Truth and Finite Limitations

H. D. Lewis

Educated at the University of Wales at Bangor and at Oxford University, Hywel D. Lewis held the chair of Philosophy at the University of Wales before moving to the University of London to head the Department of the History and Philosophy of Religion. He has served as the chairman of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and was the first president of the International Society for Metaphysics and of the Institute for the Study of Religion and Theology in Britain and Ireland, as well as president of The Mind Association and of the Aristotelian Society. Both St. Andrews University and Emory University have bestowed honorary doctorates upon him, and he has delivered the esteemed Gifford Lectures, as well as the Wilde Lectures at Oxford. Renowned for his defense of anthropological dualism, Professor Lewis has authored several books, including The Elusive Mind, The Self and Immortality, Persons and Life After Death, and The Elusive Self.
I am very happy that I have been asked to give this particular lecture- and to elicit, I hope, some response that will be useful and illuminating to me and to others. I am going to put forward some ideas in the simplest way possible; and I say that, not out of disrespect for the very gifted people who will be attending this meeting, but because what I have to say, and my concern about it, is often presented in highly ambiguous terms or swept aside altogether as unworthy of the serious attention of enlightened people of today. I address myself especially to the many sceptical or agnostic people here and wish to ask them whether they can avoid saying something like what I propose to say- or if not that, then just how do they think about it. I shall speak in the most unambiguous way I can, and I am deliberately presenting a challenge.

Let me begin then with something that may appear quite elementary, namely that we and other people and things exist now. I do not see how anyone can doubt that. There will be some widely differing interpretations of what this involves. For some, to say that I exist is to refer to a subject, abiding for some while at least, who is distinct from all his experiences-at the center of them as we say-though presumably dependent on having experiences of some kind. I am, on this view, more than all I am aware of or think, all that goes on in my mental life, the me or self who has this life, the subject in all experience. I am myself inclined to this view, and it is a view that has a distinguished ancestry. Others will say that a person is no more than the patterns of his experiences, there is nothing strictly beyond the passing states. Others will insist on at least some dependence on the body, and some reject the finality of the distinction between one's mind and one's body, while yet others regard the person as just the brain and the body, identifying us with our bodies, often of late in an outright physicalist sense, though those who are bold enough to take that line, without some stronger concession to our consciousness, appear to be a diminishing number at present.

There are these views, and variations upon them familiar to you all. But I am not intending to discuss any of the possibilities just noted. Without going into these, and the like, issues, we can quite properly, I think, affirm that in some sense we and other people exist-and the world around us. The latter admits also of varied interpretations, ranging from a Berkeleyan view that all we perceive in the world around us exists in being so perceived, there being such vast varieties in all our perceptions, depending on the light, distance and our own organs of perception, nervous systems and brains, etc. Others favor one of the many forms of more realist views, including the view that the real world is itself other than what we directly perceive. I do not discuss these views either, for whatever of such theories we favor, we shall all, I submit, agree that persons or people and other creatures exist, and that they do this in a world that abides in a way familiar to all. We can agree on that, I hope, and let other more difficult and basic philosophical questions wait their turn for the time being. The news in the papers would have much the same significance for Berkeley or Bradley or G.E. Moore.

This is not to trivialize the profound philosophical issue on which such thinkers differ. They are of great importance, in themselves and in further implications. It is not easy for any thinking person to avoid them. But I want to set them aside for my purpose this morning and concentrate, as a starting point of what I wish to go on to, on the fact which we can all admit that we ourselves and others exist and the world around us.

We have learned a great deal which most of us accept on the saying of others, such as expert scientists or historians, and as much of what they say as we can understand, about the way all this has come about. We know some things at least about the way this planet was formed, how it solidified and acquired a firm crust over an amazingly long period, very much longer indeed than used to be thought-and still is by those who do not look beyond a literalist understanding of the Bible account of Creation. We know much about the period and conditions in which there came to be some animate existence and the very long period of change and development by which there came to be formed the creaturely life with which we are familiar, the life of animals and eventually of beings like ourselves from some of which we have descended. Even our own development as human beings and the changes in our fortunes which have brought the world to its present state, the periods we think of as genuine history and not 'pre-history', seem remarkably long to us, though they are of very slight duration indeed by comparison with the vast ages since the earth on which we live began to be.

This itself is slight in relation to aeons of time during which other bodies and systems in the vast physical universe were formed, some of them inevitably far from our own, however we reduce the strangeness of it by counting in light years. The layman understands little directly of these affirmations. He must learn what he can from the evidence of others, and digest it as best he may. But no intelligent person today, familiar even with the little he can absorb from science, can fail to marvel and perhaps be overwhelmed, at the thought of the amazing periods of time, and the varieties and complexities, in the course of the vast physical universe as we come to know of it today. This is now a familiar though abidingly amazing story, of which the layman can absorb little beyond the general lineaments of it. Disagreements there may be about points of detail, but none of us will presume to dispute the general story. The universe has been around for a very, very long time. Our period as human beings, though stunningly vast in itself, is infinitesimal by comparison. And no one seriously doubts that. We have learned to take it today, however little our minds can properly comprehend it.

Vast indeed, and beyond proper comprehension. But did it have a beginning? Is there an author and sustainer? Can we meaningfully talk that way any more? This is what I really want to ask, and I want to stress at the start that this is not a question for the scientist as such, but for all. For whatever the scientist tells us, about Big Bangs or whatever seems appropriate, the question I have asked remains independently of any peculiar feature of the story. It is also of first importance.

To those who repudiate the notion that there has to be some original author or sustainer, we may say that they seem to be left with one of two alternatives. One is to say that there must be some sort of beginning but that there is nothing whatsoever to account for it. Some amazingly long time ago, things came to be and shaped themselves into the universe we now know, including ourselves. This just happened, out of nothing, a total void. First there was nothing, not even presumably time and then there began a world or worlds, whatever they were like, some sort of reality at least and processes about which we now have learned a great deal. I suggest that this is a notion we just cannot accept, not because of any religious background or up-bringing, but as ordinary sensible beings. Ex nihilo nihil fit was said long ago, and seems as unavoidable for us as for those who pondered these things earlier.

There is no precise reason we can give why things should not have started up out of nothing and followed the course they have. But it is not just a hunch that we have that this is just impossible. We have to ask, among other things, whether there was time before or not (and it is hard to say there was not at least time itself), why did it start just when it did, at a date calculable in principle from now-or, alternatively, how did we reach now? A sheer fluke, we can hardly say "miracle" in this context, a completely random beginning taking all the same a remarkable subsequent course? From some point just nothing, and then, out of the blue we might put it, genuine realities. It is not just disconcerting for intellectuals to admit themselves quite baffled. It is not just that it is upsetting to have to admit a radical totally chaotic feature of a universe whose course we can otherwise increasingly understand. I can only put it to you that, if you reflect, you just cannot, independently of any further implications, accept the idea of a totally random springing into being out of nothing. Can you avoid asking why the world is the sort of world we find that it is, independently even of its being wonderful in so many ways, if there was simply a random start with no sort of "before" at all? Why this sort of world, and why start when it did? It could be anything from a random start and as readily vanish.

I have said, "independently of its being wonderful in so many ways" and I have no concern to withdraw that, but I think it is fair to supplement what I have said with consideration of what the universe as we ourselves find it, in fact involves. It is a universe in which some amazing intricacies can be understood, so that the scientist can probe into astonishing distances, in time and space, and tell us what to expect and find it. Where it is puzzling there are solutions, down to the most elusive procedures in our own bodies. If one falls off a branch one falls to the ground, but far enough into space we are weightless and do not fall down at all. This might seem a miracle at one time, or just not believable-no one would venture out of a plane if it got that far. But this is commonplace now, and every schoolboy knows about gravity and being weightless. Not only is all this remarkable in itself, but it is astounding what advances we have made in our understanding of the world around us.

We have become highly intelligent creatures, we have varying degrees of artistic sensitivity, in music, painting, literature and more; we play, which is a remarkable phenomenon in itself, and some reach high degrees of athletic skills and set out to improve it; we have endearments and affections, some deep and sensitive, and high regard for the achievements of others than ourselves, we have remarkable standards about the way we set things out on paper and in print (some of the most sceptical amongst us, the late Professor Ryle and A.J. Ayer being as exacting in this as any. Can you think of Ryle, as editor of Mind accepting something in shoddy English style or being careless about the way he put things himself?). We have standards of behavior and of obligations to one another, we resent meanness and affectation and have learnt to have a profound admiration of high moral attainment or selfless sacrifice, irrespective largely of ethical allegiances, we have a rich social existence and ways of sustaining it, notwithstanding appalling and extensive lapses which leave the religious at least with an exceptionally toughened problem of evil. But I shall not go deeper into these matters at present. Let it suffice to note amazing achievement, which I do not think can be doubted whatever the lapses and failures. For all the suffering, we are a remarkable race; and are we to suppose that after an astoundingly long and complicated process of development, we and other creatures too (in this planet and so far as we know nowhere else) have reached the stage we are in and have been for what is for us a long time, out of a beginning, however remote, in nothing? That is just too odd to be credible.

But it may be said, and this brings us to the second alternative, there is no need to bother your head about these troublesome questions of origins or beginnings-for the simple reason that there was no such origin of the world, or the universe, as a whole. There was always something, events of some kind, static or changing and conforming with the same conditions granted changes of conditions or circumstances. However far back you go, there was something, and beyond that and beyond that again ad infinitum, without any first point.

This sounds very plausible when we consider the difficulties of fixing, even as a matter of principle without further explication, how there could be such a first point without anything at all to initiate it. But we have difficulties at once over the word "always". What is this word doing here? The normal provenance of it is some specific reality and specific conditions, though they may be very extensive-"there is always snow on the top of Everest," "it is always very cold within the Arctic Circle," "it is always warm near the Equator," "the grass always grows in Spring in these climates," "the leaves always fall off the trees in the Autumn," "William is always late for school." We can say such things, but "always" remains a limited term. There was a time when there was no snow on Everest, not even an Everest. When we go far enough back the entire world is burning, as most of it is burning now well below the crust. There can be no absolute "always." That is just because we do not know what it means. You can talk of an immensely long way back in time, but always-what does that mean? Can we envisage it even in the most general sense possible? And again we have to ask: "how do we reach 'now'?" We seem to have been much led astray by the normal use of "always". It is hard to give it any meaning when extended beyond this.

What, then, do we say? Many philosophers of today (most, I suspect) will have little interest in the question, or they will boldly tell us that we have strayed well beyond the limits of meaningful discourse. Some will dismiss the problem as a pseudo- one like many other questions, it is alleged, with which thinkers have bemused and muddled themselves in the past. But if not pseudo, at least pointless. For no intelligible answer is possible, and the best thing to do about our sort of conundrum is to forget about it and get on with manageable questions where there may be some result and profit.

But the question will not go away, however bewildering it proves. The world is real, and so is time, whatever theories we form about it. We would all agree that some things happened long ago, and from that we proceed to yet earlier times, and beyond those. But if we cannot suppose that this goes ad infinitum, and if it seems preposterous to assume that the world sprang out of nothing, we do have a genuine problem for philosophers and others to ponder.

One thing is clear. We cannot suppose, as the ground or author or sustainer of all there is, something which remains, in the last account, in essentials of the same sort as the limited, finite things it is to explain. That would still keep us within the same area of discourse. We might invent and postulate something very strange and unusual, or some mind vastly greater than our own, but the question would still remain-"how did that come to be?" We have only extended, if even very vastly, the scope or range of the sort of explanations we give now of things. We have found that the world is vaster and stranger than we thought. But it is still the world (or the universe) as we find it. The ultimate questions stay. It is like the familiar child's question when told that God made the world-"who made God"?

It certainly looks as though we must allow our thoughts to stretch altogether beyond the finite sphere. But how can we do that, since anything we can understand or describe has to be in terms of some limited finite existence, one thing related to others, however odd or unusual? Beyond this there just does not seem to be anything we can say. We reach our limit with the type of explanation we offer of things in the world as they affect one another. Any description is meaningful in these terms, or none. If we try to pass beyond this we can say nothing. What sort of explanation of anything can we offer that is not in finite terms?

This last point seems to me very sound, and we have to be careful, in religious thought and elsewhere, not to forget that. But it does not leave our concern, and our response to it, vacuous. The problem is genuine enough and unavoidable. What we have to say, I submit, (and to understand this is not trivial but of immense importance) is that the entire finite world, as we understand it, is rooted in some reality altogether beyond finite existence, an ultimate, and for us irreducible, mystery. But, if we reach our limit with this mystery, if our minds cannot penetrate it in any fashion, how can it be of any significance to us? We might just as well forget it.

The last line is the one many take, and this is understandable; there seem to be more profitable things to do. But this is altogether mistaken. The recognition that all we are, and the world around us, is dependent on some reality altogether "beyond" and not limited or broken up as finite things are, some one whole "transcendent" source of being, is a marvel in itself and affects all our hopes and aspirations. It gives us a conspectus that is not limited or finite. Of itself it does this, though there is more to be said.

Let me put this more simply, if I can, very cautiously. To realize that the world as we find it, our normal milieu, is itself dependent on, or points to, a reality that is essentially complete and enduring, as finite things are not, this makes its own impact on all other awareness, bringing its own new dimension to all. The ultimate is not just subsisting in its own existence beyond, it is all-encompassing, the supreme source and maintenance of all, it lends the wonder of its own existence and wholeness to all. Transcendence, like a rare shining light, is the most notable thing we can ever know.

This is so all the more because there is an excellent case for saying that the unique completion of the ultimate carries with it essential goodness also. It would not have its proper completeness without that, little though we may know how it operates, as has been impressively shown by Professor Sontag in his Divine Perfection. I have not here the time or space to go into this further claim. But the ground of all cannot be less than all or inferior in any regard. This is how we answer those who say there could be many gods, as there well might be if thought of in terms of an ordinary first cause. But we cannot think of a ground of all with limitations. It could not have its unique finality without the appropriate perfection. It does not just happen to be holy, it is essentially holiness.

I stand by this, but I shall have to amplify it elsewhere. There are two other matters to be noted, and just that for the present. In stressing the dependence of all things on their ultimate source and some immediacy which this involves, we must be very careful to avoid the pitfall, as it seems to me, of treating finite existence as itself some mode or element of the transcendent itself. Various forms of monism do just this. The pattern for most of these in the West was set by Parmenides, although there are milder forms of monism like post-Hegalian idealism in the last century seeking to do more justice to finite existence. In the East we have a more persistent determination to take up the finite altogether into the ultimate, the Supreme being or Supreme Self, although there are found in Eastern cultures at various times profound and perceptive modes of pluralism. None of these forms of monism seem to me sound. They fail to do justice to the obvious genuineness of limited finite beings and especially the distinctness of persons which is the key to most that we find of worth, pre-eminently moral worth, as I have stressed elsewhere. Each is distinct, uniquely aware of himself, but no one can live wholly for himself or within himself. We need the other as other, both man and God. In multiplicity is our way of life, and our health is in apprehending this. There are genuine and far-reaching claims upon us, and affection is little worth without the other in its mysterious otherness.

But the ultimate is in one respect radically different. We know this as we appreciate that it is the transcendent ultimate. It cannot be diversified within itself. We cannot properly apprehend this, least of all in its operation on the world it sustains. But we cannot think of transcendent being except as essentially whole. This is the marvel of created, dependent, existence, that it has its limited and essential diversity expressly required by its dependence on an equally essential wholeness. To appreciate this, as in their un-philosophical way, the Hebrews did, is the beginning of wisdom in religion and all related matters. Creation is not an illusion but an abidingly perplexing and bewildering reality which, in all its incomprehensibility, we cannot escape.

My final point must be very brief. It concerns the disclosures or revelations which religious people also claim. Religion begins with the transcendent whose life and operation in itself we cannot begin to penetrate. It is, as I have insisted, an all-encompassing but total mystery. But that in no way precludes disclosure within the sort of experience we have. Different versions of this appear at different times and places. It is much affected by what, as finite beings, we already believe, and needs much correction in consequence, as the Bible frequently stresses. The test of revelation, and its imperfection and falsity at times, has been discussed by me elsewhere. At this point the religions of the world differ deeply. We must not blur that, or pay the wrong price for amity and esteem. The key here, it seems to me, is in our awareness of one another which is, to my mind, essentially oblique. We do not know others, as we know ourselves directly in having the experiences we do have. We may be very close but we do not have the experiences of even those we love and know best as they are for them. We go by their words and behavior. This I have also stressed elsewhere and tried to meet its difficulties is not to my mind as great as might seem, or in any way distressing-in fact quite the reverse. I have also maintained that our awareness of the transcendent, in all its mysterious elusiveness, extends itself into the total situation in which it happens and thus underlines certain insights which, although valid in their secular soundness, relate especially to our ground and source. In this there is also a patterning and course not unlike our awareness of one another. But this is not the occasion to repeat or amplify what I have maintained elsewhere. I mention it lest anyone suppose that what I have said on the essentially mysterious source of the world exhausts the subject and must be, because of that mystery, our last word. There is indeed much besides at the very heart of religion. There is a "walking with God" and God's giving of himself in one unique person. But these are not matters to be set forth properly now. An allusion must suffice. What I have done has been to set before you the initial claim, as it seems to me (logically at least) of all religion and, above all, to challenge our secular friends to say whether they do not also feel drawn to what I have said earlier and in the body of this paper about finite origins and the like. I am convinced that these are genuine perplexities to which philosophers ought to attend. I invite your response.


[1]The lecture was given to the Institute International de Philosophia at its meeting at Palermo in September 1985.

[2]Frederick Sontag, Divine Perfection (London: SCM, 1962).

[3]H.D. Lewis, Our Experience of God.