« Prev 2. God cannot be fully known. Next »

§ 2. God cannot be fully known.

The modern German philosophers take the ground that all science, all true philosophy, must be founded on the knowledge of being, and not of phenomena. They reject the authority of the senses and of consciousness, and teach that it is only by the immediate cognition of the Absolute that we arrive at any true or certain knowledge. God, or rather, the Infinite, can be as thoroughly known and comprehended as the simplest object of sense or of consciousness; He is, only so far as He is known.

It would seem impossible that the presumption of men should be so extreme that such a creature as man should pretend to understand the Almighty to perfection, when in fact he cannot understand himself or the simplest objects with which he is in daily contact. The assumption is that being, as such, Infinite and Absolute 346Being, can be known; that is, that we can determine what it is, and the necessary laws by which it is developed into the phenomenal world. This knowledge is attained à priori; not by any induction or deduction from our own nature or the facts of experience, but by an immediate act of cognition, which transcends all consciousness. The great service rendered by Sir William Hamilton and Mr. Mansel to the cause of truth was to demonstrate the utter futility of this pretended philosophy of the Infinite, on the principles of its advocates. To the common mind it needed no refutation, being intuitively seen to be impossible and absurd.

Sir William Hamilton’s Argument.

Hamilton shows, in the first place, that the immediate intuition of Schelling, which Hegel ridiculed as a mere imagination, the dialectics of Hegel, which Schelling pronounced a mere play of words, and the impersonal reason of Cousin which enters into our consciousness but not into our personality, utterly fail to give us a knowledge of the Infinite. “Existence,” he says, “is revealed to us only under specific modifications, and these are known only under the conditions of our faculties of knowledge. Things in themselves, matter, mind, God, all in short that is not finite, relative, and phenomenal, as bearing no analogy to our faculties, is beyond the verge of our our knowledge.”343343Discussions, p. 23. In what sense Hamilton places God “beyond the verge of our knowledge” will be seen in the sequel. It is, however, self-evident that our knowledge must be limited by our faculties of knowing. Other animals may have senses which we do not possess. It is utterly impossible that we should have the kind of knowledge due to the exercise of those senses. It is probable that there are faculties dormant in our nature which are not called into activity in our present state of being. It is clear that we cannot now attain the knowledge which those faculties may hereafter enable us to attain. It is just as plain that we cannot cognize the Infinite, in the sense of these philosophers, as that we cannot see a spirit, or guide ourselves in space, as does the carrier-pigeon or the migrating salmon.

Only the Infinite can know the Infinite.

2. In the second place, it is admitted that none but the Infinite can know the Infinite, and to know God in this sense, it is admitted that we must be God. “Schelling claimed for the mind of man, what Kant had demonstrated to be impossible, a faculty of intellectual 347intuition which is apart from sense, above consciousness, and released from the laws of the understanding, and which comprehends the absolute by becoming the absolute, and thus knows God by being God.”344344Progress of Philosophy, by S. Taylor. LL.D., p. 200. This assumption that man is God, shocks the reason and common sense of men as well as outrages their religious and moral convictions.

3. In the third place, Hamilton and Mansel demonstrate that, assuming the definitions of the Absolute and Infinite given by the transcendentalists, the most contradictory conclusions may logically be deduced from them. “There are three terms familiar as household words in the vocabulary of philosophy, which must be taken into account in every system of metaphysical theology. To conceive the Deity as He is, we must conceive him as First Cause, as absolute, and as infinite. By First Cause, is meant that which produces all things, and is itself produced of none. By the Absolute, is meant that which exists in and by itself, having no necessary relation to any other being. By the Infinite, is meant that which is free from all possible limitation; that than which a greater is inconceivable, and which, consequently, can receive no additional attribute or mode of existence which it had not from all eternity.”345345Mansel, p. 75.

According to these definitions, in the sense in which they are intended to be taken, it follows: —

1. That the Infinite and Absolute must include the sum of all being. For “that which is conceived as absolute and infinite must be conceived as containing within itself the sum, not only of all actual, but of all possible modes of being. For if any actual mode can be denied of it, it is related to that mode and limited by it; and if any possible mode can be denied of it, it is capable of becoming more than it now is, and such a capability is a limitation.”346346Mansel, p. 76.

2. If the Absolute and Infinite be as above defined, it cannot be the object of knowledge. To know is to limit. It is to distinguish the object of knowledge from other objects. We cannot conceive, says Hamilton, of an absolute whole; i.e., of a whole so great that we cannot conceive of it as a part of a greater whole. We cannot conceive of an infinite line, or of infinite space, or of infinite duration. We may as well think without thought, as to assign any limit beyond which there can be no extension, no space, no duration. “Goad imagination to the utmost, it still sinks paralyzed within the bounds of time.”347347Hamilton’s Discussions, p. 35. It follows, therefore, from the very nature of knowledge, according to Hamilton, that the Infinite and Absolute cannot be known.


The Infinite cannot Know.

3. It also follows from these premises, that the Infinite cannot know. All knowledge is limitation and difference. It supposes a distinction between subject and object, between the knower and what is known, inconsistent with the idea of the Absolute.

4. It follows also that the Absolute cannot be conscious, for consciousness involves a distinction between the self and the not-self. It is knowledge of ourselves as distinct from what is not ourselves. Even if conscious only of itself; there is the same distinction between subject and object; the self as subject and a mode of the self as the object of consciousness. “The almost unanimous voice of philosophy,” says Mansel, “in pronouncing that the Absolute is both one and simple must be accepted as the voice of reason also, so far as reason has any voice in the matter.” “The conception of an absolute and infinite consciousness contradicts itself.”348348Mansel, pp. 78, 79.

The Absolute cannot be Cause.

5. It is equally clear that the Absolute and Infinite cannot be cause. Causation implies relation; the relation of efficiency to the effect. It also implies change; change from inaction to activity. It moreover implies succession, and succession implies existence in time. “A thing existing absolutely (i.e., not under relation),” says Hamilton, “and a thing existing absolutely as a cause, are contradictory.” He quotes Schelling349349Bruno, p. 171. as saying, “He would deviate wide as the poles from the idea of the Absolute, who would think of defining its nature by the notion of activity.” “But he who would define the Absolute by the notion of a cause,” he adds, “would deviate still more widely from its nature, inasmuch as the notion of a cause involves not only the notion of a determination to activity, but of a determination to a particular, nay a dependent, kind of activity.”350350Discussions, p. 40. “The three conceptions, the Cause, the Absolute, the Infinite, all equally indispensable, do they not,” asks Mr. Mansel,351351Mansel, p. 77. “imply contradiction to each other, when viewed in conjunction, as attributes of one and the same Being? A cause cannot, as such, be absolute: the Absolute cannot, as such, be cause.”

6. According to the laws of our reason and consciousness, there can be no duration without succession, but succession as implying change cannot be predicated of the Absolute and Infinite, and yet without succession there can be no thought or consciousness; and, 349therefore, to say that God is eternal is to deny that He has either thought or consciousness.

7. Again, “Benevolence, holiness, justice, wisdom,” says Mansel, “can be conceived by us only as existing in a benevolent and holy and just and wise being, who is not identical with any one of his attributes, but the common subject of them all; in one word, in a person. But personality, as we conceive it, is essentially a limitation and a relation. — To speak of an absolute and infinite persons is simply to use language to which, however true it may be in a superhuman sense, no mode of human thought can possibly attach itself.”352352Mansel, pp. 102, 103.

The Conclusion to which Hamilton’s Argument leads.

What then is the result of the whole matter? It is, that if the definitions of the Absolute and Infinite adopted by transcendentalists be admitted, the laws of reason lead us into a labyrinth of contradictions. If their idea of an infinite and absolute Being be correct, then it must include all being actual and possible; it can neither know nor be the object of knowledge; it cannot be conscious, or cause, or a person, or the subject of any moral attribute. Hamilton infers from all this, that a philosophy of the Absolute is a sheer impossibility; that the Absolute, from its nature and from the necessary limits of human thought, is unknowable, and consequently that the stupendous systems of pantheistic atheism which had been erected on the contrary assumption, must fall to the ground. Those systems have indeed already fallen by their own weight. Although only a few years ago they claimed the homage of the intellectual world and boasted of immutability, they have at the present time scarcely a living advocate.

Unhappily, however, Hamilton, like Samson, is involved in the ruin which he created. In overthrowing pantheism he overthrows Theism. All that he says of the Absolute as unknowable, he affirms to be true of God. All the contradictions which attend the assumption of an absolute and infinite being as the ground of philosophy, he says attend the assumption of an infinite God.

« Prev 2. God cannot be fully known. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection