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Of the Personality of the Deity

Contrivance, if established, appears to me to prove everything which we wish to prove. Amongst other things, it proves the personality of the Deity, as distinguished from what is sometimes called nature, sometimes called a principle: which terms, in the mouths of those who use them philosophically, seem to be intended to admit and to express an efficacy, but to exclude and to deny a personal agent. Now that which can contrive, which can design, must be a person. These capacities constitute personality, for they imply consciousness and thought. They require that which can perceive an end or purpose; as well as the power of providing means, and of directing them to their end120. The require a centre in which perceptions unite, and from which volitions flow; which is mind. The acts of a mind prove the existence of a mind; and in whatever a mind resides, is a person. The seat of intellect is a person. We have no authority to limit the properties of mind to any particular corporeal form, or to any particular circumscription of space. These properties subsist in created nature under a great variety of sensible forms. Also every animated being has its sensorium; that is, a certain portion of space, within which perception and volition are exerted. This sphere may be enlarged to an indefinite extent; may comprehend the universe; and, being so imagined, may serve to furnish us with as good a notion as we are capable of forming, of the immensity of the Divine Nature, i.e. of a Being, infinite, as well in essence as in power, yet nevertheless a person.

“No man hath seen God at any time.” And this, I believe, makes the great difficulty. Now it is a difficulty which chiefly arises from our not duly estimating the state of our faculties. The Deity, it is true, is the object of none of our senses: but reflect what limited capacities animal senses are. Many animals seem to have but one sense, or perhaps two at the most; touch and taste. Ought such an animal to conclude against the existence of odors, sounds, and colors? To another species is given the sense of smelling. This is an advance in the knowledge of the powers and properties of nature: but, if this favored animal should infer from its superiority over the class last described, that it perceived everything which was perceptible in nature, it is known to us, though perhaps not suspected by the animal itself, that it proceeded upon a false and presumptuous estimate of its faculties. To another is added the sense of hearing; which lets in a class of sensations entirely unconceived by the animal before spoken of; not only distinct, but remote from any which it had ever experienced, and greatly superior to them. Yet this last animal has no more ground for believing that its senses comprehend all things, and all properties of things which exist, than might have been claimed by the tribes of animal beneath it; for we know that it is still possible to possess another sense, that of sight, which shall disclose to the percipient a new world. This fifth sense makes the animal what the human animal is: but to infer, that possibility stops here; that either this fifth sense is the last sense, or that the five comprehend all existence, is just as unwarrantable a conclusion, as that which might have been made by any of the different species which possessed fewer, or even by that, if such there be, which possessed only one. The conclusion of the one-sense animal, and the conclusion of the five-sense animal, stand upon the same authority. There may be more and other senses than those which we have. There may be senses suited to the perception of the powers, properties, and substance of spirits. These may belong to higher orders of rational agents: for there is not the smallest reason for supposing that we are the highest, or that the scale of creation stops with us.

The great energies of nature are known to us only by their effects. The substances which produce them, are as much concealed from our senses as the divine essence itself. Gravitation, though constantly present, though constantly exerting its influence, though everywhere around us, near us, and within us; though diffused throughout all space, and penetrating the texture of all bodies with which we are acquainted, depends, if upon a fluid, upon a fluid which, though both powerful and universal in its operation, is no object of sense to us; if upon any other kind of substance or action, upon a substance and action from which we receive no distinguishable impressions. Is it then to be wondered at, that it should, in some measure, be the same with the Divine Nature?

Of this, however, we are certain, that whatever the Deity be, neither the universe, nor any part of it which we see, can be He. The universe itself is merely a collective name: its parts are all which are real; or which are things. Now inert matter is out of the question and organized substances include marks of contrivance. But whatever includes marks of contrivance, whatever, in its constitution, testifies design, necessarily carries us to something beyond itself, to some other being, to a designer prior to, and out of itself. No animal, for instance, can have contrived its own limbs and senses; can have been the author to itself of the design with which they were constructed. That supposition involves all the absurdity of self-creation, i.e. of acting without existing. Nothing can be God, which is ordered by a wisdom and a will which itself is void of, which is indebted for any of its properties to contrivance ab extra. The not having that in his nature which requires the exertion of another prior being (which property is sometimes called self-sufficiency, and sometimes self-comprehension,) appertains to the Deity, as his essential distinction, and removes his nature from that of all things which we see. Which consideration contains the answer to a question that has sometimes been asked, namely: Why, since something or other must have existed from eternity, may not the present universe be that something? The contrivance perceived in it proves that to be impossible. Nothing contrived can, in a strict and proper sense, be eternal, forasmuch as the contriver must have existed before the contrivance.

Wherever we see marks of contrivance, we are led for its cause to an intelligent author. And this transition of the understanding is founded upon uniform experience. We see intelligence constantly contriving; that is, we see intelligence constantly producing effects, marked and distinguished by certain properties; not certain particular properties, but by a kind and class of properties, such as relation to an end, relation of parts to one another, and to a common purpose. We see, wherever we are witnesses to the actual formation of things, nothing except intelligence producing effects so marked and distinguished. Furnished with this experience, we view the productions of nature. We observe them also marked and distinguished in the same manner. We wish to account for their origin. Our experience suggests a cause perfectly adequate to this account. No experience suggests a cause perfectly adequate to this account. No experience, no single instance or example, can be offered in favor of any other. In this cause, therefore, we ought to rest; in this cause the common sense of mankind has, in fact, rested, because it agrees with that which in all cases is the foundation of knowledge,—the undeviating course of their experience. The reasoning is the same as that by which we conclude any ancient appearances to have been the effects of volcanoes or inundations, namely, because they resemble the effects which fire and water produce before our eyes; and because we have never known these effects to result from any other operation. And this resemblance may subsist in so many circumstances, as not to leave us under the smallest doubt in forming our opinion. Men are not deceived by this reasoning: for whenever it happens, as it sometimes does happen, that the truth comes to be known by direct information, it turns out to be what was expected. In like manner, and upon the same foundation (which in truth is that of experience) we conclude that the works of nature proceeded from intelligence and design, because, in the properties of relation to a purpose, subserviency to a use, they resemble what intelligence and design are constantly producing, and what nothing except intelligence and design ever produce at all. Of every argument, which would raise a question as to the safety of this reasoning, it may be observed, that if such argument be listened to, it leads to the inference, not only that the present order of nature is insufficient to prove the existence of an intelligent Creator, but that no imaginable order would be sufficient to prove it; that no contrivance, were it ever so mechanical, ever so precise, ever so clear, ever so perfectly like those which we ourselves employ, would support this conclusion. A doctrine to which, I conceive, no sound mind can assent.


120Priestley’s Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, p. 153, ed. 2.

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