Reason and religion

Notes for February 4

Main points

We started with a topic held over from last time about the relationship between science as Hobbes conceived of it and knowledge about the real world. We spent the balance of our time on the relationship between Part 1 and Part 4.

Hobbes’s nominalist science

Science, for Hobbes, is linguistic: it involves drawing out the logical consequences of words. That makes it “conditional” knowledge: it’s relevant to real things only if the definitions correspond to them. But Hobbes also insisted that science would teach us about cause and effect: how to produce the effects we want, for instance. How does this all fit together?

Also, as Charley pointed out, Hobbes isn’t behaving as we would have expected. He uses his empiricism to eliminate all sorts of things that he doesn’t believe in: we can’t experience immaterial things, therefore, we can’t have any idea of what they might be, therefore, we can’t understand how there could be such things. That’s what you would expect an empiricist to say. But scientific knowledge seems to be both separated from experience and superior to it. And as Julio noted, Hobbes puts geometry and astronomy in the same category. This is all very surprising.

We aren’t the first ones to wonder about this sort of thing. Here’s Leibniz in 1670.

Hobbes seems to me to be a super-nominalist. For not content like the nominalists, to reduce universals to names, he says that the truth of things itself consists in names and what is more, that it depends on the human will, because truth allegedly depends on the definitions of terms, and definitions depend on the human will. This is the opinion of a man recognized as among the most profound of our century, and as I said, nothing can be more nominalistic than it. Yet it cannot stand. G.W. Leibniz as quoted in Stewart Duncan, “Thomas Hobbes”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

(Nominalism is the view that only particular objects exist while categories of things such as “chairs” or “red objects” are not real but attributed to them by us. It’s a natural view for a materialist to have.)

I tried to explain why Hobbes’s conception of science makes sense. Catherine’s observation that science gives us hypothetical knowledge is right on: we’re supposed to be able to use science to understand things well beyond our experiences. That’s the lesson of the Uzbek peasants. But how?

Well, Hobbes was trying to get at the distinction between cause and correlation. Having a bunch of experiences of one thing preceding another isn’t the same thing as concluding that the one is the cause of the other: maybe it’s coincidence. Causes make their effects happen. Knowing why the cause produces the effect is supposed to be the difference between having scientific knowledge and merely having a lot of experience (‘foresight’ or ‘prudence’).

Now it’s true that scientific knowledge is idealized: it’s couched in definitions of words and drawing out their logical consequences. But so are our laws of nature. Those are expressed in mathematical terms and their application to particular events is always imperfect. Force equals the product of mass and acceleration. But can we use this equation to perfectly predict the acceleration of a billiard ball? We can do so only under ideal circumstances: no wind blowing against the ball, no additional mass that it picks up as it moves across the table, and so on. Our predictions using that equation will be close, but not always perfect, because our ability to match the terms of the equation to the things we’re looking at are imperfect. So scientific knowledge is hypothetical knowledge for us too, it seems to me. We can use our scientific laws to predict the behavior of real objects only to the extent that the laws apply to the objects in their actual circumstances.

So I don’t think Hobbes is committed to a conception of science that is unmoored from reality. The terms have to accurately describe real things or else they won’t be useful or interesting. Those who are good at science will constantly refine their definitions to make them fit observed reality better and better. The fact that science is “hypothetical” knowledge for him is innocuous: it is for us too.

However, there’s something that our conception of science has that Hobbes’s conception lacks. The experimental method. That’s how we come up with our laws and make the connection between our laws and definitions and the world they describe. Hobbes didn’t articulate anything like that. Whether he would have accepted the experimental method is an interesting question that is explored in the Shapin and Schaffer book I referred to.Leviathan and the Air-pump (Princeton Univeristy Press, 1985).


The other point I wanted to make concerns the structure of the book. The first half of the book is based on “natural reason” while the second half admits supernatural revelation as a source of knowledge (See ch. 32, par. 1). Parts 2 and 3 are about institutions of the state: Part 2 is about the state as Hobbes conceives it, Part 3 is about what Scripture tells us about the Church. In particular, according to Hobbes, it says that there will not be a kingdom of God on Earth before Christ returns. That is, there is no kingdom of God on Earth now. God is not involved in politics and anyone who reads the Bible correctly would understand that. Alas, almost no one did so. Thank goodness they had Hobbes to set them straight!

The beginning of Part 1 corresponds with Part 4. In Part 4, Hobbes tried to explain why the materialist account is not widely accepted in Christian societies despite the fact that, he believed it is the only intelligible way of understanding the universe. His explanation had two prongs. On the one hand, he attributed the various non-materialist beliefs to pre-Christian Greek and Roman philosophy. So the belief in spirits comes from Greek accounts of perception and metaphysics, for instance. On the other hand, he attributes the persistence of these incorrect beliefs to the way they serve the interests of the church. If, for instance, the church can protect you against immaterial spirits or if it can determine what happens to your immaterial soul after your death, then you will have strong reasons for obeying the church.

Next time I want to start with chapter 47, the chapter about the Kingdom of Fairies. For the point I want to make, you have to remember that England was a Protestant country that nonetheless felt threatened by the possibility that France, Spain, or one of their own monarchs might restore Catholicism (with consequent massacres of Protestants). So over the top rhetoric aimed at the Pope would be expected. That raises the question: is there something more interesting going on than just anti-Catholic ranting there? I think there is and I’ll start by pointing it out.

Materialist God

The question of whether God is material or not has come up several times. Exploring that would be an excellent paper topic. I just came across an article that appears to be right on point. Here’s the abstract.

In 1668, the octogenarian Hobbes finally affirmed openly a doctrine that was unavoidable given his longstanding embrace of both theism and materialism: God is corporeal. However, this doctrine has generally been downplayed or dismissed by scholars, who have alleged that Hobbes’s corporeal theism is irreconcilable with his more orthodox theological pronouncements or with his fundamental metaphysical principles. This paper defends the coherence of Hobbes’s corporeal God against particularly vigorous criticisms of Douglas Jesseph and others. The aim of the paper is not, however, to situate Hobbes’s deity safely within the boundaries of seventeenth century protestant theology, as defenders of Hobbesian theism have often wanted to do. Rather, the paper places the corporeal God at the metaphysical foundations of Hobbes’s natural philosophy. Despite his early reticence about theological speculation, Hobbes eventually relied on God to provide a continuous, resistance-free source of motion or conatus to a material plenum whose parts would otherwise quickly slow to an infinitesimal crawl. Hobbes’s late theology, while certainly heterodox in content, is not so different in function from that of contemporaries like René Descartes and Henry More, whose religious sincerity is rarely questioned. Hobbes’ corporeal deity deserves a place in the seventeenth century pantheon.Geoffrey Gorham, “The Theological Foundation of Hobbesian Physics: A Defence of Corporeal God”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, (2012), 1–22.

It sounds as though he’s saying that Hobbes did the same thing that Descartes did: he used God to explain how a bodies, understood as geometrical shapes, could move. That would be very surprising (which just means I would be surprised, not that it’s wrong). I also wonder how it amounts to a defense of the coherence of a material God. I guess I have to read the paper! (Our library doesn’t get this journal, but I put a copy of the article on our sakai site.)

As a counterpoint, you might read Douglas Jesseph’s paper “Hobbes’s Atheism.” Jesseph thinks the idea of a material God leads to insoluble problems. He takes Hobbes’s advocacy of this idea to show that he must have been an atheist. Here’s Jesseph.

Although the concept of a material God is not incoherent in itself and may even have an orthodox pedigree, it cannot be consistently combined with other things Hobbes claimed about the Deity. Indeed, when we inquire into the principal features of such a Hobbesian God and His relationship to the world, it becomes impossible to take Hobbes’s supposed theology seriously or to think that he ever intended it seriously.Douglas Jesseph, “Hobbes’s Atheism,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 26 (2002), 143.

I haven’t read the paper by Gorham, but I can vouch for the quality and accessibility of the Jesseph paper. It would be a great place to start on questions about a materialist God.

Update on religionAdded April 5

A useful way of checking up on exactly what Hobbes was thinking about religion is to look at his exchanges with Bishop Bramhall. Hobbes and Bramhall had a famous debate on the topic of free will and necessity in which various points of theology and ethics were raised. Bramhall also published a highly critical review of Leviathan that Hobbes published a response to. You can find these in the fourth and fifth volumes of Hobbes’s English Works.

For instance, in An Answer to Bishop Bramhall (volume 4), the exchanges on pages 289–95 show how Hobbes defended some of his ideas from chapter 12. And there’s a defense of his materialist account of God on pp. 295f. (Hobbes’s defense is more a matter of offense: he accused Bramhall of inconsistency when he asserted both that God was everywhere and that God had no parts. Hobbes thought both assertions can’t be true because “everywhere” has parts! There’s the part that is me and the part that is my desk, and so on.)

Hobbes vs. Aristotle

It’s evident that Hobbes set out to attack the philosophical tradition following Aristotle root and branch. But there are some points, particularly concerning ethics, where Hobbes was willing to concede that Aristotle said some things that are worthwhile. Oddly enough, it’s really hard for present day scholars to accept this. For instance, here’s Jean Hampton, the author of a very good book on Hobbes.

In Chapter XI of De Homine, when he [Hobbes] speaks of the profusion of desires that continue throughout one’s lifetime, he contends, in opposition to Aristotle, that “one cannot speak of something as being simply good, since whatsoever is good, is good for someone or other. … Therefore good is said to be relative to person, place, and time.”Jean Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 29.

But let’s have a look at the actual passage:

The common name for all things that are desired, insofar as they are desired, is good; and for all things we shun, evil. Therefore Aristotle hath well defined good as that which all men desire. But, since different men desire and shun different things, there must needs be many things that are good to some and evil to others; so that which is good to us is evil to our enemies. … There can be a common good, and it can rightly be said of something, it is commonly a good, that is, useful to many, or good for the state. At times, one can also talk of a good for everyone, like health: but this way of speaking is relative; therefore one cannot speak of something as being simply good, since whatsoever is good, is good for someone or other.Hobbes, De Homine XI.4, available in translation in Man and Citizen, ed. B. Gert, (Hackett Publishing, 1991).

And we get something similar in Leviathan.

Aristotle, and other heathen philosophers define good and evil, by the appetite of men; and well enough, as long as we consider them governed every one by his own law: For in the condition of men that have no other law but their own appetites, there can be no general rule of good, and evil actions. But in a commonwealth this measure is false: not the appetite of private men, but the law, which is the will and appetite of the state is the measure.Hobbes, Leviathan, 46.32.

What he said was that Aristotle defined ‘good’ and ‘evil’ well. And he said it twice! It’s not a crazy way of reading Aristotle either. At the beginning of his primary work on ethics Aristotle identifies “the chief good” as what “we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this).”Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1.2. That sounds pretty much like what Hobbes said.

I think it’s fair to say the our contemporaries do not view this as Aristotle’s central claim about ethics. We think Aristotle’s theory of ethics turns on the idea that there is a specific function for human beings, such that a good person is one who performs well at this function.See Nicomachean Ethics, 1.7. That is a more objective account: our function is set independently of what we want, either individually or in general.

I’m not saying who is right about Aristotle. I’m just saying that Hobbes isn’t obviously wrong. And even if he is wrong about what Aristotle thought, it’s noteworthy that he thought he agreed with Aristotle on this point.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted February 5, 2013 and updated April 5, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar