You are here

Lecture 10: Summary and Conclusion


Now that we have reached our closing lecture, those who have followed the course from the beginning may, on looking back, find themselves somewhat bewildered by the variety of subjects which I have asked them to consider. Art, History, Morals, the Theory of Probability, the Logic of Perception, the presuppositions of Science, have all been touched on. Themes that might fill volumes—nay, that have filled volumes—are made the text for an hour's discourse. Introduced one after the other with breathless rapidity, each for a moment has been shown under the limelight, and then hurried off the stage to make room for its successor. It seems hard to believe that with such diversity of materials there can be continuity of argument. But the critic who would judge the matter fairly must bear in mind the title of the course, and the purpose for which it has been delivered. My desire has been to show that all we think best in human culture, whether associated with beauty, goodness, or knowledge, requires God for its support, that Humanism without Theism loses more than half its value. Though, therefore, the subjects discussed are embarrassing in their variety, no diminution of their number seems possible. The argument would have broken down had I confined myself to a narrower scope—had I, for example, been content to show the importance of Theism for morality, leaving untouched its importance for science and æsthetic. Such a limitation would have shattered the whole design. No doubt there are precedents for such a procedure. Kant, for instance, kept God out of the critique which dealt with ordinary knowledge, while giving Him a place of honour in the critique which dealt with the moral law. But the procedure has always seemed to me singularly artificial, even in a philosophy which is artificial through and through. In any case, such a limitation is quite inconsistent with the scheme of these lectures. This could not be accomplished by setting up a departmental Deity—even were his department the whole province of ethics. Right conduct is much, but it is not all. We not only act, but we know, and we admire; nor could I be quite content with any form of Theism which did not sustain in every essential part the full circle of human interests.


But when all explanations have been given, and all excuses made, I am well aware that in the actual presentation of my case I have introduced so much illustrative material, and of this material so much is disputable, that some of my hearers may feel themselves distracted rather than enlightened by the number of seemingly subsidiary points of which they are asked to take account. I trust such persons are in a minority; and that, on the whole, my main contention will seem enriched and strengthened, not embarrassed or confused, by the manner of its exposition. Nevertheless, it may not be amiss, before I bring the course to an end, to restate the most important points in the general case I have endeavoured to present.

The root principle which, by its constant recurrence in slightly different forms, binds together, like an operatic leit-motif, the most diverse material, is that if we would maintain the value of our highest beliefs and emotions, we must find for them a congruous origin. Beauty must be more than an accident. The source of morality must be moral. The source of knowledge must be rational. If this be granted, you rule out Mechanism, you rule out Naturalism, you rule out Agnosticism; and a lofty form of Theism becomes, as I think, inevitable.

It is, I imagine, the application of this method to knowledge which will be most generally resented by those who refuse to acknowledge its validity. In the case of beauty, for example, the point will seem of small importance to those for whom art means little. It may not greatly impress many of those for whom art means much. For it proclaims no new canons of taste. It belittles no æsthetic school. It asks no critic to revise his judgments. It touches the interests neither of artist nor author. It may well be ignored.

With ethics the case is somewhat different. There are, no doubt, sceptics in religion who treat scepticism as a luxury which can be safely enjoyed only by the few. Religion they think good for morals; morals they think good for society; society they think good for themselves. Such persons may well treat the opinions expressed in the lecture on ethics with benevolent disagreement. But there are more robust thinkers who will not be so lenient. They will reject as intolerable the idea that the morality they desire to preserve depends on a religion they desire to destroy; and any doctrine which, like the present, binds the two more closely together will encounter their uncompromising hostility.

Nevertheless, it is the lectures dealing with intellectual values that will rouse, as I suppose, the most serious opposition. The endeavour to treat our beliefs about the world and our beliefs about God as interdependent will seem to many extravagant, even unnatural. It will be urged that, for all reasonable beings, reason must be the supreme judge in matters of belief. It can neither resign its office nor delegate its authority. Let it then endorse Science, as it must; and establish Theism, if it can; but do not require it to commit the folly of treating truth about which opinions are agreed as dependent on conjectures about which opinions are divided.

This may be excellent advice; but it is hardly to the point. I ask for nothing better than the supremacy of reason: not one of its prerogatives do I desire to curtail. Indeed (as I have already complained) it is the agnostic empiricists who most obstinately shrink from following it to conclusions they dislike, who mutiny, like some old-time mariners, whenever they are required to navigate unfamiliar seas.

I have no sympathy with the singular combination of intellectual arrogance and intellectual timidity so often presented by this particular school of thought. I like it no better than I like the attitude of those who declare that, since reason is bankrupt, authority should take over its liabilities, however small be the prospect of discharging them in full. My point of view is utterly different. And if I urge that the criticism of common knowledge brings us ultimately to Theism, this involves no intolerable paradox, nor indeed anything very new or strange.

Descartes, for example, thought that all knowledge was based on clear and distinct ideas, and that clear and distinct ideas could be trusted because, being due to God, they were guaranteed by His truthfulness. That there is a God possessing every perfection was independently established by an a priori argument into which I need not enter. But the point of interest is that, though Descartes conceived himself to have found a refuge from scepticism in the famous “I think, therefore I am,” he could only get from this narrow assurance to general knowledge by the use of “clear and distinct ideas” certified by divine veracity. If, therefore, belief in one's self was the first of truths, belief in God was the second; and on this second truth all subordinate beliefs, mathematical, physical, and metaphysical, were, in his opinion, ultimately founded. In one sense, and from one point of view, this is no doubt an exact inversion of the argument developed in these lectures. Descartes rests the belief in science on a belief in God. I rest the belief in God on a belief in science. Nevertheless, beneath this contrast there is deep-lying agreement. Both views reject the notion that we possess in the general body of common-sense assumptions and scientific truths a creed self-sufficing and independent, to which we may add at our pleasure Theism in such doses as suit our intellectual palate. Both views, therefore, are profoundly divided, not merely from all that calls itself agnostic, but from much that calls itself religious.

I must not, however, press the parallel too far. Descartes did not, and could not, regard our beliefs as a developing system, which is not merely increasing by external accretion, like a crystal in its mother-liquid, but is growing and changing through and through like a living organism. Such conceptions were not of his age or country, nor, if they had been, could they have been easily accommodated to his peculiar genius. His was the mathematical temperament, always striving for precise definitions and rigorous proof; always tolerant of any simplification of the concrete complexities of reality, which would make them amenable to deductive treatment. Of this, as a method, we need make no complaint. Within due limits it is invaluable. But Descartes, so to speak, “objectified” it. He assumed that any judgment which could properly be described as “clear and distinct” was not only convenient in form, but true in substance. The world, alas! is not so made. The things which are clear and distinct are usually things of our own creation. Definitions, abstractions, diagrams, syllogisms, machines—such and such like are, or may be, “clear and distinct.” But the great facts which we have not made—these, at our present level of knowledge, are never clear and never distinct. Life, the organism, the self, the state, the world, freedom, causality, the flow of time, the relation between mind and body, between perceiver and perceived, between consciousness and sub-consciousness, between person and person (I say nothing of beauty, of virtue, or of God)—who is there will dare to say that he either finds in these notions, or can put into them without injury, the qualities which Descartes deemed the inevitable marks of real and certain knowledge? Truth, for us, is a plant of a different and of a slower growth. How much indeed of that growth consists in discovering that what we thought was clear is in fact obscure; what we thought was simple is in fact complex; what we thought was distinct is in fact confused; and how helpful are such discoveries to the augmentation of learning!

However this may be, there is nothing in the doctrine of “congruity” which should shock those who are jealous for the supremacy of reason and the dignity of science. It is science itself which assures us that all premises, all conclusions, and all the logical links by which they are connected must be regarded as natural products. It is science itself which assures us that they belong, like all natural products, to the tissue of causes and effects whose lengthening web is continuously thrown off by the loom of time. It is science itself which requires us to harmonise these two aspects of the knowing process—the one logical and timeless; the other causal and successive.

But how are they to be harmonised if the causal series is fundamentally non-rational? Suppose yourself able to observe the development of beliefs in some alien being (say an inhabitant of Mars) as a bacteriologist observes a growing colony of microbes: suppose, further, that your observation showed how these beliefs arose from causes which had in them no tincture of reason, and that, so far as you could see, they were quite unsupported by any independent evidence which—for you—had weight or even meaning. Would you rate their value high? Surely not.

Now it is quite true that when we examine our own system of beliefs we cannot imitate this attitude of complete detachment, since in the very act of examination some of these beliefs are assumed. But we can examine the beliefs of other people, and we do, as a matter of common-sense practice, rate low the value of the beliefs whose sources we perceive to be non-rational. How, then, can we refuse to apply to ourselves a principle of judgment which we thus apply without scruple to our neighbours?

Whenever we do so apply it, we shall, I think, be forced to admit that all creeds which refuse to see an intelligent purpose behind the unthinking powers of material nature are intrinsically incoherent. In the order of causation they base reason upon unreason. In the order of logic they involve conclusions which discredit their own premises. Nor is there, as far as I can see, any mitigation of this condemnation to be looked for except by appealing to the principle of Selection. And how far will this help us out of the difficulty?

Just so far as an imitation of intelligent purpose can be a substitute for its reality, but no further. And how far is this? At first sight we might suppose that, at the worst, the cognitive series and the causal series might be harmonised on the basis of natural selection if knowledge never aspired to rise above the level which promoted race survival, if no faculties of knowing were trusted beyond the point where they ceased effectively to foster the multiplication of the species. Up to this point it would seem that, if selection be true, there is congruity between beliefs and their origin. The sequence of events which brought them into being suggests no doubt about their value. This scheme of thought, therefore, though narrowly restricted, is apparently coherent.

Yet even this modest claim must be deemed excessive: for the speculation on which it rests does violence to its own principles. Manifestly we cannot indulge ourselves in reflections upon the limits of the “knowable” without using our intellect for a purpose never contemplated by selection. I do not allege that our intellect is therefore unequal to the task. I only say that, if it be indeed equal to it, we are in the presence of a very surprising coincidence. Why should faculties, “designed” only to help primitive man, or his animal progenitors, successfully to breed and feed, be fitted to solve philosophic problems so useless and so remote? Why, indeed, do such problems occur to us? Why do we long for their solution?

To such questions Naturalism can neither find an answer nor be content without one. Wearied with unavailing efforts to penetrate the unknown, many not ignoble spirits have preached the wisdom of dulling unhealthy curiosity by the aid of healthy labour. “Let us cultivate our gardens” (they say), seeking no solution of the insoluble.

But the advice is ambiguous. Will the proposed remedy, in their opinion, cure the ill, or only help us to forget it? If the latter, then, in some circumstances and with some patients, it will doubtless fulfil its promise. Oblivion may be attained by growing vegetables, as by other less reputable expedients. But if absorption in daily labour be recommended as the final stage of a rational cure, it cannot be effectual. No rational cure is, on naturalistic principles, within our reach. Could we empty ourselves of all that makes us men, could we lower our intellectual level to the point where the scope of our mental activities harmonised with their naturalistic source, we should doubtless free ourselves from the malady of vain speculation. But though the remedy, if applied, would be effectual, it would not be rational. Reflective Agnosticism cannot be combined with scientific Naturalism, because reflective Agnosticism is the product of a process which Naturalism inevitably discredits. And if Naturalism be incompatible even with reasoned ignorance, how can we hope to harmonise it with the claims of reasoned knowledge?1

The best imitation of creative purpose, therefore, which Naturalism can provide breaks down where it is most required—namely, at the highest levels of value. I have just shown this in connection with our powers of thought, and the beliefs to which they lead. But the failure is not confined to them. It is as wide as Humanism itself. Wherever we find great intrinsic worth, there we are in a region where the direct effect of selection is negligible. The noblest things in speculation, in art, in morals, possess small survival value; and, though the geniuses to whom we owe them have added greatly to the glory of their race, they have added but little to its animal successes. In the language of these lectures, they are “accidental”—due neither to purpose nor to any arrangement of causes by which purpose is successfully copied.


You are now in a position to judge how far the hopes held out to you at the beginning of this course have been fulfilled, and to measure the merits and the demerits, the claims and the limitations, of the scheme I have endeavoured to expound.

I disowned, as you remember, any intention of providing you with a philosophical system—not because I despise philosophical systems or those who labour to construct them, but in part because I have none to recommend, and in part because it seems to me doubtful whether at our present stage of development a satisfactory system is possible.

But how (you may ask) does my point of view differ from a philosophical system? It may be a bad system, as it certainly is a most imperfect one. Yet, seeing that it touches on everything in heaven and earth, seeing that its very title embraces God and man, why should it repudiate a description which seemingly is not a whit in excess of its pretensions?

The question thus raised is more than a merely verbal one, and a few observations upon it may fittingly conclude the course. Note, then, in the first place, that my scheme of beliefs does not show itself unworthy to be considered systematic merely because it is incomplete. All systems are incomplete. All systems, however ambitious, admit their inability to exhaust reality. Nor is its unworthiness due to any mere accident of execution, such as inferior workmanship or defective learning. Its failures are essential and irremediable. They are inseparable from “the point of view.”

Let me explain. Every system that deserves to be described as a constructive philosophy—be it dogmatic, critical, empirical, idealist, what you will—conceives itself not merely to be rooted in reason, but to be rationalised throughout. The conceptions with which it works should be sifted, clarified, defined. It should assume nothing which requires proof. It should rest nothing (in the last resort) on faith or probability. It should admit no inexplicable residues.

Philosophers seem to me entirely right if they think that this is what a system ought to be; but not entirely right if they think that this is what any system is, or has ever been. In any case, no description could be less applicable to the point of view which I am provisionally recommending. The philosopher refuses—in theory—to assume anything which requires proof. I assume (among other things) the common-sense outlook upon life, and the whole body of the sciences. The philosopher admits—in theory—no ground of knowledge but reason. I recognise that, in fact, the whole human race, including the philosopher himself, lives by faith alone. The philosopher asks what creed reason requires him to accept. I ask on what terms the creed which is in fact accepted can most reasonably be held. The philosopher conceives that within the unchanging limits of his system an appropriate niche can be found for every new discovery as it arises. My view is that the contents of a system are always reacting on its fundamental principles, so that no philosophy can flatter itself that it will not be altered out of all recognition as knowledge grows.

This last statement may look like a truism; but it is a truism which few philosophers are, in practice, disposed to accept; and the generality of mankind are perhaps even less disposed to accept it even than philosophers. That there are beliefs which can and should be held, with the same shade of meaning, by all men, in all ages, and at all stages of culture, is a view to which by nature we easily incline. But it is, to say the least, most doubtful. Language is here no true or certain guide. Even when beliefs have not outgrown the formulas by which they have been traditionally expressed, we must beware of treating this fixity of form as indicating complete identity of substance. Men do not necessarily believe exactly the same thing because they express their convictions in exactly the same phrases. And most fortunate it is, in the interests of individual liberty, social co-operation, and institutional continuity that this latitude should be secured to us, not by the policy of philosophers, statesmen, or divines, but by the inevitable limitations of language.

This, however, by the way. The point I wish to press is that, speaking generally, we must not conceive the development of knowledge as a process of adding new truths to old truths, in the course of which old truths are supplemented but are not changed. It rather resembles the increase of some plastic body which, wherever it takes place, involves a readjustment of every part. Add brick to brick, and you may finish your house, yet never alter its foundation. Add belief to belief, and you will set up strains and stresses within your system of knowledge which will compel it to move towards some new position of equilibrium.

Sometimes, no doubt, the process is more violent and catastrophic than this metaphor naturally suggests. Then occurs in the moral world the analogue of the earthquake, the lava flood, and the tidal wave, which shatter mountains and sweep cities to destruction. Men's outlook on the universe suffers sudden revolution: the obvious becomes incredible, and the incredible obvious; whole societies lose their balance, and stately systems are tumbled in the dust.

More often, however, the movements of belief are gradual. They resemble the slow rise or fall of ancient coast-lines, where, by imperceptible degrees, sea turns into land, or land into sea. So, without shock or clamour, man smoothly modifies his point of view, till, gazing over the spaces he has traversed, he greatly marvels at the change.

But we must look forward as well as backward. The spaces still to be traversed far exceed those that have been traversed already. We can set no limits to the intellectual voyage which lies before the race. Even if we arbitrarily limit the life of men to that which is possible under terrestrial conditions, we must anticipate transformations of belief comparable in magnitude with those which already divide us from primitive mankind. How, in circumstances like these, can we hope to sketch, even in outline, an enduring system of philosophy? Why should we succeed where under similar conditions the greatest of our forefathers have already failed?

If, then, we cannot attain to a scheme of belief which, whatever be its shortcomings, is good (so far as it goes) for all time, we must be content with something less. We must put up with what I have called in these lectures “a point of view.” We must recognise that our beliefs must be provisional, because, till we approach complete knowledge, all beliefs are provisional. We cannot claim that they are good “so far as they go”; hut only that they are as good as we are at present able to make them. And we must recognise that the two statements are profoundly different.

Now, if I were asked what categories or conceptions such a “point of view” required for its expression, I should answer Providence and Inspiration—categories for which systematic philosophy has so far found no great use. These terms, it must be owned, are now a little the worse for wear. Defaced and battered by centuries of hard usage, they have suffered the fate which the current coin of popular discussion cannot easily avoid. But they have merits negative and positive, which make them peculiarly apt for my present purpose.

In the first place, they do not suggest a philosophy of the universe. They openly evade the great problems of theological metaphysics. No one, for example, would employ them in discussing the essential nature of an Absolute God, or His relation to time, to the act of creation, to the worlds created. They belong to a different level of speculation.

In the second place, they concentrate attention on the humanistic side of Theism, on the relation of God to man, and to man's higher spiritual needs. Divine “guidance”—the purposeful working of informing Spirit—is the notion on which emphasis is specially laid. The term “Providence” suggests this in a broad and general way. The term “Inspiration” suggests it in the narrower sphere of beliefs and emotions. And do not complain that no endeavour is made to explain the mode in which divine guidance works either on matter or on spirit. These are mysteries as hard of solution as those which surround the action of mind on matter, and of mind on mind. But the difficulties are difficulties of theory, not of practice. They never disturb the ordinary man—nor the extraordinary man in his ordinary moments. Human intercourse is not embarrassed by the second, nor simple piety by the first. And perhaps the enlightened lounger, requesting a club-waiter to shut the window, brushes aside, or ignores, as many philosophic puzzles as a mother passionately praying for the safety of her child.


To some this conclusion of a long and intricate discussion will seem curiously trivial in its unambitious simplicity. Especially will this be true of those who accept empirical Naturalism in any of its forms. “There is (they may admit) something grandiose about the great metaphysical systems which appeals even to those who are least able to accept them. It was no ignoble ambition which inspired their architects. It was no light labour, or trivial ingenuity, which brought them into being. On the other hand (they will say), if naturalistic methods are more modest, naturalistic results are more secure. They aim lower, but they reach the mark. If the long-drawn ‘conflict between religion and science’ has robbed us of some illusions which we abandon with regret, the knowledge it has spared us we may hold with assurance. But when we turn to the narrow Theism of these lectures, fittingly couched in the outworn language of the pulpit and the Sunday-school, can we find in it either the glory of metaphysical speculation or the security of positive knowledge? It has not the courage to explore the unknowable, nor the power to add to the known. It dare not fly; it will not walk. It is neither philosophy nor science; nor does it seek the modest security of some middle way. How, then, are we to class this strange amalgam of criticism and credulity? What purpose can it serve? To whom will it appeal? Whose beliefs will it alter even by a hair's breadth?’

These are pertinent questions. Let me try to answer them.

The customary claims of Naturalism, which I have here put into the mouth of my imaginary critic, seem to me (as you know) to be quite unreasonable. Otherwise I have no great objection to the statements contained in his indictment—however little I may agree with its spirit. In particular I admit the charge that the argument of these lectures, elaborate as it may appear, does not after all carry us far beyond the position occupied by uncritical piety and simple faith. Could it be otherwise? If we build, as I build, upon our common-sense beliefs about the natural world, our theories of the supernatural world will surely share the defects inherent in their foundation. It may—or may not—be possible to know all about the evolution of God as the Absolute Idea, while lamentably ignorant of much that pertains to the Particular. But if we begin with the Particular—and that most imperfectly apprehended—we cannot hope to grasp the full reality of the Absolute. On this line of advance the philosopher will not far outstrip the peasant.

When, therefore, my supposed critic satirically asks who it is that I hope to influence, I grant at once that it is not the plain man who already accepts without doubt or commentary a theistic view of the Universe. He is beyond my arguments;—perhaps above them.

Neither do I greatly hope to influence the trained man of speculation, who has already found a theory of things which satisfies his reason, or is sure that no such theory is within his reach. Even he may, I trust, find in these lectures discussions of some philosophic interest. I ask him to consider whether his system provides an honourable place for the actual beliefs by which his waking life is ruled; whether all the gradations of intuitive probability, from inevitable compulsion to faint inclination, find house-room not merely in his psychology of belief, but in his theory of knowledge; whether he is satisfied with his logic of science, or can bring into one harmonious scheme his creed regarded as a body of rational conclusions and his creed regarded as a bundle of natural effects. If he replies in the affirmative his state is the more gracious. But he is not likely to be interested in my arguments; and assuredly they will not convert him to my views.

I need say nothing about his pretentious imitator, who, under many names, has long been a familiar figure in certain societies. With no deep desire for truth, and poorly equipped for pursuing it, his main ambition is to indicate discreetly that he holds what the fashion of the moment regards as “advanced” views in their most advanced form. Wherein the quality of “advancement” consists, it might be hard to determine; nor is it (in this connection) a subject worthy of investigation. It is enough to say that “advanced” views must have an air of novelty, must be making some stir in the world, must be sufficiently unorthodox to shock the old-fashioned, and either sufficiently plausible to deceive the simple or sufficiently imposing to overawe them. I do not think that I shall find many converts among members of this class; nor is it to them that I desire to speak.

But there are many persons, both earnest and sincere, to whom the conclusions which modern Naturalism extracts from modern science are a source of deep perplexity and intellectual unrest. Their mood, if I rightly read it, is something of this kind. They would agree that a world where God is either denied or ignored is a world where some higher values are greatly impoverished. They would read the lectures I have devoted to Beauty and Morals with sympathy, if not with agreement. Life, they would admit, is but a poor thing if it does no more than fill with vain desires the brief interval between two material “accidents”—the “accident” which brought it into being, and the “accident” which will extinguish it for ever. But this (they will say) is no argument. A wise man faces facts, a good man prefers the hardest truth to the most alluring illusion. If there be no ground for assuming a living purpose behind the indifferent mask of nature, let us not fill the vacancy with a phantasm of our own creation. Let us at least sink back into the nothingness from which we rose with our intellectual integrity undamaged. Let all other values perish, so long as rational values remain un-dimmed.

Here, according to my view, lies the great illusion. Those who in all sincerity, and often with deep emotion, plead after a fashion like this, profoundly misunderstand the situation. They are indeed worthy of respect. They must not be confounded with those unstable souls who ignore God when they are happy, deny Him when they are wretched, tolerate Him on Sundays, but truly call on Him only when life, or fortune, hangs doubtfully in the balance. They are of a different and more virile temper. But are they less mistaken? They search for proofs of God, as men search for evidence about ghosts or witches. Show us, they say, the marks of His presence. Tell us what problems His existence would solve. And when these tasks have been happily accomplished, then will we willingly place Him among the hypothetical causes by which science endeavours to explain the only world we directly know, the familiar world of daily experience.

But God must not thus be treated as an entity, which we may add to, or subtract from, the sum of things scientifically known as the canons of induction may suggest. He is Himself the condition of scientific knowledge. If He be excluded from the causal series which produces beliefs, the cognitive series which justifies them is corrupted at the root. And as it is only in a theistic setting that beauty can retain its deepest meaning, and love its brightest lustre, so these great truths of æsthetics and ethics are but half-truths, isolated and imperfect, unless we add to them yet a third. We must hold that reason and the works of reason have their source in God; that from Him they draw their inspiration; and that if they repudiate their origin, by this very act they proclaim their own insufficiency.

  • 1.
    Let me here parenthetically remind you that again (as I observed in an earlier lecture) the Naturalism of which I speak is Naturalism in what, from our present point of view, must be regarded as its most plausible shape. Those who have followed, even at a distance, the trend of biological thought are aware that many naturalists of the highest authority are shaken in their allegiance to natural selection. They do not, indeed, exclude it from the evolutionary drama, but they reduce its role to insignificance. Why then, you may ask, do these lectures so constantly refer to selection, but say never a word about other theories of organic evolution?

    The answer is that selection, and only selection, really imitates contrivance. Other theories may deal, and do deal, with variation and heredity. But selection alone can explain adjustment; whence it follows that selection alone can imitate design.

From the book: