Views of an Agnostic
by: Ross E. Browne
The next several Meditations will contain the full text of Ross E Browne's brief book "Views of an Agnostic, originally published in 1915. Much of what he has to say stands the test of time and, in my view, is still relevant today.
At the age of 66 years I find myself possessed of certain articles of faith and philosophic views, which, however lacking in originality, have gradually become my own by virtue of the processes of absorption and assimilation. It is now quite impossible to trace each idea involved back to the particular authority from whom it was derived.
Although continuously engaged during many years in the practical business of engineering, there has somehow clung to me the natural interest of the younger student in such subjects, as the supremacy of the laws of nature, the existence of, a personal God, the freedom of the will, and the immortality of the soul.
We are not qualified to determine conclusively the truth in these matters, yet we commonly entertain opinions concerning them. In early youth our imaginations were worked upon, we were influenced to adopt specific beliefs regarding the unknown, and we absorbed some ill-founded theories which are difficult to eradicate.
The student of science learns to discredit a theory which is not logically based on known facts. He finds that it is not justified simply because it seems desirable and no one can prove it to be false. He gradually comes to feel that, in the search for truth, the burden of affirmative proof should bear upon the advocate of a proposition, and this persuasion leads him to assume attitudes toward many prevailing beliefs which appear to others over-skeptical.
My sympathies are first with the devotees of the better-founded sciences, and then with that modern school of philosophers who base their views mainly upon the results of scientific research-the school so ably represented in the past generation by such men as Spencer, Darwin, Tyndall, Huxley, and others of like tendency.
Recently I read with much interest an able work on “The Churches and Modern Thought,” by Philip Vivian. It presents quite fully the rationalistic doctrines of the day. I noticed only one of these which appears to me distinctly detrimental to the cause which Mr. Vivian represents. It is to the effect that there is no such thing as free will. This denial means in plain language the upholding of fatalism, or what Huxley calls conscious automatism, the assumption that we are mere machines governed by invariable laws, and are unable to deviate from a line fixed in advance. As we are now constituted this doctrine is antipathetic to purpose and resolve. It is .not an encouraging offer to, the proposed convert to rationalism. How may we expect to arouse endeavor by preaching fore-ordainment? If we say “You cannot deviate from a fixed line ahead,” the natural reply is “Then why bother myself with the effort to shape my future?” Any explanation we may offer will appear lame.
If, however, deemed to be true, the doctrine must be accepted, for to shirk the truth is against the most fundamental precept of the school. I am practically wedded to the school, but am not as yet persuaded that any positive conviction in the above matter is warranted. The doctrine, while exceedingly plausible, is based upon an hypothesis which has not been verified by competent test. My precept is “Hold to an instinct until clearly shown to be fallacious.” I instinctively assume voluntary power and there appears no reason so conclusive as to induce me to abandon the assumption. In view of Mr. Vivian’s attitude in this matter, his pleading seems inconsistent. The fatalist cannot plead with good grace.
Spencer points out the unwisdom of, any sudden and radical disturbance of existing religious beliefs. The process of emancipation from such beliefs is perhaps already quite as rapid as may be beneficial to the masses. There are, however, many intelligent people who are well prepared to derive a material benefit from views which are more in accord with known facts. It is to these that works like that of Mr. Vivian are properly addressed. But the majority of believers are prone to ignore expressions of adverse opinion, and the real reform is being carried on by the unostentatious scientists, who, by their work, are slowly but surely undermining the superstitions of the masses without directly attacking them. Before we shall be able to forecast the ultimate effect upon the race there are many questions to be answered. Among these is the one above referred to. What will become of the doctrine of fatalism toward which the present work of the scientist seems to be definitely tending ? If the doctrine is finally to prevail, what will be its effect upon the aspirations of the people?
We are not now able to answer such questions satisfactorily. All we may do is to recognize their bearing upon the future welfare of the race, and to be guarded against too ready an acceptance of a doctrine so definitely opposed to our instinctive perceptions. It was this view which led me to write the following pages.