Chapter IV

SCEPTICISM

1. THE SCEPTICAL ARGUMENT

2. REPLY TO THE SCEPTICS

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1. THE SCEPTICAL ARGUMENT

READERS who accept the main contentions of the last chapter, and who are not interested in philosophical discussion, can omit this chapter without losing anything that is vital from their point of view; but those who doubt, and those who wish to be fortified against possible criticism, may find something useful in the following pages.

Thus far I have simply worked out the consequences of what I personally feel about human life and the spirit's part in it. Is all that I have said mere wishful thinking and delusion? At one time I seriously suspected that it might be so, but now that I have gained a clearer awareness of the spirit I cannot myself for a moment doubt the essential truth of what I have tried to express. With me it is now not merely a matter of faith; I have certainty. I see that the spirit in us is essentially as I have described it, and I see that I, and therefore others, are essentially instruments of it.

But the sceptical argument must be faced. I will summarize it in its extreme and most logical form. The sceptic about the spirit starts with the conviction that, in order to understand the nature and behaviour of any complex thing, we must analyse the whole thing into its simple parts, and explain the behaviour of the whole as a resultant of the interaction of the parts. Applying this principle to human behaviour, he contends that it must be analysed into its elements, and if possible into the interaction of the elementary parts of the body. Thus he arrives either at a system of interacting "instincts", or else, more fundamentally, at a system of "reflexes", conceived as essentially of the same nature as sneezing, blinking, digesting. By a "reflex" he means an elementary nerve-mechanism which comes into action either by itself or along with other reflexes, in response to some "stimulus", internal or external. Such a nerve-mechanism he conceives as in turn a resultant of still simpler parts. It is to be explained in the last analysis as the upshot of the massed activities of electrons, protons and the other fundamental units known to physics.

In this view the whole of human behaviour is to be understood as a very complicated pattern of reflex action. Even the most developed activities, such as speaking, thinking, artistic creation and personal love, consist simply of the functioning of sequences and patterns of reflexes. Even the most refined emotion is the result of reflex stimulation of glands which pour particular chemicals into the blood, and thereby cause particular emotions. When we desire anything, what we actually need is the free functioning of some set of reflex machinery which happens to be keyed up for action. For instance, when we desire food, what we really need is the complicated reflex activity of eating. .

Reflexes result primarily from the innate physical structure of the body: but they can be "conditioned" to come into action in response to stimuli different from those to which the innate structure normally responds. In the dog, an innate reflex causes gastric juice to flow into the stomach in response to the sight or smell of food. The great Russian physiologist, Pavlov, showed that, if a bell was rung every time food appeared, the reflex would come to operate in response to the bell even when food was not presented. This is the mechanism of all "learning by experience". Even intelligent learning, as, opposed to mere trial-and-error learning, is simply a reflex process. Intelligence involves a specially high degree of discriminating sensitivity to the environment, and a high degree of correlation in the calling up of reflexes appropriate in the novel situation. There follows new "conditioning", new habit-formation. Emotion also is subject to "conditioning". Owing to the operation of glandular reflexes emotions can be "conditioned" to come into action in response to new stimuli. The baby's pleasure in sucking the breast comes to be extended to its perception of the mother as a person, and is then called love. This, in the sceptical view, is all that love is. It has been proved that, by careful "conditioning", small children can be made to like or dislike neutral objects, such as a bowl of gold-fish, and indeed any object which is not already too firmly connected with some very strong innate response. If the gold-fish are repeatedly displayed along with food the child grows to like them for their own sake; but if, later on. a pistol-shot sounds every time the gold-fish appear, the child forms a habit of reacting to the gold-fish with terror.

The principle of the "conditioned reflex" can be applied to morality and all pursuit of ideals. It is claimed that moral principles, even the most refined, result from the "conditioning" of the emotional reflexes, particularly during youth. Each generation hands on the established moral tradition of society to its successor by means of education, which is at bottom simply a very complex process of "conditioning". The causes which determine the actual form of a moral tradition are far from simple. Roughly we may say that, through age-long cc conditioning" men tend to admire kinds of behaviour which have survival value for: (a) a human society of any kind, (b) the particular type of society in which one is living, with its peculiar, circumstances and problems, (c) some dominating section within the society: for all the members of a society undergo "conditioning" under the influence of the power and prestige of the leading class within the society. Consequently all will tend to admire certain kinds of behaviour which, though not beneficial to the society as a whole, have proved useful to the dominant class. An example of a moral principle beneficial in any kind of society is mutual responsibility and kindliness. In a society of the special kind called "capitalistic", based on private commercial enterprise, respect for private property is specially advantageous. Respect for social superiors is a peculiarly useful principle for a dominating class, and will to some extent infect the whole society.

The economic conditions of a society change. New methods of production, such as the use of mechanical power, may revolutionize social structure, and favour new moral principles. At any particular time there is a conflict between the established morality and the new moral principles to which men are being gradually "conditioned" by new circumstances. Moral reformers will arise, to preach and suffer for the new ideal. They will claim that their ideal is right absolutely, in the moral sense; whereas, according to the sceptic, it is in fact merely more convenient, better adapted to survival in the new social conditions.

Always, the more sensitive and intelligent members of a society, who have been "conditioned" from infancy to feel specially, will tend to refine traditional morality by testing all principles in relation to one supreme principle, namely the advantage of mankind as a whole. This loftiest principle, we are told, is no less a result of "conditioning" than any other. The scientific mind, says the sceptic, must not be deluded into supposing morality to be sanctioned by any superhuman authority, or to be in any way dependent on a moral absolute. The feeling that we "ought" to behave kindly toward one another does, indeed, occur; but in the sceptical view .it can be shown to be an illusion, due to social "conditioning". Consequently, if in spite of that feeling of "ought" a man finds himself behaving unkindly, he may comfort "himself with the knowledge that, after all, morality does not really matter. He should try to stand outside the feeling, and see it objectively as a mere accident of social influence.

Devotion to the spirit, and the sense that we are all instruments of the spirit, are to be similarly explained. Sensitive and intelligent awareness, love and creative action are not good in themselves, not the divine music which it is our privilege to produce; we admire them simply because by innate character and subsequent "conditioning" we have contracted a habit of feeling in that way about them, precisely as a dog contracts a habit of secreting gastric juice at the sound of the dinner bell.

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2. REPLY TO THE SCEPTICS

I have already stated what is perhaps the most important answer to the sceptical argument, namely that, even if it is unanswerable logically, it cannot be consistently felt to be true. Indeed, to believe it is in the best sense unreasonable, since to do so involves trusting an isolated logical construction rather than one's most far-reaching practical intuitions and the best tradition of the human race. Moreover, as I have said, anyone who has clear awareness of the spirit has some- thing more than faith in the spirit; he has certainty. He cannot, of course, have certainty about its ultimate standing in the universe, but he perceives the spirit to be supremely good, and the way of the spirit to be absolutely right.

To say this is not to meet the sceptics on their own ground. There is, however, a purely intellectual argument which should have weight for them. The whole logical structure of ethical scepticism, though itself flawless and cogent, is founded on a false assumption. Rightly founded, it leads to a very different conclusion. The false assumption at the base of the sceptical argument is that wholes are always adequately describable in terms of self-subsistent parts, the behaviour of which can be adequately understood by studying them "in isolation", or at any rate without reference to the whole. This assumption, that parts are in some way more real than the wholes which they compose, is no less false than the opposite view, that wholes are somehow more real than parts.

The simple truth is that, just as any whole involves parts into which it can be analysed, so also any part involves some kind of whole or "field" in which to play a part, be a part, and (so far as we can know anything about it) be at all. Within the field of an atom a particular electron is manifested in a certain way, namely as a queer cross between a particle and a train of waves; but outside the atom, in a different kind of field, it may manifest itself definitely as a particle. There is no such thing as an electron all by itself. You cannot study an electron's nature in isolation from every kind of environment. It is a particular determination within some kind of electro-magnetic field or other.

Moreover the very thing (whatever that means) which manifests itself now as a free electron, now as a factor in a certain atom of carbon, or iron, may also manifest itself (when it is part of a human brain) as love, art, reasoning, or devotion to the spirit. This last kind of manifestation is no less real than the others; and to explain it in terms of another kind of manifestation is as unsound as to explain auditory thunder by saying that it is caused by visual lightning.

A biological organism involves an environment. Its observable "nature" is simply what it does in an environment which we regard as natural to it. In another environment it does differently. Even the "innate" structure of an organism involves an environment in which to come into being, and in which to express its potentiality. In different environments it develops differently and behaves differently. With one treatment the grub of the honey-bee develops as a worker, with another as a queen. Without calcium from the environment an animal cannot grow a skeleton. Moreover each generation of organisms is partly determined by the past environments of earlier generations. Lice on a seal's head are innately different from lice on its trunk, because the latter, spending far more time under water than the head lice, could survive only by means of some apparatus for carrying down a bubble of air for breathing. Birds would not have evolved wings had there been no atmosphere to support them; nor fishes fins, save in the sea.

The same principle applies to psychology. A particular conscious individual is said to have a certain nature. This means only that in a certain kind of environment he behaves in certain ways. In another environment he would behave very differently, and be assigned another "nature". Moreover his nature at any moment is a product partly of his inheritance, partly of his own past experience. Both his innate and his acquired characters needed past environments in order to come into being, and a present environment in order to express themselves. What they would be without any environment we cannot know.

The upshot thus far is this. Though the description of human behaviour in terms of abstract self-subsistent parts is often very useful up to a point, we must always remember that really there are no such self-subsistent parts. Every part involves a field in which to function, and it functions differently in different fields. To explain the behaviour of the highly developed organism simply in terms of parts or factors which have been studied in a different kind of field, namely in a less developed organism or in inorganic matter, cannot give more than superficial truth. And when such an analytic description of human behaviour, stated in terms of subhuman behaviour, is compelled flagrantly to leave out or distort much that is experienced as most significant in actual human living, it should be deeply suspected. For it is always possible that, when the parts are in "isolation", or rather in another, less organized, kind of field, they do not manifest their whole nature or capacity. The analytical account of human behaviour may very well be entirely true so far as it goes; but if it claims to be the whole truth, and explains away in terms of primitive subhuman impulses the values which the most sensitive and intelligent human beings have accepted in all ages, it becomes farcical.

For another reason also it is false to explain the more developed wholly in terms of the more primitive. The most successful species is that which has become most organized, and therefore most sensitive, most intelligent, most integrated in action, most versatile, and most capable of genuine community; that is, most accurately responsive to the most complex kind of environment. (It is true that thousands of very primitive species, like amoeba, have survived; but only because they happened upon some simple and unchanging niche in the world. Compared with man, they have far less power of controlling their environment, and so of surviving in an environment which is complex and changeful.) Natural selection has often, though not always, favoured the development of new powers. It cannot, however, create those powers. The germ-plasm itself must somehow create them, or actualize a pre-existing potentiality for them; or rather the germ-plasm in co-operation with the environment must do so. The point is that to explain the new powers simply in terms of the powers of earlier and more primitive types may be very misleading. For instance, to explain any kind of genuine personal love simply in terms of primitive sexual hunger, without reference to self-consciousness and other-consciousness, is to miss the essential nature of love. Development, throughout evolution, has involved becoming conscious of new aspects of the world and the self, aspects hidden from the less developed mentality; and these new aspects may evoke in the developing species (and in the developing individual) new valuings; may reveal new values which are not wholly reducible to more primitive values. Of such new valuings the passion for the spirit is the supreme example.

Bearing all this in mind, let us consider the nature of "conditioning". There are three kinds of "conditioning". They may be called regressive, neutral and developmental. We may be conditioned to habits which are cruder, less appropriate, less accurately expressive of our deepest desires, and less accurately or comprehensively responsive to the environment; in fact less developed than our previous behaviour. The man who becomes a. drunkard undergoes conditioning of this regressive type. Or we may be conditioned to responses that are neither more, nor less developed, as when we form habits of eating certain foods rather than others. Or we may be conditioned to more developed behaviour than was formerly possible to us; that is, to behaviour more accurately expressive of our nature, or expressive of our more developed capacities, and therefore more accurately and comprehensively responsive to the environment. For instance, we may form habits of intellectual integrity and precision, or of treating other human beings as persons, or of coherent conduct.

The age-long conditioning which has formed traditional morality has been of all three kinds, and it is important to distinguish between them. The cause of the third, developmental, kind of conditioning is of a different type from that of the other two. For conditioning toward more developed habits must begin with a genuine vision of the possibility and rightness of the new behaviour. There can be no conditioning to genuine intellectual integrity or to respect for the personality of others unless some individuals have reached a level of psychological development at which these kinds of ,behaviour are possible, and unless they have actually begun practising them, and have become conscious of practising them. To explain away morality and devotion to the spirit as merely a product of the conditioning of primitive impulses, such as self- regard, sexual craving and herd-feeling, is to falsify the difference between the less and the more developed behaviour, the less and the more awakened mentality.

Probably every human being feels at one time or another, though he may not be able to express his feeling, the urge to "live more fully", to transcend his actual self and to become a more "vital", more sensitive, more lucid, more coherent, more creative self. This urge toward the more awakened "self-that-might-be" is in conflict with the normal impulses of the actual self. It is at bottom a disinterested passion, not to be derived solely from any kind of self-regard or any primitive impulse. It cannot be adequately explained by any kind of conditioning of primitive impulses alone. Mere conditioning cannot create qualitatively new impulses; it can only attach old impulses to new stimuli. The desire for the spirit springs simply from the vision of the spirit as intrinsically good, the perception that the more sensitive, coherent and creative life is intrinsically right, is "what one is for".

This disinterested urge of the actual self to destroy itself, so as to make way for a more awakened "self-that-might-be", that is alien to it, and not itself, is the miracle which the pure sceptic can neither explain nor even adequately perceive. This disinterested passion for the spirit, for sensitive and intelligent awareness, for love, for creative action, is the root of all genuine morality. Any seemingly moral behaviour which. is purely the result of the conditioning of primitive impulse is not really moral at all. Between the normal impulses of the actual self and the urge toward the "self-that-might-be", or toward the incipient life of the spirit, there may be a desperate conflict. The fundamental miracle consists in the fact that the actual self may have a vision of the spirit as something different from and lovelier than itself, something alien, yet compelling service and worship; and that it may have this vision long before it can effectively force itself to die away for the spirit and give place to the "self-that- might-be", It is as though the caterpillar, whose life is given over to eating, should consciously will the complete dissolution that awaits it in the chrysalis; as though it should desire to kill itself in order to give place to a wholly new creature, the butterfly, whose interest is not in pedestrian nutrition but in flight and sex.

I said above that the actual self may come to recognize the way of the spirit as "intrinsically right ", and the spirit itself as "intrinsically good ". The sceptic would deny that anything can be intrinsically right or good. I shall not enter into an ethical argument. I shall merely say what I mean, or at any rate the essential minimum of what I mean, when I say that the way of the spirit is "intrinsically right". I mean at least this. Any mind that is sufficiently developed to be aware of the spirit, and is not perverted, cannot but, when it is in its lucid state, will the spirit to be expressed as fully as possible in its own behaviour and in the behaviour of others. This must be taken to apply to any sufficiently developed and unperverted mind in any period and any part of the universe.

I claim to know that this formula is essentially true, because when I am in my most lucid state, I myself, a sufficiently developed and unperverted mind, cannot but will the spirit; and because I perceive that, since mind is what it is, and the spirit is what it is, this must be the case with every sufficiently developed and unperverted mind.

But how can I know that even minds more developed than myself, and unperverted, must will the spirit? Well, no doubt such minds may will ends beyond my comprehension and beyond my range of sympathy; but, in virtue of my own experience of sensitive and intelligent awareness, love and creative action, I simply perceive that it is of the very nature of mind, when it is sufficiently developed and unperverted to will the spirit. Those more exalted minds may, for all I know, will subtle or terrible manifestations of the spirit which I in my simplicity would not recognize to be of the spirit at all: but I cannot for a moment doubt that the supreme objects of their will, however repugnant to me in my blindness, must be, in their hidden essence, the very same essence as I will when I will the spirit.

Two important words in my formula need clarifying, namely, "developed" and "unperverted ".

By "sufficiently developed" I mean sufficiently developed in respect of the essential nature of mind, namely in accurate and comprehensive awareness of its world and itself, and in discriminate feeling and action. This implies that the world and the self really are of a certain character, and that awareness can be either more or less true to them.

By "unperverted" I mean unperverted from the full exercise of such mental and spiritual powers as are possible at the particular mind's particular level of development. A mind may be perverted either by inheritance or by experience, Inherited disabilities may render it men- tally deficient or emotionally distorted, On the other hand, conflicts due to damaging experience may create in it such strong unconscious obsessions about minor goods that its vision of the spirit becomes gravely falsified, For instance, reacting against a canting and harmful education, a man may come to admire might more than love, or superstition more than intelligence. He may even, in revulsion against insincere professions of right ideals, come to feel, with Milton's Satan "Evil, be thou my good".

The ideas of development and perversion in respect of the spirit involve an objective ethical standard. The sceptic holds that no such objective standard exists. From the scientific point of view, a man is no better than an amoeba, or a sane man than a homicidal maniac.

The answer is that this theory can be believed only by resolutely shutting one's eyes to nearly all that is most significant in human experience. Even from the scientific point of view there is good reason to believe that a man is more aware of his world than an amoeba, and more capable of taking effect on it by integrated and creative action. The same is true as between a sane man and a homicidal maniac. And this standard of mental "awakeness'" to the world and the self, and of coherent and creative action, we cannot but accept as our ultimate moral and spiritual standard. It is by this standard, of personal development and freedom from perversion, that we judge one another and ourselves in actual life, however clumsily and unwittingly. Those who accept an obviously different standard can be shown, even from the point of view of the objective science of psychology, to be themselves either undeveloped or perverted. Psychology, of course, poses no judgment about the rightness or wrongness of development and perversion; but it does recognize that they are objective facts. Their rightness and wrongness are simply perceived by the developed and unperverted mind itself. And in virtue of its own objective development and sanity it should have the courage of its convictions in this matter.

My last word to the sceptic about the spirit is this. Let him earnestly examine his own heart. He has too easily cowed us by his air of superior intellectual integrity and by his imputation of confused and wishful thinking. It is time that we who recognize the spirit should have the courage of our convictions, and turn the tables' on him. We know that we and all conscious beings are in an important sense instruments of the spirit. We will not, in order to appease the sceptic, shut our eyes to all that is most cogent and significant in our daily life. After all, it is the sceptic who is blind, not we. It is he, after all, who is guilty of wishful thinking. Through exclusive devotion to intellectual analysis he blinds himself to certain facts which intellect cannot yet properly assimilate. Or is his plight even worse than this? Has he perhaps in some dark way sinned against the spirit in his personal life, so that he has been forced to construct an intellectual smoke-screen to protect himself from his own guilt?

It would be folly to suggest that all sceptics about the spirit have become sceptics because they have in some way sinned against the spirit. Many, indeed, have unwittingly proved themselves in action to be far better instruments of the spirit than many who count themselves most confidently among the spirit's adherents. Many are sceptics about the spirit solely through a sincere but blinkered loyalty to one aspect of the spirit, namely intellectual integrity.

But though some professed sceptics have proved themselves unwittingly to be among the noblest servants of the spirit, many sceptics are nothing of the sort. For in our day scepticism about the spirit has become a comfortable and fashionable bandage over the eyes of those who would find it very inconvenient to recognize the spirit.

There is only one respect in which scepticism about the spirit is legitimate, and is, indeed, demanded in loyalty to the spirit itself. While retaining our clear perception of the beauty of the spirit and the rightness of the way of the spirit, we must be deeply sceptical of any speculations about the spirit's part in the universe as a whole. For the sake of intellectual integrity we must remember always that it is as difficult for man to plumb the universe with his intellect as it would be for the primitive huntsman to pierce the sun with his flint arrow.

Chapter 5

Chapter 3

Beyond the "Isms" Contents