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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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