Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Andrew Wilson's Traditionary Argument

 Andrew Wilson (1718-1792) was a Scottish physician and philosopher, who lived most of his life in Newcastle and London. He wrote a fair number of works; all of his philosophical works were published anonymously, although he doesn't seem to have made any rigorous effort to keep his authorship secret -- my impression, just from his scattered comments, he published mostly for circulating among friends and just kept his name off the works to reduce any scandal that might arise from his often unconventional philosophical views, or at least to reduce the chances of that side of his intellectual interest interfere with his medical career. For instance, he was a sharp critic of Newtonian physics at a time when it was increasingly held as the gold standard of scientific progress.

Many of his philosophical works are on natural philosophy, and one could easily get the impression that he was a materialist. Indeed, this seems to have been the impression created among his friends from an early little book on the matter; to correct this, he wrote another, and packaged them together as Human Nature Surveyed by Philosophy and Revelation, which was published in 1758. One of the things that is interesting about this work is that it is an early example of the traditionary argument for God's existence.

I've talked some before about the traditionary argument, which had a particular vogue in France in the first part of the nineteenth century, after which it largely vanished. It is most associated with Maistre, Bonald, and Lamennais, and can be seen as something that arose out of conflicts between empiricists and rationalists and the attempt to find a third way. The most common form of the argument is fairly easy to understand:

(1) The senses cannot convey a number of ideas we clearly have (infinity, necessity, obligation, etc.).
:: :: :: This is the anti-empiricist premise, and is common among rationalists.

(2) Human beings are only able to think of these things with the aid of language.
:: :: :: This differentiates the weak rationalism of the traditionalists from the strong rationalism of more typical rationalists like Malebranche, and generally involves some concession to the empiricists of the necessity of sensible symbolism.

(3) Language is something that human beings only have through learning from another.
:: :: :: This is the traditionary part of the traditionary argument, and what gave the traditionalist movement its name.

(4) It is impossible to have an infinite regress of people learning language from teachers who learned language from teachers.

(5) Therefore there is a first teacher of language who was not taught language, which all call God.
:: :: ::  By (3), of course, this first teacher at least cannot be human, and by (1) would have to be able to communicate things like necessity, infinity, etc.

Andew Wilson's version is found in the the second essay in Human Nature, the Essay on the Dignity of Human Nature. The essay depicts human nature as a sort of continual interaction between mind and body, one in which the mind cannot even recognize its own existence except by interacting with the physical world. The highest expression of human nature is our faculty of language, for which our body is clearly adapted. Language, of course, has to be distinguished from vocalization (vociferation, Wilson calls it), which can only convey passions; language, however, communicates the operations of the mind. This, like much else in human nature, appears to subserve the end of knowing, and our capacity to understand the world is our most remarkable one. This capacity, though, is limited; our body is only partly subservient to knowledge, our capability for knowing vastly exceeds any actual opportunity we will have to know (due, e.g., to the shortness of our lives), and human beings seem to live rather erratically.

Our knowledge is based on the senses and on testimony, which gives us ideas of things not present to our senses. These foundations are extended through calculation (which Wilson takes to be analysis of sensible things) and analogy, by which we transfer ideas about sensible objects to nonsensible things; these extensions are part of that interaction that makes up human nature, as Wilson calls the former an appeal of the senses to understanding and the latter an appeal of our understanding to the senses. 

One of Wilson's major steps in reasoning toward a traditionary argument is his claim that "Man is born not a rational creature, but a creature capable of rationality"(p. 59). We cannot actually be rational without proper development. In order to be rational beings, then, we need to things to sense and language to go beyond them; we also need education and social relationships that give us what is necessary to our coming to know. (This effectively involves a rejection of strong rationalism.)

Given everything that has been said so far, it is therefore unsurprising that Wilson concludes that human beings are incapable of thinking about spiritual objects at all unless they are within a society that communicates them to us. Then how does any human being have these ideas at all?

It must be a Being of another and superior nature who only can discover and exemplify that kind of Knowledge to us. He must be one who is thoroughly acquainted, 1. with the frame and energy of our intellectuals; 2. with the extent and efficacy of the objects formed for impressing our senses; and 3. with the propriety of the analogy between what is mechanically obtruded upon our minds by Nature, and the things we are capable of being taught: in short, he must be God. None inferior to the Creator is equal for the administration of such Knowledge. (pp. 60-61)

To emphasize this, Wilson argues that it is impossible for Deists to prove on the basis of pure reason that God exists (emphasizing the weak rationalism component of the argument), and it is impossible for Skeptics to explain how anyone is able to think about something like God at all (emphasizing the anti-empiricism component of the argument). The key point in Wilson's argument against the Deists, one which he find him arguing elsewhere in other works, is his argument that you can't prove that the universe was the sort of thing that could begin to exist unless you can already prove that there is a cause capable of beginning the universe, and you can't prove there is a cause capable of beginning the universe unless you can already establish the universe is the sort of thing that could have a beginning. Nothing we know of through the senses gives us any reason to think that the universe was once nothing, so it would have to be something we get from testimony -- but on what testimony could pure reason rely in this case? It would have to be a revelation from the source. If we try instead to argue by some other route, like a governing mind giving order to the universe, the senses give us no reason to regard such a mind as separate from the universe. Again, we would need a testimony. Thus the Deist cause is hopeless: "...Man cannot discover God, tho' God can discover himself to Man" (p. 64).

The freethinkers are in no better position than the Deists, however. If Atheism were true, it is inexplicable how human beings ever got the idea of God to begin with. The senses, again, don't convey to us anything that suggests that the universe had a beginning or that there is a God; if they don't have testimony of such things, then, human beings could never conceive of them. And yet conceive of them we have, and, while not universal, they are in fact very common. How did we get a very common idea of something about which we can apparently form no ideas? Wilson gives the Skeptics credit for recognizing this themselves, and for seeing that their big challenge is not to find objections to theistic arguments but to find an explanation for the rise of religion. However, the attempts in this direction, Wilson does not find adequate; the common early modern explanation that religion arises from fear, Wilson thinks, explains exactly nothing that actually needs to be explained about religion.

If this is all true, the conclusion is unavoidable:

If the Mind of Man cannot discover God, and cannot out of its fund of thought yield what we know of his works and perfections; then the discovery must inevitably come from himself. (p. 68)

We are capable of believing or disbelieving the existence of God only because we are able to think about God; but we are able to think about God only because God communicated the idea of God to us, and therefore had to exist. Thus we have all the components of the traditionary argument.

One of the interesting things about Wilson's argument is that it is very early; he is writing well before Bonald, with whom the traditionary argument is most closely associated. Another is that the argument is generally found in a Catholic milieu, and in particular at a point where Catholicism mixes with skepticism (one reason why it did so well in France, but tended to be doubted by Catholic intellectuals at large despite the eminence of the intellectuals who defended it). Wilson is not Catholic. It's hard to say, beyond general terms, what his own religious views were, but he was Scottish and his son became a Presbyterian minister, there's no room for doubt whatsoever that here we have an example of the traditionary argument arising in a Presbyterian context. Catholic intellectuals tended to criticize traditionalism, which flourished in very skeptical environments, for being too much like fideism and for being too pessimistic about the powers of reason; there's a lot more room in Scottish presbyterianism for both fideism and pessimism about reason when it comes to discovering God, so one common link may be similarly skeptical environments.

Other posts on traditionary arguments (Brownson and Bonald are supporters, Rosmini a critic who nonetheless partly agrees with it):

* Brownson's Traditionary Argument for God's Existence
* Bonald and the Traditionary Argument
* Rosmini and the Traditionary Argument

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