DURHAM CATHEDRAL LECTURE 1978

 

 

Butler's Philosophy

of Religion Vindicated

 

 

J. R. Lucas

 

 

Delivered in the Prior's Hall at Durham, 17 March 1978

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SACRED

TO THE MEMORY OF

IOSEPH BUTLER

BISHOP OF DURHAM

BORN A:D: 1692

DIED A:D: 1752

 

SURPASSED BY NONE

WHETHER ON THE LONG LINE OF BISHOPS OF THE SEE

OR AMONG TI-FE

CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHERS OF ENGLAND

ADAPTING THE TONE OF HIS LANGUAGE

TO THE EXIGENCIES OF I-IIS HOLY CAUSE

HE COULD USE A SEVERE SELF-RESTRAFNT

BUT COULD ALSO RISE

TO THE HEIGHTS OF A FERVID DEVOTION

HIS CHARACTERISTIC STRENGTH LAY

IN A HABIT PROFOUNDLY MEDITATIVE

IN THE PROPORTION AND MEASURE OF HIS THOUGHT

IN SEARCHING MENTAL VISION

IN THE CONSECRATION OF A LIFE

AND IN HUMBLE UNSWERVING LOYALTY TO TRUTH

THUS HIS WORKS BECAME

A FOUNTAIN OF PERPETUAL INSTRUCTION

ON THE HIGHEST DUTIES AND INTERESTS OF MAN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Butler's Philosophy of Religion

Vindicated

 

 

"IT IS IMPOSSIBLE for me", said Bishop Butler upon his first meeting the clergy of Durham, "to forbear lamenting with you the general decay of religion in this nation; which is now observed by everyone, and has been for some time the complaint of all serious persons... For as different ages have been distinguished by different sorts of particular errors and vices, the deplorable distinction of ours is an avowed scorn of religion in some, and a growing disregard to it in the generality." 1 Butler speaks to our condition: but we find it hard to hear him. Although he was, according to Cardinal Newman, 2 the greatest name in the Anglican Church, he is now little read and little heeded. In particular, his Analogy of Religion, in which he undertakes a rational defence of the Christian religion, is seldom off the shelf, and on the few occasions on which it is opened, it is found difficult, and soon returned, unstudied, to the place whence it came. The reasons for this lie partly in the assumptions we bring to bear on the the reading of his book, partly in the style and strategy of his writing. It is commonly believed by philosophers that Butler, along with all natural theologians, was refuted by Hume, and that there is no possibility of his being right, so that there is no point in reading him now, except for the purpose of noting exactly where his argument fails. Butler's style is dense. Although he is not obscure, he is intricate. He could use, as his memorial in the Cathedral puts it, a severe self-restraint of language, which makes him seem to the modern reader determinedly dim. Nevertheless, we ought not to ignore him. Modern philosophers are, I shall argue later, entirely wrong in supposing Butler to have been refuted by Hume, and although the tactics of Butler's argument necessarily limit its appeal for us today, we can nevertheless learn much from his approach, and his general strategy is a valid one for Christian apologetics, which, suitably adapted, provides a cogent commendation of the Christian faith in each succeeding age.

Joseph Butler was born in Wantage in 1692 the son of a Presbyterian draper, and was destined for the Presbyterian ministry; he was well educated at a dissenting academy first at Gloucester, then at Tewkesbury, but he came to feel that he would be fettered in his theological enquiries by the doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian church, and deciding, against his natural bent, on a legal career, he went up to Oriel College, Oxford, [3]in 1715. 3 But his real interest continued to be in theology, and he was ordained in 1718. In 1721 he was collated by Bishop Talbot to the Rectory of Haughton-Ie-Skerrie, and five years later he became Rector of Stanhope, where he wrote The Analogy of the Christian Religion. He became Bishop of Bristol in 1738, and was translated back to Durham in 1750, but died only two years later, at the age of sixty.

From his prose style Butler would seem to have been very much an eighteenth-century man, and in understanding his philosophy we need to remember the age he was addressing. But it would be a mistake to see him as only a man of his age. He had a sense of mystery, awe and terror untypical of the eighteenth century. According to his chaplain,

"his custom was, when at Bristol, to walk for hours in his garden in the darkest night which the time of the year could afford, and I had frequently the honour to attend him. After walking some time he would stop suddenly and ask the question, 'What security is there against the insanity of individuals? The physicians know of none; and as to divines, we have no data, either from Scriptures or from reason, to go upon relative to this affair'. . . He would then take another turn, and then stop short: 'Why might not whole communities and public bodies be seized with fits of insanity, as well as individuals! Nothing but this principle, that they are liable to insanity, can account for the major part of those transactions of which we read in history."' He was touched, like all philosophers, by an awareness of the fragility of the certainties of our everyday lives, and recognition of how different everything could be from what we commonly suppose. He had something in common with Blake, Cowper and Dr. Johnson, and should be seen not as an Augustan, but as a precursor of the Romantic Revival, and in several important respects of the Oxford movement.

When Butler was a young man, the leading apologist for the Christian religion was Samuel Clarke, the friend and follower of Isaac Newton. Butler was greatly impressed by Clarke and started corresponding with him while still at the dissenting academy at Tewkesbury, and became a protege of his. He was, however, also a critic. Clarke's arguments are in the tradition of the schoolmen. They seek to demonstrate, for the most part by a priori reasoning, the being and attributes of God. They are crisp and aim at the same sort of cogency as those of Newtonian natural philosophy. If they succeed they are incontrovertible: but if they fail, they are simply fallacies, and carry no weight at all. Butler found difficulty in accepting Clarke's arguments. ". . . I endeavoured after a demonstrative proof;" he wrote in his first letter to Clarke, 4 ". . . but . . . hitherto [4] have been unsuccessful; and though I have got very probable arguments, yet I can go but a very little way with demonstration in the proof of those things." "And though I have got very probable arguments. . ."-this phrase gives us, I believe, the key to the whole of Butler's philosophy. It is easily overlooked, because the word 'probable' has since changed its meaning, being used now in a technical sense, constituted by the calculus of probabilities, primarily of propositions rather than arguments. Butler's meaning might be better rendered by the word 'arguable'. Its sense is to be elucidated by the contrast he draws with "demonstration in the proof of these things". Like Locke before him, only far more thoroughly, he is working out the implications of our informal reasoning, which is not conclusive but is weighty, which is not such that no man who dissents from it can be accounted unreasonable, but nevertheless is a good guide to reasonable men in their thinking and their doing. Butler's own philosophical thinking was carried out almost entirely by means of probable arguments. Although on the particular point he raised with Clarke, he conceded, after several exchanges of letters, first that Clarke had proved part of his case "to a very great probability, though not to me with the evidence of demonstration", 5 and finally that his argument was conclusive, 6 yet a profound difference of temper and style remained. Although Butler sometimes explicitly adopted a priori arguments of the sort adduced by Clarke, 7 and often took them for granted, they did not really satisfy him or answer his chief perplexities. What they succeed in establishing, if they succeed at all, is the existence and attributes of a philosopher's God, "the Author of Nature", not the God worshipped by Butler, the God revealed in Jesus Christ and experienced in the Christian life. Butler's chief concern being different, his arguments are different also. Instead of abstract a priori argument modelled on mathematics, he appeals to a wide-ranging consideration of experience as a whole, after the manner of our practical deliberations and the judgements we reach in the humanities and the arts. He produces no proofs, but considers arguments, and having examined what objections and counter-arguments may be urged against each, and how objections may be met and counter-arguments answered, he assesses the weight of argument on either side, and strikes a balance as judiciously as he can. It is a style that many Englishmen find deeply congenial; Butler more than any other divine manifests mens naturaliter Anglicana, and the manner of the Analogy has often struck chords of sympathy quite apart from any merits the matter may have. To put it very tendentiously, whereas Clarke had the cold cogent clarity of the Cambridge mind, Butler had the fuller, but fuzzier, mind that Oxford offers her sons.

Butler's style of argument stems from the nature and purposes of man. "Probable evidence", he says in the Introduction to The Analogy, "in [5] its very nature affords but an imperfect kind of information; and is to be considered as relative only to beings of limited capacities." 8 He sees man as always acting under conditions of imperfect information and, also and importantly, as primarily an agent, and, again like Locke before him, draws implications for philosophy as well as religion from our necessary lack of knowledge. Whereas Descartes would have us doubt everything we are not absolutely certain of, Butler argues

Due sense of the general ignorance of man would also beget in us a disposition to take up and rest satisfied with any evidence whatever, which is real. I mention this as the contrary to a disposition, of which there are not wanting instances, to find fault with and reject evidence, because it is not such as was desired. If a man were to walk by twilight, must he not follow his eyes as much as if it were broad day and clear sunshine? 9

Whereas the sceptic finds agnosticism easy, the man who is really concerned to know must be guided by such evidence and clues as he can get, making the best estimate he can, recognising that it may prove wrong, but knowing that it is necessary to stick one's neck out and running the risk of being wrong if one is to have any chance of winning the truth. In some passages, 10 he goes further, and outlines a version of Pascal's wager, suitably toned down by Bishop Wilkins. 11 In this we can see him---anticipating modern decision theory---seeking to determine a rational strategy for taking decisions under conditions of imperfect information. His main point, however, is one of logic, not calculation. Thus in his Charge to the Clergy at Durham, he asks "For would it not be madness to forsake a safe road, and prefer to it one in which he acknowledges there is an even chance he should lose his life, though there were an even chance likewise of his getting safe through it?", and then goes on at once to observe "Yet there are people absurd enough to take the supposed doubtfulness of religion for the same thing as proof of its falsehood, after they have concluded it doubtful from hearing it often called in question. This shews how infinitely unreasonable sceptical men are, with regard to religion, and that they really lay aside their reason on this subject as much as the most extravagant enthusiasts." 12 Sceptics are irrational, because they seek to apply the wrong standard of rationality, and demand an immunity to error which is not vouchsafed to us mortal men among the manifold changes and chances of our sublunary lives, and not having what in the nature of the case they cannot have, make no use of what they can and do have. "Is it not a poor thing", he asks himself [6] in the Analogy, 13 "for a physician to have so little knowledge in the cure of diseases, as ever the most eminent have? to act upon conjecture and guess, where the life of man is concerned?," and he replies "Undoubtedly it is: but not in comparison of having no skill at all in that useful art, and being obliged to act wholly in the dark." This attitude of mind is pre-eminently rational in the man of action, who is constantly having to decide what to do in ignorance of many of the relevant facts, but it is characteristically rational also, as we shall see later, in the scientist seeking the best theory he can to explain the phenomena, and generally of all seekers after truth who are prepared to go beyond the evidence in order to offer an explanation or achieve some measure of coherence.

If we can go beyond the evidence, we may be wrong. Butler has a strong sense of the fallibility of human reasoning as well as the imperfection of human knowledge, and it greatly influences his style. Probable arguments need to be scrutinised much more closely and much more widely than demonstrations. Demonstrations, unless they are actually fallacious, are conclusive. Once I have proved Pythagoras' theorem from the axioms of Euclidean geometry, and have checked over to make sure there is no mistake, there is nothing more to be said; any one who allows the premisses and denies the conclusion is contradicting himself. But there is no contradiction in denying the conclusion of a probable argument, and there well may be some feature I have overlooked, or some consideration I have not thought of, which alters the whole aspect of the case. Before I can come to a conclusion I must pause and consider what may be said against it, 14 and it is only after all reasonable objections have been raised and met, that I can arrive at a fair judgement of the case. Hence the wide range of Butler's argument. He cannot, as a mathematician can, impose stringent standards of relevance, and rule out of consideration all factors which do not conform to them. Even though a particular argument survives careful scrutiny, and is found to have nothing wrong with it in itself, there may be some 6ther factor or some other consideration which argues the other way and entirely overrides the original argument. Only when the whole argument has been adduced can its significance be assessed.

The significance of the whole needs to be assessed considering it as a whole, and not simply a collection of disparate parts. Butler presents a cumulative argument. "For probable proofs, by being added, not only increase the evidence, but multiply it." 15 No one strand is incontrovertible, but an opponent who would gainsay the whole is forced to appeal to implausible coincidences and resort to dubious evasions, such as greatly to diminish his credibility. In this again, Butler's style of argument differs characteristically from the mathematical ones that had hitherto been [7] taken as paradigms. There is no such thing as a cumulative argument in mathematics. If I have forty-seven different demonstrations of Pythagoras' theorem, I have not established it any more surely than if I have only one. One, if valid, is enough: and arguments which fail to be valid demonstrations, no matter how many there are of them, altogether fail to show anything at all. It is only where probable arguments are adduced, which can be controverted without contradiction, that a cumulative case can be developed, and it will be more unreasonable to resist the whole than each one separately. Hence Butler's reluctance to let Christianity be exposed to casual conversational encounters. "Then, again, the general evidence of religion is complex and various. It consists of a long series of things, one preparatory to and confirming the other... And it is easy to see how impossible it must be, in a cursory conversation, to unite all this into one argument, and represent it as it ought... whereas unconnected objections are thrown out in a few words, and are easily apprehended, without more attention than is usual in common talk." 16 To do justice to the argument, we have to consider it as a whole, in much the same way as we often have to size up a situation as a whole, especially if we are needing to act in response to it. Most men find it easier to see what should be done in a particular case than to analyse its features and articulate rules covering all combinations of them. Most philosophers, however, have distrusted men's ordinary practical abilities, and have felt that only by an analytical approach to reasoning could error be avoided and truth secured. Butler, by contrast, eschews the abstract, and, consonantly with his general view of man, acknowledges as fundamentally reliable our ordinary, holistic, mode of practical reasoning.

Butler sees man primarily as an agent. Agents have to act. The academic sceptic can suspend judgement, but if the man of action fails to decide when the time comes, he has, by default, decided to do nothing, which is itself a decision, with attendant risks and disadvantages. The risk of being wrong is real, but it applies to all courses of action, and therefore must be run whatever we do or do not do. We should minimise the risk of error, but cannot avoid it altogether. We must decide as best we can. There is an unavoidable Either/Or which entirely alters the aspect of argument. We have to make up our minds, one way or the other, and although we can postpone judgement for further deliberation, as Butler on suitable occasion recommends, 17 we cannot suspend it altogether. The logic of probable argument is therefore very different from that of demonstrative argument. One can ask "What alternative do you suggest?" and to the extent that the alternative is shown to be implausible, the original case is strengthened. With demonstrative arguments such tactics are seldom available: often there will be no demonstrative proof or refutation of a hypothesis, and in the absence of demonstration there is [8] no call on anybody to embrace one or the other can quite legitimately say he does not know. is to issue in action, we are forced to face up to the decision in the knowledge that this tertium non datur.

Agents not only have to act, but know themselves as agents, and often know what they are going to do and what they would have done had they so decided. Unlike other philosophers, therefore, Butler cannot envisage our view of human nature being subverted by other knowledge, because our knowledge of ourselves is primary and more to be believed than anything else. Determinism, he argues in The Analogy, cannot be an argument against Christianity, because to be sustainable at all, it must be so understood as to be reconcilable with the will and character we find within ourselves, and if reconcilable with that, must be reconcilable with it also in the Author of Nature. 18 Whatever the theoretical arguments, they must be understood in the context of our practical concerns, and cannot be accorded an influence on our practice contrary to what we know our nature, as agents, to require. "And therefore, although it were submitted that this opinion of necessity were speculatively true; yet with regard to practice, it is as if it were false, so far as our experience reaches." 19 It is a line of argument that Kant was later to exploit. 20 But whereas Kant, under Hume's influence, propounded a theory of knowledge which really left no room for human freedom, and had to maintain the consistency of practical and of pure reason by the heroic expedient of not allowing them to come into contact at all, Butler maintains a much simpler and more consistent position. Once again there is a parallel with Dr. Johnson, who said simply "Sir, we know our will to be free, and there's an end of't" 21 For Butler it is not the end of the matter, but it is the starting point for any discussion of the topic. We know ourselves first and foremost to be agents, and all other knowledge must be conformable to that fact.

Although Butler's concern is primarily practical, it is not exclusively so. Truth also matters. For himself, the search after it, as he wrote to Clarke when he was twenty-one, was to be the business of his life, 22 and it engaged him in the same way as it engages a scientist, and enabled him to make leaps of inference in the same spirit as a scientist does in his search for an explanation of phenomena. In both cases there is the same need and the same willingness to run the risk of being wrong as there is with the man of action. Only, whereas the man of action decides because the moment of decision is upon him, the philosopher and the scientist decide because they are serious in their search after truth, and cannot [9] rest content with easy ignorance, but are impelled to put forward the best hypothesis they can, and stake their name on it. This is not to say that they are given to idle conjecture. In both cases the reasoning is disciplined and cautious. Butler avoids all speculation, and is careful not to push the argument further than is safe, subjecting it to critical scrutiny and examining all objections and counter-arguments. But he is prepared to move, with all due caution, where the sceptic is paralysed by the fact that the argument is not deductive, and that it would be logically possible to be wrong. The price the sceptic has to pay for immobility is that of forgoing all chance of attaining most forms of truth. The price Butler has to pay for searching after truth is the possibility of being wrong. That was a price which he, deeply conscious of human fallibility, was prepared to pay: and we, too, have now come to recognise that the principle Nothing Venture, Nothing Win, applies in thought as well as in life, and that we must run the risk of being wrong if we are to have any chance of being right.

Most philosophers, having a different view of human reasoning, believe that Butler was refuted by Hume, who showed not only that Butler's arguments did not work, but that no such arguments could work. In his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, Hume examines the arguments for natural religion put forward by Demea and Cleanthes, who represent Clarke and Butler respectively, and casts doubt upon them both. True, he puts Cleanthes in a much more favourable light than Demea, and awards him the palm in the last sentence of the work; and has been in consequence seen by some as the ally of the empirical Butler against the a priori reasoning of Clarke: but the balance of probability is that Hume's own views were expressed by Philo, the sceptic, 23 and most modern readers find in Hume a powerful critique of the very possibility of religious argument. If Hume is right, there is indeed no possibility of vindicating Butler, or of obtaining from him any understanding of how natural theology may again be undertaken in our present age.

But Hume is wrong. The arguments he puts forward in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion rest upon the theory of knowledge expounded n books I of the Treatise and the Enquiry, which in turn rests upon his ``thin" doctrine of reason and ``flat" doctrine of experience. As regards reason, we have already seen that Butler has a different doctrine, and one much closer to the reasonings we normally recognise as such in ordinary life. Clearly, it would be begging the question against Butler to take Hume's theory of knowledge for granted, and to assess Butler's philosophy on that basis. And once we allow the rival merits of the two theories of knowledge to be considered, it will, I shall argue, become evident that Butler's is to be preferred.

In the first place, Hume's doctrine of reason is self-defeatingly stringent, and cannot, by its own account, be correct. Sometimes he will allow only [10] deductive reasoning to count as being really valid: at other times inductive reasoning also is admitted, but nothing else. He is very clear that we cannot derive an "ought" from an "is", and that inductive reasoning, in so far as it is admissible at all, is only an extrapolation from repeated experience. We may agree with Hume that deductive reasoning should be clearly distinguished from inductive reasoning and any other sort of reasoning there may be, but it does not follow from this that only deductive reasoning is valid. Indeed, it cannot. For reasoning is normative. A valid argument indicates what must be acknowledged, if the premisses be granted. If the only derivations are deductions, and we cannot deduce an "ought" from an "is", then no conclusion can be adequately grounded about what sorts of arguments we ought to be guided by. If inductive as well as deductive arguments are admitted, then it might seem possible to make an inductive inference that all patterns of reasoning which were actually valid conformed to the canons of deductive or inductive argument. But before drawing such an inference, we should have to examine all the putatively valid inferences, and discover that only deductive and inductive inferences were actually valid. And this we could not do without some other test for validity. We cannot appeal to an inductive inference to give us a generalisation which we shall then use to rule out possible counter-examples as not being genuine inferences at all. If I am drawing merely inductive inferences about patterns of argument, then I must examine all patterns of argument, and shall find that there are many arguments we use-moral arguments, political arguments, philosophical arguments and historical arguments-which do not fit Hume's formula. Indeed, they are counter-examples to Hume's thesis. And, therefore, Hume's thesis cannot be established as a valid generalisation about patterns of valid argument by inductive argument alone.

We can argue, secondly, that Hume's doctrine of reason not only is unprovable in his system, but is in fact false. It fails to account for our practical reasoning and the arguments characteristic of the humanities the sorts of reasoning which Butler takes as paradigmatic. It fails also to account for types of reasoning common in many sciences, where we argue from premisses of one type-observation statements about the results of experiments-to conclusions of a very different type-statements about hydrogen-ion concentration, about isotopes, about excitation of electrons, or about decay of muons. Even pure deductive reason is not as thin as Hume thought. As we now know in consequence of Gödel's theorem, deductive arguments cannot be completely formalised. Although any given deductive argument can be formalised, given any reasonably adequate formal system we can find some further deductive inference which is evidently valid but which cannot be expressed in accordance with the rules of that system. That is, even deductive reasoning is surprisingly rich, and has an air of inexhaustible creativity about it. Hume's doctrine of reason therefore simply does not fit the facts.

Butler has a more adequate theory of knowledge, thirdly, in that he [11] gives proper weight to the knowledge an agent has through his own deliberations. It always surprises me each year that my pupils know very well that they will be coming to see me the following week, and what subjects they are going to take in their final examination, but, once having done the theory of knowledge and having studied Hume, do not know that they know these things. Butler breaks with the main thrust of British Empiricism in the emphasis he puts on our knowledge of ourselves, as being able to deliberate and make up our minds what we shall do, and his theory of knowledge is in consequence much less narrow. In particular, he is not prevented, as Hume is, from forming an adequate notion of causality, by having a purely passive view of man. Despite their name, the Empiricists have a very unempirical view of knowledge, and do not recognise that knowledge is won by our trying to do things, and either succeeding or failing in the attempt. Hume would have been able to give a far more satisfactory account of our knowledge of cause and effect, if he had seen himself as an active agent interacting with the world around him, and discovering its ways by trial and error, rather than being merely a passive spectator waiting for impressions to happen to him, and observing which among them appeared to be constantly conjoined.

Hume has a flat view of experience. Experience just comes to us in a raw, given state, and we then respond to it or remember it in various different ways. This is a highly implausible account. In recent years it has become clear from the researches of the psychologists that our sensory organs, especially the eye and the ear, do not work on this principle. We do not, as the British Empiricists supposed, simply receive impressions or sense data, on the basis of which we may make further inferences; rather, in the process of seeing or hearing we interpret sensory stimuli, using them as cues by means of which we select the scheme that will most appropriately make sense of the sensory input. That is why a foreign language heard on the wireless is just a babble of sounds, whereas we can make out a message in English even though the reception is very bad. or why a skilled biologist can see through a microscope what a cell is really like, whereas an untrained eye sees only a blur. Butler's theory of knowledge is not only a remedy against scepticism, but is far closer to the facts of perception that the accounts given by Locke, Berkeley and Hume.

Once we see how large a measure of interpretation there is even in perception, we can begin to understand why often there are, or at least at any one time appear to be, only very few, perhaps only two, worldviews available to us. In order to register what goes on in the world, we have to understand it, and in order to understand it we have to make sense of it within some interpretative schema: and it is very difficult to devise an interpretative schema which will take account of the whole of experience, and once one or two basic choices have been made, the rest follows. The exigencies we noted earlier of having to decide on a course [12] of action under conditions of imperfect information are reinforced by the limited number of interpretative schemata open to us, which affect our ratiocination not only in practical affairs but in the pursuit of truth: scientists design their experiments and assess their observations not simply with regard to one theory alone, but in comparison with some alternative theory that might replace it. Hence we are not offered a whole range of possible world views, but a stark choice, an Either/Or. This greatly affects both Butler's strategy of argument and his conclusions. Whereas Clarke sets out to prove to any reasonable man that God exists, and is infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, etc., Butler's aim is less ambitious. He argues not with any reasonable man, but only with certain actual contemporaries of his; and seeks not to show that they must accept Christianity, but only to meet their actual objections to Christianity, and to show that their own alternative-Deism-is open to the same objections as they urge against Christianity, and that if Deism is none the less a tenable position, then so is Christianity too. His argument is an argumentum ad homines, and often takes the form of a reductio ad absurdum. It is the Deists, not any reasonable man, that he is arguing with, and he is showing not that Christianity is the only tenable position but that they are not in a position to attack it because the arguments they urge against Christianity could equally be urged against Deism, and would, if valid, show that not only Christianity, but Deism too, must be abandoned in favour of atheism. If is a double-edged argument, arguing as much in favour of atheism as against Deism. Many, like William Pitt, have taken it in the former sense: 24 and now that atheism rather than Deism is the main rival to Christianity for men's allegiance, many of Butler's arguments not only are ineffective, but seem to give the game away. This must be admitted. But it does not show Butler to have been wrong in his time, or in the general principle he put into practice. It is, as we have seen, typical of religious and metaphysical argument that it is concerned with a choice between two, or at least very few, alternatives. Very few positions are tenable, because very few positions offer a coherent, overall view of the world: and the question that a man has to decide is which of these is the right one, and if, as often, there appear to be only two available, to argue against one is to argue in favour of the other. Hence, Butler was right to commend Christianity in his day by meeting the attacks of the Deists, and showing that those attacks were, from their own standpoint, incoherent.

Deism is dead, and most of Butler's arguments are no longer relevant to the concerns and difficulties of our present age. Their very success in his own time have made them unnecessary in ours. Nor are they [13] easily accessible to modern readers not deeply involved in the controversies of his time. Although Butler's writing is not obscure, it is dense. It is a thicket of counter-arguments and rebuttals, with every difficulty being canvassed in full and answered on its own grounds, and much effort going into placing the burden of proof where it properly ought to lie. In modern parlance, the footwork is deft. But for those coming to the issues from outside, it is difficult to note the subtlety of each successive step, or gain easy enlightenment from following the exercise through. Nevertheless, there are important lessons to be learned from Butler, in his positive teaching, in his way of arguing, and in the limitations he accepts on the scope and achievement of Christian apologetic. We have not taken the measure of his account of reason and of human agency, and have been too ready to believe, in consequence, that natural theology is impossible, and that Christianity, if it is to be salvaged at all, must be made out to be primarily concerned with feeling or with existentialist commitment. Although there are valuable insights to be gleaned front Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard, continental philosophy of religion since Kant has proved increasingly barren, and unable to relate religion to reason, which remains, as always, a characteristic of man distinctively human, that always and properly attracts our allegiance. We need to go back to the eighteenth century, and seek to do for our own age and in our own idiom what Clarke and Butler did in theirs. In doing this we shall need a more adequate theory of knowledge than that of Hume or Kant. Demonstrative arguments, which, we are told, can never entitle us to infer in the conclusion more that was already implicit in the premisses, cannot lead us from a knowledge of nature to any sort of knowledge of God: but non-demonstrative arguments may. Because they can run the risk of being wrong, they can go beyond the evidence and lead us to conclusions which are not contained in the premisses and which may be of different logical type. Non-demonstrative reasoning, although fallible, is creative, and therefore counters any argument against the possibility of natural theology based on some critique of reason, which assumes that all reasoning, if it is to be valid, must be of some few, strictly circumscribed types. Not that arguments of natural theology are immune to criticism. Any particular argument, whether put forward by Butler or by philosophers in the last quarter of the twentieth century, may be faulted. But if it is to be faulted, it must be faulted by particular criticisms germane to the particular argument in issue, not dismissed wholesale on the grounds that all such arguments must fail.

Butler's theory of knowledge is more adequate than that of most philosophers from Descartes to Kant, because it has a different view of man and his concerns. Instead of the quiescent academic always willing to say nothing so long as he can be sure that he is saying nothing that is wrong, we should, as Butler did, see man as active, often engagé in practical affairs, sometimes serieux in the pursuit of truth, willing, therefore, to chance his arm, and capable, in consequence, of transcending the limitations of conventional wisdom. Instead of Descartes' Cogito, ergo [14] sum, our starting point should be ego, ergo ago---l am myself, therefore I act. Unlike Butler, we should not take this as indisputably true, but only as true after all objections have been countered: there are metaphysical systems in vogue today---many forms of behaviourism and materialism---which undercut the concept of agency, and would see human action simply in terms of the neural response of an organism to stimuli and the movement of material atoms and molecules; if any such metaphysical system were true, we should have to abandon our concept of agency and all that goes with it. But although that could conceivably be necessary, it is a powerful argument against any such system, and, if there are other objections, as I think there are, 25 the reasonable conclusion to draw is that I am indeed an agent, and that any true view of the world must accommodate that fact. Among world-views that have some prima facie plausibility, several, like behaviourism and materialism, are ruled out because they cannot accommodate human agency, and so I offer as a conjecture the suggestion that any view of the world large enough to have room for man as an autonomous rational agent must be large enough also to include God. If, that is, we are serious in the search for truth, and cannot rest content until we have formed a coherent view of the universe that takes everything into account and is consistent with the whole range of our experience, then, as we persist in seeking ultimate explanations, we shall, again and again, be faced by a fundamental Either/ Or, aut Deus aut nihil; if we exclude God from our view of the universe, we must begin on the systematic elimination of 1, and if, on the contrary, we are real entities in the universe, not to be explained away in terms of other things, we shall not rest content until we find ourselves in God.

Butler's own approach would be more cautious and less speculative than the programme I have outlined. Rather than argue positively and programmatically in the large, he would argue carefully and critically against the actual doctrines which have succeeded Deism as rivals to Christianity for the intellectual allegiance of intelligent men: as a moral creed, perhaps humanism; as a world-view, perhaps scientific realism; as a philosophy, perhaps positivism. A modern Butler would deal with these doctrines, exposing their incoherences, and drawing out from each the embarrassing consequences which its protagonists would prefer to overlook. The humanist often seems to have the edge over the Christian so long as we confine the question to what obligations and rights ought to be observed: it is when we ask "why?" that he begins to be embarrassed. If we take an entirely naturalistic view of the world, it is difficult to see why special respect should be paid to featherless bipeds. Yet if we believe that human beings are to be treated not merely as means but also as ends in themselves, it is difficult to make out that they are merely complicated blobs of protoplasm.

[15]

Science in the modern world is often thought to conflict with religion, and to offer an alternative, and preferable, view of the nature of things. But science is not, as some scientists suppose, without presuppositions or without its own values. It assumes objective reality, and gives to truth the same disinterested worship as the Christian gives to God. Truth is something, other than oneself, making for good, and commanding the allegiance of the scientist, who in his dedication to his week-day work in the laboratory shows forth the same devotion as a monk in his orisons. Many modern apologists have pointed this out, arguing that the scientist is, therefore, within his sphere and subject to the limitations of his methodology, a seeker after the same God that the Christian knows also to be the Way and the Life. A scientist who in the name of science denies all value to the universe, and sees himself and his fellow men simply as organisms responding causally to the stimuli of their environment is thereby denying the intimation that is the driving force of his scientific search for truth.

Positivism is perhaps waning in philosophical popularity at present; but the arguments in favour remain attractive, and it is likely to come back into fashion many times yet. It is difficult to argue with positivism directly. A man who keeps asking 'How do I know?', and who finds every answer unsatisfactory unless it is a direct appeal to sense-experience, is difficult to refute. The right tactics are to show the emptiness and the incoherence of the position and here again we are in essence following Butler. We cannot argue that the positivists, any more than the Deists, must acknowledge the truth of Christianity, but only that the objections they raise against Christianity count equally against doctrines they do in fact hold. Is talk about God literally meaningless, because not based on immediate sense-experience? Then so must be talk about atoms, electrons, genes and quarks. And if, per contra, science is for real, and scientific entities are not logical fictions but do really exist, as most logical positivists seem, in their heart of hearts, to believe, then they are committed to some sort of realism, and cannot rule out the reality of the ens realissimum on crude epistemological grounds.

I have indicated three lines of argument that a latter-day Butler might follow. They are, of course, very crude, and would be strenuously objected to by many of those who now oppose the Christian faith. To turn the crude outlines I have indicated into cogent arguments, it would be necessary to go into these objections in detail, and fill out the argument with a careful consideration of what weight should be given them, and how they might be countered. The result would be a closely argued, and perhaps somewhat dense, piece of reasoning, much like The Analogy, which would not be easy reading and which would leave many people cold: but in which, also, many twentieth-century men would find their own assumptions articulated, their own difficulties expressed, their own objections answered, and the way laid open for their intellectual acceptance of truth which on moral grounds they would like to believe.

[16]

Butler's method imposes its own limitations on his achievement. He does not and cannot give a knock-down proof of the truth of Christianity. His aim is, rather, to refute refutations. He meets objections and disproves the contention that Christianity must be false. He may succeed in showing by a cumulative case that it is quite reasonable, but all the way through he relies on people being already drawn to Christ's religion, and all that his arguments can do is to ease the path to intellectual acceptance, not force it on an unwilling convert. Butler also carries on his argument with only a limited number of opponents, and as with the passage of time, men may cease to hold the positions he attacks, so his argumentative fire becomes less effective, and much of his work obsolete. It is a fate feared by philosophers, but to be embraced by Christians. Philosophers want to argue with all men at all times, but do so in their own terms, hoping to force their own conclusions on every thinker willy-nilly. Christianity, however, is a religion of the cross which, rather than argument, draws men, and of an incarnate God, who did not address men in his own terms, but came down and met them where they actually were. And Butler, in doing just this, and arguing with the actual men of his own time in the positions they actually occupied, not forcing them to follow Christ but freeing them from any intellectual hindrance that might prevent them from doing so, embodied in his own practice the central truths of the Christian religion it was his chief concern to vindicate.

 

 

[17]

 

 

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1. A Charge Delivered to the Clergy at the Primary Visitation of the Diocese of Durham, §1; reprinted in J. H. Bernard, ed., The Works of Bishop Butler, London, 1900, i 287-8.
2. Letter of December 5th 1852, from Newman to Dr. Hawkins, Provost of Oriel; quoted by Bernard, op.cit. Introduction, i, p. xviii.
3. See the argument of his sometime successor in the see of Durham, lan Ramsey, Joseph Butler 1692-1752: Some Features of his Life and Thought'', Friends of Dr. William's Library, Twenty-Third Lecture, 1969, pp. 5-11. 2 Reprinted in Bernard, i p.311, and in John Clarke, ed., The Works of Samuel Clarke, London, 1738, ii 737.
4. Reprinted in Bernard, i 311, and in John Clarke, ed., The works of ¯amuel Clarke, London, 1738, ii 737.
5. Third letter, reprinted in Bernard i p.322, and in John Clarke ii 744.
6. Fifth letter, reprinted in Bernard i 328, and in John Clarke ii 749.
7. e.g. in pt. 1, chapter VI of The Analogy,
8. Analogy, Bernard, ii 2; Everyman p. xxv.
9. Serm. XV, § 14; Bernard, i p.195.
10. e.g. Analogy, II vii § 43, Bernard, ii 253-4; Everyman pp. 231-2.
11. John Wilkins, Principles and Duties of Natural Religion, London, 1675, ch. iii; quoted Bernard, ii p.11.
12. Bernard i pp.289-290.
13. Analogy II viii § 4; Bernard ii 257, Everyman p.235.
14. cf. Analogy II § 43 "Nor should I dissuade any one from setting down what he thought made for the contrary side": Bernard ii 253, Everyman p. 231.
15. Analogy, II vii § 43: Bernard ii 253, Everyman p. 231.
16. Charge at Durham, § 5, Bernard i 290
17. Charge at Durham § 4, Bernard i 289.
18. Bernard ii 109; Everyman p. 91.
19. Analogy I vii 9 6; Bernard ii 107-8; Everyman p. 89.
20. e.g. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, ch. 111, esp. pp. 114 fr.
21. Life, ch. XX.
22. Bernard i 326; John Clarke ii 747.
23. See Ernest C. Mossner, "The Enigma of Hume", Mind, XLV, 1936, pp. 334-349.
24. Robert Isaac Wilberforee and Samuel Wilberforce, Life of William Wilberforce, London, 1838 i 90, 94-95. Cf. J. S.Mill, Autobiography, Ch. ii, init. World Classic ed., pp. 32-3, and James Martineau, "Inconsistency of the scheme of Vicarious Redemption" in Studies of Christianity, London, 1858, pp. 93-94.
25. See, e.g. J. R. Lucas, The Freedom of the Will, Oxford, 1970, § 21, pp.115-116.

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THE DURHAM CATHEDRAL LECTURES

 

1969 Peter Smart, Prebend of Durham (1568-1643) H. E. W. TURNER

1970 The Christian Life in the Thought of the Venerable Bede GERALD BONNER

1971 Rannulf Flambard as Bishop of Durham (1099-1128) H. S. OFFLER

1972 `Mynistres of Saint Cuthbert': The Monks of Durham in the Fifteenth Century R. B. DOBSON

1973 The Last Years of Cuthbert Tunstall (1547-1559) D. M. LOADES

1974 The Last Monks of Durham and their Books A. 1. DOYLE

1975 The Anglicanism of John Cosin GEOFPEY CUMING

1976 The Charities of Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, and Dr. John Sharp (1721-1976) C. J. STRANKS

1977 Vision and Practice: Building the High Vault W. A. PROWSE

1978 Butler's Philosophy of Religion Vindicated J. R. LUCAS

 

 

Lectures still in print may be obtained from the Cathedral Bookshop,

(S.P.C.K.) in the Undercroft at Durham Cathedral.