Cato's Letter No. 116

That whatever moves and acts, does so mechanically and necessarily.

John Trenchard (Saturday, February 16, 1723)

SIR, It is justly observed by Mr. Locke, and by Mr. Hobbes and others before him, that we have no innate ideas, nor can reflect upon them before we have them; that is, we cannot think before we have something to think upon. All objects and materials for thinking must be let in upon the mind through the organs of sense; and when they are there, we reflect or reason upon them; or, to speak philosophically, when the action of exterior bodies strikes upon us, it must cause a second action or motion, and continue it in infinitum, unless it meets obstruction. This first action causes sensation, and the second reflection; and the first seems to me as necessarily to produce the latter, as wind sails a ship, or the winding up of a clock sets it in motion.

Every system of matter has peculiar organizations, and can perform only peculiar functions. A cow cannot perform the offices of a horse, nor a man of a monkey; nor indeed, in many instances, can one man perform those of another. As some machines or systems of matter consist of vastly finer and more numerous parts than others, so they are capable of more operations. A watch which points to minutes or seconds, has more wheels, than one which only shews hours; and a striking or repeating watch has more than both, though all are wound up by the same key. Animals who consist of infinite tubes, veins, arteries, muscles, and juices, which also consist of infinite globular, and other figured particles of matter, must have suitable and very surprizing operations, though all their actions must be confined within the circle of their machine; but they will be multiplied in equal or greater degree than the chances upon dies. Two dies have six times as many chances as one, and three as two, and so on in infinitum; and therefore there seems to be no difficulty in accounting for the great variety of actions in animals, more than in inferior machines: And as mankind never have, nor, I presume, ever will discover all the powers of mechanical experiments; so with greater reason one may venture to assert, that no animal ever yet has exerted all the faculties which it was endued with: A thousand dies may turn up all sixes; but I believe this has never happened, nor I believe ever will.

Vegetables seem to me to be analogous in many respects to animals: Their generation appears to be much alike: They both rise from seeds, or eggs, and continue their kinds by the same: Their life is continued alike, and their nourishment conveyed through veins or other tubes; and when that nourishment ceases, they die; and as the action of the sun, and other bodies, set the former in motion, and causes that sort of sensation which we call vegetation, so the same power, or some other like it, seems to rouze animal life, and sets it in like motion; and all motion must be progressive in the same system till it be destroyed, or that system become another, or part of another; which shall be more fully shewn hereafter.

This action is called by different names, as it affects the different parts of the machine. When it affects the eye, it is called seeing; the ear, hearing; the palate, tasting; the nose, smelling; which indeed are but different sorts of feeling: But when the motion is continued further, and gets to the brain, or other internal parts of the system, it causes that effect which we call thinking; which again operates within the animal, and drives it to farther action, which is always analogous to the disposition of the fabrick, and regular, or irregular, according to the present formation of the machine, and of the powers which impel it. And here we cannot enough admire the exquisite skill of the Supreme Architect, who has formed such stupendous and amazing works of his omnipotence; and in many instances, I conceive we should judge right if we only admired them, and not vainly attempted to find out what we can never know. We want faculties to search the causes of most things in nature, and know nothing of their internal contexture, and but little of the modus of their operations. We see only some sensible effects of the actions of bodies upon one another; but how they produce these effects, we are utterly ignorant, and I believe ever shall be whilst we are in this state: We cannot tell why the fire burns, the grass grows, the eye sees, the ear hears, or the mind thinks, only we find in fact, that they do so; and here is our ne plus ultra.

It is exceedingly imprudent therefore for men to pretend to determine the powers of matter and motion, when they know not what matter is, of what parts it consists, or indeed any thing about it, but by a few outward effects; nor can we form any notions of it but from those effects, which yet probably do not exhaust the millionth part of its powers: And it is still more ridiculous to use the word spirit (of which we have no sort of idea), to account for other things, of which we have very little or no idea neither; and in many instances, deny what we see, to pretend to believe what we do not understand. Words are only the signs of images, as figures are of numbers; and what use is there of a sound, or scrawl, which signifies nothing, or, which is the same thing, which stands for what we know nothing of?

Now if a man should ask a modern philosopher, what he meant by the word spirit? he possibly will answer, that it is something which wants extension and solidity. If it be asked again what conception he has of any thing which has neither extension or solidity? and he answer, that he has none at all; but that there may be beings in nature of which he neither has, nor can have any idea: If then he be asked, why he uses a word which has no conception annexed to it, to explain another thing about which he is wholly in the dark? his reply, I presume will be, that he cannot account for some operations of that being by the images which he had before conceived of it, and the definitions about it which he had been used to; and therefore he was forced to recur to negative ideas. If he be asked again, how he knows that his definitions are right, and take in all the powers of that being? he must acknowledge that he knows not the thousandth part of its powers; but yet perhaps will say, that he is very sure that it has not powers inconsistent with the nature of body. It will be asked of him, how he, who knows little or nothing of the nature of body, can know what is against the nature of body? which difficulty I shall leave to wiser men to unriddle.

Now it appears to me, that there are many mechanical operations of the minds and bodies of animals, which result only from their peculiar systems of matter; or, in other words, compounded bodies, peculiarly systematized, attain new qualities and powers which they had not before, and which influence their own actions, and the actions of other bodies, as necessarily as the loadstone draws iron, or the root and fibres of a tree or plant attract the juices of the earth, and convey them on till they are transmuted into wood, leaves, and fruit. A chick or a young pheasant, hatched in an oven, as soon as it is out of the shell, will eat bread, or emmet eggs, and soon after shew signs of love or fear, and shrink from danger (like the sensitive plant from the touch) before it has gained any experience, has any sense of injuries, or can know how it can be hurt. Birds hatched in a cage will not only generate together, but will build their nest in the same manner, and of the same materials with those of the same kind, if they can come at them, without having seen any of the same sort before. Infant animals immediately seek after the teats of their dams, without being taught to do so; and all animals and vegetables seek or attract the peculiar nourishment that is proper to their species, without any direction but from nature; and have the same affections and passions, with but little variation: which I think plainly shews, that their particular organizations, or systems of matter, by a natural sort of gravitation or attraction direct their operations; and though every particular of the same species differ in some respects from another, and consequently their actions will vary, yet they are confined within the limits prescribed to the whole species. And this observation runs through all nature.

Now I conceive that this must be accounted for as above, or we must recur to constant miracle, or else suppose that God Almighty has given to every species of animals peculiar minds different from all other kinds, and to every particular a mind different from all the rest of the same kind; which mind guides and directs all our actions; and makes all the specifick as well as identical differences that we see: For which supposition I can find no foundation in reason, or from observation; nor can I perceive what use can be made of such a concession; for whether the actions of animals are directed by the disposition of the materials which form them, or they were originally constituted with such appetites, they must act the same way; and this farther raises our admiration of the power and providence of God, who has formed all his creatures in such a manner as to answer his intentions in creating them; and has so disposed the mechanism and juices of every living species, as well as of every individual, as will best conduce to its preservation, and to perform the function intended.

But here a notable distinction arises between the operations of the mind, and those in the body, or, in other words, between sensations and reflections, between appetites and reasonings; which I must beg leave to think in this regard, has no foundation in nature, and only exists in metaphysical brains. There can be no sensations, inclinations, or appetites, without the cooperation of that faculty, capacity, energy, or whatever else it is that we call the mind. Dead men can no more hear, see, feel, &c. than a lump of earth, because their organization is destroyed, or the animal spirits which set them in motion can no longer continue that motion, or the separate principle, called the mind, can no longer keep its habitation; but whatever it be, or by what name soever called, it is certainly the causa sine qua non of the actions of the animal, and is one link of the chain of causes which direct and govern his voluntary motions.

It is the mind which sees, hears, tastes, smells, feels, desires, or fears; and herein consists the difference between animals and vegetables: They have both life, and both have organizations proper to preserve and continue that life, by suitable nourishment conveyed through veins and tubes: Both have surprising operations, unsearchable by our capacities; and both must have a long train of causes from nature to enable them to produce those operations: but besides many other possible causes linked together in those chains, and many of them existing within animals themselves which we do not know, there is one which we do, namely, the will or desire to do a thing; and this certainly, in a thousand instances, depends upon causes without us, and which are undoubtedly out of our power; which causes without set the other causes within us at work, and produce the will, and consequently the action.

A chick, or a young pheasant, would no more peck, or a lamb suck, than if it was dead, if it did not intend to do it: It feels uneasiness by hunger, and strives to help itself: It certainly shews thought and choice, in preferring one sort of food before another, and in shrinking or running away from danger: And these are all actions of the mind. It is true, as it grows older, and its contexture stronger, its experience increases, and its capacity grows with it; but the faculty is the same, and, for any thing which appears to the contrary, results from the formation of the system; nor can I conceive how all birds, beasts, and fishes of the same species should have the same, or very near the same sensations, desires, and fears, and chuse the same kinds of food and means of preservation, and always use the same, or very near the same address, cunning, or artifice, unless their contexture, the disposition of materials and juices, of which they are compounded by a natural mechanism, produced these effects, either by constituting or acting upon that energy, called their minds, and then directing and coercing those minds to exert the faculty, called the will, which produces the action, if it may be lawful to distinguish an operation of the same power from its self.

I am not aware of any other objection to this reasoning, but that we can have no conception how matter can produce an act or operation of the mind in brute animals; and therefore other systems have been invented, equally unconceivable, to avoid this, and which apparently contradict fact. It is plain, that their minds are affected, altered, and receive addition and diminution by diet, physick, and exercise, and partake, in many respects, of the fate of their material system; and their faculties are greater or less, according to the disposition of that system, as shall be more fully shewn in future papers. And since the whole must consist of the several parts, what reasons can be assigned to prove, that material causes may create or produce the parts, and not the whole, I mean of their minds; for as to the soul of man, I shall consider it separately hereafter. For my own part, I have had always so unfortunate a turn of thinking, that I could never subscribe to opinions, because others held them before me; nor will I send into the clouds for solutions, which lie under my nose, or refuse the benefit of my eyes to amuse my understanding; neither shall I regard the calumnies and uncharitable censures of those who dare not peep out of their dark dungeons, and would measure all truth by imbibed prejudices: but shall ever think, that I shall do more honour to Almighty God, in believing that he has so formed at once the whole fabrick of heaven and earth, as to produce all the events which he intended, than to suppose that he has often found cause to mend and alter his first resolutions; though I confess that it may consist with his wisdom, and conduce to the ends of his providence, to suffer matters, in some respects, and at some times, to appear to us in other lights.

He certainly is a more skilful artificer, who can make a watch which will go for a thousand years, and then break to pieces at a stated time, than another who makes one which must be wound up every day, and mended every month.

T I am, &c.

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