Locke on God (1)

Locke on God’s Existence

When primitive Nothing, Something straight begot....Rochester

There are only a very small handful of proofs in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. These include the proof that there are no innate ideas, something like a proof that people are free even if the will is not, and the proof of the existence of God. In fact at one point Locke states that the existence of God is the only thing that is capable of proof. The great bulk of the Essay is concerned with the creation of a theory of mind and knowledge, drawing the consequences of that theory and trying to frame the theory in such a way as to make it plausible. The actual demonstration of the theory comes down to appeals to the reader to examine his own consciousness and the assertion that various basic principles are self-evident.

But the existence of God is the exception in Locke’s scheme. That belief, says Locke, can and should be demonstrated. He has two proofs:

The Witness Proof

Locke believes that there is "witness" (a Roundhead term of art) for the existence of God. That is, we can "discover" this existence by "regular deduction" from "some part of our intuitive knowledge" (p. 528) The Witness Proof proceeds by the following steps:

1) I exist.

2) Nothing cannot have produced me. Therefore something produced me.

3) What produced me must be eternal, since, if it had a beginning, it would have to have been produced by something else.

4) I have powers.

5) Therefore whatever produced me must also have powers, for something produced me and something that does not have powers cannot produce an entity that has powers.

6) I know things.

7) Therefore whatever produced me must also know things, for something produced me and something that does not know things cannot produced an entity that knows things.

8) This eternal thing is also all knowing and all powerful.

9) This eternal, all knowing and all powerful thing is what we please to call "God."

Every step of Locke’s "proof" is unjustifiable as are the transitions between the steps. In order:

(1) Locke does not trouble to relive Descartes’ agonies in trying to prove that he exists. He accepts the conclusion, calls it obvious and engages in a little clever Oxford wordplay to the effect that someone who doubts whether he exists must be nothing so Locke cannot even be addressing him since you can’t talk to nothing. The problems with Descartes’ proof apply pretty much integrally to Locke’s conclusion, specifically that "existence" and "I" in the assertion that I exist are pretty much meaningless terms (This is despite the fact that Locke more or less refrains from the additional conclusion that I am a spiritual substance). There is nothing much that one can say to someone who roundly proclaims some tenet and opines that anyone who doubts him must be some sort of nitwit. I could also say that I know that George Bush never told a lie and that anyone who doubts that must be some sort of nitwit. We may observe, that if Locke is going to take that attitude, then he really doesn’t need to have written his book at all or at least he could have recast what claims to be philosophy into the more appropriate form of a Sunday sermon. And, of course, the real doubts about "I exist" are not whether it is true or not, but whether "exist" in this assertion is in any way meaningful. (Mr. Locke, I doubt not that I exist; rather I doubt whether thou speakest not gibberish.)

If you think about it, there is a proof in this paragraph, a kind of Through the Looking Glass version of the Cartesian Cogito: "He that can doubt whether he be anything or no, I speak not to; no more than I would argue with pure nothing, or endeavour to convince nonentity that it was something." Just as, if I think, therefore I exist, so if I don’t exist I am nothing and therefore Locke can’t be talking to me. Superb dialectician that he is, Locke of course speaks truth, but not a proof that I exist. For if I didn’t exist Locke may not be talking to me but only dreaming he is talking to me, which is good enough.

(2) Why does anything have to have produced me? It is not a logical contradiction or a violation of the observed regularities of nature to conceive that at one moment I was not and the next moment I was and nothing intervened to produce me (which does not mean, as Locke states, that nothing is a something that produced me; it simply means I did not need to be produced in order to start existing). This is not a factual issue. Something may in fact (and despite the extreme vagueness as to what this may mean) have caused me to exist (and it is part of the research imperative of science to find an explanation for my existence), but in fact there may have been no cause for the existence of the sum of matter and energy in the universe. Actually this argument is a sort of intellectual fraud more worthy of the schoolmen (ably represented in our time by that master fraud, Plantinga) than the sober Locke. It consists in taking a simple negative sentence as equivalent to a proposition about something he calls "nothing." In this case Locke converts "It is not the case that something produced me," into "Nothing produced me," and concludes his proof by pointing out that nothing can’t produce anything or else it wouldn’t be nothing, ergal (as Holofernes would say) something produced me. I can as easily prove that I am a chair. For, by the same reasoning, "I wasn’t produced as a chair" is equivalent to "Nothing produced me as a chair." But nothing can’t produce me as a chair or else it wouldn’t be nothing. So I’m a chair. Locke should have dipped into that notorious papist, Anselm, when he concocted this proof.  For Anselm does make the appropriate distinctions in his proof of creation ex nihilo in the Monologion (p. 21).

(3) This step is based on the same reasoning as (2), for, if what produced me had a beginning, then something else must have produced it and so on. So either there is an infinite regress of producers, or else one of these producers, presumably the one that produced me, did not have a producer and so it did not have a beginning. This is the same as saying it is eternal. In this passage Locke does not trouble to say why anything is wrong with an infinite regress of producers and so we may add the objection, in addition to what we observed regarding (2) above, that there may have been an infinite regress of producers. I can’t see back that far. (By the way, the Big Bang was a factual occurrence; that it happened says nothing about whether there was one producer or an infinite regress of producers or no producer before it that produced it.) It is interesting that Locke’s mentor Descartes put out some fairly convincing arguments against the infinite regress aspect of the causal argument for the existence of God in his response to Caterus from the Meditations (although he appears to have retracted these objections in Les Principes de la philosophie and promoted his own version of a causal argument). Descartes says two things. First an infinite regress of causes may be inconceivable, but that does not mean that it doesn’t obtain (pp. 347-348). There are other things that I can’t conceive that probably also obtain such as, for example, an infinite division of a material substance. Secondly, it is inappropriate to speak of a chain of causes of my existence as long as there is no proof of even an immediate cause of my existence (p. 349). Descartes observes that it is entirely conceivable that I am the cause of myself, which seems to amount to saying that it is not contradictory to say that there is no cause of my existence.

(4) If I can’t even prove that I exist, how do I know that I have powers?

(5) Descartes also dabbles his toes in this argument and in both cases I would be willing to admit that I may not understand what they are saying because the idea that the producer of something must have all the qualities of what it produces just seems so patently untrue. The maker of a rifle does not have the ability to penetrate steel, nor does its inventor. Rembrandt is not oily and slimy like his Bathsheba nor does he look like a woman. It is worth making a few basic distinctions, but none of them do anything to leaven this basic intuition. First, there would be a difference between producing something from nothing and producing something from matter, such as the rifle maker does when he takes steel and wood and produces the finished product. There could also be a difference between making something from a blueprint and making it without any prior idea of what the product will be (what the French call "bricolage"). In other words, there is a difference between saying that the producer needs the actual power of what he produces and that he just needs to have some idea or concept of that power. I can’t see that this is what Locke means, because the consequence would be not that God is all powerful but just that he has lots of concepts. In a slightly different vein, Locke doesn’t say whether he means that the producer must have just some of the power of what he produces or more power than what he produces. He can’t ask this reader for help because I don’t see why the producer needs any of the power of what he produces.

(6) Same as (4)

(7) Same as (5). Locke amplifies this stage of the argument by asserting that bare matter without sense or the ability to know things cannot (He calls the possibility "repugnant") produce a sentient, knowing entity. But once again, however repugnant that possibility may be to Locke, there is no logical contradiction in the assertion that a sentient, knowing entity could arise from non-sentient matter. Nor does the appearance of a sentient knowing being that was not created by a sentient producer violate any laws of nature. This is sufficient to refute Locke’s argument. It is, however, interesting to observe that, as long as the appearance of sentient entities from non-sentient matter is not logically contradictory, then it becomes a matter for scientific research to provide a picture of how sentient entities arose and how to fit this event into the regularities and patterns, i.e. the laws of nature, that we know. Evidence for the evolutionary development of sensory neurons and research into the biochemical basis of that development provides such a picture. Locke could argue that the emergence of this picture may explain the emergence of sentient, knowing material entities, but not the existence of a sentient, knowing immaterial entity or the soul, an existence which, on other grounds he is inclined to endorse. Notwithstanding, there is still no logical contradiction in the assertion that a sentient knowing soul could have begun existence without a producer. Locke’s assumption that matter is a "bare inactive lump" (p. 531) is in fact an empirical assumption and subject to the sort of revision that may be motivated by new observations or better theories such as the physics of matter and energy.

It remains only to be observed that Locke’s comments about the materialists assume that (2) is true, which it is not.

(8) It does not follow from (5) and (7) that what produces me is all knowing or all powerful. It merely follows that what produces me is knowing or powerful. Or perhaps, on a somewhat stronger reading of what Locke means, it may follow that what produces me is more knowing or more powerful than I am. So the existence of a Xtian all knowing all powerful God does not follow from (5) and (7).

(9) Locke observes, "…whether any one will please to call ‘God’ " this "eternal, most powerful and most knowing Being…matters not." (p.529) Since the only Being in my experience that comes close to being eternal most powerful and most knowing is Tanya Danielle, it pleases in what follows to call this being "Tanya."

The Witness Proof is suspiciously similar to Aquinas’ First and Second ways. But Locke chooses the term "produce" rather than Aquinas’ "change" or "cause" so I will treat it as if it were a separate proof.

Locke violates Russell’s principle that if you know what you want to prove before you prove it, you are most likely going to produce a dimwit proof. Eternal, all powerful and all knowing just happen to be the contents of the Xtian definition of Tanya. I don’t see why you can’t choose some other among my qualities. For example, since I am brown, Tanya must be all brown. I am a poor chess player (I know the rules and that’s just about it). Does this mean that Tanya is the worst (all bad) chess player or the best (all good) or simply the chessiest (all chess) chess player? It would probably take another Vatican Council for the ultimate truth on this question. So the Witness proof is petty far up on the dimwit scale; it is ultimately witless.

The Ciceronian Proof

The Ciceronian step consists in a single step and a quote from Cicero.

1) Anyone who says there is no God is arrogant.

I guess I’m just one arrogant bastard.

There is an open question as to what exactly Locke meant by the term "God." One would think that, having gone to all the trouble to prove that this God exists, he would have a fairly clear and distinct idea as to what God was. But Locke’s ideas on the subject were not clear at all.

Paragraph 16 of Locke’s case against innate principles points up some of the problems. The vulgar and, by his light, fallacious concept of God is anthropomorphic. "How many, even amongst us, will be found, upon inquiry, to fancy him (viz. God) in the shape of a man, sitting in heaven; and to have many other absurd and unfit conceptions of him!" (p,49) And, "…though we find few amongst us who profess themselves anthropomorphites…yet, I believe, he that will make it his business may find, amongst the ignorant and uninstructed Christians, many of that opinion." (p. 50) The "anthropomorphite" idea of God is bad. The correct idea of God does need to include "…unity, infinity and eternity…" (p. 48), but not sitting. This is rather convenient, for, although the only thing Locke actually proved to exist in his proof of the existence of God is something that created him (i.e. Locke), though, as we saw, he didn't even prove that, he does allow that the thing that created him should also have unity, infinity and eternity at least.

Locke also feels that this thing should be characterized as good, the infelicities of which admission we will consider presently. For the moment Locke’s dismissal of the throne sitting God sounds like a refreshing lesson from Spinoza or Leveller theology. The discussion of the substantiality of God appears to confirm this tendency. "For it is infinity which, joined to our ideas of existence, power, knowledge, &c., makes that complex idea whereby we represent to ourselves, the best we can, the Supreme Being." (p. 224)

Yet much of the rest of what Locke has to say about God sounds pretty anthropomorphic. For example, in the same Book II Chapter XXIII he calls God both wise (par. 34) and happy (par. 35) And in Book III Chapter VI he reiterates that God is both wise and happy (which is apparently the same as either being pleasure loving or having pleasure). Happiness and wisdom could be dispositions, states, emotions or something else, but generally we use the terms "happy" and "wise" to characterize people. Yet in his attack on anthropomorphism Locke opines that God cannot be characterized as having "…amours, marriages, copulations, lusts, quarrels…"(p. 48) Lust also could a disposition, state, emotion etc., and it is hard to get involved in a quarrel without having some such emotions. Happiness, goodness and pleasure having are not sufficiently distinguished from emotions like lust and those emotions one has when engaged in a quarrel to give us any idea why some should be anthropomorphic and the others not. There seems to be a kind of moralistic hairsplitting going on here, for, by roundhead principles, or at least one may so surmise, lust and "amours" are bad emotions or behaviors, while pleasure having and happiness are good emotions or behaviors. We could without censure throw in loving on the good side since Xtians are constantly telling us that God is a loving God (This, by the way implies that it is possible that he be an unloving God). But why should anyone be inclined to call bad emotions, dispositions, behaviors etc. anthropomorphic and good emotions, dispositions, behaviors etc. non-anthropomorphic? As with so much in life, we gotta take the bad with the good. Either God is an anthropomorh or he is neither happy nor good nor loving.

The Reasonableness of Christianity and scattered comments through Locke’s Essay point up a good number of other anthropomorphic hijinks. God is a father; he is a son; he feels fear and pain; he walks (on water); he eats and drinks; he gets angry; he takes great pleasure in making Abraham miserable etc. The source of all of these anthropomorphic stories in the Bible does, of course, clarify the dilemma. Without such anthropomorphic characteristics, God was not a Xtian. He appears to have been the God of what is referred to as "natural religion," a kind of vague abstract force that you could believe in without going to church. That was a consequence that, despite a few Spinozistic sallies to the contrary, Locke could not suffer. He earned too good a living toadying to Shaftesbury to risk it all over abstract deism. But add just a drop of anthropomorphism to the God of natural religion and the fellow who hid behind bushes in the Garden spying on Eve and worked some funny business with bread and fish, this God is really just a competitor to Zeus. He did deny Zeus’ existence (though he seemed to think that Baal existed), but, hey, you pays your money and you takes your chances. He’s still an anthropomorph.