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Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010) 109–119

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Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

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Thomas Reid’s Newtonian Theism: his differences with the classical arguments
of Richard Bentley and William Whiston
Robert Callergård
Department of Philosophy, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Reid was a Newtonian and a Theist, but did he found his Theism on Newton’s physics? In opposition to
Received 20 November 2008 commonplace assumptions about the role of Theism in Reid’s philosophy, my answer is no. Reid prefers
Received in revised form 21 September 2009 to found his Theism on a priori reasons, rather than on physics. Reid’s understanding of physics as an
empirical science stops it from contributing in any clear and efficient way to issues of natural theology.
In addition, Reid is highly sceptical of our ability to discover the efficient and final causes of natural phe-
Keywords: nomena, knowledge of which is essential for natural theology. To bring out Reid’s differences with clas-
Thomas Reid
sical Newtonian Theists Richard Bentley and William Whiston, I examine their use of the law and force of
William Whiston
Richard Bentley
general gravitation, and reconstruct what would be Reidian objections.
Physics Ó 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Isaac Newton

When citing this paper, please use the full journal title Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

1. Introduction serves and governs the world, and who provides through wisdom
and goodness what is necessary for the well-being of living crea-
Thomas Reid was convinced that Newton’s physics gives a true tures, and on account of all this, is worthy of worship.3
account of the world; the Principia and the Opticks establish the basic Now, let ‘Newtonian Theism’ refer to the view that Newton’s phys-
laws governing bodily motion and light beyond any reasonable ics is true and supports Theism over alternatives such as Deism, Atheism,
doubt.1 Reid was also convinced that Newton’s philosophy of science Epicureanism, Aristotelianism, or any Mechanist systems. Famous
gives an adequate account of the nature of empirical science; it tells us Newtonian Theists included Isaac Newton, Richard Bentley, Samuel
what to search for and what to leave alone, how to search, and how to Clarke, George Cheyne, William Derham, and William Whiston.
justify our discoveries.2 Besides these two convictions, Reid was also Whatever their details or differences were, and whatever other argu-
convinced that Newton’s physics is the natural and unique outcome ments they may have used in support of Theism, they all believed
when Newton’s philosophy of science is applied to the study of nature. that Newton’s discoveries in physics made the case for Theism deci-
Not to waste a useful term on any of these beliefs in particular, let sively easier. In their view, not only had Newton’s superior physics re-
‘Newtonian’ apply to anyone affirming all of them. placed that of Descartes once and for all; the victory spilled over into
Reid was also a Theist. He believed that some time ago the world theology as well.
was created out of nothing by the will of an all-powerful, all-know- The way I have defined my terms, a Newtonian need not neces-
ing, and necessarily existing being, who, after the act of creation, pre- sarily be a Theist, and anyone who is both a Newtonian and a

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Reid took Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity to be physical and not merely mathematical (Callergård, 2005).
Neither in physics nor in philosophy of science did Reid follow Newton slavishly. He rejected the common appeal of scientists to the simplicity of nature, as exemplified in
Newton’s comment to the first of his Regula Philosophandi (Newton, 1999 [1687], p. 794). He also rejected Newton’s suggestion (ibid., p. 108) that force laws may explain all
natural phenomena. See Callergård (2006), pp. 82 ff.
For most Newtonian Theists it was important to emphasize God’s active role in ‘preserving’ and ‘governing’ the world after the act of creation. This often amounts to the
further claim that God acts ‘in the world’ (apparently as opposed to being ‘absent’; their target were Deists). In what follows we will see how both Bentley and Whiston insist on
God’s ‘constant’ activity to make the force of general gravity work, which to them implies God’s ‘presence in’ the world.

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110 R. Callergård / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010) 109–119

Theist need not necessarily be a Newtonian Theist. In this paper I In Sections 2 and 3 below, I discuss Newton and Reid’s views
investigate whether and in what way Reid is a Newtonian Theist. about the relation between physics and theology. In Section 4 a
Comparison with arguments by Richard Bentley and William passage from one of Richard Bentley’s Boyle lectures is considered,
Whiston reveals that, at the very least, Reid conceives the support in which divine activity is inferred from premises found in physics,
of Newton’s physics for Theism differently. While Bentley and and I suggest what Reid’s response ought to be. In Section 5 we
Whiston try to show that details in modern physics and astron- take a look at Reid’s account of the argument from design, after
omy, as based on Newton’s theory of gravitation, provide powerful which in Section 6 we go on to consider Reid’s cautionary remarks
arguments for the truth of Theism, Reid is outspokenly reluctant to about attributing final causes to facts of nature generally, and in
draw conclusions about final causes on the basis of astronomical Section 7 for laws of nature specifically. In Section 8 I turn to Wil-
and physical fact. He is also a skeptic about our ability to discover liam Whiston, another great Newtonian Theist, and try to find
and identify any of those efficient causes that, in his opinion, must those spots in his theistic inferences where Reid would not follow
lie behind natural phenomena. suit. Section 9 summarizes and concludes.
Behind this stance lies most certainly Reid’s effort to demarcate
physics from metaphysics and theology, distinguishing subject 2. Autonomy of experimental philosophy: Newton
matters, kinds of evidence, and kinds of explanation. For Reid,
arguments which end in conclusions about the Deity are not part In this section I consider some well known features of Newton’s
of natural science. In the writings of the classical Newtonian The- philosophy of science from a particular perspective, namely, the
ists, however, the lines between questions of physics, metaphysics, autonomy of experimental philosophy as against theology and
and theology are consistently unclear, as they pursue arguments metaphysics.
for Theism on the basis of their understanding of general gravita- As a student of nature, Newton strived in two directions. He
tion. In contrast, Reid cares about demarcation issues, and he strived to mark out a notion of experimental philosophy according
avoids using the power, law, or force of gravitation in direct argu- to which laws of nature are discovered and proved by means that
ments for Theism. Reid’s Newtonianism, in particular his under- are peculiar to that discipline, and in such a way as to leave these
standing of what he takes to be a correct Newtonian philosophy discoveries unaffected by any disconcerting voices coming from
of science, makes Newtonian Theism a less successful enterprise other areas of discourse.5 At the same time Newton tried to inte-
for him. grate these results in a larger context of metaphysics and theology.
On the whole, Reid’s Theism seems more firmly based on meta- Beginning with the first ambition, Newton was anxious to point
physical considerations than on empirical and scientific results of out that some of his discoveries in mechanics and optics had been
the day. That there are laws of nature governing the world, that proved beyond doubt (‘deduced from phenomena’) and that objec-
every event is directly or indirectly caused by an agent, and that tions that had been raised against these discoveries on the basis of
every contingent fact is dependent on the will of some agent, are metaphysical or any other preconceptions were not to the point. It
all fundamental pillars of Reid’s Theism. Newly discovered empir- is in this context that his remarks on hypotheses belong. Some
ical facts play a lesser role for Reid. It is not his view, however, that truths about nature can be established beyond reasonable doubt
discoveries made in empirical sciences are irrelevant to theology. by observation and experiment, even though we do not know their
Reid believed in the possibility of natural theology, and he argued microphysical or metaphysical causes, and if thus established they
that the argument from design is valid, sound, and gets more con- should be left standing, unless new empirical data give reason to
vincing the more we learn about nature through natural science call them in question.6 Having established the law of gravity, New-
(Reid, 2002a, pp. 508 f.). The scientific study of nature is, for Reid, ton went on to admit he had not been able to explain why gravity
a prime way by which we come to apprehend the wisdom and de- acts the way it acts. But he insisted that he would not work out a
sign of the Almighty. There are reasons therefore to call Reid a hypothesis merely for the sake of supplying one. This is the signifi-
Newtonian Theist. But the way of support runs differently for cance of his famous words:
him, compared with classical Newtonian Theism. The version of
the design argument that Reid defends does not contain any pre- I have not as yet been able to deduce from phenomena the rea-
mises that properly belong to physics—it is solely an affair of nat- son of these properties of gravity, and I do not feign hypotheses.
ural theology. It appears also that the few times Reid is explicit For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be
about the impact of reading the Principia on his own religious called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or
thinking, the emphasis is on aesthetic apprehension and judgment, physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no
rather than rational argument. place in experimental philosophy. (Newton, 1999, p. 943)
Reid’s philosophy is often seen in the light of his identity as the Notice that Newton does not ban the search for the cause of
most prominent critic of the philosophy of David Hume, and as a gravity; positivist interpretations of Newton are in conflict with
defender of traditional views on morals, metaphysics and knowl- the fact that Newton searched for causes of gravity all his life. A
edge. Since Hume was a critic of the use of science in support of more reasonable interpretation is that any cause of gravity that as-
religion, and Reid defended the legitimacy of the design argument pires to be added to our great textbook of physics must be ‘de-
and natural theology in general, besides being a supporter of New- duced from phenomena’. What Newton insisted on then was that
ton, it is near at hand to associate Reid’s views with those of the whatever the cause might be, the law of gravity has already been
first generation of Newtonian Theists, who were targets of Hume’s proven beyond any reasonable doubt as far as experimental data
criticism.4 As I hope to show, however, Reid had reasons of his own go: ‘And it is enough that gravity really exists and acts according
to be critical of their use of Newton’s physics. to the laws that we have set forth and is sufficient to explain all

According to Dale Tuggy, Reid was a ‘unique anti-medieval early modern Theist, perhaps the last great Newtonian Theist’ (Cuneo & van Woudenberg, 2002; Tuggy, 2004, p.
289). Implicit in Paul Wood’s claim that Reid ‘firmly believed that Newton had demonstrated the existence of a providential God and of immaterial agents active in nature’, is a
close connection to the concerns of the early Newtonian Theists (Wood, 1995, p. 31). See also Callergård (2006), Ch. 6.
See Cohen & Smith, ‘Introduction’, in idem (2002), pp. 8–9.
Newton’s Regulae Philosophandi no. 4: ‘In experimental philosophy, propositions gathered from phenomena by induction should be considered either exactly or very nearly
true notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses, until yet other phenomena make such propositions either more exact or liable to exceptions. This rule should be followed so that
arguments based on induction may not be nullified by hypotheses’ (Newton, 1999, p. 796).
R. Callergård / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010) 109–119 111

the motions of the heavenly bodies and of our sea’ (ibid.). In effect one phenomenon in nature’ (Reid, 1872, p. 527a). This view is
then, Newton demarcates experimental philosophy from other not surprising given Reid’s analysis of efficient causation: To be
areas of discourse in the sense that it discovers and proves its con- the efficient cause of an event, an entity needs to be endowed
clusions on its own. not only with the power to initiate that event but also with the
Besides this first endeavor Newton also tried to integrate his power to refrain. This implies that an efficient cause must be able
empirical discoveries in a larger context of theology and metaphys- to deliberate, which in turn implies some level of intelligence, wis-
ics. It is telling that in the very same section of the Principia in which dom, and foresight (Yaffe, 2004, esp. Ch. 2). The full significance of
he defends his empirical conclusions from objections coming from denying physics any grasp of efficient causation becomes clear
other quarters—the General Scholium at the end of the third when it is realized that this is the only intelligible notion of causa-
book—he spends even more time spelling out his notion of God as tion Reid can find. Efficient causation or agency, and nothing else,
a Governor of the world, relating God to space, time, and material ob- is causation in the proper sense of the word. He is critical of vague
jects, and claiming that the solar system (‘this most elegant system’; and ill conceived notions of natural objects having causal powers:
ibid., p. 940) must owe its origin from the design of an intelligent and ‘Even the great Bacon seems to have thought that there is a latens
powerful being. Equally in the Queries of the Opticks, as in much of processus, as he calls it, by which natural causes really produce their
his unpublished papers, where he discusses the nature of matter, effects, and that in the progress of philosophy, this might be dis-
light, forces, power and causation, Newton moves smoothly be- covered’ (Reid, 2002b, p. 243; original emphasis). The substitute
tween experimental philosophy, metaphysics, and theology in an for causation in physics is laws of nature, and Reid takes it to be
attempt to understand everything, if only a little. one of Newton’s great achievements to have realized the impor-
Newton’s two efforts at demarcation and integration do not tance of the distinction between laws and causes. After criticizing
necessarily give rise to any inconsistency, but they do call for some Bacon, Reid continues:
clarification about the taxonomy of different cognitive disciplines.
But Newton, more enlightened on this point, has taught us to
A change Newton made in the concluding General Scholium be-
acquiesce in a law of nature, according to which the effect is pro-
tween the second and third editions of the Principia indicates that
duced, as the utmost that natural philosophy can reach, leaving
he felt the need for clarification in this respect. In the second edi-
what can be known of the agent or efficient cause to metaphys-
tion he had written: ‘To treat of God from phenomena is certainly a
ics or natural theology. (Ibid.; original emphasis)
part of experimental philosophy’ (ibid., p. 943). In the third edition,
however, he changed ‘experimental’ to ‘natural’, to say instead: ‘To Secondly, Reid also dispenses with ‘necessity’:
treat of God from phenomena is certainly a part of natural philos-
ophy’ (ibid.; Cohen, 1999, p. 274). This change suggests that New- Modern philosophers know that we have no ground to ascribe
ton might have had a distinction in mind between ‘experimental efficiency to natural causes, or even a necessary connection
philosophy’ and ‘natural philosophy’ where the former is an empir- with the effect. But we still call them causes, including nothing
ical science concerned with establishing laws of nature, and where under the name but priority and constant conjunction.
the latter connotes a wider but still largely empirical subject mat- (Ibid.)8
ter which studies at least some aspects of God, and in which the
The influence of Hume is acknowledged in a letter to James
argument of design plays an important role.7

3. Demarcation of physics: Reid What D. Hume says of causes, in general, is very just when
applied to physical causes, that a constant conjunction with
Newton’s demarcation safeguards physical conclusions from the effect is essential to such causes, and implied in the very
criticism coming from other quarters, but it does not prohibit conception of them. (Reid, 2002b, p. 180)
physics from supporting conclusions in other areas of discourse.
Reid is more radical. Reid’s adoption of a ‘constant conjunction’ notion of physical
Reid would have rejected Newton’s claim that experimental causes complies with his voluntarism. Things happen the way it
philosophy studies God, as at best misleading, and he would pleases God they should happen according to law. Laws are general
have appreciated Newton’s change between the second and third statements that tell us what, in fact, goes with what, but they do
editions as implying an important distinction. With Reid’s own not imply that things must be that way. For Reid laws are contin-
preferred terminology natural theology deals with efficient gently true general facts about the world.9
causes, final causes, and some aspects of God, while the sole Thirdly, Reid denies that physics is concerned with whether ob-
aim of physics is to discover laws of nature without entering jects are passive or active in processes of nature (ibid., pp. 126,
upon issues of theology or metaphysics. With this division in 180: 5–8). It is not that there are no truths about things being ac-
hand, the question to ask is how physics might contribute to tive or passive, because Reid firmly holds that ‘Every object which
natural theology. In answer to this question it turns out that undergoes any change must be either active or passive in that
Reid demarcates physics in a way that seems to rule out any change’ (Reid, 1872, p. 525b).10 But whether an object is passive
such contribution. Four points make what I will refer to as Reid’s or active in a process is a question of metaphysics. It is a persistent
‘demarcation of physics’. theme in Reid’s letters to Kames that Kames laments and complains
First, Reid denies that physics deals with or discovers efficient that Newton’s physics does not account for the ultimate sources of
causes, writing, ‘supposing natural philosophy brought to its ut- motion, while Reid explains again and again that that is simply not
most perfection—it does not discover the efficient cause of any the business of physics:

Gabbey (2002), pp. 332 f. See also the interesting draft to a preface for the second edition of Principia, in Cohen (1999), p. 54. For a recent and useful discussion of these issues,
see Janiak (2008), Ch. 2.
Also: ‘I can see nothing in a physical cause but a constant conjunction with the effect. Mr. Crombie calls it a necessary connection; but this no man sees in physical causes’
(Reid, 2002b, p. 234). See also Reid (1872), p. 526b.
‘The laws of nature are the most general facts we can discover in the operations of nature’ (Reid, 1997, p. 125); ‘general facts which we call Laws of Nature’ (Reid, 2002b, p.
In this general claim ‘object’ must be taken in a wide sense. It is a dogmatic principle of Reid that material objects cannot be active.
112 R. Callergård / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010) 109–119

The distinction your Lordship makes between moving and being ‘Tis utterly inconceivable, that inanimate brute Matter (without
moved belongs not to Physics but Metaphysicks. In Physics you the mediation of some immaterial Being) should operate upon
may use the active or the passive Verb as you like best. (Reid, and effect other Matter without mutual Contact; that distant
2002b, p. 127) Bodies should act upon each other through a Vacuum without
the intervention of something else by and through which the
Fourthly, it is Reid’s view that explanation within physics con-
action may be conveyed from one to the other. (Bentley, 1976
sists in nothing else than demonstrating that a single event or a
[1692], pp. 28–29)12
class of phenomena is the necessary consequence of known laws
of nature. Reid acknowledges other kinds of explanation such as The reasoning among Newtonian Theists might vary from here,
explanation from efficient causes (telling who did something) but they usually concur in two conclusions. The principle required
and explanation from final causes (telling for what reason, design, to explain gravity or gravitational phenomena (the power or force
or end, an act was performed). But none of these are in his view of gravity) is assumed to be, let’s say, ‘non-mechanical’ in the sense
reducible to physical explanation, and they belong to other areas of not being derivable from, or explained by, the three ‘mechanical’
of discourse (ibid., pp. 142 f.). laws of motion stated in Principia. This principle is also assumed to
In view of these four points it seems impossible for physics to be ‘non-material’ in the sense that it cannot be reduced to any pri-
produce or support by itself any purely theological or metaphysical mary properties of matter.13 A crucial step in their reasoning re-
doctrine; physics simply does not speak about things divine and mains, however, which is that the power of gravity is a principle
necessary. Physics starts from observation of familiar phenomena, which is, if not spiritual itself, at least under the direct control of
and proceeds by establishing general law-like connections, which God, not only in the obvious sense of God’s authorship and supervi-
by further experiment lead up to the formulation and discovery sion, but in the sense that God executes actions to keep gravity a-
of laws of nature, the evidence for which always remain inductive. going after creation, day by day. Gravitational phenomena require
By his emphasis on the need for hard experimental and observa- God’s active participation everywhere and always. This is how Bent-
tional work, and his criticism of the misuse and dangers of hypoth- ley makes the desired inference:
esizing, Reid in effect puts Newton (to whom, besides Bacon, Reid
Gravity we understand to be a constant Energy or Faculty
attributes most of his philosophy of science) in the empiricist tra-
(which God has infused into Matter) perpetually acting by cer-
dition in the philosophy of physics, a tradition which has been
tain Measures and (naturally) inviolable Laws; I say, a Faculty
either strongly critical of metaphysics and theology, or has strived
and Power: for we cannot conceive that the Act of Gravitation
to keep physics clearly demarcated from other disciplines. Reid’s
of this present Moment can propagate itself or produce that of
demarcation of physics makes a fundamental part of his Newtoni-
the next. But ‘tis otherwise as to the Transverse Motion [i.e. uni-
anism, as I defined that term above, and this is indeed a primary
form motion in a straight line]; which (by reason of the Inactiv-
sense in which Reid was a devoted Newtonian, a sense that needs
ity of Matter and its inability to change its present State either
to be isolated from other senses in which he might have been a fol-
of Moving or Resting) would from one single Impulse continue
lower of Newton.11 Reid’s Newtonian Theism, however, is not a nec-
for ever equal and uniform, unless changed by a Gravitating
essary outcome of his Newtonianism. That is why I defined
Power. (Bentley, 1976, p. 26)
‘Newtonian Theism’ so as to imply the view that Newton’s physics
is true, but not to imply any particular philosophy of science and If I understand this rightly, Bentley thinks that a body moving
methodology. Most Theist followers of Newton did not share Reid’s uniformly in a straight line is a body whose velocity at a certain
acute sense of methodology and issues of demarcation. time and place can be wholly explained by what happened in pre-
ceding times, and whose velocity in the next instant can be pre-
dicted from what went before. If it be asked why a body moves
4. Bentley’s inference of divine participation via the force of at all (if it does so absolutely) an explanation would have to refer
gravity to the act of a being with the power to initiate new motion. But
that initiation might very well have happened in the days of crea-
How does Reid’s demarcation work when applied to typical tion, as Deists would have it. For a body orbiting a central body,
arguments of Newtonian Theists? In this section I discuss some however, the case is different. ‘We cannot conceive’, writes Bent-
features of Richard Bentley’s Boyle lectures, given in 1692, and in ley, ‘that the Act of Gravitation of this present Moment can propa-
a later section William Whiston will be considered for the same gate itself or produce that of the next’. Bentley thinks that the
purpose. power of gravity is exerted again and again, and that it differs in
In his seventh Boyle lecture Richard Bentley argues that to ex- this respect from the power of inertia. That is, since the power of
plain gravitational phenomena a principle is required that is essen- gravity adds force continuously as a body falls to the ground, and
tially distinct from inert matter. A persistent point of departure for thus increases its speed, it is assumed that this is due to repeated
the project of Newtonian Theism reads: numerically distinct exertions of force on the body.14 The motor of

For this reason I disagree with Yaffe’s portrait of the ‘Newtonian’ aspect of Reid’s philosophy (Yaffe, 2004). Yaffe takes Reid’s idea of Newtonian natural science to include or to
be intimately integrated with issues of natural theology and metaphysics: ‘The devoted Newtonian also describes the metaphysical structures that must underlie the fundamental
principles according to which phenomena unfold. Thus, for Reid, to be a Newtonian is not to be a narrow empiricist; experience provides the basis for much of what one is
licensed to assert about the world, but the Newtonian must also determine what must be true, what the structure of the world must be like, if experience is to be subsumed under
law’ (p. 5). ‘Reid took the postulation of active powers, and an account of their distribution and nature, to be part of what a complete Newtonian science produces’ (p. 8). For much
the same reason I find the description of Reid as a ‘Providential naturalist’ (Brookes, 1997) unconvincing as it does not sufficiently appreciate Reid’s efforts of demarcation.
See also Newton’s fourth letter to Bentley, in Newton (2004).
Insofar as Newtonians thought of gravity as a universal property of matter, it was typically thought of as being ‘superadded’ to matter, rather than as being a ‘necessary’,
‘inherent’, ‘essential’, or ‘primary’ quality of matter. See Newton’s fourth letter to Bentley, in Newton (2004).
It is a matter of speculation whether Bentley is misled by Newton’s mathematical analysis of centripetal force, in which the sides of a polygon is used to approximate the orbit
of a planet, and the centripetal force, the quantity of which Newton is trying determine, is assumed to be exerted as a series of impulses on the planet, one impulse for each side of
the polygon, each of which pushes the planet out of its path along one side of the polygon to the next side. What Newton is trying to find, however, is the continually acting
centripetal force, which he determines by increasing the number of sides of the polygon and diminishing the sides indefinitely, letting an infinite number of impulses approach
the force that ‘acts uninterruptedly’ (Newton, 1999, p. 445). Be that as it may, Bentley’s argument does not seem compelling anyway, since any ‘addition’ of force on a body falling
towards the earth, that makes it accelerate, may be continuous as well as discrete. If it is continuous it might only require one exertion of power, which lasts, and not a series of
R. Callergård / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010) 109–119 113

these exertions, the ‘constant Energy or Faculty’, is what makes physics introduces properties of bodies that are not reducible to pri-
physics imply Theism. mary qualities of matter. And he further infers (fairly quickly indeed)
Now, there are two points on which Reid would depart. First that this extra mechanical power of gravity is a spiritual and ulti-
point: Reid agrees that to explain gravitational phenomena a prin- mately divine principle. For Bentley then, once the law of gravity
ciple is required which is essentially distinct from matter. Matter is has been established, the road to Theism is inevitable.
essentially inert and a body will not change its state of motion or Now, apart from the fact that Reid never uses such a division
rest unless influenced by an external force, which Reid says is among laws in arguments for Theism, there are reasons why he
‘immaterial’. But where can we go from here? It is significant doesn’t and why he shouldn’t, having to do with what he takes a
and complies with his demarcation of physics that Reid is unwill- law of nature to be. There are two sides to this point, one theolog-
ing to jump to any spiritual conclusion on the mere ground that ical and one scientific. The theological point is that, for Reid, any
Newton’s physics distinguishes between inert matter and im- law of nature reflects God’s will and intention to order the world
pressed force. To see this point let us turn for a moment to Reid’s in a certain way. There is no reason therefore why Reid should find
combat with Joseph Priestley’s dynamic conception of matter, the law of gravity more compelling as an argument for Theism,
which says that matter is constituted by forces of attraction and than the mechanical laws of motion. Bentley, however, clearly as-
repulsion. For Priestley, it is a virtue of such a conception that it sumes that Cartesian physics, with its mechanical laws but without
would make it possible to dispense with the problem of interaction a law of general gravity, does not give sufficient ground for a theist
between matter and mind that haunts dualist ontology. Now, one conclusion, even though it involves laws of nature.
of the main targets of Reid’s writings on Priestley is his material- The scientific point is that the constant conjunction approach to
ism. It is Reid’s view that the materialistic monism that Priestley physical causation and laws, which Reid inherits from Hume and
advocates is incompatible with Newton’s physics, but not because Berkeley, implies restrictions on what can be known about under-
Newton’s physics assumes the dualism of matter and mind (minds lying reasons, causes or mechanisms. Since a law of nature merely
or spirits do not play any role in the Principia anyway), but because states that certain types of events follow other types of events reg-
it is based on the ontological distinction between matter and force. ularly, there is nothing in what these laws state that informs us
In Newton’s physics the gravitational force of a central body is im- about the manner of production. In this respect there is no differ-
pressed on inert satellites to bring them out of the tangential path ence between the law of gravity and the law of inertia. These laws
they would otherwise take.15 The question is what the notion of an have been established beyond doubt by empirical means, and they
immaterial force impressed on inert matter implies to Reid? Having are clearly stated in the Principia, and yet their deeper causes are
claimed that modern physics assumes an immaterial principle be- unknown to us. We might explain a law indeed, but according to
sides inert matter, he writes: Reid, this merely means that we deduce it from some other laws.
Physics will not tell us anything further. All in all, Reid has no rea-
To prevent misunderstanding of the Term immaterial I would
son to found his Theism on the law of gravity any more than on
observe that the terms material & immaterial being contradic-
other laws.
torily opposed must according to the principles of Logic include
between them every thing that exists. For every thing either is
matter or is not matter which is all that I mean by immaterial.
5. The argument from design
Some may be apt to think that what is immaterial must be
endowed with thought and Intelligence. But this I take to be
If physics is silent about key issues of theology and metaphys-
mere Prejudice. (Reid, 1995, p. 219)
ics, perhaps the argument from design affords a bridge on which
In other words, Newton’s physics implies an ontological divi- truths of physics might travel to issues of theology and metaphys-
sion between inert matter and impressed force, but this division ics. Arguments from design were arguably the preeminent tools of
should not be confused with that between matter and mind. Bent- Newtonian Theists. I say ‘arguments’ since the style, form, and con-
ley, however, assumes that the exertion of gravitational force im- tent of these arguments involving design, intentions, and different
plies divine activity—a direct exertion of divine power, which is sorts of Godly intervention, vary considerably and are difficult to
not implied by the phenomena of bodies changing their position assemble under a particular and obvious form of reasoning.17 How-
as they move uniformly in a straight line.16 For Bentley, accelera- ever, in his Essays on the intellectual powers of man, Reid defends the
tion implies intelligence and divine activity in a way that uniform validity and soundness of such arguments, and in doing so he gives
motion or rest does not. them a particular form, and this is what matters for us. The question
Second point: Bentley relies heavily on the assumption that there to ask is how physics contributes to natural theology in Reid’s ver-
is an essential difference between the three laws of motion, the sion of the design argument. It is Reid’s express belief that the argu-
mechanical laws, on the one hand, and the law of gravity, on the ment of design gets more and more convincing as the natural
other, in what they ontologically imply. Indeed, it is essential to his sciences develop. It has, he writes ‘[this] peculiar advantage, that it
overall argument against Deists and Mechanists to grant them that gathers strength as human knowledge advances, and is more con-
a universe that consists only of bodies in uniform rectilinear motion, vincing at present than it was some centuries ago’ (Reid, 2002a, p.
and any motion produced by collision, is a universe that would be 509; 1981, p. 15). The progress of knowledge referred to here is what
well explained by mechanical laws plus the assumption of an initial Reid elsewhere refers to as the ‘reformation of science’ (i.e. what we
push by a Deity. But this is not our universe since gravitational phe- call the scientific revolution), the grandest part of which consists of
nomena cannot be explained mechanically. It is a tacit assumption of the work of Newton (Reid, 2002b, p. 163; see also Callergård, 2006,
Bentley’s argument that the law of gravity introduced by Newton pp. 11 f.). The connection through the argument of design between
cannot be explained by mechanical principles, and, that the new natural theology and this recent progress in natural science qualifies

Reid does not take seriously the possibility of explaining gravity by mechanical means, that is, by contact action, except when he expresses his skepticism about our limited
insights into the manner of gravity’s cause or production, and wants to keep all options alive.
Reid would indeed agree that the exertion of gravitational force requires an agent with superior intellectual power, but he does not make the conclusion that the force of
gravity itself is divine, or more importantly, he does not argue from the nature of gravity to the reality of God’s activity. For all Reid knows, the force of gravity might be a mindless
and unintelligent instrument of God.
Newton believes in, sanctions, and supports arguments of design. It is difficult, however, to find him anywhere performing an argument of design. Notable places of claims
without performance are the Principia, (Newton, 1999, pp. 940, 942), the Optics, (Newton, 1979, p. 402), and letters to Bentley (Newton, 2004, pp. 94 ff.).
114 R. Callergård / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010) 109–119

Reid as a Newtonian Theist. The point I wish to make in this section ‘1st, Certain states or conditions of our own bodies. 2nd, Mechani-
is that in Reid’s version of the argument of design there are no pre- cal powers or forces. 3rd, Chemical powers, 4th, Medical powers or
mises of physics, and that therefore, such arguments are solely an af- virtues. 5th, Vegetable and animal powers’. So even if Reid would
fair of natural theology. count design properties as ‘objects of perception’ it is clear that
This is the principal passage: he makes some distinction among such objects, a distinction that
is consonant with his demarcation of physics. In fact, design prop-
The argument from final causes, when reduced to a syllogism, erties are treated elsewhere in the Essays on the intellectual powers,
has these two premises: First, That design and intelligence in in the ‘Essay of Taste’, together with properties of beauty, grandeur,
the cause may, with certainty, be inferred from marks or signs and the sublime (Reid, 2002a, Ch. VIII, ‘Essay of taste; for design see
of it in the effect. This is the principle we have been considering, pp. 606 ff.).
and we may call it the major proposition of the argument. The What is more, whether or not Reid would count design properties
second, which we may call the minor proposition, is, That there as objects of perception, it is clear that, for all its certainty and direct-
are in fact the clearest marks of design and wisdom in the works ness, which makes it resemble ordinary perception, he regards the
of Nature; and the conclusion is, that the works of Nature are evidence of design as a species of evidence of its own:
the effects of a wise and intelligent cause. One must either
As to final Causes, they stare us in the face wherever we cast our
assent to the conclusion, or deny one or other of the premises.
Eyes. I can no more doubt whether the Eye was made for the
(Reid, 2002a, p. 509)
purpose of seeing, & the Ear of hearing, than I can doubt of a
It is plain here that, if any part of the argument is affected by Mathematical Axiom. Yet the Evidence is neither Mathematical
physics, it is not the major premise; it is a first principle of neces- Demonstration nor is it Induction. (Reid, 2002b, p. 143)
sary truth, the epistemic status of which cannot be affected by
Consequently Reid points out to Kames that the search for final
empirical evidence (ibid., pp. 507 f.). It is on the minor premise,
causes belongs to metaphysics or natural theology, and not to nat-
then, that new discoveries must have their effect. But in the way
ural philosophy or physics. The business of natural science is
Reid describes the minor premise, there is no mentioning of any-
thing but facts of design or marks of design. Plain physical facts, from particular facts in the material World, to collect by just
as based on ordinary perception or physical experiment, are no Induction the Laws that are less general, and from these the
part of this kind of argument. more general as far as we can go. And when this is done, natural
It is unfortunate that Reid does not discuss explicitly the role Philosophy has no more to do. It exhibits to our view the grand
of physics for the argument of design, and the evidential condi- Machine of the material World, analysed as it were, and taken
tions for design judgments such as ‘This object O has the mark to pieces; with the connections and dependencies of its several
M of design’. It is clear though, that singular design judgments parts, and the Laws of its several Movements. It belongs to
have a lot in common with judgments made in ordinary percep- another branch of Philosophy to consider whether this Machine
tion. For instance, they are made directly (without reasoning) is the work of Chance or of Design, & whether of good or of bad
and they are as convincing and certain as any. In correspondence Design . . . Whether you call this branch of Philosophy, natural
with Lord Kames, Reid agrees that the means by which we come Theology, or Metaphysics, I care not; but I think it should not
to the conclusion that something is designed for a certain end is be confounded with natural Philosophy, and neither of them
more to be likened with perception and feeling than with with Mathematics. (Ibid., pp. 142 f.)
To conclude, Reid’s view of the matter seems to be this. Rather
I cannot help thinking that such a work as the Iliad, & much than saying that our knowledge about physiology and physics are
more an Animal or Vegetable body must have been made by premises in an argument from design, it seems more correct to say
express design and counsel employed for that end. And an that natural theology takes advantage of discoveries made in nat-
Author whom I very much respect [i.e. Kames] has taught me, ural science in order to form judgments of its own about ends, pur-
‘That we form this conclusion, not by any process of Reasoning, poses, or final causes. These judgments are formed through a
but by mere Perception & Feeling’. And I think that conclusions distinct kind of evidence, and they are employed in the argument
formed in this manner, are of all others most to be trusted. It of design.
seems to me as easy to contrive a machine that should produce
a variety of Epick Poems and Tragedies, as to contrive laws of 6. Caution about final causes
Motion by which unthinking particles of Matter should coalesce
into a variety of Organized Bodies. (Reid, 2002b, p. 77)18 Arguments from design or from final causes depend thus on
premises cooked by Natural Theology on a stove of physics. The
If design properties are as easily detected, and detected in much theologian/metaphysician conceives and interprets facts of physics
the same way, as other properties detected by perception, it is through a special faculty of the mind that yields evidence of design,
understandable why little attention is paid among Newtonian The- and it is thus the responsibility of the theologian/metaphysician,
ists (including Reid) to the inference from the ordinary properties and not the physicist, to justify these premises. This leads us to
of a natural object to its marks of design. the question what those facts are which allow us to infer justifiably
There are reasons to believe, however, that Reid’s description of (or to ‘see’ or ‘perceive’) design properties. While we have seen that
the minor premise is precisely what he intended; physical facts are Reid does not use physics directly to argue for Theism, he might
no part of arguments of design. For instance, design properties are still find Bentley’s and Whiston’s efforts agreeable, taking them
neither among the properties Reid discusses in chapter XVII, ‘Of to be legitimate arguments within natural theology and metaphys-
primary and secondary qualities’ nor among those discussed in ics. The success of such arguments will still depend on inferences
chapter XVIII, ‘Of other objects of perception’, in the Essays on the from physical fact to design fact, allowing here for a liberal use
intellectual powers. Although Reid points out that he is not ‘pre- of ‘inference’, or better perhaps, they will depend on conclusions
tending a complete enumeration’ in the latter chapter, design about design made under, and partly justified by, certain facts
properties do not fall in any of the classes he discusses, namely, and circumstances known by ordinary perception.

Reid refers here most probably to Kames (2005), Vol. II, Essay VIII.
R. Callergård / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010) 109–119 115

Reid is both generous and restrictive about assigning final It is not clear from these lines whether the reason not to expect
causes. For very obvious cases of design, such as that of a beauti- or hope to find a final cause for every physical fact is to be
fully written poem or the structure of the human eye, he is found in the world or in ourselves. One side of the message is
generous: no doubt a combination of sound scientific caution with reli-
gious piety; know thy limits. As we will see below, there is rea-
In a word, final Causes, good final Causes, are seen plainly every
son to consider the possibility that Reid does not think there is
where; in the Heavens and in the Earth, in the constitution of
a particular final cause for every physical fact or ‘constitution of
every animal, and in our own constitution of body & of Mind.
And they are most worthy of observation, and have a Charm
in them that delights the Soul. (Reid, 2002b, p. 143) (d) We cannot find a final cause for things that can be either
way, like the planets going eastwards and not westwards
His lectures on Natural Theology abound in examples of design
(Reid’s example; ibid.).
collected from various branches of science (Reid, 1981).19 As to less
clear and obvious cases, however, which would require some reason- (e) Finally, we should not assign ‘trifling causes’ like the nose
ing to be settled, Reid’s advice is one of caution and restrictions. In being made for holding glasses (ibid.).20
this and the next section I want to draw attention to a letter written
We are now prepared to see how these remarks work for Reid,
by Reid in the autumn 1782 to Lord Kames, all about final causes. In
and how they would provide stumbling blocks for Whiston’s theis-
the first half of the letter Reid makes five cautionary remarks about
tic inferences.
assigning final causes, and these are followed, in the second part of
the letter, by a discussion about the final causes for laws of nature.
This letter reveals differences in principles and attitudes towards 7. Final causes for laws of nature
Theistic reasoning between Reid on the one hand and Richard Bent-
ley and William Whiston on the other. The second half of the autumn 1782 letter is concerned with
The letter begins: whether the laws of inertia, gravity, and acceleration have final
causes. What Reid’s letter to Kames shows is that he is less willing
A final Cause is a hymn of Praise to the Creator of the World, and to attribute final causes to laws of nature and their consequences,
therefore every good Man will delight in discovering final compared with Whiston. From the first cautionary remark above
Causes. Yet there is some Caution necessary in this delightful we saw that, for Reid, necessary truths do not have final causes.
task. (Reid, 2002b, p. 154) He points out that if the three laws of motion are necessary conse-
These are his five cautionary remarks: quences of the nature or essence of matter, then they are necessary
truths themselves; they are logically deduced from necessarily true
premises stating the essence of matter. If this is the case (which
(a) There is no final cause for what is ‘necessary and no Matter Reid says he is inclined to believe) then there are no final causes
of choice’ (ibid., pp. 154–155). According to Reid only what is for these three laws. We would better ask, Reid writes, why God
dependent on someone’s will can have a final cause; contingent created matter instead of asking why there is a law of inertia.21
truths can, but necessary truths like 2 + 2 = 4 (Reid’s example) About the law of gravity Reid does not think it is a necessary conse-
cannot have final causes. quence of the essence of matter, and he reckons there is a final cause
(b) There is no final cause for what is false (ibid., p. 155). This for it pointing out that ‘its manifold uses are obvious’ (Reid, 2002b, p.
may seem an obvious remark, but it bears considerable signifi- 156, letter 78).
cance. A persistent complaint Reid directs towards philosophers Having set out these preliminaries, Reid turns to the law of
and scientists of his time is that explanations are too often put acceleration, that is, the law that a body accelerates if it falls freely
forward on false or too slight evidence, and sometimes for towards a central body. It turns out that Reid is adamant not to
things that are not even true. For Natural Theologians, whose attribute a final cause for this law. His reason is that this law is a
arguments of design depend on facts of physics, Reid’s words necessary consequence of the laws of inertia and gravity, which
of warning must therefore be highly relevant. They had better makes it physically explained (Reid, 2002a, p. 102). ‘But supposing
do their physics homework correctly before drawing any extra that there are good reasons for ordaining these two Forces in Nat-
physical conclusions. This point illustrates well the order of ure [inertia and gravity], there is no need for any other Reason for
Reid’s priorities. the acceleration of falling bodies, because it follows necessarily
from the Forces mentioned’ (Reid, 2002b, p. 156, letter 78). Note
(c) ‘Neither can we hope to find the final Cause of every real that the reason Reid denies this law a final cause is not that it is
Constitution of Nature. It is evident, our Eyes were given us to a necessary truth. It is not, since it is deduced from two laws of nat-
see, & our Ears to hear. But there are many things in the Struc- ure out of which one is reckoned by Reid to be a contingent truth.
ture of both Organs, of which we know not the Cause. And I The law of acceleration is a contingent truth and a necessary
humbly think, that when a final cause cannot be made manifest consequence of laws of nature, and as such there is no need to
and palpable, we should be very modest in assigning it’ (ibid.). think that there must be a final cause for it. But to be such a

At one point Reid even goes so far as to say, ‘Every object we can contemplate exhibits to us marks of wisdom’ (Reid, 1981, p. 16). This is perhaps the place to remark that
Reid’s lectures on natural theology are for several reasons difficult to work with. Besides there being no reliable edition of them, and their being handed down only through the
hands of students, the greatest difficulty is that Reid, not always, but still too often, and in a way uncharacteristic of him, seems to avoid philosophical difficulties. The primary aim
of these lectures is apparently not to inquire into difficult things, but rather to make sure that the students leave the lectures with their faith unshaken.
Kames’s letters to Reid are not extant, but nothing indicates that they were discussing Bentley or Whiston. Their exchange was triggered by Kames’s objection to Newton’s
mechanics, that it does not reveal the underlying and ultimate causes or reasons of motion. In his ‘On the laws of motion’ (Henry Home, Lord Kames, 1754) he argues that bodies
have inherent active powers that make them keep acquired motion and gravitate. It is a persistent theme of their exchange that Reid has to explain to Kames that Kames’s
expectations of physics are wrong, and it is in response to Kames’s worries that Reid presents most clearly his demarcation of physics. It may fairly be said that Kames wanted to
be a Newtonian Theist, but having fully understood the parameters of Newtonian physics, and the limits imposed by Reid’s interpretation of the same, he could not be, and thus
his constant conflict. There is a point in saying that, from Reid’s point of view, Kames had a better insight as to the nature (and limits) of Newton’s physics than had Bentley and
Whiston (an insight that did not make Kames happy).
Reid usually thinks of laws of nature as contingently true general propositions describing constant regularities in the natural world. Here, however, he reckons with the
possibility that the three laws of motions are necessary truths being consequences of the essence of matter.
116 R. Callergård / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010) 109–119

consequence, whether it is a general truth like the law of acceler- atively uncontroversial matters of physics and astronomy; there are
ation, or a particular truth about the moon being at place p at time continuous references in the margin to corresponding propositions
t, is simply to be physically explained. This strongly suggests a in Newton’s Principia. Part I gives a systematic presentation of New-
view according to which facts that are physically explained do ton’s mechanics, and part II gives an overview of basic facts of
not necessarily have final causes of their own.22 This would not astronomy. The aim of part III is to show that modern astronomy
run into conflict with Reid’s further view that every contingent fact as based on Newton’s physics is a certain and not merely probably
is dependent on some agent’s will and action. Although every action true account of the universe.25 The proof consists in an argument
by an agent implies a final cause for which that action is taken, it for the truth of the Copernican system, and an argument to show
does not follow that each and every consequence of that action is in- that the theory of general gravitation is what explains it. In the
cluded in the final cause of that action. Even if each and every fact course of this last argument Whiston, like Bentley before, claims that
about planetary times and positions are dependent on God’s action, the power of gravity cannot be explained by mechanical laws, and he
this neither implies a specific final cause, nor a specific action on goes on to claim, with reference to the impossibility of action at dis-
God’s part, for each and every fact. It only implies at least one deci- tance, that gravity must be due to a ‘superior Agent, ever moving all
sion, and at least one action, to let the world run according to general Bodies after such a manner, as if every Body did Attract, and were
laws.23 Attracted by every other Body in the Universe, and no otherwise’
(Whiston, 1983, p. 46). We should not read into this claim about a
8. William Whiston’s theistic inference superior agent a Reidian notion of agency, which implies intelligence
and deliberation. Whiston, like Bentley and Newton, often uses
Before Newton left Cambridge for London, he arranged for his ‘agent’ in a broader sense that does not exclude there being material
assistant William Whiston (1667–1752) to be his successor as agents (Newton, 2004, fourth letter to Bentley, p. 102f). It is, there-
Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Whiston held the chair from fore, only in part IV that Whiston infers Theism, that is, the conclu-
1702 to 1710, when he was banned from the university due to sion that some natural phenomena imply an intelligent, providential
his subordinationist views on the Trinity. During his time in Cam- and ever acting cause.
bridge he gave the Boyle lectures of 1707 (Force, 1983). A prolific Part IV consists of twenty-nine brief paragraphs and a final re-
writer in science and theology, and a passionate follower of New- mark, in the space of only ten pages. The first seven paragraphs
ton, Whiston is a useful object of comparison for the purpose of prepare for the rest by laying down that any phenomenon that can-
this paper; Reid and Whiston both knew well the mathematics not be explained by mechanical laws must be explained through
and physics of the Principia, both purport to follow closely in the the law of gravity, and nothing else. In §§ 1 to 4 Whiston argues
footsteps of Newton, and both are Newtonian Theists according that while rest or uniform motion of material bodies can be ex-
to my definition. plained by mechanical laws, acceleration and motion in curved
In his Astronomical principles of religion: natural and revealed of lines cannot be explained that way; the actual motions of the uni-
1717, Whiston presents an elaborate book-length argument, the verse are totally dependent on the power of gravity. In §§ 5 to 7 it is
aim of which is to show what is ‘properly the Religion of a genuine stated that there is no evidence whatsoever of the existence of a
and considering Astronomer; or what are properly the Astronomi- subtle matter or a plenum, and that observations show that heav-
cal Principles of Natural and Reveal’d Religion’ (Whiston, 1983, p. enly bodies do not meet resistance in space. In the paragraphs that
xxx). Part of Whiston’s reasoning consists of an inference from follow it is then to be understood that the bare law of gravity is
physical fact to a theistic conclusion, which will be my next sub- what supplements the mechanical laws to explain heavenly
ject. It is too big an undertaking to reconstruct here the whole of phenomena, and nothing else.26 And it is then, during the course
Whiston’s theistic inference, and perhaps also too easy to find of the subsequent paragraphs to be understood that, whenever the
questionable steps in it, but I will start by giving the reader an law of gravity does explain phenomena, this will imply, somehow,
overview and a sense of the general argument. It will suffice for theism.
my purpose then to pick out some steps in it, where, I believe, Reid Paragraphs 8–19 all have the same structure. A contingent fact
would disagree. about the solar system is picked out and described, followed by a
The overall strategy of the book is to show, in the first half (part brief hint of an argument, which in turn is followed by one and
I–V), that modern astronomy implies Theism, and in the second the same phrase to end the paragraph, namely, ‘is no way owing
half (part VI–IX), that Biblical prophesies and descriptions of to any Mechanical Cause, or Necessity whatsoever; but entirely
worldly events agree with modern astronomy. Biblical and astro- to free Choice, Prudence, and Judgment’. It is plain that each para-
nomical accounts of worldly events are mutually supporting graph does not by itself present a complete and valid argument,
(Force, 1983).24 Parts I to III of Astronomical principles deal with rel- and we may safely assume that Whiston would agree to some

Presumably God might conceive a separate final cause for something that would have happened anyway by laws of nature, for instance, an evil king being timely struck by a
meteorite. But for most cases, innumerable physical facts about the positions of bodies in space, it is near at hand to think that no such special intention is needed. Interestingly,
Whiston discusses, towards the end of A new theory of the Earth, the methodological problems involved in explaining natural events sometimes by godly intervention and
sometimes by natural causes, where the latter are supposed to be clear instances of godly action as well (Whiston, 1696, pp. 218 ff.).
Pursuing this line of reasoning it seems clear that the law of acceleration is not obviously ‘a rule according to which the agent acts’, which is how Reid explains the theological
side of laws of nature (Reid, 1872, p. 527). The law of acceleration is not a basic law, but merely a consequence of actions taken in making basic laws true. The line of
interpretation I pursue here might conflict with Yaffe’s account of laws, rules, and characters (Yaffe, 2004, Ch. 4). Yaffe’s analysis interestingly suggests that, for Reid, a law is a
resolution of God to act consistently’. The crucial question is whether every instance of either a basic or a derivative law requires a particular action. In other words, how many
actions does it take for God to make a basic law true, and how many actions does it take in addition to make a derivative law true?
Whiston made a name for himself with A new theory of the Earth, from its original to the consummation of all things (1696), in which modern physics is used to explain the
Deluge. It was very much appreciated by Newton and Locke.
‘In order to let the Reader see the Certainty of our present System of Astronomy, and to prepare the way for his entire Satisfaction, as to the noble Inferences that shall
hereafter be drawn from the same, I shall now attempt, not only to prove the foregoing System, in all its Parts, to be very probable, and so preferable to any other Hypothesis; but
to Demonstrate it to be really true and certain; and this after so familiar a manner, that ordinary Mathematicians may easily apprehend the Force of each Argument, and see the
Evidence for the several Conclusions all along’ (Whiston, 1983 [1717], p. 26).
Whiston and Bentley’s theistic inference depends on the assumption that there are no alternative ‘natural’ causes in between mechanical laws and gravity, no intermediate
power, law, being, substance, or force. In this they were far more dogmatic than Newton, who speculated about ether and fundamental active principles more basic than forces of
gravity and magnetism. Reid is critical of intermediate entities, mostly because it is left unclear whether such entities have or have not intelligence and volition enough to be
R. Callergård / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010) 109–119 117

reconstruction. From a Reidian point of view, however, there are that the law gravity implies direct divine activity, and it relies
already deep problems with these inferences. on his confidence that he can pick out certain facts of the solar
Let us start with § 8, which reads thus: system that decidedly are the outcome of divine volition and
Since the particular proportion that pertains to the Power of
To illustrate this point let us turn to § 9:
Gravity, I mean that of the duplicate of the Nearness of Bodies,
is not any necessary Result from the Nature of Matter, or any Since all Bodies are equally capable of Rest, and of all Degrees of
Laws of Motion in the world; it is plain that this Proportion is Velocity whatsoever; but are in their own Nature no way deter-
no way owing to any Mechanical Cause, or Necessity whatso- mine’d to any of them; that nice Adjustment there is of the pro-
ever; but entirely to free Choice, Prudence, and Judgment. jectile Velocity to the Attractive Power through the whole
(Whiston, 1983, p. 82) Universe; whereby the Planets both primary and secondary
revolve nearly in Circles, and the Comets nearly in Parabola’s,
The contingency picked out is the squaring of the distance, ‘d2’,
is no way owing to any Mechanical Cause, or Necessity whatso-
in the law of gravity, F = g(m1m2/d2). Since it was settled before
ever; but entirely to free Choice, Prudence, and Judgment.
that gravity cannot be explained by mechanical laws, Whiston
(Whiston, 1983, p. 82)28
here draws the conclusion that this part of the law of gravity is
not a necessary consequence of anything except God’s fiat. Now, Paragraphs 9–12 all concern ‘nice adjustments’ in the solar sys-
from what we learned before about Reid’s qualms about assigning tem, by which is meant initial adjustments at the moment of cre-
final causes for laws of nature, it is near at hand to suggest that ation to set planets perfectly in their intended orbits, (and not
he would respond as follows: It is not plain that this fact about those divine interventions to hinder the solar system from collaps-
the ‘constitution of nature’ has a particular final cause. This is ing or getting out of shape, which Newton suggested and which so
because it may very well be that this proportion is a necessary famously annoyed Leibniz). Whiston’s argument starts from the
consequence of the nature of matter and thus a necessary truth premise that bodies, in principle, can have any place and velocity
itself (at least Whiston has not proved anything to the contrary), in space, and that the particular place and velocity of a body are
or that it is a necessary consequence of some laws, in which case due to causes that are external to it. The next step is to notice that
it has, as Reid wrote in his 1782 letter to Kames, ‘no need for any the particular set up of the solar system requires a ‘nice adjust-
other Reason’ (Reid, 2002b, p. 156). In either case it is unreason- ment’ in order to stay in shape, or ‘fine-tuning’ to use a contempo-
able to assign a final cause. Remember also that in the same letter rary term. For instance, without the particular proportion between
Reid writes that the law of gravity most probably is designed for the force of gravity and the tangential force directing a particular
a certain end and not deducible from mechanical laws, so he planet or satellite, the shape of its orbit would have been consider-
would not object so much to the conclusion Whiston wants to ably different. Therefore it must have been intended to work pre-
make. The trouble is that Reid does not think we ought to draw cisely the way it actually works.
this conclusion, however true it is and desirable it would be to Many objections may be raised against this part of Whiston’s
do so. We are neither in the position to be sure what the final general argument. It suffices here to let it illustrate the contrast
cause would be for the squaring of the distance, nor to be sure between his and Reid’s different outlooks. Let us first note that,
it has a final cause at all. What is more, we are neither in the neither one being a dabbler in physics, Whiston and Reid would
position to ascertain that there is an agent that directly acted to most probably agree that those laws of nature that Newton
make that fact true, nor to be sure who that agent would be. presents in the Principia physically explain motions of bodies,
Whiston, on the contrary, estimates his arguments to be as con- by way of calculations and demonstrations such as would be
clusive as any, and his whole argument rests on the assumption found in any handbook of Newtonian mechanics. Now, besides
that we can know that some contingencies are dependent on being indispensable for such calculations, for Whiston, the law
the volition, reasons and actions of a Deity.27 of gravity is in addition the springboard for his Theist conclusion.
Note also that, on pain of circularity, Whiston can not save his But here is what ought to be Reid’s objection: To explain a fact in
case by reference to Reid’s views that all contingent truths are physics is nothing more than demonstrating that it is a necessary
dependent on some being’s will, or that every change in nature re- consequence of some laws of nature, and this holds for general
quires an action for a reason by some agent. It would obliterate the facts as well as particular. The particular facts picked out by
point of Whiston’s argument, namely, to start out with the premise Whiston may very well be explained by physical laws, just as
that some phenomena imply decisions and activity of an agent in a much as the law of acceleration is physically explained by the
way that some other phenomena do not imply the same, and end laws of inertia and gravity, that is, by being deduced from these
in a theistic conclusion. laws. As far as physics goes then, these facts can be physically
It is understandable why the theistic inferences of Whiston explained, and by Reid’s demarcation of physics they do not
and Bentley have little appeal to Reid, however much he sympa- reveal to us anything extra-physical. But what is more, in Reid’s
thizes with their desired conclusions. According to Reid, we know view all basic laws are the result of some intention and action
a priori that every change in nature implies an action for a reason of God, and all contingent facts are dependent, directly or indi-
by some agent, and that every contingent truth is dependent on rectly, on the will some agent. Considering then Reid’s reluctance
some agent’s will and action. At the same time, we know by to assign final causes, and his skepticism about knowledge of
empirical enquiry that there are mechanical laws of motion and efficient causes, Whiston’s concluding phrase ‘is no way owing
the law of gravity. What we do not know, however, is which of to any Mechanical Cause, or Necessity whatsoever; but entirely
these laws are the direct outcomes of God’s volition and which to free Choice, Prudence, and Judgment’, as applied to some facts
are mere necessary consequences of basic laws. Whiston’s theistic about the solar system, but not all, can have little appeal to Reid. In
conclusion relies on the assumption that he knows for certain any case, he does not need it for his Theism.

If it were objected at this point that Whiston has not assigned any particular final cause—that his claim is only that a Deity acted for this particular relationship to obtain—let
us remember that from Reid’s point of view he has. It is principle of Reid’s theory of action that whenever an agent acts to accomplish something there is a reason or a final cause
for which the agent chooses this course of action rather than anything else. See Yaffe (2004), Ch. 2.
In § 10 Whiston points to the adjustment of the direction of the planets projectile motion, which makes their orbits close to circular and thus ‘fit for the Habitation of animals’,
and in the following paragraphs he considers a variety of contingencies in the solar system (Whiston, 1983, p. 83).
118 R. Callergård / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010) 109–119

9. Conclusion Through a ‘noble and uncommon union of science and admira-

tion’ yielding an ‘elevation of the mind’, scientific knowledge be-
The project of the early Newtonian Theists was to show that comes a ‘hymn to the Creator’.31 In line with this conception a
Newton’s physics supports Theism over alternatives, their argu- second clue gives us a glimpse of the way in which the study of
ments depending on interpretations of details in modern physics the Principia affected Reid himself:
and astronomy. I hope to have shown that Reid had principled
When we consider what a prodigious variety of effects depend
reasons to be less confident about such arguments, reasons that ex-
upon the law of gravitation; how many phenomena in the
plain why he avoided using the theory of gravitation in arguments
earth, sea, and air, which, in all preceding ages, had tortured
for Theism. Unfortunately Reid never took issue with his Newto-
the wits of Philosophers, and occasioned a thousand vain
nian Theist predecessors, but the following passage from a letter
theories, are shown to be the necessary consequences of this
to Lord Kames can be seen as an effective comment on their efforts:
one law; how the whole system of sun, moon, planets, primary
As to Efficient Causes, I am afraid, our Faculties carry us but a and secondary, and comets, are kept in order by it, and their
very little way and almost onely to general Conclusions. I hold seeming irregularities accounted for and reduced to accurate
it to be self evident that every production an every change in measure; the simplicity of the cause, and the beauty and
Nature must have an Efficient Cause, that has power to produce variety of the effects, must give pleasure to every contempla-
the Effect. And that an Effect which has the most manifest tive mind. By this noble discovery, we are taken, as it were,
marks of Intelligence, Wisdom, and Goodness, must have an behind the scene in this great drama of Nature, and made to
intelligent, wise & good Efficient Cause. From these and some behold some part of the art of the divine Author of this
such selfevident Truths, we may discover the principles of nat- system, which, before this discovery, eye had not seen, nor
ural Theology, and that the Deity is the first Efficient Cause of all ear heard, nor had it entered into the heart of man to conceive.
Nature. But how far he operates in Nature immediately, how far (Reid, 2002a, p. 531)
by the Ministry of Subordinate Efficient Causes, to which he has
This is arguably the principal step from science to theology. As
given Power adequate to the task committed to them, I am
noted before, beauty, grandeur, and design are all treated in the Es-
afraid our Reason is not able to discover, and we can do little
say of Taste that concludes the Intellectual powers. Admiration,
else than conjecture. We are led by Nature to believe ourselves
devotion and solemnity are emotions raised by the grandeur,
to be the Efficient Causes of our own voluntary Actions, and
beauty, and design of the creation that can be apprehended
from Analogy we judge the same of other intelligent Beings.
through the study of Newton’s Principia. The phenomenon of uni-
But with regard to the Works of Nature, I cannot recollect a sin-
versal gravitation is, Reid writes,
gle instance wherein I can say with any degree of assurance,
that such a thing is the Efficient Cause of such a Phenomenon the most wonderful that natural Philosophy ever presented to
of Nature. (Reid, 2002b, p. 143, § 14)29 the human Mind. That every particle of Matter should have a
tendency towards every other particle, regulated by precise
Without a single instance of an identified efficient cause of a
Mathematical Ratios, according to the position, distance, and
natural phenomenon it is understandable why Reid does not erect
Quantity of Matter of the several particles; so that every
his Theism on physical premises.
impulse of Gravity is felt, as it were, through the whole System
Perhaps then, Reid is not much of a Newtonian Theist at all?
of Matter, & every Motion of the least part moves the whole;
From his account of the argument from design, his skepticism
This gives a most Stupendous view of the Material System as
about knowledge of efficient causes, and his cautionary remarks
the work of one Intelligent Being whose wisdom & skill infi-
about ascribing final causes, it seems at least that his ways of
nitely exceed ours. (Reid, 2002b, p. 136f)
support are not the straightforward rational arguments of Bent-
ley and Whiston. Are there other ways by which physics might I suggest then that, as a Newtonian Theist, Reid shifted part of
support theology, where knowledge of the former results in in- the burden of directing our attention to the Deity through the
sights in the latter? Reid is not very communicative about this study of nature, from our rational and scientific powers, to our
issue, but there are clues. One is to be found, I believe, in the powers of aesthetical apprehension and judgment.
preface to Reid’s Essays on the intellectual powers of man, which
he ends by quoting Edmund Burke speaking about the value of
scientific studies:
If a discourse on the use of the parts of the body may be consid- This paper is the result of work on Thomas Reid’s philosophy of
ered as a hymn to the Creator; the use of the passions, which are physics that has been supported by Åke Wibergs Fond and Birgit och
the organs of the mind, cannot be barren of praise to him, nor Gad Rausings Fond för Humanisisk Forskning. Part of the content of
unproductive to ourselves of that noble and uncommon union this article was presented at the Fourth International Reid Sympo-
of science and admiration, which a contemplation of the works sium held at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, in Septem-
of infinite Wisdom alone can afford to rational mind . . . This ele- ber 2007, and also at the American Philosophical Association
vation of the mind ought to be the principal end of all our stud- Pacific Division meeting in Pasadena, March 2008. I am thankful
ies, which, if they do not in some measure effect, they are of for comments received on these occasions and also for comments
very little service to us. (Reid, 2002a, p. 15)30 received from Marcel Quarfood, Henrik Bohlin, Peter Myrdal, Dug-
ald Murdoch, and an anonymous reviewer.

The significance of the following passage from Essay on active powers should now also appear in clear light: ‘Upon the theatre of nature we see innumerable effects, which
require an agent endowed with active power; but the agent is behind the scene. Whether it be the Supreme Cause alone, or a subordinate cause or causes; and if subordinate
causes be employed by the Almighty, what their nature, their number, and their different offices may be—are things hid, for wise reasons without a doubt, from the human eye. It
is only in human actions, that may be imputed for praise or blame, that it is necessary for us to know who is the agent; and in this, nature has given us all the light that is
necessary for our conduct’ (Reid, 1872, 527ab).
The passage is from Burke (1990[1757]), Pt I, Sect. XIX.
The theme of a ‘hymn to the creator’ occurs again later in the Essays (p. 509: 10–18) where Reid makes the point that scientific truth is a condition for such a hymn.
R. Callergård / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010) 109–119 119

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