The First Principles of Apologetics
“After one instance or experiment, where we have observed a particular event to follow upon another, we are not entitled to form a general rule, or foretell what will happen in like cases: it being justly esteemed an unpardonable temerity to judge of the whole course of nature from one single experiment, however ac- curate or certain. But where one particular species of events has always in all instances been conjoined with another, we make no longer any scruple of foretelling one upon the appearance of the other, and of employing that reasoning, which can alone assure us of any matter of fact or existence. We then call the one object cause, the other effect. . . . But there is nothing in a number of instances different from every single instance, which is supposed to be exactly similar: except only that after a repetition of similar in- stances the mind is carried by habit, upon the appearance of one event, to expect its usual attendant, and to believe that it will exist. This connection, therefore, which we feel in the mind, this customary transition from one object to its usual attendant, is the sentiment or impression from which we form the idea of power or necessary connection. Nothing further is in the case. . . . The first time a man saw the communication of motion by impulse, as by the shock of two billiard-balls, he could not pronounce that the one event was connected, but only that it was conjoined with the other. After he has observed several in- stances of this nature, he then pronounces it to be connected. What alteration has happened to give rise to this new idea of connection? Nothing but that he now peels these events to be connected in his imagination, and can readily foretell the existence of one from the appearance of the other.”4
Such is the outline of the teaching of the Sensationalist school on causality. It hasn't altered much since the days of Hume. Clearly, if things really are as this philosophy claims they are, the arguments for the existence of God as the First Cause of all things are utterly worthless, the principle of causality lacks all necessity, and we have no right to affirm that whatever comes into being must have a cause. As far as our limited experience goes, every event has been preceded by an antecedent with which we connect it, but we aren't justified in asserting that this must of necessity be so, except in so far as all sensible experience takes place in time, and time involves succession.
The difference between the philosophy of Bergson and Sensationalism is significant, but his attitude to the evidence for God's existence is practically the same. According to him, change, becoming, and movement, are all there is. The universe doesn't consist of changing things-it is itself change, life. It isn't a living thing; it is the actual process of life. We ourselves seem to be permanent beings endowed with life, but it isn't so in reality. We are partial manifestations of the universal flow. The substances, to whose existence our external experience seems to testify, are, so to speak, “sections” taken in the flux by the intellect for practical ends. Life demands action, and action is impossible unless we stabilize our view of the flow by thus cutting across it and treating what in fact is moving—or to speak more accurately, motion—as though it were fixed and abiding.5 So, too, the separation of cause and effect is wholly the work of the mind. The stream of life is one and indivisible. Cause and effect are partial views, which the limitations of our intellect compel us to take as the condition of our activity.6 It should be clear that the evidence for the existence of God fares no better in this system than in the Sensationalist philosophy. The objective validity of the concept of substance and of the principle of causality is rejected. Both are declared to be creations of the mind. In consequence, every argument which relies on them is worthless.
Substance and Cause
Let's take a look at the concepts of substance and cause in the light of experience. The work of a philosophy lies in its ability to account for facts. It claims to give us the explanation of facts; to tell us what in their ultimate analysis the data of experience involve. If then a system fails to give us such an explanation, if the solution which it provides is wholly inconsistent with our experience, that system has no claim on our acceptance. It may seem ingenious, but it has failed to produce reasonable answers. Properly speaking, it has no right to be termed a philosophy. Sensationalism certainly is open to this reproach. It is in flagrant contradiction of the facts. Nothing is more evident than that we possess a direct and immediate knowledge, not merely of thoughts, will, and emotions, but of a subject which thinks, wills and feels. We aren't first conscious of a thought, from which by a subsequent inferential process we conclude the existence of a thinking subject. We aren't conscious of the bare thought at all, but of ourselves as thinking. In other words, our consciousness of the thinking, willing subject is direct, not indirect, immediate not mediate. Each of us spontaneously speaks of our thoughts, our desires, and our feelings. Every time we so speak we bear witness that we are conscious of ourselves as substances, and of our thoughts as accidental determinations of the subject self. Sensationalism refuses to admit this consciousness of a subject, and declares that we know nothing more than a succession of states. In other words, it denies that we are aware of an ego to which these states appertain, and to which they must be referred. Thus this Sensationalist ideology is in conflict with one of the most certain facts of experience. Since consciousness shows us that thought is essentially the action of a thinking subject, it logically follows that thought without a mind is a contradiction in terms. There cannot be action without an agent. Action is a determination of the thing that acts, and we cannot have a determination apart from the subject which it determines. Again, the power of memory enables us to say, “I thought.” When we say this, we recognize that, while the thought is transitory, the subject remains one and identical. I, who am now looking back on past events, am the self-same person who then thought and willed in such-and-such a way. Each time we exercise the power of memory we distinguish the enduring substance from its transient determinations; we have knowledge of the former as well as of the latter. Indeed, the very existence of this faculty affords a conclusive proof that the mind persists through time as the same reality. If our mental life consists simply of passing states, existing of themselves without any permanent and substantial ego, how does it come about that they don't perish as one by one they make way for the next in the long series? How can one state reach back into the flow and recall another which has long ceased to be? Recollection is not merely inexplicable, but impossible, unless we admit the identity of the subject who remembers with the subject whose states he is recalling. Nor is the appeal to experience conclusive only with regard to the concept of substance. It is no less decisive as to the validity of the notion of cause. I am aware beyond the possibility of doubt that I can produce thought. I can direct this activity into a particular channel, and produce thoughts about such matters as I wish. In other words, the mind has direct experience of causation. It is conscious that it gives existence to the thought and makes it to be what it is. Here the attempt to explain away causality as mere succession breaks down hopelessly. Not merely am I conscious of causation, but this causation isn't exercised by the antecedent mental state at all. What no longer exists cannot exert causality. It is the mind which is the cause alike of the previous and of the subsequent state. And the action of the mind is not previous to, but simultaneous with the thought which it produces. Thus it becomes evident that a philosophy which maintains that we have no experience either of substance or of causation, that these are mere terms to which nothing objective corresponds, stands self-condemned. It may, perhaps, be said that our appeal has been to internal experience alone, and that we have no right to apply concepts derived from internal experience to the external order. It will, however, appear that the data of our experience regarding the external order are no less incompatible with Sensationalism than are the facts of our mental life. The Sensationalist appeals to the illustration of two billiard balls. What we see here, he says, is succession, and succession alone: the impact of one ball is followed by the motion of the other. And he claims that, as far as experience is concerned, our knowledge is limited to this: that the notion of causation is a gratuitous addition of our own. Hume believed that, “All events seem entirely loose and separate. One event follows another, but we can never observe any tie between them. They seem conjoined but never connected.” While it seems that the example selected lends some substance to the statement, it really isn't adequate. When I watch a potter mold the clay with his hand, don't I see the clay actually receive its determination from his fingers? Here, surely, there is much more than succession. Indeed, succession doesn't enter into the equation, since no interval of time separates the pressure of the finger from the given shape taken by the clay. No one can maintain that when we affirm that we see the hand communicate its shape to the clay, we are introducing a new notion in no way gathered from experience. True, I don't see with my eyes the abstract idea of causation, for the simple reason that the eye does not see abstract ideas, but concrete facts. But it is clear that the connection between cause and effect is no product of the imagination, but is immediately comprehended as given in experience. In other words, the Sensationalist contention that our experience can never show us anything but two events conjoined by a temporal sequence, is altogether at variance with the facts, and this alone is sufficient to demonstrate the fallacious nature of the theory. Once again, is it really the case that external experience is limited to sensible qualities and has nothing to tell us with regard to substance? What is the object of experience? Do we perceive mere color or that which is colored? Hardness or that which is hard? Things such as whiteness, hardness and sweetness are mental abstractions, and the real datum of experience is the concrete object, the hard, white, sweet thing. If so, experience gives us something more than sensible qualities, it gives us the thing or substance. Of course, the external sense doesn't apprehend the substance as such. We will deal later in this chapter with the manner in which we know it. For now we're only concerned to point out that the Sensationalist analysis of experience is inadequate, and that when we perceive an external object, we apprehend something beyond its mere sensible qualities; and that this element, of which these philosophers take no account, is precisely what we signify when we employ the term substance.
We embarked on this discussion with a view to establish the validity of the notions of substance and cause. And the bearing of our conclusions upon this question will easily appear. By “substance” we mean that which exists as an independent thing, and not as a mere determination. The independent entity is termed a being in a sense to which its accidental determinations leave no claim. Although they, too, are said to be, yet being is predicted of them, not with the same signification that it bears in regard to substance, but analogously. A man, a horse, a tree, are substances: as are iron, gold, and water. It should be observed that by substance we don't mean the mere material substratum which may be at one time the earth, then become vegetable tissue, then be transmuted into human flesh, and afterwards return once more to its original form. A substance is a complete nature. It is substance because it exists in its own right, and not as a determination of another entity.
This notion of substance is a primary apprehension of the intellect. No inference is required to arrive at it. Our sensitive faculties perceive the sensible qualities of the objects presented to them—their color, shape, etc.—and gather them together in their relationship to one another. The data thus obtained are seen to fall into separate groups, acting as independent units. Wherever this is the case, the intellect conceives the object as a substance. What acts as a single unit, is one, regardless of the variety of its attributes. It is a thing: its attributes are mere determinations of that which properly speaking is. Of course, in saying that the intellect immediately knows the object as a substance, we don't mean that from the outset it has a clear-cut abstract notion of substance, such as we have given. It first apprehends the object confusedly as a thing with this or that sort of attributes. Only later by reflection does it come to an explicit recognition of the distinction between the attributes (which are many), and the subject to which they belong, which is one. Even in the earliest confused apprehension, the notion of substance is implicitly present. All that is needed is the reflective operation of the mind upon focusing on its own concept, and its true character will make itself known. That this concept of substance is different from any datum of sense is abundantly clear. The substantial nature is whole and entire in each part of the object. It doesn't increase or diminish with the object's size. Every particle of an oak tree has the substantial nature of oak. A small piece of the wood is just as truly oak as is the whole tree. Whether we consider the whole tree, or branches that have been cut off, the substantial nature remains what it was. The substance is one, though the attributes are many. And the substance remains permanently the same even though the attributes display numerous changes. A reality with characteristics such as these lies outside the scope of mere sense perception. The intellect, and the intellect alone, has power to make it known to us. Substance and attribute are by no means the only notions which are directly apprehended by the mind from the objects of sense without the need of any kind of inference. To this same class of apprehensions belong. For example, unity, multiplicity, causality, finality, truth, and goodness. All of these stand in immediate relation to being. Thus unity is being in an undivided state: multiplicity is a plurality of undivided things; a cause is that which gives being to a thing: finality is the purpose of a being. Truth is the conformity between thought and that which is; goodness is the relation which being, as an object of desire, bears to the will. Of these we're here concerned only with the notion of cause. Just as it belongs, not to the eye, but to the intellect to know anything as a substance, so the intellect is needed to apprehend an object as that which confers being, a cause. It is this which explains the error of the Sensationalists. Holding that there is no other knowledge save that of sense perception, and seeing clearly that the notion of causality isn't a thing that the eye can see, they maintained that it is a mere word devoid of any corresponding idea. Yet nothing can be more evident than that we don't simply possess the idea, but that the mind can't avoid it any more than the eye can avoid seeing and recognizing the colors of the objects of vision. Granted appropriate objects, the mind instantly, and apart from all inference, knows the one as cause and the other as effect. The Sensationalist difficulty disappears as soon as the spheres of sense and intellect are distinguished; the faculty whose proper object is being must be capable of apprehending in the data afforded by sense that which is the source and that which is the recipient of being. Doubtless we sometimes make mistakes, and judge that to be the cause of a thing which in fact isn't, but this is a case in which our error bears witness to the validity of the concepts in question. It is because we're so familiar with real causes and effects that we occasionally allow ourselves to be misled, and conclude that some event which follows immediately on another must needs be related to it as its effect.
It may seem that I've given an undue amount of attention to the defense of these concepts, but this is a necessary effort. The principal objections of those demanding sensory validation against the proofs for God's existence are based on the contention that substance and cause are meaningless terms to which no objective reality corresponds. Until this fundamental fallacy is refuted, the whole value of the arguments we give would remain in question.
1A form of Empiricism that limits experience as a source of knowledge to sensation or sense perceptions.
2(1859-1941), French-Jewish philosopher influential in the tradition of continental philosophy during the first half of the 20th century up to World War II.
3(1711-1775), Scottish Enlightenment philosopher known for his system of Empiricism, naturalism, and skepticism.
4David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/hume1748.pdf
5H. Bergson, Creative Evolution, Cosimo (2005)
6Ibid. p. 47