October 1899

science and religion

An Address delivered at Haddington, East Lothian, to the Haddington Literary Society

Published in ‘EDUCATION AND EMPIRE: Addresses on Certain Topics of the Day’,
Rt Hon. Richard Burdon Haldane, London, John Murray, Albemarle Street 1902

In his story of Germany as it was in the time of Luther, Heine tells us what tremendous change Luther with his own hand effected. Not only did he revolutionise the attitude of men towards authority in religion, but he brought about a new era, in which everything had to justify itself before the tribunal of reason. Heine tells us, in his imaginative fashion, how, as Luther and his companions entered the town of Worms singing “Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott,” the old Catholic Cathedral shook to its rafters, and the ravens whose nests were there flapped their black wings and flew away. Luther's hymn itself, with its proclamation of the authority of God, and God alone, Heine calls the Marseillaise hymn of the Reformation. The revolution had begun. Authority was shattered. Reason was now the only lamp of mankind, and conscience the only prop and staff in the wanderings of life. Man was face to face with his Maker, and needed no priestly intermediary. So Heine sums it all up.

But the spirit which Luther had roused could not, so Heine tells us, be confined in its activity, The mantle which the great reformer cast from him when his work was done descended bit Immanuel Kant. If authority had to justify itself before the human intellect in one case, so must it in all. It had now to be shown that religion and science could be reconciled. The thinker of Konigsberg, with his Critique of Pure Reason, was in truth the bearer of the very torch which the great reformer had kindled, when from his cell in the Wartburg he bade the people read the Bible freely and without stint, and interpret it for themselves. Authority was gone, and science and religion were face to face with none between.

What is science? What is religion? What is the nature of that system of knowledge of which they form two of the branches? These are questions to which we had better try to find some answer. It was easy for theology, three or even two hundred years ago, to repel the attacks of science, then full of quackery and superstition―of alchemy, phlogiston, perpetual motion. Gaps like these in the results of the earlier inquiries into the secrets of nature left room for the easy penetration of the armour of science by the defensive weapons of theology. But now all this is altered. Science is furnished with weapons as different from those of the time to which I allude as is the Maxim gun from the crossbow. She has attacked theology with vast armies at every point of the field. The latter has been driven from her outposts, and has abandoned much of what used to be considered essential ground of defence. The Mosaic cosmogony has capitulated before evolution; verbal inspiration has yielded up to criticism the fortress which it once held.

And yet, the advances of the last quarter of a century notwithstanding, religion remains a power as great and as living as at any time in the world's history. That power is of the heart rather than of the head. In the field of the latter she has suffered, Her theologians have been unable to resist the onslaughts of the dervishes of physics and biology. It may be necessary for her well-being that the lost territory should be retaken, and she may feel at this moment impotent to accomplish it. But religion as distinguished from theology, that belief in the reality of the highest standpoints which has been the faith of the men and women who in all ages have been regarded as greatest and wisest, this remains undiminished in its hold on the heart Herein lies a paradox which yet must be solved if human reason is not to incur reproach.

Well, a solution has always been talked of by thinkers, however little it has been grasped by the multitude. The problem is no new one. It raised its head at Athens more than two thousand years ago, before the days of Christianity, and in much the same form as to-day. Only the movement of the forces of reason was then directed more to the overthrow of the extreme pretensions of science than to the defence of faith. Socrates used to delight to take weapons of precision from the armoury of Greek philosophy, and with them to put to rout the claims of the physicists of his day to have discovered the whole truth. The genius of Plato has preserved for us the story of these battles. In another form Aristotle has shown us the same spectacle of the driving of science to within her own proper boundaries. In our time that spectacle has been repeated. There is a view of the history of philosophy which sees in it, not system deserted for system, but the development and perfecting of a great conception which has remained substantially the same under forms and in language that have varied with the successive moods of the Time Spirit.

To the question as to the ultimate nature of reality, of that into which all besides is resoluble, and in terms of which all else must be expressed if final truth is to be attained, the answer of the great thinkers of all ages has been that this ultimate reality is mind and not matter. In this Plato and Kant, Aristotle and Hegel, are at one, however varying their language, and however divergent on minor points. When estimated broadly and read alright, even such different inquirers as Spinoza and Hume have really turned out to be pointing us to the same conclusion. They have furnished us, have these generals of the forces of reason, each in his own fashion, with weapons of a precision which is deadly when directed against the loose procedure of the invading army of science. They have made it plain, however often the lesson has been forgotten, that religion, art, science, philosophy has, each of them, its own definite territory, and that none has the need or the right to cross the boundaries of the others, How they did this and what they said is worth trying to grasp. It is no novel statement, no new conclusion about the nature of things. It is the expression of what the great thinkers have agreed on without reference to minor controversies. Viewed so, the history of philosophy is no chaos of contradictory systems, but the presentation of a single great thought which I shall try to-night, however imperfectly, to place before you. For it seems to me to contain within itself the reconciliation of science and religion of which we are in quest.

“Two things,” said Kant, “fill me with a sublime sense of admiration, the moral law within, and the starry heavens with­ out.” But powerful as is the emotion which the spectacle of these must ever awaken in our breasts, mere emotion can be no test of truth. It may be that, understood aright, these two sublime facts are but the outcome of development from what lies far below. Men of science tell us that the starry heavens are but the result of the cooling down through millions of years of a vast nebulous mass occupying a space in which the universe as we know it has involved itself in accordance with well-known mechanical laws. The solar system, they say, to which our planet belongs, is but a fraction of this result. On that planet, as it became cooler and cooler, life began to appear in rudimentary forms evolved from the combinations of the element carbon with other chemical elements. With life there began, so they show us a strictly natural process of adaptation, not by any controlling power from without, but by natural and sexual selection, and the consequent survival of the fittest to survive. There came a point when mere life and instinct grew into the dawnings of something higher, when the brute began to feel the growing impulse towards society, self-restraint, and decency. This impulse, operating through countless generations, has ended, so they tell us, in mind with its moral law, the last therefore and not the first, the creature and not the creator of the universe.

I have always been strongly of the view that one of the idlest efforts of theology, and an effort which, to do theologians justice, is not made so much to-day as it once was, is to dispute the conclusions of science after once conceding its premises. Undoubtedly if we admit the tacit assumption which physicists make, that all that is real, even in ultimate analysis, can be expressed in terms of relationships in time and space, and be described under the only conceptions which physical science can employ, the result I have sketched will follow. To a Lucretius or a Tyndall there is no answer, if we once concede that atoms and energy are final realities, and that the only way of saving theology is to justify the conception of a mere physical hand, gigantic in power, it may be, but still operating mechanically ab extra, as the hand of what Matthew Arnold has called a magnified and non natural man. To invite the physicist to accept such a conception is to invite him to throw over what, from his plane of inquiry, is well established, the principle that matter and energy can neither be added to nor subtracted from.

If theology descends from its high ground, and unreflectively abandoning its position accepts battle on this level, it will be defeated, and that inevitably. But why should theology admit the tacitly made assumption that the conceptions of atoms and energy, of space and time relationships, are final, or represent realities at all, as distinguished from convenient abstractions, For it may well be that such abstractions have validity only as expressions of certain aspects of reality, in contradistinction from reality itself. The clearest-headed men of science―men like Huxley, Spencer and Clifford in this country, and like Johannes Muller and Du Bois Reymond in Germany―have admitted and even pressed this latter view. They have told us that the conception, for instance, of a physical atom as final and indivisible, or of a living cell as mechanically or chemically constructed, corresponds to nothing that can conceivably be experienced, and is, if regarded as a thing that can be seen or felt, full of latent contradictions. They claim for certain of the leading conceptions of science no more than that they form convenient working hypotheses. The admission is no new one.

The old Greek sophists were fond of testing the idea that space was a real thing, consisting of parts, by a dilemma. Either, said they, it does not consist of real parts, in which case what becomes of your indivisible and final atoms, or else it does, in which case Achilles could never, however swiftly he ran, overtake a tortoise. For when Achilles had got up to the point from which the tortoise started, the latter would have in the interval passed through another, though smaller, division of space. By the time Achilles had got through this new division the tortoise would have passed through another yet smaller, but still equally real division and so on to infinity, with the result that it was mathematically demonstrable that Achilles could never catch up the slow-moving tortoise. The conclusion which the subtle Greek thinkers drew was not that Achilles could not overtake the tortoise, for this would have been absurd, but that the conception of space as a self-subsisting real thing, made up of real divisions, or of matter as constituted out of really final atoms were wrong. They went on to tell us, or at least Plato and Aristotle did for them, that to conclude otherwise was to mistake a point of view of limited application for an adequate and exhaustive account of reality.

There is, for example, no such thing to be found in nature as the straight line which Euclid defines, length without breadth and the abso­lutely undeviating way between two points without magnitude. And yet this is legitimate. and necessary way of looking at space. We do not regard such a straight line as a real thing. We never see or feel it in the nature that surrounds us. It is only an abstraction made in reflection when reflection confines itself for the moment to a single and isolated point of view, and looks away from other and equally legitimate aspects of reality. The world as we experience it consists just as much of colour and weight, and beauty and morality, as it does of space, and yet all of these very real aspects the mathematician ignores. He does it, and he has to do it, in order to concentrate his attention, and to extend his own kind of knowledge. But he cannot assert that the phases with which he deals are the only real ones. Why, then, should atoms and energy, which have no more counterpart, as actual facts experienced, apart from colour and weight and beauty and morality, than have straight lines and squares and numbers, set up any better title to be the ultimate reality to which all else is reducible.

I will now approach the problem on another side, and, again premising that I am giving you not my own special conclusion, but one that, so far from being new, is our common heritage from the great masters of thought, show you that instead of mind being properly conceived as the last development, as science say, it cannot properly be looked on in any other light than as the prius of everything that is.

Suppose that the Time Spirit could retrace its steps and that we found our­selves face to face with a universe consist­ing of nothing but a nebulous mass of atoms in motion, what would its existence mean? What would be implied in its being there before us? Science tells us that such a universe might have been perceived, but it also tells us something more. What does to be perceived mean? Let us take the case of sight, the sense through which we perceive colour, and ask what science tells us. Is the colour which we say we see something out there existing in the object independently of me, or is it the outcome in my brain of some cause, operating from outside, which has nothing to do with colour? Science itself does not hesitate about the answer. The physical foundation of colour is the vibrations of the medium which pervades the space between the object seen and the eye that sees, These vibrations stimulate the retina. This stimula-tion affects the optic nerve, which transmits the stimulus to nerve centres in the brain.

It is through these nerve centres that the sensation of colour first arises. If the optic nerve. be cut there is no sensation of colour. A person born without an optic nerve would not know what colour meant. In the thing perceived there is no colour, nothing but the movement which causes the vibration. Thus science proves to us that the perception tif colour is not an impression which the mind receives passively from without, like one who looks through a window, but is wholly and entirely the creation of the nerve centres in the brain.

Our final universe of matter and energy would then be unlike anything we, or even men of science, have any experience of. Not only must colour be denied to it, and relegated to the perceiving mind, but sound, smell, taste touch must follow in like fashion. They are but the outcome of a stimulation of the nerves. There is no meaning in saying that the cause of this stimulation is colour, or sound, or smell, or taste, or touch. Save as sensations in the brain, so physiology tells us, which all observers project in the same fashion into the object, they have no meaning, that is to say they do not exist. If we take what are called the primary qualities of this, such as extension in space and duration in time, science conducts us to the same result. They are for physiology meaningless except as the projections of a brain which can perceive nothing directly, but can only as it were interrupt the simulations of which the nerves tell, and beyond these can have no real object of knowledge. Such, at least, is the account which science gives of knowledge. Matter and energy now stand before us shattered. They exist only for brains that perceive, and they cannot be the finally real things.

There is no escape from the dilemma. Either science is right, and the supposed universe of matter and energy turns out to have been there only for a perceiving mind, or the account which science has given of the whole matter has been somehow one-sided, in which case we need not trouble our heads over the bearing on the question of the ultimate nature of reality of the mechanical conception of things, or the evolutionary hypothesis of their ongm. But the difficulty does not end here. The brain which perceives―what of that? It is itself known only through the senses, and is itself therefore only a projection of a mind that perceives. What science proclaims as true in the one case, she must acknowledge to be true in this case also, which is indistinguishable from the first. The conclusion she is driven to seems to be the exact opposite of the one with which she started. It is not that things produce mind, but that mind produces things. The universe of matter and energy is meaningless excepting as object constructed by the mind for which it is there.

Now all this would seem absurd and impossible if taken as an exhaustive and sufficient statement of the nature of the world in front of us. For it is plain, whatever else is not plain, that we do not make that world. It was there before our time. It will be there after our time. It dominates us more than we dominate it. It is a most solid and substantial reality, no magic-lantern picture projected by our imaginations. But be it observed that the difficulty has arisen entirely out of the action and pretensions of science. The plain man believes in the reality of the world as it seems, and of all the aspects of that world―not only its mathematical and physical and biological aspects, but its aesthetic and moral and religious phenomena. Good and evil, beauty and ugliness, are just as real to him as lines and squares and causes. It was only science that sought to shut them out, and to insist on the reality of one aspect only. And it now seems that, just as science destroyed beauty and goodness, and the notion of God Himself, when she adopted the point of view of evolution out of matter and energy as the prius, so she destroyed matter and energy when she adopted the physiological account of the perceiving brain.

Now this looks very much as if the same mistake had been made as we saw was made by the mathematicians who asserted that space consisted of real finite parts, and who were in consequence unable to explain how Achilles could overtake the tortoise. The fallacy is that of confound­ing an aspect of things, which is got by abstracting from an isolated and special point of view for the purpose of extending knowledge, with the reality of these things. The true conclusion would appear to be that the rich concrete universe which lies before us cannot be reduced to mathematical or physical or biological elements, or be adequately conceived or apprehend through the spectacles of the mathematician or physicist or biologist. Rather must all its other aspects be regarded as equally real with these. Rather must each of these aspects be looked upon, not as independent reality, but as the outcome of the work of reflection, which separates, in order to bring into clearer consciousness, aspects which are never separated in a concrete reality which is one and indivisible.

If so, beauty is as real as biology, and morality as mathematics. The evolutionary account of the universe is a true account, given from a limited standpoint, of one aspect, but of one aspect only, and the other scientific account which makes the human brain come first instead of last is equally accurate and equally limited. There is only one conception which reconciles these two points of view, a conception which embraces them both and regards them as presenting only partial views of the truth, the way of looking at things which sees in mind, for which all is, not a finite object of knowledge, fashioned in the likeness of man, but that for which neither the expression substance, nor the word cause, is adequate, that which can be looked on only as the subject for which the universe is object, and in the activity of which all the various phases of that universe are embraced as aspects, separable in reflection, as a means to clearer knowledge, but not otherwise separable. This was what Plato and Aristotle thought and taught, and this is what underlies what is deepest in modern speculation from Bishop Berkeley down through Kant to our time.

But if this be the true view of ultimate reality, that its nature is to be sought in mind, and that the apparent separations of its aspects are only the outcome of the limited capacity of the human mind for grasping all together in their entirety, important consequences arise from our. conclusion as to the relation of science to religion. The mathematician tries to conceive the universe as though it were reducible to relations of quantity. The physicist seeks to view that universe as one of motion and of mass, of matter and of energy. Each deals with an aspect which stands out isolated, simply because he is looking at the riches of concrete life through limited categories which exclude all else for the sake of clean knowledge of one phase, a phase which is separate in thought alone. The biologist conceives living organisms as self-conserving, as preserving their identity amid a constant change of the material out of which the living tissue is made, as remaining the same throughout a development from birth to death, but a development which is brought about, not by any external cause, but from within. He conceives the cells, out of which the modern science of biology tells us that the body is made, is working together for the purposes of a common life, not like effects brought about by some outside physical cause, but more like soldiers obeying a general in command.

In so doing he follows the dictates of common sense. It cannot be the result of chance that millions of embryonic formations present the same structure, and amid constant changes of material follow the same course of development. No fortuitous external cause, such as a Lucretian concourse of atoms, can account for this. But neither can we put it down to, what would just as much be an external cause, the action of some anthropomorphically conceived influence operating upon the organism from outside in space. The first alternative is contradicted by the facts, the second by science, and particularly by the principle of the conservation of energy. But neither hypothesis is necessary. It is only when these aspects, that of mechanism and that of life, are taken to be independent realities, separate otherwise than in the reflection which he has separated them, that the contradiction arises. If we are content to believe in the reality of the world as it seems, and to regard these as points of view in the mind for which all these are there, to take mind and not matter as the prius, the difficulty will disappear. Just as we were convinced that Achilles really did overtake the tortoise, and that it was only our way of looking at the matter which caused the difficulty of conceiving it, to we shall recognise that all these aspects are equally real, in their own way, and from the standpoints to which alone they are appropriate.

Now turn to another stage. We have seen that there is no difficulty in regarding the living organism as really living, that is as self-conserving and self-directing in its growth through change in the material of its cells. From the standpoint of the physicist it seemed and had to be regarded as a mere mechanism, a sort of automaton whose shape and movements were caused from without. But this has turned out to be merely one aspect, an abstract way of looking at matters, adopted for the purpose of regarding the organism's relations as quantities, as measurements and weights, and so getting clearer knowledge from that point of view. Now common sense, which compels us to look at the organism under higher categories than those of mechanism, also compels us, in the case of some organisms, to regard them as rational and moral beings, as well as merely living. Here we have another aspect, from which the lower one, that of mere life, is isolated by abstraction under the categories to which biology confines itself for the furtherance of its own purposes of study. These rational and moral aspects of the living being contradict the biological, which try to exhibit them as and reduce them to the products of a lower stage of existence, only if the latter are regarded as independent realities. But if both be but aspects, then both are as common sense bids us say, equally real and in truth not separable save by the abstractions of human and limited intelli-gence. A higher kind of intelligence would have no difficulty in construing them. It is only the limited character of our faculties which occasions our difficulty.

We are always striving to express reality in terms of the categories which are lower, because the relations of simple quantity which they express are the ones which we can most clearly and easily grasp. But in truth and in fact our common sense bids us recognise the higher aspects as not less real, and indeed as taking up those that are lowest into themselves. Thus beauty, intelligence and morality come to be understood to be no illusions of the senses, but the higher realities of life.

Now that we have seen something of the nature of the categories of the other aspects, what shall we say of the conception of God, that which has been present to the mind of man in various shapes in all ages, and which is the supreme category of religion? Religion may be defined to be that aspect of the universe in which the relation of man to God appears. If the analysis which has been so far followed be a true one, God must be conceived, not as a force operating from outside in space; not mechanically, as a substance or cause; not as a magnified and non-natural human being, but as a spirit; as mind; as the subject for which the world is object, and in which the limited plane of human intelligence appears only as a stage or phase. The universe must be, in this point of view, in God, not as one thing is spoken of as within another in space, but as only being there “for” God as the supreme and only subject, the knowledge that creates and is one with what it knows. The various stages in our knowledge and the aspects of reality to which they give rise must surely be looked on as phases of His nature isolated by that imperfect instrument, human intelligence. Were that intelligence perfect, we should see all things as in God, and realise that it was only in so far as we were objects in knowledge that we appeared as separated from His supreme reality.

Subject to these limits we are, and they prevent us from attaining to that plane of apprehension from which we should see that we exist as we do and know what we know only in so far as we are in some sense one with that Divine Intelligence for which the objective universe and we “as objects in it” exist. But the condition of our conscious nature seems to be that it should regard itself as limited, as an object distinguished from the thought which apprehends it. Yet while knowledge cannot present the true relationship as a clearly apprehended fact, such as the lower categories enable us at least to speak as though we could present, nevertheless there are analogies which come to our help. In our ethical relationships we transcend the limits of our individuality, and sometimes find the very realisation of our being in sacrificing ourselves, it may be for those near to us, it may be for our country. This is why the soldier will gladly face death on the field of battle. A higher conception of himself than one which is merely individual moves his choice. So with religion. Its practice has in all ages taught men and women to disregard the apparent limits of their individualities. The martyr who has chosen the stake rather than sacrifice his faith, the devout Buddhist to whom the world has become as nothing, as but the veil of Maya―these have shown their sense of things unseen, and of a temple not made with hands. In the practice of religion we seem to realise the existence of the highest aspect of human life, though we cannot present it pictorially to ourselves.

Regarded in that aspect, the mind even of man is in direct relation to absolute mind, is what it is because it is not truly severable from God, the ultimate and finally real aspect of a universe which exists only in and through him. That is how science and philosophy come in the end to reduce the reality of the universe to the being object for a subject. It is only in symbols that we can express this truth, because the language which we use is drawn from everyday life, where for the purposes of practice we draw distinctions which are in reality provisional only. Thus it comes about that religion, when it tries to express itself and to explain, has always tended to become pictorial and anthropomorphic, and to expose its dogmas to the attacks of science. But rightly understood, regarded as the symbolical language in which we express what by intelligences limited as are ours cannot be apprehended pictorially, the meaning of religion becomes clear. It is an affair of the will rather than of the intellect, of feeling rather than of abstract knowledge. But just in so far as it is so, it is the phase of comprehension in which we realise for ourselves what philosophy points to, but can do no more than point to. It gives us that direct and living contact which cannot be attained save in its practice. So regarded, it takes us beyond and above the categories of science, aye and beyond the standpoint of mere morality.

What, indeed, is that which is blamed and properly blamed as moderatism but the confusion of the categories of morality with those of religion? There is no real conflict with religion, because science and morality set up no properly independent realities, but merely standpoints which no more come into conflict with that of religion than does the sphere of geometry with that of jurisprudence. It is only when the teachers of religion, who seek to communicate their own vivid and real experience, those aspects of things which they rightly hold to be the most real because they are the most high of all, fall into the language of anthropomorphism, and speak in symbols and metaphors lts though they were speaking of quantities and causes in space and time, that apparent contradictions arise. The outcome of the profoundest thought in the history of philosophy has been to exhibit the relationship of science and religion as one not of contradiction but of harmony, and to display the various stages of knowledge as ascending platforms or planes. This was the teaching of Plato. This was what Aristotle meant when he distinguished the active from the passive reason. This was what Kant and his successors aimed at enforcing as the only possible view, if reason was not to be regarded as involved in hopeless self-contradiction. The ultimate explanation of the universe seems to lie in a system not of Causes, but of Ends.

My task has been to try to set the outline of this great conception before you. How difficult it is and how im­-perfectly I have done it I know well. But if I have stirred some among you, who have felt perplexed when face to face with the conclusions of modern science, to the wish to dig for yet deeper foundations of belief, I shall be content. These things are hard to grasp. They can only be won as distinct conclusions by reading and by meditation. But surely for those who ask whether there be no escape from the burden of a materialism that denies the reality of what seems best in life they are worth pursuing. It is not much we can do for ourselves, still less for others in helping them towards what each has to work out and win for himself. But at least we may assist each other to some sense of the truth of the words in which Plato makes Socrates conclude a famous dialogue: “If, Theaetetus you have or wish to have any more embryo thoughts, they will be all the better for the present investigation, and if you have none, you will be soberer and humbler and gentler to other men, not fancying that you know what you do not know.”