George Berkeley’s Argument From Desire Saturday, Feb 21 2009 

Spoken by Euphranor, in reply to Alciphron’s objections to aspects of the claims of Scripture:

…And indeed, when I consider that the soul and body are things so very different and heterogeneous, I can see no reason to be positive that the one must necessarily be extinguished upon the dissolution of the other ; especially since I find in myself a strong natural desire of immortality, and I have not observed that natural appetites are wont to be given in vain, or merely to be frustrated.

– George Berkeley, Alciphron, or, The Minute Philosopher in The Works of George Berkeley Vol. II, ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1871), p. 244-245.

Two Kinds of Sceptic Sunday, Dec 21 2008 

    There are two kinds of scepticism,—that of the heart and that of the intellect. The former is adapted to make unbelievers; the latter, to make Christians. The fomer will not look at the hands and the side, because it is determined not to be moved morally and spiritually as they would move the honest soul; the latter insists on seeing the wound-marks, because it wants to know the precise truth, and therefore avails itself of whatever evidence God has given. The scepticism of the heart hates the light, and will not come to the light, lest its deeds be reproved. The scepticism of the mind is that which cannot believe without sufficient evidence. It proves all things, and holds fast that which will stand the test. It examines both sides of a question, and adheres to that which imposes the least strain on its belief. Such a mind needs only to have the evidences of Christianity fairly presented, to yield to it entire and cordial faith. Many of the firmest believers, many of the ablest defenders of the truth as it is in Jesus, belong to this class of minds. In this sense, Lardner, Paley, and Butler, whose contributions to the Christian evidences are invaluable, and will be so for generations to come, were pre-eminently sceptics. They would not believe, without examining the hands and the side, trying all the witnesses, testing the objections against Christianity with the opposing arguments, weighing coolly and impartially the evidence, real or pretended, on either side; and the result was a faith in Christ, which sight could hardly have rendered clearer or stronger.

      God has made many such minds, and they are among the noblest and best of his creation.


— Andrew P. Peabody, Christianity and Science (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1874), pp. 250-51.

Watts – The Obligation to Improve One’s Understanding Monday, Sep 1 2008 

Here’s a quote from Isaac Watt’s book The Improvement of the Mind. (It’s a shame that Watts is usually known only for his hymn writing.)

NO man is obliged to learn and know every thing; this can neither be sought nor required, for it  is utterly impossible: yet all persons are under some obligation to improve their own understanding; otherwise it will be a barren desert, or a forest overgrown with weeds and brambles. Universal ignorance or infinite errors will overspread the mind, which is utterly neglected, and lies without any cultivation.

Skill in the sciences Is indeed the business and profession but of a small part of mankind; but there are many others placed in such an exalted rank in the world, as allows them much leisure and large opportunities to cultivate their reason, and to beautify and enrich their minds with various knowledge. Even the lower orders of men have particular callings in life, wherein they ought to acquire a just degree of skill; and this is not to be done well, without thinking and reasoning about them.

I’ve found Watt’s Improvement to be an encouraging read, challenging me to fight off the weeds and brambles in my own mind. (I printed out this abriged edition for the clarity of the scanned images.) But don’t take my word on this book – take Samuel Johnson’s:

Few books have been perused by me with greater pleasure than (Watts’) Improvement of the Mind, of which the radical principles may indeed be found in Locke’s Conduct of the Understanding; but they are so expanded and ramified by Watts, as to confer on him the merit of a work in the highest degree useful and pleasing. Whoever has the care of instructing others, may be charged with deficiency in his duty, if this book is not recommended. (Quoted in the preface of Improvement)

The Fallacy of Objections Monday, Dec 3 2007 

This quotation comes from Richard Whately’s Elements of Logic, 6th edition (1836), pp. 248-49:

Similar to this case is that which may be called the Fallacy of objections; i.e. showing that there are objections against some plan, theory, or system, and thence inferring that it should be rejected; when that which ought to have been proved is, that there are more, or stronger objections, against the receiving than the rejecting of it. This is the main, and almost universal Fallacy of anti-christians; and is that of which a young Christian should be first and principally warned. They find numerous “objections” against various parts of Scripture; to some of which no satisfactory answer can be given; and the incautious hearer is apt, while his attention is fixed on these, to forget that there are infinitely more, and stronger objections against the supposition, that the Christian Religion is of human origin; and that where we cannot answer all objections, we are bound, in reason and in candour, to adopt the hypothesis which labours under the least. That the case is as I have stated, I am authorized to assume, from this circumstance; that no complete and consistent account has ever been given of the manner in which the Christian Religion, supposing it a human contrivance, could have arisen and prevailed as it did. And yet this may obviously be demanded with the utmost fairness of those who deny its divine origin. The Religion exists: that is the phenomenon; those who will not allow it to have come from God, are bound to solve the phenomenon on some other hypothesis less open to objections; they are not, indeed, called on to prove that it actually did arise in this or that way; but to suggest (consistently with acknowledged facts) some probable way in which it may have arisen, reconcileable with all the circumstances of the case. That infidels have never done this, though they have had near 2000 years to try, amounts to a confession that no such hypothesis can be devised, which will not be open to greater objections than lie against Christianity.

The key phrase here is “reconcileable with all the circumstances of the case.” It is quite easy to tell a just-so story if the facts are kept in soft focus. Dealing with the facts in all their particularity is a different matter entirely.

Whately’s insight is remarkable, for it is indeed very easy to become so fixated on difficulties or objections as to lose sight of the weight of the positive evidence and of the fact that the whole of the evidence, taken together, creates more difficulties for the opposing side. To be incredulous regarding some view, theory, or hypothesis on account of some difficulty it involves, while at the same time (and perhaps in consequence of this very thing) ignoring the greater difficulties that stand against its denial is to be credulous regarding that denial. As Whately remarks in his correspondence:

I wish to adopt finally the conclusions that shall imply the least credulity. But when will people be brought to understand that credulity and incredulity are the same?

Elizabeth Jane Whately, ed., Life and Correspondence of Richard Whately, D.D., vol. 2 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1866), p. 68.

On Requiring Evidence for Revelation Tuesday, Nov 20 2007 

I ran across this quotation in my reading yesterday. The thought is not original with this author; in fact, it is an unpacking of something that Paley says in fewer words in the Preliminary Considerations to his View of the Evidences of Christianity. But it is well expressed.

Now if God does speak to man, as to the grandest themes to which man can give heed, it is all important to hear and recognize God’s voice, and know that it is God. Man has no right to be satisfied without proof that God has spoken; for he may be imposed upon and so misled into error and wrong doing. If anything is plain it is that I have a right reverently to ask for unmistakable evidence that the God of the universe is addressing me.

How shall He satisfy such honest doubt? By any method which shews that it is He who is actually revealing himself. If He shall choose to come down, as on Mount Sinai, and in a voice of thunder speak, till in terror we cry out, “Let not God speak to us lest we die!” we shall be satisfied that it is He. If He shall choose to appear, as to Moses, in a flame that burns a bush without consuming it, His whisper will be as convincing as the thunder was before; for we shall know that something more than a flame must be making that bush radiant and glorious. It is the fact of marked departure from the ordinary course of things, which arrests the mind and impresses it with the presence and power of God. There is an instinctive or intuitive conviction that where there is such a departure from the natural and usual order, God must be especially present and working. Nicodemus said to Christ, “We know that thou art a teacher come from God, for no man can do these miracles that thou doest except God be with him.” There is the argument for miracles, and from miracles, in a nutshell. Where miracles are, we feel that God certainly is. And to meet this natural need of some clear proof that God speaks to us, it is probable that if He does speak through a man, that man will do such works as prove to all candid minds that he comes with the authority of God.

Arthur T. Pierson, Many Infallible Proofs (1886), pp. 90-91

What struck me as I read this—and I am not sure why it did not strike me when I read Paley or Lacordaire or others who have said the same thing—is that this is the heart of the answer to those who think that laws God Himself could not violate would be somehow more elegant than laws that permitted divine intervention and therefore more fitting. They miss the fact that God, if He has truly created man in His image, has created a rational being, and that a set of laws that cuts Him off forever from communication with such a being is not beautiful at all.

Take Up and Read … Sunday, Nov 18 2007 

Welcome to Tolle, Lege. As the name suggests, this is a blog that will encourage you to take up and read great (and often forgotten) books from centuries past, with a particular focus on Christian thought. Think of it as an electronic library tucked away in an obscure corner of the internet, a place where you can browse without being disturbed, where you can take home any volume you like and make it your own — and it will still be there on the shelf for other readers to enjoy.

Our proximate benefactors are the people who have made these works available electronically: Google Books, the Internet Archive, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, and other people who understand that one of the best things about cutting-edge technology is that it provides us with a better window on the best that has been thought and said in ages past. And of course we are indebted to the libraries that have permitted their resources to be scanned and placed online for our use.