Cato's Letter No. 111

The same Subject continued.

John Trenchard (Saturday, January 12, 1723)

SIR, As all the ideas or images of the brain must be caused originally by impressions of objects without us, so we can reason upon no other. A man born blind can have no image of light or colours; nor one who has been always deaf, of sounds; whatever descriptions are given him of them. There are many creatures in the world who want some organs of sense which we have, and probably there are others in the universe which have many that we want: and such beings, if there be any such, must know many things of which we have no conception; and must judge of other things, of which we have a more partial conception, in different lights from what we are capable of judging. It is not certain that any two men see colours in the same lights; and it is most certain, that the same men at different times, according to the good or evil disposition of their organs, see them in various ones, and consequently their ratiocinations upon them will be different; which experience shews us to be true in distempered, enthusiastick, or melancholy men.

Our senses are evidently adapted to take in only finite or limited beings; nor are we capable of conceiving their existence, otherwise than by mediums of extension and solidity. The mind finds that it sees, hears, tastes, smells, and feels, which is its manner of first conceiving things, or in other words, is the modus in which objects affect it; and it can reason no farther upon them, than according to those impressions: So that it is conversant only about the film or outside of bodies, and knows nothing of their internal contexture, or how they perform their operations; and consequently can affirm or deny nothing about them; but according to the perceptions which it has. When it goes further, or attempts to go further, it rambles in the dark, wades out of its depth, and must rave about non-entities, or, which is the same thing to us, about what we do or can know nothing of, or nothing to the purpose; and yet these things, or these nothings, have employed the leisure, speculations, and pens of many very learned men, as if true wisdom consisted in knowing what we want faculties to know.

All that we can know of infinity, eternity, &c. is, that we can know little or nothing about them. We must understand what we mean by the terms, or else we could not use them, or must use them impertinently. We perfectly apprehend what we mean by duration, which is our conception of the continuance of things, and contains in it a terminus a quo to a terminus ad quem, that is, it has certain boundaries in our imaginations, and we can multiply this conception backwards and forwards, without ever being able to come to the end of it, and so may be sure that it is without end; and then the imagination is lost, and can go no further. We know that all extended bodies are divisible and can never be divided so often, but they may be divided farther; and therefore say justly, they are infinitely divisible; nor can any body be so large or long, as to come to the end of extension. And therefore we may safely affirm, that extension or space (which is our conception of the existence and immensity of bodies) is infinite. But then we know no other properties of infinity or eternity, but by the help of these conceptions, which being limited and finite, cannot measure what is infinite and eternal; that is, we cannot comprehend what is incomprehensible to any being which is not infinite and eternal too, and whose existence is not as unmeasurable by time and place as those images are.

All the disputes, seeming contradictions, and absurdities, which offer themselves when we think or talk of infinity or eternity, arise from our applying our thoughts, which are confined to finite beings, and our words, which are coined to convey finite conceptions, to subjects which are infinite, and of which we can have no adequate ideas that can be expressed by sounds. Nothing is more true in finite beings, than that the whole must consist of all its parts; but in infinity there is no whole, nor consequently parts. Where there is no beginning, nor any end, there can be no middle; and where there is no whole, there can be no half. Time or space in theory are not divisible, because nothing but time or space can divide them, and then they are not divided; yet we know that time or space, as they have relation to finite beings, and our existence of duration, may be divided, and are so; and therefore the riddles made about them are owing to the narrowness of our capacities, and to our endeavouring to apply such conceptions as we have, to objects of which we can have no conception; which is, in effect, to attempt to hear sights, and see sounds.

It is the same thing to pretend to define eternity, or comprehend infinity; which is, to put limits and ends to what has no limits and ends, and to comprehend what is incomprehensible; which conceptions contradict one another, and cannot stand together in a proposition. It is the same to talk of infinite number, for all number must be finite.

How vain therefore is it to form any propositions or reasonings beyond our images, or to make positive deductions from premises wholly negative! From hence I conceive proceed all the fairy disputes about the modus of Godís existing; what are his attributes and manner of acting; whether space is a real being, or only the order of things amongst themselves; whether it is the sensorium of God; or what is the meaning of the word sensorium: Which controversies have taken up great part of the time of two very learned men, that has been spent, as I think, mostly in shewing that they know nothing of the matter, or next to nothing. I am sure that I have learned nothing from their elucidations, whatever others may have done.

All that God Almighty has thought fit to tell us about the modus of his existence, is, I am that I am. And this we should have known, if he had not told it to us; and I believe it is all that we ever shall know, till he gives us other faculties. We are very sure that God is; that some being must have existed before any limitation of time, and independent of every other being; and consequently must have existed necessarily, or what we call eternally. It is exceeding probable, and, I think, certain, that there cannot be two or more such beings as are necessary and self-existing; and if but one, then that must be the cause of all the rest; or, which is the same thing, must produce all the rest; which mediately or immediately must derive their existence, faculties, sensations, capacities, powers of action, and consequently their actions themselves, from him.

But by what energy or power he effects this, we are wholly ignorant; and though the wits of learned men have been employed in solving this intricate question for many thousand years, yet the world is now just as wise as when they are first set out; and therefore I humbly think it high time to give over, and to content ourselves with knowing all that we can know, that is, that we can know nothing about it; and, consequently, ought not to form propositions about Godís essence, or his attributes, concerning his eternity, his infinity, the modus or the sensorium of his existence, or concerning his ways or motives for making or governing the universe: For I conceive that in these questions we must walk wholly in the dark; like travellers who are out of their way, the farther they go, the greater is their journey home again.

However, I think that we are left at liberty to reason about things which we do know; and therefore may with great assurance say, that God made all things, and that every thing depends immediately, or, by second causes, mediately, upon him; and that it is absolutely impossible that they can do otherwise.

I do not see how a greater absurdity can be put together in words, than that one being shall make another, create the matter of which it was made, give it all the faculties that it has, all its capacities of reasoning, powers of action, means of thinking, and present it with all its objects for thinking, yet leave it at liberty to act against them all; which I conceive is a downright impossibility. A pair of scales perfectly poised cannot ponderate on either side; and a man who has no motives to act, will not act at all. Every thing must be at rest which has no force to impel it: but as the last straw breaks the horseís back, or a single sand will turn the beam of scales which hold weights as heavy as the world; so, without doubt, as minute causes may determine the actions of men, which neither others nor they themselves are sensible of. But certainly something must determine them, or else they could not be determined; and it is nothing to the purpose to say, that their choice determines them, if something else must determine that choice: for, let it be what it will, the effect must be necessary. To say, that a man has a power to act, without any motives or impulse to act, seems to me to be a direct blunder. A man cannot have a will to act against his will; and if he has a will to do it, something must determine that will; and, whatever it is, must be his cause of action, and will produce the action; and that can only be the appearance of advantage arising from it; and those appearances must arise from the seeming relations of objects to one another, or to himself; which relations are not in his disposal, nor consequently are his actions, in the sense contended for.

If a man can do a voluntary action without a design to do it, and without any reason or motive for doing it, then matter without understanding has a self-moving power; which is atheism with a witness: though I will not, according to laudable custom, call the asserters of it atheists, because they may not see the consequence; for, take away understanding, and there can be nothing left but matter: And understanding is certainly taken away, when a being has no reason for acting; but when he has a reason, that reason is the cause, or co-cause of the action.

The question therefore is not, whether a man can do what he has a mind to do? but, whether he can do what he has no mind to do? That is, if his inclinations concur with his reasonings, his appearing interests, and his predominant passions, whether all together will not form his resolutions, and make him act pursuant to them, whilst those motives continue? One may as well say, that a man can avoid seeing, when an object strikes the eye, or hearing, when it hits the ear, as to believe that he can decline thinking, when the motion caused by the object reaches the brain, or where-ever else the seat of thinking is, unless some other more powerful object obstruct or divert it in its journey, or afterwards; and when he does think, he must think as he can, that is, according as objects from without are represented by their images to him within; or, in other words, as they act upon the animal spirits, or whatever else it is which sets the machine in motion. A man cannot avoid feeling pain or sickness, which are sensations of the mind, nor choose whether he will feel them or not; nor can he avoid desiring to get rid of them, unless some stronger motives determine him, which promise him greater advantages than he suffers inconveniences.

But here the metaphysical gentlemen distinguish between the motions of the body and those of the mind: They own that the pulse will beat, the nerves, arteries, muscles, and blood, will move, whether we will or not; and is it not as evident, that, according as they move or beat, the mind receives alteration, is enlarged or lessened, improved or impaired, and determined in many of its resolutions? A man sick, or in pain, will send for or go to a physician or surgeon, which draws after it a train of other resolutions or actions; and, according to the success which he meets with, may alter the whole scheme of his life, and of his after-thinking, and very often of his capacity of thinking. As our bodies are healthy or disordered, we are courageous, jealous, fearful, enthusiastick, or melancholy, and reason differently, and act differently: And is it not then choice philosophy, to say, that the contexture and disposition of our bodies (which were not of our own making) often direct or influence the resolutions of our mind, and yet are not the causes of those resolutions; and to go on to suppose, that our minds act independently of them, as well as of all other causes? For it is ridiculous to say, that though the mind has a principle of self-motion, yet other causes co-operate to produce the action; for if any other cause make it do what it would not otherwise do, that is the cause, or co-cause of the action produced, to all the purposes of this argument; nor can I guess at any other argument (that can be made use of to shew, that second causes can produce part of the action, or co-operate in producing it) which can prove them incapable to produce the whole. The most that can be pretended is, that there is a possibility that it may be so; but I conceive that no reason can be assigned why it may not be otherwise. But whether it be so or not, I think I have shewn, that the mind of man can be only a secondary cause, must be acted upon by other causes; that God alone is the first cause or principle of all motion; and that the actions of all other beings are necessarily dependent upon him.

A very great and justly celebrated author, who supposes that a man has a self-moving power, and, I think, only supposes it, endeavours to determine the question, by reducing his opponents to account for what no man yet has accounted for, and yet every man sees to be true: He says,[*]

"If the reasons and motives upon which a man acts be the immediate and efficient cause of the action, then either abstract notions (as all reasons and motives are) are in themselves substances, or else that which has no real subsistence can put a body in motion.

Now the force of this reasoning consists in putting his adversary upon shewing how the mind acts upon the body, or the body upon the mind: and he would have done kindly to have let us into that secret himself. When he is so obliging to inform the world, how the eye sees, the ear hears, or the palate tastes, I dare undertake to solve any other difficulty which he proposes. We find, by experience, that when an object strikes the eye, it causes that sensation which we call seeing; and a man cannot then avoid seeing, no more than in other circumstances he can avoid feeling pain and sickness, which are undoubtedly actions of the mind, or, if he choose another manner of expression, we will call them passions (and indeed they are both; viz. the latter as they are impelled by other causes; and the former, as they produce future events: And it seems very trifling to me, in so great a man, to spend so many pages about the propriety of a word, when the meaning intended to be conveyed by it was fully understood): but certainly they are species of thinking, or, if he pleases, abstract notions, which often put a body in motion, as all thinking undoubtedly does: But how these effects are produced, we are wholly in the dark.

We see and feel, that desires and fears, that abstract notions or images of the brain, alter the disposition of the whole fabrick, and often destroy the contexture of it. We see that the longings of women with child will stamp impressions upon the fetus, which longings are certainly abstract notions; and if these are not corporeal, then we must confess, that what is not so will affect what is: For as to his words substance and subsistence, I shall not pretend to understand them without a farther explanation, if he mean any thing by them besides body. Methinks this truly worthy and learned author should not call upon another to solve what no man is more capable of solving than himself. I freely own my ignorance; and, since, as I conceive, revelation is silent in the matter, am contented to continue in that ignorance.

The other argument is as follows:

"If insensible matter, or any other being or substance continually acting upon a man, be the immediate and efficient cause of his actions, then the motion of that subtle matter or substance must be caused by some other substance, I would choose to call it some other being, and the motion of that by some other, till at last we arrive at a free being."

Now, if, instead of the words free being, he had said a self-existent being, which I call God, his conclusion had been inevitable; nor do I oppose it in the words which he uses: But as we may possibly differ, and I doubt shall do, in the meaning of the words free being, so I neither assent to, nor dissent from, his proposition. I mean by a free being, one who has nothing, without itself, to determine or control its actions; which God has not, and I think man has. His conclusion therefore from such premises are nothing to me.

T I am &c.

[*] Dr. Clarkeís remarks upon a philosophical enquiry concerning human liberty. Page 43.

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