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Chapter II: Prologue (continued)

§ 1

The material, then, on which I endeavoured to work in the early months of 1914 may be loosely described as the general body of our ordinary convictions about Nature and Man. At first sight there is perhaps something a little disconcerting, if not paradoxical, in this procedure. We seem to be inverting the proper order of inference. We are building up a scheme designed to embrace the universe, not on the things we believe, but on the fact that we believe them—a trivial piece of autobiography which falls lamentably short of the dignity of metaphysics. Whether the classic arguments for the existence of God which Kant labelled the Ontological, the Cosmological, and the Physico-theological were as bad as he thought them, we need not now discuss. But at least they had behind them a great philosophical tradition. They appealed to Reality and Infinity. Even the most modest of them all, the ancient though now unfashionable argument from design, was based on the facts of Nature, and may seem to compare favourably with one which strives to reach a similar conclusion, not from these facts objectively considered, but (in part) from our own loose and halting beliefs about these facts. I admit that this criticism is plausible. But I beg you to suspend judgment until I have removed some possible misunderstandings to which my mode of statement may have given occasion.

§ 2

In the first place, then, you must not suppose that when I describe our thoughts about men and things as a “body of beliefs” or as a “creed” I desire to suggest that they could be moulded into a well-defined system of immutable doctrine on the pattern of those hard-edged symbols in which old-time theologians delighted to crystallise their religious convictions. I speak of something much wider in range and looser in structure. Its outlines are vague. Its contents vary from time to time in the same person, and from person to person in the same society. Could we, for example, imagine the several members of this audience suddenly revealing their intimate thoughts and beliefs about beauty and goodness, about history, psychology, and physical science, about religion and irreligion, what strange discrepancies would the results display! There would not merely be the crude and familiar contrasts between knowledge and ignorance, between the beliefs we consider “false” and the beliefs we consider “true,” but there would be endless shades of difference in emphasis, in colour, in fulness of meaning, in delicacy of discrimination. Yet we all share the same civilisation, we speak the same language, we live in the same period, we are citizens of the same State, and our meeting here this afternoon suggests that we are interested in the same problems. Great though our differences may be they are surely far less than those which would divide any equal assembly selected at random from among the general mass of mankind. How, then, can their beliefs—so vague and various, often so foolish and so false—supply any solid basis for far-reaching theories about the structure of the universe?

This objection, however, really misses my point. All that I am for the moment concerned to assert is what no professor of Naturalism is likely to deny—namely, that the beliefs entertained by us here to-day, and by our Western contemporaries elsewhere, belong to a late stage in a process of continuous development reaching back without a break to the vital processes of those lowly organisms which flourished before the Animal and Vegetable Kingdoms started forth on their separate lines of evolutionary adventure. These primitive beings had life, but had not reason; and they, in their turn, were produced in some unknown fashion, by a material system which, according to the ordinary view, had neither life nor reason. It is not easy to represent the stages which mark the transition from life irrational to life rational. Of those which mark the transition from the lifeless to the living we can, I suppose, form no conception at all.1 But for my present purpose this is of no importance. Whatever be the hypothesis with which we endeavour to cover our ignorance of the past, and however we minimise the part played by unthinking matter in the mental activities of ourselves and our contemporaries, it is clear that, in the lengthening web of causes and effects which binds these periods together, few in number and late in time are the threads supplied by life, still fewer and still later are those supplied by reason. On the naturalistic hypothesis our beliefs, all our beliefs, be they wise or foolish, obvious or fantastic, true or false, are, as regards their proximate origin, largely non-rational; as regards their remote origin, non-rational altogether.

On this contrast between the causes of belief and the reasons for it depends the argument embodied in my first course of lectures. It is the point on which the second course will also turn. If you ask me how this can be, seeing that I have after all said nothing which, at least in its broad outline, is not an obvious part of any theory of evolution, and that in theories of evolution there is nothing inherently anti-theistic, I reply that it is not what the evolutionary theory includes that is here important, but what in its naturalistic shape it deliberately excludes. I do not complain that it admits irrational elements among the causes of belief, but that in the last resort it admits no others. It thus leaves us and all our thinking the sport of forces which are irresistible but blind; reason, purpose, and guidance are refused all effective authority in matters of belief, and, if they seem to take a hand in the later stages of thought manufacture, this is mere “window-dressing.” It deludes us in our unwary moments into supposing that when (for example) we have patiently reasoned out the solution of some perplexing problem, we have arrived at a result for which reason is wholly responsible. But this flattering conviction is, on the naturalistic theory, quite unfounded, though easily explained. It is due to the fact that we egotistically fix our attention on a single element among the innumerable antecedents from which our conclusion flowed. This single element is rational, and is ours. We brought it into being, and we are proud of it, and we measure its importance with parental partiality. But our partiality should not make us forget that it is but one of an uncounted throng of co-operating causes, scattered through an infinite past, none of them rational, none of them within our control, yet all contributing something required to produce the final result.

§ 3

I trust that I have now made two points clear. The first is that our beliefs may be regarded as the outcome of two quite different processes or kinds of process, the causal and the rational. The causal proceeds from antecedent to consequent, the rational from premise to conclusion. No doubt there are elements common to both. A cause may be, and sometimes is, a reason. A reason not only may be, but always must be, an effect. Though the two kinds of process are essentially distinct, the one being concerned with the flow of events in time, the other with the connection of beliefs in logic, it is also true that every belief is without exception causally determined, and, in the last resort, determined by antecedents which are not beliefs, nor indeed psychical events of any kind, but belong wholly to the non-rational world of matter and motion.

To these two conclusions a third must be added which, from the point of view adopted both in “Theism and Humanism” and in the Lectures which follow, is the most important of all. It is that between the rational and the causal series, as I have just described them, there is, on the naturalistic hypothesis, not only contrast but collision. They will not live peaceably in the same intellectual system. They cannot be sundered, yet they refuse to coalesce.

For consider the relations in which they stand to each other. Reason, in the shape of science, traces the origin of all contemporary things and events back to the unthinking powers of the material world, and there it quite properly leaves them. Naturalism rejects the notion that these non-rational beginnings are, or ever have been, subjected to rational guidance. Science, therefore, if and when it be limited by Naturalism, itself proclaims the unqualified non-rationality of its own origins. But if its origins be non-rational, by what incredible coincidence does it turn out to be true—if true it is? And what tests can we apply to it which have not the same origins and do not suffer therefore from the same defects? On the other hand, if it be not rational, the conclusion of the argument has shattered its premises; and scientific naturalism perishes through the very completeness with which it has destroyed any theory of origins which involves a belief in reason, purpose, or design.

§ 4

Such is the root idea of the argument against Naturalism contained in my previous course and destined in this course also to meet us often again. For developments and ancillary discussions, and, in particular, for its application to Ethics and Esthetics, I must refer you to the volume itself. But as in this lecture I have approached the subject mainly from the side of knowledge, there is one scientific answer to my contention on which it is perhaps desirable that something should be said before I attempt to break new ground.

The point may be thus stated: “Let it be granted for the sake of argument that the causes of belief, if traced back sufficiently far, are, on the naturalistic hypothesis, wholly non-rational. Is this conclusive? Has not the theory of natural selection provided a way out of the difficulty? Has it not shown how, in strictest conformity with Naturalism, creative design may be so happily imitated that Paley himself, though supported by a regiment of Bridge water essayists,2 could scarce have detected the forgery?”

Now the theory of natural selection was one of the greatest triumphs of the nineteenth century, and the fact that in the light of later research it does not seem able to accomplish all that we had once expected of it3 can never shake its position as a turning-point in scientific speculation. So far, however, as our present discussion is concerned its inadequacy is evident, however highly we may rate its efficiency as an evolutionary instrument during the relatively brief period of its operation. We are considering, you will remember, the causal web which connects the beliefs of to-day, your beliefs and mine, with matter and energy in their primeval distribution—say, for example, as they existed in pre-stellar nebulas. At some unknown moment in this long-drawn progression a planet was evolved possessing the extraordinary combination of attributes which, so far as science at present knows, are the necessary pre-requisites of any form of organic life. In this elaborate preparation selection of course had no share. Neither had it any share in initiating the next stage of evolution-perhaps the most revolutionary of all-the stage when life began. Before this event, we have no knowledge of anything being added to or subtracted from the sum of things. Worlds uncounted were born and perished; but the most tremendous of stellar catastrophes involved no more than a redistribution of what was already in being. Change followed change on a scale of inconceivable magnitude. But these merely physical changes brought with them no essential novelty. There was never in the effect anything that, in some shape or other, had not preexisted in the cause. The cosmos never did more than re-arrange itself. But with the advent of life a new era began. I will not here assert (whatever I may think) that life even at its lowest levels involves more than the distribution of particular kinds of matter in particular patterns, whose actions and reactions are completely explicable by the laws of chemistry and physics. For, however this may be, there can be no doubt about feeling, thought, and will.4 These are always more and other than material re-arrangements; and so far at least as our earth is concerned were certainly new-new, and surely most surprising.

Natural selection did nothing to initiate this new departure; nor, indeed, could it do anything to further it, till life not only began to exist, but began to exist in organisms of a suitable type. When, by means as yet unguessed, there came into being (a) organic complexes, which (b) not only lived, but (c) multiplied, and (d) in multiplying produced successors which, speaking broadly, resembled them; though (e) with variations, which (f) were heritable—not, I say, till all these wonderful accidents had combined could selection set to work and elaborate the biological contrivances whose complicated mysteries scientific research is laboriously striving to unravel.

§ 5

Thus does it become clear that the intervention of natural selection in the causal sequence begins too late in the history of the Universe to provide human reason with even the imitation of a reasonable origin. But there is something more to be said. It not only begins too late for this purpose, it ends too early for another. Its effective operation dies away too soon to explain what surely call for explanation, namely our ideals of love, of beauty, and of knowledge.

For myself I have to own that this point seems to me of secondary importance. If these great things are ultimately the work of unreason, I care little whether in their immediate production unreason, in the shape of natural selection, has been masquerading as design, or whether it openly exhibits itself as blind chance. So far as I am concerned the result is the same. But some there are who take a different view. What they want is a scientific explanation. Give them this, and no incongruity between cause and consequence in the least disturbs them. If, therefore, any characteristic of the evolutionary process can be shown to possess survival value they are content. In their view all other values may perish and no one be a penny the worse. If what is highest and rarest in aesthetics, ethics, and thought will do for man what the most disgusting contrivances do for the most loathsome parasites—help them to eat and help them to breed—it suffices. All else is fanciful or false.

These thinkers do not suffer from excess of ambition, yet I doubt whether their aspirations, humble though they be, are fulfilled in the world as we know it. They are wrong in supposing that these supreme values seriously count in the struggle for existence. Saints, philosophers, and artists have never, so far as I know, been specially successful in rearing large families themselves; nor have they enabled the communities which admired, and occasionally produced them, to crowd out rival populations from the rich places of the earth. As Nature measures utility, they are useless. In no effective fashion do they make for survival. They are but casual excrescences on the evolutionary process, forming no portion of its essential texture. They are, on the naturalistic hypothesis, an accident of an accident.

Few things on the spiritual side of evolution are more interesting than this. It is not perhaps strange that the onward momentum of those developments which make for biological success should carry them into regions where all, or almost all, their survival efficiency vanishes away. But surely it is strange that in these regions they, or rather some of them, should acquire new and higher values which naturalism can hardly explain and certainly cannot justify. Primitive religions with all their crude superstitions, follies, and excesses, may have had value in the only shape in which this is recognised by selection. They may, in various ways, have directly aided men in the earlier stages of civilisation to maintain their numbers or to increase them. Doubtless, this is also true of primitive morality, primitive science, and perhaps also of primitive art. Those, therefore, who treat anthropology as a branch of natural history are quite justified in counting these things as due in part to the direct influence of the struggle for existence. But the struggle for existence has had no direct influence on their higher developments. What survival value has the love of God, as this is felt in the great religious experiences? What advantage was it to prehistoric man that the faculties of reasoning and imagination, whose humble beginnings were presumably bred into his ancestors by battle, hunger, and disease, should be so contrived as to develop into faculties which many thousands of years later would enable his descendants to pursue, with ardour and success, knowledge the most abstract, the most remote, and, at first sight, the most useless? What measurable effect upon the maintenance of the species has been caused by the development from animal appetite of romantic and impassioned love? Granting that natural selection may have promoted family affection and tribal loyalty, why should these blossom into a pure and ardent benevolence, embracing in its circuit all mankind, while singling out for special sympathy the “unfit” rather than the “fit”?

§ 6

And, lastly, what is it that in this connection we should say about Beauty—about the glories of creative art and the joys of aesthetic contemplation? As the readers of “Theism and Humanism” may perhaps remember, I have never been able to persuade myself that these have ever been of any measurable use in the struggle for existence. On the hypothesis, therefore, of Naturalism, their values are accidental in the first degree; they have behind them neither purpose nor the imitation of purpose; they hang, so to speak, in mid-air, unsupported and unexplained. Let those, then, who dream, like David Strauss, that the shrine from which they strive to expel religion can be worthily occupied by Art think of these things and pause. For they may be well assured that if they shatter the old values they cannot permanently preserve the new. If beauty is to retain its worth, it must be the product of design, and behind the delight in beauty there must lurk, however vaguely, the consciousness of a designer. When we are dealing with an ordinary work of art, the designer is, of course, the artist; and we are again faced with the problem how, on the naturalistic hypothesis, a chance variation like artistic genius, without survival value, happens to play so large a part in the higher life of the race. But if this be true of the beauty born of human effort, how stands the case with the beauty given us by Nature? Here there can obviously be no question of art or of artists. What we admire, what we admire indeed with a passionate admiration, is, according to naturalism, but the superficial aspect of matter casually arranged. Hurrying rivers, autumnal woods, gleams of sunshine on misty crags, the sea, the clouds, and all the rest of Nature's pageant are, on this theory, the accidental effects of molecules accidentally combined, and thereafter brought into accidental relation with human sensibilities, themselves, as organs for the apprehension of beauty, accidentally evolved. If such a theory leaves us unsatisfied we can hardly supplement its unrelieved materialism by reviving the nymphs of fountain and forest, the fairies of moor and dell. It must, I venture to suggest, be Theism or nothing, and of the two it must be Theism; for all these higher values manifestly press forward, each in its own way, to completion in God. As in God they must have their root if their values are to survive, so in God they must find their consummation if their promise is to be fulfilled. For Nature, limited by naturalism, can find for them neither a beginning nor an end which is adequate to their true reality.

If we doubt this, it is because we are still haunted by some ancestral ghosts. Men still talk, in true eighteenth century fashion, as if it were as “natural” for man to rise spiritually as for water to fall materially. Nature they treat as a well-meaning social reformer, striving, when not perversely thwarted, to make the world better, wiser, and happier. But Nature, as known to twentieth century Naturalism, is very different from Nature as imagined by eighteenth century Deism. It has no intelligible meaning and no benevolent purpose. If the theory of selection be true, purpose may indeed (as we have seen) have been successfully imitated. But even then the purpose is not to make men “Better, wiser, and happier” but only to make them more numerous. To higher things selection is indifferent or hostile; and if among the byproducts of its activities higher things have been indirectly produced, this result can only be due either to accident or “guidance.” My verdict is unhesitatingly given for guidance.

Here, then, lies the essential argument which I developed in “Theism and Humanism,” and which I propose to develop still further in “Theism and Thought.” The difficulties I have been discussing can all be traced to one error, and can only be solved in one way. They arise from the ingrained assumption of Naturalism that for anything we know to the contrary the causal process is unguided. They can, I believe, only be removed if that assumption be definitely abandoned. Thus, and only thus, can knowledge, love, and beauty be given an origin congruous with their essential nature. Thus and only thus will they justify the values which the highest instincts of mankind have been ever ready to accord them.

  • 1.

    Unless we avoid the difficulty by adopting some form of pan-psychism.

  • 2.

    As this reference may be obscure to my younger readers, it may be worth saying by way of explanation that about ninety years ago eight treatises by various authors, selected by the President of the Royal Society, were published on “the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” This originated in a benefaction by the last Earl of Bridge water, who died in 1829.

  • 3.

    The reader may perhaps be tempted to ask why, if the theory of natural selection has proved in the light of subsequent research a less adequate explanation of organic evolution than at one time had been hoped, I do not substitute for it the last results of biological science. My answer is that, so far as I am aware, natural selection still supplies the only substitute on a large scale for “design,” as this was conceived in pre-Darwinian days by, for example, the Bridge water essayists above referred to.

  • 4.

    See Chapter X of present course.

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