John Locke’s argument for God’s existence

“We are capable of knowing certainly that there is a God. Though God has given us no innate ideas of himself” (Book IV, X.1)

I’ve been reading into Locke’s Natural Law, as I’m scheduled to write an essay on the role an appeal to God and/or revelation plays in Locke’s contractarian doctrine of the commonwealth. It is clear that he is a Natural Law theorist, and his appeal to God is significant. Also significant, however, is the security of this foundation for practical reason. In what follows I will explore Locke’s argument for God’s existence as it appears in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in books I and IV. Even though the essay I will be writing will be an essay on his Second Treatise concerning Civil Government I think it is worth exploring the background of his Natural Law theory presented there by exploring how, or whether, Locke thinks we can come to know that God exists, which is a correlate of knowing about the Natural Law.

Locke is clearly and famously opposed to the idea of innate ideas, and so denies that the notion of God is innate, although he admits readily that “if there were any ideas to be found imprinted on the minds of men, we have reason to expect it should be the notion of his Maker, as a mark God set on his own workmanship, to mind man of his dependence and duty; and that herein should appear the first instances of human knowledge” (Essay, Book I.13). He attempts to demonstrate this by pointing out that many people are “Anthropomorphites” by which he means that people “fancy him [God] in the shape of a man sitting in heaven.” Locke argues; “talk but with country people, almost of any age, or young people almost of any condition, and you shall find that, though the name of God be frequently in their mouths, yet the notions they apply this name to are so odd, low, and pitiful, that nobody can imagine they were taught by a rational man.” Locke thinks that this demonstrates satisfactorily that God does not grant man any innate idea of himself, but then quickly argues that this does nothing to impugn God or to imply that he has not acted in maximal wisdom.

“I think it a very good argument to say,—the infinitely wise God hath made it so; and therefore it is best. But it seems to me a little too much confidence of our own wisdom to say,—“I think it best; and therefore God hath made it so.””

Locke thus insists: “Nor do I see how it derogates more from the goodness of God, that he has given us minds unfurnished with these ideas of himself, than that he hath sent us into the world with bodies unclothed“.  He assures us, however, that “he hath furnished man with those faculties which will serve for the sufficient discovery of all things requisite to the end of such a being; and I doubt not but to show, that a man, by the right use of his natural abilities, may, without any innate principles, attain a knowledge of a God, and other things that concern him” (Book I, III.12). In fact, surprisingly, Locke thinks that the existence of God is (or at least is nearly) an analytic truth, for he says:

“It is as certain that there is a God,as that the opposite angles made by the intersection of two straight lines are equal. There was never any rational creature that set himself sincerely to examine the truth of these propositions that could fail to assent to them; though yet it be past doubt that there are many men, who, having not applied their thoughts that way, are ignorant both of the one and the other.” (Book I, III.17) 

However, “though this be the most obvious truth that reason discovers, and though its evidence be (if I mistake not) equal to mathematical certainty: yet it requires thought and attention” (Book IV, X.1). How does Locke propose to show this?

Here I will try to reproduce, and comment briefly upon, Locke’s argument for the existence of God, which he seems to think so evident as to not require elaboration. The first step, curiously, looks characteristically cartesian:

To show, therefore, that we are capable of knowing, i.e. being certain that there is a God, and how we may come by this certainty, I think we need go no further than ourselves, and that undoubted knowledge we have of our own existence. 2. For man knows that he himself exists. I think it is beyond question, that man has a clear idea of his own being; he knows certainly he exists, and that he is something.

He mocks the skeptic, anticipating pretentious objections; “If any one pretends to be so sceptical as to deny his own existence, (for really to doubt of it is manifestly impossible,) let him for me enjoy his beloved happiness of being nothing, until hunger or some other pain convince him of the contrary.” Moving on, he then appeals to the ex nihilo nihil fit: “He knows also that nothing cannot produce a being; therefore something must have existed from eternity. In the next place, man knows, by an intuitive certainty, that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles.” I will note here that I think this argument is a little bit too slick and quick, since Locke doesn’t address the possibility of an infinite chain of contingent beings, but if we are interpret him charitably he has the same intuitions as his contemporary (and best critic) Leibniz. Locke’s genius perhaps doesn’t approach that of Leibniz, but perhaps we can read Locke as punting towards Leibniz and others like him on such a matter; one way or another, Locke is convinced that, even without stopping to address possible objections, no objections can be raised which are not evidently answered already (or answerable). Locke continues: “If, therefore, we know there is some real being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration, that from eternity there has been something; since what was not from eternity had a beginning; and what had a beginning must be produced by something else.” Clearly this argument is a species of cosmological argument. Notice that here Locke appeals to the idea that anything which has a beginning must be produced by something else. It isn’t clear to me whether Locke really means to advocate a Kalam cosmological argument, or whether he is using ‘begin’ in a more sophisticated analogous sense, but either way he is clearly appealing to one, or multiple and muddled, cosmological argument(s).

Locke wants to move beyond this however, and makes two interesting moves as he continues from here. In the first move, he tries to prove that God must be a knowing thing, and in the second move he tries to argue that one can easily get to all of the superlative attributes (ambitious even for the most optimistic philosopher advocating a Natural Theology). The first move goes like this: “what had its being and beginning from another, must also have all that which is in and belongs to its being from another too.” This is essentially an appeal to the principle of Causal Adequacy, to which Descartes also memorably appeals in the meditations (in particular, in the third meditation, for his ‘trademark’ argument). The principle of causal adequacy states that no effect can be greater than its cause, or, more pedantically, that no effect can be greater in kind than its effect. The relevance of saying that all of that which is in a contingent being must come from another is revealed in the way Locke continues: “there was a time, then, when there was no knowing being, and when knowledge began to be; or else there has been also a knowing being from eternity. If it be said, there was a time when no being had any knowledge, when that eternal being was void of all understanding; I reply, that then it was impossible there should ever have been any knowledge.” The move here is extremely interesting and relevant: Locke is arguing in essence that if God does not exist, then knowledge is impossible, but knowledge is possible, and therefore God evidently exists. The Atheist, Locke thinks, will be digging herself into a hole if she denies that God exists, since she must, according to Locke, be committed then to not knowing anything (which Locke thinks will follow by entailment given the principle of causal adequacy). Locke thus ridicules the Atheist: “If, nevertheless, anyone should be found so senselessly arrogant, as to suppose man alone knowing and wise, but yet the product of mere ignorance and chance; and that all the rest of the universe acted only by that blind haphazard; I shall leave with him that very rational and emphatical rebuke of Tully (I. ii. De Leg.), to be considered at his leisure: “What can be more sillily arrogant and misbecoming, than for a man to think that he has a mind and understanding in him, but yet in all the universe beside there is no such thing? Or that those things, which with the utmost stretch of his reason he can scarce comprehend, should be moved and managed without any reason at all?”” Thus he rested his case for this step.

“We have then got one step further; and we are certain now that there is not only some being, but some knowing, intelligent being in the world.”

Moreover, “that eternal Being must be most powerful” – and this is because no effect can exceed it’s cause, and thus there is nothing which exists whose power exceeds it’s first cause, and thus God is ‘the most powerful’. Notice that this doesn’t quite get one to omnipotence, or doesn’t seem to, but merely gets one to the notion that God is the most powerful extant thing.

Locke concludes: “thus, from the consideration of ourselves, and what we infallibly find in our own constitutions, our reason leads us to the knowledge of this certain and evident truth,—That there is an eternal, most powerful, and most knowing Being; which whether any one will please to call God, it matters not. The thing is evident; and from this idea duly considered, will easily be deduced all those other attributes, which we ought to ascribe to this eternal Being.” Locke doesn’t plug up the gaps in the argument, or give any obvious (to me) indication of how he intends this should be done, but one gets the basic thrust.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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2 Responses to John Locke’s argument for God’s existence

  1. Peter M Irwin says:

    John Locke died 155 years before publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in 1859. Absent an understanding of evolution, arguments for an anthropomorphic God as Creator of our being seem quaint. We are each a pile of transiently interconnected atoms. What absurd hubris to presume the truth of any imagined source of our being than that which we can establish by observations and ineluctable inferences. Facts are very high likelihood probabilities, not disputed conjectures with no observational support.

    • Hello Peter M Irwin,

      As you may have gathered by now, I do not run this blog any longer. However, I still receive the occasional email about approving a comment. Your comment strikes me as worthy of some kind of response, so what follows is my response. First, as far as I can tell none of the premises of Locke’s argument can be challenged with either of the two sub-theses of (neo-Darwinian) evolution (those being i) the common ancestry of all living things on/from this planet, and ii) the common means of production of all biological diversity on/from this planet by means of natural selection operating upon undirected mutation), nor can it be challenged from anything which follows from either or both of those theses. It may interest you to know that I am (or certainly used to be) a pretty ardent defender of evolution, as well as of theism, since I thought (and continue to think) that they are both supported with outstanding evidence. However, supposing that Locke’s argument failed for some subtle reason in light of some implication of evolutionary theory, nothing like your conclusion would follow. In fact, it seems all the more hubristic for us to both presume that we are piles of transiently interconnected atoms and that our minds are well enough equipped to find metaphysical truths that we could form a justified true belief that we are piles of transiently interconnected atoms. Whence that assumption if not from sheer hubris? This leads directly into C.S. Lewis’ relatively famous argument from reason (a modern defender of which is Victor Reppert, whose work I might recommend to you if you find yourself interested in that line of reasoning).

      Finally, I cannot let slide your statement that facts are merely high likelihood probabilities. That seems nonsensical, for there is always a fact about high likelihood probabilities themselves. Thus “X has a high likelihood probability” would itself be a statement of high likelihood probability, which itself would be a statement of high likelihood probability, which itself would be a statement of high likelihood probability – and so on, ending in an infinite regress which would render literally everything literally incomprehensible. Facts, my good sir, are simply mind/model-independent truths provided by the world. They are that to which true propositions correspond. Metaphysics and epistemology ought never to be confused.

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