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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.

Miracles and ‘Experimental Theism’

Juan Gomez writes…

Greg Dawes pointed out to me a passage in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion where we find the term ‘experimental theism.’ In this text, Hume seems to be referring to an argument given by one of the characters in the dialogue, Cleanthes, where the principle “like effects prove like causes” functions as a premise in an argument for a Deity. But what is really striking is that the term “experimental theism” nicely describes the approach George Turnbull takes in his religious texts, the Principles of Christian Philosophy (1749) and the earlier Philosophical Enquiry Concerning the Connexion Between the Doctrines and Miracles of Jesus Christ (1731). In this post I want to look at the earlier religious text and examine Turnbull’s exposition of what I believe is his ‘experimental theism’.

Turnbull constantly refers to the way natural philosophy is practised in order to adopt the same methods in inquiries into any kind of knowledge at all, whether moral or natural (see my previous posts here and here). His text on the Doctrines and Miracles of Jesus Christ is no exception. The interesting aspect of this text is that Turnbull draws an analogy between experiments and miracles. His argument begins by explaining how we come to know the laws of matter and motion:

    It is by experiment, that the natural philosopher shews the properties of the air, for example, or of any other body. That is, the philosopher shews certain effects which infer certain qualities: or in other words, he shews certain proper samples of the qualities he pretends the air, or any other body that he is reasoning about, hath. Thus is it we know bodies gravitate, attract, that the air is ponerous and elastic. Thus it is, in one word, we come to the knowledge of the properties of any body, and of the general laws of matter and motion.

This is the same way we can know if someone possesses a particular, skill, power, knowledge, or character:

    ’Tis by proper samples or experiments only of power and knowledge, that we can be assured, one actually possesses a certain power of knowledge. Just so it is only by samples or experiments, that we can judge of one’s honesty, benevolence, or good intention.

In the same way, “It is from the works of the Supreme Being, that we infer his infinite wisdom, power and goodness; as from so many samples and experiments, by which we may safely judge of the whole.” This is way of proving through ‘samples and experiments’ is what allows Turnbull to draw the connection between the Doctrines and the miracles. The miracles are sufficient proof of the doctrines, since they are the samples and experiments that show that Jesus has the set of powers entailed by the three kinds of doctrines of Christianity Turnbull identifies: the doctrine of future rewards and punishments, of resurrection of the dead, and of the forgiveness of sins.

Turnbull begins by examinig the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. He tells us that Jesus has claimed that he has the power to raise the dead. How can we tell if this is the case or not? Well we need samples and experiments:

    It was necessary to give samples, or experiments, of this power he claimed. And accordingly he raised from the dead; and gave power to his apostles to raise from the dead. And to put his pretensions beyond all doubt, he himself submitted to death, that he might give an incontestible proof of his being actually possessed of that power, by rising himself from the dead the third day, according to his own prediction.

Within this theory, miracles are analogous to the experiments and facts that work as proof for theories about the natural world. Turnbull examines the other two kinds of doctrine in a similar manner and concludes that Jesus Christ has given proper proof of having the powers he has claimed to have, and as evidence Turnbull cites the many passages in the New Testament where we find anecdotes of the miracles performed by Jesus Christ. The analogy is further explained when Turnbull considers the fact that we cannot understand the nature of miracles. It is not necessary that we understand the nature of the miracle, since it is still proof of the power of performing such miracle. This is the case with attraction in natural philosophy:

    Attraction, say all the philosophers, is above our comprehension: they cannot explain how bodies attract: but experience or samples certainly prove that there is attraction. And proper experiments or samples, must equally prove the power of raising the dead, tho’ we do not understand, or cannot explain, that power.

There are many interesting aspects in Turnbull’s religious thought worth looking into, but for now I’ll leave you with the few snippets provided here. The most relevant feature of Turnbull’s explanation of miracles is that it shows how committed he was to applying the experimental method to any sort of inquiry. He did this in moral philosophy, and here he does it regarding religion. Besides the use of the rhetoric of the experimental philosophy and the consideration of miracles as experiments, he even concludes the text with a list of queries, providing us with some insight of what a work of ‘experimental Theism’ would look like.