It was of John Locke's philosophy that Bertrand Russell famously wrote: No one has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self- consistent. Locke aimed at credibility, and achieved it at the expense of consistency.
Nowhere is Locke's empiricism more inconsistent than in his ideas about God. According to Locke, the only knowledge we can have with any certainty is the knowledge of our own existence; and the knowledge of the existence of God.
This second assertion is at odds with the whole push and thrust of his empiricism, however. The Essay itself provides the arguments and methods to refute this assertion. The Essay exists in a state of tension between asserting certain knowledge of the existence of God, and providing arguments to disprove that assertion. Book 4 of the Essay may with justice be regarded as a classic example of the mess thinkers get into when they try to reconcile reason with the unreasonable.
Let's first look at what Locke asserts about our knowledge of God, and then look at how The Essay Concerning Human Understanding provides the arguments with which to refute the existence of God.
Part 1: The Assertion
A few words about knowledge
Before looking at how we have knowledge of God, a few words about knowledge. According to Locke, we have three types of knowledge:
Intuitive knowledge, which is the perception of the direct and immediate agreement or disagreement of two ideas. Our knowledge of ourselves is intuitive. This is the highest and most certain knowledge possible.
Demonstrative knowledge, which arises as a result of the agreement or disagreement of two ideas only with the help of (a series of) intervening ideas. Reasoning is demonstrative knowledge. Our knowledge of God is demonstrative.
Sensitive knowledge, which is knowledge of the world gained through (the interaction of mind with) sense perception. Our knowledge of the universe is sensitive.
Now, according to Locke, knowledge of God can be arrived at in two ways.
Knowing God: Demonstrative knowledge and revelation
The first is through the operation of demonstrative knowledge. Here is his chain of reasoning:
Ø we exist, we are something (we know this through intuitive knowledge)
Ø the universe exists, it is something (we know this through sensitive knowledge- that is, knowledge gained through the senses)
Ø nothing cannot produce something
Ø therefore there must be something prior to us, prior to the universe in order to account for our existence
Ø this prior something, which we call 'God', and who gives rise to the universe, must be a thinking being over, above, and beyond the universe, as it is impossible for a non-thinking being to produce thinking beings
Ø God is not a material being, because matter is made up of non-thinking particles
The second is through the operation of revelation. Locke distinguishes between two kinds of revelation:
Original revelation, which is the first impression made immediately by God on the mind of man;
Traditional revelation, which is the impressions delivered over to other men by words (presumably in texts) sanctified by common usage and tradition as containing accounts or reports of original revelation.
Of these two modes of knowing God - demonstrative knowledge and revelation -, Locke is keen to stress that demonstrative knowledge is superior. He warns that where revelation and demonstrative knowledge conflict, it is the latter that carries more weight, for reasons which will become clear later.
Now let's look at how the Essay provides methods and arguments for refuting certain knowledge of God. First, we deal with knowledge of God gained through
Refuting Original Revelation
There are several ways in which Locke refutes his own assertion that certain knowledge of God can be gained through revelation. First, original revelation, it has to be said, is never directly refuted by anything in the Essay. This notwithstanding, however, it is never made entirely clear exactly how God reveals himself to the mind, and how the mind knows beyond a doubt that this revelation is from God and not from the left hemisphere of the brain, for example. The Essay is always very careful to describe the mechanics of thought by delineating the boundaries of what (possibly) happens and what does not (possibly) happen. Here, with regards the mechanics of original revelation, the Essay is uncharacteristically vague, which vagueness speaks volumes.
What Locke does say, however, is that even revelation is subordinate to reason, that revelation can never be as strong as intuitive knowledge or demonstrative knowledge, and that where intuitive knowledge or demonstrative knowledge contradicts revelation, the contradiction, not the revelation must be taken as truth:
Nothing that is contrary to and inconsistent with the clear, the self-evident dictates of reason, has a right to be urged or assented to as a matter of faith, wherein reason hath nothing to do 4.18.10
In addition to this general and uncharacteristic vagueness, what is interesting about the inclusion of original revelation as a source of knowledge of God is the way that it lies completely outside Locke's scheme. Locke's epistemology is systematic, which is to say every piece of it has a necessary place in the overall design; it is entirely consistent - except in this one matter. Original revelation lies outside the system and does not of necessity fit into it. It is an added extra, a characteristic which can be seen again and again even at sentence level. Here are some examples:
No existence of anything without us [but only of God], can certainly be known further than our senses inform us. 4.11.13
But though we have those ideas in our minds, and know we have them there, the having ideas of spirits does not make us know that any such things do exist without us, or that there are any finite spirits or any other spiritual being, [but the eternal God]. 4.11.12
Remove the parts in square brackets, and the import of the rest of the sentence remains completely unaffected.
Refuting Traditional Revelation
Traditional revelation is much more clearly refuted in the Essay, and in several ways. First, Locke stresses that it is a principle that the further the report is from the original utterance, the more it is corrupted: the oldest reports and texts are therefore the least corrupted. Second, Locke stresses repeatedly in the Essay that one of the chief obstacles to the discovery of the truth among men is their propensity to be swayed by party interests, by personal ambition, by a desire to hoodwink others for personal gain, for pride in debate and the urge to win the argument. This casts doubt on the trustworthiness and veracity of any documented traditional revelation, especially for very old documentation, which has been through many stages of transmission, each stage being influenced by the purposes and aims of the transcriber.
A third refutation of traditional revelation is the general nature of language that Locke discusses in Book 3 of the Essay. There he stresses repeatedly that words are only signs of ideas in the mind, and not signs of things that exist in the world. This means that the texts which convey the revelation are only signs of ideas in the mind, and not signs of an external reality. Therefore, if revelation from God exists, it only exists as an idea in the mind, and has no external source.
Finally, Locke asserts that knowledge of God through revelation can at best only be a doubtful proposition, and warns us never to accept doubtful propositions over against firm knowledge and certainty arrived at through (correct) reasoning based on certain propositions.
This means that the certain knowledge of God provided by demonstrative knowledge is lifted in the scales of importance, while the certain knowledge of God provided by revelation is downgraded. This also means that the arguments against certain knowledge of God's existence are privileged because they are rational. To accept knowledge based on uncertain propositions would be to subvert the principles and foundations of all knowledge, evidence, and assent whatsoever: and there would be left no difference between truth and falsehood, no measures of credible and incredible in the world, if doubtful propositions shall take place before self-evident; and what we certainly know give way to what we may possibly be mistaken in. 4.18.5.
Refuting demonstrative knowledge
We turn now to the way the Essay refutes the assertion of the certain knowledge of God gained through demonstrative knowledge.
There are many instances and arguments which directly refute knowledge of God through the operation of reason, and a full account of these is beyond the scope of this piece. Here we outline three trajectories of refutation taken primarily from Book 4.
First trajectory: the introduction of doubt through verbal truth: the trifling proposition
The first thing to note is that, contrary to what one would expect, Locke does not say that knowledge of God is gained through intuitive knowledge, the kind of knowledge that is the most certain. Demonstrative knowledge is a lower form of knowledge than intuitive knowledge because it allows for the possibility of error at each of the intervening stages. So by placing knowledge of God on this secondary level of certainty, Locke removes it from the realm of the irrefutable, and places it in the realm of the refutable. In Chapter 4.5 he explicitly states: the demonstrated conclusion is not without doubt. This is hugely important.
It is in the chaining of the intermediate ideas, especially in the proposition: "Nothing cannot produce Something" that the doubt and error lie. In Chapter 5 Locke addresses the problem of truth gained through propositions. He draws a distinction between the truth of thought and the truth of words. As soon as a truth is put into words, it becomes distorted, and he warns against confusing the verbal truth of a proposition - the way it appears to make sense on a verbal level- and the mental truth of a proposition - a bare consideration of the ideas, as they are in our minds, stripped of names. 4 5.3. (An example of a proposition where there is no confusion between verbal truth and mental truth is mathematics, because the formulae and algorithms of maths have no words which can confuse the ideas.) This distinction between verbal and mental truths opens up another possibility for error in the proposition, and introduces a further doubt into the chain of demonstrative knowledge.
Words are signs for things in the mind, not for signs of things in the world. In fact, according to Locke, it is doubtful if Nothing can exist: nowhere in the universe is Nothing found: even a vacuum is a Something, even the idea of Nothing is a Something: an idea. His choice of the word 'produce' also undermines the certainty of knowledge of the proposition: it is not necessary for the universe to have been produced by something, and if this is so, then it is possible to posit that the universe spontaneously came into being (The Big Bang), thus destroying the proposition. Nothing cannot produce Something, but it is not necessary for Something to be always 'produced': it is possible for Something to simply come about as the operation of random processes without something standing behind consciously guiding it, producing it. The proposition has all the certainty of (verbal) truth, but it does not follow that it therefore has mental truth and leads to certainty of knowledge. It is in fact, a trifling proposition. (4.8)
Second trajectory: the idea of God, God as an idea
A second argument provided by the Essay lies in the nature of the operation of mind itself. Locke stresses throughout Book 4 of the Essay that the mind is incapable of knowing anything outside itself; knowledge is restricted to the knowledge the mind has of its own ideas only.
In Chapter 4, Locke brings into his text another voice, a voice (the reader's?) which raises a possible objection to this assertion that the mind is incapable of knowing anything outside itself. In this chapter, called appropriately enough Of The Reality of Knowledge, an objection is made to the idea that the mind is incapable of knowledge of things outside itself by pointing out that the mind is capable of creating all kinds of crazy ideas, for example, about the real nature of a centaur or a harpy, but unless those ideas can be shown to reflect real things, knowledge of this kind is useless. That an harpy is not a centaur is by this way as certain knowledge, and as much a truth, as that a square is not a circle. 4.4.1
Locke addresses this objection in two ways, First, he points out the distinction between simple ideas and complex ideas. The relationship between simple ideas and the world is easy to see (white- gold- body) because simple ideas arrive in the mind by means of sense perception of an external reality. Complex ideas, however, are made up in the mind by the combination and categorisation of simple ideas without considering any connection they have in nature 4.4.5, and are as such one step further removed from the reality of things in the world: they are more nearly pure products of the mind, and less products of the interaction of mind and sense perception.
Secondly, complex ideas conform only to the reality of their own archetypes, and in this way abstract knowledge, such as mathematics, becomes possible. Simple ideas and complex ideas, however, are bounded in their conformity to reality most of all by the extent to which reason cannot go beyond them: Because in all our thoughts, reasonings, and discourses of this kind, we intend things no further than as they are conformable to our ideas. 4.4.5.
In these ways, then, Locke, in addressing the objection that knowledge based on our ideas may be unreal, delineates closely the limits of the overlap between our ideas as ideas per se and as ideas of the world.
Now, these two arguments may be applied to refuting the demonstrative knowledge of God. At most, if God exists, then he exists only in the mind and our knowledge of him is restricted to knowledge of this idea only, as the mind is capable of knowing only its own ideas. The idea of God is only that, an idea.
Is God then, a simple idea? And if it is, from what sense perception did it enter the mind? If God is a complex idea, it is only conformable to itself as a complex idea, not to an external reality. To posit the existence of a God by means of reason, is to intend things further than as they are conformable to our ideas. By providing a refutation of the objection that knowledge which does not address the real world is not real knowledge, Locke in effect provides a refutation of the assertion of certain knowledge of the real existence of God. Existence is not required to make abstract knowledge real. 4.4.8. We can have all kinds of ideas about God, and these ideas are real as ideas, but the coexistence of our ideas of God with the reality of God is not necessary and in fact goes beyond what is conformable to those ideas. The absence of a necessary coexistence between the idea of God and the reality of God is explicitly stated in the Essay:
For the having the idea of anything in our mind, no more proves the existence of that thing than the picture of a man evidences his being in the world, or the visions of a dream make thereby a true history. 4.11.1
The third and most general trajectory of refutation is the relationship between the general and the particular. Locke's whole project as it were stems from the notion that knowledge starts with observation of the particular and leads to the formation of general concepts. It is for this reason that the more generally certain a proposition is, the less connected it is to an external reality: General propositions that are certain concern not existence. 4.9.1 The notion of a God is a general concept, as we have no observable knowledge of a particular God in every instance, so every proposition concerning the existence of a God must be a general proposition. The more certain we are about the truth of this general proposition, the less it conforms to reality; and the less certain we are of it, the more it conforms to an observable reality- an absence, a non-necessity of God.
It's worth emphasizing at this point that we are not trying to find arguments with Locke's assertion that God exists; that we are not trying to find faults in Locke's reasoning - far be it from us to do so-, but that we are sketching out the arguments provided in and by the Essay itself for refuting the assertion that we have certain knowledge that God exists. In doing so, we hope to show the inconsistency in the work between faith and reason, between assertion and reasoning.
What can account for this lack of consistency? We can see two possibilities.
The first possibility is that Locke is very well aware of what he is doing, and that the inconsistency is deliberate and a product of his circumstances. In the 1690s atheism was a tremendous heresy. Is it that Locke, anxious to avoid possible charges of heresy in the uncertain political climate of the Civil War, stressed his belief in God in order to make his new empiricism more palatable, more credible, to the authorities, while deliberately planting seeds within the text that can be used to refute that belief? Locke spent much of his career arguing for the reasonableness of Christianity, however, so we must rule that out.
The second is that the Essay reflects a mind caught between the certainties of the old Religion and the new Age of Enlightenment, a mind that is blind to the inconsistencies in its own argument and method, a mind incapable of letting go of the darling invention (4.10.7) (God) of an atavistic past, a mind perhaps reluctant to fully admit the logical outcome of the processes of reason. Where is the mind that has no chimeras in it? the objector asks in Chapter 4.1. For Locke, God is the chimera.
The mind, by proceeding upon false principles, is often engaged in absurdities and difficulties, brought into straits and contradictions, without knowing how to free itself, and in that case it is in vain to implore the help of reason 4.17.12
It is one thing to show a man he is in error, and another to put him in possession of the truth 4.7.11