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mystery and the immensity of the All, and our own inseparable con-
nection with it, deepen and solemnize our own conception of our-
selves. They make us regard ourselves as " elements in that great
evolution of which the beginning and the end are beyond our knowl-
edge or conception"; and in especial they make us so regard our
" own innermost convictions/'

"It Is not for nothing," says Mr. Spencer, "that a man has in him these sympathies with some
principles, and repugnance to others. ... He is a descendant of the past ; he is a parent of the
future; and his thoughts are as children born to him, which he may not carelessly let die. He,
like every other man, may properly consider himself as one of the myriad agencies through whom
works the Unknown Cause and when the Unknown Cause produces in him a certain belief, he is
thereby authorized to profess tnd act with this belief." *

In all the annals of intellectual self-deception it would be hard
to find anything to outdo or even to approach this. What a man
does or thinks, what he professes or acts out, can have no effect what-
ever, conceivable to ourselves, beyond such effects as it produces
within the limits of this planet; and hardly any effect, worth our
consideration, beyond such as it produces on himself and a few of his
fellow-men. Now, how can any of these effects be connected with the
evolution of the universe in such a way as to enable a consciousness
of the universe to inform us that one set of effects should be aimed at
by us rather than another? The positivists say that our aim should
be the progress of man ; and that, us I have said, forms a standard of
duty, though it may not supply a motive. But what has the universe
to do with the progress of man ? Does it know anything about it, or
care anything about it? Judging from the language of Mr. Spencer
and Prof. Huxley, one would certainly suppose that it did. Surely,
in that case, here is anthropomorphism with a vengeance. "It is not
for nothing," says Mr. Spencer, "that the Unknowable has implanted
in a man certain impulses." What is this but the old theologic
doctrine of design? Can anything be more inconsistent with the
entire theory of the evolutionist ? Mr. Spencer's argument means, if it
means anything, that the Unknowable has implanted in us one set of

* 'First Principles," p. 123.


sympathies in a sense in which it has not implanted others ; else the
impulse to deny one's belief, and not to act on it, which many people
experience, would be authorized by the Unknowable as much as the
impulse to profess it, and to act on it. And according to Mr. Spen-
cer's entire theory, according to Prof. Huxley's entire theory, accord-
ing to the entire theory of modern science, it is precisely this that is
the case. If it is the fact that the Unknowable works through any of
our actions, it works through all alike, bad, good, and indifferent,
through our lies as well as through our truth-telling, through our inju-
ries to our race as well as through our benefits to it. The attempt to
connect the well-being of humanity with any general tendency observa-
ble in the universe, is in fact, on agnostic principles, as hopeless as an
attempt to get, in a balloon, to Jupiter. It is utterly unfit for serious
men to talk about; and its proper place, if anywhere, would be in one
of Jules Verne's story-books. The destinies of mankind, so far as we
have any means of knowing, have as little to do with the course of the
Unknowable as a whole, as the destinies of an ant-hill in South Aus-
trailia have to do with the question of home rule for Ireland.

Or even supposing the Unknowable to have any feeling in the mat-
ter; how do we know that its feeling would be in our favor, and that
it would not be gratified hy the calamities of humanity, rather than
by its improvement? Or here is a question which is more important
still. Supposing the Unknowable did desire our improvement, but
we, as Prof. Huxley says of us, were obstinately bent against being
improved, what could the Unknowable do to us for thus thwarting its

And this leads us to another aspect of the matter. If consciousness
of the Unknowable does not directly influence action, it may yet be
said that the contemplation of the universe as the wonderful garment
of this unspeakable mystery, is calculated to put the mind into a seri-
ous and devout condition, which would make it susceptible to the
solemn voice of duty. How any devotion so produced could have any
connection with duty I confess I am at a loss to see. But I need not
dwell on that point, for what I wish to show is this, that contempla-
tion of the Unknowable, from the agnostic's point of view, is not cal-
culated to produce any sense of devoutness at all. Devoutness is
made up of three things, fear, love, and wonder; but were the agnos-
tic's thoughts really controlled by his principles (which they are not)
not one of these emotions could the Unknowable possibly excite in
him. It need hardly be said that he has no excuse for loving it, for
his own first principles forbid him to say that it is lovable, or that it
possesses any character, least of .all any anthropomorphic character.
But perhaps it is calculated to excite fear or awe in him. This idea
is more plausible than the other. The universe as compared with
man is ?. revelation of forces that are infinite, and it may be said that
surely these have something awful and impressive in them. There is,
however, another side to the question. This universe represents not
only infinite forces, but it represents also infinite impotence. So long
as we conform ourselv s to certain ordinary rules we may behave as
we like for anything it can do to us. We may look at it with eyes of
adoration, or make faces at it, and blaspheme it, but for all its power
it can not move a finger to touch us. Why, then, should a man be in
awe of this lubberly All, whose blindness and impotence are at least
as remarkable as its power, and from which man is as absolutely safe



as a mouse in a hole is from a lion ? But there still remains the emo-
tion of wonder to be considered. Is not the universe calculated to
excite our wonder ? From the agnostic point of view we must cer-
tainly say No. The further science reveals to us the constitution of
things the feeling borne in on us more and more strongly is this, that
it is not wonderful that things happen as they do, but that it would
be wonderful if they happened otherwise : while as for the Unknown
Cause that is behind what science reveals to us, we can not wonder
at that, for we know nothing at all about it, and, if there is any won-
der involved in the matter at all, it is nothing but wonder at our own

So much, then, for our mere emotions toward the Unknowable
There still remains, however, one way more in which it is alleged that
our consciousness of it can be definitely connected with duty; and
this is the way which our agnostic philosophers most commonly have
in view, and to which they allude most frequently. I allude to the
search after scientific truth and the proc'amation of it, regardless of
consequences. Whenever the agnostics are pressed as to the conse-
quences of their principles, it is on this conception of duty that they
invariably fall back. Mr. Herbert Spencer, on his own behalf,
expresses the position thus:

The highest truth he Pees will the wise man fearlessly utter, knowing that, let what may come of
it, he is thus playing his right part in the world, knowing that if he can effect the change [in
belief] he aims at, well ; if not, well also ; though not so well.*

After what has been said already it will not be necessary to dwell
long on this astonishing proposition. A short examination will suffice
to show its emptiness. That a certain amount of truth in social
intercourse is necessary for the continuance of society, and that a
large number of scientific truths are useful in enabling us to add to
our material comforts is, as Prof. Huxley would say "surely indisput-
able." And truth thus understood it is "surely indisputable" that
we should cultivate. The reason is obvious. Such truth has certain
social consequences, certain things that we all desire come of it; but
the highest truth which Mr. Spencer speaks of stands, according to
him, on a wholly different basis, and we are to cultivate it, not because
of its consequences, but in defiance of them. And what are its conse-
quences, so far as we can see ? Prof. Huxley's answer is this : " I have
had, and have, the firmest conviction that . . . the verace via the
straight road, has led nowhere else but into the dark depths of a wild
and tangled forest." Now if this be the case, what possible justifica-
tion can there be for following this verace via 9 In what sense is the
man who follows it playing "his right part in the world"? And
when Mr. Spencer says, with regard to his conduct, " it is well," with
whom is it well, or in what sense is it well? We can use such
language with any warrant or with any meaning only on the suppo-
sition that the universe, or the Unknowable as manifested through
the universe, is concerned with human happiness in some special way,
in which it is not concerned with human misery, and that thus our
knowledge of it must somehow make men happier, even though it
leads them into a wild and tangled forest It is certain that our devo-
tion to truth will not benefit the universe; the only question is, will
knowledge of the universe, beyond a certain point, benefit us ? But
the supposition just mentioned is merely tt>ei&r in disguise. It

*" First Principles," p. 123.


imputes to the Unknowable design, purpose, and affection. In every
way it is contrary to the first principles of agnosticism. Could we
admit it, then devotion to truth might have all the meaning that Mr.
Spencer claims for it : but if this supposition is denied, as all agnostics
deny it, this devotion to truth, seemingly so noble and so unassailable,
sinks to a superstition more abject, more meaningless, and more
ridiculous than that of any African savage, groveling and mumbling
before his fetich.

We have now passed under review the main positive arguments by
which our agnostics, while dismissing the existence of God as a ques-
tion of lunar politics, endeavor to exhibit the reality of religion, and
of duty, as a thing that is "surely indisputable." We will now pass
on to their negative arguments. While by positive arguments they
endeavor to prove that duty and religion are realities, by their nega-
tive arguments they endeavor to prove that duty and religion are not
impossibilities. We have seen how absolutely worthless to their cause
are the former; but if the former are worthless, the latter are posi-
tively fatal.

What they are the reader has already seen. I have taken the statement
of them from Prof. Huxley, but Mr. Spencer uses language almost pre-
cisely similar. These arguments start with two admissions. Were all
our actions linked one to another by mechanical necessity, it is admit-
ted that responsibility and duty would be no longer conceivable. Our
"energies," as Prof. Huxley admits, would be "paralyzed" by "utter
necessarianism." Further, did our conception of matter represent a
reality, were matter low and gross, as we are accustomed to think of it,
then man, as the product of matter, would be low and gross also, and
heroism and duty would be really successfully degraded, by being
reduced to questions of carbon and ammonia. But from all these
difficulties Prof. Huxley professes to extricate us. Let us look back
at the arguments by which he considers that he has done so.

We will begin with his method of liberating us from the "iron"
law of necessity, and thus giving us back our freedom and moral
character. He performs this feat, or rather, he thinks he has performed
it, by drawing a distinction between what will happen and what must
happen. On this distinction his entire position is based. Now in
every argument used by any sensible man there is probably some
meaning. Let us try fairly to see what is the meaning in this. I take
it that the idea at the bottom of Prof. Huxley's mind is as follows:
Though all our scientific reasoning presupposes the uniformity of the
universe, we are unable to assert of the reality behind the universe, that
it might not manifest itself in ways by which all present science would
be baffled. But what has an idea like this to do with any practical
question ? So far as man, and man's will, are concerned, we have to do
only with the universe as we know it ; and the only knowledge we have
of it, worth calling knowledge, involves, as Prof Huxley is constantly
telling us, " the great act of faith," which leads us to take what has
been as a certain index of what will be. ftow, with regard to this
universe, Prof. Huxley tells us that the progress of science has always
meant, and "means now more than ever," "the extension of the
province of . . . causation, and . . . the banishment of spontaneity." *
And this applies, as he expressly says, to human thought and action as

* "Lay Sermons," p. 123.


much as to the flowering of a plant. Just as there can be no voluntary
action without volition, so there can be no volition without some
preceding cause. Accordingly, if a man's condition at any given
moment were completely known, his actions could be predict- d with
as much or with as little certainty as the fall of a stone could be predicted
if released from the hand that held it. Now Prof. Huxley tells us that,
with regard to certainty, we are justified in saying that the stone will
fall ; and we should, therefore, be justified in saying similarly of the
man, that he will act in such and such a manner. Whet her theoretically
we are absolutely certain is no matter. We are absolutely certain for
all practical purposes, and the question of human freedom is nothing
if not practical. What then is gained is anything gained is the case
in any way altered by telling ourselves that, though there is certainty
in the case, there is no necessity? Suppose I held a loaded pistol to
Prof. Huxley's ear, and offered to pull the trigger, should I reconcile
him to the operation by telling him that, though it certainly would
kill him, there was not the least necessity that it should do so ? And
with regard to volition and action, as the result of preceding causes, is
not the case precisely similar? Let Prof. Huxley turn to all the past
actions of humanity. Can he point to any smallest movement of any
single human being, which has not beea the product of causes, which
in their turn have been the product of other causes? Or can he point
to any causes which, under given conditions, could have produced any
effects other than those they have produced, unless he uses ihe word
could in the foolish and fantastic sense which would enable him to say
that unsupported stones could possibly fly upward ? For all practical
purposes the distinction between must and will is neither more nor
less than a feeble and childish sophism. Theoretically no doubt it
will bear this meaning that the Unknowable might have EO made
man, that at any given moment he could be a different being: but it
does nothing to break the force of what all science teaches us that
man, formed as he is, can not act otherwise than as he does. The
universe may have no necessity at the back of it ; but its presence and
its past alike are a necessity at the back of us; and it is not necessity,
but it is doubt of necessity, that is really " the shadow of our own mind's

And now let us face Prof. Huxley's other argument, which is to save
life from degradation by taking away the reproach from matter. If it
is true, he tells us, to say that everything, mind included, is matter, it
is equally true to say that everything, matter included, is mind; and
thus, he argues, the dignity we all attribute to mind, at once is seen to
diffuse itself throughout the entire universe. Mr. Herbert Spencer puts
the same view thus:

Such an attitude of mind [contempt for matter and dread of materialism] is significant not so
much of a r< verence for the Unknown Cause, as of an irreverence for those familiar forms in
which the Unknown Cause is manifested to us. * . . . But whoever remembers that the forms of
existence of which the uncultivated speak with so much scorn . . . are found to be the more
marvelous the more they are investigated, and are also to be found to be iu their natures absolutely
incomprehensible . . . wi I see that the course proposed [a reduction of all things to terras of
matterj does not Imply a degradation of the so-called higher, but an elevation of the so-called

The answer to this argument, so far as it touches any ethical or
religious question, is at once obvious and conclusive. The one duty
of ethics and of religion is to draw a distinction between two states of
emotion and two courses of action to elevate the one and to degrade

* " First Principles," p. 556'


the other. But the argument we are now considering, though
undoubtedly true in itself, has no bearing on this distinction what-
ever. It is invoked to show that religion aud duty remain spiritual
in spite ot all materialism; but it ends, with unfortunate impartiality,
in showing the same thing of vice and of cynical worldliness. If the
life of Christ is elevated by being seen in this light, so also is the life
of Casanova; and it is as impossible in this way to make the one
higher than the other as it is to make one man higher than another
by taking them both up in a balloon.

I have now gone through the whole case for duty and for religion,
as stated by the agnostic school, and have shown that, as thus stated,
there is no case at all. I have shown their arguments to be so shallow,
so irrelevant, and so contradictory, that they never could have imposed
themselves on the men who condescend to use them, if these men,
upon utterly alien grounds, had not pledged themselves to the conclu-
sion which they invoke the arguments to support. Something else,
however, still remains to be done. Having st-en how agnosticism fails
to give a basis to either religion or duty, I will point out to the reader
how it actively and mercilessly destroys them. Religion and duty, as
has been constantly made evident in the course of the foregoing dis-
cussion, are, in the opinion of the agnostics, inseparably connected.
Duty is a course of conduct which is more than conformity to human
law; religion consists of the emotional reasons for pursuing that con-
duct. Now these reasons, on the showing of the agnostics themselves,
are reasons that do not lie on the surface of the mind. They have to
be sought out in moods of devoutness and abstraction, and the more
we dwell on them, the stronger they are supposed to become. They
lie above and beyond the ordinary things of life; but after communing
with them, it is supposed that Me shall descend to these things with
our purposes sharpened and intensified. It is easy to see, h wever, if
we divest ourselves of all prejudice, and really conceive ourselves to be
convinced of nothing which is not demonstrable by the methods of
agnostic science, that the more we dwell on the agnostic doctrine of
the universe, the less and not the more shall duty seem to be binding
on us.

I have said that agnosticism can supply us with no religion. Per-
haps I was wrong in faying so, but if we will but invert the supposed
tendency of religion, it can and it will supply us with a religion
indeed. It will supply us with a religion which, if we describe it in
theoretical language, we may with literal accuracy desciibe as the
religion of the devil of the devil, the spirit which denies. Instead of
telling us of duty, that it has a meaning which does not lie on the
surface, such meaning as may lie on the surface it will utterly take
away. It will indeed tell us that the soul which sins shall die; but it
will tell us in the same breath that the soul which does n<t sin shall
die the same death. Instead of telling us that we are responsible for
our actions, it will tell us that if anything is responsible for them it is
the blind and unfathomable universe; and if we are asked to repent
of any shameful sins we have committed, it will tell us we might as
well be repentant about the structure of the solar system. These
meditations, these communings with scientific truth, will be the exact
inverse of the religious meditations of the Christian. Every man, no
doubt, has two voices the voice of self-indulgence or indifference,
and the voice of effort and duty; but whereas the religion of the Chris-

J 137


tian enabled him to silence the one, the religion of the agnostic will
forever silence the other. I say forever, but I probably ought to cor-
rect myself. Could the voice be silenced forever, then there might be
peace in the sense in which Roman conquerors gave the name of peace
to solitude. But it is more likely that the voice will still continue,
together with the longing expressed by it, only to feel the pains of
being again and again silenced, or sent back to the soul saying
bitterly, I am a lie.

Such, then, is really the result of agnosticism on life, and the result
is so obvious to any one who knows how to reason, that it could be
hidden from nobody, except by one thing, and that is the cowardice
characteristic of all our contemporary agnostics. They dare not face
what they have done. They dare not look fixedly at the body of the
life which they have pierced.

And now comes the final question to which all that I have thus far
urged has been leading. What does theologic religion answer to the
principles and to the doctrines of agnosticism ? In contemporary dis-
cussion the answer is constantly obscured, but it is of the utmost
importance that it should be given clearly. It says this: If we start
from and are faithful to the agnostic's fundamental principles, that
nothing is to be regarded as certain which is not either demonstrated
or demonstrable, then the denial of God is the only possible creed for
us. To the methods of science, nothing in. this universe gives any
hint of either a God or a purpose. Duty; and holiness, aspiration
and love of truth, are " merely shadows of our own mind's throwing."
but shadows which, instead of making the reality brighter, only serve
to make it more ghastly and hideous. Humanity is a bubble; the
human being is a puppet cursed with the intermittent illusion that he
is something more, and roused from this illusion with a pang every
time it flatters him. Now, from this condition of things is there no
escape? Theologic religion answers, There is one and one only, and
this is the repudiation of the principle on which all agnosticism rests.

Let us see what this repudiation amounts to, and we shall then
realize what, in the present day, is the intellectual basis which theo-
logic religion claims. Theologic religion does not say that within
limits the agnostic principle is not perfectly valid and has not led to
the discovery of a vast body of truth. But what it does say is this:
That the truths which are thus discovered are not the only truths
which are certainly and surely discoverable. The fundamental prin-
ciple of agnosticism is that nothing is certainly true but such truths
as are demonstrated or demonstrable. The fundamental principle of
theologic religion is that there are other truths of which we can be
equally or even more certain, and that these are the only truths that
give life a meaning and redeem us from the body of death. Agnosti-
cism says nothing is certain which can not be proved by science.
Theologic religion says, nothing which is important can be. Agnos-
ticism draws a line round its own province of knowledge, and beyond
that it declares is the unknown yoid which thought can not enter, and
in which belief can not support itself. Where Agnosticism pauses,
there religion begins. On what seems to science to be unsustaining
air, it lays its foundations it builds up its fabric of certainties. Sci-
ence regards them as dreams, as an "unsubstantial pageant"; and yet
even to science religion can give some account of them. Prof. Hux-
ley says, as we have seen, that " from the nature of ratiocination," it



is obvious that it must start " from axioms which can not be demon-
strated by ratiocination " ; and that in science it must start with " one

Online LibraryIsreal Smith ClareLibrary of Universal history and popular science ... (Volume 20) → online text (page 59 of 60)