Tag Archives: Locke

Locke’s proof that God exists

As I mentioned in a previous post, John Locke believed that the existence of God was as certain as a theorem in geometry, and that no rational person who had examined the question of God’s existence could possibly fail to be convinced. Having now finished Locke’s Essay, I’ve finally read the part (Book IV, Chapter X) where he explains why he thinks that and spells out his proof.


Something has always existed.

Locke’s contention is that the existence of God follows logically from the fact that we exist and think. (Cogito sumque. Unlike Descartes, Locke sees these as two facts as equally self-evident and therefore feels no need to derive one from the other.)

  1. Something exists now; if nothing else, each person can be sure that he himself exists.
  2. We intuitively believe that it is impossible for something to “come from” — that is, to be temporally preceded by — nothing.
  3. Therefore, since something exists now, there never was a time when nothing at all existed. Something has always existed.

The third step is a little tricky, because “something has always existed” could be interpreted in two ways. The first interpretation — the one that actually follows from the premises — is that for every point of time in the past, there is at least one thing that existed at that time (not necessarily the same things at every point in time). The second interpretation — the one Locke assumes — is that there is at least one particular thing which has always existed.

Obviously, the argument will end with the conclusion that that thing is God, but until we come to the point where Locke “proves” that, I’ll follow my standard practice of referring to this hypothetical always-existing thing as Q.

Locke’s proof of Q is invalid, based on logical sleight-of-hand — or perhaps that is an unfair term to use, since Locke is clearly sincere. At any rate, he conflates “for all x there exists a y such that…” with “there exists a y such that for all x….” However, in order to evaluate the rest of Locke’s argument, I will take Q as proven and proceed.


Q is all-powerful.

Having established (not really, but let’s humor him) that there is some particular thing which has always existed, Locke goes on to show that this thing is all-powerful.

  1. Q — whatever it is which has always existed — must be the ultimate cause of the existence of all other things. Otherwise, they would have come from nothing, which is absurd.
  2. “What had its being and beginning from another, must also have all that which is in and belongs to its being from another too.”
  3. Therefore, all the properties of all existing things must be present in Q. “Whatsoever is first of all things must necessarily contain in it, and actually have, at least, all the perfections that can ever after exist; nor can it ever give to another any perfection that it hath not either actually in itself, or, at least, in a higher degree.”
  4. Specifically, Q must have every power which is or has been present in anything in the universe. Thus, Q is the most powerful thing in existence.

This line of reasoning seems obviously false, since it is easy to think of things which have properties that their creators did not have. Given a basketball, it would not be valid to conclude that it must have been created by someone who was round, orange, and bouncy. Of course a man’s “creation” of a basketball is not the same sort of thing as God’s creation of something from nothing — but analogy, which is the only tool we have for thinking about something as completely foreign to our experience as creatio ex nihilo, suggests that God/Q need not have any (let alone all) of the properties of his/its creatures.

Later on in his argument, Locke will contradict this idea that all properties of all creatures must be present in the Creator, when he proposes that the material universe was created by an immaterial God.


Q thinks.

The next point to establish is that Q is a thinking thing.

  1. Man knows not only that he exists, but that he has knowledge and perception.
  2. It is “as impossible that things wholly void of knowledge, and operating blindly, and without any perception, should produce a knowing being, as it is impossible that a triangle should make itself three angles bigger than two right ones. For it is as repugnant to the idea of senseless matter, that it should put into itself sense, perception, and knowledge, as it is repugnant to the idea of a triangle, that it should put into itself greater angles than two right ones.”
  3. Therefore, Q has knowledge — is, in fact, “most knowing.”
  4. Q is thus “an eternal, most powerful, and most knowing Being; which whether any one will please to call God, it matters not.” Locke does call it God.

Locke does not spell out the jump from “not wholly void of knowledge” to “most knowing,” but I suppose he is following the logic of points 5 and 6 above — that all properties of all creatures must exist to an equal or greater degree in the Creator, and that therefore God must possess all possible knowledge as well as all possible power.


Q is not material.

  1. God, being a mind, is not material. No particle of matter can think, and it is absurd to think that a thinking thing could be built up of unthinking components.
  2. Nor need matter be co-eternal with God. Although creation out of nothing seems absurd, we must admit that our own minds were created from nothing (or else that each of us has  “always been a thinking thing from eternity; the absurdity whereof I need not confute, till I meet with one who is so void of understanding as to own it”). And if mind can be created from nothing, why not matter also?

This is completely inconsistent with what Locke has said about mind and about power. If the creature is mental in nature, the creator must necessarily be mental in nature as well. If the creature has a particular power, the creator must necessarily have that power as well. But if the creature is material, it is for some reason not necessary that the creator be material as well.


Did I miss something?

I have to say I’m disappointed with the abysmal quality of this “proof.” I admire Locke very much as a thinker and had been expecting something compelling — had half-expected him to convert me. Instead I get this.

There’s nothing strange about Locke being wrong, of course; I expected him to be wrong. What I didn’t expect was for so intelligent and careful a thinker as John Locke to be so obviously wrong, to serve up such sloppy non sequiturs — which makes me think that I’ve likely misunderstood him or overlooked some important point. Locke was very far from being an idiot, so if I think he wrote something idiotic maybe I’m the one with the problem.

I’ll go through his argument a few more times and see if I can salvage it. In the meantime, I welcome comments from anyone who can defend the validity of Locke’s reasoning.


Filed under God

Locke on the obviousness of God’s existence

I’ve been reading Locke and found this in his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding.

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.

This little passage stopped me in my tracks. How to process such an outlandish claim? In the portion of the Essay leading up to this passage, Locke has established himself as an honest and fastidious critic of received opinions — scrupulous almost to a fault, almost to the point of tedious nitpicking — and then he comes out with this!


Could it be that Locke didn’t really believe what he wrote here, that he included this conspicuous but insincere nod to orthodoxy merely for purposes of self-protection? That seems rather out of character for Locke, but the possibility cannot be ruled out. His belief in God was clearly sincere (the rest of his oeuvre puts this beyond dispute), but he may have deliberately exaggerated his level of certainty. I’ve known many religious people to do that, including my own past self. Locke lived in intolerant times, perhaps even more intolerant than our own, and perhaps the generally unorthodox character of his thought made it advisable for him to make it clear that absolutely never no way not in a million years could he ever be considered an atheist.

Why go so far, though? People don’t normally use such comically extreme wording when they’re merely bowing to goodthink. Have you ever heard anyone compare one of our contemporary shibboleths of intellectual respectability (evolution, global warming, the Holocaust, racial and gender equality, etc.) to a theorem in geometry? The ringleaders of the American Revolution did famously call human equality “self-evident,” and Richard Dawkins did coin the unfortunate word “theorum” in order to express just how certainly true Darwinian theory is, but these are just figures of speech. If pressed on the point, I’m sure (well, fairly sure) that Jefferson, who was both an extremely intelligent man and a slave-owner, would have conceded that human equality is not quite self-evident the way Euclid is self-evident. Locke, on the other hand, spells out exactly what he means — and does so, moreover, in a context (an Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, not a political manifesto) in which casual exaggeration would have been most out of place.


I can only conclude that Locke meant what he wrote — that it was his considered opinion, after making a meticulous study of the nature and grounds of human understanding, that all atheists are either (a) people who have never really applied their thoughts to the question of God’s existence or (b) irrational the way someone who denies basic mathematical truths is irrational.

I’m in the first category, at least when it comes to “God” as most theologians understand that term. As I continue my project of examining various arguments for God’s existence, I hope to uncover just what it is that Locke found so convincing. (I’m still working on the next in the series. These arguments are so interconnected with every other area of philosophy that evaluating them always turns out to be more complicated than it looks. As the Salman Rushdie character says, “To understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.”)


Filed under God, Philosophy