The Foundations of Belief:
Being Notes Introductory to the Study of Theology

[13] Chapter I

Naturalism and Ethics

The two subjects on which the professors of every creed, theological and anti-theological, seem least anxious to differ, are the general substance of the Moral Law, and the character of the sentiments with which it should be regarded. That it is worthy of all reverence; that it demands our ungrudging submission; and that we owe it not merely obedience, but love–these are commonplaces which the preachers of all schools vie with each other in proclaiming. And they are certainly right. Morality is more than a mere code of laws, than a catalolue raisonné of things to be done or left undone. Were it otherwise, we must change something more important than the mere customary language of exhortation. The old ideals of the world would have to be uprooted, aud no new ones could spring up and flourish in their stead; the very soil on which they grew would be sterilised, and the phrases in which all that has hitherto been regarded as best and noblest [14] in human life has been expressed, nay, the words 'best' and 'noblest' themselves, would become as foolish and unmeaning as the incantation of a forgotten superstition.

This unanimity, familiar though it be, is surely very remarkable. And it is the more remarkable because the unanimity prevails only as to conclusions, and is accompanied by the widest divergence of opinion with regard to the premises on which these conclusions are supposed to be founded. Nothing but habit could blind us to the strangeness of the fact that the man who believes that morality is based on a priori principles, and the man who believes it to be based on the commands of God, the transcendentalist, the theologian, the mystic, and the evolutionist, should be pretty well at one both as to what morality teaches, and as to the sentiments with which its teaching should be regarded.

It is not my business in this place to examine the Philosophy of Morals, or to find an answer to the charge which this suspicious harmony of opinion among various schools of moralists appears to suggest, namely, that in their speculations they have taken current morality for granted, and have squared their proofs to the conclusions, and not their conclusions to their proofs. I desire now rather to direct the reader's attention to certain questions relating to the origin of ethical systems, not to their justification; to the natural history of morals, not to [15] its philosophy; to the place where the moral law occupies in the general chain of causes and effects, not to the nature of its claim on the unquestioning obedience of mankind. I am aware, of course, that many persons have been, and are, of opinion that these two sets of questions are not merely related, but identical; that the validity of a command depends only on the source from which it springs; and that in the investigationinto the character and authority of this source consists the principal business of the moral philosopher. I am not concerned here to controvert this theory, though, as thus stated, I do not agree with it. It will be sufficient if I lay down two propositions of a much less dubious character:–(1) That, practically, human beings being what they are, no moral code can be effective which does not inspire, in those who are asked to obey it, emotions of reverence; and (1) that, practically, the capacity of any code to excite this or any other elevated emotion cannot be wholly independent of the origin from which those who accept that code suppose it to emanate. [. . . .]

[18] For not only does there seem to be no ground, from the point of view of biology, for drawing a distinction in favour of any of the processes, physiological or psychological, by which the individual or the race is benefited; not only are we bound to consider the coarsest appetites, the most calculating selfishness, and the most devoted heroism, as all sprung from analogous causes and all evolved for similar objects, but we can hardly doubt that the august sentiments which cling to the ideas of duty and sacrifice are nothing better than a device of Nature to trick us into the performance of altruistic actions. The working ant expends its life in labouring, with more than maternal devotion, for a progeny not its own, and, so far as the race of ants is concerned, doubtless it does well. Instinct, the inherited impulse to follow a certain course with no [19] developed consciousness of its final goal, is here the instrument selected by Nature to attain her ends. But in the case of man, more flexible if less certain methods have to be employed. Does conscience, in bidding us to do or to refrain, speak with an authority from which there seems no appeal? Does our blood tingle at the narrative of some great deed? Do courage and self-surrender extort our passionate sympathy, and invite, however vainly, our halting imitation? Does that which is noble attract even the least noble, and that which is base repel even the basest? Nay, have the words 'noble' and 'base' a meaning for us at all? If so, it is from no essential and immutable quality in the deeds themselves. It is because, in the struggle for existence, the altruistic virtues are an advantage to the family, the tribe, or the nation, but not always an advantage to the individual; it is because man comes into the world richly endowed with the inheritance of self-regarding instincts and appetites required by his animal progenitors, but poor indeed in any inbred inclination to the unselfishness necessary to the well-being of the society in which he lives; it is because in no other way can the original impulses be displaced by those of late growth to the degree required by public utility, that Nature, indifferent to our happiness, indifferent to our morals but sedulous of our survival, commends disinterested virtue to our practice by decking it out in all the [20] splendour which the specifically ethical sentiments alone are capable of supplying. Could we imagine the chronological order of the evolutionary process reversed: if courage and abnegation had been the qualities first needed, earliest developed, and therefore most deeply rooted in the ancestral organism; while selfishness, cowardice, greediness, and lust represented impulses required only st a later stage of physical and intellectual development, doubtless we should find the 'elevated' emotions which now crystallise round the first set of attributes transferred without alteration or amendment to the second; the preacher would expend his eloquence in warning us against excessive indulgence in deeds of self-immolation, to which, like the 'worker' ant, we should be driven by inherited instinct, and in exhorting us to the performance of actions and the cultivation of habits from which we now, unfortunately, find it only too difficult to abstain.

Kant, as we all know, compared the Moral Law to the starry heavens, and found them both sublime. It would, on the naturalistic hypothesis, be more appropriate to compare it to the protective blotches on the beetle's back, and to find them both ingenious. But how on this view is the 'beauty of holiness' to retain its lustre in the minds of those who know so much of its pedigree? In despite of theories, mankind–even instructed mankind–may, indeed, long preserve uninjured sentiments which they have [21] learned in their most impressionable years from those they love best; but if, while they are being taught the supremacy of conscience and the austere majesty of duty, they are also to be taught that these sentiments and beliefs are merely samples of the complicated contrivances, many of them mean and many of them disgusting, wrought into the physical or into the social organism by the shaping forces of selection and elimination, assuredly much of the efficacy of these moral lessons will be destroyed, and the contradiction between ethical sentiment and naturalistic theory will remain intrusive and perplexing, a constant stumbling-block to those who endeavour to combine in one harmonious creed the bare explanations of Biology and the lofty claims of Ethics.

[22] Unfortunately for my reader, it is not possible wholly to omit from this section some references to the questionings which cluster round the time-worn debate on Determinism and Free Will; but my remarks will be brief, and as little tedious as may be.

I have nothing here to do with the truth or untruth of either of the contending theories. It is sufficient to remind the reader that on the naturalistic view, at least, free will is an absurdity, and that those who hold that view are bound to believe that every decision at which mankind have arrived, and every consequent action which they have performed, was implicitly determined by the quantity and distribution of the various forms of matter and energy which preceded the birth of the solar system. The fact, no doubt, remains that every individual, while balancing between two courses, is under the inevitable impression that he is at liberty to pursue either, and that it depends upon 'himself' and himself alone, 'himself ' as distinguished from his character, his desires, his surroundings, and his antecedents, which of the offered alternatives he will elect to pursue. I do not know that any explanation has been proposed of what, on the naturalistic hypothesis, [23] we must regard as a singular illusion. I venture with some diffidence to suggest, as a theory provisionally adequate, perhaps, for scientific purposes, that the phenomenon is due to the same cause as so many other beneficent oddities in the organic world, namely, to natural selection. To an animal with no self-consciousness a sense of freedom would evidently be unnecessary, if not, indeed, absolutely unmeaning. But as soon as self-consciousness is developed, as soon as man begins to reflect, however crudely and imperfectly, upon himself and the world in which he lives, then deliberation, volition, and the sense of responsibility become wheels in the ordinary machinery by which species-preserving actions are produced; and as these psychological states would be weakened or neutralised if they were accompanied by the immediate consciousness that they were as rigidly determined by their antecedents as any other effects by any other causes, benevolent Nature steps in, and by a process of selective slaughter makes the consciousness in such circumstances practically impossible. The spectacle of all mankind suffering under the delusion that in their decision they are free, when, as a matter of fact, they are nothing of the kind, must certainly appear extremely ludicrous to any superior observer, were it possible to conceive, on the naturalistic hypothesis, that such observers should exist; and the comedy could not be otherwise than greatly relieved and heightened by the [24] performances of the small sect of philosophers who, knowing perfectly as an abstract truth that freedom is an absurdity, yet in moments of balance and deliberation invariably conceive themselves to possess it, just as if they were savages or idealists.

The roots of a superstition so ineradicable must lie deep in the groundwork of our inherited organism, and must, if not now, at least in the first beginning of self-consciousness, have been essential to the welfare of the race which entertained it. Yet it may, perhaps, be thought that this requires us to attribute to the dawn of intelligence ideas which are notoriously of late development; and that as the primitive man knew nothing of 'invariable sequences' or 'universal causation,' he could in nowise be embarrassed in the struggle for existence by recognising that he and his proceedings were as absolutely determined by their antecedents as sticks and stones. It is, of course, true that in any formal or philosophical shape such ideas would be as remote from the intelligence of the savage as the differential calculus. But it can, nevertheless, hardly be denied that, in some shape or other, there must be implicitly present to his consciousness the sense of freedom, since his fetichism largely consists in attributing to inanimate objects the spontaneity which he finds in himself; and it seems equally certain that the sense, I will not say of constraint, but of inevitableness, would be as embarrassing to a savage in the act of choice as [25] it would be to his more cultivated descendant, and would be not less productive of that moral impoverishment which, as I proceed briefly to point out, Determinism is calculated to produce.


Summary and Conclusion of Part I

I have now completed my survey of certain opinions which naturalism seems to require us to hold respecting important matters connected with Righteousness, Beauty, and Reason. The survey has necessarily been concise; but, concise though it has been, it has, perhaps, sufficiently indicated the inner antagonism which exists between the Naturalistic system and the feelings which the best among mankind, including many who may be counted as adherents of that system, have hitherto considered as the most valuable possessions of our race. If naturalism be true, or, rather, if it be the whole truth, then is morality but a bare catalogue of utilitarian precepts; beauty but the chance occasion of a passing pleasure, reason but the dim passage from one set of unthinking habits to another. All that gives dignity to life, all that gives value to effort, shrinks and fades under the pitiless glare of a creed like this; and even curiosity, the hardiest among the nobler passions of the soul, must [83] languish under the conviction that neither for this generation nor for any that shall come after it, neither in this life nor in another, will the tie be wholly loosened by which reason, not less than appetite, is held in hereditary bondage to the service of our material needs.

I am anxious, however, not to overstate my case. It is of course possible, to take for a moment aesthetics as our text, that whatever be our views concerning naturalism, we shall still like good poetry and good music, and that we shall not, perhaps, find if we sum up our pleasures at the year's end, that the total satisfaction derived from the contemplation of Art and Nature is very largely diminished by the fact that our philosophy allows us to draw no important distinction between the beauties of a sauce and the beauties of a symphony. Both may continue to afford the man with a good palate and a good ear a considerable amount of satisfaction; and if all we desire is to find in literature and in art something that will help us either 'to enjoy life or to endure it,' I do not contend that, by any theory of the beautiful, of this we shall wholly be deprived.

Nevertheless there is, even so, a loss not lightly to be underrated, a loss that falls alike on him that produces and on him that enjoys. Poets and artists have been wont to consider themselves, and to be considered by others, as prophets and seers, the [84] revealers under sensuous forms of hidden mysteries, the symbolic preachers of eternal truths. All this is, of course, on the naturalistic theory, very absurd, They minister, no doubt, with success to some phase, usually a very transitory phase, of public taste; but they have no mysteries to reveal, and what they tell us, though it may be very agreeable, is seldom true, and never important. This is a conclusion which, howsoever it may accord with sound philosophy, is not likely to prove very stimulating to the artist, nor does it react with less unfortunate effect upon those to whom the artist appeals. Even if their feeling of delight in the beautiful is not marred for them in immediate experience, it must suffer in memory and reflection. For such a feeling carries with it, at its best, an inevitable reference, not less inevitable because it is obscure, to a Reality which is eternal and unchanging; and we cannot accept without suffering the conviction that in making such a reference we were merely the dupes of our emotions, the victims of a temporary hallucination induced, as it were, by some spiritual drug.

But if on the naturalistic hypothesis the sentiments associated with beauty seem like a poor jest played on us by Nature for no apparent purpose, those that gather round morality are, so to speak, a deliberate fraud perpetrated for a well-defined end. The consciousness of freedom, the sense of responsibility, the authority of conscience, the beauty of [85] holiness, the admiration for self-devotion, the sympathy with suffering–these and all the train of beliefs and feelings from which spring noble deeds and generous ambitions are seen to be mere devices for securing to societies, if not to individuals, some competitive advantage in the struggle for existence. They are not worse, but neither are they better, than the thousand-and-one appetites and instincts, many of them, as I have said, cruel, and many of them disgusting, created by similar causes in order to carry out through all organic Nature the like unprofitable ends; and if we think them better, as in our unreflecting moments we are apt to do, this, on the Naturalistic hypothesis, is only because some delusion of the kind is necessary in order to induce us to perform actions which in themselves can contribute nothing to our personal gratification.

The inner discord which finds expression in conclusions like these largely arises, as the reader sees, from a want of balance or proportion between the range of our intellectual vision and the circumstances of our actual existence. Our capacity for standing outside ourselves and taking stock of the position which we occupy in the universe of things has been enormously and, it would seem, unfortunately, increased by recent scientific discovery. We have learned too much. We are educated above that station in life in which it has pleased Nature to place us. We can no longer accept it without [86] criticism and without examination. We insist on interrogating that material system which, according to naturalism, is the true author of our being, as to whence we come and whither we go, what are the causes which have made us what we are, and what are the purposes which our existence subserves. And it must be confessed that the answers given to this question by our oracle are extremely unsatisfactory. We have learned to measure space, and we perceive that our dwelling-place is but a mere point, wandering with its companions, apparently at random, through the wilderness of stars. We have learned to measure time, and we perceive that the life not merely of the individual or of the nation, but of the whole race, is brief, and apparently quite unimportant. We have learned to unravel causes, and we perceive that emotions and aspirations whose very being seems to hang on the existence of realities of which naturalism takes no account, are in their origin contemptible and in their suggestion mendacious.

To me it appears certain that this clashing between beliefs and feelings must ultimately prove fatal to one or the other. Make what allowance you please for the stupidity of mankind, take the fullest account of their really remarkable power of letting their speculative opinions follow one line of development and their practical ideals another, yet the time must come when reciprocal action will [87] perforce bring opinions and ideals into some kind of agreement and congruity. If, then, naturalism is to hold the field, the feelings and opinions inconsistent with naturalism must be foredoomed to suffer change;. and how, when that change shall come about, it can do otherwise than eat all nobility out of our conception of conduct and all worth out of our conception of life, I am wholly unable to understand.

I am aware that many persons are in the habit of subjecting these views to an experimental refutation by pointing to a great many excellent people who hold, in more or less purity, the naturalistic creed, but who, nevertheless, offer prominent examples of that habit of mind with which, as I have been endeavouring to show, the naturalistic creed is essentially inconsistent. Naturalism–so runs the argument–co-exists in the case of Messrs. A., B., C., &c., with the most admirable exhibition of unselfish virtue. If this be so in the case of a hundred individuals, why not in the case of ten thousand? If in the case of ten thousand, why not in the case of humanity at large? Now, to the facts on which this reasoning proceeds I raise no objection. I desire neither to ignore the existence nor to minimise the merits of these shining examples of virtue unsupported by religion. But though the facts be true, the reasoning based on them will not bear close examination Biologists tell us of parasites which live, and can only live, within the [88] bodies of animals more highly organised than they. For them their luckless host has to find food, to digest it, and to convert it into nourishment which they can consume without exertion and assimilate without difficulty. Their structure is of the simplest kind. Their host sees for them, so they need no eyes; he hears for them, so they need no ears; he works for them and contrives for them, so they need but feeble muscles and an undeveloped nervous system. But are we to conclude from this that for the animal kingdom eyes and ears, powerful limbs and complex nerves, are superfluities? They are superfluities for the parasite only because they have first been necessities for the host, and when the host perishes the parasite, in their absence, is not unlikely to perish also.

So it is with those persons who claim to show by their example that naturalism is practically consistent with the maintenance of ethical ideals with which naturalism has no natural affinity. Their spiritual life is parasitic: it is sheltered by convictions which belong, not to them, but to the society of which they form a part; it is nourished by processes in which they take no share. And when those convictions decay, and those processes come to an end, the alien life which they have maintained can scarce be expected to outlast them.

I am not aware that any one has as yet endeavoured to construct the catechism of the future, [89] purged of every element drawn from any other source than the naturalistic creed. It is greatly to be desired that this task should be undertaken in an impartial spirit; and as a small contribution to such an object, I offer the following pairs of contrasted propositions, the first member of each pair representing current teaching, the second representing the teaching which ought to be substituted for it if the naturalistic theory be accepted.

A. The universe is the creation of Reason, and all things work together towards a reasonable end.

B. So far as we can tell, reason is to be found neither in the beginning of things nor in their end; and though everything is predetermined, nothing is fore-ordained.

A. Creative reason is interfused with infinite love.

B. As reason is absent, so also is love. The universal flux is ordered by blind causation alone.

A. There is a moral law, immutable, eternal; in its governance all spirits find their true freedom and their most perfect realisation. Though it be adequate to infinite goodness and infinite intelligence, it may be understood, even by man, sufficiently for his guidance.

B. Among the causes by which the course of organic and social development has been blindly determined are pains, pleasures, instincts, appetites, disgusts, religions, moralities, superstitions; the [90] sentiment of what is noble and intrinsically worthy; the sentiment of what is ignoble and intrinsically worthless. From a purely scientific point of view these all stand on an equality; all are action-producing causes developed, not to improve, but simply to perpetuate, the species.

A. In the possession of reason and in the enjoyment of beauty, we in some remote way share the nature of that infinite Personality in Whom we live and move and have our being.

B. Reason is but the psychological expression of certain physiological processes in the cerebral hemispheres; it is no more than an expedient among many expedients by which the individual and the race are preserved; just as Beauty is no more than the name for such varying and accidental attributes of the material or moral worlds as may happen for the moment to stir our aesthettic feelings.

A. Every human soul is of infinite value, eternal, free; no human being, therefore, is so placed as not to have within his reach, in himself and others, objects adequate to infinite endeavour.

B. The individual perishes; the race itse1f does not endure. Few can flatter themselves that their conduct has any appreciable effect upon its remoter destinies; and of those few, none can say with reasonable assurance that the effect which they are destined to produce is the one which they desire. Even if we were free, therefore, our ignorance would [91] make us helpless; and it may be almost a consolation to reflect that our conduct was determined for us by unthinking forces in a remote past, and that if we are impotent to foresee its consequences, we were not less impotent to arrange its causes.

The doctrines embodied in the second member of each of these alternatives may be true, or may at least represent the nearest approach to truth of which we are at present capable. Into this question I do not yet inquire. But if they are to constitute the dogmatic scaffolding by which our educational system is to be supported; if it is to be in harmony with principles like these that the child is to be taught at its mother's knee, and the young man is to build up the ideals of his life, then, unless I greatly mistake, it will be found that the inner discord which exists, and which must gradually declare itself, between the emotions proper to naturalism and those which have actually grown up under the shadow of traditional convictions, will at no distant date most unpleasantly translate itself into practice. [...]

[130] So far as the leading philosophic empiricists are concerned–and it is only with them that we need deal–the result of these difficulties has been extraordinary. They have found it impossible to [131] swallow this strange universe, consisting partly of microcosms furnished with impressions and ideas which, as such, are, of course transient and essentially mental, partly of a macrocosm furnished with material objects whose qualities exactly resemble impressions and ideas, with the embarrassing exception that they are neither transient nor mental. They have, therefore, been compelled by one device or another to sweep the macrocosm as conceived by science altogether out of existence. In the name of experience itself they have destroyed that which professes to be experience systematised. And we are presented with the singular spectacle of thinkers whose claim to our consideration largely consists in their uncompromising empiricism playing unconscious havoc with the most solid results which empirical methods have hitherto attained.

I say 'unconscious' havoc, because, no doubt, the truth of this indictment would not be admitted by the majority of those against whom it is directed. Yet there can, I think, be no real question as to its truth. In the case of Hume it will hardly be denied; and Hume, perhaps, would himself have been the last to deny it. But in the case of John Mill, of Mr. Herbert Spencer, and of Professor [132] Huxley, it is an allegation which would certainly be repudiated, though the evidence for it seems to me to lie upon the surface of their speculations. The allegation, be it observed, is this–that while each of these thinkers has recognised the necessity for some independent reality in relation to the ever-moving stream of sensations which constitute our immediate experiences, each of them has rejected the independent reality which is postulated and explained by science, and each of them has substituted for it a private reality of his own. Where the physicist, for example, assumes actual atoms and motions and forces, Mill saw nothing but permanent possibilities of sensation, and Mr. Spencer knows nothing but 'the unknowable.' Without discussing the place which such entities may properly occupy in the general scheme of things, I content myself with observing, what I have elsewhere endeavoured to demonstrate at length, that they cannot occupy the place now filled by material Nature as conceived by science. That which is a 'permanent possibility,' but is nothing more, is permanent only in name. It represents no enduring reality, nothing which persists, nothing which has any being save during the brief intervals when, ceasing to be a mere 'possibility,' it blossoms into the actuality of sensation. Before sentient beings were, it was not. When they cease to exist, it will vanish away. If they change the character of their [133] sensibility, it will sympathetically vary its nature. How unfit is this unsubstantial shadow of a phrase to take the place now occupied by that material universe, of which we are but fleeting accidents, whose attributes are for the most part absolutely independent of us, whose duration is incalculable!

A different but not a less conclusive criticism may be passed on Mr. Spencer's 'unknowable.' For anything I am here prepared to allege to the contrary, this may be real enough; but, unfortunately, it has not the kind of reality imperatively required by science. It is not in space. It is not in time. It possesses neither mass nor extension; nor is it capable of motion. Its very name implies that it eludes the grasp of thought, and cannot be caught up into formulae. Whatever purpose, therefore, such an 'object' may subserve in the universe of things, it is as useless as a 'permanent possibility' itself to provide subject-matter for scientific treatment. If these be all that truly exist outside the circle of impressions and ideas, then is all science turned to foolishness, and evolution stands confessed as a mere figment of the imagination. Man, or rather 'I,' become not merely the centre of the world, but am the world. Beyond me and my ideas there is either nothing, or nothing that can be known. The problems about which we disquiet ourselves in vain, the origin of things and the modes of their development, the inner constitution of [134] matter and its relations to mind, are questionings about nothing, interrogatories shouted into the void. The baseless fabric of the sciences, like the great globe itself, dissolves at the touch of theories like these, leaving not a wrack behind. Nor does there seem to be any other courses open to the consistent agnostic, were such a being possible, than to contemplate in patience the long procession of his sensations, without disturbing himself with futile inquiries into what, if anything, may lie beyond.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University