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THE AGNOSTICISM OF HERBERT SPENCER.
SPENCER seeks for Truth by dropping all the points in which the various conflicting beliefs differ: a process which leads to nothing.
His rejection of the Positivist doctrine, that the Absolute Power behind phenomena does not exist for us, is justified; but his own doctrine, that this Power exists but is unknowable, is palpably inconsistent. Our view of what is knowable depends on our conception of the “ laws of thought.” Spencer's doctrine originates in a definition of the Infinite which is taken as an axiom or “law of thought,"—that it excludes the finite from itself: a definition which is mistaken and groundless. His test of truth—the “inconceivability of the opposite ”-does not distinguish between conceiving and imagining, and in effect is equivalent to Newman's test by the mere invincible feeling of certainty.
Spencer's view of the permanent and true element in religion takes it to be “awe of the Unknowable”; but it does not appear that any feeling is possible towards what is strictly unknowable. We arrive at a knowledge of “the Absolute” by seeking for the origin of our Ideals, and most chiefly of that “ethical process” which Huxley showed to be so different in tendency from the "cosmic process ” (the phenomenal or physical order of Nature). Hence we see that the strength of Comte's Religion of Humanity lies in its teaching that our highest conception of the Divine must be directly based on our conception of what is highest in the human.
Comte offers for our worship a Goodness not rooted in any reality higher than mankind; Spencer offers for our worship a Reality or Power unrelated to anything human : two opposite extremes. Our view seems to save the truth in both.
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We found that Comte started with the conception that our knowledge never extends beyond “phenomena,”—that is to say, our sound and reliable knowledge; and we found that he held up for our religious inspiration a moral ideal, truly conceived to embrace the development of all that is best in Humanity, but with no Real Power as its source and sustainer. Spencer starts with the same conception, that the knowledge which science and common life give us is limited to phenomena. But he finds the only true element in religion to be a vague feeling directed towards the Power underneath phenomena, which is the most real of
all things, but has no sort of relation to humanity and its ideals.
He begins by reminding us that as there is a soul of goodness in things which are evil, so there is a soul of truth in beliefs which are mistaken :
A candid acceptance of this general principle, and an adoption of the course it indicates, will greatly aid us in dealing with those chronic antagonisms by which men are divided. Applying it not only to current ideas with which we are personally unconcerned, but also to our own ideas and those of our opponents, we shall be led to form far more correct judgments. We shall be ever ready to suspect that the convictions we entertain are not wholly right, and that the adverse convictions are not wholly wrong. On the one hand, we shall not, in common with the great mass of the unthinking, let our beliefs be determined by the mere accident of birth in a particular age on a particular part of the earth's surface; and on the other hand, we shall be saved from that error of entire and contemptuous negation which is fallen into by most who take up an attitude of independent criticism.
This is a truth whose consequences reach far, and which we have already illustrated in several ways. But Spencer proceeds to make a use of it very different from that which we have had in view. He shows, indeed, how religious beliefs are all-but universally diffused, how they have always had a deep controlling influence all through human history, and how they have been able to hold their ground notwithstanding the attacks of science. Such facts afford almost certain proof that religion involves or rests upon some important truth. But science, which stands in unceasing conflict with religious dogmas, is one and impregnable, while religions are various and are in conflict among themselves also. Hence the underlying truth can only be found by dropping everything that distinguishes the particular religions, first from one another, and then from science. When this is done, we arrive at the conception of a universal Power or Energy, sustaining all things, and unknowable by us.
The reader will remember how we saw that the conflict between different beliefs, when each was true in some degree, often suggested a way of arriving at a better truth. This was by finding a middle way between the opposite assertions. But the middle way consisted in finding a principle which included what truth there was in the
two extremes, embracing both in a deeper truth. By simply dropping the different factors which oppose one another, we are led to a principle which has less truth than either of the extremes; and if this process is carried on far enough, we shall be led at length to conclude that every “ First Principle” is a bottom unthinkable or unknowable. This is just what Spencer does, according to his own statement of the right way of finding the truth in mistaken beliefs :
To compare all opinions of the same genus; to set aside as more or less discrediting one another those various special and concrete elements in which such opinions disagree; to observe what remains after the discordant constituents have been eliminated; and to find for this remaining constituent that abstract expression which holds true throughout its divergent modifications.
We must observe that to contrast science and religion in this way shows a fundamental misconception of their respective objects. Spencer observes that “every religious creed,” from the most primitive fancies to the most fully developed theology, “is definable as a theory of original