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Lecture 5: Introduction to Part 3


IN the preceding lectures I have given reasons for thinking that in two great departments of human interest—Æsthetics and Ethics—the highest beliefs and emotions cannot claim to have any survival value. They must be treated as by-products of the evolutionary process; and are, therefore, on the naturalistic hypothesis, doubly accidental. They are accidental in the larger sense of being the product of the undesigned collocation and interplay of material entities—molecular atoms, sub-atoms, and ether—which preceded, and will presumably outlast, that fraction of time during which organic life will have appeared, developed, and perished. They are also accidental in the narrower sense of being only accidentally associated with that process of selective elimination, which, if Darwinism be true, has so happily imitated contrivance in the adaptation of organisms to their environment. They are the accidents of an accident.

I disagreed with this conclusion, but I did not attempt to refute it. I contented myself with pointing out that it was destructive of values; and that, the greater the values, the more destructive it became. The difficulty, indeed, on which I have so far insisted is not a logical one. We have not been concerned with premises and conclusions. Neither our æsthetic emotions nor our moral sentiments are the product of ratiocination; nor is it by ratiocination that they are likely to suffer essential wrong. If you would damage them beyond repair, yoke them to a theory of the universe which robs them of all general significance. Then, at the very moment when they aspire to transcendent authority, their own history will rise up in judgment against them, impugning their pretensions, and testifying to their imposture.


The inquiry on which I now propose to enter will follow a more or less parallel course, and will reach a more or less similar conclusion. Yet some characteristic differences it must necessarily exhibit. In the higher regions of æsthetics and ethics, emotions and beliefs are inextricably intertwined. They are what naturalists describe as ‘symbiotic.’ Though essentially different, they are mutually dependent. If one be destroyed, the other withers away.

But Knowledge—the department of human interest to which I now turn—is differently placed. The values with which we shall be concerned are mainly rational; and intellectual curiosity is the only emotion with which they are associated. Yet here also two questions arise corresponding to those which we have already dealt with in a different connection: (1) what are the causes of our knowledge, or of that part of our knowledge which concerns the world of common sense and of science? (2) does the naturalistic account of these causes affect the rational value—in other words the validity—of their results?

We are, perhaps, more sensitive about the pedigree of our intellectual creed than we are about the pedigree of our tastes or our sentiments. We like to think that beliefs which claim to be rational are the product of a purely rational process; and though, where others are concerned, we complacently admit the intrusion of non-rational links in the causal chain, we have higher ambitions for ourselves.

Yet surely, on the naturalistic theory of the world, all such ambitions are vain. It is abundantly evident that, however important be the part which reason plays among the immediate antecedents of our beliefs, there are no beliefs which do not trace back their origin to causes which are wholly irrational. Proximately, these beliefs may take rank as logical conclusions. Ultimately, they are without exception rooted in matter and motion. The rational order is but a graft upon the causal order; and, if Naturalism be true, the causal order is blind.


Before I further develop this line of speculation it may help you to understand what I am driving at if I venture upon an autobiographical parenthesis. The point I have just endeavoured to make I have made before in these lectures, and I have made it elsewhere. It is one of a number of considerations which have led me to question the prevalent account of the theoretical ground-work of our accepted beliefs. Taken by itself, its tendency is sceptical; and, since it has been associated with arguments in favour of a spiritual view of the universe, I have been charged (and not always by unfriendly commentators) with the desire to force doubt into the service of orthodoxy by recommending mankind to believe what they wish, since all beliefs alike are destitute of proof. As we cannot extricate ourselves from the labyrinth of illusion, let us at least see to it that our illusions are agreeable.

This, however, is not what I have ever wanted to say, nor is it what I want to say now. If I have given just occasion for such a travesty of my opinions, it must have been an indirect consequence of my early, and no doubt emphatically expressed, contempt for the complacent dogmatism of the empirical philosophy, which in Great Britain reigned supreme through the third quarter of the nineteenth century. But was this contempt altogether unreasonable?

I went to Cambridge in the middle sixties with a very small equipment of either philosophy or science, but a very keen desire to discover what I ought to think of the world, and why. For the history of speculation I cared not a jot. Dead systems seemed to me of no more interest than abandoned fashions. My business was with the ground-work of living beliefs; in particular, with the ground-work of that scientific knowledge whose recent developments had so profoundly moved mankind. And surely there was nothing perverse in asking modern philosophers to provide us with a theory of modern science!

I was referred to Mill; and the shock of disillusionment remains with me to the present hour. Mill possessed at that time an authority in the English Universities, and, for anything I know to the contrary, in the Scotch Universities also, comparable to that wielded forty years earlier by Hegel in Germany and in the Middle Ages by Aristotle. Precisely the kind of questions which I wished to put, his Logic was deemed qualified to answer. He was supposed to have done for scientific inference what Bacon tried to do, and failed. He had provided science with a philosophy.

I could have forgiven the claims then made for him by his admirers; I could have forgiven, though young and intolerant, what seemed to me the futility of his philosophic system, if he had ever displayed any serious misgiving as to the scope and validity of his empirical methods. If he had admitted, for example, that, when all had been done that could be done to systematise our ordinary modes of experimental inference, the underlying problem of knowledge still remained unsolved. But he seemed to hold, in common with the whole empirical school of which, in English-speaking countries, he was the head, that the fundamental difficulties of knowledge do not begin till the frontier is crossed which divides physics from metaphysics, the natural from the supernatural, the world of ‘phenomena’ from the world of ‘noumena,’ ‘positive’ experiences from religious dreams. It may be urged that, if these be errors, they are errors shared by ninety-nine out of every hundred persons educated in the atmosphere of Western civilisation, whatever be their theological views: and I admit that it has sunk deep into our ordinary habits of thought. Apologetics are saturated with it, not less than agnosticism or infidelity. But, for my own part, I feel now, as I felt in the early days of which I am speaking, that the problem of knowledge cannot properly be sundered in this fashion. Its difficulties begin with the convictions of common sense, not with remote, or subtle, or otherworldly speculations; and if we could solve the problem in respect of the beliefs which, roughly speaking, everybody shares, we might see our way more clearly in respect of the beliefs on which many people are profoundly divided.

That Mill's reasoning should have satisfied himself and his immediate disciples is strange. But that the wider public of thinking men, whom he so powerfully influenced, should on the strength of this flimsy philosophy adopt an attitude of dogmatic assurance both as to what can be known and what cannot, is surely stranger still. Thus, at least, I thought nearly half a century ago, and thus I think still.

Consider, for example, a typical form of the ordinary agnostic position: that presented by Leslie Stephen. The best work of this excellent writer was biographical and literary; but he was always deeply interested in speculation; and his own creed seems early to have taken its final shape under the philosophical influences of the British empiricists. He regarded the ‘appeal to experience’ as the fundamental dogma of agnosticism, and by the ‘appeal to experience’ he meant what Mill meant by it. He sincerely supposed that this gave you indisputable knowledge of ‘phenomena,’ and that if you went beyond ‘phenomena’ you were dreaming, or you were inventing.

This is a possible creed; and it is, in fact, the creed held implicitly, or explicitly, by many thousands of quite sensible people. But why should those who hold it suppose that it must always satisfy impartial inquirers? Why should they assume that those who reject it are sacrificing their reason to their prejudices or their fancies? It may represent the best we can do, but is it, after all, so obviously reasonable? On this subject the empirical agnostic has no doubts. He holds, with unshaken confidence, that nothing deserves to be believed but that which in the last resort is proved by ‘experience’; that the strength of our beliefs should be exactly proportioned to the evidence which ‘experience’ can supply, and that every one knows or can discover exactly what this evidence amounts to. Leslie Stephen refers to a well-known aphorism of Locke, who declared that ‘there is one unerring mark by which a man may know whether he is a lover of truth in earnest, viz., the not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built on will warrant.’ Upon which Leslie Stephen observes that the sentiment is a platitude, but, in view of the weakness of human nature, a useful platitude.

Is it a platitude? Did Locke act up to it? Did Hume act up to it, or any other of Leslie Stephen's philosophic progenitors? Does anybody act up to it? Does anybody sincerely try to act up to it?

Read through the relevant chapters in Locke's Essay, and observe his ineffectual struggles, self-imprisoned in the circle of his own sensations and ideas, to reach the external world in which he believed with a far ‘greater assurance’ than was warranted by any proofs which he, at all events, was able to supply. Read Hume's criticism of our grounds for believing in a real world without, or a real self within, and compare it with his admission that scepticism on these subjects is a practical impossibility.

But we need not go beyond the first chapter of ‘An Agnostic's Apology’ to find an illustration of my argument. Leslie Stephen there absolves himself from giving heed to the conclusions of philosophers, because there are none on which all philosophers are agreed, none on which there is even a clear preponderance of opinion. On the other hand, he is ready to agree with astronomers, because astronomers, ‘from Galileo to Adams and Leverrier,’ substantially agree with each other. Agreement among experts is, in his opinion, a guarantee of truth, and disagreement a proof of error.

But then he forgets that these distressing differences among philosophers do not touch merely such entities as God and the soul, or the other subjects with which agnostics conceive man's faculties are incapable of dealing. They are concerned (among other things) with the presuppositions on which our knowledge of ‘phenomena’—including, of course, ‘astronomy from Galileo to Adams and Leverrier,’ is entirely constructed. What, in these circumstances, is Locke's ‘sincere lover of truth’ to do? How is he to avoid ‘entertaining propositions with greater assurance than the proofs they are built on will warrant’? Where will he find a refuge from the ‘pure scepticism’ which is, in Leslie Stephen's opinion, the natural result of divided opinions? How is he to get on while he is making up his mind whether any theory of the world within his reach will satisfy unbiased reason?

The fact is that the adherents of this philosophic school apply, quite unconsciously, very different canons of intellectual probity to themselves and to their opponents. ‘Why,’ asks Mr. Stephen, ‘should a lad who has just run the gauntlet of examination and escaped to a country parsonage be dogmatic?’ If to be dogmatic is to hold opinions with a conviction in excess of any reason that can be assigned for them, there seems to be no escape for the poor fellow. The common lot of man is not going to be reversed for him. Though he abandon his parsonage and renounce his Church, though he scrupulously purify his creed from every taint of the ‘metempirical,’ though he rigidly confine himself to themes which his critics declare to be within the range of his intellectual vision, fate will pursue him still. He may argue much or argue little; he may believe much or believe little; but, however much he argues and however little he believes, his beliefs will always transcend his arguments, and to faith, in his own despite, he must still appeal.

Those who accept Leslie Stephen's philosophy suppose that for this young man, as for all others, a way of escape may be found by appealing to experience. But surely none are so sanguine as to suppose that, by appealing to experience, they are going to avoid what Mr. Stephen describes as ‘endless and hopeless controversies.’ Alas, this is not so! The field of experience is no well-defined and protected region under whose clear skies useful knowledge flourishes unchallenged, while the mist-enshrouded territories of its metaphysical neighbours are devastated by unending disputations. On the contrary, it is the very battlefield of philosophy, the cockpit of metaphysics, strewn with abandoned arguments, where every strategic position has been taken and retaken, to which every school lays formal claim, which every contending system pretends to hold in effective occupation. Indeed, by a singular irony, the thinkers who, at this particular moment, talk most about experience are those metaphysicians of the Absolute in whose speculations Mr, Stephen saw no beginning of interest, except that of being (as he supposed) at once the refuge and the ruin of traditional religion. But these philosophers have no monopoly. All men nowadays speak well of experience. They begin to differ only when they attempt to say what experience is, to define its character, explain its credentials, and expound its message. But, unhappily, when this stage is reached their differences are endless.


I am, of course, not concerned with Mr. Stephen except as a brilliant representative of a mode of thought to which I most vehemently object. I do not object to it merely because it is in my judgment insufficient and erroneous, still less because I dislike its conclusion. I object to it because it talks loudly of experience, yet never faces facts; and boasts its rationality, yet rarely reasons home. These are far graver crimes against the spirit of truth than any condemned in Locke's pretentious aphorism, and they lead to far more serious consequences.

If you ask me what I have in mind when I say that agnostic empiricism never faces facts, I reply that it never really takes account of that natural history of knowledge, of that complex of causes, rational and non-rational, which have brought our accepted stock of beliefs into being. And if you ask me what I have in mind when I say that though it reasons, it rarely reasons home, I reply that, when it is resolved not to part with a conclusion, anything will serve it for an argument; only when it is incredulous does it know how to be critical.

This is not an error into which I propose to fall. But I hope that I shall not on that account be deemed indifferent to the claims of reason, or inclined to treat lightly our beliefs either about the material world or the immaterial. On the contrary, my object, and my only object, is to bring reason and belief into the closest harmony that at present seems practicable. And if you thereupon reply that such a statement is by itself enough to prove that I am no ardent lover of reason; if you tell me that it implies, if not permanent contentment, at least temporary acquiescence in a creed imperfectly rationalised, I altogether deny the charge. So far as I am concerned, there is no acquiescence. Let him that thinks otherwise show me a better way. Let him produce a body of beliefs which shall be at once living, logical, and sufficient;—not forgetting that it cannot be sufficient unless it includes within the circuit of its doctrines some account of itself regarded as a product of natural causes, nor logical unless it provides a rational explanation of the good fortune which has made causes which are not reasons, mixed, it may be, with causes which are not good reasons, issue in what is, by hypothesis, a perfectly rational system. He who is fortunate enough to achieve all this may trample as he likes upon less successful inquirers. But I doubt whether, when this discoverer appears, he will be found to have reached his goal by the beaten road of empirical agnosticism. This, though it be fashionably frequented, is but a blind alley after all.

In the meanwhile we must, I fear, suffer under a system of beliefs which is far short of rational perfection. But we need not acquiesce, and we should not be contented. Whether this state of affairs will ever be cured by the sudden flash of some great philosophic discovery is another matter. My present aim, at all events, is far more modest. But they, at least, should make no complaint who hold that common-sense beliefs, and science which is a development of common-sense beliefs, are, if not true, at least on the way to truth. For this conviction I share. I profess it; I desire to act upon it. And surely I cannot act upon it better than by endeavouring, so far as I can, to place it in the setting which shall most effectually preserve its intellectual value. This, at all events, is the object to which the four lectures that immediately follow are designed to contribute.

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