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Meditation 567
Views of an Agnostic
Ultimate Cause

by: Ross E. Browne

This is part 7 of Ross E. Browne's 1915 book, Views of an Agnostic.

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In our search for truth, sooner or later, we come to recognize the limitation of our capacity. We realize that in whichever direction the mind may penetrate, it finally encounters a point beyond which there appears a realm of mystery, in which the imagination may wander, but reason is balked. We may, from time to time, extend our knowledge a little further, but there is then exposed to view further mystery, and we can see no prospect of ever being able to penetrate to the bottom of things.

It is a common assumption that the mysteries encountered in the progress of analysis indicate one all-pervading, infinite cause; but we have sought knowledge in many directions, and have encountered many mysteries, indicating primarily many causes, and there appears no sufficient foundation in fact for the claim that these many causes originate from one cause. Spencer, in his “First Principles,” concludes, after an elaborate argument, that there exists behind all things one “Inscrutable Power.” The greater past of his argument is manifestly sound, and I was predisposed to accept the conclusion of his masterful mind; but I have somehow failed to follow his final step. It seems to me like a compromise with a view opposed to the strong point of his argument. The latter point is clearly to the effect that it is absolutely impossible to know anything whatever of the origin or nature of the causes of the phenomena we witness. A very considerable knowledge of the origin is implied in the conclusion that every phenomenon is traceable back to one and the same cause. This may be offered as a plausible surmise, but I do not see how it can be justified as a conclusion of reason. It may have been the intuitive belief of both Spencer and his opponents in argument, and therefore a proper article of faith upon which to compromise, but it does not constitute a necessary belief. Personally, I do not seem to have any intuitive opinion in the matter, one way or the other.

It is true that we recognize a certain order in the sequences of natural phenomena which suggests design, and design implies one Dominant Intelligent Power. Many experiences may be interpreted in a vague way to support the implication. For example, the convertibility of different forms of energy leads to the idea that all existing forms of energy may originate from one primary form. Again, the tendency of many modern chemists and physicists is to believe in ultimate subdivisions of matter of uniform character, and that these are differently grouped to constitute the various atoms of substance which we have heretofore regarded as composed of entirely distinct materials. The study of evolution leads us to believe that all living organisms, however complex and widely divergent, are derived from elementary cells of the same nature. There are many principles which were formerly conceived to be distinct laws, but are now recognized as special cases of more general laws. There appear, in many ways, marked tendencies toward simplification ‘or unification of causes.

On the other hand, there appear many tendencies toward complication. Assuming one original form of energy, and one primary element of substance, there are apparently many causes involved in producing the variety of forms and various elements as they now appear. In the progress of investigation we often recognize an apparently simple cause of an effect, but upon closer scrutiny we find the effects of many minor influences, and the longer we study the occurrence the more complex it becomes-the greater the number of causes we recognize as being involved.

We can know nothing about the origin of what appear to us as various causes. Whenever in the progress of analysis we reach a point where sheer mystery prevails, the rational attitude toward the condition of affairs beyond is that of simple ignorance. Our foundation for theorizing in the matter is entirely unstable.

All that we may legitimately claim to recognize is the existence, within the limits of our experience, of many persistent causes which produce invariable effects so far as we are able to determine, and we call these the laws of nature. They appear to be supreme. All we know concerning them is derived empirically from the results they produce. We have acquired #some knowledge of the terms of these laws, but have no clew to the underlying principles. We are, for example, familiar with the approximate terms of the law of gravity, in so far as this law concerns the changes of weight of bodies under observed conditions, but the immediate cause of weight is quite as mysterious to us as it ever was, and if in future we learn something .of this cause there will doubtless remain quite as great a mystery beyond. There is no end to the difficulty in the way of complete understanding, and there is no satisfaction in the speculation. All we need assume for our practical guidance is that the laws of nature, together with all present matter and energy, have existed and will persist as they now are through all time that may concern us. Even this assumption we are only justified in making as a convenient working hypothesis.

The prevailing belief in a Designer of all things, in the form of a Supernatural Personal God with infinite intelligence and power and some of the higher attributes of man, such as the feeling of love and sense of justice, is evidently not based upon verifiable facts. The conception is in some respects inconsistent with the facts as we know them. How could a just and loving Father deliberately plan the innumerable cruelties we witness in animal life? In view of the prevailing-habits of torturing, slaying and feeding upon the carcasses of one another, how may we justify the assumption of the above attributes of the Designer. Besides, a controlling design, implying an all-powerful intelligent Ruler, is but one of several conceptions that may as readily be formed. There may be a designer of limited power and his inability to overcome existing laws may account for the injustices of which we complain. Or there may be various independent causes, which, in combination, without design, produce the ,great variety of occurrences we witness, including the many apparent incongruities and the many things which appear to us frivolous and without rational purpose.

Those among us who have no intuitive conviction in the matter naturally discredit any definite theory, or any attribute assigned to the Unknown. The beauties and wonders of nature excite our ardent admiration and our profound respect for the powers which produce them. We acquire many vague impressions which we are not able to interpret. They lead us to no tangible conception of the origin of things. The foundations are hopelessly out of reach, and man’s futile attempts at explanation, when we regard them seriously, all appear more or less childish.

Whatever be our conjecture, it is plain that we know nothing about fundamental causes, and the candid recognition of this ignorance is what Huxley called “agnosticism.” Its profession is a mere matter of intellectual integrity.