The Faith of Science and the Science of Faith

Charles Carroll Everett, Bangor, Maine

Berry Street Essay, 1868

 

Delivered before the Ministerial Conference

Boston, Massachusetts

May 27, 1868

 

            The words faith and science are often used as if they stood to one another in a relation not merely of antithesis, but in one of opposition and exclusion. We often speak of the realm of faith and the realm of science, as if each was a world by itself. As soon as an object enters the realm of science, we are apt to feel that it has left the realm of faith; and so long as an object remains in the realm of faith, it is felt to be, by that fact, excluded from the realm of science. Many believe that the realm of science is surely and steadily encroaching upon that of faith; and many are looking, some with dread and some with hope, to see the realm of faith becoming smaller and smaller, until at last there will be no place left for it, and science shall reign supreme and alone. Indeed, this antagonism between faith and science is felt by many to constitute the great dramatic or even tragic interest of the present age.

            This whole view, however, is founded upon error. There is no such thing as a realm of science apart from the realm of faith. There is no exclusion or opposition in the relation of science and faith. They have to do with the same facts. They represent simply different sides of the same knowledge. Faith, we may say, furnishes the basis, and science the superstructure; or we may say, furnishes the material, and science elaborates this material into its perfect form. Faith, we may say, is the nebula, and science the completed world which is developed out of it. Or, better still, faith may be represented by the great law of attraction in its varied forms, while science is the solid-seeming world that is bound together and upheld by this. Thus there is no science that does not imply a corresponding faith, and there is no faith that is not capable of a scientific elaboration. The only difference between what we call the realm of science and what we call the realm of faith is, that the realm of faith is the broadest, for the reason that the whole extent of it has not yet been developed into science. So far as science extends, its field is identical with that of faith. The progress of science neither encroaches upon nor limits faith. It simply elaborates more and more of the material of faith into its fitting and true form. But the material is still as truly that of faith, as it was in its simplest and most unformed state. It is because I consider this relation a vital one, that I have selected, or rather accepted, it for my theme on the present occasion. Our great theological necessity is felt to be that of giving to our faith a scientific form; but this work cannot be approached, or its methods considered, without first taking note of the faith which is the basis of what in our common speech we term science. The study of the faith of science is the essential introduction to a comprehension of the nature of the science of faith.

            The faith on which the magnificent structure of our science rests is twofold, or rather it acts in a manner which may be best considered under two distinct heads. In the

first place, it gives to science the real world which is its field. I need not spend many words to illustrate the fact, which is recognized even by our most simple and primary works on metaphysics, that we have only certain sensations, which we organize into a world. We cannot by any reasoning get beyond these. Every man carries his own world in his own brain. The mountains, the oceans, the stars, the cities, the men he meets, the heroes that he honors, whether of the past or the present, -- these are all the scenery and the inhabitants of his own mind. It is only by faith that he gives to these an outward reality. He does this for no reason, but simply because he cannot help it. Their objective reality can neither be proved nor disproved. The belief in it is above, or beneath, all proof. It is stronger even than the instinct of life. I need not illustrate this by reference to the fact, that a man will die for one of these phantoms of his brain. We need simply refer to the fact, that the man believes himself, in any way and to any degree, mortal. Because these figures that fit across the inner world which he carries with him pass at last and do not return, he believes that he also shall pass and shall not return. Because the figures that take part in these tragic or comic scenes die, the great stage and theatre shall also disappear. In a word, the man puts himself, for life or for death, upon a level with this population of his own mind, with this creation of his own thought. This unconscious condescension shows how strong is the faith which gives to us the real world of things, of persons and events, -- which is a world of faith, and faith only. It may be remarked, in passing, that the truth that has just been referred to shows how impossible it is for the mind ever to receive any proof from the outward world that shall disturb its faith in its own immortality; for

"The mind is like the sky,--

Than all it holds more deep, more high.”

 

            If the reality of the outward world, and thus the very field and material of science, is given by faith, no less does faith, in the second place, furnish the methods of science. Science is a constant progress from the seen to the unseen. By the mighty instrumentality of induction, it makes the little knowledge that upon experience the basis of a vaster knowledge, that stretches far beyond the reach of any possible experience. From a few cases it reasons to all similar cases. From the past it reasons to the future. It is as confident in regard to the future, as it is in regard to the past; as confident in regard to the facts it has not witnessed, as in regard to those that are most familiar to its experience. By what right does it thus pass from the few to the many, from the seen to the unseen, from the past to the future? Hume affirmed that the mind had no such right and power; yet the mind continually exercises this right and this power. What, then, is the basis of our faith in the inductions of science? It is interesting to see how loath the human mind is to give up belief in outward foundations and supports, and the naïve confidence with which it assumes them. Nothing is more natural than the Hindoo theory, that the earth rests upon an elephant, and the elephant upon a tortoise; or than that of the old lady who believed that the earth rested upon a rock, and that upon another, and that there were rocks all the way down. The mind naturally assumes a foundation, and it is long before the question forces itself, "Upon what does this foundation rest?” so it lays rocks beneath the earth, or places a patient elephant beneath it; it forms crystal spheres to support the stars, and thinks that all is firmly based. We can now hardly realize the importance of the revolution by which the mind reaches the conviction, that there is no outward support for any thing; that there is no point of rest in all the material universe; that every thing floats, if that can be said to float that is not even upheld by any medium; that sun and moon and stars, and the earth itself, move through the infinite space upheld by nothing; that there is no arch for the stars, no pillars for the earth; that there is only vacancy above and below every thing. A revolution similar to this has yet to be accomplished in the world of mind and the spirit. We return to the question, On what rests our faith in the inductions of science? John Stuart Mill affirms, with naïve simplicity like that of the old lady who thought that there were rocks all the way down, that faith in induction rests upon induction; in other words, that there is induction all the way down. He says this with some slight circumlocution indeed, but this is the condensed substance of his statement.[i] I know not whether the view of such a mighty intellect, resting so unquestioningly on such a baseless series of foundations, should make us more or less reliant upon the results of our own thoughts. And there is nothing that shows how natural it is for men to assume foundations without asking what they rest upon, than the fact that so many accept this statement as all-sufficient; that so many, in fact, cannot be made to see why the statement, that faith in induction rests upon induction, does not explain every thing completely.

            The simple fact is, the mind has the instinct of generalization. Just as it cannot help looking through the eyes, and believing what it sees; so it cannot help generalizing, and believing in the results of its generalization. This instinct, then, and the unquestioning and often unconscious faith that we have in it, is the only basis of the mighty world of our modern science. But does not our faith in this rest on our experience of its reliability? Yes; but what is experience but prolonged induction? And why do we trust to experience? Or shall we say that it experience all the way down?

            There have been times when there was much discussion in regard to innate truths. Some affirmed them in almost unlimited profusion; some denied them altogether. The latter asked how they were packed away in the mind; and why, if they were innate. Each party was partially right and partially wrong. Strictly speaking, we have no innate truths. We have instincts which come to consciousness at different periods of the spirit’s growth. Each of these instincts implies – if it be reliable – a certain construction of the outer world, and a certain construction of the outer world, and a certain relation to it of the individual. The instinct being given, a competent mind could deduce from it this group of circumstances and relations. Thus the faith that we have in any instinct implies, when it is fully developed into consciousness, faith in a certain truth which is the basis and the end of this instinct. Thus there is latent in every instinct, involved in it, implied by it, an idea that may sooner or later reach its consciousness. Thus, if we use the terms "innate ideas,” and are asked where they were at first stored in the mind, we must say that first they exist potentially in the form of instincts, as the destined flower and fruit exist potentially in the germ. The idea or truth that is involved in the instinct of generalization is this, -- that the world is a systematic and organized whole. If this were not so, the instinct of generalization would only deceive us. As the plant slowly but surely reaches its flowering, so does this instinct slowly but surely attain to the full consciousness of this idea. It is helped to this by experience; but yet it is itself the implied, though not always recognized, basis of faith in experience. And it is a most marked and important fact in this connection, that the first distinct utterance of this truth was in defiance of experience. The Eleatics affirmed the One. They did not seek to reconcile the many with this, -- to find a unity in the manifold. They simply denied the many. They denied all the results of experience. There was no manifold. There was no motion. The senses deceive. There is only the One. Thus did the grand truth of the absolute unity, in its first historic utterance, set itself up against the concrete world of experience, and attempt to sweep it utterly out of existence with a proud denial. The task of philosophy and of science ever since has been to reconcile this unity and this diversity, to find unity in the diversity, and to look upon the manifold as one. The unity for which it has sought is the unity of an organic wholeness. The faith in the reality of this has been its life and its inspiration. The faith in the reality of this has gained clearness and strength by all the magnificent triumphs of its inductive methods; but, consciously or unconsciously expressed or implied, it at first prompted and gave authority to these methods. For without the instinct of generalization, and faith in this instinct, though every fact in the universe of all past time were known, we could not reason in regard to a single fact of the future, any more than the duck could swim even though you threw it into the water, or the bird could fly though you threw it into the air, unless each had the fitting instinct and instrument. Rightly looked upon, there is hardly any thing in the whole reach of our knowledge sublimer than this faith, by means of which the magnificent world of modern science floats unsupported, and needing no support, self-buoyed, and self-sufficient. And how ridiculous does this sublimity make that arrogance appear which would boast of the solid foundations of science, in opposition to the baselessness of faith! So one might – mocking at the things that are invisible – stamp his foot, and say that he would accept nothing less solid, visible, and tangible than this material world; yet how foolish does he look when we picture him to ourselves clinging to the outside of this little spinning ball of thinly crusted fire, whirling through space with a swiftness that his thought cannot conceive, with only the infinite depths of nothingness beneath him, yet boasting of the solid ground on which he stands. Truly he has a solid support beneath him. But his ultimate reliance is not on that which is visible and tangible: it is on the mighty though invisible forces that sustain this. So foolish is the pride of one who might contemptuously compare faith with science. The world of science of science is a world of faith. It rests on no other foundation, is held together by no other power. But therefore it is that its foundation is so secure. Therefore it is that it moves on its way with the unconscious confidence of the round world itself.

            The faith, then, which is the basis of science, which at first exists unconsciously in the simple instinct of generalization, and which at last, by the aid of experience, though always far in advance of experience, reaches its full consciousness, is the faith that the universe is a perfect and organic whole. The faith which is the basis of religion and of theology is only the extension and completion of this. It is the faith, namely, that this whole is animated and governed by a power of good; that every thing is working out some good end; and that all things are uniting, or will be made to unite, in the accomplishment of this one purpose of goodness. Though this faith comes comparatively slowly to its full consciousness, though it struggles up at first like an untimely plant struggling with bitter winds and biting frosts, yet it has its root very deep in our original nature. We find it implied in the earliest and most fundamental instincts of the race. Indeed the free, undoubting, glad obedience to any natural instinct implies this faith. Still more is it implied by the more special religious and moral instincts. The instinct of worship; the instinct of prayer; the instinct of trust; the power of conscience, in which the good asserts, by an undoubting instinct, its supremacy, approving or condemning all things as a divinely appointed judge, -- all of these imply the supremacy of goodness in the universe, and when fully developed, assisted by experience, though still far in advance of experience unite and culminate in a conscious faith in this supremacy. The development of this faith is often hindered, and its purity marred, by the mingling of other and lower sentiments and instincts with these. Personal fear long holds back this trusting confidence, refusing to be wholly guided and comforted by it. The sense of personal ill-desert shrinks from faith in this infinite and all-ruling goodness, which it feels must be just, because it is good. The imperfection of the moral sense blurs the beauty of the ideal of perfect goodness; for it knows not really what it shall call wholly good, or what it shall seek in seeking for it. In all this, religious faith finds its parallel in what we have called the faith of science; and indeed the history of the one finds its analogon at every step in the history of the other, with this difference, -- that the faith of science has reached a point of development far in advance of that which religious faith has yet reached. Indeed, it is only yet reaching, and that very slowly, the general recognition of its foundation principle, -- a principle which Jesus announced eighteen hundred years ago, but which became speedily hidden and lost, like a little leaven buried in the mass, which is to be transformed by it into its own likeness.

            As the faith of science made its first utterance of itself in the face of experience, and as ever since it has been strongest in the face of facts that seem most to oppose it, apparent lawlessness only rousing it to seek, with fresh confidence and zeal, the laws which it knew must exist in spite of apparent lawlessness, -- so faith in the perfect goodness which arranged, and which guides, and is present in, all things is often strongest when all experience would seem to oppose it most. As the Eleatics sweep away the universe that the One might exist in its absolute unity, so theologians have swept goodness out of the world, that the one good might not have any connection with, and thus no stain or dishonor from, this world, that has so much of evil in it; and often, when apparent evil presses most closely about the soul, does it have most faith in the infinite good. When the outward world satisfies, the soul often rests content without the conscious impulse to look beyond, and to explain the little evil that it may find: but when in the outer world evil seems to overbalance the good; when the life, stripped by loss and overshadowed by sorrow, seems to have nothing left; or when the outward life itself, passed perhaps in weariness and sorrow, has reached its extreme limit, and there seems no outward hope possible, -- then how often does this faith in the perfect goodness assert itself with a mighty recoil, and the soul cry, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”!

            As the faith of science, drunken, we might almost say, with its own self-confidence, has constructed wild and baseless systems of philosophy; as with more sober thought it has constructed systems of the physical universe, of wheels within wheels, spheres upon spheres, cycles and epicycles, in which systems of philosophy and systems of the physical universe there was nothing true but this, that the universe is a perfect and systematic whole, -- so the faith in the absolute Goodness has sought to realize itself in many a strange and fantastic form. It has reeled through wild creeds and systems and theologies; it has devised hells of endless flame, to burn up or burn for ever the evil that it found; it has framed schemes compared with which the science of the astronomers with its dizzy cycles and epicycles were simplicity, that by means of them the perfect good might be seen to accomplish itself in the world: and when it could do no better, and saw no other outlet or escape; when it had found or established an infinite and endless evil, -- even then this faith could not be quieted or repressed; and, seeing nothing else left for it, it has bowed before the infinite evil, and said, "Since this is supreme, it must be good: let us worship it.”

            But though faith in the perfect goodness slowly struggles into consciousness out of darkness and uncertainty, though, at first, belief in this rests side by side with other beliefs, to be discussed in connection with these or apart from them, so that men may assume the existence of god, and yet question whether or not he is good, -- yet by slow degrees it assumes the leading place: until at last, as in science the faith in the unity of the universe and the omnipresence of law comes to be the one truth in which all other truths find their place and their support; so in religion faith in the absoluteness and the supremacy of good comes to be recognized as the one truth, in which all others find their place and their support.

            Few facts are more striking than the manner in which men will use a word, confident that it has a meaning, long before they know clearly what its meaning is. Thus men used the word "cause,” divining its meaning, although they could not tell what it was, and although the clearest thinkers denied that it had any meaning like that which they supposed; until, within a few years, science, by the discovery of the conservation of force and the correlation of forces, has showed us what is the real meaning of the word "cause.: so men used the word "faith,” with vague and varying meaning; but so soon as we recognize the supremacy and absoluteness of goodness as the one central and all-embracing religious truth, we know what is the meaning of the word "faith.” Faith is confidence. We have faith in that in which we have confidence. You may believe that the bridge you are crossing is not strong enough to support you, yet you would not say you had faith in the weakness of the bridge. If you have any faith in it, it is in its strength. We see this expressed in one of those Bible definitions which we grow so slowly to comprehend, -- "Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” Thus one may have faith in a future in which every spirit shall have a loving providence still watching over it, guiding its feet through whatever paths may lead it soonest home; but, though one may believe in endless misery, it can never be an object of faith. So one may have faith in the integrity of human nature, but one cannot have faith in its depravity.

            Faith having this meaning, we understand how there is one absolute religion. We speak of religions as existing side by side, as being true or false; we reckon up the number of religions in the world: but there is but one religion, and all forms of religion, so called, are speculatively religious or irreligious according to the degree in which they express or fail to express this. So far as any belief is faith in an all-ruling and all-overruling goodness, so far it is religious. So far as it throws doubt upon this or denies it, so far it is irreligious. The religion of the intellect is this recognition of goodness. The irreligion of the intellect is the denial of this. This denial, if it apes religious forms, we call superstition; and superstition bears the same relation to religion that the dreams of the alchemist do to science. To one who has seen clearly that religion is this faith in an absolute goodness, the nature of religion can never again be a matter of doubt. He may, perhaps, lose this faith: if he does, he loses his religion. But the question as to what religion teaches on this point, the question between a true religion and a false religion, can never again arise.

            We thus see the possibility of the science of religious faith, and also what must be the nature of this science. As physical science forms itself about faith in the absolute order, so religious science gathers about faith in the absolute goodness. Whatever must necessarily result from this goodness, it affirms; whatever absolutely contradicts this, it denies: and it assumes without question whatever must be assumed, in order to reconcile known and finite facts with the belief in the infinite goodness. Where it sees mystery, it believes that this is only a veil concealing the perfect goodness; as physical science sees in any mystery only its own ignorance of the law that rules there. And when this science of faith doubts of its results, its only doubt is whether the reality be not something better that it has dreamed.

            The science of faith has vast and varied content. It exalts itself to a sublime and sweet mysticism. If the infinite good is working over all and in all, then it must be working over and in us. This infinite good cannot be blind, cannot be cold; it cannot be senseless. The very word implies, in some vast sense, a purpose, a providence, a love. Our very being must have its root in this, and so far as it is real, must be one of its channels or manifestations. The truth of immorality is found in it; for if we believe

 

"that nothing walks with aimless feet,” –

 

we cannot believe that the feet of loving, aspiring, hoping, suffering, sorrowing mortals tend only to the darkness and nothingness of the grave; but as when, in wandering through same unknown country, we see a road beaten with much travel, leading down to the shore of a river, and into the river, and lost there, we do not doubt that a road emerges also from the other side, and that between them, uniting them, is a ferry or a ford, -- so we know that the road which leads to the river of death emerges on the other side. And, again, if we believe

"that nothing walks with aimless feet,”—

 

still less can we believe that the feet of any spirit are guided across the river of death only to be led at last to the lake that burneth, for ever. We see also how the science of faith involves faith in human nature, faith in the great movements of history, faith in the struggles of human thought and of human life.

            I repeat that it must not be supposed that we at first reach these special truths by reasoning from this general faith in the absolute goodness. As faith in the organic unity and completeness of the world is involved in, and evolved out of, the half-conscious instinct if trust in the outer world, of confidence in the teachings of experience, or, in a word, the instinct of generalization; although at last this complete and conscious faith gives to this original instinct a logical basis, and clears it from much confusion, and guides it in safe paths, -- so the faith in the absolute goodness is involved in, and evolved out of, the instinct of trust, by which man has in every age approached the outer universe, confident that in some way its nature is akin to his nature, the instinct of worship, the instinct of prayer, the instinct that looks beyond the barrier of death, and the instinct of conscience; although at last it rounds these into a whole, gives them a logical foundation, frees them from darkness and superstition, and leads them to the perfect goal towards which in their weakness and their blindness they were tending.

            But though, like the faith in the perfect order and unity of the world, the faith in the perfect goodness is in a sense self-supported, yet like that it has many confirmations. It is confirmed by the wise guidance of history, in which it sees how evil in the long-run is lost in the good, and has been indeed the instrument of the good. It finds confirmation in the secret history of many a life, in which events that seemed the darkest and saddest were yet transmuted into the best blessings. Indeed, what soul cannot see where sorrow and failure and disappointment, those things which we call evil, were really working out the best good for it; or, if they did not result in this, that it was alone to blame. All such experience illustrates and confirms the faith, that it is the inner nature of all things to be transformed into blessing.

            It finds confirmation in physical science. While every instinct of plant or animal has its correlative reality outside of it; while every hunger has somewhere its appropriate food; while every rootlet has somewhere its appropriate soil; while, if there should float hither, from some other planet, a bit of feather, you would not doubt that there was an atmosphere there, -- it cannot be

 

"that every chick of every bird,

And weed and rock-moss, are preferred;”

 

and that the most deeply rooted, the most universal, and the sublimest instincts of man were given him in vain; that he has the hungering after the infinite good, when there is no good to satisfy it; that he "sits here shaping wings to fly,” when there is no space and no atmosphere anywhere in which he may use these wings. Indeed, the faith of science and religious faith imply and complete one another; and though now we have to take each to a certain extent by itself, and compare the one with the other, it will doubtless at some time be seen that the two are really one; that there is but one faith and one science.

            Religious faith finds also confirmation in the faith and testimony of the truest and best souls, in the fact that the loftier and truer and more natural the soul, the more clearly does it discern the perfect goodness that is in and over all things; that Jesus, the loftiest and the best, saw this the most clearly; nay, -- and this will show us the circle in which we are moving, and the self-supporting nature of this faith – that we recognize him as the loftiest and the best, because he saw this the most clearly, and lived more than any other in the consciousness of it.

            We see thus the relation of authority to the science of faith. That voice has most authority to the soul which calls forth the fullest and strongest response from its best instincts and impulses. This is what Jesus meant when he said, "My sheep hear my voice.” We often speak as if the Book of Genesis related the story of the creation. It does not profess to do this. It puts the fact of the creation far back, "in the beginning.” Its story begins when God said, "Let there be light.” Its story is not of creation, but of formation. So many seem to believe that Jesus created the world of our religious faith and confidence, and that this rests suspended only by the fiat of his will; but the spiritual heaven and earth were also created in the beginning. The gospel tells no story of of this first formation. But, though this world had been created, it "was without form and void, and darkness rested on the face of the deep;” and, though the spirit of God moved over the face of the waters, it found no rest or recognition. The darkness comprehended it not. But God, through the lips of Jesus, said, "Let there be light; and there was light.” The world rounded itself into completeness, and clothed itself with beautiful life. The clear heavens wrapped it in, and the light of the sun glorified it. It is no wonder that this should seem to us like a creation.

            I have compared in many points what, for convenience, I have called physical science – though the name does not properly include all I would include in it – and the science of religious faith. There is one point of great difference. The former finds its strength in the minuteness of its application. The more thoroughly and definitely it can explain every little fact, the more perfect is it. The science of faith finds its strength in the largeness of its application. It believes that all is for the best. Experience, in many ways, confirms this faith; but when it attempts to show, in regard to every thing, just how it is for the best, it falls into guesses and dreams. Its scope, in regard to details, is rather practical than theoretical. It is safer when it urges that we should make the best of this and that, than when it undertakes to say precisely what God meant by this or that; although, now and then, even this last flashes into the light of certainty.

            But though the science of faith is, like physical science, confined within circumscribed limits, yet our outward life and our inward life are both made up largely of what is not strictly scientific. It is stated, I know not with what truth, that the greatest naturalist of the country never makes a prophecy in regard to the weather, for the reason that the science of meteorology is not in a state to justify such prophecy. In fact we have no scientific right to predict a change of weather; yet much of our life is shaped and guided by such foreknowledge. So, in our spiritual life, we may admit much that is not absolutely scientific, provided it does not contradict the fundamental principles of the science of faith. There is left space for the play of imagination, for the dreams of hope. One individual, or one class of individuals, will need and will use this privilege more than another. One, for instance, will look forward with a simple and quiet faith into the future, content to know simple and quiet faith into the future, content to know simply that love is immortal and infinite; another will love to shape a heaven, and fill it with fair shapes of blessedness. Thus, while one may be calm in the simplicity of his great hope, the other may be buoyant and enthusiastic, fired by the prospect that stretches in clear outline and coloring before him. They are like an elder and a younger brother approaching together the home they love. One walks with quiet and sober tread; the other leaps and dances along his way. The older seems to the younger cold and indifferent; the younger seems to the older childish and uncontrolled. But they are brothers. With equal love and equal longing they are approaching the same home, and the same love is waiting to greet them both.

 

 


 

[i] His words are: "Whatever be the most proper mode of expressing it, the proposition that the course of nature is uniform is the fundemantal principle, or general axiom, of Induction. It would yet be a great error to offer this large generalization as any explanation of the inductive process. On the contrary, I hold it to be itself an instance of induction by no means of the most obvious kind.” – Logic, book iii. chap. 8, 1.

      He further explains his meaning thus: "We arrive at this universal law [of causation] by generalization from many laws of inferior generality. The generalizing propensity, which, instinctive or not, is one of the most powerful principle of our nature, does not indeed wait for the period when such a generalization becomes strictly experienced, doubtless led men to believe that every thing had a cause, before they could have conclusive evidence of that truth. But even this cannot be supposed to have happened until many cases of causation, or, in other words, many partial uniformities of sequence, had become familiar.” –

Ib. chap. xxi. 1.