Amazing articles on just about every subject...

On Trusting Our Faculties

( Originally Published 1907 )

I REMEMBER, some years ago, hearing a sermon by a very brilliant and noble preacher in which he described the main verities of Theism as not being ` subject to the understanding at all.' ` They never can be disproved or proved,' he said ; but they ` can be believed and loved.' And then he proceeded : ` These are the mysteries of the Christian faith. None of them come under the decision of the critical reason. If they are to be held, it is only by faith that we can hold them ; for, in fact, the understanding is more against them than for them, and experience seems rather to contradict them than to support them.'

Now I dare say that the great preacher whose words I have quoted would not care to be held exactly to these forms of expression ; but the general view put forward of the grounds of religious belief affords me an apposite point of departure for the argument which I desire to state.

If it be indeed the case that the understanding is more against the leading affirmations of Theism than for them, still more if experience rather contradicts them than supports them, then all arguments in support of the belief in God and his love and goodness are a terrible mistake, mis-leading so far as they affect thought at all, and, like all misleading utterances, pernicious and perverse. But my contention from first to last will be that the critical reason, the understanding, so long as you do not put too great a strain upon it, and expect it to do work for you outside the limits of its proper territory, is for the trust and love of God, and not against it, and still more that experience—the true scientific foundation of all real knowledge—experience, which is prior to the exercise of the critical reason or understanding—the experience of the mind and soul—is the true foundation of religious belief ; that from a man's inward experience the understanding has to take its facts, and thence to reason out the justification of belief in a God whom we may love and trust.

I go further. I say that if understanding and experience were against belief in God, it would be a positive immorality to nurse and foster in us that belief. Understanding and experience are the instruments of our nature for the creation and consolidation of belief, and we have no right to set our minds to think and believe in contra-diction to them. That is to make against all human progress and emancipation. And the great word 'faith ' is used in a wrong or degenerate sense, when we are told by faith to hold beliefs which critical reason and experience make against. Superstition, that mother of multiform evil, is nothing else than the clinging to some belief in the misused name of faith in despite of experience and reason. Let us rescue the great word from that degradation. The real faith which is a power for truth and good is not the opponent, but the helper of understanding and experience. Both the critical reason and the experience of the inward man have their times of dullness, inactivity, torpidity, non-illumination. Faith is the unswerving trust, at such seasons, in the enduring verity of those things, which in their moments of power and illumination the critical reason and the experience of the soul have taught us. Faith is trust in our own highest and purest self. To reason and experience then, I shall throughout this argument make my appeal.

To proceed, then, to the main topic of this book:

All those of us who have from time to time been drawn into a discussion of our religion with persons who have given up religious belief have, I suppose, sometimes been thrown in upon ourselves, quite baffled for a reply, by an antagonist who has roundly told us that we can know nothing at all about God or the soul, that he never believes what cannot be proved, and that as no one has ever seen God or the soul it is useless to try to prove their existence.

And our opponent is only expressing roughly a kind of scepticism, a certain fundamental distrust of our own faculties, which has pervaded a great deal of powerful philosophical writing in many countries and in all times. So that before we begin to try to build up the argument for believing in God and his Power and Goodness and Love, we find ourselves bound at the outset to discuss whether we really have any faculties which are capable of dealing with such matters at all.

There is a widespread and still spreading despair of any real religious knowledge whatever. This despair, says Dr. Martineau, he who invites men to trust their spiritual faculties must meet and refute at the very beginning. ` For if it be well founded, every step of advance can only take us further astray ; and if it be unfounded, it leaves us, like a victim of the black art, imprisoned within a magic circle, which, though needing but a breath to blow it away, we cannot pass.' ` We cannot afford either to enter a paradise of fools or to miss any Heaven of the wise, and must pause and guard our steps where the ways divide.'

Can we then really know anything about sacred things ? Have we any real grounds for believing that our spiritual and intellectual impressions represent anything more than our own feelings ? Is there any reason to believe that they come from any power outside ourselves, or correspond to any object or fact or truth outside ourselves ?

You know how vivid a dream may be, especially in cases of fever. A dream dreamt in fever sometimes produces such an overwhelming sense of reality that we remember it for years and years, and can hardly believe that it was not real. Yet it was all nothing more than a kaleidoscope, as it were, within our own consciousness. There was nothing whatever outside ourselves corresponding to it. The horrible beast, or the dark pit, or the terrific struggle, the supernatural being, or the heavenly plains, or the ecstatic bliss, were nothing whatever but dream, dream, dream—the tumult and fever of our own irresponsible brain. We were certain at the time that it was all true. We are certain now that there was not a rag or scrap of truth about it. I have sometimes, in a series of dreams, following swiftly one after another, said to myself at each successive stage, ` Now I know that I was indeed dreaming just now, when I thought that I was awake ; but this time I really know that I am awake.' And yet, presently, it has turned out that that ` knowing ' was nothing but dream either, just like that which went before it.

Well, then, may not all religious belief be a dream after the same fashion ? Can anyone prove that the prickings of conscience are anything more than a phenomenon of which the beginning and the end are in our own fancy ? Can anyone prove that the peace that comes in answer to earnest prayer or the consolation that fell like dew on the spirit of Jesus in Gethsemane, is anything more than a reaction within the personal consciousness ? What argument can there possibly be by which we can confute a person who says that our intellectual and moral and spiritual impressions are all dreams without any objects answering to them outside our own minds ?

Now in trying to meet this difficulty the first thing to be observed is this : it is not a difficulty affecting our knowledge of religious matters only, but it affects our knowledge all round, our know-ledge of the physical world just as much as our knowledge of the spiritual world. You say to me : ` How do you know that your religious impressions are not all fancy ? ' I answer by saying to you, ` How do you know that your physical impressions are not all fancy ? ' In our common arguments in the street or in the parlour we meet plenty of people who say, ` Oh, your talk about hearing God's voice, or feeling his presence, is all fancy ' ; but our friends do not say, ` Oh, your talk about seeing the houses opposite, and hearing the railway-whistle, and feeling the hardness of the pavement is all fancy.' Our friends—even when religiously they are the most complete Agnostics—are never agnostic about these things. They are as sure that there is a draper's shop opposite, and a tobacconist's round the corner, or that the birds are singing in the wood, or that the ice feels cold and the hearth feels hot, as we are. That sort of scepticism does not turn up in practical life as religious scepticism does. Nevertheless, the argument for it is exactly the same. There are precisely analogous reasons for doubting whether there is any external world at all—whether there are any tables or chairs, any great cities and green fields, any wide waters and mighty mountains, any stars or moon or sun—to those for doubting whether there is any God. In both cases the doubt is simply a doubt whether our own natural faculties are instruments that tell the truth, whether our own apparent experiences may be trusted as real and actual. And so, though in the street and in the parlour it is only the spiritual and not the physical existences that are commonly doubted, in the speculations of philosophers, in the reasonings of mighty reasoners, the one set of beliefs is challenged just as much as the other.

` Well, but,' you say, ` we have the evidence of our senses for the outward world and the things that are in it. We see that table, and seeing is believing. Or if we could imagine that our eyes are deceiving us, we can come to it and give it a thump, and the stinging of our fingers will tell us that it is a real table. If we doubt whether that is a real wall, we can try to walk through it, and we shall very quickly learn the truth.' But are you not going a little too fast ? What is it that you really experience ? Simply certain sensations—all in yourself ! You never get out-side yourself. These experiences all proceed from so many nerve-thrills of different sorts. If I choose to say that it is all action and reaction in your own nervous system, how can you prove that there is anything more ? Have you never had ` a singing in your ears ' which really was nothing more ? Are you so very lucky as never to have had a sudden sharp blow just between your eyes, and did you not see a sudden flash of light, and yet know that there was not any flash of light at all ? And in those fever-dreams, were not the physical things which you seemed to see and hear and touch, intensely real to you at the time ? And yet you know now that they were less than thin air, the mere dance and riot of your own disordered fancies, without any external realities corresponding to them whatsoever. How are you going to prove then that your senses of sight and touch and hearing are not lying to you in like manner all the while, deluding you with trick after trick, or rather with one long treacherous plot, from the day you are born to the day you die ?

I have said all this, not because I expect to make you doubt for a single moment the reality of the visible, tangible world, not that I have ever doubted it myself, not that I believe a single philosopher all down the ages, however acutely he argued that it was all illusion, has ever really for a single instant doubted it ; but merely to suggest to you that exactly the same kind of difficulties which trouble so many people about religious truths may in fact be advanced, with just as great a show of reason, against physical truths concerning which no sane man was ever really in doubt.

The fact is that there is no knowledge of any sort or kind in any sphere, great or small, which we can acquire without making vast assumptions to begin with. It is a very hollow science that says that it will believe nothing which it cannot prove, for of the fifty thousand things which it does believe there is not one which it can prove without making several unprovable assumptions at the outset. The man of science is very peremptory—and quite rightly so—in saying that he will believe nothing except on evidence ; that experiment or experience must give its testimony before he will believe any newly alleged scientific fact. He is perfectly right—with this proviso, that before there can be any evidence at all, or any experience or any experiment whatsoever, he must of very necessity make some of the most tremendous unproven assumptions it is possible to conceive. For he must assume the veracity and trustworthiness of his own faculties, of his sight, for example, and his hearing and his touch—which he uses continually in his experiments and which play their part in making up all his experiences—and also of his strict reasoning powers, and also of his memory.

Let us glance for a moment at this last faculty of ours which we call ` memory.' For if we examine it carefully, we shall see that it plays an exceeding great part in the structure of all our belief and all our knowledge, and further that our trust in it is a vast and extraordinary assumption, and that we can never by any possibility logically prove that assumption just.

What is memory ? It is an impression in your mind at the present time that at some past time you had some particular experience. You are impressed with the belief at the present moment that an hour ago you were walking across Regent's Park, or that this time last night you were having, at a friend's house, much better entertainment than reading this book, or that this time last month you were in the agonies of Russian influenza. The impression of it all at this moment is as clear as the impression of your friend's face before you. But after all it is only a present impression that you have, and there is no possibility of proving that anything in the past corresponds with it. How do you know that the present impression answers to any past fact ? The geologists chip the fossils out of the rock and say that they have in them a proof that the rock was formed long ago, and that the fish or the crustacea were embedded in it in such and such a geologic age. When geology was being resisted by the theologians, some of the theologians said, ` How can you possibly tell that God did not make it all just as it stands six thousand years ago and put what you take to be fossils in it ? ' Well, how can you tell that your present impression of what you felt an hour or a day or a month ago has not come into your mind of itself ? You cannot really recall the past to test the witness of what you call your memory. Suppose it is all illusion and deception. What proof can you give me that it is not ?

` Oh,' you say, ` I trust my memory because it has always proved reliable. I have constantly acted on it from my earliest years, and it has not led me wrong.' Indeed ! How do you know that? Because you remember, do you say ? But, in saying that, you are taking the very point I ask you to prove, for granted. You say that memory is trustworthy because memory tells you that memory always has been trustworthy. But this is arguing in a hopeless circle, nay, in a downright spiral, and you cannot get out of it, do what you will. You cannot prove that the faculty of memory is the register of the past which it seems to be, and not a mere delusion ; you cannot prove it from any amount of past experience, because you have to start by assuming that you really do remember truly before you can begin to talk about past experience at all.

But if we may not assume that memory is a real faculty preserving to us the consciousness of the past, where are we ? We cannot reason at all. For what is reasoning ? It is taking one fact or thought into consideration and then inferring from it another which follows from it. But if at the moment of making the inference we cannot be sure that we really remember the thought or fact which was in our minds just before, the inference falls to pieces and cannot be held together. Nay, without assuming the veracity of memory, we cannot think or speak at all. If I say three words to you, by the time I am saying the second, you have no knowledge what the first was—neither indeed have I. Unless we assume that we have a faculty which, in the present, truly represents to us our past, we cease to be human beings at all, cease to have minds ; we are mere surfaces reflecting whatever colour in earth or sky happens to flit past us at the moment.

Now all this about memory I have said, not to make you doubt memory. Our trust in the veracity of memory is ineradicably welded into our nature and let philosophers reason against it as they will, neither you nor I nor the philosophers can for one moment get away from our belief in our own memory any more than we can walk away from our own shadows, or sit down outside our own bodies. But I have said all this about memory to make you realize that we do and must, in all our thinking, assume as true an enormous amount which we cannot possibly prove ; and even if we try to argue about it, we assume it again in the very first sentence of our arguing. It is quite a mistake to think that we can possibly found our beliefs in pure reasoning alone ; for we cannot begin to reason without assuming the truth of some of our beliefs.

The late Professor Huxley, however, tried to warn us of the danger of trusting even necessary assumptions. ` It is conceivable,' said he, ` that some powerful and malicious being may find his pleasure in deluding us, and in making us believe the thing which is not, every moment of our lives.' Yes, that is conceivable. But we can none of us really take the warning, nor could even Huxley himself. Whether it be a good being or a bad being that has created our nature, here it is, and we cannot get out of it. We are made to believe memory. We are made to believe other primary faculties of our minds, before any proof. And being made to believe them, we do believe them—and Huxley did so as much as any of us.

Every act of reasoning that the mind of man has ever performed has proceeded from premises which, for the purpose of that act of reasoning, have been assumed as basis. It may be that in the great majority of cases those premises have themselves been reached by a prior act of reasoning. But if so, that prior act of reasoning must itself have started from other premises assumed. And so, though you go back and back indefinitely, there are always prior premises behind every act of reasoning. And so it follows that at the start of the chain of reasoning, there must have been some initial premises assumed prior to the very first piece of reasoning. Else there could never have been any reasoning at all.

So that the ground taken up by those Agnostics who say that we must believe nothing which we cannot prove is hopelessly untenable. They themselves transgress their own rule every waking moment of their lives. We all have principles of belief implanted in us from which we cannot escape ; and the only real question is how many and what these primary principles are which precede reason, and while it is impossible to prove their right to be trusted, yet are trusted always by every sane man.

What, then, is our proper way of meeting the absolute sceptics, the thoroughgoing Agnostics, who point out to us that we cannot prove the veracity of our own faculties, and urge us there-fore not to put our trust in them ? Our proper answer is to say to them : ` Why, good friends, you put your trust in them yourselves.' Yes, sceptic, you who tell us that we can know nothing at all about an outward world, you act on the belief in an outward world all the time. You assume in every step you take that the ground is solid. You assume every time you sit down to dinner that there is meat and drink before you. Act for a single hour as if you were not absolutely certain that there is this outward world ; and we will begin to believe that there may be something in your doubts. No, we shall not believe that they have any reality even then ; we shall only know that you are insane.

We must give up the idea that we are to decide whether to believe a thing by considering whether it can be proved or not. For no truth whatever can be proved except by first making assumptions which cannot be proved. But we are not left without practical tests of truth which serve our purpose. What are these practical tests ?

The chief of them is : ` does it work ? ' If a certain belief will not work, try it how we will, the presumption is that it is not true. Suppose a man says that the sea is solid. The test is, does the doctrine work ? He steps down from the ship's side and sets his foot upon the wave. In a moment he is submerged ; and he has more conclusive evidence that the waters are not solid than he could have got by arguing the matter with a philosopher for a year and a day. Suppose a man says that the granite road is solid ; every step he makes upon it day after day, and year after year, more and more confirms his conviction. The doctrine works : and in the long run that will be the surest ground of his belief.

Suppose you receive as a Christmas present from an anonymous donor a machine packed in a packing-case of two feet cube. But there are no directions. What is it for ? It strikes you it may be a new sort of roasting-jack. You put it in front of the kitchen fire, hang your sirloin on it, and set the cook to wind it up. But nothing happens except a purposeless buzzing and whirring of wheels. It does not work. Perhaps it is a clock, with the face left out. You make a card-board face and fix it on, and fasten hands at a likely place. But no ; though you wind it up, and the wheels start off again, the hands stop where they are, or jerk round spasmodically an hour or more at a time. Then some one suggests that it is a sewing-machine, which you can wind up and leave to work without treadle or personal attention. What a godsend ! You fix the end of a sheet into a holder that just grips it neatly, wind the machine up, leave it, and coming back in ten minutes find the sheet hemmed all round. Then you begin to believe that the machine is a sewing-machine of surpassing excellence. So far, that is the only belief that works. It is true there is a little group of wheels and levers in one part which seem no use at all. They do not move, or they move without apparent effect. And this causes a doubt to haunt you whether, after all, the machine may not be for something else and only accidentally applicable for hemming. But one day, in the middle of the work, the thread snaps at a weak place. You expect the machine to go on drilling useless needle-holes all round but to drop the thread ; when, lo ! that little group of bars and wheels is suddenly all agog, the severed ends are reunited with a tiny knot, and the machine proceeds undisturbed to complete the job. Then you believe your doctrine without a shadow of doubt—the doctrine that this is a sewing-machine—because it works not only in an ordinary way, but also and with special emphasis in exceptional circumstances or emergency. Using the machine in this way elevates it from a useless tangle of cogs and bars to an exquisite substitute for human muscles and intelligence. You are therefore convinced that this is the way in which it was meant to be used.

Or perhaps a better illustration is this : There is placed before you a volume in a language of which you are wholly ignorant. Long words and short words seem a hopeless jumble. But presently you see that a certain very short word—one letter if it is Spanish, two if it is French or Danish or Dutch, three if it is Greek or German—appears very often, and that it is a frequent occurrence that the words on either side of it bear some resemblance to one another in form. Accordingly you guess that that small but common word is the conjunction answering to our English ` and.' Next you observe that another very short word is still more common and is generally followed by a longer word, and that the short word often begins a sentence. Accordingly you guess that it is the article, our English ` the.' In the next place you see two words beginning with capitals, and though rather oddly spelt, still pretty manifestly Cain and Abel. Between them stands one word. What does it mean ? You guess it means either ` hated ' or ` killed.' How can you tell which ? Why, see here, just at the foot of the page is the same word, and again two proper names which it divides, and these two names are manifestly Saul and David. Well, you know that Saul hated David at one time, but he did not kill him ; so you believe that this word means ` hated.' But see, there are at least fifty words on the page ending with the same two letters as that word which means ` hated.' So you surmise that they also are the past tense of verbs. And in this way, step by step, you may go on till you have solved the mystery of the language. If it is some dead and forgotten language, you may not be able to pronounce a single syllable of it. But bit by bit, catching a hint here and a hint there, you have pieced it together, and now you can fairly interpret other books composed in it which fall into your hands. In the gradual process you get a wrong clue now and then. A certain interpretation seems to work well twice, three times, six times, twelve times. But then comes a case in which it fails, producing only confusion and contradiction. Your hypothesis does not work. And so you go patiently back and begin again, till you hit upon a theory which covers all the cases. And at last you have your theory of the language so complete that you can translate the book, on the hypothesis that your clue is right, from beginning to end, and lo ! it is a complete treatise, self-consistent, lucid, eloquent.

Then comes some one and says to you, ` Why, you can't prove that you have got the real English of a single phrase or word. You can't prove that this means " and " and this " the " and this " hated." It is all mere conjecture in the air. As for me, I am Agnostic, and I refuse to believe that you know anything about this strange tongue.' Then what will you say ? You will say, ` My dear fellow, be as Agnostic as you please. Don't let me interfere with your judgment. But as for me, I am perfectly sure that I have gripped the truth. I refuse to believe that the correspondence I have discovered is all chance. I believe that I have the true theory of this unknown language, because in every page and line and word and syllable and letter my theory works, and I discover in the book a significant and rational whole.'

And just so with the belief in an outward world, just so with the belief in the veracity of memory, just so with the belief in other primary principles of our nature ; these beliefs are justified in that they work, they never land us in confusion, they never break down ; as the daily haps of life turn up, a myriad an hour, in infinite diversity, these beliefs fit into them all without a jar or a contradiction, while if for a moment we attempt to depart from them, we fall into utter confusion. This is the highest evidence we can have. And therefore the critical philosopher, though he argue ever so cunningly, though he demonstrate that we are piling assumption on assumption, cannot really shake our belief. Nay, he cannot really shake his own. And to apply the principle in the widest sphere and on the largest scale, that interpretation of the problems of the universe which makes a rational whole and gives the highest significance to human life, will have in its favour a presumption practically overwhelming.

Now the main argument of this book will be that we have other primary faculties besides those which I have spoken of, primary faculties of a spiritual order which speak to us of a Living, Loving God ; and that a distrust of these faculties is unreasonable and foolish in the same way as a distrust of the faculty of memory or of the reality of an outside world would be unreasonable and foolish. And further, I shall argue that just as all the experience of life fits into the belief in the veracity of memory and the senses, and the reality of the external world, so also the experience of life fits into the belief in a God who is Power, Righteousness, and Love ; that as the belief in the veracity of memory and the senses, and in the reality of the external world works and never breaks down in the varied experiences of life, so the belief in a God who is Power, Righteousness, and Love works and never breaks down in the varied experiences of life. And so as we trust in memory and the senses and the external world, though it is quite clear that we cannot prove their truth without making immense assumptions to begin with; it is reasonable also to trust in the God who is Power, Righteousness, and Love, though it is quite clear that we cannot prove the truth of this faith without making immense assumptions to begin with.

If it is seen that the machine or organism which we call a human being is comparatively useless, feeble, and inefficient while it is without God, but becomes useful, strong, and efficient when the love of God is in it, then that is an immeasurably strong argument for the reality of God—for the love of him being founded in truth, not in illusion. If it is seen that the belief in God gives meaning and force and coherence to the language of life, whereas without it, it is a mere jumble of letters, then that is a stupendously powerful reason for believing in God. My main contention is going to be that the belief in God works, and that there-fore we do well to believe.

But there are certain degrees of religious Agnosticism which seem to me quite just and right in spite of all that I have said. When Zophar says to Job : 'Canst thou find out the depth of God ? Canst thou find out the end of the Almighty ? ' I believe that he expresses a sense of the limitations of our knowledge of God which is characteristic not only of the wisest, but of the devoutest minds. All that we can possibly know about God is how he affects us, at what points he touches our consciousness, and how he modifies it, moving us to joy or to deep peace or to bitter remorse or to great longing for a higher holiness. The Agnostics, from Zophar to Spencer, are absolutely right in telling us that we can never know anything of what God is in himself apart from his effect upon us. The philosophical way of expressing this is to say that we can never know him absolutely, only relatively. And this is indubitably true. But then the like thing is true of every other object of our knowledge whatever ; and it is inherently impossible that it should be otherwise. You know nothing and can know nothing of your brother, or of the table at which you are sitting, or of a loaf of bread, or of the moon, except how each one of these affects your consciousness. You know each object in its relation to you, but you do not and cannot know it in itself. I have five avenues through which knowledge of the outer world and the things in it come to me. I call them sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. But I meet a man who is blind and always has been. It seems to him that he knows all about the world, except that he hears some unmeaning talk about light and dark, red and blue and yellow. The words have no sense to him at all. And if he lived among a set of men all of whom were blind like him and always had been, and never came across or heard of anyone who was not blind, he would suppose that with ears and nose and tongue and touch he knew all that the world had to reveal about itself. He never could possibly so much as imagine a whole set of qualities inherent in every bird and butterfly and flower outside the cognizance of his four senses. And so, for all I know, there may be in the apple I eat at dinner, or the bed I lie on at night, or any other physical object whatever, a whole range of qualities which I can neither perceive nor even begin to imagine, because I have no sense for them ; there is no avenue to my mind which admits that kind of quality. And there may be races of beings in some other planet with six, ten, twenty, a hundred senses, even without any one of the five senses which we possess—who yet through those senses which they have, get a knowledge of physical nature just as true, and just as limited as ours—a knowledge, that is, that the world affects their consciousness in such and such ways, but no knowledge at all of what that world is in its own essence.

And so of God : I shall speak in this book of three chief faculties through which we apprehend him ; three avenues in our nature through which he touches our consciousness. But I do not for one moment suppose that this which I perceive is all of God. It is only such effects of his as I, a mere man, am capable of becoming conscious of. And I am persuaded that there are infinitudes of being and an untold wealth of attributes in God, which this poor, feeble, limited human nature is unable to perceive.

But I believe in God. I believe in the reality of the physical objects round me, because I cannot but believe that there is something outside of me which gives me these sensations of hardness or softness, of blue or green, of sweet or bitter, of fragrant or malodorous. In like manner, I believe in the reality of God, because I cannot but believe that there is some one other than myself, who gives me these feelings of aspiration or repentance, ineffable peace or black remorse, of a divine protection or inflowing moral strength.

My whole argument in this book then will be a reference to various intellectual, moral, and spiritual experiences of yours and mine, and an appeal to you to trust in the faculties through which they come and believe the truths they seem to teach. I shall put forward first experience, and then reason starting from experience, as the basis of religious knowledge ; and then I shall appeal to you to have faith in that experience and that reason and the verities which they declare.

Home | More Articles | Email: