Letters on Spiritual Christianity——FAITH AND DEMONSTRATION
FAITH AND DEMONSTRATION
My dear ——,
I am afraid your notions about “proof” are still rather hazy; for you quote against me a stern and self-denying dictum which passes current among some of your young friends, that “it is immoral to believe what cannot be proved.”
Have you seriously asked yourself what you mean by “proved” in enunciating this proposition? Do you mean “made sufficiently probable to induce a man to act upon the probability”? Or do you mean “absolutely demonstrated”?
If you mean the former, not so many as you suppose are guilty of this “immorality.” Give me an instance, if you can, of a man who “believes what cannot be made sufficiently probable to induce him to act upon the probability.” Of course some men say they believe what they, in reality, do not believe; but you speak, not about “saying” but about “believing;” and I do not see how any man can “believe” what he does not regard as probable. I am inclined to think therefore that, in this sense of the word “prove,” your proposition is meaningless.
But perhaps by “prove,” you mean “absolutely demonstrate;” and your thesis is that “it is immoral to believe what cannot be absolutely demonstrated;” in that case I am obliged to ask you how you can repeat such cant, such a mere parrot cry, with a grave face.
Do you not see that, as soon as you conceded (as I understand you to have done) that our belief in the Laws of Nature is based upon the Imagination, you virtually conceded the validity of a kind of proof in which faith and hope play a large part, and in which demonstration is impossible. “Demonstration” applies to mathematics and to syllogisms where the premises are granted, though it is also sometimes loosely used of proof conveyed by personal observation; “proof” applies to the other affairs of life. Demonstration appeals very largely (not entirely, as I have shown above, but very largely) to Reason; proof is largely based on Faith. Having defined “angles,” “triangles,” “base,” and “isosceles,” and having been granted certain axioms and postulates, I can demonstrate that the angles at the basis of an isosceles triangle are equal to one another; but I cannot “demonstrate” that, if I throw a stone in the air, it will come down again, though I am perfectly convinced that it will come down, and though I commonly assert that I can “prove” that it will come down.
Why, your whole life is full of beliefs—as certain as any beliefs can be—which it is impossible to demonstrate! When you got up this morning did you not believe that your razor would shave and your looking-glass reflect; that your boiling water would scald if you spilt it, and your egg break if you dropped it; and a score or two of other similar perfectly certain beliefs—all entertained and acted on in less than an hour, but all incapable of demonstration? But you maintain perhaps that “these beliefs are not beliefs, but knowledge based on the uniformity of the laws of nature; you know that the laws of nature are uniform, and therefore you knew that your razor would shave.” But how, I ask, do you know that the laws of nature are uniform? “By the experience of mankind during many thousands of years.” But how do you know that what has been in the past will be in the future—will be in the next instant? “Well, if a law of nature were broken—say, for example, the law of gravitation—the whole Universe would fall to pieces.” In other words, you and I would feel extremely uncomfortable, if we existed long enough to feel anything; but what does that demonstrate? Absolutely nothing. It would no doubt be extremely inconvenient for both of us if any law of nature observed in the past did not continue to be observed in the future; but inconvenience proves nothing logically. It is no doubt extremely inconvenient not to be able to believe that your razor will shave; but what of that? Where is the demonstration? And remember your own dictum, “It is immoral to believe what cannot be demonstrated.”
Perhaps you may try to writhe out of this application of your own principle by the use of grand terms; “The Laws of Nature have been proved to be true by experiment as well as by observation; they have been made the basis for abstruse calculations and inferences as to what will happen; then the philosopher has predicted ‘this will happen,’ and it has happened. Surely no one will deny that this is a proof!” A proof of what? Of the future invariableness of the sequences of Nature? I shall not only deny, but enjoy denying, that it is a proof; if you mean by proof such a demonstrative proof as you obtain in a syllogism, where the premises are assumed, or in mathematics, where you are reasoning about things that have no real existence but are merely convenient ideas of the imagination. Believe me, this distinction of terms is by no means superfluous. You and your young scientific friends are continually confusing “proof” with “demonstration;” and you have one use of the word “proof” for religion and another for science. When you speak of religion, you say “it is immoral to believe in it for it cannot be proved” (meaning “demonstrated”); when you speak of science, you say, “This can be proved” (not meaning “demonstrated,” but simply “made probable,” or “proved for practical purposes”).
You may discourse for hours upon the Laws of Nature, but you will never succeed in convincing any one, not even yourself, that they will remain valid in the moment that is to come, by the mere force of logic. You are certain—so am I practically quite certain—that the stone which I throw at this moment up in the air, will, in the next moment, fall to the ground. But this certainty does not arise from logic. We have absolutely no reason for this leap into the darkness of the future except faith,—faith of course resting upon a basis of facts, but still faith. The very names and notions of “cause” and “effect” are due not to observation, nor to demonstration, but to faith. The name, and the notion, of a Law of Nature are nothing but convenient ideas of the scientific imagination, based upon faith. Take an instance. We say, and genuinely believe, that fire and gunpowder “cause” explosion; that explosion is the “effect” of gunpowder and fire; and that the effect follows the causes in accordance with the “laws of nature;” but you have not observed all this and you cannot demonstrate it. You have merely observed in the past an invariable sequence of explosion following (in all cases that you have seen or heard about) the combination of gunpowder and fire; you have also perhaps predicted in the past that explosion would follow, and demonstrated that it did follow this combination, as often as you pleased; you have found, or have heard that others have found, that this sequence agrees with other chemical sequences, which you are in the habit of calling causes and effects; but all this is evidence as to the past, not as to the future. Your certainty as to the future arises not from any demonstration about the future, but from your faith or trust in the fixed order of Nature, and from nothing else. Now the greater part of the action of life deals with the future. It follows therefore that, in the greater part of life, we act, not from demonstration, but from a proof in which faith is a constituent element.
Whence arises this trust in the uniformity of the phenomena of the Universe? We can hardly give any other answer except that we could not get on without it. Having been found to “work” by ourselves, and by many generations of our forefathers, this faith is possibly by this time an inherited instinct as well as the inbred result of our own earliest experiences. But when we analyse it we are forced to confess that we can give no logical account of it. Logically regarded, it savours of the most audacious optimism, arguing, or rather sentimentalizing, after this fashion: “It would be so immensely inconvenient if Nature were every moment changing her rules without notice! All forethought, all civilization would be at an end; nay, we could not so much as take a single step or move a limb with confidence, if we could not depend upon Nature!” Does not this personification of Nature, and trust or faith in Nature, somewhat resemble our trust or faith in God? I think it does; and it is very interesting to note that the very foundations of science are laid in a quasi-religious sentiment of which no logical justification can be given.
I might easily go further and shew that, even as regards the past, we act in our daily lives very often on the grounds of faith and very seldom on the grounds of demonstration. On this I have touched in a previous letter; but your dictum about the “immorality of believing what cannot be proved” makes it clear that you are hardly as yet aware of the nature of the ordinary “proofs” on which we act. How few there are who have any grounds but faith for believing in the existence of a Julius Cæsar or an Alexander! Yet they believe implicitly. Many have heard these two great men loosely spoken of, or alluded to; but they have never weighed, nor have they the least power to weigh, the evidence that proves that Cæsar and Alexander actually existed. Now as the unlearned are quite certain of the existence of a Julius Cæsar, so are you too quite certain of many facts upon very slight grounds. You ask one man his name; another, how many children he has; a third, the name of the street in which he lives, and so on; how certain you often feel, on the slight evidence of their answers (unless there be special grounds for suspecting them) that your information is correct! The reason is that all social intercourse depends on faith; if you began to suspect and disbelieve every man who gave you answers to such simple questions as these, social life would be at an end for you, and you might as well at once retire to a hermitage; scepticism in matters of this kind has not worked, and faith has worked; and this has gone on with you from childhood and with your forefathers from their childhood for many generations. Thus faith has become a second instinct with you, and you act upon it so often and so naturally that you are not aware of the degree to which it influences and permeates your actions. The cases in which you act thus instinctively upon very slight evidence, and upon a large and general faith in the people who give the evidence, are far more numerous than those cases in which you formally weigh evidence and attempt to arrive at something like demonstrative proof. In other words, not only as regards the future but also as regards the past, faith is for the most part the underlying basis of action. You believe, to a large extent and in a great many cases, simply because “it would be so immensely inconvenient not to believe.”
I claim that I have fulfilled my promise of shewing that people act much more upon faith than upon demonstration in every department of life; and I now repeat and emphasize what I said before, that if all our existence is thus dominated by faith, it is absurd to attempt to exclude faith from any religion. But if our special religion consists in a recognition of God the Maker as God the Father, then it is more natural than ever to suppose that our religion will require a large element of faith or trust. Just as family life would break down if the sons were always analysing the father’s character, and declining to believe anything to his credit beyond what could be demonstrated to be true, so religious life will break down, if we treat the Father in heaven as a mere topic for logical discussion and declare that it is “immoral to believe” in His fatherhood if it cannot be proved.
Of course I do not deny that you must have evidence of the existence of the Father before you can trust in Him. You could not trust your parents if you had not seen, touched, heard them—known something of them in fact through the senses: so neither can you trust God if you have not known something of Him through the senses. Well, I maintain that is what you are continually doing. God is continually revealing Himself to us in the power, the beauty, the glory, the harmony, the beneficence, the mystery, of the Universe, and pre-eminently in human goodness and greatness. Contemplate, touch, hear; concentrate your mind on these things, and especially on the perfection of human goodness, power, and wisdom: thus you will be enabled to realize the presence of the Father and then to trust in Him. Contemplate also the Evolution of the present from the past: the ascent from a protoplasm to the first man, from the first man to a Homer, a Dante, a Shakespeare and a Newton; do not entirely ignore Socrates, St. Paul, St. Francis. You cannot indeed shut your eyes to the growth of evil simultaneously with the growth of good: but do not fix your eyes too long upon the evil: prefer to contemplate the defeat of evil by goodness, especially in the struggle on the Cross; and with your contemplation let there be some admixture of action against the evil and for the good. Do this, and I think you will have no reason to complain of the want of “evidence” of the existence of One who has made us to trust in Him.
I have told you what to do: let me add one word also of warning as to what you are not to do. You are not to regard the world from the point of view of a neutral and amused spectator. You are not to detach yourself from the great struggle of good against evil, and to look on, and call it “interesting.” That attitude is fatal to all religion. Reject, as from the devil, the precept nil admirari; better be a fool than a dispassionate critic of Christ. Again, you are not to regard the world from the mere student point of view, looking at the Universe as a great Examination Paper in which you may hope to solve more problems and score more marks than anybody else. High intellectual pursuits and habits of enthusiastic research are sometimes terribly demoralizing when they tempt a man to think that he can live above, and without, social ties and affections, and that mere sentiment is to be despised in comparison with knowledge. This danger impends over literary as well as other students, over critical theologians as well as over scientific experimenters; we all sometimes forget—we students—that, if we do not exercise the habit of trusting and loving men, we cannot trust and love God. To harden oneself against the mute but trustful appeal of even a beast is not without some spiritual peril of incapacitating oneself for worship.