Arthur Stanley Eddington
Chapter XV: Science and Mysticism
One day I happened to be occupied with the subject of “Generation of Waves by Wind”. I took down the standard treatise on hydrodynamics, and under that heading I read—
The equations (12) and (13) of the preceding Art. enable us to examine a related question of some interest, viz. the generation and maintenance of waves against viscosity, by suitable forces applied to the surface.
If the external forces p′yy, p′xy be given multiples of eikx + αt, where k and α are prescribed, the equations in question determine A and C, and thence, by (9) the value of η. Thus we find
where σ2 has been written for gk + T′k3 as before.…
And so on for two pages. At the end it is made clear that a wind of less than half a mile an hour will leave the surface unruffled. At a mile an hour the surface is covered with minute corrugations due to capillary waves which decay immediately the disturbing cause ceases. At two miles an hour the gravity waves appear. As the author modestly concludes, “Our theoretical investigations give considerable insight into the incipient stages of wave-formation”.
On another occasion the same subject of “Generation of Waves by Wind” was in my mind; but this time another book was more appropriate, and I read—
There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.
The magic words bring back the scene. Again we feel Nature drawing close to us, uniting with us, till we are filled with the gladness of the waves dancing in the sunshine, with the awe of the moonlight on the frozen lake. These were not moments when we fell below ourselves. We do not look back on them and say, “It was disgraceful for a man with six sober senses and a scientific understanding to let himself be deluded in that way. I will take Lamb’s Hydrodynamics with me next time”. It is good that there should be such moments for us. Life would be stunted and narrow if we could feel no significance in the world around us beyond that which can be weighed and measured with the tools of the physicist or described by the metrical symbols of the mathematician.
Of course it was an illusion. We can easily expose the rather clumsy trick that was played on us. Aethereal vibrations of various wave-lengths, reflected at different angles from the disturbed interface between air and water, reached our eyes, and by photoelectric action caused appropriate stimuli to travel along the optic nerves to a brain-centre. Here the mind set to work to weave an impression out of the stimuli. The incoming material was somewhat meagre; but the mind is a great storehouse of associations that could be used to clothe the skeleton. Having woven an impression the mind surveyed all that it had made and decided that it was very good. The critical faculty was lulled. We ceased to analyse and were conscious only of the impression as a whole. The warmth of the air, the scent of the grass, the gentle stir of the breeze, combined with the visual scene in one transcendent impression, around us and within us. Associations emerging from their storehouse grew bolder. Perhaps we recalled the phrase “rippling laughter”. Waves—ripples—laughter—gladness—the ideas jostled one another. Quite illogically we were glad; though what there can possibly be to be glad about in a set of aethereal vibrations no sensible person can explain. A mood of quiet joy suffused the whole impression. The gladness in ourselves was in Nature, in the waves, everywhere. That’s how it was.
It was an illusion. Then why toy with it longer? These airy fancies which the mind, when we do not keep it severely in order, projects into the external world should be of no concern to the earnest seeker after truth. Get back to the solid substance of things, to the material of the water moving under the pressure of the wind and the force of gravitation in obedience to the laws of hydrodynamics. But the solid substance of things is another illusion. It too is a fancy projected by the mind into the external world. We have chased the solid substance from the continuous liquid to the atom, from the atom to the electron, and there we have lost it. But at least, it will be said, we have reached something real at the end of the chase—the protons and electrons. Or if the new quantum theory condemns these images as too concrete and leaves us with no coherent images at all; at least we have symbolic co-ordinates and momenta and Hamiltonian functions devoting themselves with single-minded purpose to ensuring that qp − pq shall be equal to ih/2π.
In a previous chapter I have tried to show that by following this course we reach a cyclic scheme which from its very nature can only be a partial expression of our environment. It is not reality but the skeleton of reality. “Actuality” has been lost in the exigencies of the chase. Having first rejected the mind as a worker of illusion we have in the end to return to the mind and say, “Here are worlds well and truly built on a basis more secure than your fanciful illusions. But there is nothing to make any one of them an actual world. Please choose one and weave your fanciful images into it. That alone can make it actual”. We have torn away the mental fancies to get at the reality beneath, only to find that the reality of that which is beneath is bound up with its potentiality of awakening these fancies. It is because the mind, the weaver of illusion, is also the only guarantor of reality that reality is always to be sought at the base of illusion. Illusion is to reality as the smoke to the fire. I will not urge that hoary untruth “There is no smoke without fire”. But it is reasonable to inquire whether in the mystical illusions of man there is not a reflection of an underlying reality.
To put a plain question—Why should it be good for us to experience a state of self-deception such as I have described? I think everyone admits that it is good to have a spirit sensitive to the influences of Nature, good to exercise an appreciative imagination and not always to be remorselessly dissecting our environment after the manner of the mathematical physicists. And it is good not merely in a utilitarian sense, but in some purposive sense necessary to the fulfilment of the life that is given us. It is not a dope which it is expedient to take from time to time so that we may return with greater vigour to the more legitimate employment of the mind in scientific investigation. Just possibly it might be defended on the ground that it affords to the non-mathematical mind in some feeble measure that delight in the external world which would be more fully provided by an intimacy with its differential equations. (Lest it should be thought that I have intended to pillory hydrodynamics, I hasten to say in this connection that I would not rank the intellectual (scientific) appreciation on a lower plane than the mystical appreciation; and I know of passages written in mathematical symbols which in their sublimity might vie with Rupert Brooke’s sonnet.) But I think you will agree with me that it is impossible to allow that the one kind of appreciation can adequately fill the place of the other. Then how can it be deemed good if there is nothing in it but self-deception? That would be an upheaval of all our ideas of ethics. It seems to me that the only alternatives are either to count all such surrender to the mystical contact of Nature as mischievous and ethically wrong, or to admit that in these moods we catch something of the true relation of the world to ourselves—a relation not hinted at in a purely scientific analysis of its content. I think the most ardent materialist does not advocate, or at any rate does not practice, the first alternative; therefore I assume the second alternative, that there is some kind of truth at the base of the illusion.
But we must pause to consider the extent of the illusion. Is it a question of a small nugget of reality buried under a mountain of illusion? If that were so it would be our duty to rid our minds of some of the illusion at least, and try to know the truth in purer form. But I cannot think there is much amiss with our appreciation of the natural scene that so impresses us. I do not think a being more highly endowed than ourselves would prune away much of what we feel. It is not so much that the feeling itself is at fault as that our introspective examination of it wraps it in fanciful imagery. If I were to try to put into words the essential truth revealed in the mystic experience, it would be that our minds are not apart from the world; and the feelings that we have of gladness and melancholy and our yet deeper feelings are not of ourselves alone, but are glimpses of a reality transcending the narrow limits of our particular consciousness—that the harmony and beauty of the face of Nature is at root one with the gladness that transfigures the face of man. We try to express much the same truth when we say that the physical entities are only an extract of pointer readings and beneath them is a nature continuous with our own. But I do not willingly put it into words or subject it to introspection. We have seen how in the physical world the meaning is greatly changed when we contemplate it as surveyed from without instead of, as it essentially must be, from within. By introspection we drag out the truth for external survey; but in the mystical feeling the truth is apprehended from within and is, as it should be, a part of ourselves.
Symbolic Knowledge and Intimate Knowledge. May I elaborate this objection to introspection? We have two kinds of knowledge which I call symbolic knowledge and intimate knowledge. I do not know whether it would be correct to say that reasoning is only applicable to symbolic knowledge, but the more customary forms of reasoning have been developed for symbolic knowledge only. The intimate knowledge will not submit to codification and analysis; or, rather, when we attempt to analyse it the intimacy is lost and it is replaced by symbolism.
For an illustration let us consider Humour. I suppose that humour can be analysed to some extent and the essential ingredients of the different kinds of wit classified. Suppose that we are offered an alleged joke. We subject it to scientific analysis as we would a chemical salt of doubtful nature, and perhaps after careful consideration of all its aspects we are able to confirm that it really and truly is a joke. Logically, I suppose, our next procedure would be to laugh. But it may certainly be predicted that as the result of this scrutiny we shall have lost all inclination we may ever have had to laugh at it. It simply does not do to expose the inner workings of a joke. The classification concerns a symbolic knowledge of humour which preserves all the characteristics of a joke except its laughableness. The real appreciation must come spontaneously, not introspectively. I think this is a not unfair analogy for our mystical feeling for Nature, and I would venture even to apply it to our mystical experience of God. There are some to whom the sense of a divine presence irradiating the soul is one of the most obvious things of experience. In their view a man without this sense is to be regarded as we regard a man without a sense of humour. The absence is a kind of mental deficiency. We may try to analyse the experience as we analyse humour, and construct a theology, or it may be an atheistic philosophy, which shall put into scientific form what is to be inferred about it. But let us not forget that the theology is symbolic knowledge whereas the experience is intimate knowledge. And as laughter cannot be compelled by the scientific exposition of the structure of a joke, so a philosophic discussion of the attributes of God (or an impersonal substitute) is likely to miss the intimate response of the spirit which is the central point of the religious experience.
Defence of Mysticism. A defence of the mystic might run something like this. We have acknowledged that the entities of physics can from their very nature form only a partial aspect of the reality. How are we to deal with the other part? It cannot be said that that other part concerns us less than the physical entities. Feelings, purpose, values, make up our consciousness as much as sense-impressions. We follow up the sense-impressions and find that they lead into an external world discussed by science; we follow up the other elements of our being and find that they lead—not into a world of space and time, but surely somewhere. If you take the view that the whole of consciousness is reflected in the dance of electrons in the brain, so that each emotion is a separate figure of the dance, then all features of consciousness alike lead into the external world of physics. But I assume that you have followed me in rejecting this view, and that you agree that consciousness as a whole is greater than those quasi-metrical aspects of it which are abstracted to compose the physical brain. We have then to deal with those parts of our being unamenable to metrical specification, that do not make contact—jut out, as it were—into space and time. By dealing with them I do not mean make scientific inquiry into them. The first step is to give acknowledged status to the crude conceptions in which the mind invests them, similar to the status of those crude conceptions which constitute the familiar material world.
Our conception of the familiar table was an illusion. But if some prophetic voice had warned us that it was an illusion and therefore we had not troubled to investigate further we should never have found the scientific table. To reach the reality of the table we need to be endowed with sense-organs to weave images and illusions about it. And so it seems to me that the first step in a broader revelation to man must be the awakening of image-building in connection with the higher faculties of his nature, so that these are no longer blind alleys but open out into a spiritual world—a world partly of illusion no doubt, but in which he lives no less than in the world, also of illusion, revealed by the senses.
The mystic, if haled before a tribunal of scientists, might perhaps end his defence on this note. He would say, “The familiar material world of everyday conception, though lacking somewhat in scientific truth, is good enough to live in; in fact the scientific world of pointer readings would be an impossible sort of place to inhabit. It is a symbolic world and the only thing that could live comfortably in it would be a symbol. But I am not a symbol; I am compounded of that mental activity which is from your point of view a nest of illusion, so that to accord with my own nature I have to transform even the world explored by my senses. But I am not merely made up of senses; the rest of my nature has to live and grow. I have to render account of that environment into which it has its outlet. My conception of my spiritual environment is not to be compared with your scientific world of pointer readings; it is an everyday world to be compared with the material world of familiar experience. I claim it as no more real and no less real than that. Primarily it is not a world to be analysed, but a world to be lived in.”
Granted that this takes us outside the sphere of exact knowledge, and that it is difficult to imagine that anything corresponding to exact science will ever be applicable to this part of our environment, the mystic is unrepentant. Because we are unable to render exact account of our environment it does not follow that it would be better to pretend that we live in a vacuum.
If the defence may be considered to have held good against the first onslaught, perhaps the next stage of the attack will be an easy tolerance. “Very well. Have it your own way. It is a harmless sort of belief—not like a more dogmatic theology. You want a sort of spiritual playground for those queer tendencies in man’s nature, which sometimes take possession of him. Run away and play then; but do not bother the serious people who are making the world go round.” The challenge now comes not from the scientific materialism which professes to seek a natural explanation of spiritual power, but from the deadlier moral materialism which despises it. Few deliberately hold the philosophy that the forces of progress are related only to the material side of our environment, but few can claim that they are not more or less under its sway. We must not interrupt the “practical men”, these busy moulders of history carrying us at ever-increasing pace towards our destiny as an ant-heap of humanity infesting the earth. But is it true in history that material forces have been the most potent factors? Call it of God, of the Devil, fanaticism, unreason; but do not underrate the power of the mystic. Mysticism may be fought as error or believed as inspired, but it is no matter for easy tolerance—
We are the music-makers
And we are the dreamers of dreams
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
Reality and Mysticism. But a defence before the scientists may not be a defence to our own self-questionings. We are haunted by the word reality. I have already tried to deal with the questions which arise as to the meaning of reality; but it presses on us so persistently that, at the risk of repetition, I must consider it once more from the standpoint of religion. A compromise of illusion and reality may be all very well in our attitude towards physical surroundings; but to admit such a compromise into religion would seem to be a trifling with sacred things. Reality seems to concern religious beliefs much more than any others. No one bothers as to whether there is a reality behind humour. The artist who tries to bring out the soul in his picture does not really care whether and in what sense the soul can be said to exist. Even the physicist is unconcerned as to whether atoms or electrons really exist; he usually asserts that they do, but, as we have seen, existence is there used in a domestic sense and no inquiry is made as to whether it is more than a conventional term. In most subjects (perhaps not excluding philosophy) it seems sufficient to agree on the things that we shall call real, and afterwards try to discover what we mean by the word. And so it comes about that religion seems to be the one field of inquiry in which the question of reality and existence is treated as of serious and vital importance.
But it is difficult to see how such an inquiry can be profitable. When Dr Johnson felt himself getting tied up in argument over “Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that everything in the universe is merely ideal”, he answered, “striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it,—‘I refute it thus’”. Just what that action assured him of is not very obvious; but apparently he found it comforting. And to-day the matter-of-fact scientist feels the same impulse to recoil from these flights of thought back to something kickable, although he ought to be aware by this time that what Rutherford has left us of the large stone is scarcely worth kicking.
There is still the tendency to use “reality” as a word of magic comfort like the blessed word “Mesopotamia”. If I were to assert the reality of the soul or of God, I should certainly not intend a comparison with Johnson’s large stone—a patent illusion—or even with the p’s and q’s of the quantum theory—an abstract symbolism. Therefore I have no right to use the word in religion for the purpose of borrowing on its behalf that comfortable feeling which (probably wrongly) has become associated with stones and quantum co-ordinates.
Scientific instincts warn me that any attempt to answer the question “What is real?” in a broader sense than that adopted for domestic purposes in science, is likely to lead to a floundering among vain words and high-sounding epithets. We all know that there are regions of the human spirit untrammelled by the world of physics. In the mystic sense of the creation around us, in the expression of art, in a yearning towards God, the soul grows upward and finds the fulfilment of something implanted in its nature. The sanction for this development is within us, a striving born with our consciousness or an Inner Light proceeding from a greater power than ours. Science can scarcely question this sanction, for the pursuit of science springs from a striving which the mind is impelled to follow, a questioning that will not be suppressed. Whether in the intellectual pursuits of science or in the mystical pursuits of the spirit, the light beckons ahead and the purpose surging in our nature responds. Can we not leave it at that? Is it really necessary to drag in the comfortable word “reality” to be administered like a pat on the back?
The problem of the scientific world is part of a broader problem—the problem of all experience. Experience may be regarded as a combination of self and environment, it being part of the problem to disentangle these two interacting components. Life, religion, knowledge, truth are all involved in this problem, some relating to the finding of ourselves, some to the finding of our environment from the experience confronting us. All of us in our lives have to make something of this problem; and it is an important condition that we who have to solve the problem are ourselves part of the problem. Looking at the very beginning, the initial fact is the feeling of purpose in ourselves which urges us to embark on the problem. We are meant to fulfil something by our lives. There are faculties with which we are endowed, or which we ought to attain, which must find a status and an outlet in the solution. It may seem arrogant that we should in this way insist on moulding truth to our own nature; but it is rather that the problem of truth can only spring from a desire for truth which is in our nature.
A rainbow described in the symbolism of physics is a band of aethereal vibrations arranged in systematic order of wave-length from about .000040 cm. to .000072 cm. From one point of view we are paltering with the truth whenever we admire the gorgeous bow of colour, and should strive to reduce our minds to such a state that we receive the same impression from the rainbow as from a table of wave-lengths. But although that is how the rainbow impresses itself on an impersonal spectroscope, we are not giving the whole truth and significance of experience—the starting-point of the problem—if we suppress the factors wherein we ourselves differ from a spectroscope. We cannot say that the rainbow, as part of the world, was meant to convey the vivid effects of colour; but we can perhaps say that the human mind as part of the world was meant to perceive it that way.
Significance and Values. When we think of the sparkling waves as moved with laughter we are evidently attributing a significance to the scene which was not there. The physical elements of the water—the scurrying electric charges—were guiltless of any intention to convey the impression that they were happy. But so also were they guiltless of any intention to convey the impression of substance, of colour, or of geometrical form of the waves. If they can be held to have had any intention at all it was to satisfy certain differential equations—and that was because they are the creatures of the mathematician who has a partiality for differential equations. The physical no less than the mystical significance of the scene is not there; it is here—in the mind.
What we make of the world must be largely dependent on the sense-organs that we happen to possess. How the world must have changed since man came to rely on his eyes rather than his nose! You are alone on the mountains wrapt in a great silence; but equip yourself with an artificial electrical sense-organ and, lo! the aether is hideous with the blare of the Savoy bands. Or—
The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices.
So far as broader characteristics are concerned we see in Nature what we look for or are equipped to look for. Of course, I do not mean that we can arrange the details of the scene; but by the light and shade of our values we can bring out things that shall have the broad characteristics we esteem. In this sense the value placed on permanence creates the world of apparent substance; in this sense, perhaps, the God within creates the God in Nature. But no complete view can be obtained so long as we separate our consciousness from the world of which it is a part. We can only speak speculatively of that which I have called the “background of the pointer readings”; but it would at least seem plausible that if the values which give the light and shade of the world are absolute they must belong to the background, unrecognised in physics because they are not in the pointer readings but recognised by consciousness which has its roots in the background. I have no wish to put that forward as a theory; it is only to emphasise that, limited as we are to a knowledge of the physical world and its points of contact with the background in isolated consciousnesses, we do not quite attain that thought of the unity of the whole which is essential to a complete theory. Presumably human nature has been specialised to a considerable extent by the operation of natural selection; and it might well be debated whether its valuation of permanence and other traits now apparently fundamental are essential properties of consciousness or have been evolved through interplay with the external world. In that case the values given by mind to the external world have originally come to it from the external world-stuff. Such a tossing to and fro of values is, I think, not foreign to our view that the world-stuff behind the pointer readings is of nature continuous with the mind.
In viewing the world in a practical way values for normal human consciousness may be taken as standard. But the evident possibility of arbitrariness in this valuation sets us hankering after a standard that could be considered final and absolute. We have two alternatives. Either there are no absolute values, so that the sanctions of the inward monitor in our consciousness are the final court of appeal beyond which it is idle to inquire. Or there are absolute values; then we can only trust optimistically that our values are some pale reflection of those of the Absolute Valuer, or that we have insight into the mind of the Absolute from whence come those strivings and sanctions whose authority we usually forbear to question.
I have naturally tried to make the outlook reached in these lectures as coherent as possible, but I should not be greatly concerned if under the shafts of criticism it becomes very ragged. Coherency goes with finality; and the anxious question is whether our arguments have begun right rather than whether they have had the good fortune to end right. The leading points which have seemed to me to deserve philosophic consideration may be summarised as follows:
(1) The symbolic nature of the entities of physics is generally recognised; and the scheme of physics is now formulated in such a way as to make it almost self-evident that it is a partial aspect of something wider.
(2) Strict causality is abandoned in the material world. Our ideas of the controlling laws are in process of reconstruction and it is not possible to predict what kind of form they will ultimately take; but all the indications are that strict causality has dropped out permanently. This relieves the former necessity of supposing that mind is subject to deterministic law or alternatively that it can suspend deterministic law in the material world.
(3) Recognising that the physical world is entirely abstract and without “actuality” apart from its linkage to consciousness, we restore consciousness to the fundamental position instead of representing it as an inessential complication occasionally found in the midst of inorganic nature at a late stage of evolutionary history.
(4) The sanction for correlating a “real” physical world to certain feelings of which we are conscious does not seem to differ in any essential respect from the sanction for correlating a spiritual domain to another side of our personality.
It is not suggested that there is anything new in this philosophy. In particular the essence of the first point has been urged by many writers, and has no doubt won individual assent from many scientists before the recent revolutions of physical theory. But it places a somewhat different complexion on the matter when this is not merely a philosophic doctrine to which intellectual assent might be given, but has become part of the scientific attitude of the day, illustrated in detail in the current scheme of physics.
Conviction. Through fourteen chapters you have followed with me the scientific approach to knowledge. I have given the philosophical reflections as they have naturally arisen from the current scientific conclusions, I hope without distorting them for theological ends. In the present chapter the standpoint has no longer been predominantly scientific; I started from that part of our experience which is not within the scope of a scientific survey, or at least is such that the methods of physical science would miss the significance that we consider it essential to attribute to it. The starting-point of belief in mystical religion is a conviction of significance or, as I have called it earlier, the sanction of a striving in the consciousness. This must be emphasised because appeal to intuitive conviction of this kind has been the foundation of religion through all ages and I do not wish to give the impression that we have now found something new and more scientific to substitute. I repudiate the idea of proving the distinctive beliefs of religion either from the data of physical science or by the methods of physical science. Presupposing a mystical religion based not on science but (rightly or wrongly) on a self-known experience accepted as fundamental, we can proceed to discuss the various criticisms which science might bring against it or the possible conflict with scientific views of the nature of experience equally originating from self-known data.
It is necessary to examine further the nature of the conviction from which religion arises; otherwise we may seem to be countenancing a blind rejection of reason as a guide to truth. There is a hiatus in reasoning, we must admit; but it is scarcely to be described as a rejection of reasoning. There is just the same hiatus in reasoning about the physical world if we go back far enough. We can only reason from data and the ultimate data must be given to us by a non-reasoning process—a self-knowledge of that which is in our consciousness. To make a start we must be aware of something. But that is not sufficient; we must be convinced of the significance of that awareness. We are bound to claim for human nature that, either of itself or as inspired by a power beyond, it is capable of making legitimate judgments of significance. Otherwise we cannot even reach a physical world.1
Accordingly the conviction which we postulate is that certain states of awareness in consciousness have at least equal significance with those which are called sensations. It is perhaps not irrelevant to note that time by its dual entry into our minds (p. 51) to some extent bridges the gap between sense-impressions and these other states of awareness. Amid the latter must be found the basis of experience from which a spiritual religion arises. The conviction is scarcely a matter to be argued about, it is dependent on the forcefulness of the feeling of awareness.
But, it may be said, although we may have such a department of consciousness, may we not have misunderstood altogether the nature of that which we believe we are experiencing? That seems to me to be rather beside the point. In regard to our experience of the physical world we have very much misunderstood the meaning of our sensations. It has been the task of science to discover that things are very different from what they seem. But we do not pluck out our eyes because they persist in deluding us with fanciful colourings instead of giving us the plain truth about wave-length. It is in the midst of such misrepresentations of environment (if you must call them so) that we have to live. It is, however, a very one-sided view of truth which can find in the glorious colouring of our surroundings nothing but misrepresentation—which takes the environment to be all important and the conscious spirit to be inessential. In our scientific chapters we have seen how the mind must be regarded as dictating the course of world-building; without it there is but formless chaos. It is the aim of physical science, so far as its scope extends, to lay bare the fundamental structure underlying the world; but science has also to explain if it can, or else humbly to accept, the fact that from this world have arisen minds capable of transmuting the bare structure into the richness of our experience. It is not misrepresentation but rather achievement—the result perhaps of long ages of biological evolution—that we should have fashioned a familiar world out of the crude basis. It is a fulfilment of the purpose of man’s nature. If likewise the spiritual world has been transmuted by a religious colour beyond anything implied in its bare external qualities, it may be allowable to assert with equal conviction that this is not misrepresentation but the achievement of a divine element in man’s nature.
May I revert again to the analogy of theology with the supposed science of humour which (after consultation with a classical authority) I venture to christen “geloeology”. Analogy is not convincing argument, but it must serve here. Consider the proverbial Scotchman with strong leanings towards philosophy and incapable of seeing a joke. There is no reason why he should not take high honours in geloeology, and for example write an acute analysis of the differences between British and American humour. His comparison of our respective jokes would be particularly unbiased and judicial, seeing that he is quite incapable of seeing the point of either. But it would be useless to consider his views as to which was following the right development; for that he would need a sympathetic understanding—he would (in the phrase appropriate to the other side of my analogy) need to be converted. The kind of help and criticism given by the geloeologist and the philosophical theologian is to secure that there is method in our madness. The former may show that our hilarious reception of a speech is the result of a satisfactory dinner and a good cigar rather than a subtle perception of wit; the latter may show that the ecstatic mysticism of the anchorite is the vagary of a fevered body and not a transcendent revelation. But I do not think we should appeal to either of them to discuss the reality of the sense with which we claim to be endowed, nor the direction of its right development. That is a matter for our inner sense of values which we all believe in to some extent, though it may be a matter of dispute just how far it goes. If we have no such sense then it would seem that not only religion, but the physical world and all faith in reasoning totter in insecurity.
I have sometimes been asked whether science cannot now furnish an argument which ought to convince any reasonable atheist. I could no more ram religious conviction into an atheist than I could ram a joke into the Scotchman. The only hope of “converting” the latter is that through contact with merry-minded companions he may begin to realise that he is missing something in life which is worth attaining. Probably in the recesses of his solemn mind there exists inhibited the seed of humour, awaiting an awakening by such an impulse. The same advice would seem to apply to the propagation of religion; it has, I believe, the merit of being entirely orthodox advice.
We cannot pretend to offer proofs. Proof is an idol before whom the pure mathematician tortures himself. In physics we are generally content to sacrifice before the lesser shrine of Plausibility. And even the pure mathematician—that stern logician—reluctantly allows himself some prejudgments; he is never quite convinced that the scheme of mathematics is flawless, and mathematical logic has undergone revolutions as profound as the revolutions of physical theory. We are all alike stumblingly pursuing an ideal beyond our reach. In science we sometimes have convictions as to the right solution of a problem which we cherish but cannot justify; we are influenced by some innate sense of the fitness of things. So too there may come to us convictions in the spiritual sphere which our nature bids us hold to. I have given an example of one such conviction which is rarely if ever disputed—that surrender to the mystic influence of a scene of natural beauty is right and proper for a human spirit, although it would have been deemed an unpardonable eccentricity in the “observer” contemplated in earlier chapters. Religious conviction is often described in somewhat analogous terms as a surrender; it is not to be enforced by argument on those who do not feel its claim in their own nature.
I think it is inevitable that these convictions should emphasise a personal aspect of what we are trying to grasp. We have to build the spiritual world out of symbols taken from our own personality, as we build the scientific world out of the metrical symbols of the mathematician. If not, it can only be left ungraspable—an environment dimly felt in moments of exaltation but lost to us in the sordid routine of life. To turn it into more continuous channels we must be able to approach the World-Spirit in the midst of our cares and duties in that simpler relation of spirit to spirit in which all true religion finds expression.
Mystical Religion. We have seen that the cyclic scheme of physics presupposes a background outside the scope of its investigations. In this background we must find, first, our own personality, and then perhaps a greater personality. The idea of a universal Mind or Logos would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory; at least it is in harmony with it. But if so, all that our inquiry justifies us in asserting is a purely colourless pantheism. Science cannot tell whether the world-spirit is good or evil, and its halting argument for the existence of a God might equally well be turned into an argument for the existence of a Devil.
I think that that is an example of the limitation of physical schemes that has troubled us before—namely, that in all such schemes opposites are represented by + and −. Past and future, cause and effect, are represented in this inadequate way. One of the greatest puzzles of science is to discover why protons and electrons are not simply the opposites of one another, although our whole conception of electric charge requires that positive and negative electricity should be related like + and −. The direction of time’s arrow could only be determined by that incongruous mixture of theology and statistics known as the second law of thermodynamics; or, to be more explicit, the direction of the arrow could be determined by statistical rules, but its significance as a governing fact “making sense of the world” could only be deduced on teleological assumptions. If physics cannot determine which way up its own world ought to be regarded, there is not much hope of guidance from it as to ethical orientation. We trust to some inward sense of fitness when we orient the physical world with the future on top, and likewise we must trust to some inner monitor when we orient the spiritual world with the good on top.
Granted that physical science has limited its scope so as to leave a background which we are at liberty to, or even invited to, fill with a reality of spiritual import, we have yet to face the most difficult criticism from science. “Here”, says science, “I have left a domain in which I shall not interfere. I grant that you have some kind of avenue to it through the self-knowledge of consciousness, so that it is not necessarily a domain of pure agnosticism. But how are you going to deal with this domain? Have you any system of inference from mystic experience comparable to the system by which science develops a knowledge of the outside world? I do not insist on your employing my method, which I acknowledge is inapplicable; but you ought to have some defensible method. The alleged basis of experience may possibly be valid; but have I any reason to regard the religious interpretation currently given to it as anything more than muddle-headed romancing?”
The question is almost beyond my scope. I can only acknowledge its pertinence. Although I have chosen the lightest task by considering only mystical religion—and I have no impulse to defend any other—I am not competent to give an answer which shall be anything like complete. It is obvious that the insight of consciousness, although the only avenue to what I have called intimate knowledge of the reality behind the symbols of science, is not to be trusted implicitly without control. In history religious mysticism has often been associated with extravagances that cannot be approved. I suppose too that oversensitiveness to aesthetic influences may be a sign of a neurotic temperament unhealthy to the individual. We must allow something for the pathological condition of the brain in what appear to be moments of exalted insight. One begins to fear that after all our faults have been detected and removed there will not be any “us” left. But in the study of the physical world we have ultimately to rely on our sense-organs, although they are capable of betraying us by gross illusions; similarly the avenue of consciousness into the spiritual world may be beset with pitfalls, but that does not necessarily imply that no advance is possible.
A point that must be insisted on is that religion or contact with spiritual power if it has any general importance at all must be a commonplace matter of ordinary life, and it should be treated as such in any discussion. I hope that you have not interpreted my references to mysticism as referring to abnormal experiences and revelations. I am not qualified to discuss what evidential value (if any) may be attached to the stranger forms of experience and insight. But in any case to suppose that mystical religion is mainly concerned with these is like supposing that Einstein’s theory is mainly concerned with the perihelion of Mercury and a few other exceptional observations. For a matter belonging to daily affairs the tone of current discussions often seems quite inappropriately pedantic.
As scientists we realise that colour is merely a question of the wave-lengths of aethereal vibrations; but that does not seem to have dispelled the feeling that eyes which reflect light near wave-length 4800 are a subject for rhapsody whilst those which reflect wave-length 5300 are left unsung. We have not yet reached the practice of the Laputans, who, “if they would, for example, praise the beauty of a woman, or any other animal, they describe it by rhombs, circles, parallelograms, ellipses, and other geometrical terms”. The materialist who is convinced that all phenomena arise from electrons and quanta and the like controlled by mathematical formulae, must presumably hold the belief that his wife is a rather elaborate differential equation; but he is probably tactful enough not to obtrude this opinion in domestic life. If this kind of scientific dissection is felt to be inadequate and irrelevant in ordinary personal relationships, it is surely out of place in the most personal relationship of all—that of the human soul to the divine spirit.
We are anxious for perfect truth, but it is hard to say in what form perfect truth is to be found. I cannot quite believe that it has the form typified by an inventory. Somehow as part of its perfection there should be incorporated in it that which we esteem as a “sense of proportion”. The physicist is not conscious of any disloyalty to truth on occasions when his sense of proportion tells him to regard a plank as continuous material, well knowing that it is “really” empty space containing sparsely scattered electric charges. And the deepest philosophical researches as to the nature of the Deity may give a conception equally out of proportion for daily life; so that we should rather employ a conception that was unfolded nearly two thousand years ago.
I am standing on the threshold about to enter a room. It is a complicated business. In the first place I must shove against an atmosphere pressing with a force of fourteen pounds on every square inch of my body. I must make sure of landing on a plank travelling at twenty miles a second round the sun—a fraction of a second too early or too late, the plank would be miles away. I must do this whilst hanging from a round planet head outward into space, and with a wind of aether blowing at no one knows how many miles a second through every interstice of my body. The plank has no solidity of substance. To step on it is like stepping on a swarm of flies. Shall I not slip through? No, if I make the venture one of the flies hits me and gives a boost up again; I fall again and am knocked upwards by another fly; and so on. I may hope that the net result will be that I remain about steady; but if unfortunately I should slip through the floor or be boosted too violently up to the ceiling, the occurrence would be, not a violation of the laws of Nature, but a rare coincidence. These are some of the minor difficulties. I ought really to look at the problem four-dimensionally as concerning the intersection of my world-line with that of the plank. Then again it is necessary to determine in which direction the entropy of the world is increasing in order to make sure that my passage over the threshold is an entrance, not an exit.
Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientific man to pass through a door. And whether the door be barn door or church door it might be wiser that he should consent to be an ordinary man and walk in rather than wait till all the difficulties involved in a really scientific ingress are resolved.