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God and Nature

1919 to 1921
University of Edinburgh

Stout espouses the great purpose of his lectures on the first page of God and Nature. It is addressing the question: ‘What is the ultimate nature of the all-inclusive Universe and what consequently is the status and destiny of human beings as parts of it’? In the first book ofGod and Nature, he argues that it is possible to draw from our observations of nature a reasonable assessment of the characteristics of its whole. Moreover, in arguments which advocate a theistic universe, he asserts that something of the mind of God can be ascertained: ‘mind is not merely something that is transient and incidental, but is primary and ultimate in the constitution of the universe’. Stout concludes the first book by rejecting the agnostic positions of Herbert Spencer and the Scholastics and warning of the intrinsic danger of evading difficult questions by asserting that they are unknowable to the finite mind.

In book two, ‘The Unity of the Universe’, Stout begins by rebuffing Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore’s pluralist assertion that the ‘universe so conceived is just a collection of items’ and, as such, there is little possibility of unity. He argues that this is not the essential character of the universe and strongly asserts that the component parts of a system are, at least to some degree, representative of the whole. While Stout discards Russell’s theory as tendering a fragmentary and dissociated universe, he equally opposes Hegelian Absolutism because of its inability to cope with apparent contradictions and the existence of change. Whereas Hegel established the presence of God in the universe in its absolute nature, Stout finds a place for God in a teleological process of change and succession. Returning to Russell, Stout systematically defines his theory of knowledge in order to refute his general premise. For Russell, knowledge of particulars gives no insight into universals. ‘In what sense’, Stout asks, ‘is it necessary to know a thing in order that we may be able to know about it?’ Here again, Stout stresses his philosophical dependency on the ability of knowing something of the whole from knowledge of some of its parts.

The third book, ‘Matter and Our Knowledge of It’, covers much of what Stout addressed inMind and Matter. He discusses various philosophies of knowing and gives primary consideration to the distinction between particulars and universals. Ultimately, he argues, ‘the source of all knowledge is knowledge of certain particulars, independently founded on immediate experience’. Stout also expends great energy defining the mind’s knowing of the material world through the data collected by our senses (sensum), arguing that although this data is mental in nature, the mind can still truly acquire knowledge of matter. Hence, our knowledge of matter or the material is never complete, but it need not be. The third book is significant both in volume and content, but largely serves to support and reiterate the relationship between mind and body as defined in Mind and Matter.

Book four discusses the relationship between mind and sense perceptions. Stout argues that sensa (those things that are sensed) only exist in being experienced and as a result it can be argued that matter exists only as experienced. In his rejection of materialism inMind and Matter, he asserted that mind cannot be generated by matter. Here, in book four of God and Nature, he argues for the dependency of matter’s existence on the mind, thus giving mind a primacy over matter. As a result, Stout rejects ‘mind-stuff theories’ and Monadism as being untenable. Instead he suggests a ‘Universal Mind’ of undivided purpose and will which has a teleological relationship to the world and progressively makes its will manifest in the world. This is not necessarily through the control of matter, which a Universal Mind may or may not have created, but in the creation of finite minds.

Book five addresses ‘Our Knowledge of Ourselves, Other Minds and God’. Stout argues that we know of other finite minds because of our knowledge of our own minds and because the minds of others resemble our own. Following this line of argument, he suggests if we can know something of other minds, we can know something, however finite, of the Universal Mind. Moreover, our minds are fundamentally teleological in nature, which Stout suggests is indicative of both a prior teleological will and a teleological order in the universe. Together this creates an interlocking teleological system of finite minds within the universe. Here, Stout argues for a cognitive unity which implies a unity in the universe, for ‘nothing can be or become known except in so far as it has formal being’. Finally, the author argues for unity in the universe through a unity of interest, which is borne out in an interest in unity, moral life and more comprehensively in forms of religion and religiously moral sentiment. The evidence of the highest level of unity in the universe is manifest in moral good, because the general order of the universe is an Ideal Good. Good does not exclude the presence of evil, however. Stout suggests the existence of good is incomplete without the existence of evil, for the greatest good cannot be attained unless it overcomes evil.

  • R. Scott Spurlock, University of Edinburgh