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The Relations between Religion and Science
Eight Lectures Preached Before the University of Oxford in the Year 1884

By the Right Reverend Frederick Temple
Lord Bishop of Exeter

On the Foundation of the late Rev. John Bampton, M.A.

London: Macmillan, 1884.

Lecture III. Apparent Conflict Between Science and Religion on Free-Will.

'So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him.' Genesis i. 27.

Religion and Science both begin with the human will. The will is to Science the first example of power, the origin of the conception of cause; the bodily effort made by the will lies at the root of the conception of force. It is by comparing other forces with that force that Science begins its march. And the will is to religion the recipient of the Divine command. To the will the inner voice addresses itself, bidding it act and believe. It is because we have a will that we are responsible. In a world in which there were no creatures endowed with a will, there could be no right-doing or wrong-doing; no approval by conscience and no disapproval; no duty and no faith.

Here is the first possibility of collision between Science and Religion. Science postulates uniformity; Religion postulates liberty. Science cannot ever hope to reduce all phenomena to unity if a whole class of phenomena, all those that belong to the action of human will, are to be excluded from the postulate of invariable sequence. The action of the will is in this case for ever left outside. The evidence for the absolute uniformity of nature seems to be shaken, when it is found that there is so important a part of phenomena to which this law of uniformity cannot be applied. If a human will can thus interfere with the law of uniformity, there enters the possibility that behind some phenomena may lurk the interference of some other will. Religion, on the other hand, tells every man that he is responsible, and how can he be responsible if he is not free? If his action be determined by something which is not himself, how can the moral burden of it be put on him? To tell a man that he is to answer for it if he does something which he is tempted to do, is unmeaning, if he has no power to prevent himself from doing it.

But this is not all. For besides the sense of responsibility we have a direct consciousness of being free, a consciousness which no reasoning appears to extinguish. We sharply distinguish between that which goes on within us in regard to which we are free and that in regard to which we are not free. We cannot help being angry, but we can control our anger. We cannot help our wishes, but we can restrain our indulgence or our pursuit of them. We cannot directly determine our affections, but we can cherish or discourage them. There are extreme cases in which our wills seem powerless, but even here we are conscious of our power to struggle for self-assertion and self-control. There is very much in us which is not free; nay, there is much in us which impels us to action which is not free. But we never confound this with our wills, and when our wills are overpowered by passion or appetite, we call the act no longer a perfectly free act, and do not consider the responsibility for it to be quite the same.

This question of the freedom of the will was considered by Bishop Butler in the Analogy. He contented himself with proving that, make what theory we would concerning the necessity of human action, all men in practice acted on the theory of human freedom. We promise; we accept promises; we punish; we reward; we estimate character; we admire; we shun; we deal with ourselves; we deal with others; as if we and all others were free. And this was enough for his purpose. For he had to reconcile a Divine system of rewards and punishments with our sense of justice. And if he could show, as he did, that rewards and punishments were plainly not inconsistent with that sense of justice in our dealings with one another, it was impossible to call them inconsistent with that sense of justice in God's dealings with us.

But the purpose of these Lectures requires something more, and that for two reasons. For, in the first place, the doctrine of necessity was most often in Bishop Butler's days derived from a conception of a Divine foreknowledge arranging everything by supreme Will, not from the conception of a blind mechanical rule holding all in its unrelaxing grasp. And though to the cold reason it may make no difference how the will is bound, yet to the moral sentiment the two kinds of compulsion differ as life and death. To have no liberty because of being absolutely in the hands of Almighty God is quite another thing from having no liberty, as being under the dominion of a dead iron rule. It seems possible to accept the one and call it an unfathomable mystery; but to accept the other is to call life a delusion and the moral law a dream. And in the second place, the doctrine of necessity advanced as a theory and based on arguments not resting on facts, is a very different antagonist from the same doctrine advanced as a conclusion of science, and as deducible from a mass of co-ordinated observations. We may dismiss the mere theory after showing that it has not substance enough to hold its ground in ordinary life. We cannot so treat what claims to be a scientific inference.

The modern examination of the question begins with Hume, who maintains that the doctrine of liberty and that of necessity are both true and of course compatible with each other. But his arguments touch only the broad question whether they are true for practical purposes, not whether either is true in the strict sense and without exception or modification. To Kant's system, on the contrary, it was essential that both doctrines should be true in the strictest sense. Holding that invariable sequence was a law of Nature known independently of experience and applicable to all phenomena in the minutest detail, he could not allow that any act of the human will lay outside the range of this law. Such an act being a phenomenon must, in his view, be subject to the law which the constitution of our minds imposed on all phenomena apparent to us. And yet, on the other hand, holding that the eternal Moral Law made us responsible for all our acts, he could not but maintain that in the doing of those acts we must be free. His mode of reconciling the two opposites amounted to this, that our action throughout life considered as a whole is free, but that each separate act considered by itself is bound to the preceding acts by the law of invariable sequence. We may illustrate this by the familiar instance of a prism acting on a ray of light. The ray has or may have a colour of its own before it passes through the prism. The prism spreads it out and shows a series of colours. The order in which this series is arranged is determined by the character of the prism acting on the nature of the ray. The colours when combined give the colour of the ray; when separated by the prism each has its own distinct character, and the order of the colours is determined, and invariably determined, by the prism. So too in Kant's view the character of a man in itself may be free, but when it passes through the prism of time into the world of phenomena and is spread over many years it shows a number of separate actions, no one of which taken by itself exhibits the man, though all put together are the true representation of him to human perception. The man is free. His life represents his free choice. But his separate acts are what that free choice becomes when translated into a series of phenomena, and are bound each to the preceding by the law of invariable sequence. It is plain at once that this does not satisfy our consciousness. We are not conscious of freedom as regards our life as a whole; we are conscious of freedom as regards our separate actions. Our life as a whole embraces our past which is absolutely unchangeable, and our future which is not yet within our reach; we are conscious of no present power over either. Our separate acts are perceptibly subject to our own control; nay, it is by the use of our free-will in our separate acts that we are able to change the character of our life or to preserve it from change; and with this corresponds our responsibility. We hold ourselves responsible for each act as it is done; we hold ourselves responsible for the character of our lives only so far as we might have changed it by our acts. The solution leaves the difficulty where it was.

It is now customary with the advocates of the doctrine of necessity to express it by a different word, and call it the doctrine of determinism. The purpose of changing the word is to get rid of all associations with the idea of compulsion; just so in Science it is thought better to get rid of the words cause and effect, and substitute invariable sequence, in order to get rid of the notion of some compulsion recognisable by us in the cause to produce the effect. Determinism does not say to a man 'you will be forced to act in a particular way;' but 'you will assuredly do so.' There will be no compulsion; but the action is absolutely certain. Just as on a given day the moon will eclipse the sun, so in given circumstances you will do the precise thing which it is your character in such circumstances to do. And your sense of freedom is simply the sense that the action proceeds from yourself and not from any force put upon you from without.

But this too does not solve the problem. It is true that in regard to a very large proportion of our actions the sense of freedom seems to be no more than negative. We do what it is our custom, our inclination, our character to do. We are not conscious of any force being put upon us; but neither are we conscious of using any force ourselves. We float as it were down the stream, or hurry along with a determined aim, but having no desire nor purpose to the contrary, the question of freedom or necessity never seems to arise. It is even possible and common for us not to know ourselves as well as others know us, and to do many things which an observer would predict as sure to be our actions, but which we ourselves fancy to be by no means certain. Even in these cases we sometimes awake to the fact that what we are thus allowing in our lives is not consistent with the law of duty, and, do what we may, we cannot then escape the conviction that we are to blame, and that we had power to act otherwise if only we had chosen to exert the power. But it is when a conflict arises between duty and inclination that our inner certainty of our own freedom of will becomes clear and unconquerable. In the great conflicts of the soul between the call of duty and the power of temptation there are two forces at work upon us. We are never for a moment in doubt which is ourselves and which is not ourselves; which is the free agent and which is the blind force; which is responsible for the issue, and which is incapable of responsibility. There is in this case a real sense of compulsion from without, and a real sense of resistance to that compulsion from within. It is impossible in this case to account for the sense of being a free agent, by saying that this merely means that we are conscious of no external force. We are conscious of an external force and we are conscious that this will of ours which struggles against it is not an external force, but our very selves, and this distinction between the will and the forces against which the will is striving is ineffaceable from our minds. That the will is often weak and on that account overpowered, and that after a hard struggle our actions are often determined, not by our wills but by our passions or our appetites, is unquestionable. Often has the believer to pray to God for strength to hold fast to right purpose, and often will he feel that without that strength he must inevitably fall. But he knows that whatever source may supply the strength, it is he that will have to use it, and he that will be responsible for using it or neglecting to do so.

The advocates of determinism urge that every action must have a motive, and that the man always acts on that motive which is the stronger. The first proposition may be granted at once. The freedom of the will is certainly not shown in acting without any motive at all. If there be any human action which appears to be without any motive, it is not in such action that we find human freedom. Such action, if possible at all, must inevitably be mechanical. A man who is acting from mere caprice is even more completely at the mercy of passing inclination than one who is acting from passion or from overpowering temptation. The freedom of the will is not shown in acting without motive, but in choosing between motives. But when it is further said that a man always acts from the stronger motive, the question immediately follows, what determines which is the stronger motive? It cannot be anything in the motives themselves, or all men would act alike in the same circumstances; and it is clear that they do not. It must be therefore something in the man. And if it be something in the man, it must be either his will acting at the moment, which in that case is free, or his character. But if it be his character, then follows the further question, what determines his character? If we are to maintain the uniformity of nature, we must answer by assigning the determination to the sum total of surrounding and preceding circumstances. Nothing will satisfy that law of uniformity but this; that, given such and such parents, such and such circumstances of birth and life, there must be such a character and no other. At what point is there room in this case for any responsibility? I did not on this supposition make my character; it was made for me; any one else born in my stead, and living in my stead, would of necessity have acted exactly as I have done; would have felt the same, and aimed at the same, and won the same moral victories, and suffered the same moral defeats. How can I be held responsible for what is the pure result of the circumstances in which I was born? But if, on the other hand, it be said that our character is not the mere fruit of our antecedents and surroundings, the law of uniformity is clearly broken. A new element has come into the world, namely, my character, which has not come out of the antecedents and surroundings according to any fixed law. The antecedents and surroundings might have been quite the same for any one else, and yet I should have my character and he his, and our lives would have altogether differed.

It is clear that determinism does not get us out of the difficulty. Here, too, as in regard to the necessary truths of mathematics, and in regard to the relativity of all our knowledge, the theory has purchased completeness by the cheap expedient of calling one of the facts to be accounted for a delusion. Such a solution cannot be accepted. In spite of all attempts to explain it away, the fact that we think ourselves free and hold ourselves responsible remains, and remains unaffected.

But let us examine how far the difference between the scientific view and the religious view of human action extends.

Observation certainly shows that a very large proportion of human action, much even of that which appears at first sight to be more especially independent of all law, is really as much regulated by laws of nature as the movements of the planets. I have already pointed out how often an observer can predict a man's actions better than the man himself, and how often the will is certainly passive and consents instead of acting. In these cases there is no reason whatever to deny that nature and not the will is producing the conduct. And not only so, but that which seems most irregular, the kind of action that we call caprice, there is very often just as little reason to call free, as to assign free-will as the cause of the uncertainties of the weather. But it is not in observing individuals so much as in observing masses of men that we get convincing proof that men possess a common nature, and that their conduct is largely regulated by the laws of that nature. That amongst a given large number of men living on the whole in the same conditions from year to year, there should be every year a given number of suicides, of murderers, of thieves and criminals of various kinds, cannot be accounted for in any other way than by the hypothesis that like circumstances will produce like conduct. So, too, in this way only can we account for such a fact as the steadiness in the proportion of men who enter any given profession, of men who quit their country for another, of men who remain unmarried all their lives, of men who enter a university, of men who make any particular choice (such as these) which can be tested by figures. Now, this argument is unanswerable as far as it goes; but it succeeds, like all the other arguments for the uniformity of nature, in establishing the generality, and not at all the universality of that uniformity. Indeed, it falls far short of proving as much uniformity in human action as is proved in the action of inanimate things. The induction which proves the uniformity of the laws of mechanics, of chemistry, of physics, is so far greater than the induction which proves the uniformity of human conduct, that it is hardly possible to put the two side by side. When we turn from abstract arguments to facts, the doctrine of necessity is unquestionably unproven.

And this agrees with the result of a careful examination of the facts of human consciousness from the opposite point of view. We cannot but acknowledge that when we look very closely we find a very large proportion of our own actions to be by no means the result of an interference by the will. A large proportion is due to custom; a large proportion to inclination, of which the will takes no special notice, and is not called on by the conscience to notice; a large proportion to inclinations which we know that we ought to resist, but we do not resist; a much smaller proportion, but still some, to passions and appetites against which we have striven in vain; only a very small proportion to deliberate choice. There is, in fact, no irresistible reason for claiming freedom for human action except when that action turns on the question of right or wrong. There is no reason to call action free that flows from inclination or custom, or passion, or a desire to avoid pain, or a desire to obtain pleasure. The will claims to be free in all these cases, but it is free in the sense that it might be exerted; and so, since it is not exerted, the action is not free. But when, at the call of duty, in whatever form, the will directly interferes, then and then only are we conscious not only that the will is free, but that it has asserted its freedom, and that the action has been free also.

The relation of the will to the conduct falls under four distinct heads: for sometimes the will simply concurs with the inclination; sometimes it neither concurs nor opposes; sometimes it opposes but is overpowered; sometimes it opposes and prevails. In the first case, inclination of some kind or other prompts the man to action. The inclination, whether set up by an external object of desire or by an internal impulse of restlessness or blind craving or the like, comes clearly from the nature, and is not free choice. There is no reason to believe that it is not in most cases, possibly in all cases, under the dominion of fixed law. It may be as completely the product of what has preceded it as the eclipse of the sun. And if the will concurs in the inclination, it is needless to discuss the question whether the will acts or not. The conduct is the same whether the will adds force to the inclination or is simply passive. The freedom of the will may in this case be considered as negative. So, too, may the freedom of the will be considered negative in the second case, which is that of the will neither concurring with inclination nor opposing it. In this case there may be a distinct consciousness of freedom in the form of a sense of responsibility for what inclination is permitted to do. A man in this case knows that he is free, perhaps knows that he ought to interfere and control the conduct. But as he does not interfere, the freedom of the will is not asserted in act. And it is possible that, as far as all external phenomena are concerned, there may be no breach in uniformity of sequence. This, however, can hardly be in the third case, which is when the will and the inclination are opposed, and the will is overpowered. Although the inclination prevails, yet the struggle itself is an event of the most important kind, and is sure to leave traces on the character, and to be followed by consequences. In this case we are distinctly conscious of a power to add force to that one of the contending opposites which is most identified with our very selves, and we know whether we have added that force or not. And not only may we add this force directly from within; we may and we often do go outside of ourselves to seek for aids to add still more force indirectly, and we do for this purpose what we should not do otherwise. We dwell in thought on the higher aims which are the proper object of will; we read what sets forth those higher aims in their full beauty; we seek the words, the company, the sympathy of men who will, we are sure, encourage us in this the higher path. And, on the other hand, we turn away from the temptation which gives strength to the evil inclination, and if we cannot escape from its presence we endeavour to drive the thought of it from our minds. All this action is not for the sake of anything thus done, but for the sake of its indirect effect on the struggle in which we are engaged. Whenever there is a struggle, we are not only conscious that the will is free, but that it is asserting its freedom. In these struggles there is not a mere contest between two inclinations. We are distinctly conscious that one of the combatants is our very selves in a sense in which the other is not. But, nevertheless, when all has been said, it still remains in this case that the will is beaten and inclination prevails, and the conduct in the main is determined by the inclination, which is under the dominion of the law of uniformity, and not by the will, which claims to be free. The fourth case in which the will prevails may, of course, make a momentous breach in the uniformity of sequence of the conduct. But in far the largest number of cases the struggle is very slight, and the difference between the will and the inclination is not, taken alone, of grave importance in the life. And in those instances in which the struggle is severe and the resulting change is great, it is very often the case that the way has been prepared, as it were in secret, by the quiet accumulation of hidden forces of the strictly natural order ready to burst forth when the fit opportunity came. In the great conversions which have sometimes seemed by their suddenness and completeness to defy all possibility of reduction to natural law, there are often nevertheless tokens of deep dissatisfaction with the previous life having swelled up slowly within the soul for some time, even for some long time beforehand. The inclination to go on in evil courses has been broken down at last, not merely by the action of the will, but by the working of the machinery of the soul.

To this it must be added that the action of the will is such that it very often happens that, having been exerted once, it need not be exerted again for the same purpose. A custom is broken down, an exceedingly strong temptation has been overpowered, and its strength so destroyed that its return is without effect. Or sometimes the act of the will takes the form of deliberately so arranging the circumstances of life that a dreaded temptation cannot return, or if it return cannot prevail; the right eye has been plucked out, the right hand cut off, and the sin cannot be committed even if desired. While therefore the will is always free, the actual interference of the will with the life is not so frequent as to interfere with the broad general rule that the course of human conduct is practically uniform. In fact the will, though always free, only asserts its freedom by obeying duty in spite of inclination, by disregarding the uniformity of nature in order to maintain the higher uniformity of the Moral Law. The freedom of the human will is but the assertion in particular of that universal supremacy of the moral over the physical in the last resort, which is an essential part of the very essence of the Moral Law. The freedom of the will is the Moral Law breaking into the world of phenomena, and thus behind the free-will of man stands the power of God.

When the real claim of the will for freedom has been clearly seized by the mind, it becomes apparent that there is no real collision between what Science asserts and what Religion requires us to believe. Science asserts that there is evidence to show that an exceedingly large proportion of human action is governed by fixed law. Religion requires us to believe that the will is responsible for all this action, not because it does, but because it might interfere. Science is not able, and from the nature of the case never will be able to prove that the range of this fixed law is universal, and that the will never does interfere to vary the actions from what without the will they would have been. Science will never be able to prove this, because it could not be proved except by a universal induction, and a universal induction is impossible. At present there is no approximation to such proof. Religion, on the other hand, does not call on us to believe that the will often interferes, but on the contrary is perpetually telling us that it does not interfere as often as it ought. Revealed religion, indeed, has always based its most earnest exhortations on the reluctance of man to set his will to the difficult task of contending with the forces of his nature, and on the weakness of the will in the presence of those forces.

And when we pursue this thought further we see that for such creatures as we are the subjection of a large part of our own nature to fixed laws is as necessary for our dominion over ourselves as the fixity of external nature is necessary for our dominion over the world around us. The fixity of a large part of our nature--nay, of all but the whole of it--is a moral and spiritual necessity. For it requires but a superficial self-examination to discern the indications of what the profoundest research still leaves a mystery--that we are not perfect creatures of our own kind--that our nature does not spontaneously conform to the Supreme Moral Law--that our highest and best consists not in complete obedience to which we cannot attain, but in a perpetual upward struggle. Now such a struggle demands for its indispensable condition something fixed in our nature by which each step upwards shall be made good as it is taken, and afford a firm footing for the next ascent. If there were nothing in us fixed and firm, if the warfare with evil impulses, wayward affections, overmastering appetites had to be carried on through life without the possibility of making any victory complete, the formation of a perpetually higher and nobler character would be impossible; our main hope in this life, our best offering to God would be taken away from us; we could never give our bodies to be a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God; we could give our separate acts but not ourselves, for we should be utterly unable to form ourselves into fitness for such a purpose. The task given to the will is not only to govern the actions but to discipline the nature; but discipline is impossible where there is no fixity in the thing to be disciplined.

And this becomes still more important when we search more deeply and perceive that not the nature only but the will itself is in some strange way infected with evil. We can hardly imagine even a perfectly pure will capable of continuing to the end a conflict in which no progress ever was or could be made. The tremendous strain of fighting with an enemy that might be defeated again and again for ever without ever suffering any change or relaxing the violence of any attack or giving the slightest hope of any relief, would seem too much for the most unearthly, the most noble, the most godlike of human wills. But wills such as ours, penetrated with weakness, perhaps with treachery to their own best aspirations, how utterly impossible that they could persevere through such a hopeless conflict.

It is the sustaining hope of the Christian that he shall be changed from glory to glory into the image or likeness of His Lord, and that when all is over for this life he shall be indeed like Him and see Him as He is. But that hope is never presented as one to be realized by some sudden stroke fashioning the soul anew and moulding it at once into heavenly lineaments. It is by steady and sure degrees that the Christian believes that he shall be thus blessed. And this progress rests on the fixed rules by which his nature is governed, and which admit of the character being gradually changed by the life. The Christian knows that God has so made us that a temptation once overcome is permanently weakened, and often overcome is at last altogether expelled; that appetites restrained are in the end subdued and cost but little effort to keep down; that bad thoughts perpetually put aside at last return no more; that a clearer perception of duty and a more resolute obedience to its call makes duty itself more attractive, fills us with enthusiasm for its fulfilment, draws us as it were upwards, and ennobles the whole man. The Christian knows that the thought of the Supreme Being, the contemplation of His excellency, the recognition of Him as the source of spiritual life has a strange power to transform, and evermore to transform the whole man. In this knowledge the Christian lives his life and fights his battle. And what is this but a knowledge that he has a nature subject to fixed laws, which he can indeed interfere with, but without which his self-discipline would be of little value, and assuredly could not long continue.

And if the progress of Science and the examination of human nature should eventually restrict more closely than we might have supposed the length to which the interference of the will can go; if it should appear that the changes which we can make at any one moment in ourselves are within a very narrow range, this, too, will be knowledge that can be used in our self-discipline and quite as much perhaps in our mutual moral aid. It is conceivable that the branch of science which treats of human nature may in the end profoundly modify our modes of education, and our hopes of what can be effected by it. But if so the knowledge will only add to the store of means put within our reach for the elevation of our race. And we may be sure that nothing of this sort will really affect the revelation that God has written in our souls that we are free and responsible beings, and cannot get quit of our responsibility.

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