Thomas Reid.

The works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters online

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sand cases, that the area of a plane triangle
is equal to the rectangle under the altitude
and half the base, this would not prove that
it must be so in all cases, and cannot be
otherwise ; which is what the mathematician
affirms. J

In like manner, though we had the most
ample experimental proof that things which
have begun to exist had a cause, this would
not prove that they must have a cause.
Experience may shew us what is the esta-
blished course of nature, but can never shew
what connections of things are in their
nature necessary.

Idly, General maxims, grounded on ex-
perience, have only a degree of probability
proportioned to the extent of our experience,
and ought always to be understood so as to
leave room for exceptions, if future expe-
rience shall discover any such. [616]

The law of gravitation has as full a proof
from experience and induction as any prin-
ciple can be supposed to have. Yet, if any
philosopher should, by clear experiment,

* VoL i.p. 1M-146.— H.

t See below, p. 627 ; and " Active Powers," p. 31,
and above, p. 323, a, note *. — H.
j So Aristotle H.



shew that there is a kind of matter in some
bodies which does not gravitate, the law
of gravitation ought to be limited by that

Now it is evident that men have never
considered the principle of the necessity of
causes, as a truth of this kind which may
admit of limitation or exception ; and there-
fore it has not been received upon this kind
of evidence.

3dly, I do not see that experience could
satisfy us that every change in nature act-
ually has a cause.

In the far greatest part of the changes in
nature that fall within our observation, the
causes are unknown ; and, therefore, from
experience, we cannot know whether they
have causes or not.

Causation is not an object of sense. The
only experience we can have of it, is in the
consciousness we have of exerting some
power in ordering our thoughts and actions.
But this experience is surely too narrow a
foundation for a general conclusion, that
all things that have had or shall have a be-
ginning, must have a cause.

For these reasons, this principle cannot
be drawn from experiance, any more than
from abstract reasoning.

The third supposition is — That it is to be
admitted as a first or self-evident principle.
Two reasons may be urged for this.

1 . The universal consent of mankind, not
of philosophers only, but of the rude and un-
learned vulgar.

Mr Hume, as far as I know, was the first
that ever expressed any doubt of this prin-
ciple.* And when we consider that he has re-
jected every principle of human knowledge,
excepting that of consciousness, and has not
even spared the axioms of mathematics,
liis authority is of small weight. [617]

Indeed, with regard to first principles,
there is no reason why the opinion of a
philosopher should have more authority
than that of another man of common sense,
who has been accustomed to judge in such
cases. The illiterate vulgar are competent
judges ; and the philosopher has no preroga-
tive in matters of this kind ; but he is more
liable than they to be misled by a favourite
system, especially if it is his own.

Setting aside the authority of Mr Hume,
what has philosophy been employed in
since men first began to philosophise, but
in the investigation of the causes of things ?
This it has always professed, when we trace
it to its cradle. It never entered into any
man's thought, before the philosopher we
have mentioned, to put the previous ques-
tion, whether things have a cause or not ?
Had it been thought possible that they
might not, it may be presumed that, in the

* Hume was i.nt the (,rst. — II.

variety of absurd and contradictory causes
assigned, some one would have had recourse
to this hypothesis.

They could conceive the world to arise
from an egg, from a struggle between love
and strife, between moisture and drought,
between heat and cold ; but they never sup-
posed that it had no cause. We know not
any atheistic sect that ever had recourse
to this topic, though by it, they might have
evaded every argument that could be
brought against them, and answered all
objections to their system.

But rather than adopt such an absurdity,
they contrived some imaginary cause — such
as chance, a concourse of atoms, or neces-
sity — as the cause of the universe. [618]

The accounts which philosophers have
given of particular phsenomena, as well as
of the universe in general, proceed upon
the same principle. That every pheeno-
menon must have a cause, was always taken
for granted. Nil turpius physico, says
Cicero, quam Jieri .sine causa quicquam
dicere. Though an Academic, he was dog-
matical in this. And Plato, the father of
the Academy, was no less so. " IbevTi
yote KhCvurov x u % l s os ' T ' flu yinfftv *x til> J rt is impos-
sible that anything should have its origin
without a cause." — TiM£;us.

I believe Mr Hume was the first who
ever held the contrary.' This, indeed, he
avows, and assumes the honour of the dis-
covery. " It is," says he, " a maxim in
philosophy, that whatever begins to exist,
must have a cause of existence. This is
commonly taken for granted in all reason-
ings, without any proof given or demanded.
It is supposed to be founded on intuition,
and to be one of those maxims which,
though they may be denied with the lips,
it is impossible for men in their hearts
really to doubt of. But, if we examine
this maxim by the idea of knowledge above
explained, we shall discover in it no mark
of such intuitive certainty." The meaning
of this seems to be, that it did not suit with
his theory of intuitive certainty, and, there-
fore, he excludes it from that privilege.

The vulgar adhere to this maxim as
firmly and universally as the philosophers.
Their superstitions have the same origin
as the systems of philosophers — to wit, a
desire to know the causes of things. Felix
qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas, is the
universal sense of men ; but to say that
anything can happen without a cause, shocks
the common sense of a savage.

This universal belief of mankind is easily
accounted for, if we allow that the neces-
sity of a cause of every event is obvious to
the rational powers of a man. But it is
impossible to account for it otherwise. It

* See last note. — H

[617, 6 IS]



cannot be ascribed to education, to systems
of philosophy, or to priestcraft. One
would think that a philosopher who takes
it to be a general delusion or prejudice,
would endeavour to shew from what causes
in human nature such a general error may
take its rise. But I forget that Mr Hume
might answer upon his own principles, that
since things may happen without a cause —
this error and delusion of men may be uni-
versal without any cause. [619]

2. A second reason why I conceive this
to be a first principle, is, That mankind not
only assent to it in speculation, but that the
practice of life is grounded upon it in the
most important matters, even in cases where
experience leaves us doubtful ; and it is
impossible to act with common prudence if
we set it aside.

In great families, there are so many bad
things done by a cerlain personage, called
Nobody, that it is proverbial that there is
a Nobody about every house who does a.
great deal of mischief ; and even where
there is the exactest inspection and govern-
ment, many events will happen of which no
other author can be found ; so that, if we
trust merely to experience in this matter, No-
body will be found to be a very active person,
and to have no inconsiderable share in the
management of affairs. But whatever coun-
tenance this system may have from experi-
ence, it is too shocking to common sense to
impose upon the most ignorant. A child
knows that, when his top, or any of his play-
things, are taken away, it must be done by
somebody. Perhaps it would not be diffi-
cult to persuade him that it was done by
some invisible being, but that it should be
done by nobody he cannot believe.

Suppose a man's house to be broke open,
his money and jewels taken away. Such
things have happened times innumerable
without any apparent cause ; and were he
only to reason from experience in such a
case, how must he behave ? He must put
in one scale the instances wherein a cause
was found of such an event, and in the other
scale the instances where no cause was
found, and the preponderant scale must
determine whether it be most probable that
there was a, cause of this event, or that
there was none. Would any man of com-
mon understanding have recourse to such
an expedient todirecthisjudgment? [620]
Suppose a man to be found dead on the
highway, his skull fractured, his body
pierced with deadly wounds, his watch and
money carried off. The coroner's jury sits
upon the body ; and the question is put,
What was the cause of this man's death ? —
was it accident, or felo de se, or murder by
persons unknown ? Let us suppose an
adept in Mr Hume's philosophy to make
one of the jury, and that he insists upon the

previous question, whether there was any
cause of the event, and whether it happened
without a cause.

Surely, upon Mr Hume's principles, a
great deal might be said upon this point ;
and, if the matter is to be determined by
past experience, it is dubious on which side
the weight of argument might stand. But
we may venture to say, that, if Mr Hume
had been of such a jury, he would have laid
aside his philosophical principles, and acted
according to the dictates of common pru-

Many passages might be produced, even
in Mr Hume's philosophical writings, i/i
which he, unawares, betrays the same in-
ward conviction of the necessity of causes
which is common to other men. I shall
mention only one, in the " Treatise of Hu-
man Nature," and in that part of it where
he combats this very principle : — " As to
those impressions," says he, " which arise
from the senses, their ultimate cause is, in
my opinion, perfectly inexplicable by hu-
man reason ; and it will always be impos-
sible to decide with certainty whether they
arise immediately from the object, or are
produced by the creative power of the mind,
or are derived from the Author of our
being." ■

Among these alternatives, he never
thought of their not arising from any
cause.' [621]

The arguments which Mr Hume offers to
prove that this is not a self-evident prin-
ciple, are three. First, That all certainty
arises from a comparison of ideas, and a
discovery of their unallerable relations,
none of which relations imply this proposi-
tion, That whatever has a beginning must
have a cause of existence. This theory of
certainty has been examined before.

The second argument is. That whatever
we can conceive is possible. This has like-
wise been examined.

The third' argument is, That what we call
a cause, is only something antecedent to,
and always conjoined with, the effect. This
is also one of Mr Hume's peculiar doctrines,
which we may have occasion to consider
afterwards. It is sufficient here to observe,
that we may leai n from it that night is the
cause of day, and day the cause of night :
for no two things have more constantly
followed each other since the beginning of
the world.

The [third and] last metaphysical prin-
ciple I mention, which is opposed by the
same author, is, That design and intelii-
gence in the cause may be inferred, with
certainly, from marks or signs of it in the

* See above, p. 444, note*. It is the triumph of
scepticism to shew that speculation and practice are
irreconcilable. — H.



Less ay vi.

Intelligence, design, and skill, are not
objects of the external senses, nor can we
be conscious of them in any person but our-
selves. Even in ourselves, we cannot, with
propriety, be said to be corecious of the
natural or acquired talents we possess. We
are conscious only of the operations of mind
in which they are exerted. Indeed, a man
comes to know his own mental abilities,
just as he knows another man's, by the
effects they produce, when there is occasion
to put them to exercise.

A man's wisdom is known to us only by
the signs of it in his conduct ; his eloquence
by the signs of it in his speech. In the same
manner, we judge of his virtue, of his forti-
tude, and of all his talents and virtues. [622]

Yet it is to be observed, that we judge of
men's talents with as little doubt or hesita-
tion as we judge of the immediate objects
of sense.

One person, we are sure, is a perfect
idiot ; another, who feigns idiocy to screen
himself from punishment, is found, upon
trial, to have the understanding of a man,
and to be accountable for his conduct. We
perceive one man to be open, another cun-
ning; one to be ignorant, another very
knowing ; one to be slow of understanding,
another quick. Every man forms such
judgments of those he converses with ; and
the common affairs of life depend upon such
j udgments. We can as little avoid them as
we can avoid seeing what is before our eyes.

From this it appears, that it is no less a
part of the human constitution, to judge of
men's characters, and of their intellectual
powers, from the signs of them in their
actions and discourse, than to judge of cor-
poreal objects by our senses ; that such
judgments are common to the whole human
race that are endowed with understanding ;
and that they are absolutely necessary in
the conduct of life.

Now, every judgment of this kind we
form, is only a particular application of the
general principle, that intelligence, wisdom,
and other mental qualities in the cause,
may be inferred from their marks or signs
in the effect.

The actions and discourses of men are
effects, of which the actors and speakers
are the causes. The effects are perceived
by our senses ; but the causes are behind
the scene. We only conclude their exist-
ence and their degrees from our observa-
tion of the effects.

From wise conduct, we infer wisdom in
the cause ; from brave actions, we infer
courage ; and so in other eases. [623]

This inference is made with perfect secu-
rity by all men. We cannot avoid it ; it
is necessary in the ordinary conduct of
life ; it has therefore the strongest marks of
being a first principle.

Perhaps some may think that this prin-
ciple may be learned either by reasoning or
by experience, and therefore that there is
no ground to think it a first principle.

If it can be shewn to be got by reasoning,
by all, or the greater part of those who are
governed by it, I shall very readily ac-
knowledge that it ought not to be esteemed
a first principle. But I apprehend the con-
trary appears from very convincing argu-

First, The principle is too universal to
be the effect of reasoning. It is common
to philosophers and to the vulgar ; to the
learned and to the most illiterate ; to the
civilized and to the savage. And of those
who are governed by it, not one in ten
thousand can give a reason for it.

Secondly, We find philosophers, ancient
and modern, who can reason excellently in
subjects that admit of reasoning, when they
have occasion to defend this principle, not
offering reasons for it, or any medium of
proof, but appealing to the common sense
of mankind ; mentioning particular instan-
ces, to make the absurdity of the contrary
opinion more apparent, and sometimes
using the weapons of wit and ridicule, which
are very proper weapons for refuting ab-
surdities, but altogether improper in points
that are to be determined by reasoning.

To confirm this observation, I shall quote
two authors, an ancient and a modern, who
have more expressly undertaken the defence
of this principle than any others I remem-
ber to have met with, and whose good
sense and ability to reason, where reasoning
is proper, will not be doubted. [624]

The first is Cicero, whose words, {Lb. I.
cap. 13. De Divinatione,) may be thus

" Can anything done by chance have all
the marks of design ? Four dice may by
chance turn up four aces ; but do you think
that four hundred dice, thrown by chance,
will turn up four hundred aces ? Colours
thrown upon canvas without design may
have some similitude to a human face ; but
do you think they might make as beautiful
a picture as that of the Coan Venus ? A
hog turning up the ground with his nose
may make something of the form of the let-
ter A ; but do you think that a hog might
describe on the ground the Andromache of
Ennius ? Carneades imagined that, in the
stone quarries at Chios, he found, in a stone
that was split, a representation of the head
of a little Pan, or sylvan deity. I believe he
might find a figure not unlike ; but surely not
such a one as you would say had been formed
by an excellent sculptor like Scopas. For
so, verily, the case is, that chance never
perfectly imitates design." Thus Cicero.*

* See alio Cicero " De Naiura Dcorum," 1. ii. a
37 — H.



Now, in all this discourse, I see very
good sense, and what is apt to convince
every unprejudiced mind ; but I see not in
the whole a single step of reasoning. It is
barely an appeal to every man's common

r Let us next see how the same point is
handled by the excellent Archbishop Tillot-
son. (1st Sermon, vol. i.)

"For I appeal to any man of reason,
whether anything can be more unreasonable
than obstinately to impute an effect to chance
which carries in the face of it all the argu-
ments and characters of design ? Was ever
any considerable work, in which there was
required a great variety of parts, and an
orderly and regular adjustment of these
parts, done by chance ? Will chance fit
means to ends, and that in ten thousand
instances, and not fail in any one ? [625]
How oftenmight a man, after he had jumbled
a set of letters in a bag, fling them out upon
the ground before they would fall into an
exact poem, yea, or so much as make a
good discourse in prose ? And may not a
little book be as easily made as this great
volume of the world ? How long might a
man sprinkle colours upon canvass with a
careless hand, before they would make the
exact picture of a man ? And is a man
easier made by chance than his picture ?
How long might twenty thousand blind men,
which should be sent out from the remote
parts of England, wander up and down be-
fore they would all meet upon Salisbury
plains, andfall into rank and file in the exact
order of an army ? And yet this is much
more easy to be imagined than how the
innumerable blind parts of matter should
rendezvous themselves into a word. A man
that sees Henry VII. 's chapel at West-
minster might, with as good reason, main-
tain, (yea, and much better, considering the
• vast difference between that little structure
and the huge fabric of the world,) that it
was never contrived or built by any man,
but that the stones did by chance grow into
those curious figures into which we see them
to have been cut and graven ; and that, upon
a time, (as tales usually begin,) the mate-
rials of that building — the stone, mortar,
timber, iron, lead, and glass — happily met
together, and very fortunately ranged them-
selves into that delicate order in which we
see them now, so close compacted that it
must be a very great chance that parts them
again. What would the world think of a
man that should advance such an opinion
as this, and write a book for it ? If they
would do him right, they ought to look upon
him as mad. But yet he might maintain
this opinion with a little more reason than
any man can have to say that the world was
made by chance, or that the first men grew
out of the earth, as plants do now ; for, can
r 625-627T

anything be more ridiculous and against all
reason, than to ascribe the production of
men to the first fruitfulness of the earth,
without so much as one instance or experi-
ment in any age or history to countenance
so monstrous a supposition * The thing is
at first sight so gross and palpable, that no
discourse about it can make it more appa-
rent. And yet these shameful beggars of
principles, who give this precarious account
of the original of things, assume to them-
selves to be the men of reason, the great
wits of the world, the only cautious and wary
persons, who hate to be imposed upon, that
must have convincing evidence for every-
thing, and can admit nothing without a clear
demonstration for it." [626]

In this passage, the excellent author takes
what I conceive to be the proper method of
refuting an absurdity, by exposing it in dif-
ferent lights, in which every man of common
understanding conceives it to be ridiculous.
And, although there is much good sense, as
well as wit, in the passage I have quoted, I
cannot find one medium of proof in the

I have met with one or two respectable
authors who draw an argument from the
doctrine of chances, to shew how impro-
bable it is that a regular arrangement of
parts should be the effect of chance, or that
it should not be the effect of design.

I do not object to this reasoning ; but I
would observe that the doctrine of chances
is a branch of mathematics little more than
an hundred years old. But the conclusion
drawn from it has been held by all men from
the beginning of the world. It cannot,
therefore, be thought that men have been
led to this conclusion by that reasoning.
Indeed, it may be doubted whether the first
principle upon which all the mathematical
reasoning about chances is grounded, is
more self-evident than this conclusion drawn
from it, or whether it is not a particular
instance of that general conclusion.

We are next to consider whether we may
not learn this truth from experience, That
effects which have all the marks and tokens
of design, must proceed from a designing
cause. [627]

I apprehend that we cannot learn this
truth from experience for two reasons.

First, Because it is a necessary truth,
not a contingent one. It agrees with the
experience of mankind since the beginning
of the world, that the area of a triangle is
equal to half the rectangle under its base
and perpendicular. It agrees no less with
experience, that the sun rises in the east
and sets in the west. So far as experience
goes, these truths are upon an equal footing.
But every man perceives this distinction
between them — that the first is a necessary
truth, and that it is impossible it should uot



Qessay VI

be true ; but the last is not necessary, but
contingent, depending upon the will of Him
who made the world. As we cannot learn
from experience that twice three must ne-
cessarily make six, so neither can we learn
from experience that certain effects must
proceed from a designing and intelligent
cause. Experience informs us only of what
has been, but never of what must be.*

Secondly, It may be observed, that ex-
perience can shew a connection between a
sign and the thing signified by it, in those
cases only where both the sign and thing
signified are perceived and have always
been perceived in conjunction. But, if there
be any case where the sign only is per-
ceived, experience can never shew its con-
nection with the thing signified. Thus, for
example, thought is a sign of a thinking
principle or mind. But how do we know
that thought cannot be without a mind ? If
any man should say that he knows this by
experience, he deceives himself. It is im-
possible he can have any experience of this ;
because, though we have an immediate
knowledge of the existence of thought in
ourselves by consciousness, yet we have no
immediate knowledge of a mind. The mind
is not an immediate object either of sense
or of consciousness. We may, therefore,
justly conclude, that the necessary con-
nection between thought and a mind, or
thinking being, is not learned from expe-
rience. [628]

The same reasoning may be applied to
the connection between a work excellently
fitted for some purpose, and design in the
author or cause of that work. One of these
— to wit, the work — may be an immediate
object of perception. But the design and
purpose of the author cannot be an imme-
diate object of perception; and, therefore,
experience can never inform us of any con-
nection between the one and the other, far
less of a necessary connection.

Thus, I think, it appears, that the prin-
ciple we have been considering— to wit,

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 103 of 114)