Read AN EXAMINATION OF THEISM: CHAPTER III of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on


In all discussions of theism there is one point that is usually overlooked. This is that theism is in the nature of a hypothesis. And, like every hypothesis, its value is proportionate to the extent to which it offers a satisfactory explanation of the facts with which it professes to deal. If it can offer no explanation its value is nil. If its explanation is only partial, its value will be determined by the degree to which it can claim superiority over any other hypothesis that is before us. But every hypothesis implies two things. There is a group of things to be explained, and there is the hypothesis itself that is offered in explanation. In the harmony of the two, and in the possibility of verification, lies the only proof of truth that can be offered.

If this be granted it at once disposes of the plea that a conviction of the existence of God springs from some special quality of the mind which enables man to arrive at a conclusion in a manner different from the way in which conclusions concerning other subjects are reached. Intuition as a method of discovering truth is pure delusion. All that can be rationally meant by such a word as intuition is summarised experience. When we speak of knowing a thing “intuitively,” all that we can mean is that, experience having furnished us with a sufficient guidance, we are able to reach a conclusion so rapidly that we cannot follow the steps of the mental process involved. That this is so is seen in the fact that our intuitions always follow the line of our experience. A stockbroker may “intuitively” foresee a rise or fall of the market, but his intuition will fail him when considering the possibilities of a chemical composition. To say that a man knows a thing by intuition is only one way of saying that he does not know how he knows it that is, he is unable to trace the stages of his own mental operations. And in this sense intuition is universal. It belongs as much to the cooking of a dumpling as it does to the belief in deity.

But it is evident that when the theist talks of intuition, what he has in mind is something very different from this. He is thinking of some special quality of mind that operates independently of experience, either racial or individual. And this simply does not exist. In religion man is never putting into operation qualities of mind different from those he employs in other directions. Whether we call a state of mind religious or not is determined, not by the mental processes involved, but by the object to which it is directed. Hatred and love, anger, pleasure, awe, curiosity, reverence, even worship, are exactly the same whether directed towards “God” or towards anything else. Human qualities are fundamentally identical, and may be expressed in relation to all sorts of objects.

The attempt to mark religion off from the rest of life, to be approached by special methods and in a special frame of mind, takes many forms, and it may be illustrated by the manner in which it is dealt with by Professor Arthur Thomson. In a little work entitled “An Introduction to Science,” and specially intended for general consumption, he remarks, as a piece of advice to his readers:

We would remind ourselves and our readers that the whole subject should be treated with reverence and sympathy, for it is hardly possible to exaggerate the august rôle of religion in human life. Whatever be our views, we must recognise that just as the great mathematicians and metaphysicians represent the aristocracy of the human intellect, so the great religious geniuses represent the aristocracy of human emotion. And in this connection it is probably useful to bear in mind that in all discussions about religious ideas or feelings we should ourselves be in an exalted mood, and yet “with a compelling sense of our own limitations,” and of the vastness and mysteriousness of the world.

If Professor Thomson had been writing on “Frames of Mind Fatal to Scientific Investigation” he could hardly have chosen a better illustration of his thesis. One may safely say that anyone who started an examination of religion in this spirit, and maintained it throughout his examination, would perform something little short of a miracle did he reach a sound conclusion. A feeling of sympathy may pass, but why “reverence”? Reverence is a very complex state, but it certainly includes respect and a certain measure of affection. And how is one to rationally have respect or affection for anything before one has ascertained that they are deserving of either? Is anyone who happens to believe that religion is not worthy of reverence to be ruled out as being unfit to express an opinion? Clearly, on this rule, either we compel a man to sacrifice his sense of self-respect before we will allow him to be heard, or we pack the jury with persons who confess to have reached a decision before they have heard the evidence. It would almost seem from the expression that while examining religion we should be in an “exalted mood” that Professor Thomson has in view the last contingency. For by an exalted mood we can only understand a religious mood that is, we must believe in religion before we examine it, otherwise our examination is profanity. Well, that is just the cry of the priest in all ages. And while it is sound religion, there is no question of its being shocking science. Even the mere feeling of exaltation is not to be encouraged during a scientific investigation. One can understand Kepler when he had discovered the true laws of planetary motion, or Newton when he embraced in one magnificent generalisation the fall of a stone and the revolution of a planet, experiencing a feeling of exaltation; but exaltation must follow, not precede, the conclusion. At any rate, there are few scientific teachers who would encourage such a feeling during investigation.

Leaving for a moment the question of religious geniuses being the aristocrats of human emotion, we may take the same writer’s view of the limitations of science, thus providing an opening for the intrusion of religion. This is given in the form of a criticism of the following well-known passage from Huxley:

If the fundamental proposition of evolution is true, namely, that the entire world, animate and inanimate, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of forces possessed by the molecules which made up the primitive nebulosity of the universe; then it is no less certain that the present actual world reposed potentially in the cosmic vapour, and that an intelligence, if great enough, could from his knowledge of the properties of the molecules of that vapour have predicted the state of the fauna in Great Britain in 1888 with as much certitude as we say what will happen to the vapour of our breath on a cold day in winter.

Now, if the principle of evolution be accepted, the truth of Huxley’s statement appears to be self-evident. It may be that no intelligence capable of making such a calculation will ever exist, but the abstract possibility remains. Professor Thomson calls it “a very strong and confident statement,” which illustrates the need for philosophical criticism. His criticism of Huxley’s statement is based on two grounds. These are: (1) “No complete physico-chemical description has ever been given of any distinctively vital activity; and (2) the physical description of things cannot cover biological phenomena, nor can the biological description cover mental and moral phenomena.” There is, he says,

The physical order of nature the inorganic world where mechanism reigns supreme. (2) There is the vital order of nature the world of organisms where mechanism proves insufficient. (3) There is the physical order of nature the world of mind where mechanism is irrelevant. Thus there are three fundamental sciences Physics, Biology, and Psychology each with characteristic questions, categories and formulae.

Now, however earnestly Huxley’s statement calls for criticism, it is clear to us that nothing useful in that direction is offered by Prof. Thomson. It is quite plain that the abstract possibility of such a calculation as that named by Huxley can never be ruled out by science, since such a conception lies at the root of all scientific thinking. After all, want of knowledge only proves want of knowledge; and Sir Oliver Lodge would warn Prof. Thomson of the extreme danger of resting an argument on the ignorance of science at any particular time.

I note this statement of Professor Thomson’s chiefly because it illustrates a very common method of dealing with the mechanistic or non-theistic view of the universe. In this matter Professor Thomson may claim the companionship of Sir Oliver Lodge, who says, “Materialism is appropriate to the material world, not as a philosophy, but as a working creed, as a proximate, an immediate formula for guiding research. Everything beyond that belongs to another region, and must be reached by other methods. To explain the psychical in terms of physics and chemistry is simply impossible.... The extreme school of biologists ... ought to say, if they were consistent, there is nothing but physics and chemistry at work anywhere.” With both these writers there is the common assumption that the mechanist assumes there is a physical and chemical explanation of all phenomena. And the assumption is false. There is a story of a well-known lecturer on physiology who commenced an address on the stomach by remarking that that organ had been called this, that, and the other, but the one thing he wished his students to bear in mind was that it was a stomach. So the mechanist, while firmly believing that there is an ascending unity in all natural phenomena, is never silly enough to deny that living things are alive, or that thinking beings think.

But unless Professor Thomson does impute this to the mechanist, we quite fail to see the relevance his assertion that there are three departments, physics, biology, and psychology, each with its characteristic questions, categories, and formulae. Of course, there are, and equally, of course, physical laws will not cover biological facts; nor will biological laws cover psychological ones. This is not due to any occult cause, but to the simple fact that as each group of phenomena has its characteristic features, each set of laws are framed to cover the phenomena presented by that group. Otherwise there would be no need of these special laws. It is astonishing how paralysing is the effect of the theistic obsession on the minds of even scientific men, since it leads them to ignore what is really a basic consideration in scientific method.

Perhaps a word or two more on this topic is advisable. If it is permissible to arrange natural phenomena in a serial order, we may place them in succession as physical, chemical, biological, and psychological. But these names represent no more than descriptions of certain features that are to the group common, otherwise the grouping would be useless and impossible. And it is part of the business of science to frame “laws” descriptions of phenomena such as will enable us to express their characteristic features in a brief formula. It is, therefore, quite true to say that you cannot express vital phenomena in terms of physics or chemistry. And no materialist who took the trouble to understand materialism, instead of taking a statement of what it is from an anti-materialist, ever thought otherwise. Each specific group of phenomena can only be covered by laws that belong to that group, and which were framed for that express purpose. A psychological fact can no more be expressed in terms of chemistry than a physical fact can be expressed in terms of biology. These truths are as plain to the mechanist as they are to the vitalist. Mental life, the scientific categories, are real to all; the only question at issue is that of their origin.

To explain is to make intelligible, and in that sense all scientific explanation consists in the establishing of equivalents. When we say that A, B, C are the factors of D, we have asserted D is the equivalent of A, B, C plus, of course, all that results from the combination of the factors. When we say that we have explained the formation of water by showing it to be the product of .O. we have shown that whether we say “water” or use the chemical formula we are making identical statements. If we are working out a problem in dynamics we meet with exactly the same principle. We must prove that the resultant accounts for all the forces in operation at the time. Now, all that the mechanist claims is that it is extremely probable that one day the scientist will be able to work out the exact physico-chemical conditions that are the equivalents of biological phenomena, and, in turn, the physico-chemical-biological conditions that are the equivalents of psychological phenomena. Very considerable progress has already been made in this direction, and, as Sir Oliver Lodge says, there are probably very few scientific men who would deny the likelihood of this being done.

But this does not deny the existence of differences between these groups of phenomena; neither does it assert that we can describe the characteristic features of one group in terms that belong to another group. Once a group of phenomena, biological, or chemical is there, we must have special formulae to describe them, otherwise there would be no need for these divisions. It is admitted that the earth was at one time destitute of life; it is also admitted that there are forms of life destitute of those features which we call mind. And, whatever be their mode of origin, once introduced they must be dealt with in special terms. Psychological facts must be expressed in terms of psychology, biological facts in terms of biology, and chemical facts in terms of chemistry. You may give the chemical and physical equivalent of a sunset. That is one aspect. You may also give the psychological explanation of the emotion of man on beholding it. That is another aspect. But you cannot express the psychological fact in terms of chemistry because it belongs to quite another category. A psychological fact, as such, is ultimate. So is a chemical or a biological fact. If by analysis you reduce the psychological fact to its chemical and biological equivalents, its character as a psychological fact is destroyed. That is the product of the synthesis, and to seek in analysis for what only exists in synthesis, is surely to altogether misunderstand the spirit of scientific method. The curious thing is that a mere layman should have to correct men of science on this matter.

We can now return to Prof. Thomson’s attempt to claim for religion a special place in the sphere of emotion. He claims, in the passage already cited, that “as the great mathematicians and metaphysicians represent the aristocracy of human intellect so the great religious geniuses represent the aristocracy of human emotion.” There is nothing new in this claim, neither is there any evidence of its truth. Coleridge’s dictum that the proper antithesis to religion is poetry is open to serious objection, but there is more to be said for it than may be said for the antithesis set up by Prof. Thomson. As a matter of fact, religious geniuses have often pursued their work with as much attention to scientific precision as was possible, and have prided themselves that they made no appeal to mere emotion. Justification by emotion has only been attempted when other means of securing conviction has failed. And the appeal to emotion has become popular for very obvious reasons. It enables the ordinary theologian to feel a comfortable superiority over a Spencer or a Darwin. It enables mediocrities to enjoy the feeling of being wise without the trouble of acquiring wisdom. It enables inherited prejudices to rank as reasoned convictions. And, in addition, there is nothing that cannot be conveniently proved or disproved by such a method.

In whatever form the distinction is met with it harbours a fallacy. Intellectual activity is not and cannot be divorced from emotion. There are states of mind in which feeling predominates, and there are others in which reason predominates. But all intellectual states involve a feeling element. The often-made remark that feeling and intellect are in conflict is true only in the sense that ultimately certain intellectual states, plus their associated feelings, are in conflict with other intellectual states plus their associated feelings. To realise this one need only consider the sheer pleasure that results from the rapid sweep of the mind through a lengthy chain of reasoning, and the positive pain that ensues when the terms of a proposition baffles comprehension. The force of this is admitted by Prof. Thomson in the remark that man at the limit of his endeavour has fallen back on religion. Quite so; that is the painful feelings evoked by an intellectual failure have thrown a certain type of mind back on religion. In this they have acted like one who flies to a drug for relief from a pain he lacks the courage to bear. They take a narcotic when, often enough, the real need is for a stimulant.

In sober truth religion is no more necessarily connected with the emotions than are other subjects of investigation. Those who have made the pursuit of “cold scientific truth” their life’s work have shown every whit as much ardour and passion as those who have given their life to religion. The picture of man sacrificing himself in the cause of religion is easily matched by a Vesalius haunting the charnel houses of Europe, and risking the most loathsome diseases in the interests of scientific research. The abiding passion for truth in a character such as that of Roger Bacon or Bruno easily matches the enthusiasm of the missionary monk. The passion and the enthusiasm for science is less advertised than the passion and the enthusiasm for religion, but it is quite as real, and certainly not less valuable. The state of mind of Kepler on discovering the laws of planetary motion was hardly less ecstatic than that of a religious visionary describing his sense of “spiritual” communion. Only in the case of the scientist, it is emotion guided by reason, not reason checked and partly throttled by emotion.

When, therefore, Matthew Arnold defined religion as morality touched with emotion, he substituted a fallacy for a definition. Primarily religion is as much a conviction as is the Copernican system of astronomy. It exists first as an idea; it only exists as an emotion at a later stage. There is really no such thing as a religious emotion, there are only emotions connected with religion. Originally all religion is in the nature of an inference from observed or experienced facts. This inference may not be of the elaborate kind that we associate with modern scientific work, but it is there. The inference is an illogical one, but under the conditions inevitable. And being an inference religion is not primarily an emotion but a conviction, and it must stand or fall by its intellectual trustworthiness. It seems, indeed, little less than a truism to say that unless men first of all believed something about religion they could never have emotions concerning it. Hope and fear may colour our convictions, they may prevent the formation of correct opinions, but they originate in connection with a belief in every case. And an emotion, if it be a healthful one, must be ultimately capable of intellectual justification. When this cannot be done, when we have mere emotion pleaded as a ground for rejecting rational examination, we have irrationalism driven to its last ditch.