Liberty, Equality, Fraternity



Chapter VII. Conclusion

Thrown into a positive form, the doctrine contended for in the foregoing chapters is this:--
1. The whole management and direction of human life depends upon the question whether or not there is a God and a future state of human existence. If there is a God, but no future state, God is nothing to us. If there is a future state, but no God, we can form no rational guess about the future state.
2. If there is no God and no future state, reasonable men will regulate their conduct either by inclination or by common utilitarianism.
3. If there is a God and a future state, reasonable men will regulate their conduct by a wider kind of utilitarianism.
4. By whatever rule they regulate their conduct, no room is left for any rational enthusiasm, for the order of ideas hinted at by the phrase "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity," for, whichever rule is applied, there are a vast number of matters in respect of which men ought not to be free; they are fundamentally unequal, and they are not brothers at all, or only under qualifications which make the assertion of their fraternity unimportant.

It is impossible to carry on speculations which lead to such results without being led to ask oneself the question whether they are or can be of any sort of, importance? The questions which I have been discussing have been debated in various forms for thousands of years. Is this consistent with the possibility that they can ever be solved, and, if not, why should they be debated by anyone who has no taste for a conflict never ending, still beginning, fighting still, and still destroying?

The answer is, that though these speculations may be expected to be endless, and though their results are mainly destructive, they are nevertheless of great use, and, indeed, are absolutely necessary. They can show that particular sets of opinions are incoherent, and so, properly speaking, not opinions at all. They can cut down to their proper proportions exaggerated estimates of the probability of particular systems and expose their pretensions to attain to something more than probability. Lastly, they can show how particular opinions are related to each other. And this is a wide field. As long as men have any mental activity at all, they will speculate, as they always have speculated, about themselves, their destiny, and their nature. They will ask in different dialects the questions What? Whence? Whither? And their answers to these questions will. be bold and copious, whatever else they may be. It seems to me improbable in the highest degree that any answer will ever be devised to anyone of these questions which will be accepted by all mankind in all ages as final and conclusive. The facts of, life are ambiguous. Different inferences may be drawn from them; and they do not present by any means the same general appearance to people who look at them from different points of view. To a scientific man society has a totally different appearance, it is, as far as he is concerned, quite a different thing, from what it is to a man whose business lies with men.

Again, the largest and by far the most important part of all our speculations about mankind is based upon our experience of ourselves, and proceeds upon the supposition that the motives and principles of action of others are substantially the same as our own. The degree to which tastes of all sorts differ is a standing proof of the truth that this assumption includes an allowance of error, though it is error of a kind from which it is impossible for any human creature to free himself. It would be easy to accumulate other observations of the same sort. It is enough for my purpose to observe in general that mankind appear to me to be in the following difficulty from which I see no means of extrication. Either they must confine their conclusions to matters which can be verified by actual experience, in which case the questions which principally interest them must be dismissed from consideration as insoluble riddles; or they must be satisfied with probable solutions of them, in which case their solutions will always contain a certain degree of error and will require reconstruction from age to age as circumstances change. Moreover, more solutions than one will always be possible, and there will be no means of deciding conclusively which is right. Experience appears to me to show that the second branch of the alternative is the one which will be accepted by mankind, and I think it is the one which reasonable people ought to accept. I think they should accept it openly and with a distinct appreciation of its nature and consequences.

As a matter of fact this conclusion has been and is accepted, though in a strangely inverted form, by many persons whom it would startle. The whole doctrine of faith involves an admission that doubt is the proper attitude of mind about religion, if the subject is regarded from the intellectual side alone. No human creature ever yet preached upon the virtue of faith in Euclid's demonstrations. They, and many other propositions far less cogently supported, speak for themselves. People naturally believe them on the evidence, and do not require to be exhorted to believe them as a matter of religious duty. If a man actually did rise from the dead and find himself in a different world, he would no longer be told to believe in a future state; he would know it. When St. Paul contrasts seeing in a glass darkly with seeing face to face--when he says that now we know in part and believe in part--he admits that belief is not knowledge; and he would have found it impossible to distinguish (at least no one has ever yet established an intelligible distinction) between faith and acting on a probability--in other words, between faith and a kind of doubt. The difference between the two states of mind is moral, not intellectual. Faith says, Yes, I will, though I am not sure. Doubt says, No, I will not, because I am not sure, but they agree in not being sure. Both faith and doubt would be swallowed up in actual knowledge and direct experience.

It is easy to understand why men passionately eager about the propagation of their creed should persistently deny the force of this argument, and should try by every means in their power to prove that in regard to religious subjects insufficient evidence may and ought to produce an unnatural effect. Their object is obvious. If an act is to be done, it is done equally, whatever may be the motive for doing it, and a probable opinion may be an adequate motive as well as demonstration. Perfect certainty of the approach of death, or a doubt whether death may riot be approaching, are states of mind either of which may cause a man to make his will, and when he dies it will be equally valid whether his death was foreseen with confidence or indistinctly apprehended. But it is otherwise with feeling. A general knowledge of the uncertainty of life produces very different feelings from an immediate arid confident expectation of death. In the same way the apprehension that the leading doctrines of religion may be true may be a motive to much the same line of conduct as the most certain conviction that they are true, but it will produce a very different state of mind and feeling. It will give life a very different colour.

This does not justify the atteinpt to give evidence a weight which does not belong to it. Our feelings ought to be regulated by the facts which excite them. It is a great mistake, and the source of half the errors which exist in the world, to yield to the temptation to allow our feelings to govern our estimate of facts. Rational religious feeling is that feeling, whatever it may be, which is excited in the mind by a true estimate of the facts known to us which bear upon religion. If we do not know enough to feel warmly, let us by all means feel calmly; but it is dishonest to try to convert excited feeling into eviderice of facts which would justify it. To say, "There must be a God because I love him," is just like saying, "That man must be a rogue because I hate him," which many people do say, but not wisely. There are in these days many speculations by very able men, or men reputed to be of great ability, which can all be resolved into attempts to increase the bulk and the weight of evidence by heating it with love. Dr. Newman's "Grammar of Assent," with all its hair-splitting about the degrees of assent, and the changes which it rings upon certainty and certitude, is a good illustration of this, but it is like the wriggling. of a worm on a hook, or like the efforts which children sometimes make to draw two straight lines so as to enclose a space, or to make a cross on a piece of paper with a single stroke of a pencil, not passing twice over any part of the cross. Turn and twist as you will, you can never really get out of the proposition that the Christian history is just as probable as the evidence makes it, and no more; and that to give a greater degree of assent to it, or, if the expression is preferred, to give an unreserved assent to the proposition that it has a greater degree of probability than the evidence warrants, is to give up its character as an historical event altogether.

There is, indeed, no great difficulty in showing that we cannot get beyond probability at all in any department of human knowledge. One short proof of this is as follows: The present is a mere film melting as we look at it. Our knowledge of the past depends on memory, our knowledge of the future on anticipation, and both memory and anticipation are fallible. The firmest of all conclusions and judgments are dependent upon facts which, for aught we know, may have been otherwise in the past, may be otherwise in the future, and may at this moment present a totally different appearance to other intelligent beings from that which they present to ourselves. It is possible to suggest hypotheses which would refute what appear to us self-evident truths, even truths which transcend thought and logic. The proposition tacitly assumed by the use of the word "I" may be false to a superior intelligence seeing in each of us, not individuals, but parts of some greater whole. The multiplication table assumes a world which will stay to be counted. "One and one are two" is either a mere definition of the word two, or an assertion that each one is, and for some time continues to be, one. The proposition would never have occurred to a person who lived in a world where everything was in a state of constant flux. It may be doubted whether it would appear true to a being so constituted as to regard the universe as a single connected whole.

But leaving these fancies, for they are little more, it is surely obvious that all physical science is only a probabilty, and, what is more, one which we have no means whatever of measuring. The whole process of induction and deduction rests on the tacit assumption that the course of nature has been, is, and will continue to be uniform. Such, no doubt, is the impression which it makes on us. It is the very highest probability to which we can reach. It is the basis of all systematic thought. It has been verified with wonderful minuteness in every conceivable way, and yet no one has ever been able to give any answer at all to the question, What proof have you that the uniformities which you call laws will not cease or alter to-morrow? In regard to this, our very highest probability, we are like a man rowing one way and looking another, and steering his boat by keeping her stern in a line with an object behind him. I do not say this to undervalue science, but to show the conditions of human knowledge. Nothing can be more certain than a conclusion scientifically established. It is far more certain than an isolated present sensation or an isolated recollection of a past sensation, and yet it is but a probability. In acting upon scientific conclusions we are exposed to a risk of error which we have no means of avoiding and of which we cannot calculate the value. If our conclusions about matters of sense which we can weigh, measure, and handle are only probable, how can speculations, which refer to matters transcending sense, and which are expressed in words assuming sense, be more than probable?

If upon this it is asked whether there is no such thing as certainty? I reply that certainty or certitude (for I do not care to distinguish between words between which common usage makes no distinction) is in propriety of speech the name of a state of mind, and not the name of a quality of propositions. Certainty is the state of mind in which, as a fact, a man does not doubt. Reasonable certainty is the state of mind in which it is prudent not to doubt. It may be produced in many different ways and may relate to every sort of subject. The important thing to remember is the truism that it does not follow that a man is right because he is positive; though it may be prudent that he should be positive, and take the chance of being wrong. The conditions which make certainty reasonable or prudent in regard to particular matters are known with sufficient accuracy for most purposes, though they do not admit of being stated with complete precision; but the certainty which they warrant is in all cases contingent and liable to be disturbed, and it differs in the degree of its stability indefinitely according to circumstances. There are many matters of which we are certain upon grounds which are, and which we know to be, of the most precarious kind. In these cases our certainty might be overthrown as readily as it was established. There are other cases in which our certainty is based upon foundations so broad that, though it is no doubt imaginable that it might be overthrown, no rational man would attach the smallest practical importance to the possibility. No one really doubts of a scientific conclusion if he once really understands what science means. No jury would doubt a probable story affirmed by credible witnesses whose evidence was duly tested. No reasonable man in common life doubts either his own senses or immediate inferences from them, or the grave assertions of persons well known to him to be truthful upon matters within their personal knowledge, and not in themselves as improbable. Yet in each case a modest and rational man would be ready, if he saw cause, to admit that he might be wrong. There is probably no proposition whatever which under no imaginable change of circumstances could ever appear false, or at least doubtful, to any reasonable being at any time or any place.

There is, perhaps, hardly any subject about which so many webs of sophistry have been woven as about this. I cannot notice more than bne of them by way of illustration. It assumes every sort of form, and is exemplified in a thousand shapes in the writings of modern Roman Catholics and of some mystical Protestants. It may be thus stated. Whereas certainty is often produced by probable evidence, and whereas the propositions of which people are rendered certain by probable evidence are frequently true, therefore the weight of the evidence ought not to be taken as a measure of the mental effect which it ought to produce. The fallacy is exactly like the superstition of gamblers--I betted three times running on the red. I felt sure I should win, and I did win, therefore the pretence to calculate chances is idle. What more could any such calculation give anyone than a certitude? I got my certitude by an easier process, and the event justified it. To guess is often necessary. To guess right is always fortunate, but no number of lucky guesses alters the true character of the operation or decreases the insecurity of the foundation on which the person who guesses proceeds.

It may be objected to all this that I have myself referred to some subjects as lying beyond the reach both of language and even of thought, and yet as being matters with which we are intimately concerned--more intimately and more enduringly indeed than with any other matters whatever. How, it may be asked, can you admit that there are matters which transcend all language and all thought, and yet declare that we cannot get beyond probability?

I am, of course, well aware of the fact that a belief in what are sometimes called transcendental facts--facts, that is, of which sensation does not inform us--is frequently coupled with a belief that a certain set of verbal propositions about these facts are not only true, but are perceived to be true by some special faculty which takes notice of them. This has always seemed to be illogical. If there are facts of which we are conscious, and of which sensation does not inform us, and if all our language is derived from and addressed to our senses, it would seem to follow that language can only describe in a very inadequate manner, that it can only hint at and seek to express by metaphors taken from sense things which lie beyond sense. That to which the word "I" points can neither be seen, touched, nor heard. It is an inscrutable mystery; but the image which the word "I" raises in our minds is the image of a particular human body. Indeed, the opinion that the facts with which we are most intimately concerned transcend both language and thought, and the opinion that words, whether spoken or unspoken, can never reach to those facts, or convey anything more than sensible images of them, more or less incorrect, inadequate, and conjectural, are the opposite sides of one and the same opinion. The true inference from the inadequacy of human language to the expression of truths of this class is expressed in the words, "He is in heaven and thou art on earth, therefore let thy words be few." As upon these great subjects we have to express ourselves in a very imperfect way, and under great disadvantages, we shall do well to say as little as we can, and to abstain as far as possible from the process of piling inference upon inference, each inference becoming more improbable in a geometrical ratio as it becomes more remote from actual observation. As we must guess, let us make our conjectures as modest and as simple as we can. A probability upon a probability closely resembles an improbability.

It must never be forgotten that it is one thing to doubt of the possibility of exactly adjusting words to facts, and quite another to doubt of the reality and the permanence of the facts themselves. Though, as I have said, the facts which we see around us suggest several explanations, it is equally true that of those explanations one only can be true. When the oracle said to Pyrrhus "Aio te, AEacida, Romanos vincere posse," it meant, not that he could conquer the Romans, but that the Romans could conquer him, though to Pyrrhus the words would convey either meaning; and, however fully we may admit that the question whether men are spirits or funguses is one which cannot be conclusively determined by mere force of argument, it is perfectly clear that, if the one opinion is true, the other is false. In nearly all the important transactions of life, indeed in all transactions whatever which haye relation to the future, we have to take a leap in the dark. Though life is proverbially uncertain, our whole course of life assumes that our lives will continue for a considerable, though for an indefinite, period. When we are to take any important resolution, to adopt a profession, to make an offer of marriage, to enter upon a speculation, to write a book--to do anything, in a word, which involves important consequences--we have to act for the best, and in nearly every case to act upon very imperfect evidence.

The one talent which is worth all other talents put together in all human affairs is the talent of judging right upon imperfect materials, the talent if you please of guessing right. It is a talent which no rules will ever teach and which even experience does not always give. It often coexists with a good deal of slowness and dulness and with a very slight power of expression. All that can be said about it is, that to see things as they are, without exaggeration or passion, is essential to it; but how can we see things as they are? Simply by opening our eyes and looking with whatever power we may have. All really important matters are decided, not by a process of argument worked out from adequate premisses to a necessary conclusion, but by making a wise choice between several possible views.

I believe it to be the same witb religious belief. Several coherent views of the matter are possible, and as they are suggested by actual facts, may be called probable. Reason, in the ordinary sense of the word, can show how many such views there are, and can throw light upon their comparative probability, by discussing the different questions of fact which they involve, and by tracing out their connection with other speculations. It is by no means improbable that the ultimate result of this process may be to reduce the views of life which are at once coherent and suggested by facts to a very small number, but when all has been done that can be done these questions will remain--What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? Are you a mere machine, and is your consciousness, as has been said, a mere resultant? Is the world a mere fact suggesting nothing beyond itself worth thinking about? These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them. If we decide to leave them unanswered, that is a choice. If we waver in our answer, that too is a choice; but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altbgether on God and the future, no one can prevent him. No one can show beyond all reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise, and acts as he thinks, I do not see how anyone can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best, and if he is wrong so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still, we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road, we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? "Be strong and of a good courage." [1] Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. Above all, let us dream no dreams, and tell no lies, but go our way, wherever it may lead, with our eyes open and our heads erect. If death ends all, we cannot meet it better. If not, let us enter whatever may be the next scene like honest men, with no sophistry in our mouths and no masks on our faces.


1. Deuteronomy, xxxi. 6 and 7. "Be strong and of a good courage, fear not nor be afraid of them." It is the charge of Moses to Joshua.


> Note on Utilitarinism


Revised June 25, 2004.

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