THE notions we acquire of contrivance and design arise from comparing our observations on the works of other beings with the intentions of which we are conscious in our own undertakings. We take the highest and best of human faculties, and, exalting them in our imagination to an unlimited extent, endeavour to attain an imperfect conception of that Infinite Power which created every thing around us. In pursuing this course, it is evident that we are liable to impress upon the [24] notion of Deity thus shadowed out, many traces of those imperfections in our own limited faculties which are best known to those who have most deeply cultivated them. It is also evident that all those discoveries which arm human reason with new power, and all additions to our acquaintance with the material world, must from time to time render a revision of that notion necessary. The present seems to be a fit occasion for such a revision.

Many excellent and religious persons not deeply versed in what they mistakenly call "human knowledge" but which is in truth the interpretation of those laws that God himself has impressed on his creation, have endeavoured to discover proofs of design in a multitude of apparent adaptations of means to ends, and have represented the Deity as perpetually interfering, to alter for a time the laws he had previously ordained; thus by implication denying to him the possession [24/25] of that foresight which is the highest attribute of omnipotence. Minds of this order, insensible of the existence of that combining and generalising faculty which gives to human intellect its greatest development, and tied down by the trammels of their peculiar pursuits, have in their mistaken zeal not perceived their own unfitness for the mighty task, and have ventured to represent the Creator of the universe as fettered by the same infirmities as those by which their own limited faculties are subjugated. To causes of this kind must in some measure be attributed an opinion which has been industriously spread, that minds highly imbued with mathematical knowledge are disqualified, by the possession of that knowledge, and by the habits of mind produced during its acquisition, from rightly appreciating the works of the Creator.

At periods and in countries in which the knowledge of the priests exceeded that of the people, science has always been held up by the [25/26] former class as an object of regard, and its crafty possessors have too frequently defiled its purity by employing their knowledge for the delusion of the people. On the other hand, at times and in countries in which the knowledge of the people has advanced beyond that of the priesthood, the ministers of the temple have too often been afraid of the advance of knowledge, and have threatened with the displeasure of the Almighty those engaged in employing the faculties he has bestowed on the study of the works he has created. At the present period, when knowledge is so universally spread that neither class is far in advance of the other,—when every subject is submitted to unbounded discussion,—when it is at length fully acknowledged that truth alone can stand unshaken by perennial attacks, and that error, though for centuries triumphant, must fall at last, and leave behind no ashes from which it may revive, the authority of names has but little weight: facts and arguments are the basis of [26/27] creeds, and convictions so arrived at are the more deeply seated, and the more enduring, because they are not the wild fancies of passion or of impulse, but the deliberate results of reason and reflection.

It is a condition of our race that we must ever wade through error in our advance towards truth; and it may even be said that in many cases we exhaust almost every variety of error before we attain the desired goal. But those truths, once reached by such a course, are always most highly valued; and when, in addition to this, they have been exposed to every variety of attack which splendid talents quickened into energy by the keen perception of personal interests can suggest,—when they have revived undying from unmerited neglect; when the anathema of spiritual, and the arm of secular power have been found as impotent in suppressing, as arguments were in refuting them, then they are indeed irresistible. Thus tried and [27/28] thus triumphant in the fiercest warfare of intellectual strife, even the temporary interests and furious passions which urge on the contest, contribute in no small measure to establish their value, and thus to render these truths the permanent heritage of our race.

Viewed in this light, the propagation of an error, although it may be unfavourable or fatal to the temporary interest of an individual, can never be long injurious to the cause of truth. It may, at a particular period, retard its progress for a while, but it repays the transitory injury by a benefit as permanent as the duration of the truth to which it was opposed. These reflections are offered for the purpose of proving that the toleration of the fullest discussion is most advantageous to truth. They are not offered as the apology for error; and whilst it is admitted that every person who wilfully puts forward arguments the soundness of which he doubts, incurs a deep responsibility, it is some satisfaction to [28/29] reflect that the delay likely to be thus occasioned to the great cause can be but small; and that those who in sincerity of heart maintain arguments which a more advanced state of knowledge shall prove to be erroneous, may yet ultimately contribute, by their very publication, to the speedier establishment of truth.


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