""Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every
preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatsoever abysses
PEOPLE often feel a notable difficulty in believing
in the reality of continued existence. Very likely it is difficult to believe or to realise existence in
what is sometimes called "the next world"; but then, when we come to think of it, it is difficult to believe in
existence in this world too; it is difficult to believe in existence at all. The whole problem of existence is a
puzzling one. It could by no means have been predicated a priori. The whole thing is a question of experience;
that is, of evidence. We know by experience that things actually do exist; though how they came into being, and
what they are all for, and what consequences they have, is more than we can tell. We have no reason for asserting
that the kind we are familiar with is the only kind of existence possible, unless we choose to assert it on the
ground that we have no experience of any other. But that is becoming just the question at issue: have we any
evidence, either direct or indirect, for any other existence than this? If we have, it is futile to cite in opposition to
it the difficulty of believing in the reality of such an existence; we surely ought to be guided by facts.
At this stage in the history of the human race few facts of
science are better established and more widely appreciated than the main facts of Astronomy: a general acquaintance with the
sizes and distances, and the enormous number, of the solar systems distributed throughout space
is prevalent. Yet to the imaginative human mind the facts, if really grasped, are overwhelming and incredible.
The sun a million times bigger than the earth; Arcturus a
hundred times bigger than the sun, and so distant that light has taken two centuries to come, though travelling at a rate able to
carry it to New York and back in less than the twentieth part of a second, -
facts like these are commonplaces of the nursery; but even as bare facts they are appalling.
That the earth is a speck invisible from any one of the stars,
that we are on a world which is but one among an innumerable multitude of others, ought to make us realise the utter triviality of
any view of existence based upon familiarity with street and train and office, ought to give us some sense of proportion between
everyday experience and ultimate reality. Even the portentous struggle in which Europe is engaged
"What is it all but a trouble of ants in the gleam of
a million million of suns?"
Yet, for true interpretation, the infinite worth and vital
importance of each individual human soul must be apprehended too. And that is another momentous fact, which, so far from
restricting the potentialities of existence, by implication still further enlarges them. The multiplicity, the many-sidedness, the
magnificence, of material existence does not dwarf the human soul; far otherwise: it illumines and expands the stage upon which the
human drama is being played, and ought to make us ready to perceive how far greater still may be the
possibilities - nay, the actualities - before it, in its infinite unending progress.
That we know little about such possibilities as yet, proves
nothing;- for mark how easy it would have been to be ignorant of the existence of all the visible worlds and myriad modes of being
in space. Not until the business of the day is over, and our great star has eclipsed itself behind the earth, not until the serener
period of night, does the grandeur of the material universe force itself upon our attention. And, even then, let there be but a slight
permanent thickening of our atmosphere, and we should have had no revelation of any world other than our own.
Under those conditions-so barely escaped
from - how wretchedly meagre and limited would have been our conception of the Universe! Aye, and, unless we foolishly imagine that our
circumstances are such as to have already given us a clue to every kind of possible existence, I venture to say that "wretchedly
meagre and limited" must be a true description of our conception of the Universe, even now,-even of the conception of those who
have permitted themselves, with least hesitation, to follow whithersoever facts lead.
If there be any group of scientific or historical or literary
students who advocate what they think to be a sensible, but what I regard as a purblind, view of existence, based upon already
systematised knowledge and on unfounded and restricting speculation as to probable boundaries and limitations of existence,
- if such students take their own horizon to be the measure of all things,- the fact is to be deplored. Such workers, however
admirable their industry and detailed achievements, represent a school of thought against the fruits of which we of the Allied
Nations are in arms.
Nevertheless speculation of this illegitimate and negative kind
is not unknown among us. It originates partly in admiration for the successful labours of a bygone generation in clearing away a
quantity of clinging parasitic growth which was obscuring the fair fabric of ascertained truth, and partly in an innate iconoclastic enthusiasm.
The success which has attended Darwinian and other
hypotheses has had a tendency to lead men-not indeed men of Darwinian calibre, but smaller and less conscientious men-in
science as well as in history and theology, to an over-eager confidence in probable conjecture and inadequate attention to
facts of experience. It has even been said - I quote from a writer in the volume
Darwin and Modern Science, published in connexion with a Darwin jubilee celebration at
Cambridge - that "the age of materialism was the least matter-of-fact age conceivable, and the
age of science the age which showed least of the patient temper of enquiry." I would not go so far as this myself, the statement
savours of exaggeration, but there is a regrettable tendency in surviving materialistic quarters for combatants to entrench
themselves in dogma and preconceived opinion, to regard these vulnerable shelters as
sufficient protection against observed and recorded facts, and even to employ them as strongholds from which alien
observation - posts can be shattered and overthrown.