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How the Perception of the Infinite led to Religious Ideas.
If then we have clearly established the fact that our experience, or our states of consciousness, or our Ego-knowledge, whatever you like to call it, consists of perceptions of the finite, and with it, at the same time, of the infinite, we may now go on to divide off that portion in the perceptions of the finite and the infinite which constitutes the proper domain of religion ; and we have to show how these perceptions are worked up into religious concepts and names.
It may, no doubt, be said that the perception of the infinite is in itself a perception of something negative only, of something which is not the finite such as we perceive it in all its variety, and of which therefore we can predicate nothing except that it is. We know that the infinite is, but we do not know what it is, because it always begins where our finite knowledge seems to end.
This is perfectly true logically, but it is not true psychologically. The human mind in discovering the infinite behind the finite, does not separate the two. We can never draw a line where the finite ends and the infinite begins. The sky, for instance, was perceived as blue or grey, it had its horizon, and so far it was perceived as finite; but it was at the same time the infinite sky, because it was felt that beyond what was seen of the sky there is and must be an infinite complement which no eye could see. The infinite per se, as a mere negative, would have had no interest for primitive man; but as the background, as the support, as the subject or the cause of the finite in its many manifestations, it came in from the earliest period of human thought. There were in
fact few finite things which were conceived without some infinite complement.
Tangible, Semi-tangible, Intangible Objects. Let us see how this arose. It might seem as if our five senses delivered to us nothing but objects complete in themselves, which we can touch and handle all round, which we can smell, taste, see and hear. But is that so ?
It is true?, no doubt, of such objects as stones, bones, shells, flowers, berries, logs of wood. All these are complete in themselves, and no one would suspect anything in them beyond what we can see and touch.
But very soon our surroundings accustom us to other objects which seem indeed perfect in themselves, but which do not lie completely within the grasp of our senses. Without being aware of it, we are made familiar with objects which we treat as if we knew them as well as a stone, or a bone, or a shell, but which, if we examine them more closely, contain more or less of an unknown residuum. I call this first class of objects, those which we know all round, tangible objects, and I distinguish them from semitangible and intangible objects, which we shall now have to examine.
Trees. Trees, mountains, rivers and the earth seem all very tangible and completely perceptible objects, but are they so? We may stand beneath a tree, touch it, look up to it, but our senses can never take in the whole of it. Its deepest roots are beyond our reach, its highest branches tower high above our head. Besides, there is something in the tree which, for want of a better name, we call its life, and which to an unscientific, and possibly to a scientific generation likewise, is something mysterious, something beyond the reach of our senses, and it may be, of our understanding also. A tree, therefore, has something intangible, something unknowable, something infinite in it. It combines, as I said, the finite and the infinite, or it presents to us something infinite under a finite appearance 1.
1 See Hibbert Lectures, p. 180 seq.
Mountains. The same applies to mountains. The early settlers of this earth, when standing at the foot of a mountain and looking up to where its head vanishes in the clouds, could not help feeling overawed by these stupendous giants. We take all these things for granted, and we have learnt to know what is beyond these mountains; nay, how they were made, and how they can be unmade. But to the early people a mountain-range marked the end of their little world. They saw the dawn, the sun, the moon and the stars rising above the mountain-tops, the very sky seemed to rest on them ; but what was beyond or beneath or above, no one could guess. In later times the highest mountains were often believed to be the seats of the gods, and the highest points were often chosen as the most appropriate for building temples to the gods. And let us think not of our own small valleys and wooded hills only, but of that country where the Vedic hymns were first uttered, and where Dr.
1 See Hibbert Lectures by John Rhys, p. 216.
Hooker saw from one point twenty snow-peaks each over 20,000 feet high, supporting the blue dome of an horizon that stretched over one-hundred-and-sixty degrees. We shall then more easily understand how the view of a temple resting on such columns might call out a feeling of the presence of the infinite even in the most simple-minded spectator.
Rivers. Next to mountains come rivers and waterfalls. Here too we see indeed the mass of water which daily. passes before our eyes, but we never see the whole river, we never see the same river. Without thinking of all the benefits which rivers confer on those who settle on their banks, by fertilising their fields, feeding their flocks, and defending them better than any fortress against the assaults of their enemies ; without thinking also of the fearful destruction that can be wrought by an angry river, or of the sudden death of those who sink into its waves, the mere sight of a torrent coming they know not whence and going they know not whither, must have called forth a feeling in the heart of man that he stood in the presence of powers which were to him invisible and infinite, and which he afterwards called divine.
Earth. Nothing again may seem to us more simple and real than the earth on which we stand. But if we want to speak of it as something complete in itself, like a stone, or a shell, or an apple, our senses fail us, and we can trust to our imagination only. What corresponds to the name earth is not something of which we can see the horizon, not something finite, but something extending far beyond our sensuous horizon, something visible to a very small extent only, and beyond that again undefined, unknown, or infinite.
In the perception of these so-called semi-tangible objects we see the steps supplied by nature herself on which the human mind advanced, almost unconsciously, from the finite to the not altogether finite, and at last to the infinite. It is important to observe that these steps were not the result of reasoning; they were advances almost inevitable in the slow discovery and conquest of the world by which man was surrounded.
But besides these semi-tangible objects, our experience supplies us with others which are altogether intangible.
Clouds, Stars, Moon, Sun, Sky. Strange as it may seem, there are many things which we can see, but which we cannot touch. The clouds are visible, but generally not tangible. But even if we reckoned the clouds among our semi-tangible percepts, there is the sky, there are the stars, and the moon, and the sun, none of which can ever be touched. In all these percepts the infinite preponderates over the finite, and the mind of man is driven, whether he likes it or not, to admit something beyond the finite. When from some high mountain-peak our eye travels as far as it can, watching the clouds, and the sky, and the setting sun and the rising stars, it is not by any process of conscious reasoning that we conclude there is something infinite beyond the sky, beyond the sun, beyond the stars. It might truly be said that we are actually brought in sensuous contact with it; we see and feel it. In feeling the limit, we