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Part One (First Course): On Selfhood

Lecture I: Prolegomena Religion and the Arbitrament of Reason

1. I should wish my first words to express my deep sense of the honour you have done me in inviting me to become your Gifford Lecturer. I am keenly conscious of the privilege, though at the same time of the responsibility, of discoursing, within these walls particularly, on the high themes prescribed by Lord Gifford. When I recall the names of those who have preceded me here in this office, and when I reflect upon the remarkable succession of philosophical thinkers and scholars who have taught in this University and have made the name of St. Andrews illustrious in philosophy as in so much else, I confess to feeling hardly less terrified than gratified by the charge you have entrusted to me. I can but promise to do my utmost not to be too grossly unworthy of the company to which, with so little desert, I have been admitted.

There is, however, one qualification for my present assignment to which I can fairly, and without immodesty, lay some claim. My interest in the kind of philosophical problems most relevant to the Gifford Foundation—problems within the general domain of natural theology—is of very old standing; stretching back, indeed, to long before my student days. As with so many of my contemporaries, it was this interest which acted as the chief inducement to me to embark upon formal philosophical study. In the early years of the twentieth century there was probably not much more religious belief among reflective Scotsmen than is to be found today. But there was certainly much less religious apathy. The doubts plentifully expressed were real doubts; not just a disguise for indifference. No one then supposed that the question of the truth or falsity of the religious interpretation of the universe was of less than paramount importance to a man; and very few supposed that any enduring solvent of religious doubt was attainable save through the further exercise of that same ‘reason’ whose critical analysis had provoked it. ‘The wounds inflicted by reason’ (as my old teacher Sir Henry Jones never tired of quoting) ‘reason alone can heal.’ It was natural, then, for the young men of this generation to turn in their perplexities to philosophy for guidance—and it might be for succour. For did not philosophy in that strangely remote era (as, for that matter throughout the previous 2500 years) seek rationally supported answers to just those questions about the general character of the universe with which the most fundamental religious doubts were concerned?

The youthful interest in the problems of philosophical theology which I shared with my generation has suffered no abatement with the passing of the years. Inevitably, however, in the philosophical climate of the last quarter-century, it has enjoyed fewer opportunities for constructive expression than I could have wished. After all, the professional philosopher is only in small degree his own master as regards the direction of his studies. He is constrained, for example, by the duty he owes to his pupils to prepare himself to satisfy their natural, and rightful, curiosity about whatever may be making a stir in the philosophical world of the moment; a duty no less binding, though certainly more irksome, if in his view the avenues of exploration which excite the keenest contemporary interest are for the most part blind alleys. Thus the professional philosopher of the present day who happens to remain (as I fear I remain) totally unpersuaded of the virtues of the ‘new look’ which fashion has imposed upon the matter and the manner of his science, is likely to find himself free to devote only a poor fraction of his working hours to systematic thinking about the very problems which, as he understands philosophy, ought to be the life-long preoccupation of the philosophic mind.

To anyone so circumstanced, what could be more fortunate than a commission such as that with which you have so kindly charged me, which not merely permits but requires that one directs one's meditations to some of the great perennial problems of traditional philosophy, the problems which emerge as fundamental in the course of the effort of the human mind to gain the best understanding it can of the general nature of the universe and of man's place within it? I am grateful indeed that you should have provided me with so invincible an excuse for doing what I want to do.

2. The prescribed subject-matter of the Gifford Lectureship is ‘Natural Theology.’ This term is, of course, capable of being used in a wide variety of allied meanings; but it is unnecessary for my purpose to spend time over the niceties of its definition. I take it that there will be no serious dissent from the view I accept throughout these lectures of the main business of Natural Theology. Its main business, as I understand it, is to consider how much of certain or probable knowledge is obtainable, on grounds which approve themselves to reason, concerning the existence of God; and, in the event of an affirmative answer to the question of God's existence, concerning His nature, and His relationship to the world and to the human soul. Formulated in more rough and ready, but not, I think, fundamentally misleading fashion, Natural Theology seeks a rational answer to the question ‘Is religion true? And if so, in what precise sense?’ That is in fact the question which will determine the direction of these Lectures from start to finish.

We shall not, however, be plunging straightway into religious or theological topics. Indeed, the formal and systematic consideration of such topics will, for the most part, be deferred until our second course. For it seems to me that, in our present mid-twentieth-century climate of thought, there is a deal of patient work to be done by the natural theologian in clearing obstacles from the ground before he can gain right of entry to his own domain. To leap over these obstacles is tempting, but it is not a procedure open to the natural theologian. Committed as he is to the rule of reason, he is obliged to keep at least one foot on the ground or be disqualified.

Metaphor aside, let me explain briefly why there is today, in my judgment, a duty laid upon the natural theologian to undertake a rather extensive preliminary programme.

The obligation is imposed, as I see it, by the dominant trends of contemporary philosophical thought. Whatever may be the case with Revealed Theology, Natural Theology at any rate has no claim to a respectful hearing if it does not take full account of well-accredited movements of philosophic thought which have an evident bearing upon its subject-matter.—Now it may appear at first sight that the concerns of present-day philosophers in this country (the continent of Europe presents, of course, a very different picture) are for the most part very remote indeed from those of the theologian. About the concept of ‘God,’ for example, current philosophy has so far had little to say; though there are undoubtedly signs of a growing interest and of a more sympathetic effort to understand the context of experience from which this concept derives its meaning for the believer.1 One must agree also that current philosophy has not much to say about the concept of ‘the world;’ unless indeed, we count among the philosophers (as I am afraid I do not) certain distinguished men of science, of whose intrepidity in cosmic speculation one can only say Vest magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la philosophie.’ But what now about the concept of ‘the soul?’ On this topic, so central in religious thought, current philosophy has unquestionably something very relevant to say; even though it be said, in most cases, only by implication. And the essence of what it has to say is, to put it bluntly, that the ‘soul’ is sheer myth. For current philosophy, in its most characteristic British expressions, finds no room for a ‘self,’ in the sense of an identical, perduring spiritual being; and whatever may be the precise relationship between ‘self’ and ‘soul,’ it is at least certain that, where there are no ‘selves’ in this sense, there can be no ‘souls’ in any sense that interests the theologian. Scepticism about the self is a matter of course for philosophers of Positivist leanings (I use this periphrastic mode of designation because there seems to be nobody today willing to be labelled a ‘Positivist’ simpliciter). A like scepticism is implicit in the teachings of Professor Ryle and those who share his quasi-Behaviourist concept of mind. And it lies little, if at all, below the surface in that large body of philosophers whose thinking, while relatively free from Positivist or Behaviourist influences, is yet infected with the characteristic revulsion of the age against anything that savours of substances—whether material or spiritual. One does not exaggerate, I think, in saying that, explicit or implicit in the writings of the vast majority of philosophers today who concern themselves at all about the human mind, is the conviction that the term ‘self’ stands, at most, only for particular mental states and events interrelated in a specific way, and perhaps stands only for some unique pattern of bodily behaviour.

Now Psychology without a soul is, of course, a phenomenon with which we have long been familiar: though one ought to add that this very lively (if at times somewhat brash) science has shown an inclination to become much more hospitable since the days, not so long ago, when there was point in the jest that Psychology had lost not only its soul but its mind, and was in imminent danger of losing consciousness as well. Again, Philosophy without a soul is, as we have just noticed, a commonplace in contemporary thought. But Theology without a soul would seem to amount to something very like a contradiction in terms.2 If talk about the soul be forbidden to the theologian, he might as well retire from business altogether. The questions he is most interested in asking—let alone the answers to them—just don't make sense.

One must by no means take for granted, of course, that the questions the theologian asks do make sense. About that I am at the moment expressing no opinion. At the moment I am concerned only to insist upon the uncompromising nature of the threat to theology that resides in current philosophical thinking about the soul. It is a threat which, in my opinion, the natural theologian dare not ignore. Nor, I think, will he meet it at all adequately if he be content with a counter-attack, however well mounted, at any single point of danger: e.g. against the notorious Verification theory of meaning. Admittedly that theory has been an important influence in generating the contemporary mistrust of all talk about entities not apprehensible through the senses. Admittedly also that theory has the signal merit, for the theologian, of being highly vulnerable. But the roots of scepticism about the soul in contemporary philosophy are far too deep and far too wide-spread for any such limited offensive to be satisfactory. If the natural theologian is to have any hope of vindicating to an audience familiar with current philosophical trends his right to employ the concept of soul in the manner in which, qua theologian, he must wish to employ it, he cannot content himself, I fear, with mere skirmishing, however successful. Something a good deal more like ‘total war’ is called for.

That brings me to the programme for this first course of lectures. The concept of the soul cannot be vindicated unless the concept of the self is vindicated. And I have found myself forced to the conclusion that, in the intellectual milieu of today, there can be no effective vindication of the self short of its constructive establishment from philosophic first principles. This involves, as I see it, an examination of our distinctively human experience in some of its more fundamental modes and manifestations. And it is to this examination that I propose to devote the greater part of this Session's lectures. It will occupy us, in fact, from the third lecture to the end of the course. Inevitably, some space will be given to criticism of contemporary views, but no more than seems necessary to pave the way for the constructive theory which will be our ultimate aim throughout. Our central questions will be, ‘What kind of a being is man? Is he a “self” in any sense of that term which implies that he has, or may have, what is meant in religion by a “soul?” Is he, in fact, the kind of being he has got to be if religious language about him is to have any real meaning?’

It is my hope to show that there are in fact good grounds for returning to these questions answers not unsatisfactory to the theologian. If so—but only if so—it will be possible to enter upon the domain of natural theology proper in our second course with a reasonably clear philosophic conscience.

3. Within the domain of natural theology proper, however, the main questions are at bottom metaphysical; and some may feel that a due respect for the philosophical Zeitgeist requires that a vindication of metaphysics also be included in a satisfactory preface to natural theology. In a brilliant summing-up of British philosophy between the two World Wars, so temperate an historian as Professor Price could write: ‘The word “metaphysical” is now almost a term of abuse.’3 Many of the younger generation of philosophers would have described the situation in even stronger terms; like the candidate in an Honours examination who assured me a few years ago that “metaphysics” has now become a swearword!’ Those who regard metaphysics in this light—and I cannot pretend their number is, even now, negligible—must be warned that they will find parts of my second course in particular positively bristling with bad language! Nevertheless, in the light of the many hard blows which the philosophy of dogmatic empiricism has taken over the past couple of decades, I really cannot admit that there is any kind of propriety in the demand for yet another defence of the possibility of making significant metaphysical statements. I suggest that it will be time enough to defend this possibility all over again when our anti-metaphysicians have either attempted some reply to the criticisms that have been made of their standard objections so many times already in recent years by so many philosophers of repute, or, alternatively, when they have thought up some new arguments. The attitude of the more intransigeant anti-metaphysicians at the present day is surely very hard to defend. Their uncompromising hostility continues, but the source of its momentum would seem to lie in certain past theories which not even they themselves show any inclination now to sponsor. No longer is appeal made to some accredited general principle in the light of which the whole class of metaphysical statements can be summarily dismissed.4 The presumption is that the weakness of the theoretical basis for any wholesale condemnation of metaphysics has come to be recognised, and the implication of that should be that in future, when metaphysical propositions are rejected, it will be only after due consideration of each on its own merits. This is what the logic of the situation would seem to demand; and the metaphysician asks for nothing better. But whether, or when, the metaphysician will get what the logic of the situation demands is quite another question. There is little to make him sanguine at the moment. I think, however, that in default of anything new being said on the other side, he will largely be wasting his time if he succumbs to the temptation to indulge in an apologia pro vita sua. He will be better to get on with his job. After all, though it is common for emotive attitudes to linger a long time after the destruction of their original theoretical basis, they do eventually weaken and die: always provided, of course, that they be not reinvigorated by some dose of fresh theory.

Reverting for a moment to the relationship between our first and our second course, I ought perhaps to add that while the first is concerned primarily with the Self, and the second primarily with God, the division between the two topics will not be too pedantically observed. Any study of the self which aims at being at all fundamental may be expected to cast some light upon the general character of the universe to which the self belongs, and thus to have some bearing upon metaphysics and theology. It is equally obvious that the study of the self must for its part be incomplete so long as abstraction is made (as it is in the first course) from the phenomena of religious experience. The division of territory between the two courses I have found to be convenient for many purposes; but I should find it a good deal less convenient if I were to consider myself debarred by any law of trespass from occasional sallies across the border.

4. But now there is, I fear, a further preliminary obligation imposed upon the natural theologian of today; one to which, moreover, it seems necessary to give an even higher priority than to that of vindicating the concept of soul. This is an obligation imposed not by the climate of technical philosophy, but by the climate of ideas generally, and of religious ideas in particular. I have in mind that disposition to denigrate the human reason which is so notorious a feature in so many fields of contemporary culture. In the field of religion the ‘revolt against reason’ is virtually a revolt against philosophy; and it is common knowledge with what bitterness, and indeed violence, certain eminent theologians of our age assail the competence of philosophy to make, through its accepted organ reason, any significant contribution to problems of religious truth. That this religious misology strikes at the very roots of natural theology is self-evident. For natural theology—at any rate as I am understanding it in these lectures—is philosophical and rational or it is nothing.

It goes without saying that this challenge to natural theology, with all the weight of religious authority that lies behind it, cannot be disregarded. On the other hand, I must take account here of the fact that a comparatively short time has elapsed since my immediate predecessor, Professor Brand Blanshard, devoted his first course to a particularly systematic and comprehensive examination of the modern critics of reason. I propose, therefore, to limit rather closely the range of my own discussion. My chief object will be to make clear that the urge to exclude philosophy from the field of religion rests to a great extent upon misunderstanding. I shall argue, in what remains of this and in the following lecture, that there are certain procedures entailed in every responsible search after religious truth which cannot conceivably be assigned to anything but philosophy.

5. Our first step—and it is not quite so simple as it looks—is to try to get clear about the precise nature of the claim which the philosopher, qua philosopher, actually makes for the competence of reason. For it seems to me that the attack from the side of religion upon philosophy's alleged aggrandisement of reason is very often in practice an attack upon the (no doubt) overweening claims which certain philosophers (or schools of philosophy) have made for reason—not upon any claim that can be said to be inherent in the character of philosophy as such. The real point that is at issue, which is important, thus tends to be befogged for the ordinary religious enquirer not widely versed in philosophical literature. Persuaded, for example (as he very well may be), of the unanswerable force of such criticisms as those which Kierkegaard brings against the claims for reason implicit in the Hegelian philosophy, he is apt to imagine, and he is sometimes encouraged to believe, that it is the pretensions of philosophy itself that have been exposed and annihilated. I think there is great need, therefore, that the claim for reason inherent in philosophy itself be set out with care. When that is done, objection will, without a doubt, still be taken to the claim in some religious quarters. But it will no longer seem plausible, I think, to dismiss the claim as preposterous.

We need not linger long over a definition of reason sufficient for the purpose in hand. Within the framework of the dispute about the competence of reason in religion, reason can, I think, be taken with fair safety as denoting for all parties the kind of thinking which is directed to the attainment of truth under the sole guidance and control of thought's own internal standards. That is ‘reason’ in the sense in which reason is the characteristic instrument of philosophy. And obviously the philosopher qua philosopher must make some claim for the competence of his instrument. Our immediate question is, just how much must the philosopher claim for it, if he is not to stultify his very choice of it as his instrument?

Now it is clear at once that the competence claimed for it is not omni-competence; that is to say, it is certainly not the ability of reason to develop from its own internal resources the whole system of truths about the universe. So much has of course, on occasion been claimed; in a downright way by some seventeenth-century Rationalists, and in a more qualified way by Hegelians. But there are no Rationalists today; and even those who believe—rightly in my view—that Hegel has at least as much to teach contemporary philosophy as contemporary philosophy has to teach him are not, as a rule, prepared to follow him closely in his constructive Panlogism. Today almost all philosophers are agreed that data for reason's search after truth, data for the construction of a philosophy, come from many sides of experience that cannot possibly be identified (even in ‘the last resort’) with reason. Almost all, e.g. acknowledge sense experience as an indispensable source of data: the vast majority would add introspection: a great many would add moral experience; and at least some important philosophers would add either aesthetic experience or religious experience or both.5 Moreover, even those philosophers who, because they favour a subjectivist interpretation of moral or aesthetic or religious experience, do not regard such modes of experience as contributing positively to a theory of the nature of objective reality, would certainly allow that they are all of them ‘data’ for the philosopher, in the sense that they have at least got to be taken account of by reason in the course of any serious attempt at philosophical construction. Evidently, then, any criticism of the ‘reason’ of the philosophers on the ground that it ignores sides of experience other than the purely rational has no substance whatever in relation to philosophy of the present age.

But there is a more important, if perhaps less obvious, concession which can willingly be made to the critic of reason's powers without in any way prejudicing the claim for reason that is inherent in philosophy. The philosopher is not committed by his occupational loyalty to reason to the position that God can be known only if He can be apprehended as an ‘object’ of reason, A philosopher might come (and some philosophers have come) to the considered conclusion that reality is supra-rational, that it is not in its ultimate nature amenable to conceptual understanding: and he might combine with this the view, also on evidence that approves itself to his reason, that putative religious insights are, sometimes, authentic religious insights, i.e. genuine revelations of the ultimate reality that is God. In that case he would in effect be contending that God is known, but is known only in the immediacy of religious experience and not as an object of reason. Such a philosophical position may or may not be finally tenable. But that is not the point at present. The point is that it is a philosophical position, and is so regarded even by those who reject it. It follows that the very significant limitation of the competence of reason which this position entails is not taken by philosophers to be inconsistent with the claims for reason that are inherent in philosophy as such.

Now I have little doubt that a good deal of the animus towards philosophy which one remarks in so many religious circles today rests on the erroneous assumption that the philosopher does, qua philosopher, conceive of his instrument reason as an organ competent to apprehend God, if any God there be: and I should agree that against such a claim for reason it is possible to bring very formidable arguments indeed. On the other hand, it is certain that some of the religious critics of philosophy, and these not the least influential nor the least articulate, know perfectly well that this is not a claim that is intrinsic to philosophy, and that there are many philosophers who would not make it. Presumably, therefore, these critics must have in mind some other claim for reason which, rightly or wrongly, they ascribe to the philosopher, and which they feel to be offensive to religious faith. What is this claim?

I think it is as follows. And I think the critics are right in believing that it belongs to philosophy as such, but wrong in believing that it is an invalid claim, and wrong also in believing it to be somehow derogatory to religion.

The philosopher must claim, I think, that wherever the question of objective truth arises, whether it be the truth of religion or of anything else, it is for reason, and for reason alone, to carry out the assessment of the evidence, and to make the final adjudication upon it. The evidence may come from many quarters, including, unquestionably, what is called ‘religious experience.’ But how far, e.g. (if at all) a putative instance of religious experience can be regarded as an authentic instance of religious experience, involving the actual revelation of Deity that it is taken by the experiencing subject to involve; and how far, accordingly, (if at all) weight is to be attached to it in the construction of a theory about the ultimate nature of things—these are surely not matters that settle themselves. They are matters to be reflectively determined in the light of a variety of relevant considerations. And what is there save reason, the philosopher asks, to perform this office? That reason is the ultimate arbiter in the sphere of truth: that no proposition, no matter whence it springs, has in the end a valid title to acceptance except in so far as it approves itself to reason; such is the claim for reason which, it seems to me, the philosopher is bound to make if he is not to betray his own calling. He is not bound as a philosopher, I think, to claim anything more. But he is, I think, defaulting as a philosopher if he claims anything less.

Is this, then, the claim for reason inherent in philosophy which induces so many religious thinkers to repudiate and disparage philosophy? I believe that it is. To exalt philosophy, or its organ reason, to the status of supreme judge in matters even of religious truth seems to them shocking; an irreligious assault upon the supremacy of faith. ‘If philosophy must make this claim or perish,’ they would say, ‘then so much the worse for philosophy’.

Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the validity of this ‘philosophic’ claim for reason is, in the end, inescapable. And I think we can best see that it is so by directing our attention to a simple, but surely very significant, fact. No one, so far as I am aware, is prepared to admit that his own religious beliefs are unreasonable. If that were imputed against him, on the ground, perhaps, that he is putting his trust in some non-rational mode of apprehension, he is ready to argue in defence of his so doing. He will say, perhaps, that ‘mere reason’ is out of its depth in the realm of religion, and that a God who is truly God can be apprehended only through His own Self-revelation, not by any processes initiated and controlled by the human reason. But then, notice well, he is arguing. He is contending that it is reasonable, in view of certain relevant considerations, to put one's trust in a non-rational (or supra-rational) mode of apprehension. And what can this appeal to reason mean save the acceptance of reason as the ultimate court of appeal, even in matters of religion, which is just what the philosopher claims it to be?

Incidentally, it should be observed that the believer's argument is not self-contradictory in thus tacitly appealing to reason to show that it is not by reason that we can apprehend God. For his appeal is to reason as ultimate arbiter, not to show that reason is not the ultimate arbiter, but to show that reason is not an appropriate organ for the apprehension of God.

On the other hand, it is self-contradictory to appeal to reason as ultimate arbiter to show that reason is not the ultimate arbiter. And that, I am suggesting, is precisely what the religious critic of philosophy's claim for reason is committed to doing, if he is going to try to justify his attitude at all. He may, of course, simply assert that not reason, but Authority, or the Inner Light, or what you will, is the ultimate arbiter: but as soon as he commits himself to defending the proposition, to arguing in its support, he presupposes the truth of the very proposition he is aiming to disprove. ‘Argument’ has no meaning if it does not invite decision in accordance with the evidence as it approves itself to reason.

I cannot persuade myself, therefore, that there is any real alternative to acknowledging reason as the ultimate arbiter in the field of truth—religious truth or any other sort of truth—except silence, a dogged refusal even to begin to argue in defence of one's beliefs. It need hardly be pointed out that this alternative is not one that has much commended itself to the leading apostles of anti-reason in the religious world of today.

6. Such, as I see it, is the logic of the situation. Logical analysis apart, however, it seems a little surprising that familiar facts of history and of social anthropology should not in themselves have sufficed to convince almost everyone of the overwhelming case for allowing the writ of reason to run freely in matters of religious truth. Looking back at the course of religious development since its crude beginnings, or, alternatively, looking at contemporary manifestations of religion in different communities at different cultural levels, no one, I should have thought, could plausibly deny that in large measure the content of what is there taken to be revelation is a function of prevailing cultural ideas. It is suffused with ideas whose ordinary human origination is unmistakable; with intellectual ideas concerning the nature of man and his physical and social environment, and with ethical ideas concerning the nature of the good life. Now is it seriously open to question that the main causative factor in the progress of religion from the mumbo-jumbo stage of fantastic and repellent beliefs and practices to what we all regard as the infinitely superior level of the great historic religions of today, has been precisely the play of rational criticism upon the intellectual and ethical ideas incorporated in so-called revelations? If ‘presumptuous reason’ had in the past allowed itself to be warned off the premises of religious faith, as many would warn it off at the present time, does anyone in his sober senses doubt that the ill consequences would have been incalculably great? Let me quote the words of a recent, studiously fair-minded critic of the ‘religious revolt against reason’—Professor H. de Wolf:

‘… Many millions of men have devoted themselves with passionate completeness to the worship of such fiendish deities as never existed save in the imagination. There has been no lack of existential faith in them. In obedience to their supposed commands thousands have fasted, burned themselves, cast themselves from precipices, endured shame, fought fanatically, and offered their own children as bloody sacrifices. Will we condemn the use of reason by which great multitudes have learned that such gods did not exist, and hence have been freed from their tyranny?’6

Of course the religious critic of reason (as Professor de Wolf is well aware) does not really want to condemn the use of reason in the appraisal of all religious beliefs and practices. So far as I can judge, what a great many devout Christians really want is to say to Reason ‘Thus far and no further! By all means subject the superstitions of the benighted heathen to reason's criticism, but not the one true religion. Hands off the word of God!’ The trouble is that there can be no case for suddenly drawing the line at the Christian religion unless it be that we already know that religion to be true; and there can be no way of knowing that religion to be true, it seems to me, unless we subject it to critical examination by reason. ‘Hands off the Word of God!’ is a fine-sounding slogan; but it means just nothing at all unless we know, first, that there is a ‘Word of God,’ and secondly, if there is, what it has to say to us.

From the book: