You are here

Chapter XIII: Collecting the Threads

§ 1

At this point the reader may be inclined to think that this catalogue of philosophic differences, though far too short for completeness, is already too long to serve any useful purpose. The mere enumeration of discordant views for no obvious purpose but to show that discordant views exist, may seem but a profitless undertaking. Let it be granted (he will say) that philosophers have always differed, that they differ still, and that there is no very convincing evidence that they will ever agree—what then? They are within their rights in disputing. The rest of mankind is within its rights in ignoring their disputes. Is anything gained by dragging their differences out of the decorous privacy of learned treatises, and parading them before a world already sufficiently bewildered by the clam our of contending creeds?

But surely if the world really thinks that these speculative differences amid practical agreements are without interest or significance it greatly errs. Obviously they are not the product of perverse ingenuity, or a morbid desire to surprise or shock. They are neither trivial nor accidental. Rather must they be regarded as due to conditions affecting us all, and producing a situation whose strangeness is dimmed only by its familiarity. But strange the situation certainly is, and well worth a moment's consideration.

The most plausible explanation of it, on purely naturalistic principles, is one with which we have already had to deal. It consists in an appeal to the general principles of Natural Selection. It may be argued “that our familiar creed is to be counted as one among the many valuable contrivances gradually evolved for the advantage of the race. It is familiar because it is general; it is general because it is useful. With or without reason, but in any case independently of reason, its elements have in the course of ages obtained the measure of credence which makes for survival. Those beliefs which are necessary for that end tend to become ‘inevitable’; those beliefs (or kinds of belief) acquire some degree of ‘intuitive probability’ which on the whole incline to man's advantage in the struggle for existence. Through this purely causal process a sound, working, everyday creed becomes, like eyes and ears, the possession of every normal man. It may be ill contrived to resist critical assaults. We know indeed that it is. But is this of the least importance? The fact may reflect little credit on philosophy. But philosophy, be it critical or be it constructive, is after all the luxury of a few. It has no survival value; it may possibly hamper useful action; it certainly adds nothing to useful knowledge. We cannot therefore complain if, judging by results, we find ourselves poorly provided with the means of cultivating it with credit. We were fitted by Nature to eat, drink, multiply, and fight; not to split hairs over subtleties that hardly concern us. No wonder that few attempt the task, and that those who do can boast few acknowledged successes. We may admit that essential truth escapes us. We may suspect that the superficial convictions by whose aid an unthinking world performs its daily round are confused, unproven, perhaps inconsistent. But Nature knows her own affairs; the daily round is in fact performed. Why should we ask for more?”

Now this may be, from some points of view, a sufficient explanation of the fact that men agree so well about conclusions which are essential to practice, and so ill about premises which are essential to theory. It may be good science. It may be a valuable contribution to the natural history of our race. It may be a suitable account of instinct. But it deals only with the causes of belief; and though among other causes it refers to reasons and to reasoning, this is merely for the purpose of disparaging their authority and drawing unfavourable comparisons between their influences and those due to the lower utilities favoured by selection. Evidently it does less than nothing towards maintaining rational values.

§ 2

Perhaps it might be argued that the beliefs which are “inevitable” or “intuitively probable” are really akin to instincts, and may be treated in the same way. Like instincts they serve the practical interests of the species which possesses them. Like instincts they appear with singular uniformity in different individuals. But though these resemblances are far from negligible the differences are vital. Instincts do no more than inspire particular actions on particular occasions. Beliefs, on the other hand, have always a speculative aspect, they tend to coalesce into conceptual pictures, true or false, of reality. And while animals, including man, accept their instincts as they find them, man is never content with his conceptual pictures. He ever strives to extend their boundaries, to smooth their inconsistencies, to systematize their contents, to rationalize them, if only by fragments. Even the most backward races, I imagine, show some curiosity which is not due to fear or appetite, some inclination to theorize rooted in intellectual interest. But however this may be, it is surely true that men rarely forget, and animals never realize, how small is the field of reality that lies open to their gaze, how faintly illumined, how closely hemmed in by surrounding shadows. Always are they driven by some haunting impulse to round off the narrow map of the world they see by adding to it vast regions, material or spiritual, past or future, which they imagine or infer. Animals, who draw no maps, have no such needs; and, could they formulate the philosophy of instinct, would doubtless declare themselves uncompromising agnostics.

§ 3

But though nothing is more obvious than that men constantly speculate and reason, it must be acknowledged that speculation and reasoning have little to do with their most central convictions. These elements of their working creed, or some of them, are obviously settled for them in the nursery; grafted on their inherited aptitudes by teachers who are neither philosophers themselves, nor embarrassed by any great regard for those who are. The difficulties which meet us when we critically consider memory, perception, and self-consciousness, the cloud of perplexities which gather round our most assured convictions when they are coldly scrutinised, trouble them not at all; nor do they even suspect that man lives by beliefs which require proof but rarely obtain it, beliefs which are in any case held with a degree of certitude far in excess of anything which the proofs as yet discovered would seem to warrant.

We may well feel some surprise when we contemplate the results at which we now seem to have arrived. Here are plain men acknowledging without reserve the authority of reason, though depending in the conduct of life on beliefs which are largely unreasoned. Here are philosophers accepting in practice the familiar creed of all the world, though rarely able in their hours of reflection to agree about its foundations either with the world or with each other. Here are men of science, paying small heed to philosophers, justly boasting their reverence for experiment and observation, but as yet without any theories of induction and verification which do not assume a world of the very kind which presumably it is their business to establish. Here is naturalism finding the ultimate origin and explanation of man and his beliefs, his reasons and his ideals, in the unthinking processes of physical and organic evolution. And, most wonderful of all, here are the beliefs, reasons, and ideals of which all these disquieting things can be said, which nevertheless are true, or, at the least, are leading mankind on the way to truth! How, we may well enquire, can materials like these be welded into anything which in the least resembles a coherent whole?

§ 4

My own attempt to deal with the problem is well known to you. I expounded it, not for the first time, in the opening lectures of the present Course; and in all our wanderings over the fields of familiar beliefs it has never been far beyond our ken. It bids us abandon naturalism, with all its negations, and substitute for it a theory which teaches that reason and purpose play their part in the whole process of belief production. It requires us to reduce the physical world to a subordinate position in the universe of being. Nature we must treat not as the source of intelligence but as its instrument. Theism, in some form or other, we must regard as an essential support of our “familiar creed”; neither to be tossed aside as an irrelevant superstition, nor respectfully buried in an edifying footnote. If intellectual values are to be maintained the reality of spiritual guidance thus becomes, in my view, the most important of our fundamental assumptions.

And this for two closely related reasons, or, if you prefer it, two aspects of one reason, which, separately or together, have often been referred to in the preceding pages, though not always explicitly distinguished.

The first of them is based on the incongruity between knowledge as it exists among men and the humble origins to which naturalism traces it. But incongruity, though a convenient word, is, in this connection, an ambiguous one. The fact that in the order of natural causation we may trace back the pedigree of Newton's beliefs (as of yours or mine) through a period in which the nearest approaches to intellect were the mindless reactions of unorganized protoplasm, till we reach in imagination a yet remoter past when mindless life itself emerged from lifeless mechanism, may suggest to some a quasi-aesthetic incongruity. But, after all, the time has long gone by when the sentiment of human dignity was outraged by any scientific conclusions about the ancestry of man. The difficulty which at the moment concerns us has to do, not with man's place in the universe, but with man's beliefs about the universe. It is not sentimental, but rational; and arises from the fact that, according to Naturalism, these beliefs must in the last resort be counted among the purposeless products of physical conditions, which have no leanings towards truth, no aversion from error, no “tropisms”1 of any kind to which, in default of something better, it would be possible for perplexed humanity to appeal.

Now, as I have constantly contended,2 this is a position which is essentially incoherent. Its conclusions discredit its premises. The doctrines in which we believe throw doubts upon the truth-producing value of the process by which we have come to believe them. For we remember that these reasons are without exception not only reasons but effects. They all form part—a very insignificant part no doubt, but a part—of the causal web which constitutes the naturalistic universe. As effects they owe nothing in the last resort to reason or purpose. If snatches of reason and gleams of purpose occasionally emerge in the latest stage of the evolutionary process, this is but an accident among accidents. It neither removes our difficulty nor modifies its character. Everything we believe, we believe because in the order of causation blind matter and undirected energy happened to be distributed in a particular manner countless eons before man made his earliest entry on the cosmic stage. From this senseless stock, and from this alone, has sprung, according to naturalism, all that there is, or ever can be, of knowledge, practical or speculative, earthly or divine—including, of course, the naturalistic theory itself! How then can we treat it with respect? Whence come its credentials? The possibilities of error are countless. By what freak of fortune, by what gambler's chance, has it come about that these irrational influences have blindly but successfully shepherded mankind into the narrow way that leads to truth?

This question indicates the central point of my argument in its first or causal aspect. It deals with beliefs collectively as parts of the general system of nature. It treats them as effects, as the products of a process whose stages need not be, and for the most part are not, intellectual in their character; and it shows how their values are damaged by any naturalistic theory of their origins.

§ 5

The argument in its second form is different. We leave causes and search for reasons. We do not discuss beliefs as effects, but (unless they are axiomatic) as conclusions; and we particularly enquire into the theoretical validity of the middle principles, the inevitable beliefs, and the intuitive probabilities by which we direct our practice. It is here that we make use of methodological doubt. It is here also that we are brought face to face with the comparative failure of philosophy to reach agreement as to the manner in which fundamental truths should be sought, or the terms in which they should be formulated.

I am well aware that we are now on delicate ground. In an earlier lecture I commented on certain ethical or quasi-ethical objections to my mode of procedure: and I doubt not that it will provoke further criticisms of more than one kind. I can imagine, for example, an objector speaking somewhat as follows: “You claim Theism as the necessary support of our familiar creed. But how is this device going to better our position? If Theism provided us with reasoned truth, while Naturalism left us the sport of irrational forces, who is there who would not be a theist! But can any such doctrine be extracted from your argument? Lecture after lecture of the present Course has been devoted to showing how little our familiar creed deserves to be described as ‘reasoned truth.’ Methodological doubt has been unsparingly applied, its conclusions have been presented with uncompromising frankness, and now, to complete this edifice of paradox, you require us to infer rational guidance from the universal diffusion of irrational beliefs! Surely from thorns like these no such grapes were ever gathered! Are we to introduce the Deity into our system of beliefs for no better purpose than to lay the sceptical ghosts which we ourselves have so gratuitously raised? Are we to rest our theology upon our incompetence, our insight into Reality upon our blindness to Appearance? Are we to find our best grounds for believing in God in our failure to find good grounds for believing in anything else? Are our spiritual fortunes to be wholly based on the bankruptcy of reason?”

I wish I could feel assured that no such commentaries were possible; for if at this stage of the argument they are made in good faith they reflect severely on my powers of exposition. But I am not without misgivings on the subject, and hesitate to treat my critic, imaginary though he be, with complete neglect. Let me therefore repeat the reply which in substance, and by implication, I have often given before: Since belief, in the last resort, is a personal affair, every person may properly ask himself (though very few do) how his particular stock of leading beliefs was arrived at, and by what right he holds them with such serene assurance. I have performed this operation to the best of my capacity in my own case, and have embodied some of the results in the preceding lectures. These results, I admit, have been inconclusive. But though inconclusive I altogether deny that they can properly be described as sceptical. The truth of our leading beliefs has been assumed throughout, and my only task has been to discover on what terms this great assumption (for great assumption it is) can best be justified. So far from the argument being based on scepticism, it might be described with more plausibility, though not more truth, as based on credulity. With belief it begins, in belief it ends. And if doubt, as an instrument of research, has been freely used, it has been used for the purpose of finding the presupposition which may best contribute to the maintenance of those foregone conclusions. It must of course be granted that the Theistic framework ultimately postulated is tolerant of errors, absurdities, and superstitions. It supplies no guarantee of truth; nor would such a guarantee be of much value if truth were taken in its juridical sense, as meaning the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” as this appears to persons living under human limitations at a given level of human culture. We live in a world where knowledge grows, and, in growing, changes. The most we can hope for, the best we can conceive, is that “the inevitable beliefs,” and the “intuitive probabilities” which constitute so important a part of our working creed, should be, as I have roughly expressed it, “true or on the way to truth.” This is a doctrine which Theism can support; but strive as we may we shall hardly find foundations for it in naturalism.

Some may perhaps object that the argument in this, its second, form depends for its strength on the weakness of those who use it. “You postulate” (the objector may urge) “Divine inspiration to supplement human incompetence. You seek for an intelligent cause of belief, because good reasons for belief are not forthcoming. But the force of such an argument, even if it be good as far as it goes, must evidently be transient. With the growth of knowledge its value must vanish. When man's familiar convictions are solidly established, a speculative position will have been reached where it will be wholly worthless. Thus the completion of what you assume to be the Divine purpose, will apparently destroy your argument for the Divine existence!”

It would be interesting, and not wholly irrelevant, to ask whether, as a matter of historic fact, the growth of knowledge has so far diminished our sense of the mysteries by which we are surrounded. But the enquiry would take us too far afield, and it is simpler to suppose that the contingency contemplated by the objector has actually occurred, and to consider what bearing such an event would have on the argument under consideration.

Let us then assume that we have among us a body of philosophers who are not only well acquainted with all the difficulties which have been, or might be, suggested by the unsparing use of “methodological doubt,” but are happy in the possession of satisfactory replies. They are not as other men. They suffer from no intellectual perplexities. Their creed is defaced by no ragged edges, no discords unresolved, no beliefs whose strength outruns their evidence. Whenever proof is demanded it is forthcoming, and all their familiar beliefs are also rational convictions.

Now it is quite true that so far as their own case is concerned, these super-philosophers would not be troubled with doubts, methodological or other. They could not indeed escape from the argument in its first or causal aspect. For their creed is by hypothesis coherent; and it could not be coherent if they insisted on loading it with the theory of intellectual origins characteristic of Naturalism. But if in respect of their own beliefs they cannot disentangle themselves from the argument in its first form, so neither can they ignore the argument in its second form when they are considering the case of beings less richly endowed than themselves. What view, then, would they take of their less instructed predecessors—the unknown billions, mostly dead, who shared their creed without their insight? These unknown billions, it seems, were right. But how came they to be right? Certainly not by taking thought. So far from seeking answers to fundamental questions, it can never have occurred to the vast majority of them that such questions could even be asked. Was chance, then, their teacher?—or selection?—or some supra-mundane third?

Now this, of course, is our old problem; and I am quite unable to see how our super-philosophers, with all their advantages, could provide us with a new solution. They would surely be driven, as we have been driven, to postulate guidance; not indeed to support their own body of beliefs (for this by supposition no longer needs support) but to explain its cosmic history. How, then, can we do otherwise who are so much less happily situated, who have not yet found the answers to our methodological doubts? We are still in status pupillary. Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we are as children living by beliefs unconsciously absorbed from our surroundings, beliefs we rarely question, and, if put to it, could ill defend. If, then, guidance or inspiration must be assumed for other people even by those who have themselves escaped from the limitations by which we are beset, how much more is it required by us whose emancipation is still to come?

§ 6

And what better alternative is open to us? Some may play at universal scepticism; but after all universal scepticism is no more than the conventional make-believe of an intellectual game. Some may flatter themselves that their beliefs are always held with the exact measure of conviction which critical reason requires; but this is a piece of flagrant, even ludicrous self-deception. The doctrine I preach is nearer practical life than the first of these alternatives; nearer speculative truth than the second. I admit that it is neither full nor final—not full, because the issues it directly raises, though vital, are narrow; not final, because it openly declares itself to be, from a philosophic point of view, imperfect, transitory, and provisional. Yet those who are willing to accept it with all these limitations, may rest assured that it is something more than an exhibition of purposeless argumentation. It is based on beliefs that are really believed, and, in some shape or other, really believed by all. It does do something to bring into one perspective the causal and the cognitive aspects of knowledge, which are so impossible to separate and so hard to harmonize. It does enable us dimly to comprehend how beliefs unreasoned but compelling, how conceptions blurred in outline and confused in context, may be, I had almost said must be, among the instruments which minister to intellectual development. It does find a place of honour for ethical ideals which seem far beyond our reach; for dreams of beauty which no artist can embody; for metaphysical adventures, which discover no new continents, nor return with any hidden treasure. In a purely naturalistic universe such entities, seemingly so abortive and useless, are but alien impurities. They come we know not whence and are here we know not why. But in a developing universe, informed by purpose and guided by reason, they suggest the highest values to which we can knowingly aspire, and contain, as we may surely hope, the preparation and the presage of a great fulfilment.

  • 1.

    “Tropism” is the turning of an organism in a particular direction in response to a special stimulus. In the text it is of course used metaphorically.

  • 2.

    For the first time in “Philosophic Doubt.”

From the book: