Considered in itself Skepticism implies (1) Continuous search, (2) Suspense, or so much of it as is needful as an incentive to search. This is the literal meaning of the word as well as its general signification in Greek philosophy. We thus perceive that the Skeptic is not the denier or dogmatic Negationist he is commonly held to be. Positive denial is as much opposed to the true Skeptical standpoint as determinate affirmation. One as well as the other implies fixity and finality. Each, when extreme and unconditional, makes a claim to omniscience. … Whatever meaning, therefore, his readers may have been accustomed to attach to the more common Sceptic, etc., he begs them to understand that a Skeptic in these volumes is above all things an inquirer. He is the indomitable, never-tiering searcher after truth — possible one who believes, at least on who affects, search more than he does absolutely definitive attainment.
Genuine Skepticism may be regarded from two standpoints. 1. In relation to dogma, it is the antithetical habit which suggests investigation—the instinct that spontaneously distrusts both finality and infallibility as ordinary attributes of truth. It inculcates caution and wariness as against the confidence, presumption, self-complacent assurance of Dogmatists. Thus interpreted, it is needless to point out the importance of its functions. A history of doubters and free-thinkers is in fact the history of human enlightenment. Every advance in thought or knowledge has owed its inception and impulse to inquiring doubt. Hence it would be idle to deny or attempt to minimize the historical importance of Skepticism, or the perennial antagonism between doubt and dogma — the dynamic and static principles of all human knowledge.
But in double-truth as in most other forms of mental eccentricity we must take some notice of ‘the personal equation,’ by which I mean the special differences and idiosyncrasies that exist between one man and another in respect of intellectual conformation. There are intellects, e.g. so intensely, I might say morbidly, synthetic, that they insist on acquiring demonstrated certitude at whatever cost. This type of mind must needs set itself to evolve unity from multiplicity, harmony from dissonance, light from a juxtaposition of shadows, without considering how far its self-imposed task is feasible or how far it is in agreement with the constitution of the universe. In the determination to acquire undoubted conviction, no labour is spared and no expense regarded. Subordinate convictions are ruthlessly thrust aside, objections are ignored, disingenuous methods resorted to, in order to obtain and definitively pronounce on certitude… [Dr. Newman’s] processes are irregular, inconsistent, self-contradictory, of impossible application to any other subject than that of mystical dogmatism. His conclusions, on the other hand, are brilliantly clear, vivid, unmistakable. His mental evolution stands forth like a mountain whose summit is lit up by a warm glow of sunshine, while the sides and base are enshrouded in darkness. Minds of this class appear to me dominated by a sort of religious or spiritual ambition which is just as selfish, audacious, unscrupulous, and unpitying as any other kind of ambition. A man who overturns all reasoning processes, who makes a chaos of human methods, who stultifies the lessons of history for the purpose of boasting a light which to his neighbours is only a deceptive ignis fatuus, is not unlike Napoleon, who forced his way through cruelty and bloodshed to attain a crown. Such men forget that the infallibility, the unity, and harmony they have achieved so recklessly suggest to the more cautious spectator division and dissonance. They forget that their shield has two sides, and if certainty is emblazoned on one, doubt is conspicuously legible on the other, and that the real Skepticism of their methods, the profound distrust of human reason which marks them, is only dimly veiled by the vaunted infallibility of their conclusions.
Regarded merely as mental states, there is an enormous difference in the attitude of a man who is engaged in demonstrating a problem of Euclid, and of the same man offering up prayer for the life of a beloved child. The contrast is not merely between the intellectual object gained and the emotional object sought for, but extends itself more particularly to the subjective mood involved in either case. On the one hand there is a consciousness of certitude, on the other hand a painful feeling of incertitude. Nor is this difference between intellection and emotion greatly modified even when both become equal states of certitude. The conviction, e.g. of a geometrical truth, is of a totally different kind from the emotional assurance which the father feels when he knows that the fever crisis is past, and that in all human probability his child will be spared to him. Now it is the characteristic of most religious beliefs that they professedly belong to the regions both of feeling and intellectual conviction. First imparted by authority parental or otherwise, they are confirmed by long association, and are protected and enhanced by the various sacred and subtle influences that invest all religious beliefs. With this peculiar prestige they take their places among the numberless unanalyzed concepts and opinions that form the general stock of human convictions. Ordinarily they never advance beyond this elementary stage, at least in reality, though in many cases the emotional basis of religious beliefs may be supplemented by a superficial intellection which is hardly more than a predetermination to support foregone conclusions. But in all cases of genuine mental growth there is a progress from the stage of unverified emotion to that of critical ratiocination. Religious beliefs, in common with other contents of the mind, are subjected to a rigid scrutiny. The thinker feels compelled as a matter of intellectual honesty to give a reason for the hope that is in him. If tenets so treated are capable of sustaining the criticism directed to them, they reach their culminating stage of conviction. Frequently, however the contrary takes place — beliefs received into the mind recklessly or on insufficient authority are found on investigation to be unworthy of that position; but nevertheless, possessing from long association a strong hold on the affections, they continue to maintain their place as tenets or persuasions of the emotions. We must not, however, suppose that such a transfer is made readily or easily. Every noteworthy record of mental progress proves how difficult it is to undermine, not to say eliminate, beliefs once fully accepted by the feelings.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." "All things were made by Him." "The Word was made flesh." Now what is a word or λδγος? As understood by St. John and the men of his time, it is thought embodied in language. It is that which is in us set forth in that medium of articulates sounds which God has given to us, in order that we may make our very selves known to our fellows. The most true and fitting words give us the most exact conception of the heart and soul of him whose words they are; and so the Personal and Eternal Word is the setting forth, so to speak, of the hidden intellect, love, and goodness of God, so that His creatures may be able to apprehend Him, Whom neither man nor angel hath seen or can see. So that the Word, being perfect, is the perfect utterance, or showing forth, or manifestation of all that is in God.
Erroneous statements and opinions, in their naked deformity, are generally too hideous to win the regard and confidence of men even in their present depraved condition; while the manifestation of what is true, in its simple grandeur and pure light, is often too bright and fair to be agreeable to the eye and the heart of man. The great work which a lover of truth finds to do, is to separate the conglomerate mass of knowledge, or what men call knowledge, into its two component parts, the true and the false. What is false owes all its plausibility and power to its being associated and mingled with what is true. What is true, is rendered dim and uncertain and weak by being blended and confounded with the erroneous. The human mind is like a thrashing-floor. The honest inquirer will be constantly using the fan, to separate the chaff from the wheat.
It has been said by a great mind, that confusion is worse than error.1 Erroneous statements and opinions, in their naked deformity, are generally too hideous to win the regard and confidence of men even in their present depraved condition; while the manifestation of what is true, in its simple grandeur and pure light, is often too bright and fair to be agreeable to the eye and the heart of man. The great work which a lover of truth finds to do, is to separate the conglomerate mass of knowledge, or what men call knowledge, into its two component parts, the true and the false. What is false owes all its plausibility and power to its being associated and mingled with what is true. What is true, is rendered dim and uncertain and weak by being blended and confounded with the erroneous. The human mind is like a thrashing-floor. The honest inquirer will be constantly using the fan, to separate the chaff from the wheat.
But it is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? Among them we may occasionally see some man of deep conscientiousness, and subtile and refined understanding, who spends a life in sophisticating with an intellect which he cannot silence, and exhausts the resources of ingenuity in attempting to reconcile the promptings of his conscience and reason with orthodoxy, which yet he does not, perhaps, to the end succeed in doing. No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.
We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility…
How little do they see what is, who frame their hasty judgments upon which seems.
Truth is as much the first want as it is the first good of mankind: yes, truth in religion, which by giving us high and pure ideas of the Divinity, teaches us that our homage ought to be worthy of it; truth in morality, which without rigour, as without weak indulgence, traces out to men in all situations their respective duties; truth in policy, which by rendering authority more just, and subjects more submissive, protects governments from the passions of the multitude, and the multitude from the tyranny of governments; truth in our tribunals, which makes vice afraid, reassures and comforts the innocent, and conduces to the triumph of justice; truth in education, which by rendering conduct accordant with doctrine, makes teachers to be the models, as well as the masters of infancy and youth; truth in literature and in the arts, which preserves them from the contagion of bad taste, from false ornaments, and from false thoughts; truth in the commerce of life, which by banishing fraud and imposture, warrants the common safety; truth in every thing, truth before every thing, this is that which the whole human race from its inmost soul is ever seeking, so thoroughly convinced are all men that truth is useful and falsehood hurtful.
We desiderate in it somewhat more of what becomes all men, but, most of all, a young man, to whom the struggles of life are only in their commencement, and whose spirt cannot yet have been wounded, or his temper embittered by hostile collision with the world, but which, in young men especially, is apt to be wanting — a slowness to condemn. A man must now learn, by experience, what once came almost by nature to those who had any faculty of seeing; to look upon all things with a benevolent, but upon great men and their works with a reverential spirit; rather to seek in them for what he may learn from them, than for opportunities of showing what they might have learned from him; to give such men the benefit of every possibility of their having spoken with a rational meaning; not easily or hastily to persuade himself that men like Plato, and Locke, and Rousseau, and Bentham, gave themselves a world of trouble in running after something which they thought was a reality, but which he Mr. A. B. can clearly see to be an unsubstantial phantom; to exhaust every other hypothesis, before supposing himself wiser than they; and even then to examine, with good will and without prejudice, if their error do not contain some germ of truth…
Let us suppose the case of a man who was born blind. He can have nothing but oral testimony of such things as are visible to others. Does it therefore follow, that, to him, the luminaries of heaven do not exist, and, consequently, demonstrate nothing of the power and wisdom of God? No: the demonstration still exists, by an intellectual communication from others; and this, to him, is a revelation. What is history, but a revelation of facts, though man is the recorder, the witness, the auditor, and oftentimes the cause? View your premises however I may, they are demonstrably false; and, consequently, what you draw from them must fall to the ground. … You further tell us, that "the whole account is traditionary." The truth of this assertion, will depend, in no small degree, upon the definition of the term. But, if what you assert, were granted, I cannot perceive, how this would falsify the account. If the supposed facts contained in the Bible, be traditionary, and are, therefore, false, there is no historical account in existence, that will not be implicated in the common charge; and, if this be admitted, all moral and historical certainty, must, at one stroke, be banished from the world.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, ¶ The proper study of mankind is Man. ¶ Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state, ¶ A being darkly wise, and rudely great: ¶ With too much knowledge for the sceptic side, ¶ With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest; ¶ In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast; ¶ In doubt his mind or body to prefer; ¶ Born but to die; and reas’ning but to err: ¶ Alike in ignorance, his reason such, ¶ Whether he thinks too little or too much; ¶ Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d; ¶ Still by himself abus’d or disabus’d; ¶ Created half to rise and half to fall; ¶ Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; ¶ Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d; ¶ The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
The dogma of the redemption is the fable of priest-craft invented since the time the New Testament was compiled, and the agreeable delusion of it suited with the depravity of immoral livers. When men are taught to ascribe all their crimes and vices to the temptations of the Devil, and to believe that Jesus by his death rubs all off, and pays their passage to heaven gratis, they become as careless in morals as a spendthrift would be of money, were he told that his father had engaged to pay off all his scores. It is a doctrine not only dangerous to morals in this world, but to our happiness in the next world, because it holds out such a cheap, easy, and lazy way of getting to heaven, as has a tendency to induce men to hug the delusion of it to their own injury. ¶ But there are times when men have serious thoughts, and it is at such times, when they begin to think, that they begin to doubt the truth of the Christian Religion; and well they may, for it is too fanciful and too full of conjecture, inconsistency, improbability, and irrationality, to afford consolation to the thoughtful man. His reason revolts against his creed. He sees that none of its articles are proved, or can be proved. He may believe that such a person as is called Jesus (for Christ was not his name) was born and grew to be a man, because it is no more than a natural and probable case. But who is to prove he is the son of God, that he was begotten by the Holy Ghost? Of these things there can be no proof; and that which admits not of proof, and is against the laws of probability and the order of nature, which God himself has established, is not an object for belief. God has not given man reason to embarrass him, but to prevent his being imposed upon.
There is such proneness in men of genius to invent hypotheses, and in others to acquiesce in them as the utmost which the human faculties can attain in philosophy, that it is of the last consequence to the progress of real knowledge, that men should have a clear and distinct understanding of the nature of hypotheses in philosophy, and of the regard that is due to them. ¶ Although some conjectures may have a considerable degree of probability, yet it is evidently in the nature of conjecture to be uncertain. In every case, the assent ought to be proportioned to the evidence; for to believe firmly what has but a small degree of probability, is a manifest abuse of our understanding. Now, though we may, in many cases, form very probable conjectures concerning the works of men, every conjecture we can form with regard to the works of God has as little probability as the conjectures of a child with regard to the works of a man.
Shake off all fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are severely crouched. Fix Reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason rather than of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible then as you would Livy or Tacitus. For example in the Book of Joshua we are told that the sun stood still for several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you will feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure for you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you will be a vast additional incitement: if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven; and you are answerable, not for the rightness but for the uprightness of the decision.
Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject. And as people in general, for one reason or another, like short objections better than long answers, in this mode of disputation (if it can be styled such) the odds must ever be against us; and we must be content with those for our friends who have honesty and erudition, candor and patience, to study both sides of the question — Be it so.
Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.
The universal propensity to believe in invisible, intelligent power, if not an original instinct, being at least a general attendant of human nature, may be considered as a kind of mark or stamp, which the divine workman has set upon his work; and nothing surely can more dignify mankind, than to be thus selected from all other parts of the creation, and to bear the image or impression of the universal Creator. But consult this image, as it appears in the popular religions of the world. How is the deity disfigured in our representations of him! What caprice, absurdity, and immorality are attributed to him! How much is he degraded even below the character, which we should naturally, in common life, ascribe to a man of sense and virtue!
We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.