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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Science and Religion. Part I.

by Mrs. Dowson, L.R.C.P. & S., I.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 572


In the discussion of scientific objections to religion it is too often customary for the attack to come wholly from the side of scientific men, and defence to be the only attitude of religious ones. Few religious people know the weakness of the scientific position when misused as a basis of this attack; they are deceived by the confidence of those who occupy it and by the undoubted conspicuous triumphs of science in the world of action and of thought. For this reason I propose to make an attempt at translating very freely into untechnical language, and adapting and condensing as well as I can, a critical examination made by Dr. Ward, of Cambridge (in his Gifford Lectures), into the foundations of "Naturalism and Agnosticism,"--the schemes of thought in which religion of every sort is set at naught by some of our scientific men, and by which a great many unscientific people are either disturbed or carried away, either through knowing that men with great names accept them as satisfactory, or through reading the popular articles of the reviews and the popular books of pseudo-science which are for them the only means of getting at science at all.

Before I begin my task I must urge the importance of distinguishing, both in this inquiry and always, between science itself and the preaching of scientific men about things in general, also between a religious system of any kind and the statements about it made by those who, with varying degrees of earnestness and competence, are its professors. Further, it is prudent for me to point out that in any translation or condensation the original is more or less defaced, and that in such an exceedingly free treatment as I propose to give the advantage of fulness and power must be lost, as well as the advantage of technical accuracy, the common language I must use being incapable of securing it, even if I were far more skilful than I am. I refer to readers who are not deterred by the magnitude of Dr. Ward's achievement to the two volumes of his Gifford Lectures of 1896, 1897, and 1898.

Although most objections of the scientific sort start from a biological position, and are directed mainly either towards explaining man as a mere product of physical nature and the universe as known through evolutionary science to be a self-governing machine, or else towards putting out of court the validity of any explanation arrived at by other means, it is plain that since the science of living things endeavours to state its knowledge if its subject-matter in terms of physics and chemistry, we must begin our criticism by discussing physics and the principles and assumptions that underlie it, because flaws in them will run right through the whole scientific structure from the bottom to the top.

Before embarking on this it is probably best for me to say a word or two about the way in which the terms 'Naturalism' and 'Agnosticism' are now employed. Naturalism is understood as drawing a line between the known and the unknown without pronouncing any opinion about the accessibility of the latter: it merely states the fact that only a certain kind of knowledge has been reached. Agnosticism, on the other hand, talks nowadays of the knowable and the unknowable, and in doing so brings into the problem the knower himself, a complication which entails also an examination of knowing as a process, and indeed of all that is properly handed over to philosophy--an examination which the scientific man as scientific man is incapable of carrying out. The old Agnostic was what we now call naturalistic: he said nothing about anything being unknowable; his watchword was "Ignoramus"--we are ignorant; but the watchword of the new Agnostic is usually that of Du Bois-Reymond, "Ignoradimus"--we shall remain ignorant. Moreover, Agnosticism and Naturalism have now entered into a general alliance, in which Naturalism has lost its philosophic existence, so far as it possessed one; for the Agnostic repudiates the materialism formerly frankly confessed in naturalistic thought, and classes it with all other "superstitions" about "The unknowable" reality of which phenomena are, as the word tells us, only appearances. The position in this respect of combined Naturalism and Agnosticism is neutral or nihilistic, and therefore unstable: it must, one may dare to say, before long either relapse into materialism or go forward into something else.

Let us bear in mind that this is not science, but a way of regarding knowledge and existence adopted by some scientific men, and then let us inquire whether it stands criticism and is supported by the strength that science has in its own right. Afterwards we may profitably make the further inquiry whether there is anything in science proper that in incongruous with our religion, and, if there is, which of these two great treasures of humanity is in fault.

There are three important theories we must discuss in some detail; they are they following:--
I. The Mechanical Theory of Nature.
II. The Theory of Evolution.
III. The Theory of the Parallelism of Body and Mind.

We will begin with the first--Mechanical Theory of Nature. It amounts to saying that everything in the world may some day be stated in terms of mechanism, and that everything we really know can thus be stated now, the universe being, as a matter of fact, a huge automatic machine. It means, therefore, that the sole and sufficient reasons of all change in the universe are to be sought for and may be found in the motions of matter and its varying arrangement. There is a theory dangerously like this which is held, even nowadays, by many religious people: it is the theory of the government of the world by "laws of Nature" as "instruments of Nature's God," and it exposes its holders to an irresistible attack, for, in its essence, it is an indefensible compromise.

The actual procedure of the physicist in working out his principles differs according to the sort of thing with which he deals. When he is dealing with masses (or lumps) which can be perceived by his senses, e.g., the moon, or a lever, or the bob of a pendulum, he agrees with himself to set aside all the sensible qualities of the thing he deals with and all the innumerable complicating circumstances of its constitution and relations, and to treat it as if it were isolated from external influences and free from internal confusions--which it never can be--and as if it were endowed with no essential properties except what he calls 'mass' (another name for quantity of inertia), and 'mobility.' When he deals with what he supposes these lumps to be made up of--i.e., with insensible masses--his method is in the main not abstract, as in the former case, but idealistic. He postulates to himself invisible, intangible, altogether imperceptible "atoms" or "molecules," which in physics have only a hypothetical existence, and even in chemistry are hardly more than statistical averages; and then he reasons about them as if he knew them by perception. Further, and most importantly for our inquiry, he frequently attributes to the outcome of his reasoning a literal unqualified exactness of statement about them as really existing, which he is aware he could not attain if they were really existing sensible bodies. He confesses that it is impossible to reach exactness in dealing with real moons, and levers, and pendulum-bobs, but he acts as if he had reached it in dealing with the atoms and molecules whose very existence is hypothetical; and as if he were entitled to regard these supposed atoms and molecules thenceforward as on an equality of existence with the pendulum-bobs, but far more amenable to his treatment.

It is a part of the outcome of the abstract method of physics to exclude 'matter,' regarded as substantial, from consideration, quite as rigorously as mind, regarded as substantial, is excluded from consideration by physiology and physiological psychology. In the writings of distinguished physicists we find matter abused as "a metaphysical quagmire" and "a fetish" of the scientific, or rather the unscientific, imagination. We must, therefore, conclude that when the word is used it is either because language is poor, or as a popular way of speaking when the physicist is unbending to the crowd. It is as though the Astronomer-Royal should condescend, while climbing a mountain, to talk of staying on the top to see the sun rise.

There is, then, or so we must take it, no such thing as substantial matter, or if there is we have no scientific means of discovering it.

What are we to say about Force? In modern dynamics force fares no better than matter; it has no real existence at all, it is neither a substance nor a cause: it is brought down to a quantitative 'mass acceleration.' The old definition of it as "whatever changes or tends to change the motion of a body" is swept aside. Force is merely the direction in which and the rate at which a change takes place. It is not more real than matter, although it has not, like matter, been verbally discarded for purposes of calculation.

Physical science is, in fact, getting rid of everything that serves or professes to serve an attempt at diving below the surface of things: it has found its strength and its weakness; it is abandoning the effort it cannot sustain, and contenting itself with doing well what lies ready to hand--the work of describing and mapping out that surface. "I hope," said the German physicist Mach, some years ago, "that the effect, as being formally obscure; and in my feeling that these ideas contain a strong tincture of fetishism I am certainly not alone." This is, in fact, the trend of science, and for following it the scientific man should not be blamed but praised. It is only when he confounds his descriptive apparatus with the actual things it is devised to describe, when he forgets that his application of it to real things is entirely hypothetical, when he makes absolute statements and even formidable deductions from those statements, knowing all the time that his scientific conclusions are only relatively true, and are in relation to real bodies only approximately accurate, that he calls for criticism and rebuke. "Equations, not explanations; approximation, not finality," constitute his work and his attainment in his chosen field. Boltzmann says that "the view [has] gained ground that it cannot be the object of theory [i.e., of science] to penetrate the mechanism of Nature, but merely starting from the simplest assumptions . . . to establish equations as elementary as possible which enable the natural phenomena to be calculated with the closest approximation."

We must go on to discuss in some degree the work of science in 'molecular mechanics,' that is, its dealings with 'atoms and molecules' imperceptible to sense; but this I must reserve for another paper. Meanwhile we may note that so far we have come upon nothing in the nature of an explanation or even a treatment of the problems of existence, of cause, or of purpose; but have unveiled, on the contrary an increasing recognition on the part of scientific men of the fact that these problems lie outside the scope of the science of physics altogether. Since physiology takes physics for granted, this limitation must be borne in mind when discussing its statements; and unless we find that it has acquired power, through its own operation, to deal with them, the disability of physics must stand recorded against it in attempts made in its name to condemn opinions reached by other means, or to offer any explanation deduced from its conclusions alone.