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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Joseph Butler and Method in Moral Philosophy and Religion

Juan Gomez writes…

One of the features that we have explored in our project is the application of the experimental method in areas other than natural philosophy. I have focused on the work of George Turnbull to illustrate how the method was applied in moral philosophy and religion. In my next series of posts I want to focus on the work of Joseph Butler (who was arguably one of the figures that most influenced Turnbull) and explore his ideas on method in moral and religious inquiries.

As an introductory post to this series I will focus on the preface that appeared in the 1788 edition of Butler’s Analogy of Religion (first edition 1736) by Samuel Halifax, Bishop of Gloucester. In this preface Halifax gives an account of Butler’s ‘moral and religious systems’ that serves as a summary of Butler’s main ideas.

Halifax tells us that Butler’s moral system can be found mainly in the first three of his collection of Sermons, which are on human nature. Halifax highlights the way Butler proceeds to determine human nature:

What the inward frame and constitution of man is, is a question of fact; to be determined, as other facts are, from experience, from our internal feelings and external senses, and from the testimony of others…From contemplating the bodily senses, and the organs or instruments adapted to them, we learn that the eye was given to see with, the ear to hear with. In like manner, from considering our inward perceptions and the final causes of them, we collect that the feeling of shame, for instance, was given to prevent the doing of things shameful; compassion, to carry us to relieve others in distress; anger, to resist sudden violence offered to ourselves.

The method for acquiring knowledge of our moral system must be the same we employ to discover external facts. Halifax contrasts this method that Butler adhered himself to with the one used by Samuel Clarke. Halifax and Butler both see the two methods not as opposed to each other but rather as complementary:

The reader will observe, that this way of treating the subject of morals, by an appeal to facts, does not at all interfere with that other way, adopted by Dr. Samuel Clarke and others, which begins inquiring into the relations and fitness of things, but rather illustrates and confirms it.

It is interesting that Clarke is portrayed as following an a priori method in his moral inquiries, and I will leave the analysis of this and its relation to Butler’s method for a future post where we will examine the correspondence between Butler and Clarke regarding this issue. Since this is just an introductory post, I want to finish by showing Halifax’s rendering of Butler’s method in his religious work.

Butler’s main philosophical text was his Analogy, where he deals with natural and revealed religion and argues that the former is confirmed in the latter, both giving us evidence for the divine government of the world. The way Butler proceeds in this text is by arguing by analogy from the natural to the moral realm:

This way of arguing from what is acknowledged to what is disputed, from things known to other things that resemble them, from that part of the divine establishment which is exposed to our view to that more important one which lies beyond it, is all on hands confessed to be just. By this method Sir Isaac Newton has unfolded the system of nature; by the same method Bishop Butler has explained the system of grace; and thus, to use the words of a writer, whom I quote with pleasure, has ‘formed and concluded a happy alliance between faith and philosophy.’

One of the advantages of this method of analogy is that (as we will see in my next post where we examine Butler’s Analogy in a bit more detail) it does not lead to a claim of certain knowledge about the doctrines of religion, but it rather leads to a high degree of credibility in them. This feature allows Butler to get rid of a number of objections. Further, if the analogy Butler argues for is a strong one, then all objections made against revealed religion will also count as objections to natural religion, which is a consequence the objectors will not want to admit.

As we have seen in this brief account of Halifax’s preface, it appears that a striking feature of Butler’s work in morality and religion is the methodology he applies in both areas, one that argues from facts and experience instead of hypotheses and speculations:

Instead of indulging to idle speculations, how the world might possibly have been better than it is; or, forgetful of the difference between hypothesis and fact, attempting to explain the divine economy with respect to intelligent creatures, from preconceived notions of his own; he [Butler] first inquires what the constitution of nature, as made known to us in the way of experiment, actually is; and from this, now seen and acknowledged, he endeavours to form a judgment of that larger constitution, which religion discovers to us.

In my next post we will examine Butler’s application of this method in his Analogy and his defense of probable knowledge.

Teaching Experimental Philosophy III: the case of Francis Hauksbee the Elder

Peter Anstey writes …

In two previous posts I examined an early teacher of experimental philosophy, John Theophilus Desaguliers and a later one, George Adams. In this post I turn to a third teacher of experimental philosophy, Francis Hauksbee the Elder (1660–1713). (He was called ‘the Elder’ to differentiate him from his nephew of the same name who also taught experimental philosophy.) Hauksbee was one of the two most important first-generation pedagogues. (We will examine the other, John Keill, in my next post.)

He was a gifted instrument maker who not only developed a new much improved design of Robert Boyle’s air-pump, but also conducted a series of very important new experiments using this instrument. Many of these were published in the Philosophical Transactions. As a result of his proficiency with experimental apparatus he became a kind of de facto curator of experiments at the Royal Society in c. 1704 after Robert Hooke’s death. In addition he seconded James Hodgson FRS to carry out public lectures on experimental philosophy in London while he acted as the demonstrator.

By 1709 he himself was lecturing on experimental philosophy and continued this until his death in 1713. In 1709 he published a compilation volume of his air-pump experiments entitled Physico-Mechanical Experiments … touching Light and Electricity. This volume, in many ways, mimicked Boyle’s ground-breaking New Experiments Physico-mechanical touching the Spring of the Air (1660). (Even the titles are similar.) Hauksbee clearly saw himself as working in a tradition of experimental natural philosophy that extended back to Boyle.

The work gives us an interesting insight into how he viewed natural philosophy. He begins by telling us that:

The Learned World is now almost generally convinc’d, that instead of amusing themselves with Vain Hypotheses, which seem to differ little from Romances, there’s no other way of Improving Natural Philosophy, but by Demonstrations and Conclusions founded upon Experiments judiciously and accurately made. (Preface)

By now our readers should recognize the standard tropes of the experimental philosopher: the decrying of hypotheses; the likening of them to romances; the appeal to the necessity of experiment for the improving of natural philosophy.

Hauksbee goes on in the Preface to mention ‘The Honourable and most Excellent Mr. Boyle’ and ‘the … Incomparable Sir Isaac Newton’ implying that he himself is engaged in the same natural philosophical project. It is interesting to note, however, that there is no mention of the method of natural history as practised and promoted by Boyle in the Preface or in Hauksbee’s work. Hauksbee’s experimental practice was a natural extension of Boyle’s work, but at the same time methodologically discontinuous with it.

Hauksbee was also much quicker than Boyle to draw natural philosophical conclusions from his experiments. He did not, however, apply mathematics to his discoveries and he was later criticized by Desaguliers in his Course of Experimental Philosophy (1734) in so far as his experiments

were only shewn and explain’d as so many curious Phaenomena, and not made Use of as Mediums to prove a Series of philosophical Propositions in a mathematical Order, they laid no such Foundation for true Philosophy. (vol. 1, Preface)

Hauksbee may not have had developed views on the methodology of natural philosophy or much aptitude in mathematics, but he was a gifted experimenter and a keen promoter of experimental philosophy.