Joseph Butler

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In existographies, Joseph Butler (263-203 BE) (1692-1752 ACM) (PR:28,943|65AE / religious figure:1,492) (CR:5) (LH:3) (TL:8), aka “Bishop Butler” (Tyndall, 1874), was an English theologian, apologist, and philosopher, noted for []


In 1726, Butler published a selection of his sermons as Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel; appeared in a second edition in 1729 with corrections and with the addition of an important synoptic “Preface”. In these Fifteen Sermons, Butler outlined the basics of his "moral philosophy".[1]

In 1736, Butler, in his Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, presented an apologetics argument, in defense of Christianity, focused on the key terms: actions, analogy, evidence, matter, moral, nature, objections, reason, revelation, and things, and employs the terms: "living powers", "perceiving, percipient powers, moving agents, ourselves, as replacements for the term "soul".[2]

Modern Lucretius | Butler dialogue (1874)

In 1874, John Tyndall, in his “Atheistic Materialism”, BAAS Address, presented a dialogue between a "modern Lucretius / modern Bruno" and a "modern Butler", amid which talk of "dead atoms" arose.[3] The following is the introduction to the dialogue:

Lucretius, as you are aware, reached a precisely opposite conclusion; and it certainly would be interesting, if not profitable, to us all, to hear what he would or could urge in opposition to the reasoning of the Bishop. As a brief discussion of the point will enable us to see the bearings of an important question, I will here permit a disciple of Lucretius to try the strength of the Bishop's position, and then allow the Bishop to retaliate, with the view of rolling back, if he can, the difficulty upon Lucretius.”
— John Tyndall (1874), “Atheistic Materialism” (pg. 27) BAAS address

The argument, according to Tyndall, "might proceed" in the following fashion:

  • Lucretius disciple: “Subjected to the test of mental presentation (Vorstellung), your views, most honored prelate, would present to many minds a great, if not an insuperable difficulty. You speak of "living powers," "percipient or perceiving powers," and "ourselves;" but can you form a mental picture of any one of these apart from the organism through which it is supposed to act? Test yourself honestly, and see whether you possess any faculty that would enable you to form such a conception. The true self has a local habitation in each of us; thus localized, must it not possess a form? If so, what form? Have you ever for a moment realized it? When a leg is amputated the body is divided into two parts; is the true self in both of them or in one? Thomas Aquinas might say in both; but not you, for you appeal to the consciousness associated with one of the two parts to prove that the [28/29] other is foreign matter. Is consciousness, then, a necessary element of the true self? If so, what do you say to the case of the whole body being deprived of consciousness? If not, then on what grounds do you deny any portion of the true self to the severed limb? It seems very singular that, from the beginning to the end of your admirable book (and no one admires its sober strength more than I do), you never once mention the brain or nervous system. You begin at one end of the body and show that its parts may be removed without prejudice to the perceiving power. What if you begin at the other end, and remove, instead of the leg, the brain? The body, as before, is divided into two parts; but both are now in the same predicament, and neither can be appealed to to prove that the other is foreign matter. Or, instead of going so far as to remove the brain itself, let a certain portion of its bony covering be removed, and let a rhythmic series of pressures and relaxations of pressure be applied to the soft substance. At every pressure, "the faculties of perception and of action" vanish; at every relaxation of pressure they are restored. Where, during the intervals of pressure, is the perceiving power? I once had the discharge of a large Leyden battery passed unexpectedly through me: I felt nothing, but was simply blotted out of conscious existence for a sensible interval. Where was my true self during that interval? Men who have recovered from lightning-stroke have been much longer in the same state; and indeed in cases of ordinary concussion of the brain, days may elapse during which no experience is registered in consciousness. Where is the man himself during the period of insensibility? You may say that I beg the question when I assume the man to have been unconscious, that he was really conscious all the time, and has simply forgotten what had occurred to him. In [29/30] reply to this, I can only say that no one need shrink from the worst tortures that superstition ever invented if only so felt and so remembered. I do not think your theory of instruments goes at all to the bottom of the matter. A telegraph-operator has his instruments, by means of which he converses with the world; our bodies possess a nervous system, which plays a similar part between the perceiving power and external things. Cut the wires of the operator, break his battery, demagnetize his needle: by this means you certainly sever his connection with the world; but inasmuch as these are real instruments, their destruction does not touch the man who uses them. The operator survives, and he knows that he survives. What is it, I would ask, in the human system that answers to this conscious survival of the operator when the battery of the brain is so disturbed as to produce insensibility, or when it is destroyed altogether?”
  • Bishop Butler: [listening]
  • Lucretius disciple: “Another consideration, which you may consider slight, presses upon me with some force. The brain may change from health to disease, and through such a change the most exemplary man may be converted into a debauchee or a murderer. My very noble and approved good master had, as you know, threatenings of lewdness introduced into his brain by his jealous wife's philter; and sooner than permit himself to run even the risk of yielding to these base promptings he slew himself. How could the hand of Lucretius have been thus turned against himself if the real Lucretius remained as before? Can the brain or can it not act in this distempered way without the intervention of the immortal reason? If it can, then it is a prime mover which requires only healthy regulation to render it reasonably self-acting, and there is no apparent need of your immortal reason at all. If it cannot, then the immortal reason, by its mischievous activity in operating upon a broken instrument, must have the credit [30/31] of committing every imaginable extravagance and crime. I think, if you will allow me to say so, that the gravest consequences are likely to flow from your estimate of the body. To regard the brain as you would a staff or an eyeglass’ to shut your eyes to all its mystery, to the perfect correlation of its condition and our consciousness, to the fact that a slight excess or defect of blood in it produces the very swoon to which you refer, and that in relation to it our meat and drink and air and exercise have a perfectly transcendental value and significance’ to forget all this does, I think, open a way to innumerable errors in our habits of life, and may possibly in some cases initiate and foster that very disease, and consequent mental ruin, which a wiser appreciation of this mysterious organ would have avoided.”
  • Tyndall [interjection]: “I can imagine the Bishop thoughtful after hearing this argument. He was not the man to allow anger to mingle with the consideration of a point of this kind. After due reflection, and having strengthened himself by that honest contemplation of the facts which was habitual with him, and which includes the desire to give even adverse facts their due weight, I can suppose the Bishop to proceed thus:”
  • Bishop Butler: “You will remember that in the Analogy of Religion, of which you have so kindly spoken, I did not profess to prove anything absolutely, and that I over and over again acknowledged and insisted on the smallness of our knowledge, or rather the depth of our ignorance, as regards the whole system of the universe. My object was to show my deistical friends, who set forth so eloquently the beauty and beneficence of Nature and the Ruler thereof, while they had nothing but scorn for the so-called absurdities of the Christian scheme, that they were in no better condition than we were, and that, for every difficulty found upon our side, quite as great a difficulty was to be found upon theirs. I [31/32] will now, with your permission, adopt a similar line of argument. You are a Lucretian, and from the combination and separation of insensate atoms deduce all terrestrial things, including organic forms and their phenomena. Let me tell you, in the first instance, how far I am prepared to go with you. I admit that you can build crystalline forms out of this play of molecular force; that the diamond, amethyst, and snow-star are truly wonderful structures which are thus produced. I will go further and acknowledge that even a tree or flower might in this way be organized. Nay, if you can show me an animal without sensation, I will concede to you that it also might be put together by the suitable play of molecular force.”
  • Bishop Butler: “Thus far our way is clear; but now comes my difficulty. Your atoms are individually without sensation, much more are they without intelligence. May I ask you, then, to try your hand upon this problem? Take your dead hydrogen atoms, your dead oxygen atoms, your dead carbon atoms, your dead nitrogen atoms, your dead phosphorus atoms, and all the other atoms, dead as grains of shot, of which the brain is formed. Imagine them separate and sensationless, observe them running together and forming all imaginable combinations. This, as a purely mechanical process, is seeable by the mind. But can you see, or dream, or in any way imagine, how out of that mechanical act, and from those individually dead atoms, sensation, thought, and emotion are to arise? Are you likely to extract Homer out of the rattling of dice, or the Differential Calculus out of the clash of billiard-balls? I am not all bereft of this Vorstellungs-Kraft of which you speak, nor am I, like so many of my brethren, a mere vacuum as regards scientific knowledge. I can follow a particle of musk until it reaches the olfactory nerve; I can [32/33] follow the waves of sound until their tremors reach the water of the labyrinth and set the otoliths and Corti's fibres in motion; I can also visualize the waves of ether as they cross the eye and hit the retina. Nay more, I am able to pursue to the central organ the motion thus imparted at the periphery, and to see in idea the very molecules of the brain thrown into tremors. My insight is not baffled by these physical processes. What baffles and bewilders me, is the notion that from those physical tremors things so utterly incongruous with them as sensation, thought, and emotion can be derived. You may say, or think, that this issue of consciousness from the clash of atoms is not more incongruous than the flash of light from the union of oxygen and hydrogen. But I beg to say that it is. For such incongruity as the flash possesses is that which I now force upon your attention. The flash is an affair of consciousness, the objective counterpart of which is a vibration. It is a flash only by your interpretation. You are the cause of the apparent incongruity and you are the thing that puzzles me. I need not remind you that the great Leibnitz felt the difficulty which I feel, and that to get rid of this monstrous deduction of life from death he displaced your atoms by his monads, which were more or less perfect mirrors of the universe, and out of the summation and integration of which he supposed all the phenomena of life – sentient, intellectual, and emotional – to arise.”
  • Bishop Butler: “Your difficulty, then, as I see you are ready to admit, is quite as great as mine. You cannot satisfy the human understanding in its demand for logical continuity between molecular processes and the phenomena of consciousness. This is a rock on which materialism must inevitably split whenever it pretends to be a complete [33/34] philosophy of life. What is the moral, my Lucretian? You and I are not likely to indulge in ill-temper in the discussion of these great topics, where we see so much room for honest differences of opinion. But there are people of less wit or more bigotry (I say it with humility) on both sides, who are ever ready to mingle anger and vituperation with such discussions. There are, for example, writers of note and influence at the present day who are not ashamed to assume the "deep personal sin" of a great logician to be the cause of his unbelief in a theologic dogma. And there are others who hold that we, who cherish our noble Bible, wrought as it has been into the constitution of our forefathers, and by inheritance into us, must necessarily be hypocritical and insincere. Let us disavow and discountenance such people, cherishing the unswerving faith that what is good and true in both our arguments will be preserved for the benefit of humanity, while all that is bad or false will disappear.”
  • Tyndall [end comment]: “I hold the Bishop's reasoning to be unanswerable, and his liberality to be worthy of imitation.”

Tyndall, at this point, leaves the dialogue, and continues his BAAS address, commenting that Butler was a product of his age (18th century).



Butler was influenced by: Plato, John Locke (against), Thomas Hobbes (against), Bernard Mandeville (against), Francis Hutcheson, Samuel Clarke.


Butler influenced: David Hume, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith, Henry Sidgwick, John Newman, John Tyndall, Robert Ingersoll.


Quotes | By

The following are quotes by Butler:

“Every man hath a general desire of his own happiness; and likewise a variety of particular affections, passions, and appetites to particular external objects.”
— Joseph Butler (1726), “Upon the Love of Our Neighbor” (§:Sermon 11, pg. 111)[4]
“How much soever men differ in the course of life they prefer, and in their ways of palliating and excusing their vices to themselves; yet all agree in the one thing, desiring ‘to die the death of the righteous’. This is surely remarkable. The observation may be extended further, and put thus: even without determining what that is, which we call ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’, there is no man but would choose, after having had the pleasure or advantage of a vicious action, to be free of the guilt of it, to be in the state of an innocent man. This shows at least a disturbance, and implicit dissatisfaction in vice. If we inquire into the grounds of it, we shall find it proceeds partly from an immediate sense of having done evil; and partly from an apprehension, that this inward sense shall, one time or other, be seconded by a higher judgment, upon which our whole being depends. Now, to suspend and drown this sense, and these apprehensions, be it by the hurry, of business or of pleasure, or by superstition, or moral equivocation, this is in a manner one and the same, and makes no alteration at all in the nature of our case. Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived? As we are reasonable creatures, and have any regard to ourselves, we ought to lay these things plainly and honestly before our mind, and upon this, act as you please, as you then most fit; make that choice, and prefer that course of life, which you can justify to yourselves, and which sits most easy upon your own mind. It will immediately appear, that vice cannot be the happiness, but must upon the whole, be the misery, of such a creature as man; a moral, an accountable agent. Superstitious observances, self-deceit, though of a more refined sort, will not, in reality, at all amend matters with us. And the result of the whole can be nothing else, but that with simplicity and fairness we ‘keep innocency, and take heed unto the thing that is right; for this alone shall bring a man peace at the last’.”
— Joseph Butler (1726), “Upon the Character of Balaam” (Sermon 7)
“Our organized bodies are no more ourselves or part of ourselves, than any other matter around us.”
— Joseph Butler (1736), Analogy of Religion (pg. 96); cited by John Tyndall (1874) in “Materialistic Atheism” (pg. 27)

Quotes | On

The following are quotes on Butler:

“Ninety years subsequent to Gassendi [c.1646] the doctrine of ‘bodily instruments’, as it may be called, assumed immense importance in the hands of Bishop Butler, who, in his famous Analogy of Religion [1736], developed, from his own point of view, and with consummate sagacity, a similar idea. The Bishop still influences superior minds; and it will repay us to dwell for a moment on his views.”
John Tyndall (1873), “Atheistic Materialism”, BAAS Address (pgs. 27) [3]
Bishop Butler dug up more snakes than he killed — suggested more difficulties than he explained — more doubts than he dispelled.”
Robert Ingersoll (1896), “Why I Am an Agnostic”[5]

End matter


  1. Joseph Butler’s Moral Philosophy (2018) – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. Butler, Joseph. (1836). Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (txt) (living powers, 8+ pgs). Harper, 1857.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Tyndall, John. (1874). “Atheistic Materialism (txt), Address, British Association for the Advancement of Science, Belfast. Longmans.
  4. Butler, Joseph. (1752). The Works of Bishop Butler (§:Sermon 11, pg. 111). Publisher, 2006.
  5. Ingersoll, Robert. (1896). “Why I Am an Agnostic” (pg. 29), in: The Works of Robert Ingersoll, Volume Four. Publisher.

External links

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