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Thomas Reid on Rationalism and Empiricism in the Philosophy of Mind

Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man by Thomas Reid (Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1855; orig. 1785), p.13-15.

There is such proneness in men of genius to invent hypotheses, and in others to acquiesce in them as the utmost which the human faculties can attain in philosophy, that it is of the last consequence to the progress of real knowledge, that men should have a clear and distinct understanding of the nature of hypotheses in philosophy, and of the regard that is due to them. ¶ Although some conjectures may have a considerable degree of probability, yet it is evidently in the nature of conjecture to be uncertain. In every case, the assent ought to be proportioned to the evidence; for to believe firmly what has but a small degree of probability, is a manifest abuse of our understanding. Now, though we may, in many cases, form very probable conjectures concerning the works of men, every conjecture we can form with regard to the works of God has as little probability as the conjectures of a child with regard to the works of a man.

The wisdom of God exceeds that of the wisest man, more than his wisdom exceeds that of a child. If a child were to conjecture how an army is to be formed in the day of battle; how a city is to be fortified, or a state governed; what chance has he to guess right? As little chance has the wisest man when he pretends to conjecture how the planets move in their courses, how the sea ebbs and flows, and how our minds act upon our bodies.

If a thousand of the greatest wits that ever the world produced, were, without any previous knowledge in anatomy, to sit down and contrive how, and by what internal organs, the various functions of the human body are carried on; how the blood is made to circulate, and the limbs to move, they would not in a thousand years hit upon any thing like the truth.

Of all the discoveries that have been made concerning the inward structure of the human body, never one was made by conjecture. Accurate observations of anatomists have brought to light innumerable artifices of nature in the contrivance of this machine of the human body, which we cannot but admire as excellently adapted to their several purposes. But the most sagacious physiologist never dreamed of them till they were discovered. On the other hand, innumerable conjectures, formed in different ages, with regard to the structure of the body, have been confuted by observation, and none ever confirmed.

What we have said of the internal structure of the human body, may be said, with justice, of every other part of the works of God, wherein any real discovery has been made. Such discoveries have always been made by patient observation, by accurate experiments, or by conclusions drawn by strict reasoning from observations and experiments; and such discoveries have always tended to refute, but not to confirm, the theories and hypotheses which ingenious men had invented.

As this is a fact confirmed by the history of philosophy in all past ages, it ought to have taught men long ago to treat with just contempt hypotheses in every branch of philosophy, and to despair of ever advancing real knowledge in that way. The Indian philosopher, being at a loss to know how the earth was supported, invented the hypothesis of a huge elephant; and this elephant he supposed to stand upon the back of a huge tortoise. This hypothesis, however ridiculous it appears to us, might seem very reasonable to other Indians, who knew no more than the inventor of it; and the same will be the fate of all hypotheses invented by men to account for the works of God: They may have a decent and plausible appearance to those who are not more knowing than the inventor; but, when men come to be more enlightened, they will always appear
ridiculous and childish.

This has been the case with regard to hypotheses that have been revered by the most enlightened part of mankind for hundreds of years; and it will always be the case to the end of the world. For, until the wisdom of men bear some proportion to the wisdom of God, their attempts to find out the structure of his works by the force of their wit and genius, will be vain.

The finest productions of human art are immensely short of the meanest works of nature. The nicest artist cannot make a feather, or the leaf of a tree. Human workmanship will never bear a comparison with divine. Conjectures and hypotheses are the invention and the workmanship of men, and must bear proportion to the capacity and skill of the inventor; and therefore will always be very unlike to the works of God, which it is the business of philosophy to discover.

The world has been so long befooled by hypotheses in all parts of philosophy, that it is of the utmost consequence to every man, who would make any progress in real knowledge, to treat them with just contempt, as the reveries of vain and fanciful men, whose pride makes them conceive themselves able to unfold the mysteries of nature by the force of their genius. A learned man, in an epistle to Des Cartes, has the following observation, which very much deserved the attention of that philosopher, and of all that come after him: “When men, sitting in their closet, and consulting only their books, attempt disquisitions into nature, they may indeed tell how they would have made the world, if God had given them that in commission: that is, they may describe chimeras, which correspond with the imbecility of their own minds, no less than the admirable beauty of the universe corresponds with the infinite perfection of its Creator; but without an understanding truly divine, they can never form such an idea to themselves as the Deity had in creating things.”

Let us, therefore, lay down this as a fundamental principle in our inquiries into the structure of the mind and its operations, that no regard is due to the conjectures or hypotheses of philosophers, however ancient, however generally received. Let us accustom ourselves to try every opinion by the touchstone of fact and experience. What can fairly be deduced from facts duly observed, or sufficiently attested, is genuine and pure; it is the voice of God, and no fiction of human imagination.