MR. GL ADSTONE ON PROBABILITY AS THE GUIDE OF CONDUCT.
N the current number of the Nineteenth Century, Mr. Glad-
stone takes up Bishop Butler's doctrine in the Introduction to his "Analogy of Religion to the Constitution and Course of Nature," that "to us, probability is the very guide of life ;" and works out the Bishop's argument with a view to proving the " authority " of probable evidence over the mind, in relation, at least, to all matters of duty, and as commanding our assent to all beliefs which vitally affect questions of duty. So far as we grasp the force of his argument, which is not quite free from ambiguity,—owing to the deficiency of illustrative cases which would tell us exactly how he means it to be applied, —Mr. Gladstone means to say something of this sort,—that there is, in the strictest sense of the word, no such thing in finite human life as absolute and infallible truth, since we have no absolute guarantee for the soundness of the faculty which grasps truth ; that by far the greater number of our beliefs are not only not absolute certainties, but subject to a good deal of legitimate question; that the knowledge of this does not in any degree diminish the duty of holding firmly by those for which we have a preponderance, however small, of pro- bable evidence, unless, indeed, they be purely speculative, and do not affect our moral obligations ; and that for these reasons the forming of careful and anxious estimates of the degree of probability attaching to the truth of any proposition closely concerned with moral action,—as, of course, all propositions touching religious faith must be,—and the dis- position to yield assent to the balance of evidence, however fine, should become for us moral habits of the highest order of obligation and authority. That is, we believe, the drift of Bishop Butler's very brief introduction to his "Analogy," though it is not worked out with anything like the elaboration of Mr. Gladstone's paper, and we confess we doubt whether the great Bishop, if he had seen it so worked out, would not have had more doubts on the subject than his distinguished follower appears to entertain.
The point on which we question the whole doctrine is this— whether the kind of intellectual assent founded solely on the calculation of a balance of probabilities, ever can or does exercise the sort of " authority " over the moral nature of men which certainly Mr. Gladstone's, and probably Bishop Butler's, position assumes. We are not questioning, of course, the fallibility of the human mind,—the real uncertainty which underlies so vast a number of our most unhesitating assump- tions,—the misconceptions of human character,—the miscon-
ceptions of external nature,—the misconceptions of Divine purpose, which so fatally vitiate a vast number, possibly enough a majority, of all human judgments. All that we are prepared to grant. What we do question is whether, in the conscious presence of a mere balance of probabilities, and without any of those leaps to unwavering assumptions which, whether justified or unjustified (sometimes they would be the one, and sometimes the other), the great majority of minds do actually make before attaining such conviction as would lead to action, the sense of authority which is requisite can be exerted at all. What Mr. Gladstone holds is, that even a slight balance of pro- bability,—clearly and consciously held as a slight balance,—is a sufficient basis for acts of very solemn belief, and the duty founded on such belief :—
" It may be that, despite of all reasoning, there will be pain to many a pious mind in following, even under the guidance of Bishop Butler, the course of an argument which seems all along to grant it as possible, that the argument in favour of the truth of Divine Reve- lation may amount to no more than a qualified and dubious likelihoocL But as, when the net of the fisherman is cast wide, its extremity must lie far from the hand that threw it, so this argument of probability aims at including within the allegiance of religion those who are remote from anything like a normal faith. It is no mere feat of logical arms ; it.is not done in vain-glory, nor is it an arbitrary and gratuitous experiment, nor one disparaging to the majesty and strength of the Gospel. The Apostle, full of the manifold gifts of the Spirit, and admitted already to the third heaven, condescended before the Athenians to the elementary process of arguing from natural evidences for the being of God. The Gospel itself alone can fit us to appreciate its own proofa in all their force. It is addressed to beings of darkenened mind and alienated heart. The light of truth indeed is abundant ; but the clouded and almost blinded eye can admit no more than a faint glimmering. But if even that faint glimmering be suffered to enter, it will train and fit the organ that it has entered to receive more and more ; and although at first the glory of the Lord could scarcely be discerned in a twilight little short of night itself, yet by such degrees as the growth of the capacity allows, it shineth more and more unto the perfect day.'"
Whence we infer that Mr. Gladstone thinks it possible to join in Christian worship on the strength of accepting a very slender preponderance of probability for the truth of the Christian revelation. But is it possible, is it natural, for any man, on a presumedly slight balance of evidence of the existence of the being to be worshipped, to bring his mind into the attitude of worship ? Let us take less delicate ground for the purposes of the argument. Suppose a man has formed, on consciously conflict- ing evidence, a hesitating and dubious conviction that a particular woman is all that he would most desire in a wife. There is no time for rectifying his estimate. She will be leaving for the Antipodes in a day- or two, if he does not make his offer. He is deeply in love with what he (doubtfully) believes her to be, but there is a fair amount of evidence on the other side, and he is not at all in love with what she would be if that evidence were trustworthy, and if what he now regards as the preponderating evidence were delusive. Under such circumstances, is it con- ceivable that a man should declare his love to a woman the very moral existence of whom he regards as probable only, say, in the proportion of three to two ? Or suppose a blind man, anxious above all things to advise his wife about her sister's most urgent and intimate affairs, but wholly unable to trust that sister, and so far uncertain as to the voices of the two that he is only able to estimate it as rather more probable than not that he is talkingto his wife, and not to the sister whose affairs his advice concerns,—would it be possible for him to pour forth his heart to his questionable auditor, as he would do to one of whose identity he were personally certain, though he himself regarded it as not more likely (say) than in the proportion of five against four, that he was addressing the woman by whom he wished his words to be heard? We put these cases, because they adequately raise the difficulty as to founding acts of the deepest moral importance on mere probability, with less invidiousness than is involved in the ease of addressing worship to One who, in the case supposed, might be described as an almost conjectural Being. But does Mr. Gladstone suppose that the state of mind truly re- presented by the supposed prayer "Oh God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul !" could be made the basis of any- thing like a durable and habitual life of devotion? It seems to us that before you can from your heart live or act under the sense of authority and obligation in relation to any of the deeper matters of life, you must—whether erroneously or otherwise— be possessed with an assumption with regard to the nature of which, for the time at least, you have no moral doubt. The deeper feelings, the higher attitudes of the soul, the keener feelings of obligation, are all dissipated under the withering sense of genuine uncertainty as to the truth of the assumption on which you are proceeding. Doubtless many of the noblest things have been both said and done under a complete illusion as to the truth. This we do not doubt for a moment. What we do doubt is whether any complex structure of duty and spiritual habit can possibly be raised, as Bishop Butler and Mr. Glad- stone would have us raise them, on the basis of a conscious "perhaps,"—whether the higher emotions can take shape at all on so slender a foundation,—whether the conscience can enforce its full authority on the strength of an assumption which has only got "the odds" in its favour.
Of course we are not denying that on questions of pure ex- pediency, where the beginning and end of the whole issue are calculations of a prudential nature, it is perfectly true that it will be a duty to go by the highest probability. Say, the question is as to the amount you ought to insure your life for ; or as to the best way of adding a given sum to the national revenue ; or as to the wisest plan of a campaign ; or as to the most efficient way of helping your poor neighbours,—in all such cases, where the only question is a question of how to obtain the most advantage with limited resources, if there be a doubt, as there usually will be, it is of course your duty to adopt the plan which gives the largest promise of a good result. But after all, calculations of this kind form but a limited part of life, and the very form and structure of the character are not affected by the doubt that exists as to the result. The sense of duty is roused in relation to the end only. The doubt as to the means to be used does not undermine in any way your doubt as to the rightness of the end. But to pour out your heart to God, with a reserve of doubt as to whether you are or are not inventing the object of your gratitude and penitence,---to lavish even human indignation on a hypothetical offence which may exist, as you are fully aware at the time, only in your own acute conjecture,—to confide your sympathy to an ear which may not be the one for which it is intended,—to string up your conscience to a resolve which will be wholly wide of the mark, or even mischievous, in two cases out of five according to your own doubtful computation of the chances,—all this surely is impossible.
Mr. Gladstone is very severe on a certain doctrine known amongst the Roman Catholics as Probabilism, the essence of which is, that in a case where it is only a fine question of probabilities, and not even of high probabilities, what course is the best, it is not unlawful to take even the less probable course, if it seems more in accordance with the personal feeling of the individual. Mr. Gladstone thinks that this doe- trine,—which is not, by the way, accepted Roman Catholic doc- trine, but only the opinion of a particular school,—" overthrows the whole authority of probable evidence," and authorises a man in adhering to a view which he really thinks the less likely, wherever there is any substantial difficulty about the matter if his own personal bias induces him to incline to- wards the side of the less weighty evidence. But as we have ourselves the gravest doubts as to whether it is possible to attach much moral authority over the deeper things of life to a mere probability,—that is, when consciously accepted as a mere probability,—we cannot quite enter into Mr. Gladstone's denunciation. We are not learned in the controversy, but we suppose the doctrine of Probabilism to mean something of this kind,—that when you are in the region of mere presumptions, the strong bias of your own mind, even though you cannot rationally justify it, ought to count for something, even against what you are apt to call your true judgment. If that is what it means, surely it is not so bad a doctrine? Say you are de- liberating on the wisdom of trusting some one. From all you have heard, the presumption is slightly in favour, though very slightly in favour, of regarding him as trustworthy. That is the deliberate outcome of your judgment. But something beneath it, which you cannot account for, and which you cannot clearly bring into consciousness at all, rebels against this act of trust. Is it unreasonable, in a case of mere presumption, to let that out- weigh a mere balance of judgment? Or, say, you are on a wreck, and the sailors tell you that, in their judgment, there is a slightly greater chance that you will be saved if you take to the boats, than there is if you stick by the wreck ; but your own bias is against the crowding and feverish excitement of the life in the boats, and in favour of that comparative space and room for self-pos- sessed resignation which would be possible while waiting on the wreck, is it destructive of all morality to say that a man under such circumstances is not guilty of suicide, if he prefers the latter course ? It seems to us, we confess, that so few of the higher attitudes of mind can be founded °Iva slender probability, or any probability which leaves the mind practically unsettled, that it is quite reasonable to assert that, when dealing with such slight presumptions, either for or against, a certain scope should be given, except in cases of mere expediency, to the liberty of unreasoned personal bias.
In general, then, we should dispute Bishop Butler's statement that "to us, probability is the very guide of life." It is our guide in all cases of mere calculation, which form but a small part of the deeper life, after all. But you cannot rear a com- plex structure of emotions on a probability. You cannot rear a worship upon it. Rightly or wrongly, the mind must reach an assumption confident enough to possess it, before the higher spiritual and moral feelings conic into action. In the strictly utilitarian region, no doubt, probability is the guide of life ; but that is a very limited region, after all. In the region of the personal and religious affections, in the region of the higher self-sacrifices and higher duties, confidence (whether justified or unjustified) is the basis of all the play of the higher life. And we venture to say that even temporary illusion,—even mistaken confidence,—whether in human or in divine things, is the root of a far higher kind of moral discipline and growth, than any which the habit of acting on the preponderance of a slight basis of probability, as if it were what it never can be, conviction, could, by any human manipulation, be developed into.