First Principles

First Principles


From objects fully representable, to those of which we cannot form evenapproximate representations, there is an insensible transition. Between apebble and the entire Earth a series of magnitudes might be introduced, severallydiffering from adjacent ones so slightly that it would be impossible to sayat what point in the series our conceptions of them became inadequate. Similarly,there is a gradual progression from those groups of a few individuals whichwe can think of as groups with tolerable completeness, to those larger andlarger groups of which we can form nothing like true ideas. Thus we passfrom actual conceptions to symbolic ones by infinitesimal steps. Note nextthat we are led to deal with our symbolic conceptions as though they wereactual ones, not only because we cannot clearly separate the two, but alsobecause, in most cases, the first serve our purposes nearly or quite as wellas the last -- are simply the abbreviated signs we substitute for those moreelaborate signs which are our equivalents for real objects. Those imperfectrepresentations of ordinary things which we make in thinking, we know canbe developed into adequate ones if needful. Those concepts of larger magnitudesand more extensive classes which we cannot make adequate, we still find canbe verified by some indirect process of measurement or enumeration. And evenin the case of such an utterly inconceivable object as the Solar System,we yet, through the fulfilment of predictions founded on our symbolic conceptionof it, gain the conviction that this stands for an actual existence, and,in a sense, truly expresses certain of its constituent relations. So thathaving learnt by long experience that our symbolic conceptions can, if needful,be verified, we are led to accept them without verification. Thus we openthe door to some which profess to stand for known things, but which reallystand for things that cannot be known in any way.

The implication is clear. When our symbolic conceptions are such thatno cumulative or indirect processes of thought can enable us to ascertainthat there are corresponding actualities, nor any fulfilled predictions beassigned in justification of them, then they are altogether vicious and illusive,and in no way distinguishable from pure fictions. §10. And now to consider the bearings of this general truth on ourimmediate topic -- Ultimate Religious Ideas.

To the primitive man sometimes happen things which are out of the ordinarycourse-diseases, storms, earth-quakes, echoes, eclipses. From dreams arisesthe idea of a wandering double; whence follows the belief that the double,departing permanently at death, is then a ghost. Ghosts thus become assignablecauses for strange occurrences. The greater ghosts are presently supposedto have extended spheres of action. As men grow intelligent the conceptionsof these minor invisible agencies merge into the conception of a universalinvisible agency; and there result hypotheses concerning the origin, notof special incidents only, but of things in general.

A critical examination, however will prove not only that no current hypothesisis tenable, but also that no tenable hypothesis can be framed. §11. Respecting the origin of the Universe three verbally intelligiblesuppositions may be made. We may assert that it is self-existent; or thatit is self-created; or that it is created by an external agency. Which ofthese suppositions is most credible it is not needful here to inquire. Thedeeper question, into which this finally merges, is, whether any one of themis even conceivable in the true sense of the word. Let us successively testthem.

When we speak of a man as self-supporting, of an apparatus as self-acting,or of a tree as self-developed, our expressions, however inexact, stand forthings that can be figured in thought with tolerable completeness. Our conceptionof the self-development of a tree is doubtless symbolic. But though we cannotreally represent in consciousness the. entire series of complex changes throughwhich the tree passes, yet we can thus represent the leading traits of theseries; and general experience teaches us that by long continued observationwe could gain the power of more fully representing it. That is, we know thatour symbolic conception of self-development can be expanded into somethinglike a real conception; and that it expresses, however rudely, an actualprocess. But when we speak of self-existence and, helped by the above analogies,form some vague symbolic conception of it, we delude ourselves in supposingthat this symbolic conception is of the same order as the others. On joiningthe word self to the word existence, the force of association makes us believewe have a thought like that suggested by the compound word self-acting. Anendeavour to expand this symbolic conception, however, will undeceive us.