Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/June 1889/Cowardly Agnosticism
A WORD WITH PROF. HUXLEY.
By W. H. MALLOCK.
I WELCOME the discussion which, in this review and else-where, has been lately revived in earnest as to the issue between positive science and theology. I especially welcome Prof. Huxley's recent contribution to it, to which presently I propose to refer in detail. In that contribution — an article with the title "Agnosticism," which appeared a month or two since in "The Nineteenth Century" — I shall point out things which will probably startle the public, the author himself included, in case he cares to attend to them.
Before going further, however, let me ask and answer this question. If Prof. Huxley should tell us that he does not believe in God, why should we think the statement, as coming from him, worthy of an attention which we certainly should not give it if made by a person less distinguished than himself? The answer to this question is as follows: We should think Prof. Huxley's statement worth considering for two reasons: Firstly, he speaks as a man pre-eminently well acquainted with certain classes of facts. Secondly, he speaks as a man eminent, if not pre-eminent, for the vigor and honesty with which he has faced these facts, and drawn certain conclusions from them. Accordingly, when he sums up for us the main conclusions of science, he speaks not in his own name, but in the name of the physical universe, as modern science has thus far apprehended it; and similarly, when from these conclusions he reasons about religion, the bulk of the arguments which lie advances against theology are in no way peculiar to himself, or gain any of their strength from his reputation ; they are virtually the arguments of the whole non-Christian world. He may possibly have, on some points, views peculiar to himself. He may also have certain peculiar ways of stating them. But it requires no great critical acuteness, it requires only ordinary fair- ness, to separate those of his utterances which represent facts generally accepted, and arguments generally influential, from those which represent only some peculiarity of his own. Now, all this is true not of Prof. Huxley only. With various qualifica- tions, it is equally true of writers with whom Prof. Huxley is ap- parently in constant antagonism, and who also exhibit constant antagonism among themselves. I am at this moment thinking of two especially — Mr, Frederic Harrison and Mr. Herbert Spencer. Mr. Harrison, in his capacity of religious teacher, is constantly attacking both Mr. Spencer and Prof. Huxley. Prof. Huxley repays Mr. Harrison's blows with interest ; and there are certain questions of a religious and practical character as to which he and Mr. Spencer would be hardly on better terms. But, under- neath the several questions they quarrel about, there is a solid substructure of conclusions, methods, and arguments, as to which they all agree — agree in the most absolute way. What this agree- ment consists in, and what practical bearing, if taken by itself, it must have on our views of life, I shall now try to explain in a brief and unquestionable summary ; and in that summary, what the reader will have before him is not the private opinion of these eminent men, but ascertained facts with regard to man and the universe ; and the conclusions which, if we have nothing else to assist us, are necessarily drawn from those facts by the necessary operations of the mind. The mention of names, however, has this signal convenience — it will keep the reader convinced that I am not speaking at random, and will supply him with standards by which he can easily test the accuracy and the sufficiency of my assertions.
The case, then, of science, or modern thought, against theo- logical religion or theism, and the Christian religion in particular, substantially is as follows :
In the first place, it is now an established fact that the physical universe, whether it ever had a beginning or no, is, at all events, of an antiquity beyond what the imagination can realize; and also that, whether or no it is limited, its extent is so vast as to be equally unimaginable. Science may not pronounce it absolutely to be either eternal or infinite, but science does say this, that so far as our faculties can carry us they reveal to us no hint of either limit, end, or beginning.
It is further established that the stuff out of which the universe COWARDLY AGNOSTICISMr 227
is made is the same everywhere and follows the same laws — whether at Clapham Common or in the farthest system of stars — and that this has always been so to the remotest of the penetrable abysses of time. It is established yet further that the universe in its present condition has evolved itself out of simpler condi- tions, solely in virtue of the qualities which still inhere in its ele- ments, and make to-day what it is, just as they have made all yes- terdays.
Lastly, in this physical universe science has included man — not alone his body, but his life and his mind also. Every opera- tion of thought, every fact of consciousness, it has shown to be associated in a constant and definite way with the presence and with certain conditions of certain particles of matter, which are shown, in their turn, to be in their last analysis absolutely similar to the matter of gases, plants, or minerals. The demonstration has every appearance of being morally complete. The interval between mud and mind, seemingly so impassable, has been trav- ersed by a series of closely consecutive steps. Mind, which was once thought to have descended into matter, is shown forming itself, and slowly emerging out of it. From forms of life so low that naturalists can hardly decide whether it is right to class them as plants or animals, up to the life that is manifested in saints, heroes, or philosophers, there is no break to be detected in the long process of development. There is no step in the process where science finds any excuse for postulating or even suspecting the presence of any new factor.
And the same holds good of the lowest forms of life, and what Prof. Huxley calls " the common matter of the universe." It is true that experimentalists have been thus far unable to observe the generation of the former out of the latter, but this failure may be accounted for in many ways, and does nothing to weaken the overwhelming evidence of analogy that such generation really does take place or has taken place at some earlier period. " Car- bonic acid, water, and ammonia," says Prof. Huxley, " certainly possess no properties but those of ordinary matter. . . . But when they are brought together under certain conditions they give rise to protoplasm ; and this protoplasm exhibits the phenomenon of life. I see no breach in this series of steps in molecular complica- tion, and I am unable to understand why the language which is applicable to any one form of the series may not be used to any of the others." *
So much, then, for what modern science teaches us as to the universe and the evolution of man. We will presently consider the ways, sufficiently obvious as they are, in which this seems to conflict with the ideas of all theism and theology. But first for a
- "Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews," pp. 114, 117.
�� � 228 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
moment let us turn to what it teaches us also with regard to the history and the special claims of Christianity. Approaching Chris- tianity on the side of its alleged history, it establishes the three following points : It shows us first that this alleged history, with the substantial truth of which Christianity stands or falls, con- tains a number of statements which are demonstrably at variance with fact ; secondly, that it contains others which, though very probably true, are entirely misinterpreted through the ignorance of the writers who recorded them ; and, thirdly, that though the rest may not be demonstrably false, yet those among them most essential to the Christian doctrine are so monstrously improbable and so utterly unsupported by evidence that we have no more ground for believing in them than we have in the wolf of Bomulus.
Such, briefly stated, are the main conclusions of science in so far as they bear on theology and the theologic conception of hu- manity. Let us now consider exactly what their bearing is. Prof. Huxley distinctly tells us that the knowledge we have reached as to the nature of things in general does not enable us to deduce from it any absolute denial either of the existence of a personal God or of an immortal soul in man, or even of the possibility and the actual occurrence of miracles. On the contrary, he would believe to-morrow in the miraculous history of Christianity if only there were any evidence sufficiently cogent in its favor ; and on the authority of Christianity he would believe in God and in man's immortality. Christianity, however, is the only religion in the world whose claims to a miraculous authority are worthy of serious consideration, and science, as we have seen, considers these claims to be unfounded. What follows is this — whether there be a God or no, and whether he has given us immortal souls or no, science declares bluntly that he has never informed us of either fact ; and if there is anything to warrant any belief in either, it can be found only in the study of the natural universe. Accord- ingly, to the natural universe science goes, and we have just seen what it finds there. Part of what it finds bears specially on the theologic conception of God, and part bears specially on the theo- logic conception of man. With regard to God, to an intelligent creator and ruler, it finds him on every ground to be a baseless and a superfluous hypothesis. In former conditions of knowledge it admits that this was otherwise — that the hypothesis then was not only natural but necessary ; for there were many seeming mysteries which could not be explained without it. But now the case has been altogether reversed. One after another these mys- teries have been analyzed, not entirely, but to this extent at all events, that the hypothesis of an intelligent creator is not only nowhere necessary, but it generally introduces far more difficulties
�� � COWARDLY agnosticism:' 229
fhan it solves. Thus, though we can not demonstrate that a cre- ator does not exist, we have no grounds whatever for supposing that he does. With regard to man, what science finds is analogous. According to theology, he is a being specially related to God, and his conduct and his destinies have an importance which dwarfs the sum of material things into insignificance. But science exhib- its him in a very different light ; it shows that in none of the qualities once thought peculiar to him does he differ essentially from other phenomena of the universe. It shows that just as there are no grounds for supposing the existence of a creator, so there are none for supposing the existence of an immortal human soul ; while as for man's importance relative to the rest of the uni- verse, it shows that, not only as an individual, but also as a race, he is less than a bubble of foam is when compared with the whole sea. The few thousand years over which history takes us are as nothing when compared with the ages for which the human race has existed. The whole existence of the human race is as nothing when compared with the existence of the earth ; and the earth's history is but a second and the earth but a grain of dust in the vast duration and vast magnitude of the All. Nor is this true of the past only, it is true of the future also. As the individual dies, so also will the race die ; nor would a million of additional years add anj^hing to its comparative importance. Just as it emerged out of lifeless matter yesterday, so will it sink again into lifeless matter to-morrow. Or, to put the case more briefly still, it is merely one fugitive manifestation of the same matter and force which, always obedient to the same unchanging laws, manifest themselves equally in a dung-heap, in a pig, and in a planet — matter and force which, so far as our faculties can carry us, have existed and will exist everj^where and forever, and which nowhere, so far as our faculties avail to read them, show any sign, as a whole, of meaning, of design, or of intelligence.
It is possible that Prof. Huxley, or some other scientific au- thority, may be able to find fault with some of my sentences or my expressions, and to show that they are not professionally or professorially accurate. If they care for such trifling criticism they are welcome to the enjoyment of it ; but I defy any one to show, putting expression aside and paying attention only to the general meaning of what I have stated, that the foregoing ac- count of what science claims to have established is not substan- tially true, and is not admitted to be so by any contemporary thinker who opposes science to theism, from Mr. Frederic Harri- son to Prof. Huxley himself.
And now let us pass on to something which in itself is merely a matter of words, but which will bring what I have said thus far into the circle of contemporary discussion. The men who are
�� � 230 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
mainly responsible for liaving forced the above views on tlie world, who have unfolded to us the verities of nature and human history, and have felt constrained by these to abandon their old religious convictions — these men and their followers have by com- mon consent agreed, in this country, to call themselves by the name of agnostics. Now there has been much c|uarreling of late among these agnostics as to what agnosticism — the thing which unites them — is. It must be obvious, however, to every impartial observer, that the differences between them are little more than verbal, and arise from bad writing rather than from different rea- soning. Substantially the meaning of one and all of them is the same. Let us take, for instance, the two who are most ostenta- tiously opposed to each other, and have lately been exhibiting themselves, in this and other reviews, like two terriers each at the other's throat. I need hardly say that I mean Prof. Huxley and Mr. Harrison.
Some writers. Prof. Huxley says, Mr. Harrison among them, have been speaking of agnosticism as if it was a creed or a faith or a philosophy. Prof. Huxley proclaims himself to be " dazed " and " bewildered " by the statements. Agnosticism, he says, is not any one of these things. It is simply — I will give his defini- tion in his own words —
a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single prin- ciple. . . . Positively, the principle may be expressed : In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consid- eration. And negatively : In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclu- sions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the futm-e may have in store for him.
Now anything worse expressed than this for the purpose of the discussion he is engaged in, or, indeed, for the purpose of convey- ing his own general meaning, it is hardly possible to imagine. Agnosticism, as generally understood, may, from one point of view, be no doubt rightly described as " a method." But is it a method with no results, or with results that are of no interest ? If so, there would be hardly a human being idiot enough to waste a thought upon it. The interest resides in its results, and its re- sults solely, and specially in those results that affect our ideas about religion. Accordingly, when the word agnosticism is now used in discussion, the meaning uppermost in the minds of those who use it is not a method, but the results of a method, in their religious bearings ; and the method is of interest only in so far as it leads to these. Agnosticism means, therefore, precisely what Prof. Huxley says it does not mean. It means a creed, it means a faith, it means a religious or irreligious philosophy. And this
�� � '^ COWAIiDLV AGIiOSTICISM."
��is the meaning attril3utod to it not only by the workl at large, bnt in reality by Prof. Huxley also quite as much as by anybody. I will not lay too much stress on the fact that, in the passage just quoted, having first fiercely declared agnosticism to be nothing but a method, in the very next sentence he himself speaks of it as a " faith," I will pass on to a passage that is far more unam- biguous. It is taken from the same essay. It is as follows :
" 'Agnosticism [says Mr. Harrison] is a stage in the evolation of religion, an entirely negative stage, the point reached by physicists, a purely mental conclu- sion, with no relation to things social at all.' I am [says Prof. Huxley] quite dazed by this declaration. Are there then any ' conclusions ' that are not ' purely men- tal ' ? Is there no relation to things social in ' mental conclusions ' which affect men's whole conception of life ? . . . ' Agnosticism is a stage in the evolution of religion.' If . . . Mr. Harrison, like most people, means by ' religion ' theology, then, in my judgment, agnosticism can be said to be a stage in its evolution only as death may be said to be the final stage in the evolution of life."
Let us consider what this means. It means precisely what every one else has all along been saying, that agnosticism is to all intents and jDurposes a doctrine, a creed, a faith, or a philoso- phy, the essence of which is the negation of theologic religion. Now the fundamental propositions of theologic religion are these : There is a personal God, who watches over the lives of men ; and there is an immortal soul in man, distinct from the flux of mat- ter. Agnosticism, then, expressed in the briefest terms, amounts to two articles — not of belief, but of disbelief. I do not believe in any God, ^personal, inteUigenf, or with a purpose; or, at least, tuith any purpose that lias any concern with man. I do not believe in any immortal soul, or in any personcdity or consciousness surviv- ing the dissolution of the body.
Here I anticipate from many quarters a rebuke which men of science are very fond of administering. I shall be told that ag- nostics never say " there is no God," and never say " there is no immortal soul." Prof. Huxley is often jDarticularly vehement on this point. He would have us believe that a dogmatic atheist is, in his view, as foolish as a dogmatic theist ; and that an agnostic, true to the etymology of his name, is not a man who denies God, but who has no opinion about him. But this — even if true in some dim and remote sense — is for practical purposes a mere piece of solemn quibbling, and is utterly belied by the very men who use it whenever they raise their voices to speak to the world at large. The agnostics, if they shrink from saying that there is no God, at least tell us that there is nothing to suggest that there is one, and much to suggest that there is not. Surely, if they never spoke more strongly than this, for practical purposes this is an absolute denial. Prof. Huxley, for instance, is utterly unable to demon- strate that an evening edition of the " Times " is not printed in
�� � 232 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
Sirius ; "but if any action depended on our believing this to be true, lie would certainly not hesitate to declare that it was a fool- ish and fantastic falsehood. Who would think the better of him — who would not think the worse — if in this matter he gravely de- clared himself to be an agnostic ? And precisely the same may be said of him with regard to the existence of God. For all practical purposes he is not in doubt about it. He denies it. I need not, however, content myself with my own reasoning. I find Prof. Hux- ley himself indorsing every word that I have just uttered. He declares that such questions as are treated of in volumes of divin- ity " are essentially questions of lunar politics, . . . not worth the attention of men who have work to do in the world " : and he cites Hume's advice with regard to such volumes as being " most wise " — " Commit them to the flames, for they can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." * Quotations of a similar import might be indefinitely multiplied ; but it will be enough to add to this the statements quoted already, that agnosticism is to theologic religion what death is to life ; and that physiology does but deep- en and complete the gloom of the gloomiest motto of paganism — "Debemur morti." If then agnosticism is not an absolute and dog- matic denial of the fundamental propositions of theology, it dif- fers from an absolute and dogmatic denial in a degree that is so trivial as to be, in the words of Prof. Huxley himself, " not worth the attention of men who have work to do in the world." For all practical purposes and according to the real opinion of Prof. Hux- ley and Mr. Harrison equally, agnosticism is not doubt, is not suspension of judgment ; but it is a denial of what " most people mean by religion " — that is to say, the fundamental propositions of theology, so absolute that Prof. Huxley compares it to their death.
And now let us pass on to the next point in our argument, which I will introduce by quoting Prof. Huxley again. This de- nial of the fundamental propositions of theology " afi^ects," he says, " men's whole conception of life." Let us consider how. By the Christian world, life was thought to be important owing to its connection with some unseen universe, full of interests and issues which were too great for the mind to grasp at present, but in which, for good or evil, we should each of us one day share, tak- ing our place among the awful things of eternity. But at the touch of the agnostic doctrine this unseen universe bursts like a bubble, melts like an empty dream ; and all the meaning which it once imparted to life vanishes from its surface like mists from a field at morning. In every sense but one, which is exclusively physical, man is remorselessly cut adrift from the eternal ; and whatever imj)ortance or interest anything has for any of us, must
- " Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews," p. 125.
�� � " COWAEDLY AGNOSTICISMr
��be derived altogether from the shifting pains or pleasures which go to make up our momentary span of life, or the life of our race, which in the illimitable history of the All is an incident just as momentary.
Now supposing the importance and interest which life has thus lost can not be replaced in any other way, will life really have suffered any practical change and degradation ? To this question our agnostics with one consent say Yes. Prof. Huxley says that if theologic denial leads us to nothing but materialism, "the beauty of a life may be destroyed," and " its energies paralyzed " ; * and that no one, not historically blind, " is likely to underrate the importance of the Christian faith as a factor in human history, or to doubt that some substitute genuine enough and worthy enough to replace it will arise." f Mr. Spencer says the same thing with even greater clearness : while, as for Mr, Harrison, it is need- less to quote from him ; for half of what he has written is an am- plification of these statements.
It is admitted, then, that life, in some very practical sense, will be ruined if science, having destroyed theologic religion, can not put, or allow to be put, some other religion in place of it. But we must not content ourselves with this general language. Life will be ruined, we say. Let us consider to what extent and how. There is a good deal in life which obviously will not be touched at all — that is to say, a portion of which is called the moral code. Theft, murder, some forms of lying and dishonesty, and some forms of sexual license, are inconsistent with the welfare of any society ; and society, in self-defense, would still condemn and pro- hibit them, even supposing it had no more religion than a tribe of gibbering monkeys. But the moral code thus retained would con- sist of prohibitions only, and of such prohibitions only as could be enforced by external sanctions. Since, then, this much would sur- vive the loss of religion, let us consider what would be lost along with it. Mr. Spencer, in general terms, has told us plainly enough. What would be lost, he says, is, in the first place, " our ideas of goodness, rectitude, or duty," or, to use a single word, " morality." This is no contradiction of what has just been said, for morality is not obedience, enforced or even instinctive, to laws which have an external sanction, but an active co-operation mth the spirit of such laws, under pressure of a sanction that resides in our own wills. But not only would morality be lost, or this desire to work actively for the social good; there would be lost also every higher conception of what the social good or of what our own good is ; and men would, as Mr. Spencer says, " become chiefly absorbed in
- " Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews," p. 127.
f "Agnosticism," "Nineteenth Century," February, 1SS9, p. 191, and "Topular Science Monthly," April, 1889, p. 773.
�� � 234 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
tlie immediate and tlie relative." * Prof. Huxley admits in effect precisely tlie same thing wlien he says that the tendency of sys- tematic materialism is to " paralyze the energies of life," and " to destroy its beauty."
Let us try to put the matter a little more concisely. It is ad- mitted by our agnostics that the most valuable element in our life is our sense of duty, coupled with obedience to its dictates ; and this sense of duty derives both its existence and its power over us from religion, and from religion alone. How it derived them from the Christian religion is obvious. The Christian religion pre- scribed it to us as the voice of God to the soul, appealing as it were to all our most powerful passions — to our fear, to our hope, and to our love. Plope gave it a meaning to us, and love and fear gave it a sanction. The agnostics have got rid of God and the soul together, with the loves, and fears, and hopes by which the two were connected. The problem before them is to discover some other considerations — that is, some other religion — which shall in- vest duty with the solemn meaning and authority derivable no longer from these. Our agnostics, as we know, declare them- selves fully able to solve it. Mr. Spencer and Mr. Harrison, though the solution of each is different, declare not only that some new religion is ready for us, but that it is a religion higher and more eJLhcacious than the old ; while Prof. Huxley, though less i^roj^hetic and sanguine, rebukes those " who are alarmed lest man's moral nature be debased," and declares that a wise man like Hume would merely " smile at their perplexities." f
Let us now consider what this new religion is — or rather these new religions, for we are offered more than one. So far as form goes, indeed, we are offered several. They can, however, all of them be resolved into two, resting on two entirely different bases, though sometimes, if not usually, offered to our acceptance in com- bination. One of these, which is called by some of its literary ad- herents Positivism or the Religion of Humanity, is based on two l^ropositions with regard to the human race. The first proposition is that it is constantly though slowly improving, and will one day reach a condition thoroughly satisfactory to itself. The second j)roposition is that this remote consummation can be made so in- teresting to the present and to all intervening generations that they will strain every nerve to bring it about and hasten it. Thus, though humanity is admitted to be absolutely a fleeting phenome- non in the universe, it is presented relatively as of the utmost moment to the individual ; and duty is sujDplied with a constant
- " Since the beginning, religion has had the all-essential office of preventing men from
being chiefly absorbed in the relative or the immediate, and of awaking them to a conscious- ness of something beyond it." — "First Principles," p. 100.
\ "Lay Sermons," pp. 123, 124.
�� � '^ COWARDLY agnosticism:' 235
meaning by liope, and -witli a constant motive by sympathy. Tlio basis of tlie other religion is not only different from this, but op- posed to it. Just as this demands that we turn away from the universe, and concentrate our attention upon humanity, so the other demands that we turn away from humanity and concentrate our attention on the universe. Mr. Herbert Spencer calls this the Religion of the Unknowable; and though many agnostics con- sider the name fantastic, they one and all of them, if they resign the religion of humanity, consider and ajDpeal to this as the only possible alternative.
Now I have already in this review, not many months since, en- deavored to show how completely absurd and childish the first of these two religions, the Religion of Humanity, is. I do not pro- pose, therefore, to discuss it further here, but will beg the reader to consider that for the purpose of the present argument it is brushed aside like rubbish, unworthy of a second examination. Perhaps this request will sound somewhat arbitrary and arrogant, but I have something to add which will show that it is neither. The ]3articular views which I now aim at discussing are the views represented by Prof. Huxley ; and Prof. Huxley rejects the Re- ligion of Humanity as completely as I do, and with a great deal less ceremony, as the following passage will demonstrate :
Out of the darkness of prehistoric ages man emerges with tlie marks of his lowly origin strong upon him. He is a brute, only more intelligent than the other brutes ; a blind prey to impulses which, as often as not, lead him to destruction ; a victim to endless illusions which, as often as not, make his mental existence a terror and a burden, and fill his physical life with barren toil and battle. He attains a certain degree of physical comfort, and develops a more or less workable theory of life, in such favorable situations as the plains of Mesopotamia or Egypt, and, then, for thousands and thousands of years, struggles with varying fortunes, attended by infinite wickedness, bloodshed, and misery, to maintain himself at this point against the greed and the ambition of his fehow-men. He makes a point of killing or otherwise persecuting all those who try to get him to move on ; and when he has moved on a step, foolishly confers post-mortem deification on his vic- tims. He exactly repeats the process with all who want to move a step yet fur- ther. And the best men of the best epoch are simply those who make the fewest blunders and commit the fewest sins. ... I know of no study so unutterably sad- dening as that of the evolution of humanity as it is set forth in the annals of his- tory ; . . . [and] when the positivists order men to worship humanity — that is to say, to adore the generalized conception of men, as they ever have been, and probably ever will be — I must rejdy that I could just as soon bow down and wor- ship the generalized conception of a " wilderness of apes." *
Let us here pause for a moment and look about us, so as to see where we stand. Up to a certain point the agnostics haA^e all gone together with absolute unanimity, and I conceive myself to have
- " Agnosticism," "Nineteenth Century," February, 1889, pp. 191, 192, and "Popular
Science Monthly," April, 1889, pp. V72, TVS.
�� � 236 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
gone with them. Tliey have all been, nnanimoiis in their rejection of theology, and in regarding man and the race of men as a fugi- tive manifestation of the all-enduring something, which always, everywhere, and in an equal degree, is behind all other phenomena of the universe. They are unanimous also in ajSirming that, in spite of its fugitive character, life can afford us certain consider- ations and interests, which will still make duty binding on us, will still give it a meaning. At this point, however, they divide into two bands. Some of them assert that the motive and the meaning of duty is to be found in the history of humanity, regarded as a single drama, with a prolonged and glorious conclusion, complete in itself, satisfying in itself, and imparting, by the sacrament of sympathy, its own meaning and grandeur to the individual life, which would else be petty and contemptible. This is what some assert, and this is what others deny. With those who assert it we have now parted company, and are standing alone with those others who deny it — Prof. Huxley among them, as one of their chief spokesmen.
And now addressing myself to Prof. Huxley in this character, let me explain what I shall try to prove to him. If he could be- lieve in God and in the divine authority of Christ, he admits he could account for duty and vindicate a meaning for life ; but he refuses to believe, even though for some reasons he might wish to do so, because he holds that the beliefs in question have no evi- dence to support them. He complains that an En'glish bishop has called this refusal "cowardly — "has so far departed from his customary courtesy and self-respect as to speak of * cowardly agnosticism.' " I agree with Prof. Huxley that, on the grounds advanced by the bishop, this epithet " cowardly " is entirely unde- served ; but I jjropose to show him that, if not deserved on them, it is deserved on others, entirely unsuspected by himself. I pro- pose to show that his agnosticism is really cowardly, but cowardly not because it refuses to believe enough, but because, tried by its own standards, it refuses to deny enough. I propose to show that the same method and principle, which is fatal to our faith in the God and the future life of theology, is equally fatal to anything which can give existence a meaning, or which can — to have re- course to Prof. Huxley's own phrases — " prevent our ' energies ' from being ' paralyzed,' and ' life's beauty ' from being destroyed." I propose, in other words, to show that his agnosticism is cow- ardly, not because it does not dare to affirm the authority of Christ, but because it does not dare to deny the meaning and the reality of duty. I propose to show that the miserable rags of argument with which he attempts to cover the life which he pro- fesses to have stripped naked of superstition, are part and parcel of that very superstition itself — that, though they are not the
�� � " CO WABDL Y A GNOSTICISMS 2 3 7
chasuble and tlie embroidered robe of theology, tliey are its liair- sliirt, and its hair-sliirt in tatters — utterly useless for the purpose to wliicli it is despairingly applied, and serving only to make tlio forlorn wearer ridiculous. I propose to show that in retaining this dishonored garment, agnosticism is playing the part of an intellectual Ananias and Sapphira ; and that in professing to give up all that it can not demonstrate, it is keeping back part, and the larger part of the price — not, however, from dishonesty, but from a dogged and obstinate cowardice, from a terror of facing the ruin which its own principles have made.
Some, no doubt, will think that this is a rash undertaking, or else that I am merely indulging in the luxury of a little rhetoric. I hope to convince the reader that the undertaking is not rash, and that I mean my expressions to be taken in a frigid and literal sense. Let me begin then by repeating one thing, which I have said before. When I say that agnosticism is fatal to our concep- tion of duty, I do not mean that it is fatal to those broad rules and obligations which are obviously necessary to any civilized society, which are distinctly defensible on obvious utilitarian grounds, and which, speaking generally, can be enforced by exter- nal sanctions. These rules and obligations have existed from the earliest ages of social life, and are sure to exist as long as social life exists. But so far are they from giving life a meaning, that on Prof. Huxley's own showing they have barely made life toler- able. A general obedience to them for thousands and thousands of years has left " the evolution of man, as set forth in the annals of history," the " most unutterably saddening study " that Prof. Huxley knows. From the earliest ages to the present — Prof. Hux- ley admits this — the nature of man has been such that, despite their laws and their knowledge, most men have made themselves miserable by yielding to " greed " and to " ambition," and by prac- ticing " infinite wickedness." They have proscribed their wisest when alive, and accorded them a " foolish " hero-worship when dead. Infinite wickedness, blindness, and idiotic emotion have, then, according to Prof. Huxley's deliberate estimate, marked and marred men from the earliest ages to the present ; and he deliber- ately says also, that " as men ever have been, they probably ever will be."
To do our duty, then, evidently implies a struggle. The im- pulses usually uppermost in us have to be checked, or chastened, by others, and these other impulses have to be generated, by fixing our attention on considerations which lie somehow beneath the surface. If this were not so, men would always have done their duty ; and their history would not have been " unutterably sad- dening," as Prof. Huxley says it has been. What sort of consid- erations, then, must those we require be ? Before answering
�� � 238 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
this question let us pause for a moment, and, with Prof, Huxley's help, let us make ourselves quite clear what duty is, I have already shown that it differs from a passive obedience to exter- nal laws, in being a voluntary and active obedience to a law that is internal ; but its logical aim is analogous — that is to say, the good of the community, ourselves included. Prof, Huxley de- scribes it thus — " to devote one's self to the service of humanity, including intellectual and moral self -culture under that name " ; " to pity and help all men to the best of one's ability " ; " to be strong and patient," " to be ethically pure and noble " ; and to push our devotion to others "to the extremity of self-sacrifice," All these phrases are Prof. Huxley's own. They are plain enough in themselves ; but, to make what he means yet plainer, he tells us that the best examples of the duty he has been describing are to be found among Christian martyrs and saints, such as Catherine of Sienna, and above all in the ideal Christ — " the noblest ideal of humanity," he calls it, " which mankind has yet worshiped." Finally, he says that " religion, properly understood, is simply the reverence and love for [this] ethical ideal, and the desire to realize that ideal in life which every man ought to feel," That man " ought " to feel this desire, and " ought " to act on it, " is," he says, " surely indisputable," and " agnosticism has no more to do with it than it has with music or painting."
Here, then, we come to something at last which Prof. Huxley, despite all his doubts, declares to be certain — to a conclusion which agnosticism itself, according to his view, admits to be " indisput- able." Agnosticism, however, as he has told us already, lays it down as a " fundamental axiom " that no conclusions are indis- putable but such as are "demonstrated or demonstrable," The conclusion, therefore, that we ought to do our duty, and that we ought to experience what Prof, Huxley calls "religion," is evi- dently a conclusion which, in his opinion, is demonstrated or demonstrable with the utmost clearness and cogency. Before, however, inquiring how far this is the case, we must state the conclusion in somewhat different terms, but still in terms which we have Prof. Huxley's explicit warrant for using. Duty is a thing which men in general, " as they always have been, and prob- ably ever will be," have lamentably failed to do, and to do which is very difficult, going as it does against some of the strongest and most victorious instincts of our nature. Prof. Huxley's conclu- sion, then, must be expressed thus : " We ought to do something which most of us do not do, and which we can not do without a severe and painful struggle, often involving the extremity of self- sacrifice."
And now, such being the case, let us proceed to this crucial ques- tion — What is the meaning of the all-important word " ought " ?
�� � '^ COWAHBLY agnosticism:' 239
It does not mean merely that on utilitarian gronnds the conduct in question can be defended as tending to certain beneficent results. This conclusion would be indeed barren and useless. It would merely amount to saying that some people would be happier if other people would for their sake consent to be miserable ; or that men would be happier as a race if their instincts and impulses were different from " what they always have been and probably ever will be." When we say that certain conduct ought to be fol- lowed, we do not mean that its ultimate results can be shown to be beneficial to other people, but that they can be exhibited as desirable to the people to whom the conduct is recommended — and not only as desirable, but as desirable in a pre-eminent degree — desirable beyond all other results that are immediately bene- ficial to themselves. Now the positivists, or any other believers in the destinies of humanity, absurd as their beliefs may be, still have in their beliefs a means by which, theoretically, duty could be thus recommended. According to them, our sympathy with others is so keen, and the future in store for our descendants is so satisfying, that we have only to think of this future and we shall burn with a desire to work for it. But Prof. Huxley, and those who agree with him, utterly reject both of these suppositions. They say, and very rightly, that our sympathies are limited ; and that the blissful future, which it is supposed will appeal to them, is moonshine. The utmost, then, in the way of objective results, that any of us can accomplish by following the path of duty, is not only little in itself, but there is no reason for supposing that it will contribute to anything great. On the contrary, it will only contribute to something which, as a whole, is " unutterably saddening."
Let us suppose, then, an individual with two ways of life open to him — the way of ordinary self-indulgence, and the way of pain, effort, and self-sacrifice. The first seems to him obviously the most advantageous ; but he has heard so much fine talk in favor of the second, that he thinks it at least worth considering. He goes, we will suppose, to Prof. Huxley, and asks to have it dem- onstrated that this way of pain is preferable. ISTow what answer to that could Prof. Huxley make — he, or any other agnostic who agrees with him ? He has made several answers. I am going to take them one by one ; and while doing to each of them, as I hope, complete justice, to show that they are not only absolutely and ridiculously impotent to prove what is demanded of them, but they do not even succeed in touching the question at issue.
One of the answers hardly needs considering, except to show to what straits the thinker must be put who uses it. A man, says Prof. Huxley, ought to choose the way of pain and duty, because it conduces in some small degree to the good of others ; and to do
�� � 240 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
good to otliers ouglit to be his predominant desire, or, in other words, liis religion. But the very fact in human nature that makes the question at issue worth arguing, is the fact that men naturally do not desire the good of others, or, at least, desire it in a very lukewarm way ; and every consideration which the posi- tivist school advance to make the good of others attractive and interesting to ourselves Prof. Huxley dismisses with what we may call an uproarious contempt. If, then, we are not likely to he nerved to our duty by a belief that duty done tends to produce and hasten a change that shall really make the whole human lot beautiful, we are not likely to be nerved to it by the belief that its utmost possible result will be some partial and momentary benefit to a portion of " a wilderness of apes." The positivist says to the men of the present day: " Work hard at the founda- tion of things social ; for on these foundations one day will arise a glorious edifice." Prof. Huxley tells them to work equally hard, only he adds that the foundation will never support any- thing better than pig-sties. His attempt, then, on social grounds, to make duty binding, and give force to the moral imperative, is merely a fragment of Mr. Harrison's system, divorced from any- thing that gave it a theoretical meaning. Prof. Huxley has shat- tered that system against the hard rock of reality, and this is one of the pieces which he has picked up out of the mire.
The social argument, then, we may therefore put aside, as good perhaps for showing what duty is, but utterly useless for creating any desire to do it. Indeed, to render Prof. Huxley justice, it is not the argument on which he mainly relies. The argument, or rather the arguments, on which he mainly relies have no direct connection with things social at all. They seek to create a relig- ion, or to give a meaning to duty, by dwelling on man's connec- tion, not with his fellow-men, but with the universe, and thus de- veloping in the individual a certain ethical self- reverence, or rath- er, perhaps, preserving his existing self -reverence from destruc- tion. How any human being who pretends to accurate thinking can conceive that these arguments would have the effect desired — that they would either tend in any way to develop self-rever- ence of any kind, or that this self-reverence, if developed, could connect itself with practical duty — passes my comprehension. In- fluential and eminent men, however, declare that such is their opinion ; and for that reason the arguments are worth analyzing. Mr. Herbert Spencer is here in almost exact accord with Prof. Huxley ; we will therefore begin by referring to his way of stat- ing the matter.
"We are obliged," he says, "to regard every phenomenon as a manifestation of some power by which we are acted on ; though omnipresence is unthinkable, yet, as experience discloses no bounds
�� � " CO WARDL T A GNOSTICISM:' 241
to the diffusion of plienomena, we are unable to think of limits to the presence of this power ; while the criticisms of science teach us that this power is incomprehensible. And this consciousness of an incomprehensible power, called omnipresent from inability to assign its limits, is just that consciousness on which religion dwells." * Now Prof. Huxley, it will be remembered, gives an account of religion quite different. He says it is a desire to real- ize a certain ideal in life. His terminology therefore differs from that of Mr. Spencer ; but of the present matter, as the following quotation will show, his view is substantially the same.
" Let us suppose," he says, " that knowledge is absolute, and not relative, and therefore that our conception of matter repre- sents that which really is. Let us suppose further that we do know more of cause and effect than a certain succession ; and I for my part do not see what escape there is from utter material- ism and necessarianism." And this materialism, were it really what science forces on us, he admits would amply justify the dark- est fears that are entertained of it. It would " drown man's soul," " impede his freedom," " paralyze his energies," " debase his moral nature," and " destroy the beauty of his life." f But, Prof. Hux- ley assures us, these dark fears are groundless. There is indeed only one avenue of escape from them; but that avenue truth open to us.
"For," he says, "after all, what do we know of this terrible 'matter,' except as a name for the unknown and hypothetical cause of states of our own conscious- ness ? And what do we know of that ' spirit ' over whose extinction by matter a great lamentation is arising, . . . except that it also is a name for an unknown and hypothetical cause or condition of states of consciousness? . . . And what is the dire necessity and iron law under which men groan ? Truly, most gratuitously invented bugbears. I suppose if there be an 'iron' law it is that of gravitation; and if there be a physical necessity it is that a stone unsupported must fall to the ground. But what is all we really know and can know about the latter phe- nomena? Simply that in all human experience stones have fallen to the ground under these conditions ; that we have not the smallest reason for believing- that any stone so circumstanced will not fall to the ground ; and that we have, on the contrary, every reason to believe that it will so fall. . . . But when, as com- monly happens, we change will into must, we introduce an idea of necessity which . . . has no warranty that I can discover anywhere. . . . Force I know, and Law I know ; but who is this Necessity, save an empty shadow of my own mind's throwing ? "
Let us now compare the statements of these two writers. Each states that the reality of the universe is unknowable ; that just as surely as matter is always one aspect of mind, so mind is equally one aspect of matter ; and that if it is true to say that the thoughts of man are material, it is equally true to say that the earth from
- "First Principles," p. 99. f "Lay Sermons," pp. 122, 123, 127.
VOL. XXXV. — 16
�� � 242 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
whicli man is taken is spiritual. Further, from these statements each writer deduces a similar moral. The only difference between them is, that Mr. Spencer puts it positively, and Prof. Huxley negatively. Mr. Spencer says that a consciousness of the un- knowable nature of the universe fills the mind with religious emotion. Prof. Huxley says that the same consciousness will pre- serve from destruction the emotion that already exists in it. We will examine the positive and negative propositions in order, and see what bearing, if any, they have on practical life.
Mr. Spencer connects his religion with practical life thus : The mystery and the immensity of the All, and our own inseparable connection with it, deepen and solemnize our own conception of ourselves. They make us regard ourselves as " elements in that great evolution of which the beginning and the end are beyond our knowledge 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 sym- pathies 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 and 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 whatever, conceivable to ourselves, beyond such effects as it pro- duces 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, as 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 any- thing 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 im- planted 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 argu-
- " First Principles," p. 123.
�� � COWARDLY agnosticism:' 243
ment means, if it means anything, that the Unknowable has im- planted in us one set of 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 imj)ulse to profess it, and to act on it. And according to Mr. Spencer's entire theory, according to Prof. Huxley's entire theory, according 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 injuries to our race as well as through our benefits to it. The attempt to con- nect the well-being of humanity with any general tendency ob- servable 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 any- where, would be in one of Jules Yerne's story-books. The desti- nies 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 Australia have to do with the question of home rule for Ireland.
Or even supposing the Unknowable to have any feeling in the matter, how do we know that its feeling would be in our favor, and that it would not be gratified by 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 wishes ?
And this leads us to another aspect of the matter. If conscious- ness of the Unknowable does not directly influence action, it may yet be said that the contemplation of the universe as the wonder- ful garment of this unspeakable mystery, is calculated to put the mind into a serious 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 contemplation of the Unknowable, from the fcognostic's point of view, is not calculated to produce any sense of devoutness at all. Devoutness is made up of three things, fear, love, and wonder ; but were the agnostic's thoughts really con- trolled by his own 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
�� � 244 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
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 a revelation of forces that are infinite, and it may be gaid 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 ourselves 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 emotion of wonder to be considered. Is not the universe calculated to excite our wonder ? From the agnostic point of view we must certainly 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 wonder involved in the mattei? at all, it is nothing but wonder at our own ignorance.
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 com- monly have in view, and to which they allude most frequently. I allude to the search after scientific truth and the proclamation of it, regardless of consequences. Whenever the agnostics are pressed as to the consequences of their principles, it is on this con- ception of duty that they invariably fall back. Mr. Herbert Spencer, on his own behalf, expresses the position thus :
The highest truth he sees 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,
- "First Principles," p. 123.
�� � '^ COWARDLY agnosticism:' 245
" surely indisputable." 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 consequences, 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 justification 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 oan use such language with any warrant or with any meaning only on the sup- position 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 devotion to truth will not benefit the universe ; the only question is, will knowledge of the universe, beyond a cer- tain point, benefit us ? But the supposition just mentioned is merely theism in disguise. It 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 de- votion 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 argu- ments by which our agnostics, while dismissing the existence of God as a question 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 negative 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 positively fatal.
What they are the reader has already seen. I have taken the statement of them from Prof. Huxley, but Mr. Spencer uses lan- guage almost precisely similar. These arguments start with two
�� � 246 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
admissions. Were all our actions linked one to another by me- chanical necessity, it is admitted that responsibility and dnty would be no longer conceivable. Our " energies/' as Prof. Huxley ad- mits, 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 of these difficul- ties 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 wiU 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 un- able to assert of the reality behind the universe, that it might not manifest itself in ways by which all present science would be bafiied. But what has an idea like this to do with any practical question ? So far as man, and man's will, is concerned, we have to do only with the universe as we know it ; and the only knowl- edge 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. Now, 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 ex- pressly says, to human thought and action as 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 pre- ceding cause. Accordingly, if a man's condition at any given moment were completely known, his actions could be predicted 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 justi- fied in saying similarly of the man, that he will act in such and such a manner. Whether theoretically we are absolutely certain is no matter. We are absolutely certain for all practical purposes,
- "Lay Sermons," p. 123,
�� � COWARDLY agnosticism:' 247
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 recon- cile 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 pre- ceding 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 been 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 the word could in the foolish and fantastic sense which would enable him to say that unsup- ported stones could possibly fly upward ? For all practical pur- poses the distinction between must and ivill is neither more nor less than a feeble and childish sophism. Theoretically no doubt it will bear this meaning — that the Unknowable might have so made man, that at any given moment he could be a different be- ing : 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 throwing."
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 in- cluded, 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 uni- verse. 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 reverence for the Unknown Cause, as of an irrever- ence for those famihar forms in which the Unknown Cause is manifested to us.* . . . But whoever remembers that the forms of existence of which the unculti- vated speak with so mnch scorn . . . are found to be the more marvelous the more they are investigated, and are also to be found to be in their natures abso- lutely incomprehensible . . . will see that the course proposed [a reduction of all things to terras of matter] does not imply a degradation of the so-called higher, but an elevation of the so-called lower.
The answer to this argument, so far as it touches any ethical or religious question, is at once obvious and conclusive. The one
- " First Principles," p. 556.
�� � 248 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
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 the other. But the argument we are now consid- ering, though undoubtedly true in itself, has no bearing on this distinction whatever. It is invoked to show that religion and duty remain spiritual in spite of 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 re- ligion, 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 conclusion which they invoke the argu- ments to support. Something else, however, still remains to be done. Having seen how agnosticism fails to give a basis to either religion or duty, I will point out to the reader how it active- ly and mercilessly destroys them. Religion and duty, as has been constantly made evident in the course of the foregoing discussion, 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 conduct. 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 abstrac- tion, and the more we dwell on them, the stronger they are sup- posed to become. They lie above and beyond the ordinary things of life ; but after communing with them, it is supposed that we shall descend to these things with our purposes sharpened and in- tensified. It is easy to see, however, if we divest ourselves of all prejudice, and really conceive ourselves to be convinced of noth- ing 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. Perhaps I was wrong in saying 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 theological language, we may with literal accuracy describe 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
�� � '^ COWARDLY agnosticism:' 249
does not lie on the surface, such, meaning as may lie on the sur- face 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 not sin shall die the same death. In- stead 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 med- itations, 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 indiffer- ence, and the voice of effort and dutj^ ; but whereas the religion of the Christian enabled him to silence the one, the religion of the agnostic will forever silence the other. I say forever, but I probably ought to correct 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 fix- edly 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 con- temporary discussion 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 funda- mental 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 noth- ing 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 pup- pet, cursed with the intermittent illusion that he is something more, and roused from this illusion with a pang every time it flat- ters 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.
�� � 250 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
Let us see what this repudiation amounts to, and we shall then realize what, in the present day, is the intellectual basis which theologic 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 principle 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. Agnosticism says nothing is certain which can not be proved by science. Theologic religion says, nothing which is important can be. Agnosticism draws a line round its own province of knowledge, and beyond that it declares is the unknown void which thought can not enter, and in which belief can not support itself. V/here 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. Science regards them as dreams, as an " unsubstantial pageant " ; and yet even to science religion can give some account of them. Prof. Huxley says, as we have seen, that "from the nature of ratiocination," it is obvious that it must start " from axioms which can not be demonstrated by ratiocination " ; and that in science it must start with "one great act of faith" — faith in the uni- formity of nature. Religion replies to science : " And I, too, start with a faith in one thing. I start with a faith which you, too, profess to hold — faith in the meaning of duty and the infinite im- portance of life ; and out of that faith my whole fabric of certain- ties, one after the other, is reared by the hands of reason. Do you ask for proof ? Do you ask for verification ? I can give you one only, which you may take or leave, as you choose. Deny the certainties which I declare to be certain — deny the existence of God, deny man's freedom and immortality, and by no other con- ceivable hypothesis can you vindicate for man's life any possible meaning, or save it from the degradation at which you profess to feel so aghast." " Is there no other way," I can conceive science asking, " no other way by which the dignity of life may be vindi- cated except this — the abandonment of my one fundamental prin- ciple ? Must I put my lips, in shame and humiliation, to the cup of faith I have so contemptuously cast away from me ? May not this cup pass from me ? Is there salvation in no other ? " And to this question, without passion or preference, the voice of reason and logic pitilessly answers " No."
Here is the dilemma which men, sooner or later, will see before
�� � them, in all its crudeness and nakedness, cleared from the rags with which the cowardice of contemporary agnosticism has obscured it; and they will then have to choose one alternative or the other. What their choice will be I do not venture to prophesy; but I will venture to call them happy if their choice prove to be this: To admit frankly that their present canon of certainty, true so far as it goes, is only the pettiest part of truth, and that the deepest certainties are those which, if tried by this canon, are illusions. To make this choice a struggle would be required with pride, and with what has long passed for enlightenment; and yet, when it is realized what depends on the struggle, there are some at least who will think that it must end successfully. • The only way by which, in the face of science, we can ever logically arrive at a faith in life, is by the commission of what many at present will describe as an intellectual suicide. I do not for a moment admit that such an expression is justifiable, but, if I may use it provisionally, and because it points to the temper at present prevalent, I shall be simply pronouncing the judgment of frigid reason in saying that it is only through the grave and gate of death that the spirit of man can pass to its resurrection. — Fortnightly Review.
- The Bishop of Peterborough departed so far from his customary courtesy and self-respect as to speak of 'cowardly agnosticism.'" — Prof. Huxley, "Nineteenth Century," February, 1889, p. 170, and "Popular Science Monthly," April, 1889, p. 751.