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Part IV

Chapter XII: Scepticism. Differences and Agreements

§ 1

You will probably by this time have had your fill of “methodological doubt”; and for my part I am ready to admit that, though the uses of this particular instrument of investigation are by no means exhausted, my general argument would hardly be strengthened by its further application to our familiar beliefs. Successfully or unsuccessfully methodological doubt has done its work, and it only now remains to extract from its results what positive conclusions they may seem to justify.

Before doing so, however, I must make something in the nature of a personal defence. There are high authorities to whom this whole method of dealing with a great subject is frankly repulsive. Two among my recent colleagues on the Gifford Foundation, both of them philosophers of the greatest distinction, both of them critics most friendly to myself, have condemned it; and both have condemned it as an offence not merely against sound doctrine, but against the best canons of philosophical propriety. Its critical method they could perhaps have forgiven; its constructive intention they would, I believe, have approved. The error attributed to me consists, I gather, in the effort to combine the two. I am charged with endeavouring to rest faith upon scepticism, and seeking foundations for belief among the quicksands of philosophic doubt. This procedure they treat as a perilous attempt to disparage reason in the interests of religion—an enterprise which they justly regard as equally injurious to the credit of both.

But surely there is here a singular misconception. There have been mystics endowed with gifts of spiritual intuition which gave them, as they believed, immediate access to the loftiest realities. Of these seers, or of some of them, it may perhaps be said that, having found a better way, they rate discursive reason lower than it deserves. But I am not of their number. Though I do not undervalue their gifts, I have never pretended to share them. The humbler method, so well praised by Mr. Russell, which I endeavour to practice, is laboriously, even ostentatiously, different. It deals in argumentation almost to excess. It aspires to apply the test of rational examination to the most privileged assumptions. Neither the authority of science, nor the consentient belief of all mankind, nor the individual opinions of eminent philosophers, are permitted to confer immunity or paralyse criticism; and if criticism shows that the duty of rationalizing beliefs has so far been most imperfectly performed, remember that this conclusion is itself the work of reason. If reason be on trial, it also presides over the Court. In its own cause it is at once defendant, plaintiff, advocate, and judge. How then can it suffer wrong?

It may perhaps be replied that, whatever be the intention of my arguments, this is not the light in which they will be regarded. They will be supposed to teach that whether we be dealing with science or with superstition, reason is equally negligible; that it fails to support the first, that it cannot destroy the second; and that as nothing can be reasonably proved, even religion may be reasonably believed. This is “barren scepticism” indeed; but it is no doctrine of mine. Though the method I follow be often critical in form, it leads, I think, to conclusions which, however tentative and provisional, are none the less constructive in substance and rational in method; conclusions which (it may be parenthetically observed) are by no means poles asunder from those that, in very different fashion, my distinguished critics have themselves so eloquently advocated.

§ 2

On this method something more must be said before I conclude. But having now, I trust, cleared away these preliminary misunderstandings, let me return to the material on which we have been chiefly working—–namely, the general body of our familiar beliefs.

One result of our exploration has been to show that although, if we dig deep enough, we may here and there reach rational certitudes, we shall more often be brought up against “inevitable convictions” and “intuitive probabilities” to which rational certitude can by no means be attributed. Though these two kinds of belief merge into each other by insensible degrees, it is convenient, I think, to distinguish them; so that we may compare beliefs which are inevitable with those that are axiomatic, and beliefs whose probability is a matter purely of intuition with those which, at least in theory, could be dealt with by the calculus of probabilities.1

Our main concern, however, is with the beliefs which are inevitable or intuitively probable. They have, so far as I know, received scant attention, if any, at the hands of philosophers; and Dr. Davidson, referring to my treatment of them2 in a very friendly notice of my first Gifford Lectures, regards my views on them with little approval.

Now whether they have any speculative interest is, I admit, a matter for argument. But whether they do or do not exist is surely no more than a simple question of fact. And are the facts denied? Can anyone doubt that in our creed of common knowledge are many beliefs of crucial importance, which no competent thinker would call self-evident, but which, proved or unproved, it is in practice impossible for us to abandon? Do we not, for example, believe ourselves to live in a world of men and things; a world extended and enduring; a world where, within limits, we are free to act; a world where at least some degree of regularity prevails; where memory supplies some knowledge of the past, and probability offers some guidance for the future? So far, if no further, the whole human race is compelled to travel in company; the wise with the foolish, the learned with the ignorant, the latest product of the schools with the most primitive and ignorant of barbarians. In the ranks of this army are to be found some who grumble, but none who desert. Even he who proclaims aloud that the world of sense is mere illusion, treats it in practice as the sternest of realities. Even he who holds that his every action is the inevitable result of physical laws, never questions in practice that at a given moment he can “freely” decide whether he shall shut the window or leave it open. Even the sceptic who resolves all experience into a mirage of sensations and ideas, never doubts in practice that he is a person among persons, distinguishable from his own sensations and ideas, with a continuing existence, in a material environment, which is itself as solid, as durable, and as independent of perception as common sense or the “new realism” is able to make it.

Now it seems to me clear that this body of beliefs is inevitable, but I have spoken in vain if my hearers still consider it beyond the need of proof. I do not, of course, deny that there are beliefs which may justly claim to be self-evident, But these are not among them; and no better indication of the fact can be given than the list of subjects referred to in an earlier lecture on which Mr. Russell, like myself, entertains “methodological doubts.” These include, explicitly or implicitly, most of the beliefs which I have just enumerated. As you may remember, he wants to know on what grounds we suppose that other people exist; that testimony is a valid source of information; that there is an independent material world; that, if there be, it is of the kind required by science, obeying in some sense or other the law of universal causation. He even entertains doubts, or did in 1914, as to his own existence. This is a comprehensive list, and it will, I think, be admitted that if such things be dubious not much of our familiar creed is solidly established.

§ 3

Facts like these suggest some curious speculations. We are apt to dwell on the variety of opinions which divide mankind, on their passionate disputations over trifles, on the multiplicity of their superstitions about the unseen, on their fantastic explanations of things constantly before their eyes. But are not their agreements stranger than their differences? And are they not, from a philosophical point of view, even more important and suggestive?

There is nothing curious in uniformity of belief when reason dictates the doctrine. For truth is one, and it is the business of reason to find it. But since the wanderings of unreason are potentially infinite, how comes it that men approximate so closely to each other in their familiar creed, seeing how imperfectly as yet that creed is rationalized? Why do all men follow the same course, seeing that they do not steer by the same stars? If reasoning be not the ground of agreement, where is that ground to be discovered?

Perhaps it will be said that, after all, reasoning is the ground. Does not every man, when asked why he holds this or that opinion, make it a point of honour to produce an answer which may pass as reasonable? What more can he do? What more can he be asked to do? Nothing more, I reply, if his investigations go to the root of the matter. But how often is this the case? We must remember that in ordinary life any answer is treated as sufficient which successfully appeals to facts and principles accepted by all the parties to the discussion. And this is as it should be. In no other way could the business of the world be carried on. A community that spent its time in hunting for first principles is a community that would certainly starve. But what is sufficient for daily life is quite insufficient for philosophy—even for a philosophy of the familiar. It is just when we have done the best we can with the facts and principles which are generally accepted that our difficulties really begin; it is then, as I have endeavored to show, that “methodological doubt” steps in, asks inconvenient questions, and presses in vain for a reply.

It seems therefore that the remarkable agreement which prevails with regard to our familiar beliefs has little to do with reasoning. This is curious. But not less curious is the disagreement which immediately declares itself when reasoning is used either to establish these familiar beliefs or to transcend them. They appear to constitute a set of middle principles, media axiomata in Bacon's phrase, very defective in their theoretical ground-work, very ill-fitted to support the weight of a constructive philosophy, yet seemingly sufficient for us all in our uncritical moments of action or repose. But there are other moments than these. Reflection claims its dues, and with reflection come difficulties and differences. About the foundations of knowledge (assuming that they can be found), about the higher realities (assuming that they exist) there has never been agreement. It is only on the uncritical level of ordinary practice that anything resembling harmony can be said to exist.

§ 4

No better illustrations of the fact can perhaps be found than those which are supplied by our discussions on such great commonplaces as the reality of the external world and the true being of those who dwell therein. We have seen that the most famous attempts to deal with these underlying problems exhibit divergencies so profound that we might sometimes be tempted to ask whether the illustrious disputants were talking about the same universe. Indeed, if you seek a parallel to the differences which divide experts about things material, you must look for it in the ecclesiastical disputes about things spiritual which haunted the great ages of dogmatic construction. Even then you will perhaps be disappointed, and may find to your surprise that the mysteries of matter have proved themselves more fertile in heresies, more refractory to a purely rational treatment, even than the mysteries of “faith”

And have we found ourselves better off when we turned from things to persons? Was it not abundantly plain throughout our discussion on “I's” and “Thou's” that high authorities are even further from agreement about psychical subjects than they are about physical? I hazard the suggestion that there is not a single important assertion to be made about the true nature of the Self which would, at the present moment, obtain the assent of all instructed thinkers.

When dealing in earlier Lectures with “things” and “persons” I have, however, already said enough about the variety of views which prevail among experts on these all-important themes. Let us then turn to Time, about which I have done little more than indicate some of my embarrassments. If on this subject philosophers have expressed fewer differences than on mind or matter, this is not, I suspect, because their differences are less profound, but because fewer differences seem possible. The empirical school, so far as I remember, have been almost silent. They have accepted the opinions of common sense with an easy acquiescence they have never shown in the case of mind, space, matter, or causation. On the other hand, the most famous metaphysical systems, and the habitual language of mysticism in all ages, agree in treating reality as timeless—a view which is perhaps in more violent contradiction to common sense than any of the theories about the external world to which I have referred. Nor does Kant's variation on this metaphysical theme, though contrived in the interests of scientific and mathematical knowledge, in the least agree with the general beliefs of mankind. That Time and Space are “forms” contributed by human sensibility to the timeless and spaceless reality of an unknowable thing-in-itself, is not a doctrine which the plain man will ever take the trouble seriously to consider, even for the pleasure of thereafter declaring that, in his opinion at least, it is not worth considering.

In singular contrast to the Kantian view of Time is the Bergsonian view of Duration. While for Kant Time is no more than one of the various moulds—sensible and intellectual—into which reality must be poured before it can be known, for Bergson Duration is the most essential attribute of the “vital impulse” which drives the unresting universe to ever new developments along lines of evolution which are unforeseen and unforeseeable. Nothing can well be more subjective3 than Time as conceived by the first of these thinkers, or more objective than Duration as conceived by the second. Mr. Russell, on the other hand, is (very rightly) preoccupied with the difficulty of bringing time, as he conceives it to be given in experience, into some shape susceptible of the mathematical treatment required by the physicist. His views about it are as remote from those of M. Bergson as they are from those of Kant; but not on that account much closer to common sense. According to him his “private time” is a purely personal possession. Some method must therefore be discovered whereby “private time,” as immediately known to you and me, can be fused into universal and objective “clock-time.” On objective “clock-time,” until recently, both the instructed and the uninstructed among ordinary mortals have been wont to pin their faith. But the new developments of the doctrine of “relativity” seem to have introduced metaphysical discord even into the central harmonies of mathematical physics. It is not philosophers alone who now find themselves some what perplexed about the fundamental verities of time and space. The infection has spread to physicists and astronomers; nor is it likely to be again brought under control without much technical discussion, in which I am fortunately not expected to take a part.

Returning to the philosophers, it may be observed that of those who have special views on Time and Space, some treat these great entities on parallel lines, while some find little or no analogy between them. Kant, as everybody knows, is an example of the first class. His views about Time bear the closest resemblance to his views about Space. He runs them, so to speak, in double harness. M. Bergson is a brilliant example of the second. For him there is little or nothing of importance that can usefully be said about Space which can usefully be said also about Duration. Space is static; Duration is dynamic. Space, metaphorically speaking, is the waste place where lies the refuse thrown off by the process of “creative evolution.” Duration, on the other hand, is the principle of creative evolution itself. Professor Alexander again, like Kant, puts Space and Time on an equality; but he makes them play a very different role in the cosmic drama from that assigned to them by the earlier philosopher. For him they do not contribute to the forms which substance must assume before it can become an object of sensible experience. On the contrary, they are substance itself. Space-Time, or Space and Time interfused, is the stuff of which all else is made—matter, mind, God. Nor, if I rightly understand him, are Space and Time to be regarded as in the full sense separate entities. Time is to Space much what, in his view, mind is to body; they are distinguishable but not different. Space cannot exist without Time, nor Time without Space. If we would rightly think of them, their essences must neither be confused nor divided. They are (or it is) not Space and Time, but Space-Time—a subtle and interesting doctrine, which I trust I have not misrepresented; though very conscious how easily the commentator on such a theme may, with the best intentions, lapse helplessly into heresy.4

§ 5

Before dismissing the subject of philosophic differences about familiar beliefs, let me add one word about causation.

Causation would seem to be a notion so eminently necessary for any comprehension of this changing world that some clear understanding about it ought long ago to have been arrived at. All our inferences about the past and all our anticipations of the future apparently depend on it. All scientific discovery implies it. Without it the “order of nature” could hardly exist, or, if it existed, could hardly be understood. In some shape or other it is assumed in every scientific investigation and acted on in all the practice of life.

Yet what fundamental disagreements lie hidden behind this apparent unanimity! There have been great schools of philosophy who treated the relation of cause and effect as one of identity in difference; so that for them there can be nothing in an effect which did not preexist in its cause. Some again have thought that causation was no more and no less than invariable sequence; so that for them a cause does not produce its effect, it only precedes it. If the relation between human effort and human action is more than this, or appears to the agent to be more, it supplies us with no illuminating analogy. Material Nature at all events exhibits nothing that resembles effort. Force is a brief expression for mass acceleration.

To suppose the contrary is mere anthropomorphism.

The merit claimed for this last view of causation is that it describes the kind of order which actually prevails, and the kind of rules which are actually obeyed, in this universe of unceasing movement. It professes to represent without fanciful additions the pure teaching of experience. But, curiously enough, there are other lines of thought, also professing to depend on the pure teaching of experience, which lead to quite different conclusions. Philosophers are to be found who detect all sorts of difficulties in the attempt to break up the continuous process of Nature into causes which are followed by effects, and effects which are preceded by causes; who are driven by their own dialectic to assert that the very notion of cause is so obscured by confusions that it should be banished from science; who think that the law of causation is neither an axiom nor an empirical truth; who hold that the order of Nature should be described not in terms of cause and effect, but by means of differential equations which ignore the very notion of succession, and draw no distinction between before and after, between antecedent and consequent, between that which is past, that which is present, and that which is to come.

  • 1.

    See Appendix.

  • 2.

    Croal Lectures, 1921.

  • 3.

    I do not suggest that Kant would have liked this use of the word.

  • 4.

    I do not think (though I speak with hesitation) that Professor Alexander's Space-Time is identical with the “four-dimensional continuum” which plays so large a part in the modern doctrine of Relativity.

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