Wednesday, September 24, 2008

James Wilson, Theistic Rationalist

James Wilson was (or likely was), like the other key Founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin) a theistic rationalist, as opposed to a strict deist or orthodox Christian.

Wilson in his Works expressed a nuanced and often oddly interesting view on reason and revelation which points to his belief in theistic rationalism. While orthodox Christians believe the Bible is infallible and man's reason is subservient to revelation, and while strict deists believed all revelation is false and God revealed Himself only through nature discoverable by man's reason, theistic rationalists believed God revealed Himself primarily (not exclusively) through nature, not scripture, and as such only partially inspired the Bible. As Dr. Frazer put it in his seminal article on the subject, "revelation was designed to complement reason (not vice versa). Reason was the ultimate standard for learning and evaluating truth and for determining legitimate revelation from God."

What follows, some of Wilson's quotations that support theistic rationalism:

Wilson believed God revealed Himself through both nature and scripture. Wilson seemed to view both reason and revelation as, by themselves, incomplete, and put together largely complementary. From his Works, Volume I:

[H]ow shall we, in particular instances, learn the dictates of our duty, and make, with accuracy, the proper distinction between right and wrong; in other words, how shall we, in particular cases, discover the will of God? We discover it by our conscience, by our reason, and by the Holy Scriptures. The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is, indeed, preposterous to separate them from each other. The object of both is ― to discover the will of God ― and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end.


However, as a theistic rationalist, he believes reason is primary:

[F]or obligation is nothing more than a restriction of liberty produced by reason. Reason, then, independent of law, is sufficient to impose some obligation on man, and to establish a system of morality and duty.82

[...]

Reason, say they, is the first rule of man, the first principle of morality, and the immediate cause of all primitive obligation. But man being necessarily dependent on his Creator, who has formed him with wisdom and design, and who, in creating him, has proposed some particular ends; the will of God is another rule of human actions, another principle of morality, obligation, and duty. On this distinction, the kinds of obligation, external and internal, are founded. These two principles must be united, in order to form a complete system of morality, really founded on the nature and state of man. As a rational being, he is subject to reason: as a creature of God, to his supreme will. Thus, reason and the divine will are perfectly reconciled, are naturally connected, and are strengthened by their junction.85


Wilson then notes why "reason" can establish law is because God has imbued man with a "moral sense."

This moral sense, from its very nature, is intended to regulate and control all our other powers. It governs our passions as well as our actions. Other principles may solicit and allure; but the conscience assumes authority, it must be obeyed. Of this dignity and commanding nature we are immediately conscious, as we are of the power itself. It estimates what it enjoins, not merely as superiour in degree, but as superiour likewise in kind, to what is recommended by our other perceptive powers. Without this controlling faculty, endowed as we are with such a variety of senses and interfering desires, we should appear a fabrick destitute of order but possessed of it, all our powers maybe harmonious and consistent; they may all combine in one uniform and regular direction.

In short; if we had not the faculty of perceiving certain things in conduct to be right, and others to be wrong; and of perceiving our obligation to do what is right, and not to do what is wrong; we should not be moral and accountable beings.


When Wilson discusses revelation, he makes clear Scripture's role is to support reason and conscience, not the other way around. The context makes clear that reason is primary, revelation secondary:

Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance. They are useful and excellent monitors; but, at some times, their admonitions are not sufficiently clear; at other times, they are not sufficiently powerful; at all times, their influence is not sufficiently extensive. Great and sublime truths, indeed, would appear to a few; but the world, at large, would be dark and ignorant. The mass of mankind would resemble a chaos, in which a few sparks, that would diffuse a glimmering light, would serve only to show, in a more striking manner, the thick darkness with which they are surrounded. Their weakness is strengthened, their darkness is illuminated, their influence is enlarged by that heaven-descended science, which has brought life and immortality to light. In compassion to the imperfection of our internal powers, our all-gracious Creator, Preserver, and Ruler has been pleased to discover and enforce his laws, by a revelation given to us immediately and directly from himself. This revelation is contained in the holy scriptures. The moral precepts delivered in the sacred oracles form a part of the law of nature, are of the same origin, and of the same obligation, operating universally and perpetually.


Next, notice what Wilson earmarks as the revelation's most important teachings:

On some important subjects, those in particular, which relate to the Deity, to Providence, and to a future state, our natural knowledge is greatly improved, refined, and exalted by that which is revealed. On these subjects, one who has had the advantage of a common education in a christian country, knows more, and with more certainty, than was known by the wisest of the ancient philosophers.


Not things like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement or other creeds central to orthodox Christianity in which Wilson gives no indication that he believes; but rather "the Deity, to Providence, and to a future state," things first knowable from nature or reason, and which revelation's role is to "improve[], refine[], and exalt[]."

Interesting, Wilson next seems to almost elevate the scripture to a level of supremacy: "Thus it is with regard to reason, conscience, and the holy scriptures. Where the latter give instructions, those instructions are supereminently authentick."

But then claims scripture is deficient and repeats his assertion that scripture was not designed as God's primary revelation to man, but as a secondary revelation to man in what he already knows from reason and conscience:

But whoever expects to find, in [Scripture], particular directions for every moral doubt which arises, expects more than he will find. They generally presuppose a knowledge of the principles of morality; and are employed not so much in teaching new rules on this subject, as in enforcing the practice of those already known, by a greater certainty, and by new sanctions. They present the warmest recommendations and the strongest inducements in favour of virtue: they exhibit the most powerful dissuasives from vice. But the origin, the nature, and the extent of the several rights and duties they do not explain; nor do they specify in what instances one right or duty is entitled to preference over another. They are addressed to rational and moral agents, capable of previously knowing the rights of men, and the tendencies of actions; of approving what is good, and of disapproving what is evil.


Wilson then notes, reason and revelation largely operate together, but reason is supreme:

These considerations show, that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense. The information with regard to our duties and obligations, drawn from these different sources, ought not to run in unconnected and diminished channels: it should flow in one united stream, which, by its combined force and just direction, will impel us uniformly and effectually towards our greatest good.


Finally, one reason I don't think Wilson believed the Bible infallible or inerrant is he then denies the possibility of miracles:

The law of nature is immutable; not by the effect of an arbitrary disposition, but because it has its foundation in the nature, constitution, and mutual relations of men and things. While these continue to be the same, it must continue to be the same also. This immutability of nature's laws has nothing in it repugnant to the supreme power of an all-perfect Being. Since he himself is the author of our constitution; he cannot but command or forbid such things as are necessarily agreeable or disagreeable to this very constitution. He is under the glorious necessity of not contradicting himself. This necessity, far from limiting or diminishing his perfections, adds to their external character, and points out their excellency.


Final final comment: Even though Wilson, like Blackstone whom he cites a few times in Works, tips his epistemological hat to scripture in a few places, Wilson and Blackstone hardly ever actually cite scripture in their works. For all of their dithering on reason and revelation and which is supposed to do what, the overwhelming majority of Wilson's and Blackstone's works are not the product of scripture, but rather, of reasoning.

As Gary North provocatively put it when talking about Blackstone in this regard:

[H]e then spent four volumes describing English common law with only a few footnote references to the Bible. In the first three volumes, running almost 500 pages each, each has one footnote reference to the Bible. The fourth volume, on criminal law(Public Wrongs), has ten references. Not one of them is taken by Blackstone as authoritative for civil law; they were seen merely as historical examples. There is not a single reference to “Bible,” “Moses,” or “Revelation” in the set’s index.

...Englishmen commonly tipped the brim of their epistemological caps to God and the Bible, but they did not take off their caps in the presence of God....It was considered sufficient for Blackstone to have formally equated biblical law with natural law. Having done so, he could then safely ignore biblical law.

[...]

This raises another question: Was Blackstone in fact deliberately lying? In a perceptive essay by David Berman, we learn of a strategy that had been in use for over a century: combating a position by supporting it with arguments that are so weak that they in fact prove the opposite....If he was not lying, then he was naive beyond description, for his lame defense of biblical revelation greatly assisted the political triumph of the enemies of Christianity in the American colonies.

22 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

As Dr. Frazer put it in his seminal article on the subject, "revelation was designed to complement reason (not vice versa). Reason was the ultimate standard for learning and evaluating truth and for determining legitimate revelation from God."


Not exactly. According to the theory, regnant in most of Christendom, human reason is simply insufficient for man's needs, and history supports that hypothesis. You get Aristotle or Marx or Dr. Peter Singer.

"Revelation" supercedes brute human reason, is all, but still stands up to reason's rigors.

See, if God allows Abraham to kill Isaac, all bets are off. We slaughter our own children out of superstition or delusion.

So too, with the tattoo issue, what's interesting is that God's chosen people, Israel, should leave themselves unmarked. If God required tattoos, then we're into a whole different bag of superstitious bananas.

Ray Soller said...

The problem with the Abraham story is its Christian interpretation, which substitutes God in the place of Abraham, and God's Son in the place of Isaac. So, as the roulette wheel turns and as TVD has said, "All bets are off."

Neither reason nor revelation doth overrule the "Law of Truly Large Numbers," (i.e. nothing within a finite span of time can be determined with absolute certainty, but given a sufficiently large span of time any rare event can be predicted with a probabilistic certainty of one).

Jonathan Rowe said...

Ray,

That's an interesting law. I've determined that if the atheists are right that the universe is infinite then each of us will reincarnate infinitely. What I mean is the exact random probabilities that led to the existence of you are infinitesimally small. But if you can roll the dice infinite times, then it's guaranteed that "you" will appear again in the future and continue to appear. And not only that, but because time runs infinitely backwards that "you" always existed in the past. This is the logical result of the idea that time is infinite in both directions, what atheists believe.

Phil Johnson said...

.
One of the points we ignore either by purpose or just because we aren't aware of it has to do with the way knowledge gets into our minds.
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During the Founding era, an argument's seed was sprouting in the minds of the Founders and other intellectuals. I think Wilson's remarks are indicative of it.
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The question about how human beings got to have any knowledge in their minds was not settled in the secular world any more than it was in the sectarian. Were humans born with ready made knowledge already stored in their brains that only needed to be drawn out. The very word, education, comes to us from the ancient Greek word that means to draw out--something that can also be interpreted as "to duke it out".
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Any way, reading the selections Rowe publishes here, I can see that Wilson is influenced by the growing concern of those days regarding how knowledge gets to reside in the human mind.
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Does God put it there? Are we born with a universal morality? Such questions point up the difficulty we have in understanding such things as revelation.

Phil Johnson said...

.
So, you can see how men may have thought that God was the author of the Constitution as "He" is the One that planted the thoughts and words in the minds of the Founders.
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Thus, that makes up another argument that America was Founded as a Christian nation.
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Yah, sure.

Charles said...

"given a sufficiently large span of time any rare event can be predicted with a probabilistic certainty of one"

That's not quite what the article actually says, which is:

"The law of truly large numbers says that with a large enough sample many odd coincidences are likely to happen."

Put into slightly more formal language, this is the unsurprising observation that even an event with a negligible per-trial probability will have a non-negligible probability of occurring at least once in a sufficiently large number of repeated trials.

One has to be careful in extending this trivial observation to situations involving concepts of infinity. For example, the first quote above could be interpreted as saying that if you pick a real number at random every second for eternity you're certain to pick pi eventually. But there are uncountably many real numbers and only a countably infinite number of seconds in eternity. It's been awhile since I played these kinds of games so I may be missing some subtlety, but I think the probability of picking pi (or, of course, any other specific real number; or even any of a countably infinite number of real numbers) - even in a countably infinite number of trials - is zero, not one.

Related to this, since Mr. Rowe didn't adequately define the sample space or the trials he had in mind, I can't be sure, but my guess is that his conclusion about "reincarnation" isn't correct for similar reasons. And the association of "atheism" and specific views on cosmological infinities seems seems even less likely to be generally accurate, if only because I think it's safe to assume that the typical atheist has no opinion at all on such matters. Not to mention that I thought current opinion is that the universe most likely is NOT infinite; but then I have no personal opinion on that - QED.

As to the post, to more-or-less repeat an earlier comment, all of Mr. Wilson's somewhat convoluted arguments re proportions, ranking, necessity, etc, of reason, revelation, and conscience don't appear to me to add anything to the straightforward observation that man can't do any better than to gather as much information as possible from as many sources as possible, to process it as best he can, and to make his best guess as to what is "right". The assumption that there is an omniscient entity lurking in the background dropping non-definitive, unidentified (as to source) "hints" seems to add nothing. Except perhaps some emotional comfort; which is fine, but then why not just forthrightly say so?

- Charles

Matt Huisman said...

But it is our business, with earnest minds to consider how wonderfully God, in the very article of death, both recalled Isaac from death to life, and restored to Abraham his son, as one who had risen from the tomb.

- John Calvin


When Abraham wrestles with the promise of God to save the world through the seed of Isaac and the seemingly competing instruction to sacrifice him on the mountain, he proceeds because he believes by faith that God will make it right in the end*. You and I are unlikely to face such a dilemma, but that's not because the roulette wheel misses us. Rather, our lot is graciously weighted to account for the fact that we're simply not Abraham.

Which brings us back to the seed of Isaac; what might we expect things to look like for someone that has gone beyond Abraham?

* I believe this is the thrust of Tom's point, but I'd better leave that to him.

Ray Soller said...

Jon,

Well, not exactly. The problem is with the non-repeatability of certain events. In an article that first appeared in the May, 1988, monthly publication, "Griffith Observer," under the title "Time and the Universe," John Gribbin uses the example of dropping an ice cube into a hot cup of coffee, and waiting for the coffee to settle down to a luke-warm temperature. After a rather comprehensible explanation, Gribbin concludes, "But the gist of the message is plain, and important. No matter how long we sit and watch a luke-warm cup of coffee, it will never spontaneously give birth to an ice cube and heat up; ... . The second law of thermodynamics [down at the sub-atomic level] is an absolute ruler of the universe [my bold]. We live in an irreversible universe, with a well-defined arrow of time."

The full article is available as a chapter in the book, "The Case of the Missing Neutrinos."

My point, other than creating a suitable Budweiser moment, is that while we sit here in the 21st century there is no way we can reflect back upon the likes of Aristotle and Aquinas within the same Zeitgeist as the Founding Fathers. The Christian Nation proponents, who wish to do so, are just not recognizing the social impact of the drastic changes that have led up to the modern era.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Aristotle and Aquinas are not staples of the Christian Nation crowd. I really don't know what you're up to here, Ray.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, Matt, my point was less elegant. To kill Isaac contravenes natural law. I was simply agreeing with James Wilson:

"The law of nature is immutable; not by the effect of an arbitrary disposition, but because it has its foundation in the nature, constitution, and mutual relations of men and things. While these continue to be the same, it must continue to be the same also. This immutability of nature's laws has nothing in it repugnant to the supreme power of an all-perfect Being. Since he himself is the author of our constitution; he cannot but command or forbid such things as are necessarily agreeable or disagreeable to this very constitution. He is under the glorious necessity of not contradicting himself. This necessity, far from limiting or diminishing his perfections, adds to their external character, and points out their excellency."

Ray Soller said...

I don't understand how Abraham's killing Isaac "contravenes" the second law of thermodynamics, which is, at the moment, "an absolute ruler of the universe."

If, as James Wilson said, "He [God] is under the glorious necessity of not contradicting himself," then God must have left the part of working out the details at the sub-atomic level to the Devil.

Tom Van Dyke said...

An interesting theory, Ray.

bpabbott said...

Ray: "nothing within a finite span of time can be determined with absolute certainty, but given a sufficiently large span of time any rare event can be predicted with a probabilistic certainty of one"

Excellent perspective. I've made note of it.

Charles: "One has to be careful in extending this trivial observation to situations involving concepts of infinity. For example, the first quote above could be interpreted as saying that if you pick a real number at random every second for eternity you're certain to pick pi eventually"

An excellent point as well.

Perhaps Ray's thought is only valid if the "any rare event" is finite from all perspectives.

Matt Huisman said...

Sorry about the error, Tom. I realized it right after I pubished the comment, but didn't delete it because I noticed both you and Ray were 'present' at that time. I didn't want to pull something that someone might call me on.

Charles said...

"Perhaps Ray's thought is only valid if the "any rare event" is finite from all perspectives."

I wasn't claiming anything with respect to finite vs infinite. If instead of picking real numbers one picks integers, my intuition is that any specific integer will come up at least once with probability one, but as noted before, I'm rusty on these matters and can't immediately see a convincing argument.

Which relates to Mr. Rowe's assertion re reincarnation (I prefer "reconstitution" - less baggage). Thinking about it some more, although there are a huge number of things that need to be reconstituted to produce "you" (family, friends, teachers, books, etc - essentially all of your personal history), it seems arguable that the number of such things is either finite or countable (at some point, "huge" and "infinite" are probably indistinguishable for "practical" purposes such as this). Hence, I'll concede at least the theoretical possibility (ignoring the 2nd Law argument, about which I can say nothing) of reconstitution.

Besides, isn't that more-or-less what Hindus think happens each time Shiva Nataraja repeats his dance? And so far, haven't their myths been pretty good predictors?

- Charles

Tom Van Dyke said...

With the discovery of the Big Bang and the probability that the universe is finite in both time and mass, a lot of the "monkeys with typewriters will eventually come up with Shakespeare" arguments go out the window.

Charles' invocation of "Pi" is even more interesting. It's a real number, just not a rational one. And no amount of time or number of monkeys can ever come up with it.

We might ask the same of life itself, all the way to how it comes to be that you're reading these words at this exact moment.

For some, beating the prohibitive if not impossible odds against it makes for a fair definition of "miracle."

Phil Johnson said...

TVD oppines, "We might ask the same of life itself, all the way to how it comes to be that you're reading these words at this exact moment.
.
Yup. That's the substance of what it is all about. Insightful...

bpabbott said...

Tom: "With the discovery of the Big Bang and the probability that the universe is finite in both time and mass [...]"

There is no conclusion regarding the age or expanse of the universe.

The size is unknown due to the recession velocity of distance objects.

The age is unknown due to our lack of understanding of the nature of the universe prior to the "Big Bang".

That we cant' see it doesn't mean the universe isn't infinite in size, and that we can't understand it doesn't mean the universe isn't eternal.

Regarding the size, there really is a physical limitation which is accelerating every second. Meaning that the observable content of the universe grows more finite as time passes.

Regarding the age, many how the new super collider will enable us to see back beyond the Big Bang (a hope I'm rather skeptical of).

Tom Van Dyke said...

I said "probability." Substitute "possibility" and the actual point remains the same. Pi.

And the supercollider seeks to recreate the moment just after the Big Bang, not before.

Is the Google broken on your computer, or is quibbling just an unconquerable impulse with you?

wsforten said...

I wonder if Mr. Rowe has ever actually read James Wilson's Lectures on the Law. If so, then it would appear that he has carefully selected only those passages which support his claims and has wholly ignored those which contradict them. I would like to know what Mr. Rowe would say of Mr. Wilson after reading the selected quotes within a fuller context.

"Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance. They are useful and excellent monitors; but, at some times, their admonitions are not sufficiently clear; at other times, they are not sufficiently powerful; at all times, their influence is not sufficiently extensive. Great and sublime truths, indeed, would appear to a few; but the world, at large, would be dark and ignorant. The mass of mankind would resemble a chaos, in which a few sparks, that would diffuse a glimmering light, would serve only to show, in a more striking manner, the thick darkness with which they are surrounded. Their weakness is strengthened, their darkness is illuminated, their influence is enlarged by that heaven-descended science, which has brought life and immortality to light. In compassion to the imperfection of our internal powers, our all-gracious Creator, Preserver, and Ruler has been pleased to discover and enforce his laws, by a revelation given to us immediately and directly from himself. This revelation is contained in the holy scriptures. The moral precepts delivered in the sacred oracles form a part of the law of nature, are of the same origin, and of the same obligation, operating universally and perpetually.

On some important subjects, those in particular, which relate to the Deity, to Providence, and to a future state, our natural knowledge is greatly improved, refined, and exalted by that which is revealed. On these subjects, one who has had the advantage of a common education in a christian country, knows more, and with more certainty, than was known by the wisest of the ancient philosophers.

wsforten said...

[continued]
One superiour advantage the precepts delivered in the sacred oracles clearly possess. They are, of all, the most explicit and the most certain. A publick minister, judging from what he knows of the interests, views, and designs of the state, which he represents, may take his resolutions and measures, in many cases, with confidence and safety; and may presume, with great probability, how the state itself would act. But if, besides this general knowledge, and these presumptions highly probable, he was furnished also with particular instructions for the regulation of his conduct; would he not naturally observe and govern himself by both rules? In cases, where his instructions are clear and positive, there would be an end of all farther deliberation. In other cases, where his instructions are silent, he would supply them by his general knowledge, and by the information, which he could collect from other quarters, concerning the counsels and systems of the commonwealth. Thus it is with regard to reason, conscience, and the holy scriptures. Where the latter give instructions, those instructions are supereminently authentick. But whoever expects to find, in them, particular directions for every moral doubt which arises, expects more than he will find. They generally presuppose a knowledge of the principles of morality; and are employed not so much in teaching new rules on this subject, as in enforcing the practice of those already known, by a greater certainty, and by new sanctions. They present the warmest recommendations and the strongest inducements in favour of virtue: they exhibit the most powerful dissuasives from vice. But the origin, the nature, and the extent of the several rights and duties they do not explain; nor do they specify in what instances one right or duty is entitled to preference over another. They are addressed to rational and moral agents, capable of previously knowing the rights of men, and the tendencies of actions; of approving what is good, and of disapproving what is evil.

These considerations show, that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense. The information with regard to our duties and obligations, drawn from these different sources, ought not to run in unconnected and diminished channels: it should flow in one united stream, which, by its combined force and just direction, will impel us uniformly and effectually towards our greatest good."

By the way, I have just recently posted a large collection of quotes from James Wilson on my website at this link: http://christian76.com/james-wilson/

Phil Johnson said...

.
So, this is a site about philosophy after all?

:^)