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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Defining early modern experimental philosophy (1)

Alberto Vanzo writes…

At the recent Bucharest conference on experiments in early modern philosophy, Mordechai Feingold warned against the attempt to characterize experimental philosophy in atemporal terms. The risk is losing sight of the different ways in which experimental philosophy was practised and understood in the course of time and ending up with a characterization which only applies to some experimental philosophers, or is too general to be helpful. To borrow an expression from Bas Van Fraassen’s book The Empirical Stance, Feingold (as I understood him) warned us not to claim that

    To be an (early modern) experimental philosopher = to believe that E+ (the experimentalist’s dogma).

I agree that being an early modern experimental philosopher did not simply amount to endorsing a certain philosophical claim. I tend to think of early modern experimental philosophy as a movement. We can identify the members of this movement based on at least three features which do not involve the commitment to specific philosophical claims:

1. Self-descriptions: experimental philosophers typically called themselves such. At the very least, they professed their sympathy towards experimental philosophy.

2. Friends and foes: experimental philosophers saw themselves as part of a tradition whose patriarch was Bacon, whose prominent members included Boyle, Locke, later Newton and Hume, and whose opponents were Aristotle and the Scholastics, later Descartes, even later (at least in some quarters) Leibniz.

3. Rhetoric: like the members of many movements, experimental philosophers endorsed a distinctive rhetoric. They praised experiments and observations and they criticized hypotheses and speculations (or certain uses and forms thereof). They called them fictions, romances, or castles in the air.

By conceiving of early modern experimental philosophy as a movement, we can accommodate Feingold’s invitation to take its evolution into account. The identity of movements can evolve in the course of time. This happened to experimental philosophy too. It broadened its scope from the study of nature and medicine to ethics and aesthetics (Hume, for instance, advocated the “application of experimental philosophy to moral subjects”). Its list of friends and foes were progressively extended. Its seventeenth-century members regarded the construction of Baconian natural histories as being central to the success of experimental philosophers. Its eighteenth-century exponents no longer took this to be an important or even useful endeavour.

However, experimental philosophers were also, crucially, committed to a certain method. This is why they placed so much emphasis on experiments and observations, while attacking hypotheses and speculations. They believed that the key to success in the study of the natural world (and, later, of ethics and aesthetics) was the endorsement of a method that involved reliance on experiments and observation and rejection of (certain forms of) hypotheses and speculations.

Of course, I am happy to grant that there were differences among the methods adopted by experimental philosophers. Newton’s method differed in several respects from those of Boyle and other experimental philosophers. However, it would be interesting if we could identify a specific methodological view that was shared by all or most experimental philosophers. To paraphrase Van Fraassen once again, it would interesting if we could state that

    To endorse the method of (early modern) experimental philosophy = to believe that E+ (the experimentalists’ methodical dogma).

But how should we define “E+”? Is there a single statement that we can identify “E+” with and that applies to all or most experimental philosophers? If so, then there still is an “atemporal” component of the commitment to experimental philosophy (in the early modern sense). Otherwise, we might be better off claiming, to quote again Van Fraassen, that the method of experimental philosophy is best seen as a “a stance (attitude, commitment, approach, a cluster of such […])” that, albeit related to belief in propositions like E+ (whatever that may be), will involve “a good deal more, will not be identifiable through the beliefs involved, and can persist through changes of belief”.

What should we identify E+, the the experimentalists’ methodical dogma, with? I will address this question in my next post. In the meanwhile, I would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Please leave a comment or send me an email.

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Probable knowledge in Butler’s Analogy

Juan Gomez writes…

In my previous post I presented Bishop Halifax’s preface to Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed. I focused on the discussion regarding the method applied by Butler both in the Analogy and in his Sermons which is described as an a posteriori method that deduces all knowledge from facts and observations. In this post I examine Butler’s own description of his method in the Analogy where he justifies the usefulness of probable knowledge.

Butler spends the entire introduction to the Analogy explaining and justifying his methodology. He begins by distinguishing probable from demonstrative evidence: the former “admits of degrees; and of all variety of them, from the highest moral certainty, to the very lowest presumption.” Probable knowledge arises from our observation of facts and generates conclusions that though imperfect and not certain are suitable for imperfect beings like us; “probability is the very guide of life.” As an example of the way probable knowledge is a matter of degree he refers to an example Locke gives in the Essay (IV. xv. 5): while someone from a warm climate will not believe that water can become hard, arguing by analogy from his previous observations of water always being liquid, an Englishman will, also from analogy: (a) suppose that there may be frost in England any given day next January, (b) find it probable that there will be frost at least one day of that month, and (c) have moral certainty that there will be frost some day during winter.

The last and higher degree of probable knowledge is the one Butler tries to obtain in the Analogy. He insists that even though it provides imperfect knowledge, when it comes to human actions it is the best guide we have. For example, if there are two ways for me to get home, one of which there are rumours that it is unsafe, the other is known for its safety, it would be foolish of me to take the unsafe road even though the probability of being harmed was low. After this confirmation of the usefulness of probable knowledge Butler further specifies that this is the way arguing by analogy works: we argue from known facts to the unknown; from what reason shows to what we may know through revelation:

    …if there be an analogy or likeness between that system of things and dispensation of Providence, which revelation informs us of, and that system of things and dispensation of Providence, which experience together with reason informs us of, i.e. the known course of nature; this is a presumption, that they have both the same author and cause; at least so far as to answer objections against the former’s being from God, drawn from any thing which is analogical or similar to what is in the latter, which is acknowledged to be from him; for an Author of nature is here supposed.

This is a nice summary of Butler’s purpose in the Analogy: he wants to show that natural and revealed religion coincide, and that arguing by analogy we can confirm the wisdom and perfection of God through both. Further, he believes that this method is just because it is based on facts and observation and not on hypotheses. Butler contrasts his method with the one followed by Descartes:

    Forming our notions of the world upon reasoning without foundation for the principles which we assume, whether from the attributes of God, or any thing else, is building a world upon hypothesis, like Descartes. Forming our notions upon principles which are certain, but applied to cases to which we have no ground to apply them, (like those who explain the structure of the human body, and the nature of diseases and medicine from mere mathematics without sufficient data,) is an error much akin to the former: since what is assumed in order to make the reasoning applicable, is hypothesis. But it must be allowed just, to join abstract reasoning with the observation of facts, and argue from such facts as are known, to others that are like them; from that part of the divine government over intelligent creatures which comes under our view, to the larger and more general government over them which is beyond it; and from what is present, to collect what is likely, credible, or not incredible, will be hereafter.

Notice that Butler is not trying to claim that his method will provide certainty, but rather that his conclusions will be more credible than those derived from mere hypotheses. One of the central issues in the Analogy is the nature and existence of a future state. Butler argues that from what we know of our present stage in life through the observation of nature it is not unlikely that there is a future state. This is an interesting feature of the application of the experimental method in religion. Facts and observations are still the only sources for acquiring knowledge, but instead of the certainty they provide in natural philosophy they give us, at best, highly probable knowledge about the government of God and the future life. Butler’s discussion in this introduction is of special interest for us since he explicitly rejects the use of hypotheses and mere speculation:

    As there are some, who, instead of thus attending to what is in fact the constitution of nature, form their notions of God’s government upon hypothesis: so there are others, who indulge themselves in vain and idle speculations, how the world might possibly have been framed otherwise than it is… Let us then, instead of that idle and not very innocent employment of forming imaginary models of a world, and schemes of governing it, turn our thoughts to what we experience to be the conduct of nature with respect to intelligent creatures; which may be resolved into general laws or rules of administration, in the same way as many of the laws of nature respecting inanimate matter may be collected from experiments.

We can see then that the rejection of hypotheses and mere speculation was also present in discussions about religion, even when those who sided with the experimental method like Butler and Turnbull admit that all we can conclude about the future state is, at best, highly probable and hence imperfect knowledge. This was not a problem from them, since they were still arguing from things we know, and since it is suitable to the nature of human beings that we only acquire probable knowledge of the future, more perfect state. However, this was not the only way figures sympathetic to the experimental method argued about the government of God. As we mentioned in the previous post Butler’s a posteriori method is contrasted with Samuel Clarke’s a priori method, but I leave this discussion for my next post.

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