QOTD (2012-01-21)

There is something awfully emotionally compelling about late-Victorian agnosticism. Symonds, “The Limits of Knowledge,” in Essays Speculative and Suggestive, 1890:

Nothing is known by human beings which is not in the consciousness of collective or individual humanity—in the mind of the race or of the person.

What this means is, that man cannot get outside himself, cannot leap off his own shadow, cannot obtain a conception of the universe except as a mode of his own consciousness. He is man, and must accept the universe as apprehended by his manhood.

It does not therefore follow that what man knows is the universe. It does not follow that man’s sense and thought create the outer world. It does not even follow that the laws of human consciousness are the laws of Being. The utmost we are justified in saying is, that man forms an integral part of the world, and that his consciousness is consequently a substantial portion of the whole.

All that Philosophy can do is to analyse the mass of human thoughts and feelings, to ascertain the limits within which we apprehend the world, and to show the direction in which our faculties may be applied. Philosophy must abandon ontological explanations of the universe. These have invariably proved their own futility, being successively left behind and superseded in the progress of relative science, by which is meant the development of human thought and knowledge about the world.

The science of God and the science of Being, Theology and Ontology, have no foundation except in the subjectivity of man. Both are seen to involve impertinences, naïvetés, solemn self-complacences, the egotism of Narcissus doting on his own perfections mirrored in the darkness of the river of the universe.

This does not preclude a sincere belief in man’s power to obtain partial knowledge of the world. Such knowledge, so far as it goes, rests on a firm basis; for man is, ex hypothesi, an integer in the universe, and his consciousness accordingly represents a factor of the universal order. The mistake of theology and of ontology is to transfer this partial knowledge to the account of the whole. These self-styled science are only doing what polytheism and mythology did. They are attempting to account for the whole by the experience of a part of it, which experience varies according to the stages of the growth of the creature we call man.


Man has the right to use time-honoured language, and to designate his apprehension of the unity in Nature by that venerable title, God. He is only doing now what all the men from whom he is descended did before him. Mumbo Jumbo, Indra, Shiva, Jahve, Zeus, Odin, Balder, Christ, Allah–what are these but names for the Inscrutable, adapted to the modes of thought which gave them currency? God is the same, and His years do not change. It is only our way of presenting the unknown to human imagination which varies.

We are at liberty to leave God out of our account, and to maintain that we can do without that hypothesis. But how shall we then stand? We must remain face to face with the infinite organism of the universe, which, albeit we can never know it in itself, is always being presented to our limited intelligence as more completely and organically one. The mystery flies before us, and will ever fly. The more we say we know, and the more we really know, the less we can afford to omit the elements of unsearchableness and awe-inspiring unity which have produced religions.

In these circumstances we are led back to the primitive conditions of human thought .We still much acknowledge a power from which we spring, which includes all things, which is the real reality of all we partly grasp by knowledge. Evade it as we will, we are driven to the conclusion, at which the earliest men arrived, that human intelligence alone is insufficient to account for the universe, and that there is a Something beyond, with which man is indissolubly connected, and which has to be approached in the spirit of devotion. This Something, now as then, compels reverence and inspires awe. We may call it God or not as we think fit. Meanwhile it subsists–the one paramount fact, in comparison with which all other facts are unimportant. It is variously envisaged by successive generations, according to the tenor of their sensibilities and the nature of their speculaiton. Was there ever, or is there now, any other God but this?

The augmentation of knowledge only increases our sense of the reality and inscrutability of Being. Science and Agnosticism are therefore paths whereby we are brought back to religion under forms adapted to present conceptions of the world we live in, and of which we are a part.

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