Review of the rationalism-empiricism distinction in Latin America
Juan Gomez writes…
In this post I want to take a break from sharing my research on the ESD in early modern Spain. I want to talk about the current application of the rationalism-empiricism distinction (RED) by philosophers in Latin America.
A few days ago, Sociedad de Filosofia Aplicada (Society for Applied Philosophy), an organization in Spain, posted on their Facebook page a link to a blog written by a philosopher in Mexico. The blog entry is titled “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo.” I had to check out the post, and what I found led me to do a bit of research on the current use of the RED distinction in the Spanish-speaking world. In this post I want to focus on two examples to illustrate both the dangers of the RED and the benefits of adopting the experimental-speculative distinction (ESD).
In Spanish speaking countries, we are taught in philosophy classes in high school and university that the rationalism-empiricism debate frames the history of philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that such debate was brought to an end by Kant. This assumption leads us to think of rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical schools or movements. This is where the RED starts giving us problems. The author of the blog mentioned above has two posts on rationalism and empiricism: “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo” and “Apunte critico: la metafísica dentro del empirismo.” In the former, the author presents rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical theories, although his description of them reflects that they are two opposing epistemological viewpoints. As we have already mentioned in this blog, the fact that the RED is an epistemological distinction means that it is not at all appropriate when it comes to our interpretation of the breadth history of philosophy of that period. This same problem arises in the author’s other post, where he presents empiricism as a whole movement which pretends to “eliminate metaphysics.” There are two issues here: the author uses the term empiricism to refer to logical positivism and the verification principle, and he takes empiricism as more than an epistemological theory. Regarding the first issue, we can see that the use of the term ’empiricism’ itself is unclear, given that it is used to describe both the Vienna Circle and eighteenth-century empiricists; at best, this would lead us to distinguish different kinds of empiricism which, as we have already mentioned elsewhere in this blog, is troublesome. The second issue reiterates the problem of adopting the RED as much more than an epistemological distinction. The author runs into trouble when trying to describe Hume’s thought: “Hume admits, to a certain degree, the value of reason…” Labeling Hume as an empiricist and then claiming that he admits the value of reason raises doubts regarding the usefulness and accuracy of the label.
For a second example I want to refer to a blog entry by a Brazilian philosopher. On the blog for filovida.org, she has an entry titled “Sobre o Empirismo e o Racionalismo de John Locke.” She acknowledges the difficulty of labeling a philosopher under either rationalism or empiricism, and then sets out to explain how John Locke cannot be labelled under any of these terms. She explains that Locke in some sense has a foothold in each of the so-called philosophical schools: “Locke’s starting point is an empirical method while at the same time he is committed to a rationalist project…” “This is how Locke’s philosophy encompasses, admirably and sui generis, not rationalism as opposed to empiricism, but rather a rationality which follows a rigid, reasonable, and novel empiricist method.” The author here acknowledges the issues that arise when considering the work of Locke under the RED framework, but her thought can be finessed by switching to the ESD framework. The apparent ambiguity of Locke’s work —sitting between rationalism and empiricism— vanishes when his thought is viewed under the ESD lens. Locke can be more comfortably labelled an experimental philosopher, providing us with a more accurate description of his work and a clearer insight into his thought.
The two examples mentioned here just serve the purpose of illustrating the current situation when doing early modern philosophy with the RED framework. Though there has been some talk among Spanish-speaking philosophical circles of the suitability of the RED, most philosophers in the region still take the rationalist–empiricist distinction for granted and work within such framework, unaware of the issues (like in the first example) or the advantages (like in the second example) of an alternative framework. Historians of philosophy in the region can enhance their work and understanding of early modern philosophy by adopting the ESD framework. The switch is a difficult but very rewarding one, one that needs to take place across the whole curriculum in the region; from introductory classes in high school, to advanced research projects in universities.
The Experimental-Speculative debate in early modern Spain 3
Juan Gomez writes…
It has been a while since my previous post, so I will begin by recapping my series on early modern Spain up to the point where we left off. This series focuses on an interesting debate between scholastics and novatores in Spain at the beginning of the eighteenth century, a debate which revolves around natural philosophy and methodology. The origins of the debate can be found in a book by Gabriel Alvarez de Toledo, Historia de la Iglesia y del Mundo (History of the Church and the World), where he tries to give an account of the book of Genesis which is consistent with the theory of atomism. This attempt to combine elements of the scholastic tradition with the new science was seen as a threat from the scholastic camp, which set out to criticize the book. Fransisco Palanco took advantage of this opportunity to go beyond a criticism of Alvarez’ book and set out to attack the novatores and the new science. The novatores quickly replied to Palanco, Juan de Najera and Diego Mateo Zapata responding with an attack on Aristotelianism and the scholastic ways. This exchange was the topic of our previous post, but it was not the end of the debate.
In 1717, a year after de Najera and Zapata’s comments, the response from the scholastic camp appeared. Juan Martin de Lessaca, a doctor from Toledo who was loyal to Aristotelianism, published Formas ilustradas a la luz de la razón (Forms enlightened through the light of reason [redundant as it is]). Lessaca claims that his book is a vindication of Aristotelianism in response to Najera and Zapata. The book consists of two parts: first a response to Zapata’s review, and then a response to Najera’s text. Lessaca begins his criticism by confirming a claim already made by Palanco, namely, that the novatores were guilty of heresy, based on their appeal to the new science.
Aside from the justification of the connection between heresy and new science, Lessaca offers a picture of the new philosophy that can shed some light on the way the scholastics viewed the doctrines of the novatores:
The Atomists claim that their Philosophy is the best, since it is founded on experience itself, and what the senses perceive; and so they call their Philosophy experimental, and sensible. Such is the Chemical Course, so highly praised by the Author of the Review [Zapata] who says: And so Chemistry being a demonstrative science, accepts as a foundation only what is palpable, and demonstrative. It is truly of great advantage to have such sensible principles which can be ascertained with more reason. The elevated imaginations of other Philosophers, who hold on to their Physical principles by lifting their spirits to the level of great ideas, but never prove anything demonstratively. This being so, it is why it is called Experimental Philosophy…
Here we have a clear contrast between the two movements: the scholastics found their research on ideas and the use of reason alone, while the novatores focus on experimental observation and the perception of the senses. Lessaca uses the distinction to point out that the novatores can be referred to as being “crude”, given that the senses are cruder than reason. Lessaca refers to those maxims held by the novatores to show the baseness of their methodology.
Lessaca continues to criticize the novatores‘ emphasis on experience. He accepts that they might have an adequate knowledge of the human body, thanks to their attention to sensible experience, but they cannot rely on the latter “to discern those parts that cannot be seen, or touched, or accessed through sensible experience, and of this kind is all of the internal part of man, all that concerns spirits, their movement, nutrition, augmentation, etc”. The strategy here is not to attack the novatores on grounds of the faults of their method, but rather to point out that their method falls short when it comes to the knowledge of what cannot be experienced through the senses.
Lessaca’s comments are of great interest to us because they give us specific arguments against the methodology of experimental philosophy. Beyond the charges of heresy, Lessaca does point out that experimental philosophy, though not completely useless, is too limited; the emphasis on experience and observation entails, from Lessaca’s viewpoint, that experimental philosophers were not capable of studying anything that went beyond the senses. And with this he flips the situation around: if experience and observation are our guides, then whatever we say about anything which escapes these guides becomes mere conjecture.
In our research we have found many instances of the way experimental philosophers criticize and oppose speculative philosophers and their methodology. But examples from the other side of the ESD divide attacking experimental philosophy are scarce. This is where Lessaca’s work stands out, giving us some insight into the arguments adopted and promoted by speculative philosophers to defend their movement within the ESD.
Astrology and the novatores, part 2
Following my previous post on the status of astrology in early modern Spain, I want to give a more detailed account of the debate between Martin Martinez and Diego Torres de Villaroel. In today’s post I want to focus on the specifics of Martinez´s rejection of astrology in Juicio final de la astrologia (the final judgment of astrology).
As I commented last time, Martinez directs his attack against Diego Torres de Villaroel, a scholastic mathematician and astrologist famous for his almanacs. Martinez attacks the use of astrology on three fronts: its application in natural philosophy, in morals, and in politics. Let’s focus only on the first of these aspects here.
Martinez complains that, in order to enhance the reach of their discipline, astrologers have placed celestial bodies as the cause of almost all natural effects:
- …they [astrologers] confer to them [celestial bodies] the rains, winds, and all other alterations of the air. There is no metal in the depths of the earth that escapes their influence; they say Mars rules iron; the Moon rules silver, Jupiter rules tin, Saturn rules lead, Venus rules copper, and Mercury rues quicksilver… There is no animal, whether terrestrial, aquatic, or airborne, whose birth, life, and death does not depend on the judgment of the Celestial Bodies…even today, one or another Physician is possessed by this mistake, fixing to each celestial body its special qualities without ever experimenting them; just on their devotion, they make some hot and other cold; just on their word they make some dry and other wet; they assign a Planet to each body part: the Sun to the heart, the Moon to the brain, Mars to the liver, Saturn to the spleen, Venus to the kidneys, Jupiter to the uterus, and Mercury to the lungs…
Martinez first points out that, not being founded on experience, the conjectures of the astrologists lead to disagreements between them. One astrologist assigns the five moons of Jupiter to the fingers, while another assigns them to the five upper left teeth. Mocking the astrologists for the inconsistencies among their unfounded conjectures is only an initial stab at them, but Martinez has a more substantial philosophical argument behind it. The thrust of Martinez’s argument is that, given the presence of evident qualities, any reference to occult qualities can be nothing more than a fiction. The sun, the weather, and the observation of nature here on earth are enough to explain natural effects. There is no need to look for a connection between the celestial bodies and the ailments of the human body or the best times for harvest. The former are explained through medicine and the latter through natural philosophy, but astrology does not play any role in either.
To illustrate this, Martinez draws from natural phenomena and shows that natural philosophy always offers a better explanation than astrology. He refers to a particular event where we experience some warm days during winter as well as fresh days during summer. He emphasizes that not even the sun is a necessary cause of the seasons, but rather a sign of them. If the sun truly was the cause, then the temperature would gradually rise and decrease between the two solstices, and every year our summers and winters would be identical, given that the position of the sun is the same each year. So how do we explain the phenomenon? Astrologists, Martinez says, say that “the cold that we experience during summer is caused by the influence of the very cold Saturn, and the warm days during winter are due to the influence of raging Mars.” But if this were true, then this effect would be the same all across the globe, which is clearly false. Martinez refers to the different observations in Madrid and Valencia to illustrate the implausibility of the astrologists’ conjecture.
Natural philosophy offers a better explanation of this phenomenon: “the cause of these alterations is the variety of situations between Countries, and the variety of winds specific to each of them; since when the Austral blows in winter there is warmth, and when the Boreal blows in summer there is fresh climate…it is always necessary to refer to the specific constitution of the regions, and the diverse fermentations and other elemental alterations, in order to explain these phenomena, and reject the musings of the astrologists as unnecessary.”
Martinez drives the argument home by commenting on the superfluousness of consulting the stars when it comes to harvest:
- Of the rains and storms I say the same, since when there is an evident cause, it is not philosophical to refer to obscure causes…We must think in the same manner regarding the infertility and abundance of harvests: for if the farmer, by manuring a ground which is watered promptly by rain, collects a bountiful harvest, we must not look at any Celestial body for the cause but rather to his diligence and the prompt rain; in the same manner we must account for the infertility of harvest by a defectuous watering, small crops, the locust plague, or other evident causes; but it is never necessary to refer to Celestial Bodies to explain such events.
In essence, Martinez appeals to the astrologists’ unfounded conjectures and their appeal to obscure causes to reject the application of astrology in our explanation of natural phenomena. However, the popularity of almanacs in Spain and the confidence and reputation of figures like Torres de Villaroel meant that Martinez was facing a fierce opposition. In my next post we will examine Torres de Villaroel’s defence of astrology and his subsequent attack on the novatores.
Astrology and the novatores
Juan Gomez writes…
In one of my previous posts regarding early modern Spain I referred to Martin Martinez, a physician who was an avid promoter of the experimental method. Today I want to examine a debate he had regarding the rejection of astrology. In this blog we have provided many illustrations of the methodological statements typical of those who promoted and adopted experimental philosophy. We have shown the insistence in rejecting the work of those that rely solely on speculation, but we have not yet seen any examples of the work of speculative philosophers. The case of astrology in 1720s Spain can shed some light on the kind of speculative science rejected by experimental philosophers like Feijoo and Martinez.
Besides the comments he added supporting Feijoo’s work, Martinez wrote a whole essay (Juicio final de la astrologia (The final judgment of astrology)) rejecting astrology in 1727. He distinguished between astronomy and astrology: while in the former “the regular movement of the stars is observed…times are computed, lunar cycles determined, and eclipses are predicted”, in the latter astrologists “feign a volume (only intelligible to them) in the heavens where they find written mundane events, wars, famine, pests, shipwrecks, harvests, diseases, and all other fortunes of human life.”
In the comments he makes defending Feijoo’s work, Martinez clarifies that the problem with astrology is that it is not founded in observation and experience:
“Upon reflection, according to what reasoning, or experience, do the astrologists found their imagined influxes of the stars and planets? On what grounds do they know that Mars burns, and Saturn cools? They probably say, because Mars is red and Saturn grey: though according to this they should also say that carnations burn and quicklime cools; and if they say they experience heat coming from Mars, I do not understand how they know it comes from it, and not from another cause.”
Martinez goes on listing a number of claims astrologists make, in particular related to the effects the movement of the planets and stars, eclipses, and comets have on the health of individuals. But Martinez is directing his claims to one individual in particular, Diego de Torres Villaroel, a mathematician and astrologist who published yearly almanacs with predictions under the pseudonym “el gran Piscator de Salamanca”. Leaving the calendars aside, Torres also published an essay containing his ideas on the nature of the earth and the heavens. The text was first published in 1724 under the title Viaje fantastico del gran Piscator de Salamanca (The fantastic journey of the great Piscator of Salamanca), and then again in 1739 as Anatomia de todo lo visible e invisible (Anatomy of all that is visible and invisible). It is this book that Martinez targets, and will serve as our illustration of the kind of speculative philosophy the novatores rejected.
Torres’ essay gives an account of the structure and composition of the earth and the heavens, all this prompted by an eclipse which occurred on May 22, 1724. The explanation of the constitution of both spheres of the universe (heaven and earth) is given through a story where the great Piscator travels to the depths of the earth and then upwards to the heavens, illustrating to his fellow travellers all the details of both spheres. As is clear from various passages, Torres’ claims are never supported by observations, but only by the musings of his mind and astrological calculations. The opening lines of the dedicatory epistle highlight the speculative nature of the work:
“Hand over hand the soul, without resorting to the use of the external senses, and reason, in arms of a jobless idleness, let fantasy to its word, and running through the spaces of imagination it recited in their theatre the following story.”
Torres acknowledges that he writes from his imagination, but asserts that he reaches the same conclusions others (like Kepler, who studies “the cosmic machine”) have:
“With no other guide but my imagination, and sleeping like a log, I have completed the same journeys [as Kepler and Kircher].”
Although lines like the ones just quoted give the impression that Torres must be speaking metaphorically, it seems that his ‘discoveries’ had no other foundation that the inspiration he got from studying astrology. In the opening lines of the story, a character contrasts the method of astrologists like Torres to those who studied the eclipse by means of observation:
“How is it that you, Mr. Astrologist, in an eclipse whose nature and effects have excited the North and their less lazy Observers have been writing about, you do nothing other than note down in your Prediction the simple calculation of the time and the day?”
Torres defends himself, and convinces his companions to go on a journey through the earth and the heavens in order to understand the nature of eclipses and their effects on human events. In their journey through the earth the astrologist points out where hell and purgatory reside deep down where there is no influence of the heavenly bodies. Then they travel upwards to the heavens, where the astrologist explains the different levels, how all is made of ether, and its effects on the earth. He explains how when a comet is “of the nature of Saturn”, it “causes colds, leprosy, haemorrhoids, paralyses, and chronic diseases”; if it is dominated by Mars on the other hand, it causes “cruel dysentery, rotten fevers, delirium, haemorrhages…”
I could go on drawing on passages from Torres’ book, but the ones quoted above are enough to illustrate the opposition to astrology that the Spanish novatores insisted on. It is important to remember that figures like Feijoo and Martinez had a genuine worry regarding the influence of astrology. Unlike our present time, in the early decades of the eighteenth century astrology was still considered by many as a genuine science, and it was this (more than the almanacs) that motivated the novatores to call for a ban on astrology.
Scholasticism and natural science in early modern Spain
Juan Gomez writes…
One of the most exciting tasks of my research has been to track the introduction and reception of the ESD in early modern Spain. I have illustrated the adoption and praise of the spirit of experimental philosophy in various texts by the Spanish Novatores, and I looked in a bit more detail at the work of Benito Feijoo (posts 1, 2, and 3). In spite of the insistence to abandon scholastic and Aristotelian methods and science, the progress of natural philosophy in early modern Spain lagged in comparison to the rest of Europe. In fact, the Novatores themselves recognized this lack of progress, as is clear from a letter by Feijoo which I will be sharing with you today.
In 1745 Feijoo published a collection of letters, most of them responding to a range of criticisms directed against his Teatro Critico Universal. Letter 16 in the second volume of that collection is Causas del atraso que se padece en España en orden a las Ciencias Naturales (Causes for the backwardness of Spain regarding the Natural Sciences). Feijoo gives six reasons (causes) for this backwardness, in all of them placing the blame on the scholastic philosophers and their way of thinking.
The first cause is the narrowness of most of the teachers, whom Feijoo describes as “Everlasting ignorants, set on knowing only a few things, for no other reason that they think that there is nothing else to know, aside from those few things they know.” Feijoo goes on to describe this kind of teacher, who only knows scholastic logic and metaphysics, and laughs when hearing words like ‘new philosophy’ or ‘Descartes.’ However, when asked to explain the claims of the new philosophy or those held by Descartes, they stay silent because they have no knowledge of them. (Note: experimental philosophy and new philosophy are not identical, even though the former was sometimes referred to by the latter name. For example, Descartes was commonly regarded as a new philosopher, but not so much as an experimental philosopher.)
People like the teachers described above have spread throughout Spain a disdain for ‘the new’, the second cause identified by Feijoo. They think that, since every sacred doctrine labelled ‘new’ is rejected immediately for being suspicious, the same rule applies for theories about the natural world. So they must reject the teachings of Galileo, Huygens, and Harvey, as well as all the new instruments and machines developed in the seventeenth century, holding on to their scholastic and Aristotelian science as the one true system. Feijoo comments that this attitude backfires, since rejecting anything because it has been labelled ‘new’ entails that there could never have been any progress in natural science (the Aristotelian system was also ‘new’ at some point).
But aside from rejecting the new philosophy because it is ‘suspicious’, the Spanish scholastics also reject it because all it presents is “a few useless curiosities.” (This is the third cause given by Feijoo.) What the scholastics do not realize, Feijoo tells us, is that under this criterion their theories lose against those of the modern: “Which would be more useful: to explore in the physical world the works of the Author of Nature, or to investigate through large treatises derived from the Entity of Reason, and logical and metaphysical abstractions, the fictions of human understanding?” Feijoo also contrasts between the method of learning in the confines of the classroom of the scholastic, and that of the modern, based on experiments and observations.
The fourth cause rests on the mistaken notion held by the scholastics that the new philosophy is identical to Cartesian philosophy. Feijoo comments that although Cartesian philosophy might be new philosophy, new philosophy is not Cartesian philosophy, the same way men are animals but animals are not men. Highlighting the ESD, Feijoo goes on to divide philosophy into two kinds:
“Philosophy, taken in all its extension, can be divided into Systematic and Experimental. The Systematic has many different members, e.g. Pythagoric, Platonic, Peripatetic, Parascelsistic, or Chemical, that of Campanella, that of Descartes, that of Gassendi, etc.”
Feijoo clarifies that he advocates not that the Spaniards embrace one of the former systems, but rather that they do not close their eyes to “Experimental Physics”, which:
“without regard for any system, investigates the causes through the sensible effects; and where it cannot investigate the causes, it settles for the experimental knowledge of the effects… This is the physics that reigns in Nations: the one cultivated by many distinguished Academies as soon as it emerged in France, England, Holland, Etc.”
The achievements of this experimental physics are illustrated by the discoveries regarding our knowledge of the properties of air, of fluids and mechanics, all of them unattainable by relying on the physics of the schools.
Feijoo identifies as the last two causes the mistaken idea that the new philosophy clashes with religion, and the jealousy and pride of the scholastics in Spain that prevented them from accepting the triumphs of other men of science from different European nations. I will not examine them here. Instead I want to conclude the post by pointing out that, not only there is enough evidence to confirm the presence of the ESD (at least in some form) in early modern Spain, but also that it can provide us with an interesting framework to interpret the development of natural philosophy and science in early modern Spain.
Testimony and evidence from the scriptures
Juan Gomez writes…
For those familiar with the rhetoric and methodology of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy (the faithful readers of this blog among them) it is no surprise that the emphasis on facts, observation, and experiment as the only solid grounds of knowledge was highlighted in almost every published text by the promoters of the experimental method. Within natural philosophy, the relevant facts and experiments were confined to nature and its workings. However, pinpointing the relevant facts and observations for knowledge in areas outside of natural philosophy was a more delicate matter. As we have argued for in this blog, the methodology of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy was adopted by many eighteenth-century figures in areas traditionally contained under moral philosophy, such as ethics, aesthetics, and theology. But which sort of facts and observations entitled them to apply the same methodology that had contributed so much to the progress of mankind and our knowledge of the natural world?
George Turnbull (the philosopher, teacher, and theologian who has many times been the subject of our posts) thought that introspection could give us access to facts about the anatomy of our mind, and that paintings provided in moral philosophy the same role experiments did in natural. But what about facts and observations regarding religious thought? A couple of years ago I commented on Turnbull’s ‘experimental theism.’ We saw how Turnbull argued that the miracles performed by Jesus Christ serve as the samples and experiments that prove that he truly was the son of God and possessed knowledge of a more perfect stage in nature. However, the only evidence we have of those miracles is found in the gospels of the apostles, so why is it that those accounts of miracles count as proper evidence? David Hume’s rejection of miracles was based precisely on the claim that evidence from testimony would never be stronger than evidence from experience, and so belief in miracles from testimony of them is not justified. Turnbull, on the other hand, believed that the testimony given in the gospels was in fact enough evidence, and it is his argument that I want to focus on for the rest of today’s post.
In the conclusion to his Principles of Christian Philosophy (1749) Turnbull claims that he will show that “the christian revelation gives a very proper, full, and truly philosophical evidence for the truth of that doctrine concerning God, providence, virtue, and a future state. As I mentioned earlier, Jesus and his apostles had a first hand access to the evidence, i.e. the works and miracles of Jesus Christ. But what we have access to is testimony of that evidence, and not the evidence itself. This being the case, we must wonder if testimony is reliable enough. In an earlier section of his book, Turnbull argues that testimony, whether of the senses, or of introspection, or of whatever kind, must be examined under the same criteria:
- “[E]xperiences taken upon testimony, must all of them, whether concerning objects of the outward senses, or inward sentiments, operations, and affections of the mind, be tried, examined, and admitted, or repelled by the very same criteria, or rules of moral evidence.”
So the testimony from the gospels should be examined the same way we examine any testimony of experiments in natural philosophy. Turnbull then claims that we have no reason to doubt the testimony whether of Jesus or the apostles, just as we wouldn’t doubt the testimony of a skilled scientist:
- “For surely, one who had admitted the truth of a proposition in geometry, or of an experiment in natural philosophy, upon the testimony of one skill’d in these arts, in whom he had reason to confide, has no ground to doubt such testimony, when having made further advances in geometry or experimental philosophy, he comes to see the truths he had formerly received upon testimony, as it were, with his own eyes. And must not the same hold true with respect to moral truths?”
It seems that Turnbull does not confront the issue of the reliability of testimony as proper evidence. Of course, he could argue that we do not have any reason to doubt the account given by the apostles because they are characterized as having a virtuous moral character, and so is Jesus. But these accounts come from the gospels themselves, so unless we have an external account of the moral character of those giving the testimony, it seems that we might have grounds to doubt them.
Turnbull, however, seems to think that this is not an issue and that in fact “the enemies of Christianity have in no age ever attacked the evidence” for the history of Jesus Christ. In particular, Turnbull argues that the main reason to accept the evidence from testimony is the fact that it is not inconsistent with the knowledge we gain from our observation of the natural world. The main purpose of Turnbull’s text is to show that revealed religion confirms the knowledge accessed from natural religion, and it is in this sense that the former is useful. So as long as testimony agrees with experience, there is no reason to reject it.
- “Surely it cannot be said, that because one kind of evidence for a truth is good, that therefore another kind of evidence is not good. And therefore the evidence in such a case must stand thus. ‘Here is a double evidence for certain truths; an evidence from the nature of things; an intrinsick evidence; and likewise an extrinsick evidence, or an evidence from testimony, upon which there is a sufficient reason to rely independently of all other considerations.'”
It appears then that the testimony of the gospels is just a different kind of evidence for the Christian doctrines, and since it confirms the claims we have deduced from our experience of the world, then such testimony is reliable. Turnbull can only claim that testimony is reliable after proving the doctrines from natural religion, i.e. by examining the world and the workings of our mind. So Turnbull’s strategy is not to argue for the reliability of testimony itself, but rather to claim that since it is not inconsistent with what we have learnt from experience, then there is no reason to reject it.
History: “a school of morality to mankind”
Juan Gomez writes…
Throughout the last few years we have presented a number of posts on education and experimental philosophy in the Early Modern period. Peter Anstey and Alberto Vanzo have commented on teaching experimental philosophy (Desaguliers, Adams, and Meiners), Gerard Wiesenfelt delighted us with two posts on universities in seventeenth-century Europe (Sturm and de Volder), and I have discussed education in Aberdeen (Fordyce and Gerard) and England (Bentham). Today I want to contribute to our research on education by discussing Turnbull’s ideas on learning and virtue.
Even though scholars have recognized that there were significant developments in educational theory in the Early Modern Period, almost all of their accounts are French-centred and the only British author they refer to is Locke, due to his influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). Of course, the bulk of the educational treatises of the eighteenth century were produced by French authors (Voltaire, Rollins, Diderot, Condorcet, etc.), but this does not mean that important works on education were not being produced outside of France. Turnbull’s Observations upon Liberal Education (1742) is a salient example here. Turnbull (with the exception of a recent article by Tal Gilead) is hardly even mentioned in scholarly accounts of education in the eighteenth-century, despite the fact that his book on education had a considerable impact at the time. Besides having a clear influence on Alexander Gerard and the educational reforms in the Aberdeen universities after 1750, Turnbull also appears as a major influence in Benjamin Franklin’s Proposals Relating to the Education of the Youth in Pennsylvania (1749). Further, even though many of the ideas in Turnbull’s Education also appear in Locke and Rollins’ work, Turnbull’s commitment to the experimental methodology gives his text a unique feature among the educational works of the time.
Turnbull, like Locke and Rollins before him, firmly believes that the main goal of education is the teaching of virtue. This popular idea of the time takes on a unique development in Education, where Turnbull applies the experimental method to his pedagogical theory:
- …as with regard to the culture of plants or flowers, sure rules can only be drawn from experiment; so for the same reason, there can be no sure rules concerning education but those which are founded on the experimental knowledge of human nature.
So where are we to find the experiments Turnbull hints at? If the aim of education is the achievement of virtue, then those experiments must contribute to this same purpose. We have already discussed that paintings can take on this role. However, in Education the role of experiments is taken up by the example of teachers and of historical characters. Turnbull refers to Horace to illustrate this method of educating:
- For ’tis by examples that good and bad conduct, with their various effects and consequences, the strength and grace to which men, by proper diligence, may arrive, and the baseness and misery into which vice plunges, most strongly appear…This, indeed, is the moral lesson every more exalted example in the records of human affairs presents to us in the most striking light, and to which cannot be too early or too forcibly inculcated from fact and experience… The characters of the more considerable personages of moral history, will afford, to a judicious instructor, excellent opportunities of enforcing, of deeply riveting this important lesson upon young minds.
History takes a primary role in Turnbull’s theory of education, given that it furnishes us with the experiments that allow us to direct the mind towards virtue. In another of his texts, a preliminary discourse to a translation of Justin’s History of the world (1742), Turnbull paraphrases Rollin to illustrate the priority of teaching history:
- History therefore, when it is well taught, becomes a school of morality to mankind, of all conditions and ranks. It discovers the deformity and fatal consequences of vices, and unmasks false virtues; it disabuses men of their popular errors and prejudices; and despoiling riches of all its enchanting and dazzling pomp and magnificence, demonstrates by a thousand examples, which are more persuasive than reasonings, that there is nothing truly great or praise-worthy, but untainted honour and probity.
Rollin and Turnbull share this belief in the supreme importance of history for teaching virtue, but unlike the former’s, Turnbull’s theory stands on his belief that the experimental method is the proper way of gaining any kind of knowledge. One of Turnbull’s original and interesting contributions to eighteenth-century educational theory is his interpretation of historical accounts as proper examples that provides us with adequate facts and observations for the instruction of virtue, in the same way experiments allow us to construct our conclusions in natural philosophy. Of course, the question of the accuracy of historical reports springs up; can inaccurate or false historical reports still contribute to the instruction of virtue? For example, an historical account that somehow illustrates that greed leads to happiness and the progress of society would not, presumably, be of service to the goal of education that Turnbull wishes. However, by insisting on the importance of the experimental method Turnbull has a way out: only those historical accounts that are founded on facts and observations are to be considered in the education of our youth. Turnbull did not deal with this issue in enough detail in Education, but he did discuss the issue of the reliability of historical reports in another context (religious testimony) which we will explore in my next post.
Birth stats and Divine Providence
Juan Gomez writes…
In a number of posts in this blog we have examined how some philosophers in the eighteenth century were carrying out moral enquiries by following the experimental method that had achieved so much for natural philosophers. The subtitle of Hume’s famous Treatise clearly states the “attempt to introduce the experimental method in morals,” and we know that Turnbull, Butler and Hutcheson were also using this method in their arguments regarding morality, the human mind, and the existence of God. Regarding this latter issue, theistic philosophers like Butler and Turnbull argued that the order and perfection of the natural world (deduced from facts and observation) was clear proof of the wisdom and goodness of God. In this post I want to examine one of such arguments given not by a moral philosopher, but by a famous physician and mathematician: Dr. John Aburthnot.
Dr. Arbuthnot was a fellow of the Royal Society and Physician to the Queen, a fellow Scriblerian of Swift and Pope, a mathematician and a very interesting figure in general. Best known for his work in medicine and his satires, this fascinating polymath wrote a short paper that appeared in the Philosophical Transactions for 1710 titled “An Argument for Divine Providence, Taken from the Constant Regularity Observ’d in the Births of Both Sexes.” He explains how probability works in a situation involving a two-sided dice, and then proceeds to argue that the number of males and females born in England from 1629 to 1710 shows that it was not mere chance, but rather Divine Providence that explains the regularity between the sexes. Let’s examine his argument in more detail.
Arbuthnot begins by considering the purely mathematical aspect of an event where we want to find out the chances of throwing a particular number of two-sided dice (or a coin for that matter). The simplest case is that of 2 coins, where we have that there is one chance of both coins landing on heads, one chance of both coins landing on tails, and two chances where each of the coins lands on a different side. The mathematical details need not detain us here; the main conclusion drawn form this exposition is that the chances of getting an equal number of heads and tails grows slimmer as the number of coins augments. For example, the chances of this happening with ten coins is less than 25%. If instead of coins we consider all human beings which, Arbuthnott assumes, are born either male or female, the chances of there being equal number of each of the sexes are very, very low.
However, Arbuthnot acknowledges that the physical world is not equivalent to the mathematical, and this changes his calculations. If it was just mere chance that operated in the world, the balance between the number of males and females would lean to one or the other, and perhaps even reach extremes. But this is not the case. In fact, or so Arbuthnott argues, nature has even taken into account the fact that males have a higher mortality rate than females, given that the former “must seek their Food with danger…and that this loss exceeds far that of the other Sex, occasioned by Diseases incident to it, as Experience convinces us.” The wisdom of the Author of nature is witnessed in this situation, as the tables of births in England show that every year slightly more males than females are born, in order to compensate for the loss mentioned above and keep the balance. For example in 1629, Arbuthnot’s table list 5218 males to 4683 females; in 1659, 3209 males to 2781 females; in 1709, 7840 males to 7380 females; and so on for all the years recorded.
Arbuthnot concludes that from his argument “it follows, that it is Art, not Chance , that governs,” and adds a scholium where he states that polygamy is contrary to the law of nature.
What can we make of Arbuthnot’s paper? Instead of discussing how effective the argument is (I leave that for the readers to discuss with us in the comments!!), I want to focus on the fact that Arbuthnot’s argument illustrates the call for the use of mathematics in natural philosophy. Philosophers like Arbuthnot and John Keill thought that the use of mathematics had been neglected in natural philosophy and believed that it should play a greater role. From the 1690’s onwards the work of experimental philosphers reveals this use of mathematics in natural philosophical reasoning. The structure of Arbuthnot’s argument resembles that of the natural philosophers who, like Newton, were using mathematics to explain natural phenomena. The mathematical calculation is extrapolated to the case of human births (in this case). Arbuthnot recognizes an issue central to the application of maths in natural philosophy: while the former deals with abstract objects, the latter deals with the natural world. However, in this particular case Arbuthnot uses the asymmetry between the mathematical and physical realms to show that Divine Providence is a better explanation than mere chance when it comes to the balance and regularity of human births. I would like to hear what our readers think of arguments like the one constructed by Arbuthnot.
Butler and Clarke on the infinity of God
Juan Gomez writes…
In my three previous posts I have been commenting on the experimental methodology in religion and the contrast between the preferred methods of Samuel Clarke and Joseph Butler. We saw bishop Halifax’s general description of the a priori and a posteriori methods, and then we examined Butler’s preference for the latter and Clarke’s adoption of the former. Today I want to conclude this series of posts on religion by focusing on one specific application of the a priori method and Butler’s criticism of it.
In his A Demonstration of the being and attributes of God (1704) Clarke provides an argument for the infinity of God. As we have already mentioned in previous posts, Clarke prefers the a priori method because it provides ‘demonstrable proof’ of the attributes of God, while the a posteriori method can only provide probable knowledge. Clarke appeals to a set of premises from which he concludes that God, i.e. the only self-existing being, must be infinite. The following is Jonathan Bennett’s rephrasing of Clarke’s argument:
- ‘x is self-existent’ means that it’s a contradiction to suppose that x doesn’t exist
- ‘x is finite’ implies that there are places at which x doesn’t exist.
- It is a flat-out contradiction to suppose that something is both self-existent and finite.
So if you accept that God is self-existent, then you must also accept that he possesses the attribute of infinity. However, Butler is not convinced by this argument. In particular, Butler thinks that Clarke cannot say that if a being can be absent, without contradiction, from one place, then it can also be absent, without contradiction, from all places, which is exactly what Clarke claims is absurd. This is the passage that Butler criticises:
- “To suppose a Finite Being, to be Self-Existent; is to say that it is a Contradiction for that Being not to exist, the Absence of which may yet be conceived without a Contradiction: which is the greatest Absurdity in the World: For if a Being can without Contradiction be absent from one place, it may without a Contradiction be absent likewise from another Place, and from all Places…”
Butler points out that a being, without contradiction can be absent from another and all places as long as it is at different times, but it is most certainly an absurdity to claim that a finite being can be absent from all places at the same time, since this would entail that it ceases to exist. Clarke replies that Butler is mistaken here, since it is indeed possible for a finite being to be absent of all places and all times, since such being is not necessary. Clarke appropriately switches back the conversation to talk of necessary beings, but this still is not enough to satisfy Butler.
In a follow up letter to Clarke’s reply, Butler now objects to the definition of self-existence. Butler argues that from the claim that a being necessarily exists it does not follow that it exists everywhere; it only follows that such being must exist somewhere, but there is no contradiction in supposing it is absent from other places at the same time.
It seems that the key to the whole discussion is the idea of necessity. If the self-existent being is necessary, then this must be the case everywhere, so it would be a contradiction to think that a necessary being is absent at one place. Butler seems to be missing this point in his exchange with Clarke. However, to be fair to Butler, at the time the correspondence took place, Butler was still very young (21 years old), and he eventually changed his mind and accepted Clarke’s argument.
However interesting the discussion between Butler and Clarke, I only wanted to provide an example of the way the debate between a priori and a posteriori methods took place within a religious context. Butler might have eventually accepted Clarke’s argument for the infinity of God, but 20 years after his correspondence with Clarke he was going to prefer the a posteriori method in his Analogy (1736), holding on to his belief that in matters of faith probable knowledge is all we need.
Why did Butler end up preferring the a posteriori method even though he accepted Clarke’s argument? The answer lies in the limits of knowledge that resulted from a commitment to experimental philosophy. Figures like Butler and Turnbull applied the experimental method to subjects that went beyond the observation of the natural world. This meant that the application of the experimental method could not be as straightforward as it was in natural philosophy, for the objects under consideration (‘moral objects’) are unobservable in the sense that they cannot be experienced via the five external senses. Knowledge of the existence of a future state and the attributes of God is not directly accessible to us, given our human nature. Anything we can possibly now about such things must be by analogy to the knowledge we gain from the observation of the natural world. This is why our knowledge of these ‘moral objects’ can never be demonstrable, but only probable. From our observation of the natural world we can safely conclude that it is probable that there is a future state, and highly probable that God is infinite (omnipresent), but we can never construct a demonstrable proof of these conclusions.
In one of the final exchanges on this topic Butler confesses that he insisted on his objection because he wanted a demonstrable proof of the infinity of God, and this misled him:
- “…your argument for the omnipresence of God seemed always to me very probable. But being very desirous to have it appear demonstrably conclusive, I was sometimes forced to say what was not altogether my opinion.”
Clarke suggests in his reply that this is a fault many are mislead into, and he blames one of the preferred targets of advocates of experimental philosophy, René Descartes:
- “…the universal prevalency of Cartes’s absurd notions (teaching that matter is necessarily infinite and necessarily eternal, and ascribing all things to mere mechanic laws of motion, exclusive of final causes, and of all will and intelligence and divine Providence from the government of the world) hath incredibly blinded the eyes of common reason, and prevented men from discerning him in whom they live and move and have their being…”
The upshot of applying the experimental method to moral topics was that it could only provide probable (not demonstrable) knowledge. However, recognizing this limitation was far more reasonable than those chimeras constructed by speculative philosophers.
Samuel Clarke on arguing a priori
Juan Gomez writes…
In my two previous posts I explored Butler’s preferred methodology in the Analogy and the Sermons. We first looked at bishop Halifax’s description of Butler’s work and then we reviewed the latter’s own methodological statements. Both Butler and Halifax describe two methods used in arguing for the existence and attributes of God: a posteriori and a priori. They identify the latter of these methods with the work of Samuel Clarke. Since we have already discussed at some length Butler’s methodology, I want to spend this post analysing the comments Clarke (one of the leading Newtonians of the first decades of the eighteenth century) makes regarding his use of the a priori method.
Clarke was sympathetic to the experimental method as practised by Newton and he was especially interested in the application of mathematics to metaphysics, which is the project carried out in his Boyle lectures, A Demonstration of the being and attributes of God (1704) and A discourse concerning the unchangeable obligations of natural religion (1705). In the text of the lectures themselves there is not much regarding methodology, other than Clarke stating that his method is “as near to Mathematical as the nature of such a Discourse would allow.” However, subsequent editions of the discourse included Clarke’s replies to objections where in his answers to the sixth and seventh letters he explains in more detail his use of the a priori method. In the former he briefly explains why he prefers it by contrasting it with the a posteriori method:
- The Proof a posteriori is level to All Mens Capacities: Because there is an endless gradation of wise and useful phænomena of Nature, from the most obvious to the most abstruse; which afford (at least moral and reasonable) Proof of the Being of God, to the several Capacities of All unprejudiced Men… The Proof a priori, is (I fully believe) strictly demonstrative; but (like numberless Mathematical Demonstrations,) capable of being understood by only a few attentive Minds; because ’tis of Use, only against Learned and Metaphysical Difficulties…
So on one hand the a posteriori proof is accessible to more people, but it provides only reasonable (not demonstrable) proof; on the other, the a priori way of arguing provides demonstrative proof, but it is only reserved for a few minds engaged in metaphysical disputations. Clarke prefers the a priori method in this case (i.e. in natural theology) because it can provide him with demonstrative proof of the attributes of God. However, this method is not meant to be in direct opposition to the a posteriori method, but rather complement it. This is what Clarke mentions in his preface to the Discourse:
- The Honourable Robert Boyle, Esq; was a Person no less zealously solicitous for the propagation of true Religion, and the practice of Piety and Virtue; than diligent and successful in improving Experimental Philosophy, and in inlarging our Knowledge of Nature. And it was his settled Opinion, that the advancement and increase of Natural Knowledge, would always be of Service to the Cause and Interest of true Religion, in opposition to Atheists and Unbelievers of all sorts… In pursuance of which End I endeavoured, in my former Discourse [the Demonstration], to strengthen and confirm the Arguments which prove to us the Being and Attributes of God, partly by metaphysical Reasoning, and partly from the Discoveries (principally those that have been late made) in Natural Philosophy.
Clarke believes that both ways of arguing complement each other and both prove the attributes of God. In his Answer to the Seventh Letter Clarke justifies in more detail his use of the a priori method. Clarke believes that an a priori argument is necessary to carry further what the a posteriori argument proves. He recognizes that the latter “ought always to be distinctly insisted upon,” but the a priori argument is useful to answer objections against the attributes of God at a metaphysical level. Further, Clarke explains that the a posteriori argument by itself cannot prove the eternity, infinity and unity of God:
- The Temporary phænomena of nature, prove indeed demonstrably a posteriori, that there is, and has been from the beginning of those phænomena, a Being of Power and Wisdom sufficient to produce and preserve those phænomena. But that This First Cause has existed from Eternity, and shall exist to Eternity, cannot be proved from those Temporary phænomena; but must be demonstrated from the intrinsick Nature of Necessary-Existence.
In a similar vein, Clarke comments that from the observation of the phænomena of nature we can only prove that there is a Being with sufficient power and wisdom, but not that such being is absolutely infinite and universal. What I want to point out here is that the two methods in consideration should be interpreted as complementary and not as opposed to each other. However, Clarke’s a priori arguments regarding the attributes of God were widely criticized, even from those who shared his Newtonianism and admired the mathematical method that Newton successfully applied in his natural philosophy. One of these critics is Joseph Butler, and in my next post I will examine the discussion between this two figures regarding the attribute of infinity.