Friday, January 6, 2017

M. Dupont-White on a future state

The February numbers of the Revue des Deux Mondes contain an article by M. Dupont-White, entitled “Positivisme," which is a very good specimen of the sort of speculation which those who prefer the reach to the English intellect hold up to our admiration. In style, manner, and intention it is certainly an excellent composition, but it appears to us to afford an almost perfect illustration of the fundamental distinction between the French and the English modes of thought, and a remarkable confirmation of the opinion which we have frequently expressed as to the suppriority of the latter.

M. Dupont-White begins his essay by saying—‘You can define positivism in two words. It is the science which affirms that, in professing to know nothing but matter, the properties of matter, the laws of matter, it is sufficient for man.” He proceeds to give an interesting sketch of the special opinions of Comte, and of the description given of them by his chief disciple, M. Littré. He goes on to say—“Positivism then is, above all, an excommunication of religion and philosophy." It rejects them because they are conjectures not justified by facts. This conclusion naturallv revolts M. Dupont-White, and his article is an attempt to show that it is not a legitimate consequence of accepting in good faith the results of modern science. That the progress of science does throw great light on theology he fully admits. He spends several excellent pages in showing how vast has been the change produced by it in modern feeling and opinion. He observes with great force and truth on the impossibility under which the Roman Catholic Church is laid of reconciling itself with the progress of reason. Its whole theory of human life, as he most truly says, is altogether opposed to all that we include under the name of progress:—
‘There are in modern society two things with which the Church cannot put tip—Right and Life, nothing less. How can it admit human rights when, in their name, people immediately demand liberty of worship? The Church cannot even permit liberty of conscience. Those who profess to be themselves the very truth cannot suffer error by their side; they lie under a formal obligation to intolerance and proselytism; they cannot support what the Protestant communions support, at least in England, where Catholicism, instead of being persecuted as it formerly was, is taught in schools supported by the State.’
He next examines the current philosophy of the day, and, after an interesting and sympathetic account of the brilliant writers and remarkable theories which found so much favour in France when the generation to which M. Dupont-White himself belongs was young, he arrives at the conclusion that
‘Metaphysics have not understood the modern world, and cannot answer the modern perplexities, any more than religion. It is by this void, this silence, that religion and metaphysics have raised up positivism. Has this doctrine filled the void and supplied the place of the silent oracles?’
This is the substance of the first of M. Dupont-White’s articles.  The second article aims at answering the question in the negative, and in showing how the void which positivism has failed to fill ought to be attempt M. Dupont-White has no doubt an easy task. There is no difficulty at all in showing that a way of thinking which stops short at death, and which presents to our affections and thoughts no object more impressive or attractive than an abstraction called Humanity, leaves unanswered the most interesting of the questions which men have been in the habit of asking themselves ever since the human race first began to think and to record its thoughts. After discharging this part of his task, he comes to put forward his own principles, and though we agree to a considerable extent in his results, we feel not only that the arguments by which he supports them are weak, but that the fact that they so frequently are supported by weak arguments is one principal reason why men doubt and rebel against them. His doctrine is summed up in the following words:—“We carry in ourselves the authentic notion of another life; we know that in the same way as we know everything of importance to our present life, whether physical or moral.”

M. Dupont-White next proceeds to prove this. Man, he says, is made for that truth which is relative to his being. Truth is that which is. “La vérité est ce qui est," says Bossuet. “As for S. Thomas Aquinas, who defines truth as an equation between an affirmation and its object, it is easy to see that this relates only to truth in language, and I admit that human language is not always on the level of its subject. It puts itself much at its case both with things and persons.” We have, however, guides to truth. We may always attain to it if we only follow our senses and our instincts. On the contrary, if we refuse to follow them, we shall soon cease to exist, both individually and socially. We have an instinct which affirms the existence of a future life; and this, like our other instincts, must be trusted, unless we fall into absolute scepticism, or unless we can show that it is led into error by one of the three roads to which all error is traceable. The three sources of error are—first, “drawing a particular proposition from a general proposition which does not contain it”; secondly, “drawing a general proposition from particular propositions which do not contain it”; and, lastly, “errors which may be found in the imagination and its works.” Now, to neither of these three sources of error can the idea of a future life be ascribed. It is not the conclusion of a syllogism; nor does it rest upon an inductive basis which might be too narrow for it; nor is it derived from the imagination, for, though true it is that many delusive notions on the subject may be ascribed to this source, yet they may be eliminated by subtracting from the idea itself all the accessories with which it has been overlaid. This being effected, “ que reste-t-il en matiere religieuse? L’idée d’une autre vie.” Here, then, according to M. Dupont-White, we have a clear case of an instinctive belief; and this leads him to inquire more fully into the theory of instincts and the instruction which is to be derived from them. In all our actions we are guided by instincts. “L’individu, l’espéce, la société . . . tout cela subsiste par la grace des instincts.” Why, then, should we not have instincts to reveal to us truths necessary for our spiritual life? “This is the service rendered us by the moral and by the religious instinct, where you will not find the least trace of induction or syllogism.” Induction and deduction are, no doubt, means by which we may arrive at truth; but physical and moral instincts are equally valuable for that purpose, and accordingly we have faculties “which carry us straight to the truth without which we cannot live.” Ideas instinctively apprehended are more worthy of credit than those which we reach by a train of argument. To doubt this would be to put more confidence in the superstructure than in the foundation. If observation and induction are our only means of knowledge, still the religious and moral instincts supply us with materials for these processes. Induction and observation prove the veracity of our instincts:—
‘Therefore the idea of a future life, which has all the characteristics of an instinct, is a true idea. Otherwise we must admit that instincts voracious in all cams are, in this particular case, deceptive, and that this law of our nature wants the stability which is inherent in every natural law.’
Such is the foundation of M. Dupont-White's argument. After stating it, he deals with the objections to it. It may be said that it is not verified by experience, as other instincts are. To this he answers, that no instinct is excited by experience or obeyed in virtue of experience. “Dites-moi donc un peu en vertu de quelle experience l’enfant qui vient de naitre prend le sein de sa mère?” It may be said that the idea of another life prevails simply because it is pleasant. “Pleasure,” he replies, “is the salient feature which verifies instincts—the sign of the relative truth which they possess—the guardian and executive force, so to speak, of the objects which they are to satisfy.” Besides this, reality alone can really please. “The pleasure inherent in the notion of another life proves to us both the instinctive character of this notion and the reality of that which it points out—its destination and appropriateness to our nature.” The rest of M. Dupont-White’s article is employed in arguing that the Deism of Voltaire and his school, and what has been called the moral argument for a future state—the argument, namely, that there must be another life to set right the iniquities of the present—are open to difficulties from which his own view is free. On this part of his argument we need make no observations.

As to the arguments of which we have already given the substance, it may be observed of them in general, that they belong to a class of speculations of which it would seem impossible to exhaust either the vitality or the interest. Human nature must be radically changed, or altogether altered in its circumstances, before the inquiries in which Socrates passed his last hours lose their interest; nor is it destroyed by the undoubted fact that the same arguments make their appearance in different shapes from age to age. The overwhelming natural attractions of the question make it a matter of absolute necessity for every successive generation to translate it into their own peculiar dialect, and to re-state the arguments to which their predecessors listened in forms appropriate to their altered circumstances and increased know1edge.  We may, therefore, offer some remarks on M. Dupont-White’s speculations, though neither his arguments nor our criticism can in any way claim the merit of novelty.

Two errors, each of them very common in French speculation, appear to us to pervade and to vitiate the whole of his theory. The first relates to the nature of truth, and the second i to the nature of instincts. Truth M. Dupont-White defines, with Bossuct, as “that which is,” and he rejects the definition of ‘Thomas Aquinas, which is that truth is an agreement between words and things. To set out with this notion of truth is to walk straight into error. In almost an phrase in which the word “truth” occurs, the substitution or it of Bossuet's definition would make nonsense. Surely, if the words “true” and “truth” are ever used correctly at all, they are so used in such phrases as “ Speak the truth,” “What you say is not true,” “It is true that I was there,” “It is true that the earth moves round the sun." Do these sentences mean “Speak the thing that is," “What you say is not what is,” “It is not that I was there,” “ That the earth moves round the sun is non-existent"? These are mere collections of words without a meaning. How can a man speak a table? All that he can do is to speak the word which suggests the image of the thing. On the other hand, such phrases as these—“Let your words correspond with facts,” “The words which you use do not describe facts,” “The proposition that I was there does correspond with the fact,” “The proposition that the earth moves round the sun corresponds with the fact”—are obviously the correct equivalents of the examples given. The more the matter is considered, the more clearly will it appear that truth and falsehood are properties of words, and of nothing else; and that to try to make them properties of things is to introduce confusion into all our thoughts and all our language. The slightest reflection will prove this to demonstration; for if it be true that truth is that which is, there can be no such thing as falsehood. This is mere nonsense, though so celebrated a writer as Bossuet was in the habit of making the assertion, and of drawing from it an infinite number of important conclusions.

Obvious as this remark may appear, it is of the highest importance; for it supplies at once a conclusive answer to many pretentious theories. It is wonderful to see what a number of inferences a rhetorician can get out of the doctrine that man is made for truth, and that truth is that which is. We have shown how M. Dupont-White handles it, and he is a favourable specimen of the class to which he belongs. It is, indeed, hardly too much to say that, with these two small concessions, a man must indeed be clumsy if he cannot convert his wishes and prejudices into doctrines which he can assert it to be at once impossible, and almost, if not quite, impious, to deny. Grasp, on the other hand, the doctrine that truth is a property of words, and that it consists in their correspondence with the things to which the words refer, and transcendentalism in all its forms becomes impossible. Whatever else men have thought, it may safely be affirmed that, of late years at least, no one has maintained either that words are innate or that language is perfect.

The doctrine that truth is a property, not of things, but of words, is essential to a proper comprehension of the amine and use of instincts. An instinct means a blind natural desire to act in a certain way, such as we attribute to bees in making their combs, or to birds in building their nests. These instincts, M. Dupont-White tells us, are guides to truth, and ought to be trusted. That our desires are antecedent to our reason, that such desires are highly useful, and absolutely necessary to all the business of life, is undoubtedly true; that our desires are in any case whatever independent of reason, or that instincts (if you choose to call them so) ever give the mind direct immediate information of the truth of any proposition, is altogether false. Our instincts lead us to truth, not in any special or mysterious manner, but only as all our other experience ends to it. They supply us with motives to act; action gives experience, and experience is the material from which the reason deduces consequences; and these collectively form our knowledge. It is only by considering truth as something different from a collection of true propositions that instincts can be asserted to be guides to it. Like everything else, they reduce some effects. They cause some kind of action and thong t, but they have no special tendency to cause true thought. People may and often do base absurd conclusions upon their instincts. Are the conclusions suggested by the parental or conjugal instincts invariably true? On the other band, do bees know the differential calculus, or ants the theory of government? It would seem from this that our instincts can tell us nothing explicitly and immediately about a future life, and that the utmost that can be said upon the subject is that there are, or may be, instincts in human nature which point to the inference that there is a future life. Even this, however, unless the love of life be called an instinct (which is a cumbrous name for it), is very doubtful. It may, indeed, be doubted whether human nature presents a single case of an instinct in the proper sense of the word—an impulse to go through some process which we cannot explain or justify on other grounds. Instinct, indeed, is a word which merely covers our ignorance of the nature of animals. If we could attribute reason to bees in making their combs, we should not speak of what they do as the result of instinct. It is because they appear to show upon that one subject a little bit of reason altogether out of proportion to that which they show on other occasions, that we use the word. If they talked and wrote books we should ascribe the shape of their combs to reason. M. Dupont-White gives the sucking of a child as a case of instinct. If he were a monthly nurse he would probably see cause to reconsider this. Many a child has lost its life because it could not be prevailed upon to suck, and every child has to be more or less taught. One of Mr. Bain’s works contains an elaborate account of the physical causes which induce a child to suck the nipple when it is put between its lips, and experience is of course established almost instantaneously.

Granting, however, that there is in human nature an instinct pointing towards a future life, M. Dupont-White’s arguments that it must necessarily tell the truth are very unsatisfactory. It is, he tells us, a simple belief, and cannot be accounted for by any of the means which account for the growth of errors. Each of these assertions appears to us to be mistaken. The belief in question is not simple. It is, in almost every case, highly complicated and more or less specific. The Mahometan believes in a definite paradise and rail minutely described fur him in the Koran. Christians believe in forms of future existence which, if less definite than those which belong to the Mahometan creed, have still a good deal of outline. What M. Dupont-White views as a simple idea is only a colourless abstraction which he and a few other persons have extracted from the common opinions upon the subject, by depriving them of all individuality. Now the truth of the ordinary conceptions of a future life is on all hands admitted to be a question of fact. They will all be found ultimately to depend upon revelations the authority of which must of course depend upon the evidence by which they are supported. Thus M. Dupont-White’s simple idea depends upon a number of questions of fact. Sweep away all existing positive religions, and see how long the simple idea will stand by itself. Mr. Merivale’s sermons on the Conversion of the Roman Empire give us some information upon the subject which is well worth the consideration of those who use M. Dupont-White’s language. Even, however, if it were true that the idea in question is a simple one, nothing is easier than to explain its origin. It is, indeed, so simple that the difficulty is to keep it out of the imagination. Every one in all his thoughts assumes his own existence. He could not, indeed, think of any object whatever without thinking of himself as perceiving it. At the same time, he sees countless illustrations of the fact that substantial identity may outlast the most extensive apparent changes; and it is, therefore, the most natural thing in the world that, whether there really is a future life or not, people should suppose that there is. Many specific theories about a future life have undoubtedly been invented—the Buddhist hell, for instance. Why, then, should not the view of M. Dupont-White and his friends be the result of the workings of their own minds?

What, then, is the result at which we arrive? Is positivism to deprive us altogether of our faith in any world beyond this, or is it to compel us to stand or fall by Paley's Evidences, or some other book of the same kind? We cannot think so. There is a view of the matter which M. Dupont-White passes over with that indifference to practical results which almost always marks transcendentalists, and which positivists in general neglect with the arrogant self-confidence which is one of the chief characteristics of the school; but which nevertheless is, in point of fact, adopted, though often unconsciously, by the great majority of educated men who turn their thoughts to the subject. It is that a future life is so probable, and that its existence is suggested by so many indisputable facts, that it is the part of a wise man to act upon the supposition that it is true. This proposition is, for all practical purposes, as useful as that of M. Dupont-White himself, and it is one which the most positive of positivists cannot consistently affirm to be unreasonable.

Of course the great argument of all is that which is derived from the Christian Revelation. Of this, for obvious reasons, we say nothing more than that, from the nature of the case, the conclusions founded upon it are probable, and no more. On questions of fact, probable evidence is all that can be had. Yet this probable evidence has done infinitely more to spread abroad in the world a belief in a future state than all the demonstrations on the subject which have been devised since Socrates passed his last moments in putting leading questions to Cebes and Simmias. Passing from this topic to other considerations, it is surely difficult to deny that, though there is no impossibility in the suggestion that death may be the end of all things, there are numerous and important facts which look in the opposite direction. In the first place, the general reception and wide diffusion of the belief in question, though no doubt consistent with its untruth, is hardly consistent with its improbability. If the objections to believing in a future state ought in reason to prevail, why have they not in fact prevailed? Truth has a vast advantage over falsehood in every argument; and, if it is once conceded that the question is one of probabilities, it will follow from the very definition of probability that that which commends itself to a vast number of minds is probable. It may, of course, be said that men naturally cling to life, and are therefore biassed in their judgments; nor does M. Dupont-White’s optimistic argument, that truth alone pleases, altogether answer this. The argument does no doubt weigh in the negative scale, but its weight is somewhat diminished by the fact that the belief in a future life has generally been rather terrible than joyous. Annihilation is surely a far less painful prospect than hell, yet in almost every creed the next world has been regarded rather as a place of punishment than as a place of reward. The operations of hope and fear are, however, so irregular, and so difficult to measure, that it must be owned that it is difficult to say precisely how the argument is affected by their operation.

Apart from this general consideration, there can be little doubt that the nature of the mind itself, and the character of its operations, suggest in the strongest way its independence of the body. That, as a fact, they always have done so, is undisputed. That they ought to continue to do so is denied by a certain number of physical inquirers, who argue that, inasmuch as every mental operation whatever, even the most transient thought, involves a corresponding degree of material action, of motion amongst the particles of the brain or the nerves, it is idle to look further. The mind, they say, is nothing else than the sum total of the motions of the brain, just as a tune is only the sum total of the undulations of the air produced by the vibrations of a string or a piece of metal. It must be conceded that facts are consistent with some such view as this. Discoveries may be imagined which might prove its truth. Suppose, for instance, people could obtain a control over life, and by scientific means restore, in whole or in part, the life of a dead man, or impart life and individuality to a machine—a possibility, by the way, which at present seems somewhat remote. Surely, however, this is not the view to which the facts actually known to us point. In every department of thought, we arrive before long at considerations which exercise a vast practical influence over our conduct, though our views of them are obscure and imperfect to the last degree. The fundamental propositions of morals, of theology, and of physical science supply endless illustrations of this. If the mind were merely a set of motions produced by the action of external objects on the brain, one would expect to see in it the system, the completeness, and, so to speak, the balance which appears in all other collections of motions. Its habit of stretching out after things beyond its reach, its obscure consciousness of being the subject of influences for which it has no name, the very disproportion between its premisses and its conclusions, all suggest—though, of course, they do not prove—the conclusion that, though the body is in all its acts its necessary organ and instrument, the soul itself is something more, and may exist independently. These considerations have, as a fact, led men of all ages and nations to believe in a future life, and that in proportion, generally speaking, to the degree in which they were wise and good. Surely this is not only a solid reason why a common person should hold that belief, but it is the same sort of reason as is usually accepted in all other cases.

When these arguments, and many others of which these are only a specimen are available to prove the probability of a future life, it is difficult to understand the zeal with which writers like M. Dupont-White search for something more than probability. They can never get it; for when, by elaborate arguments, they have established that a particular proposition is a necessary first truth, they must admit that their elaborate argument may be wrong. M. Dupont-White, for instance, must be much more dogmatic than we believe him to be if he would not admit the possibility that his arguments may be fallacious; and, if this is so, all that he can profess to have established is a conclusion which is probably certain, and that is as like a probability as half-a-dozen is to six. No man can really hold the doctrine which M. Dupont-White puts forward unless he goes so far as to say (as Theodore Parker actually did) that he is so sure of a future state that no conceivable evidence could ever make him surer. M. Dupont-White would probably be more modest, and would be ready to admit that, if after death he found himself actually in another world in the company of his deceased friends and relations, he would feel a certainty upon the subject of a future life altogether different from that which he feels at present. This is natural and proper if his present belief is only a probability suggested by facts, but it is altogether inconsistent with the theory that he is absolutely certain at present. If an angel from heaven were to tell us that twice two made four our state of feeling on the subject would remain unaltered. If he were to tell us that men lived after death, we should all be glad to hear it. It is strange that amongst Christians there should be so great a disinclination as is often found to treat questions of this sort as matters of probability. A probability in speculation exactly answers to a mystery in religion, and it would be hard to describe faith more accurately than by saying that it is that disposition of mind which leads a. man to take his chance upon a probability. We do not speak of faith in the multiplication table, or of faith in a mere guess, but we do speak of faith in a guide who may possibly be wrong, but whom we, for practical purposes, assume to be right. In the same way, the proper notion of a mystery is not nonsense, but a fact wrapped up and concealed; and belief in a mystery means belief in a state of facts the existence of which we cannot verify by experience.

Saturday Review, April 1, 1865.

No comments:

Post a Comment