Arthur J. Balfour

Arthur Balfour

1848-1930. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. Devoted himself to philosophical studies for many years. First went to Parliament in 1876. Published "A Defense of Philosophic Doubt" in 1879, pleading for individual freedom of thought as against the increasing dogmatism of science. Through his sister, the wife of Prof. Henry Sidgwick, the first president of the SPR, he became interested in psychic phenomena and the question of survival in 1882. In 1894 he occupied the presidential chair of the SPR and in 1893 he became President. Eleven years later he became President of the British Association. Served as the British Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905. His paper on the Ear of Dionysuis cross correspondence (attributed to the discarnate minds of Prof. Butcher and Prof. Verrall) which he read before the SPR in November, 1916, is a most constructive presentation of an excellent piece of evidence for survival.

Science and Theology

 - Arthur Balfour -

           GRANTING THE reality of an external world, let us ask, in the first place, what is its real nature according to modern scientific teaching?

Speaking generally, it consists, we are told, of atoms possessing mass, chemical affinity, and other qualities; and of a universally diffused medium, called ether, which, by means of certain very singular properties, transmits through space certain vibrations by which these atoms are affected.

Associated together by various laws in various groups, these atoms constitute the solid, liquid, and gaseous bodies scattered through space; from among the infinite number of which there is to each man assigned one of especial importance to himself; I mean his own organism. The very interesting class of objects to which these belong, do not differ from the rest of the material universe in the nature of their ultimate composition. In many other most important respects no doubt they do differ. But the peculiarity about them with which at this moment we are specially concerned is the fact, that they are the immediate channels of communication between the world I have just described, and the thinking beings who by their means are made acquainted directly with the appearance of that world, and indirectly with its true nature and constitution.

Before going further in the consideration of the general system of Science, it may be as well to remind the reader how unlike the world just described is to the world which we actually perceive, or can represent by an effort of the imagination. I do not of course mean to say that the world of perception and the world of science are numerically distinct. This is evidently not so. When astronomers talk of the moon, they mean the moon we see; when chemists talk of elementary substances, they mean things we can touch and handle. But when they go on to tell us about the intimate structure of these bodies they are soon compelled to use words which have only a symbolic meaning, and to refer to objects which (it may be) can be thought, but which certainly cannot in their real nature be either perceived or imagined.

That knowledge, or what passes for knowledge, soon gets in this way beyond the data of perception and the powers of imagination, is a fact which comes to the surface more prominently in Theology perhaps than in Science. I am not aware that this is because there is any essential philosophic difference between these two great departments of knowledge. It arises rather from the fact that, for controversial purposes, it has been found convenient to dwell on the circumstance that our idea of the Deity is to a certain extent necessarily anthropomorphic, while the no less certain, if somewhat less obvious, truth that our idea of the external world is also anthropomorphic, does not supply any ready argumentative weapon.

There are, however, further reasons why this side of the case has not received so much attention as the other. One of them is, I think, that any person speculating on this subject is apt to slide away from it into the allied but altogether distinct questions concerning realism and idealism. These are problems, however, the solution of which has no direct bearing upon the subject we are now discussing. Whether Realism or Idealism be true, whether either of them or both of them are consistent with Science, this broad fact remains, that the world as represented to us by Science can no more be perceived or imagined than the Deity as represented to us by Theology, and that in the first case, as in the second, we must content ourselves with symbolical, images, of which the thing we can most certainly say is that they are not only inadequate but incorrect.

This is not an assertion which in reality requires much argument to support it. Its truth is apparent on simple inspection, and it applies equally to the two main constituents of the external world - to Matter as well as to Force.

We have seen what, according to scientific teaching, is the real nature of the external world (as for convenience I here call it); and we have seen that as it really is, it can neither be perceived nor imagined. It is easy to conclude from this, what indeed is patent to everybody, that we arrive at our actual knowledge of its real nature, not immediately, but by a process of inference. That material objects consist of minute particles; that colour is the effect of the vibration of these particles; that these vibrations are transmitted as through an elastic and imponderable medium: that, in short, the world is what it is, are truths which, far from being intuitive, must be considered as the most refined deductions, as the latest triumphs, of scientific investigation.

What, then, are these deductions founded on? Men of science, who should be authorities on this point, inform us that they are founded on facts obtained by direct observation; and that the facts obtained by direct observation consist of what we can perceive of the qualities and behaviour of objects whose persistence, for the sake of argument, we are agreed to assume. In other words, our settled view of the universe is inferred from what we know of it immediately; and what we know of it immediately is its appearance.

Now the singular thing about this sort of reasoning is, that unless the premises be true, there seems no particular ground for accepting the conclusion; while if the conclusion be accepted, it is evident that the premises cannot be entirely true. Unless appearances are to be trusted, why should we believe in Science? If Science is true, how can we trust to appearances?

From the scientific point of view it may possibly be replied, that our immediate knowledge of the external world is in part to be trusted - but only in part. We know by direct observation - and know truly - of the existence of extended, resisting, and moving bodies; and we know, by a process of scientific inference, that the qualities of colour and so forth, which these extended, resisting, and moving bodies appear to possess, are really the subjective effects of the interaction between them and our organism. So that Science may be said to provide us with a criterion by which we may distinguish between that which both seems to be and is, and that which seems to be, but is not.

Now that we do in practice so use Science to enable us to distinguish between reality and appearance, is undoubtedly the fact. But taken by itself, this circumstance affords no real solution of the difficulty, because the very thing we want more particularly to know is, how we can thus legitimately erect Science into a judge of its own cause.

When we are occupied with the consideration of how we come to possess the knowledge we have of the external world, if we are in a scientific rather than in a metaphysical humour, we immediately and naturally look at the question from the point of view of the physiology of perception; and the physiology of perception, in its most general form, teaches us this - that the immediate antecedent to an act of perception is some definite change in the organism of the percipient; and that if this change occurs, no matter how it is originated, the particular perception corresponding to it will occur likewise. Now the same kind of change may at different times have different sets of causes. If on any given occasion one of the proximate causes of the physiological change producing the perception is the thing perceived, then perception is said to be normal. If, on the other hand, the thing perceived is not one of the proximate causes of the physiological change, then we are said to be deceived by an illusion of the senses. Supposing, for example, that I see the moon when she is actually in the field of view, and her rays are striking on my retina, then the object seen is one of the causes of my seeing it, and the immediate knowledge conveyed to me in that act of perception is so far accurate. But if (to take the opposite case) I see a ghost, then, on the supposition that there are no such things, I am suffering under an optical delusion, since, whatever may be the causes of the physiological change which results in that act of perception, it cannot at all events be the object perceived, which by hypothesis has no existence.

This is the physiological theory of perception looked at from its causal or physical side. Looked at from its cognitive or mental side, it suggests the idea that there is, on the one hand, a Material Universe, and on the other a Mind; and that the Mind obtains its information respecting the Material Universe by looking at it through the medium of the five senses - a medium which altogether excludes a great deal, and distorts much of what it allows to pass. I am not here pretending to criticise this theory. In common with most theories which give an account of the origin of knowledge, it has a logical defect, which I shall attempt to explain in the next chapter. It has also, no doubt, philosophical difficulties peculiar to itself. But what I am concerned to show here is, that so far from presenting any difficulties in the way of a belief according to which a distinction is made between what appears and what is, it actually suggests such a belief; and that therefore it is not surprising that since we habitually think in terms (so to speak) of this theory, we should be little troubled by the discrepancy I have shown to exist between the empirical premises of Science and its received conclusions.

It has been already pointed out this discrepancy cannot be smoothed away by any principle supplied by Science itself, except at the cost of arguing in a circle. But it may perhaps be though that the whole scientific doctrine of matter, and of the methods by which the properties of matter become known to us, may be legitimately put forward as a hypothesis, and may be capable of verification, like other hypotheses, by an appeal to experience; and that in this way the objection I have been urging may be successful evaded.

Let me consider the subject for a moment from this point of view. The reasoning to which I object asserts that the laws governing material phenomena are inferred from the immediate knowledge of matter given in perception, and at the same time that the laws so inferred show this knowledge to be in certain particulars incorrect. The reasoning which it is proposed to substitute for this asserts that some at least of the laws governing material phenomena, and more especially those which are included in the physiological theory of perception, are not inferred from the knowledge given in perception, but are adopted as a hypothesis to account for the fact, that such and such perceptions exist - a function which they perform so successfully that they may be accepted as to all intents and purposes demonstrated truths.

This mode of establishing the laws of matter is identical in its general scope with that adopted by certain philosophers to prove the reality of the external world; although the difficulty which suggests its adoption is different in the two cases. The philosophers of whom I speak were of opinion that we could perceive nothing beyond our own ideas, and they sought to avoid an idealistic conclusion by supposing that an objective cause was required to account for the fact that our ideas exist. The scientific argument, on the other hand, with which I am at present concerned, is not put forward in order to avoid a psychological difficulty, but a logical one. It is not required because introspective analysis shows this thing or that thing respecting the true nature of perception, but because the conclusions of Science, if made to depend solely on the immediate knowledge given in perception, do not, as a matter of fact, harmonise with their premises.

Now, in order to estimate properly the value of the argument by which this difficulty is sought to be evaded, we must ignore the information given immediately by perception respecting the nature of the external causes by which perception is produced. This is evident, because the difficulty itself arose from our attempting to rest scientific doctrine on this information.

We are expected, then, to found a theory respecting the true nature of these external causes solely on the fact that their effects, i.e. our perceptions, are of such and such a character. Now this undertaking we may, I think, boldly assert to be impossible; and if there is any doubt about the matter, it may be set at rest by this single consideration, that if two causes capable of producing the effect to be accounted for (namely, our perceptions) be suggested, there is no possible way of deciding between them. Supposing, for example (to revive an old speculation), it was maintained that it is not matter possessed of certain properties which is the required cause, but the Deity acting directly on our minds. What reply could be made to such a supposition? The immediate answer that rises to our lips is that we know that matter exists, and that we have no such knowledge about the Deity. But how do we know that matter exists? Because we perceive it? This source of knowledge is excluded by hypothesis: nor can I imagine any other, of an empirical kind, except the one we are at the moment discussing. It must further be recollected that we have no reason to suppose that the limits of imagination represent on this subject the limits of possibility. Nor is it practicable, as I pointed out in the chapter on Historical Inference, by the mere contemplation of an effect (and it is to this that we are in the present case restricted) to discover all the causes by which it might conceivably have been produced, or to determine which of these possible causes, known or unknown, actually produced it.

If, then, we cannot argue from the mere fact that perceptions exist to the fact that material objects corresponding to them exist, neither is it possible to argue from the fact that these perceptions are of such and such a kind, to the fact that the objects perceived have such and such qualities.

Before concluding this section, let me point out what it is that I have not attempted to do in this last argumentative portion of it. I have not in any way been concerned with theories respecting the real constitution of matter based on metaphysical speculation, nor has any part of the reasoning depended on the truth of a particular doctrine of perception. I have simply assumed that, if as we are told Science is founded upon experience, it must be founded on experience of one of two kinds: either upon that experience which may be described as the immediate knowledge of objects given in perception, or else upon the experience which is nothing else than our knowledge of the fact that we have such and such perceptions. On the first of these assumptions, I pointed out that the conclusions of Science contradicted its premises; on the second, I showed that Science could draw no conclusions at all.

Has Science any claim to be set up as the standard of belief? Is there any ground whatever for regarding conformity with scientific teaching as an essential condition of truth; and nonconformity with it as an unanswerable proof of error? If there is, it cannot be drawn from the nature of the scientific system itself. We have seen how a close examination of its philosophical structure reveals the existence of almost every possible philosophical defect. We have seen that whether Science be regarded from the point of view of its premises, its inferences, or the general relation of its parts, it is found defective; and we have seen that the ordinary proofs which philosophers and men of science have thought fit to give of its doctrines are not only mutually inconsistent, but are such as would convince nobody who did not start (as, however, we all do start) with an implicit and indestructible confidence in the truth of that which had to be proved. I am far from complaining of this confidence. I share it. My complaint rather is, that of two creeds which, from a philosophical point of view, stand, so far as I can judge, upon a perfect equality, one should be set up as a standard to which the other must necessarily conform.

The vast extension of Science in recent times, its new conquests in old worlds, the new worlds it has discovered to conquer, the fruitfulness of its hypotheses, the palpable witness which material results bear to the excellence of its methods, may well lead men to think that the means by which these triumphs have been attained are above the reach even of the most audacious criticism. To be told in the face of facts like these that Science stands on no higher a level of certainty than what some people seem to look on as a dying superstition, may easily excite in certain minds a momentary doubt as to the seriousness of the objector. Such a doubt is not likely to be more than transient. But if any reader, who has accompanied me so far, seriously entertains it, I can only invite him, since he regards my conclusions as absurd, to point out the fallacies which vitiate the reasoning on which those conclusions are finally based.

I have sometimes thought that the parallel between Science and Theology, regarded as systems of belief, might be conveniently illustrated by framing a refutation of the former on the model of certain attacks on the latter with which we are all familiar. We might begin by showing how crude and contradictory are the notions of primitive man, and even of the cultivated man in his unreflective moments, respecting the object-matter of scientific beliefs. We might point out the rude anthropomorphism which underlies them, and show how impossible it is to get altogether rid of this anthropomorphism, without refining away the object-matter till it becomes an unintelligible abstraction. We might then turn to the scientific apologists. We should show how the authorities of one age differed from those of another in their treatment of the subject, and how the authorities of the same age differed among themselves; then - after taking up their systems one after another, and showing their individual errors in detail - we should comment at length on the strange obstinacy they evinced in adhering to their conclusions, whether they could prove them or not. It is at this point, perhaps, that according to usage we might pay a passing tribute to morality. With all the proper circumlocutions, we should suggest that so singular an agreement respecting some of the most difficult points requiring proof, together with so strange a divergence and so obvious a want of cogency in the nature of the proofs offered, could not be accounted for on any hypothesis consistent with the intellectual honesty of the apologists. Without attributing motives to individuals, we should hint politely, but not obscurely, that prejudice and education in some, the fear of differing from the majority, or the fear of losing a lucrative place in others, had been allowed to warp the impartial course of investigation; and, we should lament that scientific philosophers, in many respects so amiable and useful a body of men, should allow themselves so often to violate principles which they openly and even ostentatiously avowed. After this moral display, we should turn from the philosophers who are occupied with the rationale of the subject to the main body of men of science who are actually engaged in teaching and research. Fully acknowledging their many merits, we should yet be compelled to ask how it comes about that they are so ignorant of the controversies which rage round the very foundations of their subject, and how they can reconcile it with their intellectual self-respect, when they are asked some vital question (say respecting the proof of the law of Universal Causation, or the existence of the external world), either to profess total ignorance of the subject, or to offer in reply some shreds of worn-out metaphysics? It is true, they might say that a profound study of these subjects is not consistent either with teaching or with otherwise advancing the cause of Science; but of course to this excuse we should make the obvious rejoinder that, before trying to advance the cause of Science, it would be as well to discover whether such a thing as true Science really existed. This done, we
should have to analyse the actual body of scientific truth presented for our acceptance; to show how, while its conclusions are inconsistent, its premises are either lost in a metaphysical haze, or else are unfounded and gratuitous assumptions; after which it would only remain for us to compose an eloquent peroration on the debt which mankind owe to Science, and to the great masters who have created it, and to mourn that the progress of criticism should have left us no choice but to count it among the beautiful but baseless dreams which have so often deluded the human race with the phantom of certain knowledge.

Of course a parody - I ought rather to say a parallel - of this sort could serve no purpose but to make people reflect on the boldness of their ordinary assumption respecting the comparative certainty of Science and Religion. But this alone would be no small gain; since in the present state of opinion a suspicion as to the truth of that assumption seems the last thing that naturally suggests itself. Why should this be so? That men of Science should exaggerate the claims of Science is natural and pardonable, but why the ordinary public, whose knowledge of Science is confined to what they can extract from fashionable lectures and popular handbooks, should do so, it is not quite easy to understand. Perhaps I shall be told that there is a very simple explanation of this strange unanimity of opinion - namely, the fact that the opinion is true. To this I reply that, even if we dismiss all the reasons I have given for thinking that the opinion is not true, the objector will hardly assert that the general public (of whom alone I have been speaking) have ever made themselves acquainted with the sort of reasons by which alone the opinion can be known to be true, still less that they have taken the trouble to weigh those reasons with care. While, if it be further suggested that they are guided by an unerring instinct in such matters, I answer that their instinct cannot always be unerring, for history sufficiently shows that it has not always been the same.

Without, however, making any special attack on individuals, the nature of my indictment against the general body of anti-religious controversialists may be easily stated. The force of their attack depends in the last resort upon the discrepancy they find, or think they find, between Religion and Science. It must require, therefore, a belief in, at all events, the comparative certitude of Science. On what does this belief finally depend? Are we to suppose that they rest its whole weight on the frail foundation supplied by the contradictory fragments of Philosophy we have been discussing through all these chapters? Or are we to suppose that their belief is a mere assumption, with no other recommendation than that it is agreeable to the spirit of the age? Or are we to suppose that it is established by some esoteric proof, known only to the few, and not yet published for the benefit of the world at large? The first of these alternatives implies in the thinkers of whom I speak the existence of an easy credulity in singular contrast with the acute scepticism they display when dealing with beliefs they do not happen to share. The second is, I think, hardly worthy of a class of writers who appeal so often and so earnestly to Reason, and who particularly pride themselves on proportioning the strength of their convictions to the strength of the evidence on which they rest. But if the third alternative represents the real state of the case, we have, I think, a right to ask that the concealment which the opponents of Religion are practising with so remarkable an unanimity should come to an end, and that, since the philosophy of Science exists, it should forthwith be produced for our enlightenment.

It is but justice, however, to the philosophic and literary advocates of extreme scientific pretensions, to remark that the blame which I have been laying on them should in part be shared by theologians. I do not mean, of course, that many theologians of repute could be found prepared to assert that Religion must either be proved wholly by scientific methods, and be shown to harmonise completely with scientific conclusions, or else be summarily rejected; but I do not assert that the extreme anxiety exhibited by certain of them to establish the perfect congruity of Science and Religion - the existence of a whole class of 'apologists,' the end of whose labours appears to be to explain, or to explain away, every appearance of contradiction between the two - are facts which naturally suggest the conclusion that the assumption made by the Freethinkers(1) is a legitimate one.

(1) It is not easy to find a single word to describe the opponents of Religion which is altogether free from objection. Most of the terms which suggest themselves have either acquired a somewhat offensive connotation, or are inexact. One or both of these defects attaches to the words 'Infidel,' 'Atheist,' 'Agnostic,' and 'Sceptic'. I have pitched upon 'Freethinker' because, if it suggests comparisons not altogether flattering to the modern assailants of theology, on the other hand, this is made up for by the fact that the strict meaning of the word credits them with a virtue to which they have no exclusive title.

Let me not be misunderstood. Truth is one. Therefore any attempt to reconcile inconsistent or apparently inconsistent beliefs is in itself legitimate, and in so far as apologetics aim at this and at nothing more, I have not a word to say against them; but the manner in which the controversy is carried on, even from the theological side, occasionally suggests the idea, not only that a consistent creed embracing both scientific and religious doctrines may be made at some time or other, but that it ought to be made now, and by no process more elaborate than that of lopping off from Religion everything which is not exactly agreeable with Science.

Yet the apologists should be the first to recognise the fact that this Procrustean method of reconciliation is not one which ought ever to be applied to their theological convictions. Its very ground and justification is the idea that enforced consistency is the shortest road to truth.

My imaginary critic supposes that I regard an ultimate impulse to believe a creed as a reason for believing it; and he supposes also that this ultimate 'impulse' is a better reason the more people there are who feel its influence. Neither of these opinions is accurate: on the contrary, they imply a total misconception as to the theory I am endeavouring to explain. This theory may be regarded as having two sides - one negative and the other positive. The negative side, the truth of which is capable of demonstration, amounts to an assertion that Religion is, at any rate, no worse off than Science in the matter of proof; that neither from the fact (if fact it be) that Religion only imperfectly harmonises with experience, nor from the fact that while men of science agree substantially with each other in their methods and in their results, theologians differ profoundly from each other in both, nor from any other known difference between the two systems can any legitimate conclusion be drawn as to their comparative certitude. The positive side, on the other hand, which cannot properly be held to supply any rational ground of assent, and is in no way capable of actual demonstration, amounts to this - that I and an indefinite number of other persons, if we contemplate Religion and Science as unproved systems of belief standing side by side, feel a practical need for both; and if this need is, in the case of those few and fragmentary scientific truths by which we regulate our animal actions, of an especially imperious and indestructible character - on the other hand, the need for religious truth, rooted as it is in the loftiest region of our moral nature, is one from which we would not, if we could, he freed. But as no legitimate argument can be founded on the mere existence of this need or impulse, so no legitimate argument can be founded on any differences which psychological analysis may detect between different cases of its manifestation. We are in this matter unfortunately altogether outside the sphere of Reason. It must always be useless to discuss whether a particular impulse towards a creed is either of the right strength or of the right quality to justify a belief in it; because a belief can, in strictness, be justified by no impulse, whatever be its strength or whatever its quality. On the other hand, let no man who agrees with the reasoning of this Essay say, 'I cannot believe in any creed which I know to be without evidence, merely because I feel a subjective need for it,' unless he is prepared to limit his beliefs to those detached scientific (or metaphysical) propositions which are, I apprehend, the only ones he must in practice accept whether he likes it or not, or unless he can find some motive for believing in Science which is not an impulse and at the same time is not a reason. Let him, if he will, accept Science and reject Religion, but let him not give as an explanation of his behaviour an argument which would be as appropriate - or inappropriate - if he were engaged in showing why he accepted Religion and rejected Science.

The doctrine that no rational justification exists for adopting a different attitude towards the two systems of belief, depends, it should be noted, not only on the fact that we are without any rational ground for believing in Science, but also on the fact that we are without any rational ground for determining the logical relation which ought to subsist between Science and Religion. The Freethinkers habitually assume that this relation is one of dependence on the part of Religion, and that if there exist any reason for believing it at all, these reasons are to be found scattered up and down among the doctrines of Science; confusing apparently the historic reasoning by which particular religious truths are established, with. the deeper sentiments by which Religion itself is produced, and in the light of which these historic reasonings are conducted. Those, however, who make this assumption offer no proof of it; nor do they, so far as I know, even indicate the kind of proof of which they conceive it to be susceptible. They accept it, as they accept so many other assumptions, not only without having any evidence for it whatever (which I should not complain of), but without being apparently conscious that any evidence whatever is required.

In the absence then of reason to the contrary, I am content to regard the two great creeds by which we attempt to regulate our lives as resting in the main upon separate bases. So long, therefore, as neither of them can lay claim to philosophic probability, discrepancies which exist or may hereafter arise between them cannot be considered as bearing more heavily against the one than they do against the other. But if a really valid philosophy, which would support Science to the exclusion of Religion, or Religion to the exclusion of Science, were discovered, the case would be somewhat different, and it would undoubtedly be difficult for that creed which is not philosophically established to exist beside the other while in contradiction to it-difficult, I say, not absolutely impossible. In the meanwhile, unfortunately, this does not seem likely to become a practical question. What has to be determined now is the course which ought to be pursued with regard to discrepancies between systems, neither of which can be regarded as philosophically established, but neither of which can we consent to surrender; and on this subject, of course, it is only possible to make suggestions which may perhaps commend themselves to the practical instincts of the reader, though they cannot compel his intellectual assent. In my judgment, then, if these discrepancies are such that they can be smoothed away by concessions on either side which do not touch essentials, the concessions should be made; but if, which is not at present the case, consistency can only be purchased by practically destroying one or other of the conflicting creeds, I should elect in favour of inconsistency - not because I should be content with knowledge, which being self-contradictory must needs be in some particulars false, but because a logical harmony obtained by the arbitrary destruction of all discordant elements may be bought at far too great a sacrifice of essential and necessary truth.

It is not necessary, I think, that I should add anything more in explanation of my attitude towards those positive beliefs which I hold in harmony with, though not as conclusions from, the negative criticisms contained in the body of this Essay. I am painfully aware of how few there are, even among those few whom the dry and abstruse character of the argument does not repel, who are likely to be the least in sympathy with the point of view I have been trying to defend. It will hardly find favour either with the ordinary believer or with the ordinary unbeliever. As regards the former, indeed, I console myself by thinking that the only practical end I desire has been in their case already attained. But as regards the latter, I am afraid that I have said nothing which they will even consider relevant to their own difficulties - if they have any - respecting the choice of a creed. They either ignore or are without that religious impulse, in the absence of which it is useless to clear away, by any merely dialectical process the obstructions that, did it exist, would hinder its free development. Their case is not one that can be reached by argument, and argument is all I have to offer. Even could I command the most fervid and persuasive eloquence; could I rouse with power the slumbering feelings which find in Religion their only lasting satisfaction; could I compel every reader to long earnestly and with passion for some living share in that Faith which has been the spiritual life of millions ignorant alike of Science and Philosophy, this is not the occasion on which to do so. I should shrink from dragging into a controversy pitched throughout in another key, thoughts whose full and intimate nature it is given to few adequately to express, and which, were I one of those few, would seem strangely misplaced at the conclusion of this dry and scholastic argument.

In any case, however, such a task is beyond my powers, and therefore I cannot hope that my reasoning, even could I suppose it to be unanswerable, will produce any but a negative effect on those who approach the question of religious truth in that indifferent mood which they would perhaps themselves describe as intellectual impartiality. There may, however, be some of another temper, who would regard Religion as the most precious of all inheritances if only it were true; who surrender slowly and unwillingly to what they conceive to be unanswerable argument, convictions with which yet they can scarcely bear to part; who, for the sake of Truth, are prepared to give up what they had been wont to think of as their guide in this life, their hope in another, and to take refuge in some of the strange substitutes for Religion provided by the ingenuity of these latter times. It is not impossible that to some of these, hesitating between arguments to which they can find no reply and a creed which they feel to be necessary, the line of thought suggested by this chapter may be of service. Should such prove to be the case, this Essay will have an interest and a utility beyond that of pure Speculation; and I shall be more than satisfied.

The discord between Science and Religion has reference chiefly, if not entirely, to the interference by the supernatural with the natural, which Religion requires us to believe in; and the amount of this discord may be measured by the importance of the scientific doctrines which such a belief would require us to give up, if we were determined at all hazards to make the two systems consistent with each other. In discussing this subject, I shall assume, for the sake of argument, that this interference is not, as has been often suggested, produced immediately by the operation of some unknown though natural law; but that the common opinion is correct which attributes it to the direct action of a Supernatural Power. The question therefore we have to ask, is this: What scientific beliefs do we contradict if we assert that a Supernatural Power has on various occasions interfered with the operation of natural laws? 'We contradict,' it will be replied, the belief in the uniformity of Nature.' Is the belief which is thus contradicted particularly important then to Science? 'So important,' many people would answer, that it lies at the foundation of all our scientific reasoning, as well as all of our practical judgments.' This I understand to be the opinion of the two most recent assailants of Theology who, so far as I know, have touched on the subject, namely, the author of "Supernatural Religion" and Mr. Leslie Stephen.

It would appear that Mr. Stephen holds, and thinks that Hume implicitly held, the doctrine that a belief in occasional Divine interference is inconsistent with that belief in the uniformity of Nature which is 'the sole guarantee of our reasoning'. I doubt whether this was Hume's opinion; in any case it is incorrect.

The scientific belief which, with least impropriety, may be termed the 'sole guarantee' of our reasoning, is that belief in the uniformity of Nature which is equivalent to a belief in the law of universal causation; which again is equivalent to a belief that similar antecedents are always followed by similar consequence. But this belief, as the least reflection will convince the reader, is in no way inconsistent with a belief in supernatural interference.

A belief in the uniformity of Nature, which is equivalent to a belief that natural effects are uniformly preceded by natural causes, no doubt is inconsistent with supernatural interference; but of what pieces of reasoning it is our sole guarantee, except those directed to show that in any given case the hypothesis of supernatural interference must be rejected, I am not able to say.

It is clear, then, that the most important discrepancy which has been, or could be, alleged to exist between Science and Religion has no real existence. The only great general principle on which scientific philosophers have as yet been able to rest their scientific creed is untouched.

Does, then, Theology require us to modify in any way our beliefs concerning the abstract part of Science? I apprehend that it does not. Such beliefs are in themselves as true and as fully proved if supernatural interference be possible as they are if such interference be impossible. A law does not do more than state that under certain circumstances (positive and negative) certain phenomena will occur. If on some occasions these circumstances, owing to supernatural interference, do not occur, the fact that the phenomena do not follow proves nothing as to the truth or falsehood of the law. If we believe that oxygen and hydrogen will combine under given conditions to produce water, we believe so none the less because we happen also to believe that some Supernatural Power may interpose, or has on certain occasions interposed, to prevent that result. I need not further insist on this point, which is obvious enough in itself, and on which I believe I am in agreement with Mr. Mill and others who are not commonly suspected of a theological bias.

Regarded in their relation to us as men, the facts which Theology asserts to have happened are unquestionably of transcendent importance. Regarded in their relation to Science, this can hardly be maintained. As phenomena, the few events which are said to have occurred in Palestine and elsewhere of a supernatural character are scarcely worth noting. Being supernatural, they furnish no grounds either for believing in any new law of Nature or for disbelieving any which we had before supposed to be established; and being few, they are lost in the mass of facts which have succeeded each other since the earth came into being. 'Is the supernatural creation of the world, then, nothing?' the reader may be tempted to exclaim. I have always understood(2) that this is a subject on which men of science professed to be altogether out of their sphere. 'What, then, do you say about a belief in Providence, and in the possible interference of Supernatural Power in answer to prayer?' These, again, are not convictions which require us to modify our adherence to known laws. They may cast, indeed, an additional shade of doubt over our expectation of the events which are to occur in the future, as well as over the explanation of the events which have occurred in the past; and if our actual scientific inferences were (as I have shown in the fourth chapter that they are not) of a satisfactory character on these points, this might prove a matter of some, though not, I think, of very great importance. As it is, however, the Supernatural Power is only one of an indefinite number of known and unknown natural powers, which we never have seen, and perhaps can never hope to see, reduced to law, and which even if we leave miraculous interference out of account would suffice to make demonstrative prophecy or retrospection an absolute impossibility.

(2) If the literal interpretation of the Mosaic account of the creation is to be accepted as an essential part of religion, no doubt the discrepancy between Religion and Science will be greater than that stated in the text. I have, however, assumed (in accordance with what I understand to be the opinion of theological experts) that this is not the case.

It would appear then that the discrepancy between Religion and Science, which vanishes altogether if we take the hypothesis most favourable to the Theologians, is comparatively insignificant in its amount even on the hypothesis most favourable to the Freethinkers: and if many writers who certainly know a great deal about Science, and may be supposed to know something about Theology, are of an altogether different opinion, this may, I apprehend, be attributed to the fact that they approach the question with their minds completely saturated with a theory of the logical relation which ought to subsist between Religion and Science, according to which the grounds, if any, for believing the first, are to be found, if anywhere, among the doctrines of the second. It is not hard to see that on any presupposition of this sort (combined as it is with the assumption that Science is philosophically established), the smallest want of harmony between the two systems may, or rather must, lead to the most important consequences; since the mere discovery that they are not rationally connected would remove all ground for accepting the dependent creed; while the least appearance of contradiction would supply a positive ground for rejecting it. As, however, I have in the preceding chapter sufficiently expressed my dissent from this view, it is not necessary that I should here any further allude to it. I merely desired to point out the principal reason which I believe exists for the great exaggeration which is occasionally to be observed in the estimate of the importance of the contradiction between current Religion and current Science put forward by thinkers of reputation.


The article above was taken from "Arthur James Balfour As Philosopher and Thinker: A Collection of the More Important and Interesting Passages in his Non-Political Writings, Speeches, and Addresses, 1897-1912" (Longmans, Green and Co., 1912) by Wilfred M. Short.


Related Material

Home | Intro | News | Investigators | Articles | Experiments | Photographs | Theory | Library | Info | Books | Contact | Campaigns | Glossary


Some parts The International Survivalist Society 2003