Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 1.djvu/253

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AGNOSTICISM
AGNOSTICISM
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philosophical principle on which modern Agnosticism rests, in his doctrine that "all knowledge is relative". To know is to condition; to know the Unconditioned (Absolute, or Infinite) is therefore, impossible, our best efforts resulting in "mere negations of thought". This doctrine of relativity contains two serious equivocations which, when pointed out, reveal the basic difference between the philosophies of Agnosticism and of Theism. The first is in the word "relativity". The statement that knowledge is "relative" may mean simply that to know anything, whether the world or God, we must know it as manifesting itself to us under the laws and relations of our own consciousness; apart from which relations of self-manifestation it would be for us an isolated, unknowable blank. Thus understood, the doctrine of relativity states the actual human method of knowing the world, the soul, the self, God, grace and the supernatural. Who would hold that we know God, naturally, in any other way than through the manifestations He makes of Himself in mind and nature?

But Hamilton understood the principle of relativity to mean that "we know only the relations of things"; only the Relative, never the Absolute. A negative conclusion, fixing a limit to what we can know, was thus drawn from a principle which of itself merely affirms the method, but settles nothing as to the limits, of our knowledge. This arbitrary interpretation of a method as a limitation is the centre of the Agnostic position against Theism. An ideally perfect possible knowledge is contrasted with the unperfect yet none the less true, knowledge which we actually possess. By thus assuming "ideal comprehension" as a standard by which to criticize "real apprehension", the Agnostic invalidates, apparently, the little that we do know, as at present constituted, by the more we might know if our mental constitution were other than it is. The Theist, however, recognizing that the limits of human knowledge are to be determined by fact, not by speculation, refuses to prejudge the issue, and proceeds to investigate what we can legitimately know of God through His effects or manifestations.

The second serious equivocation is in the terms "Absolute", "Infinite", "Unconditioned". The Agnostic has in mind, when he uses these terms, that vague general idea of being which our mind reaches by emptying concrete reality of all its particular contents. The result of this emptying process is the Indefinite of abstract, as compared with the Definite of concrete, thought. It is this Indefinite which the Agnostic exhibits as the utterly Unrelated, Unconditioned. But this is not the Absolute in question. Our inability to know such an Absolute, being simply our inability to define the indefinite, to condition the unconditioned, is an irrelevant truism. The absolute in question with Theists is the real, not the logical; the Infinite in question is the actual Infinite of realized perfection, not the Indefinite of thought. The All-perfect is the idea of God, not the All-imperfect, two polar opposites frequently mistaken for each other by Pantheists and Materialists from the days of the Ionians to our own. The Agnostic, therefore, displaces the whole Theistic problem when he substitutes a logical Absolute, defined as "that which excludes all relations outer and inner", for the real. Examination of our experience shows that the only relation which the Absolute essentially excludes is the relation of real dependence upon anything else. We have no right in reason to define it as the non-related. In fact, it manifests itself as the causal, sustaining ground of all relations. Whether our knowledge of this real Absolute, or God, deserves to be characterized as wholly negative, is consequently a distinct problem (see VI).

V. Spencer's doctrine of the Unknowable examined.—According to Herbert Spencer, the doctrine that all knowledge is relative cannot be intelligibly stated without postulating the existence of the Absolute. The momentum of thought inevitably carries us beyond conditioned existence (definite consciousness) to unconditioned existence (indefinite consciousness). The existence of Absolute Reality must therefore be affirmed. Spencer thus made a distinct advance upon the philosophy of Comte and Mill, which maintained a non-committal attitude on the question of any absolute existence. Hamilton and Mansel admitted the existence of the Infinite on faith, denying only man's ability to form a positive conception of it. Mansel's test for a valid conception of anything is an exhaustive grasp of its positive contents—a test so ideal as to invalidate knowledge of the finite and infinite alike. Spencer's test is "inability to conceive the opposite". But since he understood "to conceive" as meaning "to construct a mental image", the consequence was that the highest conceptions of science and religion—matter, space, time, the Infinite—failed to correspond to his assumed standard, and were declared to be "mere symbols of the real, not actual cognitions of it at all". He was thus led to seek the basis and reconciliation of science, philosophy, and religion in the common recognition of Unknowable Reality as the object of man's constant pursuit and worship. The non-existence of the Absolute is unthinkable; all efforts to know positively what the Absolute is result in contradictions.

Spencer's adverse criticism of all knowledge and belief, as affording no insight into the ultimate nature of reality, rests on glaring assumptions. The assumption that every idea is "symbolic" which cannot be vividly realized in thought is arbitrary as to be decisive against his entire system; it is a pre-judgment, not a valid canon of inductive criticism, which he constantly employs. From the fact that we can form no conception of infinity, as we picture an object or recall a scene, it does not follow that we have no apprehension of the Infinite. We constantly apprehend things of which we can distinctly frame no mental image. Spencer merely contrasts our picturesque with our unpicturable forms of thought, using the former to criticize the latter adversely. The contradictions which he discovers are all reducible to this contrast of definite with indefinite thoughts and disappear when we have in mind a real Infinite of perfection, not a logical Absolute. Spencer's attempt to stop finally at the mere affirmation that the Absolute exists he himself proved to be impossible. He frequently describes the Unknowable as the "Power manifesting itself in phenomena". This physical description is a surrender of his own position and a virtual acceptance of the principle of Theism, that the Absolute is known through, not apart from, its manifestations. If the Absolute can be known as physical power, surely it can be known as Intelligent Personal Power, by taking not the lowest, but the highest, manifestations of power known to us as the basis for a less inadequate conception. Blank existence is no final stopping-place for human thought. The only rational course is to conceive God under the highest manifestations of Himself and to remember while so doing that we are describing, not defining, His abysmal nature. It is not a question of degrading God to our level, but of not conceiving Him below that level as unconscious energy. Spencer's further attempt to empty religion and science of their respective rational contents, so as to leave only a blank abstraction or symbol for the final object of both, is a gross confusion, again, of the indefinite of thought with the infinite of reality. A religion wholly cut off from belief, worship, and conduct never existed.