Thomas Reid (Fraser)/Chapter VIII
INSPIRED COMMON SENSE AND CAUSATION: ACTIVE OR
MORAL POWER IN MAN
Philosophical recognition of the genuine Common Sense or natural judgment of mankind, especially in two of its factors, which seemed to Reid obscured if not suppressed by dogmatic hypothesis, gave its character to his whole intellectual life. He found, in the first place, that ‘all philosophers, from Plato to Mr. Hume, agree in this, that we do not perceive external objects immediately, and that the immediate object of perception must be some image present to the mind.’ To rid philosophy of this hypothesis, as a mere prejudice, inconsistent with the absolute trustworthiness, and therefore with the supreme and final rational authority of our natural judgment, was the chief aim of his Aberdonian life—culminating in the Inquiry in 1764. He found, in the second place, that ‘to confound the notion of agent or efficient cause with that of physical cause has been a common error of philosophers, from the days of Plato to our own’; and it seemed to him as subversive of moral relations in the universe as the other was of physical relations. Accordingly, our conception of Power or Causation chiefly engaged him in Glasgow. This appears in his ‘Essays’ on moral Power in man; in his correspondence with Kames and Gregory in the last twenty years of his life; as well as in the unpublished fragment on ‘Power,’ in 1792, which was his last expression of reflective thought. The Philosophy of Perception and the Philosophy of Causation—our common sense of extended reality in our first intercourse with it in the senses, and our common sense conception of ‘power’ and ‘cause’ which arises in the presence of the changes amidst which we live and have our being—these were the two poles of Reid’s philosophical life. His whole life was a war against two common errors of philosophers regarding these, from the days of Plato to our own, in each of which the seeds of speculative and practical scepticism seemed to lie thickly. If these two fundamental convictions were untrustworthy, then faith in anything must lose its sustaining strength. For our perceptions through the five senses are the first principles of all our reasonings about the actual universe, and our causal judgments are the means of interpreting the realities to which those perceptions only introduce us.
We find ourselves continually in contact and collision with Power that is external to ourselves individually; and we seem, too, to be exerting powers of our own: on the Power latent in the universe, our happiness or misery, our whole destiny, depends. What does all this mean? What is meant by the judgment that all changes in the universe are ‘caused’; and what is the origin of this judgment, or of the conception of ‘cause’ that is involved in it? Are the powers which we recognise in us and around us to be referred only to inanimate things as their centres; or only to living and self-conscious persons; or to both?
Priestley, as an advocate of the claim of matter to account sufficiently for self-conscious life in man, and Kames and Priestley by their universal necessity, confirmed Reid’s disposition to inquire further into the nature and origin of the conception of power, and the judgment that every change presupposes what we ambiguously call a cause. His cousin Gregory, too, inquired about causation, and gave the results to the world in an Essay on the Difference between the Relation of Motive and Action, and that of Cause and Effect in Physics, which appeared in 1792.
That every change must be caused, Reid regarded as a postulate of which the contradictory was absolutely inconceivable: it was necessarily implied in the common rational sense of Man, and, while incapable of logical proof, was that without which nothing else could be proved. That the things presented to our senses are themselves powerless; that all power is spiritual, referable only to Will; and that this is the common sense implicate of our physical and moral experience of changes, was the proposition which Reid now set himself to justify. Our experience of our own voluntary exertion is the only experience which directs us to the quarter in which power, properly so called, resides. A voluntary agent is our only example of a cause, or of that to which change must be finally referred as its responsible source. We can find no productive power in any inanimate thing. Matter, instead of being the universal cause, is in itself powerless, and can account for nothing. The material universe is virtually an external system of interpretable signs, regulated by non-material power.
Take the following extracts from various letters of Reid’s to Gregory, from 1785 onwards, in the unpublished paper on Power:—
‘Power to produce an effect supposes power not to produce it; otherwise it is not power but necessity, which is incompatible with power taken in a strict sense. . . . I am not able to form a conception how power (in the strict sense) can be exerted without will; nor can there be will without some degree of understanding. Therefore nothing can be an efficient cause in the proper sense but an intelligent being [i.e. a person]. Hence the only notion we can form of Almighty Power is, that God can do whatever He wills. Matter cannot be the cause of anything: it can only be an instrument in the hands of a real cause. . . . In physics the word cause has another meaning, which, though I think it an improper one, yet is distinct, and therefore may be reasoned upon. When a phenomenon is produced according to a certain law of nature, we call the law [or rule] the cause of that phenomenon; and to the laws or rules of nature we accordingly ascribe power or efficiency. The whole business of physics is to discover, by observation and experiment, the laws of nature, and to apply them to the solution of phenomena. Now a law of nature is a purpose or resolution of the Author of nature to act according to a certain rule. There must be a real agent to produce the phenomenon according to the law. A malefactor is not hanged by the law, but by the executioner according to the law.’
Again:—‘A cause in the proper and strict sense signifies a mind that has power and will to produce the effect. A cause in the physical sense means only something which, by the laws of nature, the effect always follows; as when we say that heat is the cause that turns water into vapour. . . . Between a physical cause and its effect the conjunction must be constant; unless in the case of a miracle. What D. Hume says of causes in general is very just when applied to physical causes—that a constant conjunction with the effect is essential to such causes, and implied in the very conception of them.’ Again:—‘I wish that the same general name—cause—had not been given to both. They differ toto genere. For a physical cause is not an agent. It does not act, but is acted upon. You accordingly give them different names; calling the one the agent and not the cause, the other the cause and not the agent. But I think this too bold an innovation in language. Men have been so much accustomed to call the Deity the First Cause of things, that to maintain that He is no cause at all would be too shocking. To say that the world exists without a cause would be accounted atheism, in spite of all explanations. . . . The words agent and action are less ambiguous. We say one body acts upon another; and in vain would one attempt to abolish this language. To remedy this ambiguity of “cause” and “agent,” I say that each of these words has two meanings—a lax or popular and a philosophical. . . . It is remarkable that the philosophical meaning must have been the first, and the popular a corruption introduced by time. . . . Power is first conceived from being conscious of it in ourselves. Conceiving of inanimate beings from what we are conscious of in ourselves, we at first ascribed to them such power as we are conscious of, till experience informs us that inanimate things have not the same powers as we have; but language was formed before this discovery was made. . . . It is a curious question how we come by the cognition of power and cause, so that we ascribe them to things that have no will nor intelligence. I am apt to think that savages, whenever they see motion which they cannot account for, there they suppose a soul. In this period of society language is formed. At length the more acute and speculative few discover that some of the things which the vulgar believe to be animated are inanimate. What use must wise men make of this discovery? Will they affirm that the sun does not shine nor give heat? that the sea never rages nor the winds blow? nor the earth bring forth grass and corn? The wiser part will speak the common language, and suit it to their new notions as well as they can; just as philosophers still say with the vulgar, that the sun “rises” and “sets.”’
That morally responsible intending Will is our ultimate conception of Power or Cause, properly so called, is not less the lesson of the Birkwood manuscript ‘On Power’ of 1792. Thus:—
‘Will is necessarily implied in the notion of Power. Volition and what naturally follows upon our volitions, is all that we conceive to be in our own power. What a man never willed can never be imputed to him as his action. A being that has no will can have no power. When we impute powers to dead matter, it must be in some popular or analogical sense, but not in the proper sense. There can be no productive power in an inanimate object. . . . A cause is that which has power to produce an effect. When we ascribe power to things inanimate as causes, we mean nothing more than a constant conjunction by the laws or rules of nature, which experience discovers. Thus we say that the sun has power to retain the planets in their orbits, and that heat has power to melt lead. If the ignorant be led by the ambiguity of the word to conceive power in the sun or in heat to produce the effects attributed to them, this is a vulgar error which philosophy [i.e. of common sense] corrects. By what agents these effects are [immediately] produced we know not; but we have good reason to believe that they cannot be produced by inanimate matter.’
Reid also allows that, for anything we can tell, things which have no proper power of their own may be terms in a sequence that is subject to an absolute necessity of being the sequence that it is. But however this may be, it transcends our knowledge; we must be satisfied with the common sense conviction of persistent uniformities in fact pervading the universe of change, whether this fact is the result of a divine necessity or of arbitrary divine will. Natural uniformities are presupposed in all our reasoning about our natural surroundings, and without this presupposition things could not be reasoned about or formed into science. All our knowledge of natural events, beyond original perceptions of sense, consists in interpretation of the phenomena of which the senses make us aware. Upon this judgment of the common sense our inductions are all grounded, so that it may be called the inductive principle. Withdraw trust from it and experience becomes blind as a mole. We may feel what is present at the moment, but the distant and the future are wholly hid in darkness.
Power or intelligent agency is thus the exclusive characteristic of conscious persons: interpretable order is the characteristic of inanimate things. These are two correlative judgments or inspirations of our natural common sense upon which human reasonings turn. Reid finds when he reflects patiently that he is obliged, by a rational instinct as it were, to recognise himself and other persons as the centres of responsible power, the only sort of power or causality in existence that can be supposed by us; and also to recognise in the impersonal world without, something that in itself is passive and impotent, but which, as a system of interpretable sense signs, may be said metaphorically to form the language of nature, of which the natural sciences are (so far) the interpretation. The universe is thus a material order directed by spiritual power, in a measure corresponding to the body and the spirit in man, as man now is. But this larger conception carries us beyond the modest philosophy to which Reid confined himself; although he more than once approached it, perhaps through some unconscious reminiscence of the Berkeleyism of his youth, of which, I think, he failed to see the real drift, as it was unfolded in Alciphron and especially in Siris.
Yet the following scrap, which I find among unpublished manuscripts of his later life, shows that such thoughts were not quite absent from his mind:—
‘The ancient philosophers called God the Soul of the World. This, considered as a figurative expression, is destitute neither of beauty nor of truth. What the soul of man is to his body, that God is to the universe, in several respects; but not in all. There are many respects in which the metaphor fails: (1) The human soul did not make its own body, but God made the world; (2) the human soul is ignorant of the nice texture and mechanism of its body, but God knows the whole mechanism of the universe, because He conceived and made it; (3) the human soul receives much of its information by bodily organs: God’s knowledge of all things is immediate and not dependent on bodily organs; (4) our power over our own bodies is limited: the power of God over the universe is unlimited; (5) our bodies are wholly made up of inert and soulless matter: the universe is stored with various orders of living beings and free agents, subject to the Divine Power as their moral governor and capable of paying back the service of rational subjects.’
But the philosophy of the Common Sense, as represented by Reid, did not rise to the conciliation of the natural order of the material with the originative freedom of the spiritual world, in which operating law in outward nature is recognised as immediate divine agency, or a part of a revelation of perfectly reasonable Will in and through a universe of things and persons.
- See also Reid’s Essays on the Active Powers, I. 1-6, and passim.