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The analogy of nature

Datum:18 mei 2018
Auteur:Lukas Wolf
Caravaggio, Narcissus
Caravaggio, Narcissus

In 1776, James Boswell visited David Hume on his deathbed and asked him about his religious beliefs. Hume famously replied that he hadn’t entertained any belief in religion, ever since he began reading Locke and Clarke. This anecdote has become famous for showing the inherent paradox in 18th century attempts at demonstrating the reasonableness of religion; for many, these attempts tended to show the impossibility of making faith reasonable. My aim for this blog post is to talk a bit more about the complicated reception of Clarke’s philosophy in the 18th century, focusing in particular on the notion of the ‘analogy of nature’, its methodological implications for morality and natural theology, and the prevalent unease concerning a priori demonstrations of God’s divine plan.

Hume was in good company in his criticism of Clarke. Anthony Collins famously quipped that there was no reason to doubt the existence of God before the Boyle lecturers tried so hard to prove it. Likewise, Joseph Butler, Francis Hutcheson, and Lord Kames all took issue with Clarke’s a priori arguments; they all sent letters to Clarke in which they asked for further clarification. Butler’s letters are the longest and most well-known of these – and if they give any indication of Hutcheson’s and Kames’ opinions, it seems doubtful that Clarke was able to convince them. In any case, none of them were positive about Clarke’s project in their later works.

What we see very clearly in Butler’s letters is that, though he genuinely wishes to be convinced of these demonstrations, he also realizes that we cannot realistically hope for more than probabilistic evidence for the attributes of God and for our knowledge of morality. This becomes a recurrent theme in his later work. For instance, in The Analogy of Religion (1726), Butler dedicates the introduction to arguing that demonstrative arguments are beyond our limited capacity of understanding, and that the best we can aim for are merely probable demonstrations in the form of analogous reasoning. He goes on to say that:

We are far from being able to judge what particular disposition of things would be most friendly and assistant to virtue; or what means might be absolutely necessary to produce the most happiness in a system of such extent as our own world may be. […] Indeed we are so far from being able to judge of this, that we are not judges what may be the necessary means of raising and conducting one person to the highest perfection and happiness of his nature. Nay, even in the little affairs of the present life, we find men of different educations and ranks are not competent judges of the conduct of each other. Our whole nature leads us to ascribe all moral perfection to God […] and from hence we conclude, that virtue must be the happiness, and vice the misery, of every creature; and that regularity and order and right cannot but prevail finally in a universe under his government. But we are in no sort judges what are the necessary means of accomplishing this end.

Let us then, instead […] turn our thoughts to what we experience to be the conduct of Nature with respect to intelligent creatures; which may be resolved into general laws or rules of administration, in the same way as many of the laws of nature respecting inanimate matter may be collected from experiments. And let us compare the known constitution and course of things with what is said to be the moral system of nature, the acknowledged dispensations of providence, or that government which we find ourselves under, with what religion teaches us to believe and expect, and see whether they are not analogous and of a piece. (Butler, Introduction, XXX)

In other words, men aren’t capable of the kind of reasoning which Clarke proposes in his ethics. Instead, given our position as mere mortals with imperfect intellect, we ought only to make use of analogical reasoning in order to come to knowledge of God and of morality.

What kind of analogies are we supposed to make use of then? There are several kinds of analogies present in Butler’s work, but perhaps most dominant among them is the nearly mystical phrase ‘’the analogy of nature’’. Though this phrase is never adequately explained, it has recently occurred to me that it pops up again and again in texts of this era. It is mentioned dozens of times in Butler’s Analogy, and is similarly present in many other texts on moral sense. A typical example is as follows:

… it is quite agreeable to the analogy of nature, that mankind, the highest order of creatures in this lower world, would be formed with dispositions to promote the general good of their species … (Leechman’s preface to Hutcheson, p. xix)

Or in Lord Kames:

to found our knowledge of the Deity upon reasoning solely, is not agreeable to the analogy of nature. We depend not on abstract reasoning, nor indeed on any reasoning, for unfolding our duty to our fellow creatures: it is engraved upon the table of our hearts. (Kames, 201)

Or indeed in Butler:

Thus all the various and wonderful transformations of animals are to be taken into consideration here. But the states of life in which we ourselves existed formerly in the womb and in our infancy, are almost as different from our present in mature age, as it is possible to conceive any two states or degrees of life can be. Therefore that we are to exist hereafter, in a state as different (suppose) from our present, as this is from our former, is but according to the analogy of nature; according to a natural order or appointment, of the very same kind with what we have already experienced. (Butler, 6)

Exhausting all the examples would take too long, but the idea, it seems, is that 1) we have some form of order in the universe of higher and lower levels, 2) we have some laws or regularities which we can observe at one level, and 3) we have some reason to suppose that the same kind of regularities hold in higher or lower levels. So it is an analogy of different levels in the chain of being; as the human heart powers our body, so too does the moral heart power our action. As the caterpillar turns into a butterfly, and as the chick bursts out of its egg, so too will our human bodies transform and be reborn at resurrection. As the world around us is ordered and tends to the common good, so to should we order ourselves towards the common good.

The end result, in any case, is that we can get to a probable knowledge of e.g. moral laws, God’s plan for the world, or the existence of the afterlife, by reasoning through many examples of analogies with things we do know, namely the world around us. Every example individually has but a low probability, but taken together they increase our certainty.

So on the one hand this ‘analogy of nature’ is the solution to the impossibility of a priori arguments: as these moral sense theorists (Hume excepted) are so keen to point out, we ought to construct our arguments on observations and inductions rather than on hypotheses. In this respect the idea of the analogy of nature is very much in line with a scientific project of collecting examples and generalizing on that basis – an analogy of which they were very much aware.

On the other hand, the analogy of nature itself appears to be involved in accounting for our inability to comprehend intricate a priori demonstrations. It is because of man’s place as ‘’the highest creature in this lower world’’ (see quote 1) that we are not able to get to the levels of certain knowledge of the angels or of God. It is according to the analogy of nature (i.e., our place in the great chain of being), that we do not have access to these necessary truths. This is also made clear in Butler’s sermon on the ignorance of man:

The same account is to be given, why we were placed in these circumstances of ignorance, as why nature has not furnished us with wings; namely, that we were designed to be inhabitants of this earth. I am afraid we think too highly of ourselves, of our rank in the creation, and of what is due to us. What sphere of action, what business is assigned to man, that he has not capacities and knowledge fully equal to? […] To expect a distinct comprehensive view of the whole subject, clear of difficulties and objections, is to forget our nature and condition; neither of which admit of such knowledge with respect to any science whatever. And to inquire with this expectation, is not to inquire as a man, but as one of another order of creatures. (Butler, Sermon on The Ignorance of Man, 303-4)

Butler even manages to turn our ignorance into a nice message about God’s providential design, though perhaps not so positive for philosophers, on which I will end:

Knowledge is not the proper happiness of humane nature: whoever will in the least attend to the thing will see, that ‘tis the gaining, not the having of it, which is the entertainment of the mind. Indeed, if the proper happiness of man consisted in knowledge considered as a possession or treasure, men who are posessed of the largest share would have a very ill time of it; as they would be infinitely more sensible than others, of their poverty in this respect. Thus he who increases knowledge would eminently increase sorrow. Men of deep research and curious inquiry should just be put in mind, not to mistake what they are doing. If their discoveries serve the cause of virtue and religion … or if they tend to render life less unhappy, and promote its satisfactions; then they are most usefully employed. But bringing things to light, alone and of itself, is of no manner of use, any otherwise than as entertainment or diversion. (Butler, Sermon on The Ignorance of Man, 307)


Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, 1726. (

Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, 1736. (

Francis Hutcheson, A system of moral philosophy, vol. 1, 1755. (

Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, 3rd ed. 1779. (


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