Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/May 1878/Relation of the Finite to the Infinite

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ALL human knowledge is limited—limited by the power of the senses, limited by the scope of the senses, limited by the imperfections of the senses. The eye cannot see an atom, because of its minuteness; it cannot measure the sun or the stars, because of their vastness; it can only be trusted to take the approximate and comparative measure of a limited class of objects within certain distances.

This conscious narrowness is realized in all the special senses and all the faculties of the intellect.

We have pains so slight that we never feel them, yet in their aggregate effect they may be fatal; and a fatal blow that shall at once strike down every nerve of sensation would produce as little conscious pain. Consciousness cannot mark its own beginnings or endings; it can only realize intermediate stages. We have no consciousness of how or when we began to see, or feel, or think, and we will probably have as little as to their mode of termination. As conscious physical beings (we are not discussing the question of immortality), the cradle and the grave meet in one mystery. It is the putting on and the putting off of consciousness; all that lies between we call life—finite, limited life.

Now, it seems plain that a mind so restricted by the senses can never form a just conception of the infinite. How utterly impossible it is for us to grasp the idea of endless space or endless time! To suppose there is an end to space is to suppose something beyond, and this must be space. To suppose there was a moment when time began is to suppose there was a moment before it began, and this must have been time also. Let us conceive God to be the highest possible ideal of the Infinite; let us assume that he had no beginning, and that he fills with his presence all space. But we cannot conceive of a universal, all-pervading God without all-pervading space; and, consequently, if God had no beginning, neither had space, and if space had no beginning, neither had time. Then, as a sequence, God did not create time or space, for they were prerequisites to his own existence. Hence our highest conceptions of God condition him of necessity.

Now, it may be asked, "Does this line of reasoning prove there is no God?" Not at all. It simply proves that the finite mind is utterly impotent to apprehend God. It proves that we do not and cannot comprehend primary causation; that our perceptive faculties are so limited by the very nature of their constitution that they cannot apprehend the primary nature of the simplest natural law; and if we cannot comprehend the nature of the force called gravity, or heat as a mode of motion, except as physical facts, how can we have any rational conception of any of those matchless qualities of mind that produced these laws? If the rude savage, after examining for the first time a complicated piece of machinery, can form no just conception of the forces that impel it, or even of the purpose it serves, how much less can he understand the peculiar qualities of mind that invented and produced it! If, by dint of deepest research, we cannot analyze the subtile law that connects the molecular movement of the brain with thought, how can we analyze the thoughts of an Infinite mind of which this law was but a thought? Is it not plain that, in attempting this, we attempt the impossible?

Let us give a simple illustration to show how utterly incompetent is the finite mind to grasp the idea, of creation—we mean absolute creation. It must be conceded that matter has either had an eternal existence (whatever that may mean), or it has been called into being—created by a Creator. But it may not have occurred to every one that to the finite rational mind the latter s idea is as incomprehensible as the former, for we cannot conceive of the creation of something out of nothing. "From nothing, nothing can come." The science of geometry is based upon axioms not more self-evident. So far as the finite mind can reason, it is as impossible for God to create something from nothing as it is for us to prove that a whole is not greater than any of its parts, for it is a self-contradiction. The reader will bear in mind that we are not discussing the facts of the creation, but the incompetency of the human mind to grasp the facts, whatever they may be. However humiliating, then, it may be to the pride of human intellect, we are forced to the conclusion that there is a vast field of thought, open to anxious inquiry it is true, over the gateway of whose entrance we may well inscribe, "The Unknowable." Somewhere within this vast field, from which the human intellect is excluded, lie absolute time and space, and all we call creation, or primary causation. It is the futile attempt to explore this field that has brought philosophers and theologians alike into deserved contempt—the old folly of perpetual motion by the construction of a clock that shall wind up itself.

It is now time for science to define, in some way, the limitations of human knowledge, and thus confine all research strictly within the sphere of the knowable. Is it not safe to assume that the finite mind is so conditioned that it cannot possibly perceive or comprehend ultimate antecedent causes? To say that God was the first cause seems at first an easy solution, but it is only another way of saying we do not know, for we ask at once, "Had God a beginning? and if not, then for an infinite period of time he was alone, or else matter has been coeternal with him, and we come back to the Hindoo idea that God is the universe. Our conception of God must be the essence of our conception of eternity, and of that the finite mind can of necessity form no conception. There is a mathematical ratio between a second of time and a million million centuries; but there can be no ratio between a million million centuries and eternity, hence our conception of an infinite and eternal God is impossible. The difficulty does not lie so much in the vastness of the idea itself as in the seeming impossibilities the idea involves. It is like attempting to show the necessity for a sixth sense, by expressing this want or necessity in terms of the five senses we already possess; no such idea can by any possibility be conveyed.

Let us compare an animal as low in the scale of existence as an oyster with one of the highest known type, man, and note the points of agreement and the points of divergence. An oyster, like man, is evolved from a germ, advances to the climax of animal vigor, and then, like him, declines and dies. An oyster's life is conditioned by the elements in which he lives, and so is man's. An oyster, like man, is propagated by well-defined laws, and like him is subject to disease and premature decay. Now, in all the conditions named, there is not only no difference in kind, but, so far as we know, there is none in quality. They are conditions expressed in universal laws to which the entire organic kingdom is subjected, and over which human agency has little or no control. Let us now turn to those higher qualities in man which are either entirely wanting in the oyster, or are of the most rudimentary nature.

The nervous structure of an oyster is so low that we can no more detect consciousness than we can detect the physical structure of an atom. In man the nervous organization is exceedingly complicated, and centres in a massive brain unparalleled in its activity; to this are added the special senses (probably entirely wanting in the oyster), through which alone all knowledge comes to the mind. Now, we observe that all the inflexible laws that, in the same way, limit and govern these extremes of organic life, are of the infinite order, having their beginnings beyond the scope of the senses, while the differences are of the finite order and grow out of the relation of one thing to another; in other words, the difference is one of degree, and therefore finite. There was a time, in the infantile development of every man, when he was as unconscious of all his higher functions as the passive oyster; but there came a time when, through the special senses, he began to take on thought, which is an impression made upon the brain by external action, and these impressions multiply and accumulate as we come more and more in contact with surrounding objects, until the accumulated thoughts are called knowledge; that is to say, the mind is evolved from without, and not from within. It is utterly impossible for us to conceive of anything bearing no likeness to anything we have ever seen, or heard, or felt, because our thoughts are the result of impressions already made. We certainly can form no conception of a color unlike any of the prismatic colors and their combinations, because, through the organ of vision, no other impressions have been made upon the brain.

The difference in the scope of the receptive and perceptive faculties of the lower order of organisms, as compared with those of the higher, is vast and almost incomprehensible, just as is the difference in distance between two contiguous atoms and two of the most widely-separated visible stars, but it is a difference of degree and is finite. The great underlying life-principles are the same in each, and for want of a better name we call them principles of the infinite order.

Now, we insist that a well-defined line may be drawn between simple forces of the infinite order and a result growing out of the changed relation of one force to another—a difference between simple and resultant forces—the one constant and unvarying, the other forever changing. We may fashion metallic wheels and put them into certain relations to each other, and by employing weights or springs construct a clock that shall mark time in minutes or seconds, and by changing the relation of parts we may measure weeks or months, omitting to note the subdivisions, varying these results at pleasure; but in all this we create nothing, nor do we in any way modify a pre-existing principle. The mathematical laws of multiples, by which the results of all the wheel-movements are determined, preëxisted in the infinite and indestructible laws of numbers and of motion, and the direct motive power preëxisted in the force of gravity, or in the elastic property of the molecular structure of the spring. In bringing the wheels together, and making all the adjustments, we create neither force nor quality—in separating them and breaking the connections, we destroy nothing. The same is true of all mechanism, and indeed of all organisms. Chemical atoms are endowed with definite, inflexible, and indestructible properties that produce different effects only when differently related or correlated.

The difference between organic and inorganic conditions of existence is not a difference in the powers or properties of matter traceable to first causes, but to changed relations due to secondary causes; just as the movement of pieces upon the chess-board does not change the number or the power of the pieces, but, from their changed relations to each other, arise new and highly-complicated effects, that are perhaps never repeated in playing a million games. It is for this reason that no two organisms are ever exact duplicates of each other, nor is the individual ever twice in the same physical or intellectual conditions.

Now, is it not plain that, in the investigation of all the simple forces of which we have the slightest knowledge, there is not one in which we can find a comprehensible beginning? We trace them one by one from highly-involved conditions, through the less and less involved, until at last the simple force, divorced from all associated relations, is lost in the azure blue of the infinite—infinite in the space it may occupy—infinite in its duration—infinite in the diversity of effects that may arise from association with other simple forces, and finite or comprehensible alone in the duration of these conditions. It is at just this point we desire to draw the line between the knowable and the unknowable. All attempts to find the relation existing between first cause and any sequence or effect must utterly fail, for, as we have already seen, it is an effort of the mind to comprehend infinite conditions—to produce something from nothing. To say that God, in his creative energy, was the first cause, is to say that all the conditions of creation preëxisted in him, and, if all the conditions and possibilities of creation preëxisted in God, creation itself preëxisted in him, and consequently had no beginning, for the conditions by which creation was alone made possible, and which were its foundation-stones, were certainly first causes, and, if God created them, he created himself, which is absurd.

When we grant that the material universe contains in itself no creative energy, and that all the manifold laws by which seemingly blind atoms rise by intelligent coordination to organic conditions, and thus to intellectual activities, have not created themselves, we have exhausted the argument for materialism as a possible explanation of First Cause. And now we appeal to an Infinite Intelligence, a spiritual essence, superior to material conditions, and attempt to satisfy reason by making the universe the sequence of a Sovereign Will? But have we advanced a single step toward the comprehension of First Cause? We say, no! but on the contrary are receding from it; for we assume that the vast continuity of effects which we call the universe, past and present, must have had an antecedent cause, and this First Cause, which certainly must be more potent than the universe it created, we assume existed and preëxisted without cause. That is to say, we rise from the smallest phenomenon in Nature by slow gradations, connecting cause with effect, until we reach the highest phenomenon above Nature, and this we assume came into existence without cause, or in other words the source of all other powers is itself an underived power, and either created itself or was never created, either of which is unthinkable. It is, indeed, the conception of a vast and stately intellectual pyramid resting upon a vast base, which it is assumed requires no support.

Let no devout critic challenge the physicist to explain primary causation until he can show the capacity of the finite mind for the reception of such an idea, nor on the other hand deceive himself with the idea that he has removed the difficulty by simply covering it with a name, the meaning of which is utterly incomprehensible.