Friday, 10 July 2015


Leaves from a Layman's Notebook.
 "Who by searching can find out God? Who can find out the Almighty unto perfection ? " No one ; and that for the simple reason that he is not God. It would take a God perfectly to comprehend a God, and man as a limited creature cannot possibly do so. The finite cannot only never transcend the infinite, it can never reach it, and if it could reach it human speech could not express it. It is a fundamental law of all logic that there can be nothing in the conclusion that was not previously in the premisses; and as human searchings and human findings have from the necessities of the case all the limitations of humanity, how from such premisses can we work out an infinite conclusion? If this is so, it may be asked, what becomes of all the arguments from natural theology ? The answer is that these arguments are good as far as they go, and that it has always been a mistake to press them further and to contend that what little we have found out about the universe proves an infinite Creator. The argument from natural theology is a scientific argument, and in using it the theologians become scientists for the nonce. It is an argument based on what we know, and is an inference therefrom, and holds good so long as what we know is not upset by further knowledge, and so long as the inference does not go beyond what it is based upon ; and this of course gives us two very obvious limitations, for in the first place our information is extremely limited, and in the second place our inference is bounded by the measure of our information, except so far as we indulge in presumptions, analogies, and guesses. J. S. Mill put very forcibly the weak point in the argument from natural theology when he said it was necessary to take into our consideration the difficulties of the system of nature which went to show, either that the Author of the universe was not perfectly benevolent, or else that He was not perfectly able to carry out his wishes. If we are to reason exclusively from nature, and from the evidences of design therein, we must not pick and choose, but take the whole as it stands. Theologians have sometimes met this argument by saying that in the presence of difficulties we should distrust our own judgment, and believe that there is some wise though hidden purpose in what seems at first sight to be a bad arrangement, because we may rest confident that a perfectly wise Creator could not have blundered in his work. But this is obviously arguing in a circle. We must not first prove the perfectness of the author from the perfectness of his works, and then prove the perfectness of the works from the perfectness of the author. When the argument fits, we do not distrust our own judgment. On the contrary, we consider ourselves competent to pronounce on the wisdom of creation, competent to say that so and so is a marvellous adaptation of means to end, and beneficent withal ; and, therefore, when that wisdom is impugned we are bound to face the objection ; it is not open to us to take refuge in the excuse that we have no means of judging. If we could not judge there could be no natural theology. If we are in a position to say that any visible arrangement is infinitely wise, we are equally in a position to say the opposite ; if we are good judges in the one case, we are equally good judges in the other. But there is a sound and substantial natural theology possible if we are prepared to accept it for what it is — namely, as a cumulative argument, but as having only a provisional value, subject to makeweight on the other side, but possessing an ever-increasing balance of probabilities.
 We should ever bear in mind the difference between theology and religion, and recollect that theology, like all the other ologies, is a science, and like all science is simply a gradual groping. No one can clear up for himself any one of the mysteries of nature, and find the whole of it within the compass of his understanding, and that for the reason that no truths are isolated, but are all interlaced. They are not detached molecules, they are interwoven fibres. No doubt the great system of truth is one; but then its circuit is infinite, and no man can take that journey. The life of each one of us is as but a point on that untraversable circumference, nor can we from any point on that circumference strike straight to the very centre and heart of the system of things, for our passage is barred by invincible entanglement. The field of knowledge is to man a wilderness of facts in apparent confusion. All round the edge the men of science are busy clearing away, recovering the ground from the wilderness of nature and mapping out the reclaimed land into regular and symmetrical parterres. The domain of human knowledge may be represented by a rim of cultivation surrounding a wilderness — an edge of light surrounding a mysterious darkness. To increase the breadth of this border is the aim and tendency of science ; in the centre is the mystery of mysteries. To make some little approach towards that is all that is possible for any one of us. The "connection of the sciences " — that is the running into one another of the cleared patches as they are enlarged— shows the tendency to meet in the centre, while the enormous area to be reclaimed shows the distance of that centre. What is already known, little as it is, of the whole is so much that it is the work of a man's life time to traverse it, even with all the appliances provided for such travel. The bulk of what is known we know only by report, and our scientific men have to exercise faith in each other.
 Coleridge, who felt the incompleteness of the mere argument from natural theology, who saw that science could never give an infinite conclusion, and that it was inconvenient to wait till science had spoken its last word, laboured hard to show that the basis of religion and the proof of all that wanted proving lay within us, and not around us — in the subjective, and not in the objective. He brought his study of the German metaphysics to bear on the question, and laboured to reinstate the argument by insisting on the distinction between the reason and the understanding, using the former as practically equivalent to the spiritual instinct, and the latter as referring to the reason and argumentative powers. The terms were a little confusing, because reasoning was not the work of the reason, but of the understanding — that is the lower faculty; and Coleridge was so wanting in strength of will, in tenacity of purpose, and in a rigorous adherence to his fundamental thought, and so discursive and diffusive that he never put his argument into a simple and coherent shape. But he powerfully affected a large circle of finely-touched minds, and formed a new school within the Church of England as well as outside it. Carlyle laughed at him a great deal without apparently seeing that his own moral philosophy, and his own theology, such as it was, rested substantially on the same distinction, and that for his deep beliefs he never rested on his logical faculty. The sense of duty with, him was based on what Kant calls 'the categorical imperative,' and which is the resonant echo from the deepest recesses of our spiritual being.
 When we say that we are going to prove a thing, what do we mean ? We mean that we are going to show a rational connection between what we know or take for granted and something else that follows as a necessary consequence ; and of such reasoning there are two sorts — first, the inductive, in which we argue from a group of harmonious facts to the general law which expresses them all ; and secondly, deductive, in which we argue downwards from the law towards the individual fact. All natural theology is inductive— we argue from a mass of observed facts towards a law, but from the very nature of the argument we can prove nothing more than the facts themselves tell. If, on the contrary, we read nature starting from a prior axiom that there has been an all-wise and all-powerful Creator, then we argue deductively, and the objector, if there is one, turns upon us to know how we came by our fundamental assumption.
 The atheistical, or as they now prefer to call themselves the agnostical, members of the scientific school, have sometimes made themselves very merry over the impossibility of proving the existence of a God, quite forgetting that they are in the same dilemma themselves. We are all rowing in the same boat, whether we are theologians or savans. Science rests entirely on a basis of unprovable assumption. We assume the existence of matter and force. We cannot prove either. The moment we try our logical faculty on the demonstration, we find that the conclusion escapes us. Bishop Berkeley, thinking he was doing religion a service, whereas he was only advancing the cause of metaphysical science, long ago produced an incontrovertible argument to show that of logical proof of the existence of the external world there was none. All that we really know is that there are phenomena, or appearances, which is only saying that we have the subjective impressions of such a thing, but that there are realities corresponding to such appearances we do not prove and cannot prove. Who by searching can find out matter ? No one. Berkeley came to the conclusion that because it was not provable it did not exist, in which he was illogical, for we can no more disprove it than prove it. Science, however, is quite right in going on the presumption of it, for, if matter does not exist, things are as if it did, and for the purposes of our investigation one hypothesis is just as good as the other.
 The metaphysicians are in no better case. Fichte took up the argument of Berkeley and pushed it further, and showed that by exactly the same line of reasoning there was no proof of our individual existence. We think that we exist, and that we have such and such impressions ; but we cannot prove that the thought is not an illusion, in other words, evidence of consciousness is not a whit more substantial, or less impugnable, than the evidence of the senses ; and yet we are quite right, in studying our consciousness, in assuming that it gives good testimony, in recording that testimony, in comparing it, and verifying it. In this way we build up our system of metaphysics on the subjective evidence of consciousness, just as we build up our science on the objective evidence of our senses. One is just as good as the other. They are both based on unprovable assumptions; they are both fallible, but by means of comparison and correction we can eliminate errors and get towards truth.

The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 31 January 1885

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