experience, and only describe an abstract aspect of it. In biological observation we interpret phenomena as essentially related to other simultaneously existing phenomena. When we perceive a man or animal panting, or sweating, or taking food, or responding to sensory stimuli, we perceive this, in so far as we are applying biological interpretation, in relation to many other associated phenomena, which together express the maintenance of the normal unity which we call life; and similarly when we perceive bodily structure or the biological environment of the organism. But the relationship is a “blind” one, since neither past nor future events are regarded as entering directly into the phenomena observed. In actual experience not only is a present phenomenon essentially related to other simultaneous phenomena, but also to past and future phenomena, so that interest and corresponding values are maintained and developed.

The doctor, or farmer, or hunter, perceives biologically; but he at the same time perceives as part of the interest he is pursuing, and the biological element in his perception takes no account of this. Thus biology, like physics, deals only with abstractions from actual experience, however useful these abstractions may be. They are only artefacts, and the fact that they can be embodied in words makes no difference in this respect.

Since actual experience embodies interest and values which are without either spatial or temporal limitation, it partakes of the infinite and eternal. If we describe it as made up of elements each of which is here and now, the description is unmeaning and could only apply to the happenings in the existence of a body belonging to the ideal Newtonian world. The conception of such ideal happenings is often very useful practically, but has no application when we are considering the nature of experience itself. In actual experience, past, present, and future are alike involved, and knit into one by the interest and values embodied in the experience.

If we admit this, it might seem that we have reached no objective world, the same to all men; for the interests of different persons are different, and the values which they perceive and act upon are correspondingly different. This is undeniably true. What, for instance, has all the value and interest of home to one person has no such interest and value to another, or may be only an eyesore, better done away with as being insanitary or ugly. Or where one man sees endless beauty in a landscape, another man may see only an uninteresting waste.

But let us look more closely. We have become accustomed to the assumption that the physical world has an existence which is objective and the same to all men when they properly understand it, and that there is a corresponding objective space and objective time. This assumption has been discussed in previous lectures, and the reasons set out which prove it to be untrue. Yet apart from these reasons, which ordinarily do not occur to us, we think of the physical world as being objective, in spite of the fact that it appears very differently to different persons. When, for instance, we see a rainbow, or the colours produced by a thin film of oil, we may imagine that we see coloured objects, though to a physicist the coloration is only subjective and dependent on the relation of our eyes to surfaces at which rays of light are refracted and reflected.

It is only, therefore, with correct and complete physical interpretation that the physical world could appear to us as objective if such interpretation were capable of affording an objective interpretation. Without the correct interpretation the physical world appears quite differently to different observers, and it is only by what we regard as well-grounded faith that we interpret this world as an objective world. It is the same with our experiences of interest and values; for where they are not at first perceived and acted on, further examination can reveal them, just as further examination reveals what we suppose to be an objective physical world. What we call sympathy is realization of the interest and values of another person, and perception at the same time that the interest and values are common.

It has already been pointed out that interest and values are not merely centred in individuals, any more than life is merely centred in individual organisms. In other words, individual interest does not exist as something apart from social interest, with corresponding social values. This makes real sympathy or comradeship or fellowship possible; and there is no limit to the extension of this fellowship. We experience it at once, not only in connexion with other human beings, but also in connexion with animals, in so far as we understand their conscious behaviour. We extend it also to surrounding Nature, and we all understand the language of poets such as Wordsworth who have specially expressed this extension. It is this that makes a world which appears the same to all men possible, and that makes language possible.

Fellowship in interest shows itself most markedly between parent and child, between husband and wife, or between members of a family; and those who do not remember this are often rudely reminded of it. The same fellowship extends to the interests of others, and specially of fellow-countrymen. The bond is a subtle and far-reaching one, covering every variety of value, including the value of the country itself and all that pertains to it. He who travels into a foreign country without any sympathetic respect for and understanding of it and its people, must expect the hostile treatment which he will probably receive. The bond of fellowship extends, however, far beyond country, and far beyond the human species. It is there as a fact in our actual experience, and a fact of overwhelming significance. The abstract ideas which we use as tools in the realization of this fellowship, embody in spoken and written language, and make the basis of what we know as sciences, are mere derivatives of this fellowship, which is the source of their apparent objectivity. The attempt to describe it or analyze it in terms of abstract ideas is thus entirely meaningless. But since it appeals to all men, the tools which we use in its realization, including language and all the sciences, appeal also to all men, and are thus objective in this limited sense.

I belong to the old Oxford College of which the motto is “Manners makyth Man.” We are proud of that motto, because it expresses a supreme truth. It is by our manners that we express, whether in word or deed, our fellowship with others and with all that surrounds us. This is true whether the manners are those of a king or of the lowliest of his subjects. Manners may be something unconnected with the abstractions which we designate as our bodies, but they express an inner reality of our actual being, and in this sense they “make” us. No better motto could have been chosen for a place of education and learning; for education and learning which do not make manners towards present, past, and future are just no education or learning. This is true whatever be the special subject studied. It must be studied and taught as a subject of living human interest which brings student or learner into relations of sympathetic understanding.

What we call bad manners or vulgarity signifies a defective perception of values, more especially a defective perception of the highest values; and if this is associated with display of wealth or its equivalents, the vulgarity is specially evident, owing to the contrast between a lower or mere individual interest, represented by the possession of wealth, and the higher and wider social interest represented by human understanding and sympathy. It is only education of the widest kind, including very particularly early education at home, that can save the world from vulgarity. Too much specialism in education is a common source of vulgarity; and mere appeals to lower interests bring vulgarity into political life—a vulgarity which is sooner or later found out.

The reason why physical realism has made such a wide appeal to the modern world is that it seems to furnish us with an objective reality, the same to all men, and corresponding to our conception of what an objective world should be. It is true that Berkeley and Hume showed by reasoning which has never been shaken that if the physical world were real in the sense assumed by Newton, we could never come to know of its existence. That world, however, seemed so imposing that little heed was paid to the scepticism of Berkeley, and still more thorough scepticism of Hume. It required a deeper analysis of experience, in which the first great step was taken by Kant, and further very important steps by Hegel, to meet Hume's scepticism. Any form of so-called idealism, however, failed to meet the criticism that it does not furnish an objective world. I have tried to meet this criticism by carrying the analysis of experience still further, so as to reach a form of realism which is proof against the objection to any form of physical realism, and yet accounts for the fact that physical, biological, artistic, and ethical interpretations appeal to all men, just as if each of these interpretations represented an objective world.

Neither are interest and values centred in ourselves as individuals, nor are there any spatial or temporal limits to them. Time- and space-relations express them instead of limiting them. But in what sense can we regard them as existing objectively and the same for all? However important they may be, they seem to clash with one another and to lead to competition, quarrels, and war. They undoubtedly do so, but the contests and disagreements are only the process of realization of interest, and when a stable decision is reached there is a wider or more detailed expression of interest and values. It is only through effort and struggle that values are maintained and developed.

Owing to the confusion produced in our minds by the assumption, presented to us in modern times as being nothing but “common sense,” that the world as described in terms of physical sciences is a real world, we seem forced to the conclusion that however important may be the interest and values which we perceive immediately around us, they are limited in their existence by a vast outside physical universe, surrounding us both in space and time, or in space-time. I have already pointed out the reasons for the conclusion that this physical conception of a universe is by itself a mere make-believe. In other words, the conception, though of the greatest use for certain limited practical purposes, is not in itself consistent with our actual experience. Here I touch on the very kernel of what I am maintaining in this course of lectures. There is no mistaking the issue. The conclusion forced upon me in the course of a life devoted to natural science is that the universe as it is assumed to be in physical science is only an idealized world, while the real universe is the spiritual universe in which spiritual values count for everything.

The apparent individual interests and values in this spiritual world turn out, when we examine them, to be not separable interests, but one interest, with its values organically united with one another in time-relations as well as space-relations; and the perception of this is never far off. This perception guides us towards honest, diligent, unselfish, and charitable conduct, and is the motive impulse of all that we regard as being best in our actions. It gives us width of intellectual vision, courage to act, courage to endure, inspiration to carry forward what we have inherited from those before us, and charity. We live, if we will only realize it, in the presence of and through the power of, this spiritual reality. It is the inspiration of all the splendid and pains-taking effort which has built up our language, our literature and art, our science, our institutions, our machinery of all sorts, our loyalty to one another, and all that we call civilization.

If we look far enough backwards in the ideal time-relation of physics or outwards in the corresponding ideal space-relation, we may lose its detail, but it is still there; for the stars are to us like old friends whose presence around us is an expression of spiritual reality. We also do and can see it all around us in our daily lives, and apart from its existence our conscious experience or behaviour is entirely unintelligible or inconsistent with itself.

It is equally true that within the world of our daily observation we cannot trace the spiritual world of values in detail. What we see in detail is frequently what we can only attempt to describe in the abstract terms of physical science. In other words, we can only see the spiritual world partially and in outline, so that it seems to us to be only imperfectly real. Yet if we conclude that there is a real material world—a physical world of mechanical chaos—which limits the spiritual world of values, this cannot be correct: for the supposed physical world is part of the perceived world, and this is inconsistent with its being a real world. The faith that in spite of our blurred vision of it the real world is one spiritual world cannot be shaken.

It is thus only an imperfectly revealed spiritual world that we had taken for a material world; and so the world of our experience is a progressive realization of the spiritual world. This gives us a new conception of time, not as a mathematical entity, but as the progressive realization of one spiritual reality, involving space-relations as well as all other relations which make up an ordered world of values. However useful the ordinary Newtonian conception of time may be, it is no longer, even for physicists, more than an ideal creation, as was pointed out in the fourteenth lecture. For the historian of conscious behaviour, Newtonian time or Einsteinian space-time is only an ideal abstraction. For a true historian or scholar or man of science the past of his subject is not something done with, but revealing itself in the present and future, which in their turn only reveal themselves as the outcome of the past. The physical conception of time or space-time is only a tool to be used for certain practical purposes. Let us use it efficiently for these purposes, but not regard it as anything more than a tool.

It is of its very nature that the universe of our experience—the universe of perception and conscious behaviour—must be a spiritual world of interest and values, and that the interest and values are not merely subjective, or those of a particular individual, but objective, since all can enter into them, and there is nothing outside them in our experience. In them the whole of our experience is unified as the active manifestation of one spiritual universe.

All around us we seem to see physical chaos, death, disease, decay, selfishness, and war between interest and interest, between man and man, or beast and beast. We certainly cannot see in detail how the picture which they present can be reconciled with the conception of a spiritual universe. It is only by faith that the reconciliation appears to us—the faith that our universe is consistent with itself. This faith is of the same nature as that which guides and inspires the work of pure science in its fight with ignorance and unintelligibility. Science is a continuous human struggle with what is as yet unintelligible, and this struggle is its very life. The petrified science of an inferior text-book is not science at all. In a far wider sense the whole of our experience, when we rightly comprehend it, is an active struggle in which we are continuously realizing the living and active spiritual unity which is without and within us everywhere in space and time, though it is only through the inference which we call faith that we know that it is being realized. The reality of this active spiritual unity sums up for us the message of philosophy.

We are to be pitied if we have lost our faith, lost sight of our spiritual continuity with the past and future as well as with what is around us, so that we only seem to be engaged in a hopeless or selfish struggle which will end with our deaths. Philosophy bids us to look again, and shows us how to look. She does not bid us to shut our eyes to the apparent evil within and around us, but tells us that in the effort of facing and dealing with it according to our abilities we become one with Supreme Active Reality.