The are not The Illicit Product of Thought in Bondage to Authority, But Serious Philosophical Arguments

The are not The Illicit Product of Thought in Bondage to Authority, But Serious Philosophical Arguments

But there is another charge often brought against these proofs, which relates less to their positive value than to the temper in which they are conceived.

It is supposed that they are the fruit not of free speculation but of an illicit union between dogmatism and philosophy, authority and criticism. They are believed to be typical of a benighted period when ecclesiastical tradition fixed not only the limits but the very conclusions of metaphysical thought; when reason was so debased as to submit to accepting its results blindly at the hands of an unquestioned dogmatism, and to demean itself to the task, apologetic in the worst sense, of bolstering up by sophistical ingenuity these uncriticised beliefs.

This view of the traditional proofs, though popular at the present time, is neither historical nor fully reasonable. The Middle Ages were undoubtedly a period when the authority of the Church counted for much; but these proofs are so far from being typically mediæval that they run, in one form or another, through the whole of philosophy.

If the history of speculation begins with Socrates, Socrates was the first person known to us who definitely formulated the Argument from Design; and Socrates was no blind supporter of dogma. The Ontological proof, first I believe clearly stated by the sceptical philosopher Sextus Empiricus in refutation of the reckless dogmatism of contemporary atheists, enters modern philosophy indeed with Anselm in the Middle Ages, but was not accepted by the orthodox scholastic tradition, and the recognition of its importance was left to Descartes in the full tide of the Renaissance.

Since then it has never lost its place as one of the central problems of the theory of knowledge. The third traditional proof, from the contingency or imperfection of the world to some cause outside the world, is mediæval only because it was already Aristotelian, and Aristotle, whatever his shortcomings, cannot any more than Socrates be represented as an example of the priest-ridden intellect.

The objection seems to consist in the notion that a proof of some belief which is itself held on other grounds is illegitimate and insincere. Let us—so the notion runs—employ our reason in the discovery of new truths, not in the invention of proofs for truths, if truths they be, which we learnt from another source and shall continue to believe even if the proof breaks down. By the latter course we learn nothing new, even if it is successful; we only delude ourselves into mistaking the source from which our beliefs are derived.

But this objection will not stand examination. In the first place, it would apply with equal force to the discovery of a proof in the case of, let us say, a mathematical theorem; where we often see the thing to be true but cannot offer any proof of it. Here the discovery of a proof is subsequent to the existence of the belief, and the belief does not disappear if we fail to discover any proof at all. Why then is it desirable to prove the theorem?

First, perhaps, in order to make sure that our original conviction was not a mere error. If we never tested our first impressions by such means, the mistakes of which we make quite enough already would be indefinitely multiplied. Secondly, in order that by means of the proof we may impart our conviction to persons less gifted than ourselves with the faculty of mathematical intuition. And thirdly, because in discovering the proof we really do attain new knowledge.

Even if we do no more than make explicit the steps by which our mind leapt to its first conclusion, knowledge of our mental processes is gained; and, moreover, no proof can be constructed without discovering new facts about the relation of this theorem to other things which we already knew. And the discovery that one truth necessitates another is a discovery worth making.

The parallel” it may be said, “is unfair. The discovery of a proof is in this case valuable precisely because it is homogeneous with the original intuition. Each was an example of mathematical thinking, and therefore each bears on and is relevant to the other. But the belief in the existence of God is not the fruit of the same kind of thought as the formal proof of his existence. The one is passively taken on authority, the other critically constructed by the reason.”

Authority does enter largely into the formation of all our beliefs, not excluding those of religion. But it is not peculiar to religion. Even in mathematics, a surveyor, an astronomer, a navigator uses countless formulæ which he has never proved and never dreams of testing. In science, the learner takes a vast proportion of his beliefs on the authority of his teacher or the writer of his handbook. It would be strange if in religion alone there were no place for authority.