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Synthetica: Being Meditations Epistemological and Ontological, vol. 1

1905 to 1906
University of Edinburgh

In Simon Somerville Laurie’s Gifford Lectures, delivered in 1905 and published under the title Synthetica: Being Meditations Epistemological and Ontological in 1906, we are told that the aim of the lectures is to find the ‘ultimate explanation of experience which we call by the name God’. For Laurie, ‘ultimate philosophy’ is the ‘doctrine of God’. He attempts to explain why it is that although human life involves so much pain and ‘evil’, we are ever inclined—even in this morass of murky morality and suffering—to go on living. He concludes that life is a ‘mystery’ to be revered, not lamented, because without mystery we would never seek knowledge at all. We would never toil or struggle. We would never have ‘hope’.

This fascination with the ultimate “mystery” of life is not unscientific, Laurie contends. Science improves upon our knowledge of phenomena, while religious progress improves upon our knowledge of the unity of those phenomena. As he argues in the Meditations: ‘When the man of science seeks to explain the ultimate grounds of his own unquestioned phenomenal verities, he is lost in wonder and contradictions similar to those which beset his primeval ancestors … the same unsolved problems meet him which threw his progenitors into the arms of superhuman beings, and, which, from the first, pointed to universal Being and eternal Spirit, as the sole final resting-place. The series of phenomena arranged under the causal notion themselves demand explanation.’

Laurie spends much of the Meditations explaining that through belief and mystic ‘feeling’, humans can go beyond their perceptual knowledge to gain knowledge of God and his ‘Absolute Being’. In part, we can do this by introspecting and discovering those ‘universal tendencies’ within our lives in which all other human beings partake and which are the signature mark of an eternal God who, in creating us, has made us a part of his Divine Being. Ultimately, those universal tendencies—such as the universal desire to live, or to avoid death—point to an underlying unity of all phenomena.

Laurie’s thesis is that humans are constantly on the hunt for ‘unity in diversity’, both religiously and scientifically. The progress we make in disclosing this underlying unity is what (spiritual) history is made of; it is our dialectical movement as finite beings through the infinite universe. In our dialectical progress, Laurie argues, we are guided by ‘ends’, or ‘ideals’. Those ideals include Truth, Beauty and Love. The whole process of conceiving such ideals, and searching for them, constitutes the dialectic development of humanity. Here we see Laurie’s own version of Hegelian dialectics most clearly. He argues that in life we are constantly synthesizing our ‘experiences’ with our idealized notion of God. We reflect upon the ‘diverse wholes’ we encounter in the world, and in so doing we get a ‘feeling of indefiniteness of space and objects in space’. That is, our ‘Will’—that internal striving to find the Absolute and understand it—brings the transcendent Being of God into this world. This is what Laurie defines as the ‘Will-dialectic’.

This ‘impulse’ to search for the One, and the unity that underlies all phenomena, cannot be revealed by appealing to some a priori principles, as philosophers before him had tried to do, Laurie says. Rather, we must infer it from experience—in particular, those ‘universal experiences’ mentioned above. But most important for Laurie is the universal feeling of hope. Apart from the mentally ill or the deranged, we all partake in the experience and feeling of hope, in particular, hope for a life after death. This feeling is ubiquitous throughout various historical epochs and societal groupings, he argues. Indeed, it is a universal form of mysticism. The mystic, Laurie argues, feels ‘Being and awaits its inspiration—the divine inflow’. The ‘mystic’ emphasizes the ‘infinite in man’. Laurie argues that in searching for God we must first perceive humanity’s universal tendencies and, in so doing, ‘feel’ God in the mystical harmony that accrues to us as a result.

God is always in us, always with us; we are one aspect of his life, Laurie concludes. Meanwhile, ‘contradictions’ such as death, pain and evil (Laurie calls them ‘contradictions’ because they seem to run against the Christian idea of a loving God), are mere ‘puzzles’ that we must work through.

Laurie argues that people are all too willing to define pain, injury and moments of suffering as unjustified evils. The fact is that if our ‘end’ is a reunification with the Absolute and Divine in Spirit, then we must struggle to achieve it. Otherwise, there would be no differentiation between God and humanity. ‘Man is necessarily a failure because God himself affirms a higher [power] in him than can be mediated here,’ Laurie says. If harmony and unification with the Divine were immediate and effortless, then ‘Man’ would be ‘God’, he writes. Suffering and evil, therefore, play an important role in our spiritual growth. ‘Evils’ teach us to search for, hope for and, ultimately, find the eternal good of God, while the ‘mystery’ of life pushes us to look for the good yet to come. Suffering and pain push us to hope for redemption and to restrain from those passions that lead us into evil. This is the final message of the Meditations, for as Laurie concludes: ‘It is only through pain and sorrow, through evil, through error, repentance and contrition, and through intellectual doubt and difficulty, that a man can achieve for himself the fulfilment of himself’.

  • Josipa Petrunic, University of Edinburgh