Butler and The Purpose of Creation

by PDS

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?