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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/February 1900/Correspondence

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | February 1900


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: In your editorial, in the issue of September, you speak of "faith as the organ of religious apprehension." This suggests some important facts that are not always apprehended, or are forgotten. There is no organ for the discovery, the proof, or the apprehension of truth but reason, whether facts of Nature or of religion. "Faith" is not a sixth sense which we do not use in scientific pursuits, but which comes to our help when we seek for religious truth. Much of the difficulty comes from the fact that the word "faith" is ambiguous, having two meanings, which are not distinguished. It is (1) simply belief of a fact because of evidence presented to and apprehended by the reason; or is it (2) trust, confidence in, belief in, as in a person, resting on the belief of that person's competency and truthfulness, that belief resting on evidence apprehended by the reason. Because of this "faith" in the person we accept his testimony as to facts beyond our personal cognizance, we believe them not because we have discovered them, or may be are competent to discover them, but because of our "faith" in a person whom we have seen reason to believe is trustworthy—i. e., competent and truthful.

Now, these two meanings of "faith" are often confused, interchanged. Hence the discredit thrown upon belief of religious truth, because an illegitimate use is made of the place of "faith" in its justification. And writers defending religious belief have been great sinners in this illegitimate use of "faith."

The place of "faith" is the same in science as in religion—i. e., it is the condition and justification of our acceptance of truth which is beyond our personal cognizance. We accept it because of the testimony of men in whom we have learned to have faith—e. g., How few of us who accept the revelations of the spectrum analysis as to the composition of the stars have any other justification for accepting them than just this? We believe them simply because men, whom we, in the exercise of our reason, have come to believe competent and truthful, tell us what they have seen. We believe on their testimony because we trust them. Our process involves three steps: (1) Belief of their competence through appeal to reason; (2) trust in them because of this belief; (3) belief of their testimony because of this trust or "faith" in them. The only organ we have used is reason, in its initial act of belief of the competence and truthfulness of the witnesses. Error in the use of reason here vitiates all that follows. Correct use of reason here gives a legitimate condition for correct results of the other steps. But reason must go along with US and guide us in these, that we may come to a rationally accepted belief of the truth.

Here is the place of "faith" in science, as belief and as trust. By its use we accept the great issues of scientific truth which we believe, and do it legitimately.

It is the same in all right acceptance of religious truth. Here appears a person in human history claiming to reveal facts beyond our sphere of cognizance. Now, the first (1) step is belief in his competence and truthfulness as a witness, just as in cases of science. His only appeal is to reason, our only organ for apprehending truth. We, because of the evidence presented to our reason, believe him competent and truthful—i.e., trustworthy—and we take the second step (2), as in case of search for scientific truth. We trust him, we have "faith" in him. Then (3) we believe his testimony as to facts beyond our cognizance, as to God, as to the inner world and life, as to his own person and work, and his agency in helping us to the true life. Here are the same three steps as in our believing the great facts of science, and they are equally legitimate, and the belief is equally legitimate, and with the same use of "faith" in both cases, which use is legitimate if we have applied our reason correctly.

It may be said that there is this difference in the two cases: We are, it may be, competent with training to perceive with our reason the facts to which the scientists witness, whereas in religion we are not competent by any training, in our present state, to see what Jesus Christ testified to; therefore the believing him is not legitimate.

Space forbids arguing this point, but the writer is confident it can be shown that this does not vitiate the process in the least. The only point now argued is that reason is the only organ of man for the apprehension of truth, and that "faith" acts the same part in scientific and religious belief.

John R. Thurston.
Whitinsville, Mass., September 30, 1899.

[The point which our correspondent discusses is one which falls rather within the province of theology or philosophy than within that of science. In the article to which he refers we did not distinctly say that "faith" was "the organ of religious apprehension." What we said was that granting such was the case, the question still remained to be settled where the line should be drawn between faith and knowledge. We doubt whether the account which our correspondent gives of faith would be widely accepted by those who approach the subject from the theological side, while those who approach it from the scientific side would—at least many of them would—be disposed to consider the term one which might better be dispensed with in favor of the less ambiguous word "belief." Belief is the inclination of the mind toward a proposition for which absolute or demonstrative proof is wanting, and it is this condition of mind, it seems to us, that our correspondent has in view. Faith in the religious sense, unless we are mistaken, is something different. It is an affirmation made by the human conscience or consciousness in its own behalf—a certain instinctive recognition of a presence and power in the universe which, though inaccessible to scientific investigation, sustains an intimate, profound, and all-essential relation to man's moral nature. If trust in an individual ever rises to the level of faith in this sense, it is because the influence of the individual harmonizes with and re-enforces the primal instinct. That, at least, is how we view the matter.—Editor.]



Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: Will you permit me to say a few words supplementing your review of Through Nature to God? To those who have perused Mr. Fiske's latest three scientifico-theological booklets, and also his Cosmic Philosophy, it can not be new that their author has become entangled in hopeless contradictions of himself. The limited space of a letter does not allow of adducing more than one remarkable passage from Cosmic Philosophy, demonstrating the antithesis between the arguments of this work and Mr. Fiske's latest opinions, these new thoughts having been developed, as he tells us, by "carrying such a subject about in his mind for" twenty-five years. We are told in Through Nature to God (page 12) that "it has usually been found necessary to represent the Creator as finite either in power or in goodness, although the limitation is seldom avowed, except by writers who have a leaning toward atheism and take a grim pleasure in pointing out flaws in the constitution of things. Among modern writers" Comte and Mill are conspicuous for such a "leaning toward atheism." Then we are informed (page 20) that the "shock which such a clear, bold statement gives to our religious feelings is no greater than the shock with which it strikes counter to our modern scientific philosophy." And a little further on we find that "the God which Mr. Mill offers us, shorn of the attribute of omnipotence, is no God at all."

If the reader will now open Cosmic Philosophy, he is told in vigorous language (vol. ii, p. 405) that "if there exist a personal Creator of the universe who is infinitely intelligent and powerful, he can not be infinitely good; if, on the other hand, he be infinite in goodness, then he must be lamentably finite in power or in intelligence. By this two-edged difficulty, theology has ever been foiled." Then (vol. ii, p. 406) Mr. Fiske, quoting from Mill, expresses his entire concurrence with the views of this eminent thinker, and adds (vol. ii, p. 407), "With Mr. Mill, therefore, 'I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures.' And, going a step further, I will add that it is impossible to call that being good who, existing prior to the phenomenal universe and creating it out of the plenitude of infinite power and foreknowledge, endowed it with such properties that its material and moral development must inevitably be attended by the misery of untold millions of sentient creatures for whose existence their Creator is ultimately alone responsible."

No comment of mine can show more clearly than the passages cited above the "conversion" of Mr. Fiske, against which imputation so much subtle ingenuity is expended in the preface to The Idea of God.

That Mr. Fiske is merely reviving gross anthropocentric views he himself admits. To him, man is "the goal toward which Nature's work has been tending from the first." But might not also some pithecoid ancestors of ours have deemed themselves the "goal toward which Nature had been tending from the first"? What is Nature's goal in the endless cycle of evolution in which life is but an infinitesimal part? But with Huxley I believe that "it would be a new thing in history if a priori philosophers were daunted by a factious opposition of experience." Mr. Fiske's latest writings, as all theodicies, bear testimony to the truth of Huxley's scathing remark.

But granting, for the sake of the argument, that "in the deepest sense it is as true as it ever was held to be, that the world was made for man," there is an objection to be raised on moral grounds stronger than any that could be founded on scientific arguments. Had this world been created for man, entailing, as it does, the "misery of untold millions of sentient creatures," who but the crassest egotist could worship this Fiskean God of iniquity?

The careful student of Thomas Huxley's works may be surprised to find Through Nature to God "consecrated" to the memory of him whose life work was devoted to "untiring opposition to that ecclesiastical spirit" that shines through every page of Mr. Fiske's latest writings. I echo Mr. Fiske's words: "I can never cease to regret that Huxley should have passed away without seeing my [Mr. Fiske's] arguments and giving me the benefit of his comments." The last stroke of Huxley's pen was giving Mr. Balfour "the benefit of his comments"; would that he could have given them to the author of the excursion Through Nature to God!

B. A. Behrend.
Erie, Pa., December 5, 1899.


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: Your trenchant criticism of Mr. John Fiske's discussion of the mystery of evil recalls Mr. Spencer's reminder that "there is a soul of truth in all things erroneous."

Mr. Fiske certainly has not made it plain that the meaning of the universe is to be found (exclusively) in the higher developments of love and self-sacrifice; but is it not equally a mistake to say inferentially that "on a broad view of the world-wide struggle for life there are no moral elements to be seen"? If we define morality as the equivalent merely of love and self-sacrifice, the ever-present love of mother and, in a degree, of father for the offspring imperatively negatives such a conclusion.

But morality is something more than love and self-sacrifice. Morality is right conduct, and right conduct in the last analysis is conformity to the conditions of existence. The nearer the conformity, the more complete the life, and life approaches completeness only as the activities of men cease to be impeded by each other's aggressions, the highest life being reached when men help to complete one another's lives.

Conversely, evil must be defined as nonconformity to the conditions of existence. Slowly but surely man is learning these conditions, and as he learns it is not to be doubted that "evil" will lessen. If we affirm acquisition of knowledge by man, we must postulate a precedent or "necessary" condition of ignorance. Hence it may be truthfully said that evil is a necessary correlative, and in a manner the necessary condition of good; and also, I think, that a broad view of the world-wide struggle for life shows not an absence of moral elements, but rather that the ethical is inherent in the very nature of animate things.

We may not all share Mr. Fiske's exuberant optimism, and many can not accept his teleological implications, but of the ultimate triumph of good over evil, of knowledge over ignorance, we may not doubt.

Frank M. Loomis.
Buffalo, November 10, 1899.


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: I beg to take exception to the exploded Boston theory again revived by Miss Cornelia Horsford in the last number of your valuable magazine. It is astonishing to notice how little Prof. G. Storm's excellent prize essay and Mr. Reeve's careful edition of the text of sagas seem to have availed against the misplaced patriotism that persists in carrying those Norse explorers down to New England in the face of the numerous difficulties with which this feat is associated. If I am not mistaken, not a single historian or antiquarian of note has taken Professor Horsford's extremely unscientific treatment of the sagas or his Norse discoveries seriously, and the sober verdict of Mr. Thorsteinn Erlingsson and Dr. V. Gudmundsson on the alleged Norse ruins seems to show that Miss Cornelia Horsford has met with no better success. To refute all the philological curiosities and illogical conclusions drawn by Professor Horsford in his ten treatises on the subject would, however, require a book of at least five hundred pages, and nobody seems to think the question important enough to warrant such an output. The fact that Mr. A. H. Keane, in his recent work, Man, Past and Present, takes it for granted that the Norsemen met with Eskimos in New England in the year 1000 seems to prove, however, that this persistence in defending a baseless supposition is not merely a matter of innocent patriotism. Fortunately, the current year, which marks the nine hundredth anniversary of the discovery, will be sure to see some valuable new treatises on the subject, and those who are sufficiently interested furthermore need only consult the above-mentioned books to discover how many serious objections the New England theory really has to contend with. Permit me to mention one of them. Cape Cod has, it is true, one singular feature that suggests the Keel Cape of the best version of the Vinland manuscripts—viz., sandy shores. As everybody can see for himself, however, by consulting Mr. Reeve's book, the explorers sailed south from Keel Cape on the eastern shore till the country became indented with bays. At the mouth of one of these they established their first winter quarters (the so-called Streamfirth), and the next fall proceeded still farther south for a considerable time till they came to "Hop," the true Wineland. The extraordinary ease with which Professor Horsford, in his book Landfall of Leif Ericson, undertakes to chop up this version, in order to make the explorers return to Boston from Cape Cod instead of continuing on their course, is something remarkable in the annals of historical research. But even then his theory fails utterly to satisfy the critical reader. The trouble with most of the writers on this subject, not excluding a professional historian like Prof. John Fiske, is that they have failed to sift the material or see the force of Professor Storm's criticism of the Flat Island version. This being done, everything falls into line for the Nova Scotia theory, due consideration being given to the fact that an oral tradition of at least one hundred years intervened between the events narrated and the first somewhat extended written record.

While, therefore, owing to the last-mentioned fact, it is not altogether impossible that the Norsemen reached New England, it should be distinctly understood that such a conclusion can only be drawn on archæological lines, the test of the sagas pointing clearly in the opposite direction.

Juul Dieserud.
Field Columbian Museum, Chicago,
December 7, 1899.