Tuesday, December 6, 2016

French Theories of the Universe

Two recent articles in the Revue des Deux Mondes form together a curious contribution to the best kind of periodical literature. The first is a letter from M. Renan to his friend M. Berthelot, called “Les Sciences de la Nature et les Sciences Historiques.” The other is M. Berthelot's answer to M. Renan, entitled “La Science Idéale et la Science Positive.” These two articles deal with a question which presses every day more and more weightily on the consideration of every intelligent man —the question, namely, what are the inferences which the great advance of science suggests as to the true nature of human life and the prospects of man after death—in other words, as to the fundamental propositions of natural religion. What does M. Renan find in his scholarship, and M. Berthelot in his chemistry, in the last resort? Are we, the human race, such stuff as brutes (as we conceive them) are made of, and is our little life rounded with a sleep unbroken even by dreams? To discuss those antinomies of theological questions which divide different Christian schools and churches is as far from our duty as from our inclination, but upon points like those raised by M. Renan and M. Berthelot any one may be excused for saying a word who feels their infinite importance, and knows with what point and edge such speculations come home to thousands whose ordinary life shows few traces of interest in any subject of the kind. It is possible, no doubt, to employ upon such topics any quantity of learning; but after mountains of illustrations have been heaped up, and endless refinements in the way of argument have been devised, the points at issue resolve themselves at last into comparatively plain questions, which are not beyond the reach of common intelligence, and which it is imperatively necessary for every one who cares to live on principle, and not at hazard, to solve for his own practical purposes.

M. Renan's article is to the following effect. Whilst spending his summer near St. Malo, it occurred to him that the physical sciences were far superior to the historical sciences. As to history, he considers we know something worth knowing of the history of the last few centuries. We are also acquainted with the leading facts of the history of the leading nations of the world for a time which, though much longer, is probably very short in comparison with the whole duration of the human race. By a study of the languages and a comparison of the myths of different races, we may get further back, and may probably succeed in acquiring considerable knowledge of the character and condition of the tribes which existed before history began. This we have been enabled to some extent to do by the help of comparative mythology and the science of language. Thanks to these investigations, “we see the primitive Aryans, the common ancestors of the Greeks, the Latins, the Germans, the Slaves, before their dispersion, with more clearness than that with which we see certain actually existing societies in Africa and Central Asia.” From comparative mythology, we go back to geology, which considerably extends our view, especially if we adopt what M. Renan calls “the best-established principle of natural philosophy — namely, that the development of the world is produced without the intervention of any exterior being acting by what Malebranche calls particular volitions.” Geology, upon this hypothesis, goes back a very long way—as far, indeed, as the time when the planet Earth first branched off from the mass which preceded it. Here astronomy takes up the history, and shows how the sun was, so to speak, the parent of the earth.  Upon this M. Renan makes a strangely fanciful but characteristic remark:--
‘Before religion reached the point of proclaiming that God ought to be put in the Absolute and the Ideal, that is to say, out of the world, one religion only was reasonable and scientific, the worship of the sun. The sun is our mother-country and the special God of our planet.’

For the explanation of this singular observation we must resort to chemistry.  That science proves that heat is the proximate cause of almost everything, and, indeed, the equivalence of force; and the sun is the source of heat.  Thus the sun is a sort of physical first cause, beyond which we in this little world cannot go, though there may be other suns, the centres, and so to speak, the local Gods of other systems.

Even chemistry, however, is not the end of all things.  Mechanics precede chemistry:--
‘By mechanics we are transported into a world composed of pure atoms, or, to speak more correctly, of forces free from all chemical properties.  In this primitive state of things, where everything has one appearance and there was no distinct individuality, mechanics reigned alone.’
Whether such a state of things ever existed in fact, M. Renan will not undertake to say; but if it did, we are there at an end. Whether there was anything before this, the human mind cannot assert. Indeed, in reference to such a state of things, the word before” has little or no signification. Arrived at the atomic period, we stand on the limits of the universe;—“Here our reason is swallowed up. All science stops. Analogy is silent. The antinomies of Kant rise up like impassable barriers.” Possibly mathematics may help us out. The differential and integral calculus may or may not have preceded the atoms, and have made their way over, under, or through the antinomies of Kant; but M. Renan does not think much is to be got out of pure mathematics:–“They teach us, nothing of the development of being; they show in what categories it was determined from all eternity that being should exist, assuming that it had to exist at all.”

This is the point at which M. Renan introduces his religion. “Two elements—time and a tendency to progress—explain the universe.” Something more than the flip (chiquenaude) of Descartes is wanted to account for the perfections of the world:—
‘We must admit in the universe what is remarked in plants and animals— an interior force, which impels the germ to fill a frame traced out for it beforehand. . . . . There is an obscure consciousness of the universe which tends to make itself, a secret spring which pushes possibilities into existence.’
After illustrating at length this tendency to progress, and to consciousness as a form of progress, M. Renan makes it the occasion of a sort of prophecy. The world (including all existing things on this planet under that word) will go on improving, till at last, perhaps, some colossal intelligent creature will manage to transcend the sphere of a single planet, starting either from this world or elsewhere, and will contrive to communicate with other spheres—an exploit which, as far as we can judge, has never yet been performed in any part of the solar system. At some remote period, too, the last secrets of chemistry will perhaps be discovered, and the universe transformed by their adaptation, “Space no longer existing” for such a being, “he will pass the limits of his planet. A single power will really govern the world—namely, science, spirit.” Then follows a passage to which the rest has served as an introduction, and which deserves to be translated in full:—
‘God will then be complete, if the word God is made the synonym of all existence. In this sense God rather will be than is; he is in fieri; he is on the way to make himself. But to stop there would be a very incomplete theology. God is more than total existence; he is at the same time the absolute. He is that order in which mathematics, metaphysics, and logic are true; he is the place of the ideal, the living principle of the good, the beautiful, and the true. Thus viewed, God fully and unreservedly is; he is eternal and immutable, without progress or becoming.’
The next topic is the future prospects of men. “Consciousness,” says M. Renan, “is a resultant,” and “resultants disappear with the organisms from which they proceed.” The soul, however, is something more than consciousness. “The soul is nowhere” (has no relation to space), “for men often act more strongly at a distance of a thousand leagues than in the place where they live.  The soul is where it acts, where it loves. God being the ideal, the object of all love, God is essentially the place of souls.” Hence, when—to use M. Renan's strange language—“God has completed himself,” all men will live again. What is permanent in them will be represented, and will find its place in that order of things which, by another curious use of language, M. Renan calls the kingdom of God.

To this singular confession of faith M. Berthelot, to whom it is addressed, replies by an attempt to trace the distinction between positive and ideal science. By various illustrations he shows how, from the simplest and most familiar fact—the illustration which he chooses is the fact that a lamp gives light—we are led on from one general truth to another, until at last we are able to arrange all the phenomena with which we are acquainted under a number of general formulas which are the highest objects of our knowledge. This is positive science, which includes morals, and also metaphysics when rightly understood. The important passage of this article is as follows:–
‘At last, at the top of the scientific pyramid, are placed the great moral sentiments of humanity — that is, the sentiment of the beautiful, the true, and the good — which collectively constitute the ideal. These sentiments are facts revealed by the study of human nature. Behind the true, the beautiful, and the good, humanity has always felt, without knowing it, that there exists a sovereign reality in which this ideal resides — that is to say, God, the centre and mysterious and inaccessible unity, to which universal order converges. Sentiment alone can lead us thither; its aspirations are legitimate, so long as it keeps within its own domain, and does not pretend to translate itself into the region of positive facts by dogmatic a priori announcements.’
By ideal science M. Berthelot appears to mean the attempts which men are “driven to make by an imperious necessity” to construct a general theory of the universe. It differs, he adds, from positive science in the imperfection of its results. They vary from time to time, and from man to man. M. Berthelot's notion of ideal science and of its value may be gathered from the following remarks:—
‘Ideal science is not, like positive science, formed entirely by a continuous series of facts, connected by the aid of certain and demonstrable relations. The general notions at which each particular science arrives are disjointed and separated from each other even in the same science, and, above all, from one science to another. To join and form them into a complete tissue we must recur to conjecture, to the imagination. We must fill up voids and prolong lines. It is, in a manner, an edifice hid behind a cloud, and of which we see only some outlines. It is necessary to construct it, for every man makes it in his turn, and constructs a complete system of the universe in his own way, and according to his intelligence and feeling; but we must not be deceived on the character of such a structure. The higher we rise in the order of consequences, the further we leave observed facts, the more our certainties, or rather our probabilities, diminish. Thus, whilst positive science once established never varies, ideal science constantly varies and will always do so.’
Such is the general purport of these two remarkable articles. They represent pretty faithfully the sort of way in which men whose lives are passed in purely scientific pursuits, and who are perfectly free from those conventional restraints, which in our own country make it so difficult to speak with entire freedom on such subjects, are in the habit of thinking on the nature of God and the future state of men. What is to be said of it by those whose lot is cast in another sphere, who have to transact from day to day the common affairs of life, and to regulate their own conduct by direct reference to principles capable of being practically applied to definite actions — to the education of children, the advocacy of this or that course of public policy or private conduct, the discharge or neglect of what is asserted to be a social, professional, or personal duty, the choice of a profession or of a wife, or the transaction of any other important matter? Take, for instance, a simple and not very uncommon case. A man sees before him two paths in life, either of which he can take with credit to himself, and without violating any positive moral rule. One path would lead to wealth, power, and distinction; the other would enable him to benefit a considerable number of his fellow-creatures. All his own inclinations point towards the adoption of the first course. He likes wealth, display, and reputation, and cares very little for his fellow-creatures, and not at all for the opinion which they may form of him during his life or after his death.  It is obvious that such a person’s conduct will be much influenced by the fact that he either does or does not believe in a God taking notice of his conduct, and in some way or other punishing or rewarding it here or hereafter. Such a reflection as this—“My talents are a trust, and if I betray that trust it will in some way or other be the worse for me in the long run"—will impose on such a man's conduct an inward check which nothing else in the world can compensate. Neither M. Renan nor M. Berthelot much concerns himself with such questions. The latter leaves them on one side. The former touches on them in his mystical way:–
‘The place of man in God, the opinion which absolute justice has of him, the rank which he holds in the true world, which is the world according to God—in a word, his part of the general consciousness-is his true being. This moral being of each of us is so truly our inmost I that great men sacrifice to it their life according to the flesh, abridging, their days and, if necessary, enduring death for their true life, which is their part (rôle) in humanity.’
Since God, according to M. Renan, is the sum total of all existence, from the antinomies of Kant down through all the periods of geology to Louis Napoleon and his contemporaries, including, amongst others, Fieschi, Thistlewood, and Palmer the poisoner—plus the Absolute, the Ideal, and some other neuter adjectives, and plus all future existences of every description—it is extremely hard to understand to what these great men do, after all, sacrifice themselves. What is the difference between a man's apparent, being, or what common people would call the man himself, and his true being—his “part in the general consciousness”? They are the same thing considered from different points of view; and how can any human creature even honestly affect to consider himself, in reference to all existence, absolute and relative, past, present, and future, and then to sacrifice his real self to this ideal self, or moi intime? Imagine a man trying to conceive of himself in reference to the differential calculus or the Great Wall of China, both of which are integral parts of M. Renan's God. The truth is that, in this wild career through infinite time and space, the ablest man comes surprisingly soon to talk what, in plain words, is mere nonsense. So long as M. Renan sums up the results and points out the relations of different sciences, he is in a way interesting, though even then, to a sober mind, there is something half puerile in these efforts to get a bird's-eye view of billions of ages and boundless realms of space; but when he gets to regions where, as he finds out at last (he might have found it out some time before), words cease to have any assignable meaning, it becomes clear that he is talking wildly. The whole of his language about consciousness is open to this objection. That, as far as human science goes, there is order, harmony, and regular succession, is, no doubt, perfectly true; but how does it follow from this that the universe itself, as a whole, has consciousness, or that those parts of it which are generally described as brute matter are in any sense not brute matter? Is there the least reason to suppose that a block of granite has the faintest or most obscure sort of consciousness—such, for instance, as one might ascribe to a sea anemone? If one block has not, why should a hundred million have any, let them be arranged as symmetrically as you please? Whether the symmetry takes the shape of successive geological strata, or of St. Paul's Cathedral, the inference is not that the thing feels. The disposition which leads a man to ascribe consciousness to the world because it displays harmony ought to lead him much more to ascribe intelligence to pictures or steam-engines. The size of the illustration has nothing to do with the argument. Indeed, size itself is purely relative. When M. Renan has stunned us with his infinities of time and space we may shake off the effect in a moment by reflecting that they look so big only because we are but six feet high, and have so many thoughts per second. Men and their ways would seem as big to one of Pascal's cheesemites of the second order, yet a being of that size might be so organized as to be a great philosopher. Infinity is only a nightmare. There is no real reason why we should trouble ourselves with the molecular period. Human nature, and even a moderately large section of it, contains within its own borders quite evidence enough to support the inferences practically required for the regulation of our minds and of our conduct; and this evidence supplies, the starting-point from which we really set out in such inquiries, and on which the molecular period and the vast wilderness thinly peopled by geology sheds a scarcely perceptible light. Let natural philosophy teach what facts it pleases, man is the starting-point from which human speculation sets out, and molecules and their centuries interest us only if, and in so far as, they enable us to understand ourselves better.

Taking, then, human nature as the starting-point, what do we find? A marvellous chaos superimposed upon a still more marvellous cosmos. Analyse yourself, and in the last result you get nothing but a set of sensations of which the greater part consists of recollections of past sensations, almost all the rest of anticipations of future sensations, whilst a thin film called the present remains, which melts away as you look at it. It is possible to carry such a process so far that there is nothing left to analyse, and that the process itself, and the principles on which it depends, appear absurd. Under this shifting surface, however, something is dimly perceived which our language names imperfectly, and which eludes analysis. When every form of thought and sensation has been counted up, the “I” still remains behind, and that “I” can neither be resolved into something else nor fully described first is, that some governing principle of action is absolutely necessary to the conduct of life; and the next, that the visible or tangible order of things in which we live does not of itself supply such a principle.  To any one of average sensibility and decency the notion of living like an animal from day to day, under the impulse of whatever passion may for the moment come uppermost, is absolutely intolerable. Not only would society be impossible on such a system, but the life of each individual would be an insufferable burden.

But how can we escape from this degrading slavery? By reflecting, it may be said, on the interests, and attending to the orders and existing regulations, of society at large. Morals have a base of their own — namely, the general good of mankind—and are independent of anything more. This is, no doubt, true as regards the theory of morality. It is perfectly possible to understand moral, social, and political systems without referring to anything beyond them, but why should I obey them? They are made by men of like passions to myself, men for whom I have little regard; and how can men like myself bind me, except, indeed, in a ludicrously imperfect manner as to a few outward acts?  They can hang me for murder, or send me to prison for theft, or blame me for dishonourable conduct; but what human law or system of morality can assert supremacy or exercise authority over the thoughts of my heart, the general direction of my feelings, the choice of my objects in life, the regulation of my affections? If these are governed merely by my own passions, I am as much at sea as before. It is a very small matter that I am lashed off like a dog, by legal or social penalties, from my neighbour's life, or wife, or purse. Nothing can rule the thoughts of the heart, and give harmony to that internal life of which outward acts are but the pale o except some one essentially higher, better, wiser, and greater than I, whom I can regard with personal feelings of reverence, fear, hope, and confidence; and it is the sense of this which has set men in all ages to seek the footsteps of God in the world without and in the world within. It is from what they learn in their own hearts and souls, in their families, in their nations, in every relation of life that appeals to human sympathy — and these things, though not bigger, are infinitely greater and nobler than billions of empty centuries and trillions of senseless molecules, even if we throw the differential and integral calculus into the bargain —that men learn to seek after God. To say that they are successful in the search, as a chemist is successful in eliminating an acid or a metal from the mass which he analyses, would be to misunderstand their object. No rational person expects such success. Whatever physical philosophers may suppose, men are not such fools as to think that God is an old man sitting on a cloud and sometimes working a miracle, nor do they cease to believe in God because thunder can be referred to electricity. The God to whom a reverent use of reason obscurely points, and whom the only language that we can use most dimly indicates, is of necessity supposed by us to be one who shares with man, or rather from whom man derives, his noblest gifts— namely, thought, feeling, individual consciousness. It is from a consideration of the endless difficulties and contradictions which the play of these faculties and the passions annexed to them produce if no such Being exists to give them unity, and of the harmony—partial no doubt, and intricate, but still a harmony not quite too vast and mighty to be heard — which, upon the supposition that there is such a Being, would appear to pervade the whole moral world, that we are led to believe in a God.  That our conceptions on the subject are most imperfect, and our language unsatisfactory and stammering, are old truths; but, unless we and all our feelings and interests are a mad and bottomless confusion (whatever the molecules and the geological strata may be), these confused thoughts and words point not only to a truth, but to the truth which gives the rest their value. Of course human words as applied to God are not only unsatisfactory, but to a certain extent hypothetical. To speak of God as a father, a ruler, a maker, or creator, is no doubt to use imperfect metaphors; but, grievous as are our imperfections of thought and language, these metaphors do point towards the facts which we want to describe, and which we have reason to believe to exist. They do supply the mind with an object which it can bring into an assignable relation with the various affairs of life, and such language as M. Renan's does not. What conceivable use is there in having one name for the sum total of actual existence, plus all sorts of neuter adjectives like the Absolute and the Good? What does it matter whether or not there is such a being as M. Renan's God? The world at large, and human beings in particular, would do just as well without him or it. The world, according to M. Renan, equals God minus the neuter adjectives; and they are mere phrases, and it makes very little real difference whether they are put on one side of the equation or the other.

Whatever may be the weakness of the current language on the subject, it has one point of invincible strength. It asserts that there is a Being upon the assumption of whose existence we can regulate our conduct, using that word in its widest sense, in a reasonable way. If there is no such Being, or if we ought not to permit our conduct to be influenced by the probability that there may be one, all human life falls into irretrievable confusion, or into an order worse than confusion. Men become the slaves of their passions, their feelings, and their circumstances, and there is no longer any source left from which they can deduce a title either to the obedience or even to the affections of their neighbours. The molecules may be symmetrical, the geological strata may be regular; it may be possible to show, as a matter of fact, how many pounds of love and scruples of reverence are to be found in the world, and what is their chemical action; but at the heart of all this symmetry lies a moral chaos inhabited by human beasts distinguished from their fellow brutes by superior cunning. The tamest and least energetic of them grovel about after beef and mutton and babies, whilst the sturdier specimens get such excitement out of their short existence as is to be found in oppressing their neighbours and fighting each other: It would be strange to meet, in such a wilderness, a candid and pensive creature, who passed his time in drawing a vast fancy picture of the universe, past, present, and future, and grouping the figures, with fantastic pathos, so as to fall into the shape of the three letters G O D.

Saturday Review, December 12, 1863.

No comments:

Post a Comment