The Analogy of Religion

Philosophy, Christian Theology, and Joseph Butler

Locke: All Ideas Come From Sensation and Reflection

In my last post I briefly summarise some of Locke’s arguments against innate knowledge. We shall now turn to Locke’s own view (see here for primary source). He starts of by noting that we have various ideas in our minds, some of which can be expressed in words such as “heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet.” Locke asks how we gain these ideas, as he rejects the doctrine that the mind has these ideas in an innate manner. In fact, Locke sees the mind as “whitepaper, void of all character, without any ideas“, and goes on to ask the question: “How comes it to be furnished?

Locke’s answer is experience. We experience in the first instance by observing external sensible objects: we see a chair, or smell perfume, or touch a door handle. In the second instance, we reflect internally on our observations with our minds. With these two aspects of experience, external and internal, we gain understanding and knowledge.

All the ideas we have” says Locke come from these two aspects. Locke then goes on to unpack these in greater detail. He explains that when our senses take in “particular sensible objects” they cause perceptions in our minds. The colour yellow for example is a quality of a sensible object which produces this perception of yellow in the mind. This process Locke calls sensation.

The second aspect of experience Locke calls reflection. The mind operates on the ideas it has gained and reflection seems to refer to our conscious reflecting on these operations. Locke puts it this way: “the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got;- which operations, when the soul comes to reflect on and consider, do furnish the understanding with another set of ideas“. These reflections produce ideas, says Locke, such as ” perception, thinking, doubting, believing” and many others. Notice that these ideas don’t directly come from sensation, but they do rely ultimately on perceiving external objects.

With this ‘highly’ condensed summary of Locke’s empiricism, lets briefly turn back to Butler’s introduction. It does appear that Butler argues on the basis of a type of empiricism. We are told to “join abstract reasoning with the observation of facts“, to use “Experience together with reason“, and not to form our knowledge upon reason alone. According to Butler, we are to “turn our thoughts to what we experience.” That said, it will take more research to determine to what extent Butler followed Locke’s theory of knowledge.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Butler does not set out a systematic epistemology, or seek to do so; his work is primarily aimed at persuading his readers of the truth of Christianity and to live virtuous life. In my next post then, we shall explore Butler’s first argument for the former: an argument for the truth of life after death.


John Locke: A Few Arguments Against Innate Knowledge

Both Plato and Descartes appealed to the doctrine of innate knowledge. Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue, spoke of certain “true notions” which required stirring up to become knowledge. On the other hand, Aristotle disagreed that the concept of ‘innate knowledge’ was sound. He could not see how we could “possess knowledge superior to demonstration without being aware of it.” (see my posts on both Plato and Aristotle for more on this)

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), perhaps “the first of the great English empiricists“[1], John Locke, presents a systematic case against innate knowledge, and argues for the doctrine that the senses are the source of all knowledge. In this post I will be exploring some of Locke’s arguments against innate knowledge.

We start with Locke’s summary of the innate knowledge position:

It is an established opinion amongst some men, that there are in the understanding certain ‘innate principles’; some primary notions … characters, as it were stamped upon the mind of man; which the soul receives in its very first being, and brings into the world with it.”

However, Locke argues that we have the faculties to attain knowledge without these innate principles. We have eyes, for example, which perceive colour, and it would seem strange for us to have this capacity and to still require innate knowledge of colour.

Locke then attacks what he perceives to be one of the common arguments for innate knowledge: the argument “that there are certain principles, both speculative and practical [2], (for they speak of both), universally agreed upon by all mankind“. If is the case, so the argument goes, then is seems reasonable to suppose that all people share certain innate principles.

Locke says that this argument is flawed on two counts. First, even if certain principles are universally held if does not follow that these principles are innate. There could be other explanations why certain principles are universally held. Second, Locke argues that there are no such universally held principles. He points to two principles that he think are the most likely candidates for universal assent:

I shall begin with the speculative, and instance in those magnified principles of demonstration, “Whatsoever is, is,” and “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be”; which, of all others, I think have the most allowed title to innate. These have so settled a reputation of maxims universally received, that it will no doubt be thought strange if any one should seem to question it. But yet I take liberty to say, that these propositions are so far from having an universal assent, that there are a great part of mankind to whom they are not so much as known.

Locke argues that even the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction are not universal held. He claims that “children and idiots have not the least apprehension or thought of them“. Certain people will then (on the innate view) have principles in their minds which never become knowledge. But if these principles are innate then they must become knowledge, says Locke. He puts it this way: “it seeming to me near a contradiction to say, that there are truths imprinted on the soul, which it perceives or understands not

Perhaps these innate notions are unlocked by the use of reason. Could this been an answer to the question of how there could be principles in the mind which are not perceived or become knowledge? Locke goes on to critique this possibility. First, he interprets the statement “that all men know and assent to them [the innate principles] when they come to the use of reason” in two ways:

1. That reason is used to discover these innate principles.

Locke argues, if I read him correctly, that this would imply that all knowledge gained from reasoning would then be innate. This would either contradict the innate view that only universally held knowledge(ie the law of identity) have innate principles or imply that knowledge gained by reasoning does not require the discovery of innate principles.

2. When reason is used these principles become apparent.

On this interpretation, Locke has two lines of critique. I will summarise one: When a person begins to reason from a young age they do not have immediate awareness of “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be“, which is one of the primary candidates for innate knowledge. Instead, people discover the law of non-contradiction by reasoning to it. If this is the case then Locke’s critique of interpretation one applies instead.

So there we have, in a nutshell, Locke’s arguments against innate knowledge. My next post will lay out Locke’s own view.

How could Locke’s arguments be strengthened? How could we strengthen the innate knowledge view Locke is critiquing?


1. John Locke article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

2. Practical principles are basically moral knowledge, while speculative principles refer to non-moral knowledge (eg Scientific or Theological). Speculative knowledge may, of course, have practical implications.

Butler’s Introduction: In one post

Butler observes that we often rely on probable evidence to make judgements in life. We use events and truths that are known to us, to make judgements about unknown events and truths which are like them. Butler observes that this reflection, analogical reasoning, is determinative in practical matters in life and there is no reason why it can’t apply decisively to questions about divine things (which he calls speculative knowledge).

According to Butler, we can reflect on the created world (Butler assumes the existence of a divine creator in this book) using our experience and reason and compare this to the system revealed in the Christian Scriptures. Our reflection of the created order must be based upon our experience of the how the world actually is, according to Butler, and not on preconceived speculations of how the world might of be better. We are in no position, he argues, with our limited capacities to determine how God might have created a world better suited for its purpose. That said, Butler believes that we can tell the ultimate purpose of creation from our natures: happiness and virtue.

It is Butler’s purpose in his Analogy to discern the nature of God’s government over us from what can be known from the created order – including our moral natures. If this appears to be similar to system of government Revelation reveals, and assuming we do admit the existence of a creator, this would give us good reasons to believe that the Scriptures are of divine origin too.

Butler admits that some parts of the analogy are weaker than others, while others give what he calls “a real practical proof” – by which he means a strong proof. However, the strength of Butler’s case rests in its cumulative strength when all the parts are added together. This case, says Butler, “will undeniably show…that the system of Religion, both natural and revealed, considered only as a system, and prior to the proof of it, is not a subject of ridicule, unless that of Nature be so too.

Furthermore, Butler claims that his analogy “will afford an answer to almost all objections against the system both of natural and revealed Religion; though not perhaps an answer in so great a degree, yet in a very considerable degree an answer to the objections against the evidence of it: for objections against a proof, and objections against what is said to be proved, the reader will observe are different things.

We can, therefore, divide Butler’s work into two main projects:

1. To give evidence for a system of Religion reveal through nature.

In Part 1, which consists of seven chapters, Butler aims to show that we are under a divine government. Among other things, it is a government where we are destined for a future life; a government under which we experience punishment and reward; where we know what is good or bad; and a government of which we have incomplete knowledge.

2. To defend the system of Religion revealed through the Christian Scriptures.

In Part 2, Butler defends the Christian faith from various objections by showing that many of the primary objections may also apply to the system of Religion that we can know from experience and reason. Butler defends a number of Christian beliefs including the rationality of miracles, the mediation of a divine person, and the fact that the Christian system is not universally known to mankind.

Furthermore, as intimated in the above quote, Butler also intends the Analogy to answer objections against the evidence for the Christian faith. Butler does this directly by briefly presenting historical arguments for the truth of Christianity, but he also defends the relative amount of evidence and certainty that these arguments provide.

And with that I finish my exposition of Butler’s introduction. There are, however, a number of epistemological loose ends I would like to unravel; yes unravel, not tie up! I think we can better understand Butler if we read a contemporary of Butler’s: John Locke. So next post, at least, will be about Locke work on empiricism, which made him a highly influential epistemologist.

What do you think of Butler’s projects? 

Butler and The Purpose of Creation

As intimated in my last post, Butler appears to be critical of any attempt to build our knowledge of the how the world is on rationalistic arguments. We should instead take for granted that the starting point of knowledge are our observations. We should not rely on pure reason; instead we need to reflect on our observations of the world using our reason. Butler’s epistemology is hard interpret from the passages in the Analogy, but I think he is probably an empiricist (more on that later).

Once we admit that there is a Divine creator of the world, which Butler presupposes as proved for this work, then we must also, says Butler, start reasoning about this world correctly. We should not start with “vain and idle speculations, how the world might possibly have been framed otherwise than it is“, but look to “what is in fact the constitution of Nature“.

If we start to speculate about how God rules over this world providentially before looking out how nature actually is, we will come up short. According to Butler, in our limited capacities we would probably imagine that the world should only contain perfect and happy people who experience no dangers or hazards. There should certainty be no punishment involved in God’s rulership or government, so this speculation goes, because that would be an absurd way to bring about what people were made for; namely, happiness.

Now, while our capacities for determining how the world could be better will be flawed, says Butler, “from the first principles of our nature” we can know certain absolute purposes of nature. As Butler puts it:

we unavoidably judge or determine some ends to be absolutely in themselves preferable to others …. and consequently …. we must conclude the ultimate end designed, in the constitution of Nature and conduct of Providence, is the most virtue and happiness possible

For Butler, our whole nature – of which our moral nature is part of – tells us of God’s moral perfection. And from this we can conclude “that virtue must be the happiness, and vice the misery, of every creature; and that regularity and order and right cannot but prevail finally in a universe under his government.” After which Butler reiterates his previous point: “But we are in no sort judges, what are the necessary means of accomplishing this end.

It should be point out that Butler is not attempting to fully defend his ethical theory here. In this introduction Butler is instead presenting his methodology. He does, however, defend his ethical theory in various places, both in his famous Sermons and in certain chapters of the Analogy.

With his points made: that we know the primary purpose of creation from our nature, that we cannot speculate about how creation could have been better, but that we can know the primary purpose of nature will ultimately be achieved, Butler directs us, once again, to our experiences of nature:

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 that we can study the natural world to discover scientific laws, says Butler, we can also study nature and our experiences to discern the nature of God’s government over us. Then we should compare the nature of this divine government with what religion teaches us and see if both maybe “traced up to the same general laws, and resolved into the same principles of divine conduct.” And this comparison is at the heart of Butler’s argument.

In my last post on the introduction, I will bring these last three posts together and describe how Butler will go about his argument in the rest of his book.

Why does Butler argue against preconceived ideas about how nature could be better? Do our natures tell us the absolute purpose of creation?

The Analogy of Religion

Last time I introduced Butler’s method of analogical reasoning which, to briefly summarise, involves reflecting on known events or statements and then making judgements about similar events or statements which are unknown and disputed. Butler’s famous example is determining that the tide will probably come in based on past observation of similar ‘tide-coming-in’ events.

Butler begins his application of this type of reason by quoting Origen, an Early Christian Theologian:

he who believes the Scripture to have proceeded from him who is the Author of Nature, may well expect to find the same sort of difficulties in it, as are found in the constitution of Nature.” And Butler goes on to give a reflection of this statement: “he who denies the Scripture to have been from God upon account of these difficulties, may, for the very same reason deny the world to have been formed by him.”

Butler see two methods of knowing what he calls “the system of things and dispensation of Providence“:

1. Revelation ie the Christian Scriptures

2. Experience together with Reason.

If, as Butler argues, there is an analogy or likeness between what we can know from both sources, then this removes the presumption against believing that God is the Author of the Christian Scriptures – if we already believe that God is the Author of Nature, that is.

Butler, unlike Descartes and in a similar fashion to Aristotle, seems to deny that the starting principles of knowledge require rational demonstration (see previous posts for more information in this). These principles must be assumed. Furthermore, Butler also seems to deny that we can form our knowledge on certain principles, because in that case we would gain no knowledge from the data of sense experience.

Instead, we should “join abstract reasonings with the observation of facts, and argue from such facts as are known, to others that are like them“. Butler argues then that we should take the fact that we CAN apply reason to our observations as a given. Then we should then progress by applying analogical reasoning from what is known about nature to what is like what is unknown and disputed. As noted previously, Butler argues that this manner of reasoning is conclusive in practical matters – to various degrees – and there is no presumption against using this type of reasoning with regard to religion.

It should be pointed out that Butler is not attempting to demonstrate the existence of God in this work (I will qualify this in the next post), though he was clearly familiar with arguments of this sort presented by his peers. Instead, Butler takes as successfully argued the existence of a divine creator and builds a case for the divine nature of the Christian Scriptures from this starting point.[1]

Butler writes: “my design is to apply it [analogous reasoning] to that subject [religion] in general, both natural and revealed: taking for proved, that there is an intelligent Author of Nature, and natural Governor of the world. For as there is no presumption against this prior to the proof of it: so it has been often proved with accumulated evidence; from this argument of analogy and final causes; from abstract reasonings; from the most ancient tradition and testimony; and from the general consent of mankind. Nor does it appear, so far as I can find, to be denied by the generality of those who profess themselves dissatisfied with the evidence of religion.”

We shall continue into Butler’s introduction next time.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Butler’s approach?

[1] “Butler never assumes the existence of God; rather, at least after his exchange with Clarke, he takes it as granted that God’s existence can be and has been proved to the satisfaction of those who were party to the discussion in his time.” (See the whole article for an excellent introduction to Butler’s thought)

Introducing the Butler: Probability is the Very Guide of Life

Joseph Butler was a philosopher and theologian from the mid 18th Century. His most important works, The Analogy of Religion and Fifteen sermons preached at the Rolls Chapel, have become lasting contributions to Philosophy of Religion, and Ethics. Both works are written from a distinctly Christian point of view, but are read by philosophers of diverse religions persuasions today.

Many of the posts in this blog will be focused on Butler’s works, as I believe his ideas deserve serious thought and study. This post will focus on the introduction of Butler’s Analogy of Religion: I will start to describe Butler’s methodology, his theory of knowledge, which under-girds the rest of the book. And as we have already touched upon some of the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes we can read Butler with these thinkers in mind. Hopefully, this will make some of the terminology a little easier to understand.

The Analogy of Religion is an ambitious and methodical defence of Christianity. I will begin, as mentioned above, by sketching Butler’s approach, which he presents in his Introduction.

Demonstrative and Probable evidence

PROBABLE evidence is essentially distinguished from demonstrative by this, that it admits of degrees; and of all variety of them, from the highest moral certainty, to the very lowest presumption.”

Recalling Aristotle, a Demonstration is an argument with premises that are true and a conclusion that must follow if the argument is valid. A demonstration yields certainty.

Butler distinguishes demonstrative evidence from probable evidence, which gives us degrees of certainty; from the highest certainty – similar to a demonstration – to the lowest “presumption”, as Butler puts it. Probable evidence that gives a person slight presumption does not allow a person to say that something is probably true as there could be equally probable evidence on the other side of the equation. Saying something is probably true, therefore, requires a certain level of probable evidence.

Butler gives the example of observing the tide. One observation gives us a very low presumption that a similar event will happen again the next day; however, many months, or even years of observation will give us a high degree of probable evidence and, therefore, a high degree of certitude.

That which chiefly constitutes Probability is expressed in the word Likely, i. e. like some truth, or true event

When we make a judgement about whether an event has happened or will happen, we reflect on other similar events which we have certain knowledge of ie that we know have happened. The higher degree of similarity between the known events and the events we are making judgements about, the higher degree of certainty we can have in our judgements. The same applies to judgements about truths. Past observations then for Butler, provide us with the material to make judgements.

Only “an infinite Intelligence” can make perfect judgements about all things. For us, according to Butler, “probability is the very guide of life“. The fact, for example, that we know that food is necessary for healthy living is from past observations. And a great deal of the judgements we make in life are of this probabilistic nature.

Low Probabilities and Speculative Knowledge

Even when a judgement is based on low probabilities, according to Butler, we should still act. Even when there is a high degree of doubt in our minds. And this applies to both speculative knowledge, as well as in practical matters. What is the difference? Speculative knowledge is of being, while practical matters are about how we should act in the world. Speculating, therefore – as I understand it – is about reflecting on the nature of reality. And this reflection would include questions about God, the afterlife, the nature of a human being, and many other things.

Probabilities, for Butler, lay us under an obligation to act on what we judge to be true, just as much as when we have demonstrative evidence. He further notes the following:

in questions of great consequence, a reasonable man will think it concerns him to remark lower probabilities and presumptions than these; such as amount to no more than showing one side of a question to be as supposable and credible as the other: nay, such as but amount to much less even than this. For numberless instances might be mentioned respecting the common pursuits of life, where a man would be thought, in a literal sense, distracted, who would not act, and with great application too, not only upon an even chance, but upon much less, and where the probability or chance was greatly against his succeeding.

Butler reflects on how we act in life(and are even obligated to) when there are very low probabilities of success, especially when the judgements are related to very important issues. This point will be further explored in a later post.

At this point Butler draws his discussion of probability, and analogical reasoning to a close:

It is not my design to inquire further into the nature, the foundation, and measure of probability; or whence it proceeds that likeness should beget that presumption, opinion, and full conviction, which the human mind is formed to receive from it, and which it does necessarily produce in every one; or to guard against the errors, to which reasoning from analogy is liable.

This sort of reasoning, continues Butler, “is evidently natural, just, and conclusive“.

Next time we shall see how Butler intends to employ analogical reasoning to questions of God and religion as we continue to work though his Introduction.

What are the weaknesses and strengthens of analogical reasoning?

Foundation of all Knowledge

In part one of Descartes’ Mediations, the famous philosopher embarked on a method of systematic doubting. Every belief that could be doubted, for any reason at all, was dispensed with. Descartes refused to affirm even beliefs that seemed to be obviously true – a task which he found he struggled to do. To help him systematically doubt even these beliefs, he imagined a supremely powerful demon who was deceiving him at every point. Using this tool, Descartes even manages to doubt that he knows simple mathematical beliefs such as two plus three equals five.

While this leaves Descartes in a state of discontent, nonetheless, he presses on:

I will, nevertheless, make an effort, and try anew the same path on which I had entered yesterday, that is, proceed by casting aside all that admits of the slightest doubt, not less than if I had discovered it to be absolutely false; and I will continue always in this track until I shall find something that is certain, or at least, if I can do nothing more, until I shall know with certainty that there is nothing certain.”

Descartes is determined to believe nothing unless it cannot be doubted, even if these leaves him with no knowledge at all.

But no matter how much Descartes doubts, he cannot doubt one thing: “So that it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition (pronunciatum ) I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.”

Even while Descartes doubts, the very fact that he is doubting proves to himself that he must exist. It is this truth: “I am, I exist” that Descartes builds his knowledge on.

In the search for knowledge, then, we have seen three different approaches to knowing that which is, the stable objects of knowledge. For Plato, knowledge is by recollecting pre-existing knowledge; for Aristotle, knowledge starts with sense perception; for Descartes, knowledge starts with what is indubitable – that is, what is impossible to doubt.

A lot more could be said about each of these Philosopher’s epistemology, but for now these posts will hopefully of provided us with the background for the introducing Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion.

Is Descartes’ starting point for knowledge reasonable?

Rene Descartes: Doubts, Demons and Despair

Rene Descartes, the French 17th century philosopher, had a huge impact on the field of Epistemology. His Meditations on First Philosophy is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the nature of knowledge.

In recent times, a number of films have posed us questions about the nature of knowledge. The Matrix placed us in a computer generated virtual reality, and asked us if we could tell the difference between “the real world and the dream world”, to paraphrase Morpheus. Inception, the impressive 2010 heist film, also asked the same kind of question: can we know our experiences actually reflect external reality and that we are not merely dreaming?

These questions are not new for philosophers; similar thought experiments, no doubt, go all the way back to Ancient Greece. However, Descartes brought these questions to the forefront of the philosophical thinking of his day.

Aristotle, if you recall in his Posterior Analytics, claimed that the starting-points of knowledge are sense-perception, memory and the ability to gain knowledge of the universals. These starting points are known by “intuition” and not demonstration (a logical argument). Ask Aristotle how we could sure we were not dreaming, and he would (probably) say that it is by intuition that we know that we perceive the real world. But Descartes’ answer is very different.

In Meditations* part one Descartes starts of with some observations about his Philosophical education:

I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful

Descartes observes that many of the opinions he once had he now knows are not true, and, moreover, the basic principles which these opinions were based on are doubtful. So he resolves to “demolish everything completely and start again” and to “at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions”.

At this point, Descartes explains his methodology: ” it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false”, or in other words, Descartes doesn’t intend to prove that all his opinions are not true. Instead, he deems it necessary to “withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable”. Or in other words, If there is any reason to doubt a belief than Descartes will not affirm it.

But because any one person holds to numerous beliefs it would be impossible to doubt them all. Instead, Descartes goes for the very foundations of these beliefs. First he doubts the senses and all beliefs derived from them because they have sometimes been unreliable. In Descartes own words:

All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.”

But what about seemingly obvious beliefs such as ” I am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper”? To doubt these type of beliefs Descartes recalls that he has such experiences in his dreams: “How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed?”

What do we know then?

Descartes suggests we might have mathematical knowledge such as two plus three equals five because this appears to be true whether we are dreaming or not. But perhaps God is making me go wrong every time I try to answer a sum, says Descartes. After all, he continues, God allows us to be deceived sometimes, so why not all the time? He writes:

“…perhaps Deity has not been willing that I should be thus deceived, for he is said to be supremely good. If, however, it were repugnant to the goodness of Deity to have created me subject to constant deception, it would seem likewise to be contrary to his goodness to allow me to be occasionally deceived; and yet it is clear that this is permitted.”

What is there was no God? Then we are in a no better situation, says Descartes. As then, “I reach the state in which I exist, whether by fate, or chance, or by an endless series of antecedents and consequents, or by any other means, it is clear (since to be deceived and to err is a certain defect ) that the probability of my being so imperfect as to be the constant victim of deception“.

But all these doubts are not enough for Descartes. For he can not get rid of “those old and customary opinions perpetually recur– long and familiar usage giving them the right of occupying my mind, even almost against my will”. Try as he might, he cannot make himself doubt everything. So to counter balance “the distorting influence of habit”, he goes on the offensive:

I will suppose, then, not that Deity, who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth, but that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me.

And Descartes ends part one with the determination to mediate on this supposition in order not to believe anything false at all. It should be noted that Descartes does not actually believe that a demon exists, instead he continually thinks about the possibility to counter act his so-called habitual opinions. That is how I interpret the point of Descartes’ demon.

And so ends this fully packed post. Find out how Descartes tries to escape from his method of systematic doubting next time.

Should we doubt all our beliefs? What do you think about Descartes method?

*John Cotteringham, who specialises in the study of Descartes work, has a translation which is much more readable, but not freely available online. He also provides extracts from Descartes work in his Anthology of Western Philosophy, which has been a helpful study aid.

I Just Know! Aristotle and Sense-perception

Aristotle, you will recall in yesterday’s post, has shown us one way of knowing something: through a demonstration or argument. This seems like a relatively straight forward way of knowing. However, Aristotle’s second way of knowing (which actually forms the foundations for demonstrations) is a little tricky to grasp, and probably far more controversial. In fact, in a few weeks time we shall explore Descartes’ attack on the broad idea of “Pre-existing knowledge”, which will probably make this idea of Aristotle’s easier to understand too. Let’s start with a phrase Aristotle writes near the beginning of his Posterior Analytics: “All teaching and all intellectual learning arises from pre-existing knowledge”

At first glance Aristotle appears to be following Plato’s lead by suggesting that all knowledge is pre-existing (see my earlier posts on the Meno). However, this is not an affirmation of innate knowledge; Aristotle certainly doesn’t mean that. What he means by pre-existent knowledge is knowledge which is “primary and immediate”; or, in other words, knowledge gained by an innate power or capacity. It is this capacity that gives us knowledge, for example, that “All men are moral”.

Why doesn’t Aristotle think that we have innate knowledge of true premises? He writes “it would be strange if we possessed [these starting-points] all along, since then we would possess knowledge superior to demonstration without being aware of it.” Nevertheless, Aristotle is aware of Meno’s paradox and the problem of coming to know something without pre-existing knowledge of it: “it is clearly impossible…..for us to acquire [these starting-points] if we are ignorant and have no predisposition for knowledge”.

His solution is “an innate power of discernment – what we call sense-perception”. For Aristotle, when we perceive particulars, such as a man called Bob, and then a man called Derek and then many other particular men, our memories retain these perceptions and forms what Aristotle calls “experience”. From this experience we now have a “universal” in our minds: the universal of man to be precise.

Let me put it another way: If we perceive a man called Bob, a “primitive universal” of man is in our minds, and if we continue to perceive particular men the universal of man is more and more firmly established in our minds. And this provides some of the knowledge that the premise “All men are mortal” is true. The objects of knowledge, then – the universals – are perceived by naturally noticing and remembering similarities between the particulars. The same would apply to the universal of women, the universal of potato…etc…

Finally, Aristotle says that this innate capacity to acquire pre-existing knowledge is more accurate and more sure than the scientific knowledge that proceeds from it. Aristotle says “there cannot be scientific knowledge of the starting-points…it is intuition that grasps the starting-points”. Or to point it another way: sense-perception, memory and the ability to gain knowledge of the universals cannot be demonstrated; these capacities are assumed to be true from the start.

We still don’t know much about this “intuition” and how it functions, but Aristotle’s’ key point is this: some knowledge you can’t prove with any argument or “demonstration”, but this knowledge is still more sure than the arguments which build on it.

In my next post – and leaping ahead hundreds of years in the history of ideas – I will explain how Descartes attempts to doubt these starting-points. Furthermore, he will try to demonstrate that they are true!

Does Aristotle’s idea of innate capacities solve Meno’s Paradox? What do you think about the idea of sure knowledge which doesn’t require an argument to believe?

Cold Hard Logic: Aristotle and Demonstrative Knowledge

Aristotle’s works, as I mentioned in my last post, were not written in the form of dialogues (any dialogues he did write have apparently been lost). Instead we have works that are very dense and technical, which makes Aristotle hard to read and understand. The Posterior Analytics is no different in this regard, but since it is a relatively short work it provides us with a useful introduction to Aristotle’s philosophy and a chance to hear some of  his ideas about the nature of knowledge.

We have already heard how Plato’s defined knowledge: he said that knowledge related to that which is. Plato, moreover, thought that the objects of knowledge are the immaterial, unchanging and eternal forms (remember the form of “absolute beauty”). The objects of everyday experience do participate in the forms, according to Plato, but they themselves are only the objects of opinion, not knowledge. Building on Plato, Aristotle also thinks that knowledge must relate to what is stable and unchanging: he writes “knowledge relates to what cannot be otherwise.” But Aristotle does not shared the contention that the objects of knowledge are the forms and he also denys that we have innate knowledge in the sense Plato expresses in the Meno. The reason for this will become apparent in the next post, but first we will briefly explore another element of Aristotle’s epistemology: demonstrative knowledge.

Demonstrative or Scientific knowledge

Aristotle describes two ways of knowing. The first is pre-existing knowledge and the second is through a demonstration. Take the following argument:

1. All men are mortal

2. Socrates is a man

3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal

For Aristotle, a “demonstration” is an argument with two characteristics. First, the premises need to be true. That ‘all men are mortal’ must be a true statement and that ‘Socrates is a man’, likewise, must be knowledge (remember knowledge and truth relate to “what cannot be otherwise”). If the argument is logically valid and the premises are true then the conclusion must be true too. Both characteristics seem to be fulfilled by the argument above. The following argument, however, is invalid, but it does have true premises:

1. All men are mortal

2. Socrates is an animal

3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal

Notice that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. In contrast,take this argument:

1. All men are purple

2. Socrates is a man

3. Therefore, Socrates is purple

The argument is valid (the conclusion follows from the premises), but one the premises is clearly not true.

Aristotle calls a valid argument with true premises a “scientific syllogism” and  the conclusion “scientific knowledge”. Now the word ‘science’ obviously has a specific modern meaning, but remember for Aristotle – writing before the advent of the modern scientific disciplines – the word refers to knowledge in this broader sense.

Demonstrative knowledge, then, is knowledge gained through a logical argument. But then another question arises: how do we know whether a premise, “All men are mortal”, in this example, is true? What are the starting points for knowledge which these premises are built on? With this in mind, I will explore Aristotle ideas about sense perception, memory and the building blocks of knowledge in my next post.

Does Aristotle’s two characteristics of a demonstration seem reasonable to you? Do you agree with Plato and Aristotle that knowledge must relate to that which is or what cannot be otherwise? Why does knowledge need to relate to stable objects?