Durant 1926: The Unknowable (Herbert Spencer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VIII Section 3.1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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III. First Principles

1. The Unknowable 

“We too often forget,” says Spencer at the outset; “that not only is there ‘a soul of goodness in things evil,’ but generally also a soul of truth in things erroneous.” He proposes, therefore, to examine religious ideas, with a view to finding that core of truth which under the changing form of many faiths, has given to religion its persistent power over the human soul. 

Spencer proposes to examine religious ideas, with a view to finding that core of truth which under the changing form of many faiths, has given to religion its persistent power over the human soul. 

What he finds at once is that every theory of the origin of the universe drives us into inconceivabilities. The atheist tries to think of a self-existent world, uncaused and without beginning; but we cannot conceive of anything beginningless or uncaused. The theist merely puts back the difficulty by a step; and to the theologian who says, “God” made the, world,” the child’s unanswerable query comes,. “Who made God?” All ultimate religious ideas are logically inconceivable. 

We cannot conceive of anything beginningless or uncaused, nor can we answer the question “Who made God?” All ultimate religious ideas are logically inconceivable. 

All ultimate scientific ideas are equally beyond rational conception. What is matter? We reduce it to atoms, and then find ourselves forced to divide the atom as we had divided the molecule; we are driven into the dilemma that matter is infinitely divisible,—which is inconceivable; or that there is a limit to its divisibility,—which also is inconceivable. So with the divisibility of space and time; both of these are ultimately irrational ideas. Motion is wrapped in a triple obscurity, since it involves matter changing, in time, its position in space. When we analyze matter resolutely we find nothing at last but force—a force impressed upon our organs of sense, or a force resisting our organs of action; and who, shall tell us what force is? Turn from physics to psychology, and we come upon mind and consciousness: and here are greater puzzles than before. “Ultimate scientific ideas,” then, “are all representations of realities that cannot be comprehended. … In all directions the scientist’s investigations bring him face to face with an insoluble enigma; and he ever more clearly perceives it to be an insoluble enigma. He learns at once the greatness and the littleness of the human intellect—its power in dealing with all that comes within the range of experience, its impotence in dealing with all that transcends experience. He, more than any other, truly knows that in its ultimate nature nothing can be known.” The only honest philosophy, to use Huxley’s word, is agnosticism.

All ultimate scientific ideas are equally beyond rational conception. Matter reduces to motion; and motion reduces to force. Who shall tell us what force is? The human intellect knows that in its ultimate nature nothing can be known.

The common cause of these obscurities is the relativity of all knowledge. “Thinking being relating, no thought can express more than relations. … Intellect being, framed simply by and for converse with phenomena, involves us in nonsense when we try to use it for anything beyond phenomena.”* And yet the relative and phenomenal imply by their names and natures something beyond them, something ultimate and absolute. “On watching our thoughts we see how impossible it is to get rid of the consciousness of an Actuality lying behind Appearances, and how from this impossibility results our indestructible belief in that Actuality.”  But what that Actuality is we cannot know.

*This unconsciously follows Kant, and succinctly anticipates Bergson.

The common cause of these obscurities is the relativity of all knowledge. And yet the relative and phenomenal imply something ultimate and absolute beyond them. But what that Actuality is we cannot know.

From this point of view the reconciliation of science and religions is no longer very difficult. “Truth generally lies in the coordination of antagonistic opinions.” Let science admit that its “laws” apply only to phenomena and the relative; let religion admit that its theology is a rationalizing myth for a belief that defies conception. Let religion cease to picture the Absolute as a magnified man; much worse, as a cruel and blood-thirsty and treacherous monster, afflicted with “a love of adulation such as would be despised in a human being.” Let science cease to deny deity, or to take materialism for granted. Mind and matter are, equally, relative phenomena, the double effect of an ultimate cause whose nature must remain unknown. The recognition of this Inscrutable Power is the core of truth in every religion, and the beginning of all philosophy.

Scientific “laws” apply only to phenomena and the relative. Religious theology is simply a rationalizing myth for a belief that defies conception. But there is an Inscrutable Power whose nature must remain unknown.

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