C. A. (Charles Adolphus) Row.

The principles of modern pantheistic and atheistic philosophy, as exemplified in the last works of Strauss and others; being a paper read before the Victoria Institute, or Philosophical Society of Great Britain, 13th April, 1874 online

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Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Adolphus) RowThe principles of modern pantheistic and atheistic philosophy, as exemplified in the last works of Strauss and others; being a paper read before the Victoria Institute, or Philosophical Society of Great Britain, 13th April, 1874 → online text (page 1 of 7)
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BL 220 .R68 1874
Row, C. A. 1816-1896.
The principles of modern
pantheistic and atheistic







RBY. C. A. EOW, M.A.


By the Rev. Professor CHALLIS, M.A. F.R.S. F.R.A.S.



(^ublisl[)cti for tfje institute)



aiTjcsTc:.; X

RECJUN Ibb. '*'



THE followinoj passage from the Autohiograjjhy of the late
Mr. J. S. Mill demands the earnest attention of all those
■who believe that there is a personal God, who is the moral
governor of the universe: — "The world would be astonished if
it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments —
of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for
wisdom and virtue — are complete sceptics on religion, many of
them refraining from avowal, less from personal considerations,
than from a conscientious, though now in my opinion most
mistaken apprehension, lest by speaking out what may tend to
weaken existing beliefs, and by consequence, as they supp )se,
existing restraints, they should do harm rather than good/'

2. The first question which strikes the mind on reading this
passage is, is the assertion true, " that a large proportion of the
'world's brightest ornaments' are complete sceptics on religion"?
If so, it is of the most serious import. Mr. Mill has prob ibly
exerted a greater influence in the higher regions of thought than
any writer of the existing generation. No holder of his philosophy
can any longer entertain a doubt that certain portions of it are
the philosophy of scepticism. The peculiar idiosyncrasies of
mind which the Autobiography discloses, may have led Mr.
Mill somewhat to over-estimate the sceptical tendenci s of
others. Yet the large number of writings, which have been
recently published, of a similar tendency, is a sufficiently clear
evidence that the principles of a pantheistic or atheistic philo-
sophy are widely diffused among cultivated minds. Strauss, in
his recent work, distinctly affirms that he is only acting as the
spokesman of a wide range of pantheistic thought.

3. I quite concur with Mr. Mill in opinion, that the time is
come for speaking out plainly. In fact, unless morality is
nothing better than expediency, there never has been a time
when it has been right to profess adhesion to a system of
thought, which in secret we utterly despise. I fully concede
that theologians no less than philosophers would do well to act

(9) b2


on tills opinion, and not to have an exoteric doctrine for tlie
vulgar, and an esoteric one for themselves. But it is with the
latter that I am now dealing. A sound philosophy requires,
that the too frequent example of the ancient philosopher, who
acted the part of the high priest of the god whose moral cha-
racter he despised, and whose existence he disbelieved, should
be utterly repudiated. What can be more degrading than the
spectacle of an atheist Csesar, dressed in the pontifical robes,
uttering solemn vows to Jupiter in the Capitol ? Persons
capable of acting such a part must have a supreme contempt
for the vulgar herd of humanity; and are at one in principle
with the priests whose conduct they denounce. It is satis-
factory to be informed that in the opinion of Mr. J. S. Mill,
his father^s prudential principle of not avowing his opinions to
the world " was attended with some moral disadvantages.'^
The italics are ours ; in place of " some " we would read
" great.''

4. Before entering on the consideration of some of the prin-
ciples of pantheistic and atheistic philosophy'', to which I propose
drawing attention in the present paper, it will be necessary
to state what Atheism, as held by men of culture, really means.
The son's account of the character of his father's atheism will
clearly define its nature. " Finding," says Mr. J. S. Mill, "no
halting-place in Theism, he yielded to the conviction, that con-
cerning the origin of things nothing whatever can be known.
This is the only correct statement of his opinion, for dogmatic
Atheism he looked on as absurd, as most of those whom the
world "have considered atheists have always done." Atheism,
therefore, as a philosophic theorj^ does not consist in the denial
of the being of a God, but in the affirmation that there is no
evidence that there is one. The moral value of the distinction
between these two positions is nil, but the intellectual one is
great, for it frees him who entertains it from the necessity of
proving a negative.

5. The following is worthy of quotation, as an illustration of
the nature of the elder Mill's atheistic reasonings. *' He
impressed upon mc from the first that the manner in which the
world came into existence was a subject about which nothing
was known; that the question, MVho made me?' cannot be
answered, because we have no experience or authentic informa-
tion from M'hich to answer it ; and that the answer only throws
the difficulty a step further back, since the question imme-
diately presents itself, ' Who made God? ' " It is almost incre-
dible that such reasoning could have commended itself as valid
to a man of the mental acuteness of the elder Mill ; and it is

quite a relief to be informed by the son that his father's atheism
was rather moral than intellectual.

6. I now proceed to examine some of the philosophic prin-
ciples on which modern Pantheism and Atheism are based ; and,
first, their principle of causation. It is an accepted dogma of
the Positive philosophy that a cause is nothing but an invariable
sequence between an antecedent and a consequent, and that the
notion of any efficiency in the cause to produce its effect is a
fancy which has been exploded by the discoveries of physical
science. This opinion is the natural outcome of a philosophy
whicli teaches that the whole of objective nature, and even the
fundamental principles of the mind, are nothing else but a bare
succession of phenomena ; and that a knowledge of any truth
objectively valid for all time and space is unattainable by man.

7. It strikes one at first sight as a strong objection against
such a system of philosophy that language has been formed on
the assumption that it is not true. Its forms embody the uni-
versal experience of mankind, and have grown out of that expe-
rience. Now, nothing is more certain than that whenever we
use words denoting causation we mean by them something
very different from the mere invariable following of a conse-
quent on an antecedent. If this is the true idea of a cause,
nothing is more misleading than human language ; for it is
impossible to express the conceptions of this philosophy in it
except by using it in a non-natural sense. One of the first
duties which it owes to truth is to revolutionize human language,
for, in its present forms, it is incapable of being the vehicle of
accurate thought. If, therefore, this philosophy is a true repre-
sentation of ultimate realities, one of its first duties is to attempt
to construct a language capable of expressing them. At pre-
sent it is a strong argument against the truth of this system of
philosophy, that a few philosophers are committed to a parti-
cular theory on the one side ; and, on the contrary, is the
universal experience of mankind, as testified by the fundamental
structure and the forms of language.

8. This philosophy also carries out to its utmost limits the doc-
trine of the relativity of human knowledge. Of this Mr. Mill is
one of the strongest advocates ; he even considers it possible that
in some distant region of the universe, two and two may make five.
Beyond this, it seems impossible to push the doctrine in question.
Such an affirmation is a strange one to be made by a philosophy,
which professes to ground all human knowledge on experience, for
it certainly transcends all experience. Next, it is directly contra-
dictory to the principles of at least one science. Astrouomy
has penetrated into regions of the universe immeasurably


remote. Its calculations are based on the assumption that in
the remotest regions two and two make four ; and if any region
existed in which they did not make four but five, the whole of
its apparatus of calculation would be subverted. Next, the
assertion that two and two make four and not five, is a truth
self-evident to the mind as soon as it is capable of compre-
hending the terms. It is marvellous that any man should have
made such a statement. What is two? 1+1. What is four ?
1 + 1 + 1 + 1. Wiiat is five? 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1. It is
therefore evident that the proposition 2 + 2, i.e. (1 + 1) + (1 + 1)
must make 4, i.e. 1 + 1 -t- 1 + 1, and not five, i.e. 1 + 1+1
+ 1 + 1, must be valid for all thought, all space, and all time,
and that to affirm the contrary is to assert the possibility of
contradictions being true. It follows, therefore, that all our
knowledge is not relative.

9. If all our knowledge is only relative and phenomenal, on
what does our belief in the existence of an external universe
rest ? It will be answered, on experience. But what renders
such experience valid? How do we know that any sensation
or mental conception has anything to correspond to it outside
our minds? This cannot be the result of experience alone, for
all that we are actually cognizant of are certain mental states.
Yet our belief in the reality of an external world is so strong,
that it cannot be shaken by any amount of reasoning. More-
over, it is no mere result of a balance of probabilities, but it is
a firm and ultimate persuasion, on which it is impossible to
avoid acting. If the alternative of idealism or materialism were
presented to our minds as a matter of abstract reasoning, the
balance of the evidence would turn in favour of ideahsm. Still
we cannot help believing in the reality of an external world,
and we shall continue to do so despite of all philosophy.

10. To say that this belief is derived from experience is to
beg the question at issue, because there must be something to
give validity to the primary experience ; and which has enabled
us to infer from some primary act of sensation, the externality
of the cause producing it. The only possible account of our
belief is, that there must be some principle in the mind (be it
what it may) independent of sensation, which compels us to
believe in the externality of the cause producing it. This
power may be called into activity by an act of sensation ; but it
is impossible that it can be its mere result. Such beliefs the
mind pronounces to have a universal validity. Of a similar
character are the great truths which lie at the foundations of
our reasonings. It is impossible to conceive of them as true in
one place and not true iii another. It is impossible, therefore,

to view thern as the mere result of our experience of

11. Of a similar nature must be our idea of causation. Its
primary conception is unquestionably derived from our own
self-consciousness. Experience may aid in its evolution ; but
it is impossible that it can have originated it. All that we can
have experience of is, a succession of events one following
the other in which we observe no variation. We advance one
point beyond experience, when we arrive at the conception of
an invariable succession. Yet there are innumerable succes-
sions which are in no sense causes. It may not be possible
fully to develop the idea in the formal intellect. But we know
it, we believe in it, we feel it ; it lies at the foundation of our

12. But further, it is not strictly true, that whenever there is
an invariable antecedent and consequent, the one is the
cause of the other : day and night stand to each other in the
order of an invariable antecedent and consequent, and they
must have done so from their first origin. Yet the absurdity of
affirming that the one is the cause of the other is apparent.
Many instances of invariable antecedents and consequents exist
which it would be absurd to designate causes. It follows,
therefore, that a cause must be something more than an ante-
cedent, followed by an invariable consequent.

13. Our primary idea of causation has been unquestionably
derived from our own self-consciousness, and has thence been
transferred to the forces of external nature. Our conception of
ourselves as voluntary originators of actions constitutes our only
adequate idea of a cause. The consciousness that we are capable
of originating actions forms one of the highest of our certitudes.
It is one which is anterior to all reasoning, and forms the
groundwork of its possibility. We know that our volition
sets an entire chain of antecedents and consequents in action.
We are certain that they derived their impulse from a volun-
tary act of our own, without which they would have had no

14. Let me illustrate this by an example. Let us suppose a
city to be blown to pieces by applying a match to a barrel of
powder in a large magazine. It is incorrect to say that the
match is the cause of the explosion. The true cause was the
voluntary act of the agent who applied the match. No other
of the agencies adequately satisfies the idea. But are the
other unconscious forces which bear their part in the work of
destruction nothing else but bare antecedents and conse-
sequents ? Does it satisfy our conception of a physical force.

when it is in active energy, to describe it as such, and nothing
more? I contend that it does not. What follows the ignition
of the match, and its application to the barrel ? The calhng
into activity of a number of forces, which are adequate to
effect their destructive work. Are they nothing but antece-
dents? The mind refuses to regard a bare antecedent as ful-
filling its conception of a force.

15. What is the real state of the facts ? A volition deter-
mines on the action; and the understanding suggests the
means adequate to accomplish it. The volition sets in action
the bodily apparatus of nerves, muscles, &c. These kindle the
match by friction. The match ignites the powder in the
barrel, and liberates its forces ; the barrel, the entire magazine.
The explosion calls into activity a terrific force : this occasions
a concussion of the atmosphere : the concussion effects the
details of the work of destruction.

IG. In a popular sense all these things are designated causes.
Some of them are evidently more than bare antecedents. They
are forces in energy. The conception of such a force implies
the presence of a power adequate to effectuate the result. If
it be urged that the force and the result are necessarily united
together as antecedent and consequent, a true philosophy is
bound to account for that necessity. It cannot be given by
experience; and is something different from a mere pheno-
menon. If we affirm that the necessity is the result of a
primal law, then we have arrived at the existence of a truth
Avhich must have a universal validity independently of pheno-

17. Now, a necessary law cannot be arrived at as a bare
result of experience, or have any place in a phenomenal
universe. It is only conceivable as inherent in something
underlying phenomena. It follows, therefore, that whenever a
pantheistic or atheistic philosophy postulates the existence of
necessary law, without which it cannot advance a single step
in creating the universe without a God, it is compelled to
admit the existence of truths valid for all space and all time ;
and thus to subvert the foundation on which it rests. How
can we affirm that such exist in a universe in which we can
know nothing but phenomena? If there be none other,
philosophy must be impossible.

18. A system which refuses to take cognizance. of the facts
of consciousness, and to probe them to the bottom, must be
necessarily one-sided. It is true that they cannot be weighed
in scales, or measured by the finest instruments; which a
certain class of thinkers assert to be the only criterion of truth.

Yet we can have no higher certitudes than these. If they are
not certitudes, none other can be ; for unless they are such,
exj^erimental knowledge is impossible.

19. But further : while this philosophy affirms that all our
knowledge is the result of experience, and that we have only
experience of phenomena, a modern form of it endeavours to
escape from the difficulties in which it is encircled, by allowing
that the experience may not be that of the individual, but the
inherited experience of the race. Accordingly, it affirms that
that portion of our knowledge which appears to transcend ex-
perience is really the result of a transmitted experience, derived
from a long line of ancestors. How this relieves us from the
difficulty it is difficult to see.

20. To deal with such a question adequately would render it
necessary to discuss the relation between subject and object.
This alone might well occupy an entire volume. Still, without
entering into these depths, there are a few obvious facts which
will be sufficient to test the truth of the position which this
philosophy seeks to establish.

21. First. The assertion that all our knowledge is phenomenal,
and that we are incapable of arriving at any knowledge of
universal objective validity, is absolutely suicidal. The most scep-
tical philosophy would be still-born, unless there was some one
truth which is not of this description, — viz., that which affirms
the universal validity of its own assertions. Unless it was
objectively valid, universal scepticism must be the result ;
otherwise it might be true in one part of the universe, and
not true in another. So, again, the affirmation of our reason
that one of two contradictory propositions must be false, must
be a knowledge which transcends experience, and be universally
valid. To affirm the contrary would destroy the basis on
which even the most sceptical philosophy must rest. Again :
it is affirmed by a popular form of philosophy, that all pro-
positions which transcend the phenomenal are unknowable ;
into which region it banishes the conception of a God. If it
be so, it follows that this proposition must possess a universal
objective validity independent of the subject which affirms it.
Some knowledge, therefore, must be attainable which transcends
experience. Even Pyrrhonism is compelled to affirm that one
truth exists which is universally valid, — viz., that all truth is

22. When God is banished by this philosophy into the
regions of the unknowable, it confounds under a common name
a number of conceptions entirely distinct ; and boldly affirms
that they all alike transcend the powers of rational thought.


The only ones which do so are those, the truth of which is
positively unthinkable. Others vary greatly in distinctness
and adequacy ; but the fact that we habitually think and reason
on them proves that they lie within the limits of rational

23. Again, as far as this question is concerned, to af5rm that
many of our certitudes are not the result of the experience of the
individual, but of his remote ancestors, is to transfer thediffi-
culty, but not to solve it. I ask, on what did the primary ex-
perience of our remote ancestors rest ? What gave it validity ?
However small its results, it must have possessed some princi-
ple, which rendered it possible. Let us suppose, for the sake
of argument, that the affirmation, that things which are equal
to the same thing, are equal to each other, is the result of a
gradually accumulated experience, which, after repeated trans-
missions, now exhibits itself in our minds in the form of an
intuition. Does this account of it as the result of a transmitted
experience give any account of the primary conception of
equality ; or of the affirmation, that when two things are equal
to the same thing they must be equal to one another? Does
it inform us, how the power of comparison between two equal
things originated ? The being who could thus compare must have
been separated from one who could not — not by a small interval,
but by a wide and deep gulf. Will the tracing it through myriads
of years help us to dispense with a commencement of the con-
ception ? The only possible account of the matter is, that there
must exist some fundamental principle in the mind, which
enables us to see that it must be objectively vaUd for all time
and all space. I do not deny that experience may be the
medium through which such a power may be called from a
dormant into an active state. Yet this does not affect the proof
that some truth must transcend experience. Were it not so,
all universal affirmations would be impossible.

24. Further : some principle must exist in the mind, which
is the foundation of its conviction that past events, when the
conditions are the same, will repeat themselves in the future.
Unless this be so, the affirmation of universal law, embracing
alike the past, the present and the future, would be invalid.
It is impossible that it can be given by experience alone.

25. It is evident that every affirmation respecting the future
must transcend experience ; for experience can be only of the
present and the past. The future has not yet existed, and
therefore experience of it is impossible. How, then, have we
arrived at the belief that the future will be like the past? To
put the question into a concrete form. How are we justified


ill inferring, because the sun has risen every day of our past
lives, that it will rise again to morrow ? It has been urged
that our experience of the past, and that of others, justifies us
in inferring that the future will be like the past ; that the past
events of our lives were once future, and that from their having
taken place, we are justified in inferring that similar ones will
take place hereafter.

26. It is evident that this belief does not in any respect
participate in an axiomatic character. The contrary of it is
quite conceivable. Thus we are fully able to conceive the
possibility that the sun may not rise to-morrow ; though we feel
perfectly certain that it will. So firm is our conviction that
events, under precisely similar circumstances, will reproduce
themselves, that it forms the foundation on which all human
activity rests.

27. Is it possible, then, that our experience that past events
have repeated themselves under similar conditions, can account
for our belief that they will do so in the future ? I ask, to what
does experience extend? We have had experience of past
events. As what was once future has gradually become the
present, we have seen events, which once were future, repeat
themselves. But how can this justify us in arriving at the
conclusion that nature is uniform, and that they must continue
to do so? Our belief that they will do so is an inference, and
cannot therefore be founded on experience alone. Some
principle, distinct from it, must exist in the mind, which
justifies us in arriving at this conclusion.

28. Nor can it be arrived at by any process of deductive
reasoning. No premiss can be found, resting on any self-
evident principle, which can justify the conclusion that the
uture must, under similar conditions, resemble the past.

29. Let us recur to the example, that the sun will rise to-
morrow. How do we know this ? The answer which this philo-
sophy gives, is that we believe it, because we have had experience
that it has always done so; and that our experience has
reached to the point that what was once future has become
past. But this can say nothing as to a future which has not
yet become past. Now, it is both conceivable and possible,
despite of any amount of past experience, that the sun may not
rise again to-raorrow ; or, to put the same truth in general
terms, that the blind forces of nature may suddenly or
gradually cease to repeat themselves.

30. It the first man who saw the sun rise had been in full
possession of his reasoning powers, it is evident that from seeing
it rise once, he could have drawn no inference as to what it


would do in future. All he could have done ^vould have been
to draw the conclusion that it might rise again. Nor would
two or three repetitions have justified the conclusion that it would
do so. But a large number of such repetitions — it is impossible

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Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Adolphus) RowThe principles of modern pantheistic and atheistic philosophy, as exemplified in the last works of Strauss and others; being a paper read before the Victoria Institute, or Philosophical Society of Great Britain, 13th April, 1874 → online text (page 1 of 7)