Sequel and Conclusion: Mainly Positive
- p. 139 -
The Power Behind Phenomena
He who without any self-seeking motive but merely out of curiosity sets out to try to solve the riddle of the Universe, undertakes a rather thankless task; for although on his way he may gather much interesting information, in the end he will probably find himself more baffled than enlightened. After acquainting himself with all the most authoritative discoveries in astronomy and geophysics, he will be forced to conclude that he is no nearer his goal than when he started, and much more mystified into the bargain.
Few who have had the experience will quarrel with this statement of the case, and the thoughtful man who, after completing his researches and listening to Professor Bernard Lovell's Reith Lectures in 1958, asks himself what he can believe, will be inclined to suspect that his understanding of the Universe is really no more perfect than that of a dog's concerning electric energy, its generation and transmission, after watching its master switch on the light in his study. Give that dog a thousand years in which to cogitate on the connection between the sudden illumination and his master's manipulation of the switch, and we know that it would never be able to solve the enigma.
Even if it were possible for the master to explain the whole process that culminates in the sudden blaze of light, we may feel quite sure that the explanation would be unintelligible to the mystified animal.
When, therefore, fourteen years ago, Sir James Jeans threw up his arms in surrender and declared the riddle of the Universe insoluble, no one aware of the facts, or of their absence, was in the least surprised. It will be remembered that Sir James wrote as follows:
"Science has left trying to answer the question, 'What is the Universe?' Indeed, there are excellent reasons for thinking that if a higher intelligence came to us from another world, bringing
Thus, the fact that scientists like Hoyle, Bondi, Gold and Lyttelton of Cambridge, besides others elsewhere, are now beginning to speak of "creation" as a process continually operating in the Universe, and are therefore virtually back at Moses' position, or at a modern, more learned version of it, indicates how slight or unfundamental has been the advance of cosmology, in so far as it deals with origins, since the Pentateuch was composed. For the word "create" not only conveys the idea of a supernatural agent, a Creator, endowed with the capacity to cause things to appear out of nothing or to produce where nothing was before (Oxford English Dictionary), or as Johnson has it, "to form out of nothing", but also implies that we understand what we are talking about when we use it, and can grasp enough about what originally happens when creation occurs to be able to use the word "create" in the belief that it has a meaning.
In both respects, however, the word is rather an admission of a failure to explain than an explanation; for we can form no clear idea of the process of producing where nothing was before, and we are even less capable of imagining the sort of power or being who would be capable of such a feat. It has been objected to this that although we do not know what electricity is and cannot explain it, we know it to be a fact. But the analogy is far from perfect; for, whilst we may be unable to explain what an electric current is and what happens when it is transmitted, we are at least able to generate it and apply it, and know perfectly the conditions essential to its production and practical application. No one as yet, however, has seen something produced where "nothing was before", or could explain the process by which such a feat is accomplished, least of all on the scale of the Universe.
Darwin, too, was aware of grave objections to the use of the
Only those people therefore who, like the Israelites of thousands of years ago, can believe in the Mosaic solution of the problem of origins, are satisfied that the word "creation" contributes anything to their understanding of existence, and can accept it as an action of which some conceivable being is capable. Provisionally, however, for those of us whose credulity is a little more fastidious and exacting, it is more politic, not to say economical of time and energy, to leave the question of the origin and meaning of the Universe where Sir James Jeans left it in 1945, and to acknowledge that at least for the present our curiosity cannot be gratified.
For even if it be argued that, like the ancient Israelites, we too, up to date though our knowledge may be, feel constrained to postulate some power behind phenomena, and that in view of this allegedly ineluctable act of postulation it amounts to a mere quibble to question the capacity of that hypothetical power to "produce where nothing was before", and consequently that even to us "creation" cannot seem such an impossible conception after all; it may be objected to this argument, and I think very properly, that whether it is an impossible conception or not, as it conveys no meaning whatsoever to our minds it cannot be helpful. It in no way eases the difficulty of imagining the nature of the power behind phenomena, even if we admit the necessity of postulating such a power, and for the simple reason that we possess no data whatsoever on which we might construct a mental image of a being capable of creation. So that the very word "Creator" can enlighten us no more than the word "dynamo" uttered distinctly and repeatedly would enlighten the dog who sees his master switch on the light.
So much for the investigator who tries to fathom the meaning of the Universe merely in order to gratify his curiosity. But, how about those of us who prosecute the selfsame investigations,
Hence the incessant and desperate cry of the religious multitude and above all of the saints, throughout modern history: "Verily, Thou art a God that hidest Thy Self!" The inscrutability of the power behind phenomena constitutes a reproach against it and is felt as an obstacle, not only to a burning faith in its existence, but also to effective contact with and use of it. Those, therefore, who can believe in a personal power behind phenomena have no rest until they have clothed it in attributes that bring it close to them and make it, as it were, tangible. Whence they derive the colour and lineaments of such attributes would be hard to determine, were we not familiar with the inexhaustible resources of human imagination. Thus, we can explain the astonishing amount of data claimed to have been acquired concerning the alleged "personality" of the inscrutable power behind phenomena, only when we appreciate the fathomless well of human fancy. For none of those who profess to know all the essentials, down to the smallest minutiae, of their God, have ever claimed that they are drawing upon a specification miraculously conveyed to them. At most they will acknowledge them as conjectures inferred from their knowledge of the Bible, or the history of the saints; and this may explain the human all-too-human quality of the attributes in question. Even Moses who, of all the Israelites, would seem to have been the most likely person to have claimed first-hand knowledge of the matter, was evidently never really satisfied that he could in honesty profess to have seen his God; and this may explain that alleged exchange of remarks between him and the Deity in Exodus xxxiii. 1820, where Moses cries, "I beseech thee, shew me thy glory", and God is reported to have answered, "Thou canst not see my face; for there shall no man see me, and live".
Was this merely another of Moses' pious frauds, perpetrated
Over seventy years before this, Voltaire had already expressed much the same wish when, in his poem, Sur le Désastre de Lisbonne (1756), he had said,
"On a besoin d'un Dieu qui parle au genre humain;
Il n'appartient qu'à lui d'expliquer son oeuvre."
(We need a God who talks to human beings; he alone can explain his creation.)
Lady Westmorland's yearning for a second incarnation introduces a wholly Christian note into the agelong desire for an unmistakable picture of the elusive Deity and his attributes a desire which, unfulfilled as it continues to be, reduces the believer to supply the lack himself and to fabricate a full-length portrait out of subjective sources. For, as the Rev. T. H. Hughes observes, "The real question of religion is not whether God or gods exist that of course is important but what kind of beings are they? In other words, it is not a question merely of existence but of attributes and nature" (N.P.R.E. 1933, Chap. I).
Apart however from all men's longing to know the character of the power behind phenomena, so that their approach to it may be correct and they may know what to expect from it, there was for the Israelites and, subsequently for the Christians, the further necessity of knowing precisely whom one was dealing with, because it was impossible to comply with the behest recorded in Deuteronomy vi, 5, unless some information could be obtained about God's character. Man cannot love a mere abstraction, or just a name empty of all attributes; and if he was to love the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, something less vague than a hypothetical figurehead had to be given him.
This explains the assiduity of Christians, if of no other religious people, in clothing the mystical being whom they endow with the power of creation, with attributes that give him reality and verisimilitude a practice commented upon already in Part I, Chapter IX. Whence they draw the data for this feat of portraiture is a question to which they give a reply so different from our own that there is no chance of any agreement between us; nevertheless, granting them the validity of their conception of a Creator who is the power behind phenomena, then one or two of their means of defining his character do not seem unacceptable.
The Rev. Hubert Northcott, for instance, in an endeavour to convert his apophatic, into a cataphatic deity, mentions among other sources of information concerning his attributes: (1) Nature, which bears "the impress of its Creator". (2) History, "the story of His dealing with men and nations". This, too, seems reasonable; for in the principal developments of history, whether understood as human and political, or geological, biological or astronomical, it should again be possible to discern certain major trends or traits, from which generalizations concerning cosmic processes may be inferred. Finally (3), God's holy spirit as he reveals himself to the individual soul". This we do not find so helpful; because we do not accept the assumed divine revelation. But, in so far as individual experiences, not necessarily intuitive, bear on the possible attribution of particular features to cosmic forces, they may be a fruitful source of enlightenment (see V.O.P. Chap. II).
It is, however, not at all clear to me why the Rev. H. Northcott, after admitting that "knowledge and love go hand in hand", and after going to the trouble of suggesting three main sources of information about God's attributes, finds it necessary to warn us that "any revelation of the Eternal God to mortal man must be fraught with danger". The only reason given is that, "It must come to him as a challenge to rise beyond the limits of the created world in union with God himself" (ibid.). But although this reason is far from clear, is it cogent enough to
It may be objected that neither do the invisible forces governing life's processes give any unmistakable sign of their existence. But to this there are two replies: first, that Rationalists do not claim that these forces or powers are personal; and secondly that, as we shall see, the task of inferring from their effects the kind of forces they are, is by no means hopeless and may therefore be profitably undertaken.
So that our position is this: though we do not deny the possibility of a personal power behind phenomena, we see no ineluctable reason for postulating it and, in any case, emphatically refuse to believe that it can be the God described and believed in by the Judaeo-Christian Churches. Moreover, although we recognize the indispensability of precise knowledge about the forces governing life's processes, if only in order that we may live in harmony with them and on occasion perhaps turn them to our use, we see no reason whatsoever for ascribing to them what we understand by consciousness or volition. It is enough to discover how they operate; even this is difficult, but it is the utmost we can with any approach to certainty achieve.
Even if we were to assume that the power behind phenomena was a personal power, we are today too cautious and too scrupulous in our demand for sufficient evidence, to proceed as the Israelites did from the postulation of a Creator to endowing him with all the attributes we may deem appropriate to his dignity and dominion. For, although Genesis i. 26 speaks of man made in God's image, the suspicion that this must mean God made in man's image is abundantly confirmed the moment we watch Jehovah in action as a ruler and leader of his people.
How then do we, the scions of three generations of Rationalists and of many more generations of scientists, obtain a sufficiently distinct idea of how the forces governing life's processes operate or work, to be able to walk in harmony with them and if neces-
In at least two respects, there is no reason why we may not follow the Rev. H. Northcott's method, which, as we have seen, is to study the way in which the unseen powers manifest themselves in Nature and History. From both of these sources precious and essential indications are to be obtained concerning the way they work; for it is only by a close study of their modus operandi that we can hope to adjust our step and our direction so as to walk in harmony with them, and determine our procedure for contacting them.
This means of envisaging and contacting the forces governing life's processes is not necessarily pantheistic; because, although Heine spoke jeeringly of Pantheists as of people who are "only shamefast atheists", they are, after all, theists. They postulate a personal deity manifesting himself through his Creation. But we postulate no such personal deity. We are only trying to determine how the invisible forces behind phenomena work, what is their trend or, as it were, their bias, so that we may co-operate with them, not oppose them, and if possible contact them to some purpose.
In Genesis vi. 9 we read that Noah was a "righteous man and perfect in his generation", and the reason given is, that "Noah walked with God". The implication is that, on that account, he was spared the tragic fate which overtook the rest of the world. May this not be but an ancient parabolic statement of a fact mankind must soon have discovered, which taught them that he who walks in harmony with life's dominant trends is safer and sounder than he who keeps out of step with them? And, as our situation in this respect even today in no way differs from that of our earliest forebears, the importance of this fact cannot be overrated.
Here, on this planet Earth, we are very much like a group of aviators flying above the clouds. Their safety depends essentially on accurate estimates of the direction, strength and possible variations of the invisible wind, of the temperature and chemical composition of the invisible atmosphere, and of their altitude and position in an area destitute of visible signposts. In the same way, we on this planet, alone in the vast Universe, will be more likely to avoid disaster or destruction at least in our individual lives if we try to understand something about the invisible forces
This is not to suggest that, by the use of such humble knowledge as we may acquire about these invisible forces, we could ever hope to avert or escape a cosmic catastrophe which would affect our planet. As the Rev. John Magee puts it, though in a different context but with an intention similar to our own: "We do not pray for the moon and stars to change their courses, but we may well pray for those multitudinous events in which the undetermined future is yet to be made" (R.P. Chap. IX).
Thus, we do suggest that our lives on earth are likely to be easier and happier if we learn to keep pace with the invisible forces behind phenomena than if we pay no heed whatsoever to them; and this implies the important truth that for us it is a matter of much greater moment to know and to harmonize with these invisible influences and to discover how to turn them to our account, than to trouble our heads in fruitlessly guessing at origins and at the probable attributes of a hypothetical being assumed to have "created" the Universe. In this sense the worldly wisdom of a great thinker like Confucius is to be commended. He kept his own and his disciples' attention steadily concentrated on the things of this world, and refused to speculate upon matters outside and transcending it.
Here we are then on a vast globe, some 7,690 miles in diameter, spinning round at a speed of about 16 1/2 miles a minute at the Equator that is about twelve times faster than the fastest train and hurtling through space on our orbit round the sun at well over sixty times our rotating speed, i.e. 18 1/2 miles per second, or a thousand times faster than the fastest train.
Our habitat, the Earth, teems with every imaginable kind of life, and we are built and we function in very much the same way as all the higher forms that evolution has produced. We share many of the blessings and vicissitudes that fall to the lot of other members of the animal kingdom and, to some extent, of those that fall to the lot of members of the vegetable kingdom. All this teeming life is directed in accordance with certain dominating trends, opposition to which spells disaster.
To arrive at any conclusions necessary for the proper practice of our religion, it is not enough to continue adding as we are doing to our already vast store of classified knowledge about our world, or to extend our ever increasing mastery over it; for, if
To this essential preliminary task we shall therefore address ourselves in the ensuing chapters, and then only shall we be in a position to formulate the tenets of our religion and the conditions necessary for its observance.