The Analogy of Religion

Philosophy, Christian Theology, and Joseph Butler

Category: The Analogy of Religion

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.


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?