Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Archbishop of York on the Limits of Philosophical Inquiry

The Archbishop of York has just published an address which he delivered a short time ago at the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution upon the limits of Philosophical Inquiry, which, when closely examined, appears to throw more light upon the present condition of several of the standing philosophical and theological controversies than any recent publication of the kind. We will try first to state its purport, and then to make the observations which it suggests.

Its general object appears to be to encourage students of philosophy to pursue their investigations without being deterred by the encroachments of students of science; the word "philosophy" being used by the Archbishop in the sense in which it is used by Mr. Lewes in his Biographical History of Philosophy. The Positivists, the Archbishop thinks, have attempted unduly to narrow the sphere of human thought by restricting it to the objects of sense, and to inferences which can be verified by reference to them. This is a mistake. "What man can show, what man ought to do, and what man is, and what he may hope to be, these are the questions about which philosophy has been busy from old time. Let her abandon none of them." Positivism attempts to exclude such subjects from the sphere of thought; but
“As to leasing out God and freedom, and duty and immortality from any scheme wishing to be called philosophy, that is a thing impossible. The evidence for them is less clear, and the research more difficult than for the facts of science. But though we might prefer the clearer and simpler proof, still, if it is unattainable, we must be content with such proof as we have. It is better for us to know God and duty imperfectly than not to know them. To see God dimly through a glass is better than to give up looking for him. We estimate knowledge not by its clearness, but by the value of its objects.” 
These observations, which occur near the end of the lecture, are in fact its leading principles, and the rest of the lecture consists of matter intended to introduce, illustrate, and support it. Stated shortly, the argument, as we understand it, for the arrangement is perhaps less systematic than it might be, is somewhat as follows. Science as opposed to and contradistinguished from philosophy is no doubt true as far as it goes. If you wish to investigate astronomy, chemistry, or any other subject of the same sort, the scientific method is beyond all doubt correct, but if it goes but a little way, and reveals the existence beyond its own bounds of problems which it cannot solve. Thus, for instance, the doctrine of the conservation of forces teaches us that most of the processes of nature which we witness are reducible to the form of the conversion and unconversion of an enormous number of forces from the potential to the actual form, and vice versa. Fuel is always being converted into heated gas, which in the course of ages may be reconverted into fuel, as it was countless ages ago. So far so good, says the Archbishop, but this state of things points to an antecedent condition in which all forces were actual, when "none had passed through their motion into that state of quiescence which is to be the end, we are told, of the present state. But plainly this former state is beyond the reach of a Iogic that we have formed to suit the reverse of such a process.” Positivism, therefore, like other systems, lands us in mystery, and ought to adopt the motto, "Plus ultra." Now when you have gone beyond induction and experience, "the straitest Positivist cannot refuse to remember that mankind is religious. . . . You may as safely describe man as a religious being as you may describe him as a speaking or cooking animal." When you tell us that "your method fails and your light is gone out . . . let us adore the power and fore-knowledge of God. This is not speculation; it is intuition. . . . It is a beautiful world, and wisely contrived. And within me is the idea of God." The source of the reluctance of Posivists "to admit the presence of God even at the fountain of being, where the rules of the inductive system end," arises from their being aware of the fact that, "if we admit his presence at the fountain we cannot well exclude him from the banks of the stream.  Men are jealous for the security of those natural laws which they have made their all. . . If the beginning was miraculous, miracles will meet us later on the way."

Physical philosophy not only lands us in mystery and opens to us the view of a province which we cannot traverse, but it powerfully suggests the idea of design and contrivance. "Man has the idea of religion, and it is a self-denial more than human to refrain from attributing to God the manifest purpose and contrivance in these things." There are, however, other windows through which we may look, however imperfectly, into similar regions.  “Man alone conceives of right and wrong." It is in vain for the “mechanical philosophers," who "resist with all their force" and deny the existence of the will, to attempt to describe right and wrong as a delusion because they receive a "crushing rebuke" from one of the greatest of all facts-self-sacrifice. "Men are formed to pursue their happiness, and they find it in the active exercise of their faculties amid circumstances favourable to that exercise. But there comes a crisis when the road of right lies one way and that of tranquil enjoyment another. . . . The man chooses to follow right and to postpone enjoyment to it." Martyrdom either to liberty, science, or faith is not a delusion, unless "all human life is a hopeless problem." But if conscience is not a delusion "it is a command and a law. Surely the law-giver is God." The whole is summed up in the following lines:-- "Man holds his place in the animal kingdom by these marks-that he has a notion of good and evil; that he believes in another life that he believes in some being higher than himself. What is the worth of a philosophy that takes no note of these things, or even of one which is suspected of trying to explain and juggle them away to suit a preconception? "Such a philosophy is open to the criticism that, though admirably adapted for arranging facts, it refuses to regard as facts anything which it cannot classify. This, we think, is the substance of the Archbishop's argument. The rest of his lecture is made up of illustrations and criticisms on particular writers who, as he says, have not been able to use the language of their school consistently, because to do so would demand a greater strain upon the human mind than it can bear.

We agree to a great extent with the Archbishop's arguments, but we do not agree with the tone of his lecture, or with the implied censure and protest against science and scientific men by which every part of it is pervaded. The result of the whole lecture broadly stated is this: The fundamental doctrines of religion are no doubt suggested by facts, but they are not proved. No facts exist which can be said to be inconsistent with the truth of atheism, or with the cessation of human consciousness and personality at death. On the other hand, the existence of God and of a future state for man are possible, and their existence is suggested by the general scheme of the universe, which, as far as we can trace it, suggests design, and by the human conscience, which has a sense of moral obligation which cannot be explained upon the assumption that our existence is bounded to this life. Subject to observations which will be made hereafter, we entirely agree in this, and cannot understand how it can be doubted. On the one hand, a man who says that he is as sure of the existence of God and of a future state as he is of the existence of the things he is actually handling or looking at when he makes the assertion, is surely an extravagant person, totally unworthy of credit. Such a person would be bound in consistency to maintain that if he were to die and actually find himself still a conscious individual person he would derive from that experience no addition to his present certainty of a future state. One conclusive objection to such an assertion is that if it were true of men in general these doctrines would never be doubted, which they notoriously are. A man, therefore, who has such a conviction is in a smaller minority than a man would be who believed himself to be made of glass. On the other hand, it is almost as difficult to us to comprehend how any one who looks even superficially and with little knowledge at what Kant, like the Archbishop of York, regarded as the two great witnesses to religion-- the starry heavens and the moral law-- can fail to perceive that, though they may not be inconsistent with atheism, they strongly suggest the existence of a God. That as a matter of fact they always have suggested that conclusion, and still do suggest it to innumerable observers, is indisputably true. In the same way the belief in a future state is undoubtedly suggested by the fact that, although every part of the human frame is continually changing, the individual man remains unchanged. So persistent, so invincible, is this feeling that all language and all thought is founded upon it. You cannot say "a" or “the” without an implied reference to your own individuality. When I say "a pen," or "the piece of paper," I personify the thing of which I speak. I liken it to that self which is at once the subject and the object of all my consciousness. That this self which existed when the brain through which it is now acting was dispersed through a variety of sheep, bullocks, ears of corn, and other things, may exist independently, not only of the present brain, but of all future pieces of flesh and bone which may hereafter occupy its place, is, to say the least, possible, and if the power to persuade is a test of the probability of an assertion, it is difficult to refuse to it the title of probable. When we consider that everything points to something, that the motion of a needle towards one part of a card rather than another, and the fact that a stick of sealing-wax when rubbed will attract a bit of paper, are gates which lead to the most sublime of the physical sciences, and which have led men on to the knowledge of what are perhaps the mightiest of physical forces, it seems foolish to refuse to admit the probability that human personality, being, as it is, the most marvellous of all marvels, and altogether unlike anything else in the world, should point to nothing at all beyond the juxtaposition of a few feet of flesh, blood, and bone.

In so far as it is the Archbishop's object to assert and illustrate these considerations, we entirely agree with him. Indeed, we can go a step further in his company, for we think he is quite right in urging, as against all who may deny it, that nothing can be more foolish than to deny the existence of these facts, or to refuse to consider the reflections which they suggest, merely because certainty is unattainable respecting then. Whether men are to regard the world in which they live as a cosmos or as a chaos, and whether they are to regard themselves as permanent or transitory creatures; whether they are to allow their conduct, their thoughts, and their words to be influenced by the probability that there is a God and a future life; or whether they are carefully to eradicate from their minds every consideration which cannot be shown to be derived from the express evidence of the senses, seem to us to be questions of overwhelming importance. We entirely agree with the Archbishop in thinking that, though the evidence for the fundamental doctrines of religion is “less clear and the research more difficult than for the facts of science," it is still better "to know God and duty imperfectly than not to know him;" better to grope and stumble and lose our way, it may be, in the twilight than to sit down in the dark; better to act upon a probability, which may no doubt turn out to be a mistake, but which may also brighten into glorious certainty, than to shut our eyes to it because it is not now a certainty.  Many of those against whom the Archbishop's lecture is directed are, we think, justly chargeable with an unreasonable disinclination to give their due weight to such considerations as these, and with an impatience (which to us has always seemed anything but philosophical) to force upon mankind a scheme of life based upon negative assumptions, of the truth of which it is impossible to be certain, which are almost certainly incomplete, and which, if true and complete, would involve, although their advocates may not think so, an entire transformation of all our present conceptions of moralitv.

Here however, we are obliged to part company with the Archbishop. He goes very far, farther than any other person of the same sort of position in the Church would venture to go, in admitting the weight of the objections which lie against the fundamental doctrines of religion, but he does not speak quite plainly, he does not go quite as far as upon his principles he ought. He speaks of "knowing God and duty imperfectly," of "seeing God dimly through a glass," of defects in the clearness of the evidence upon these points, and so forth and this can mean, in plain words, nothing else than that these matters are probable but not certain--that, though it may be wise to act upon the hypothesis of their truth, it is possible that they may be false; but this the Archbishop very naturally shrinks from saying. He conceals his own theory from himself by gushes of eloquence and feeling, which act as so many veils to the true result of what he says, and the effect of this is to introduce into his lecture a good deal of confusion. For instance, the conclusion, as we have already shown, is directed to prove the importance of philosophizing (and he defines philosophy neatly and well as "wise and disciplined thought upon the subjects on which all men think") on matters on which certainty is not attainable; but he asserts two or three times that we have, or rather that he has, an intuitive knowledge of God. "Within me is the idea of God." The knowledge of God "is not speculation, it is intuition." If this be so, why construct arguments from design? Why regret the want of clear evidence of God's existence, and say that it is less clear than the evidence for the facts of science? Is the evidence for the facts of science clearer than direct intuition? Or is "intuition" only a delicately devised alias for a reasonable hypothesis suggested by facts? We suspect that the latter is the case, for it is very difficult to form any conception of a state of mind which is neither certainty nor doubt, but something between the two, called intuition and having all the characteristics of doubt except its bad name. An intuition which "sees dimly through a glass" can only be another name for an opinion resting upon imperfect evidence, and it is surely best to call things by their right names, because when we do so we see where we are going.

Another illustration of the contradictions into which a man falls who lets his feelings get the better of him in such matters as these is to be found in the Archbishop's remarks upon self-sacrifice. The fact that men are at times martyrs to science, liberty, or religion, is, he thinks, a "crushing rebuke" to mechanical philosophers, because it shows that there is in men's minds something "higher than the thirst for happiness," which, "if it be not a delusion," must "be a command and a law" given by God. This, says the Archbishop, justifies and explains self-sacrifice, which is an inexplicable anomaly to the mere mechanical philosopher. We confess that it strikes us in quite another way. A man does something very unpleasant because he believes that God commands him to do so, that is, because he thinks that God threatens to punish him if he does it not, and promises to reward him if he does it. This is right and prudent, but where is the self-sacrifice? Who would not leap into a smelting furnace to-morrow if he fully believed that he would avoid hell and gain heaven by doing so? The fact is that the belief in a future state of rewards and punishments, the conception of conscience as a command or law given by God, makes absolute self-sacrifice impossible. A mechanical philosopher may sacrifice himself to science or liberty absolutely--he prefers the object to himself; but absolute self-sacrifice is not a Christian idea, unless any Christian expects to be damned for being virtuous, and unless the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews was wrong in saving that Christ, "for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross." Self-sacrifice pure and simple, the voluntary permanent diminution by a reasonable being of his own happiness upon a full balance of all relevant considerations whatever, appears to us a thing impossible and inconceivable. Men, no doubt, constantly do sacrifice themselves to a fixed idea which has acquired an unnatural influence over them, but that is simply because, being absorbed by a single pre-dominant desire, they think for the time of nothing but its gratification, and this is a case not of self-sacrifice but of self-indulgence, vise or not as it may be. Thus men will risk life and limb to get up a mountain. Gin has many more martyrs than liberty or science, and it is conceivable that a man might fall in love with the human race or a section of it, and sacrifice himself to its interests, real or supposed, just as he might sacrifice fortune, character, and everything else to a woman. But whether such a proceeding would or would not command our admiration would depend upon circumstances.

Thus much at all events is plain. If a basis could be found for absolute self-sacrifice the Archbishop's argument in favour of a future state would be answered, for it may be stated thus. Self-sacrifice would be a delusion without a future life to justify the sense of obligation; but self-sacrifice is not a delusion; therefore there is a future life. If self-sacrifice can be justified without reference to any future life, which it call be if absolute self-sacrifice is not a delusion, this argument obviously falls to pieces.

The faults of the lecture appear to us to arise so much more from the lecturer's natural reluctance to express his own meaning plainly even to his own mind than from any real defect in the substance of what he has to say that we should be sorry to take leave of it with a criticism which appeared to be adverse; but we must not allow sympathy with the lecturer to prevent us from drawing attention to the true bearings of the principles of the lecture itself. If consistently carried out they would be seen to be fatal to dogmatism, and to involve the surrender of every form of systematic theology. As soon as you admit that probability is the utmost to which you can attain upon these subjects, it becomes plain that the uncertainty of every inference which you draw increases in a geometrical ratio. If it is uncertain whether a man was ever married it must be still more uncertain whether he ever had a legitimate child, and whether that child was a son who attained his majority and bore a particular name. The probability, after a very few steps, becomes so faint as for every practical purpose to amount to nothing at all.

Wishing to part in a friendly spirit with a very able man, we will try to throw our own, and, as we venture to suggest, his views also, into the form of an allegory too transparent to require interpretation. Some Bunyan or other might have "seen in his dream" to the following purport in Bedford gaol or elsewhere:--"I dreamt that I was in the cabin of a large ship, which was filled with people divided into various groups listening to men who were explaining to them the beginning, the nature, and the end of their voyage, and the rules of navigation by which it was regulated.  The different speakers did not agree. There was a general resemblance between their accounts, but there were also wide differences between them on which they insisted with extreme eagerness. All, however, seemed to think that to adhere with absolute confidence to the teaching of some one of them was an absolutely essential condition to every one who wished to complete the voyage prosperously. The cabin was handsomely furnished and brightly lighted, but there was something about it which filled me with depression and distrust. The various maps and charts to which the different speakers appealed were plain and systematic enough in parts, but in other parts they were exceedingly confused, obscure, and apparently contradictory, and when this was pointed out to the speakers they became enraged, and laid all the blame on the persons who pointed it out. Moreover, the general character of the prospects which they held out to us was horrible in the extreme. We were assured in every form of speech that what they had to tell was the best and most glorious news in the world; but when you put it all together the substance of it was that nearly every one of us must expect upon landing to be confined in a hideous dungeon, and there to be put to a cruel death by lingering torments, Some, we were told, were to be otherwise dealt with for reasons and upon principles which it was difficult to follow or apply, and all our teachers with one voice agreed in extolling with passionate rapture the glories of the country to which we were bound, and the wisdom, goodness, and mercy of its sovereign and its laws. Much saddened and somewhat confused with all this, I managed at last to make my way from the cabin to the deck, where I found myself enrolled, I could hardly tell how, amongst the crew who were working the ship. When I had time to look about me a little I observed several things which were strangely like and strangely unlike the accounts given of the voyage in the cabin. Our ship was one on which the sun never shone. Its voyage was made in the dark under a sky which was often cloudy and where at best we got no other light than what came from the stars. We could never certainly tell whether we were in sight of land or not. In certain quarters of the sky there were indications of the shore, and here and there we thought we saw lights. Some of our crew declared that it was all nonsense; that there was no port and no shore at all, and that it was mere weakness and folly to think about them; that it was better to let the ship drive where she would than give ourselves so much trouble as we did to try to keep her to what was understood to be her course. The fact that there was such a course was the strangest thing about that strange vessel. Many theories there were about it, none of which were quite satisfactory. Yet it was a generally understood thing that, under all circumstances whatever, we were to steer due north, or as near thereto as we possibly could; and it was remarkable that the best and bravest and wisest of our crew would run incredible risks and undergo incredible dangers, often at the hands of companions who were dissatisfied with them, in order to keep the ship on that particular course. It was also very remarkable that when she was steered on any other it never turned out well in the end. Putting these things together, and connecting them with the fact that the ship obviously was a ship framed, equipped, and suited in every way to make a voyage, I could not help feeling that she was bound somewhere, and that she would find her port at last, although I doubted the wisdom of those who professed to know all about it. However this might be, I used to feel that I would try to do my duty, in the hope that it might turn out to have been a duty, and as I stood on deck with the fresh air blowing over me, the stars shining silently from the sky, and the ship leaning from the wind and riding over the seas with a motion full of freshness and vigour, I felt that there was something bracing in the very mystery with which I was surrounded, and that at all events ignorance honestly admitted and courageously faced and rough duty vigorously done was far better than the sham knowledge, the bitter quarrels, the sickly odours, and the glaring lamplight from which I had escaped."

Pall Mall Gazette, November 26, 1868.

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