Locke on God:
Locke was an empriricist who believed that all of our knowledge comes ultimately from our senses, see my earlier post. So, he believed that we construct our idea of God from our sensory experiences of this world. Or, more precisely, from experiences of one’s own human existence: its duration, its knowledge, its power, its wisdom, and other admirablee qualities. And from our ‘reflections’, our thinking, on these qualities. As Locke says in his Essay (1689), “We enlarge every one of these with our idea of infinity; and so putting them together, make our complex idea of God.” (That is my understanding of the matter, from Kenneth Shouler’s God and Moral Knowledge in what used to be netplaces on Locke.)
So did Locke assume that God is merely an idea we construct in our minds and didn’t really exist? (It is thought by some that both Locke and Hobbes were atheists who couldn’t outright admit to the fact, for fear of their lives in those days.)
To repeat previous philosophers’ proofs of God’s existence: the rationalists Anselm and Descartes, in 1077 and 1641 respectively, had used a ‘conceptual’ argument: the essence of God is that He is the supreme and perfect being, and part of this supremacy and perfection must be that He exists. (This to me is just a simple-minded playing with words, proving something exists from the words we use to describe it, that wouldn’t fool anybody above infancy. Dignifying it as ‘conceptual’ or ‘ontological’ is just the greatest flattery.)
Locke wasn’t taken in by it. For him, God is a complex idea extrapolated from an individual’s own ideas of finitude. I suppose that just means that our concept of God the Infinite is made up from our ideas of finite qualities in this world. (‘Finitude’ in Philosophy seems always to be a pretentious word that simply means ‘being limited’ or’ liable to end’.) Locke reasons also that some people lack an idea of God altogether (You don’t say!) and for those who have an idea, their ideas vary (You don’t say!)
Locke, contrary to his empiricism, also seems to have put forward the ‘cosmological’ argument of Aristotle and Aquinas, that since we already know that nature is a system of cause and effect, there must be an original cause at the root of this system, namely God. In addition (perhaps also from Aristotle and Aquinas): Nature could not have existed eternally (why not?) and could not have come from nothing, for then it would be uncaused. Therefore, it must have been brought into existence by God. .
Locke also uses Aquinas’s fifth argument (also originally from Aristotle) that everything in nature looks intelligently designed by Someone. Locke also used Descartes’s ‘intuitions’ that something cannot come from nothing, and that the cause must have all the perfections that it imparts to its effect.
Was it at this stage, after taking over Aristotle and Aquinas’s reasoned proofs of God, that Locke came to believe that he had proved His existence as an item of ‘demostrative knowledge’? That is, arriving at it through mathematical or logical reasoning, (see prevous post). He believed you could prove the existence of God with the same certainty that you can deduce conclusions in geometry. (So it seems now that Locke did believe in an actual God.)
So, contrary to his empiricist understanding of our concept of God, Locke also reasoned his way to belief in Him as creator of the world, rather than having faith in what the Bible says. He also didn’t believe in the idea that God intervenes in the world, either in the form of miracles or of revelation. It is obvious that Locke here subscribed to a deism based on reasoning, not to a theism based on faith. Deism was popular in the seventeenth century.
Morality(still derived from Shouler as above):
Locke rejected any innateness of ideas. For instance, there are no innate moral principles in us — not ‘written on the heart’. So, as befits Locke the empriricist, moral, political, and religious ideas must come from our sensations, our experiences of the world. But we receive no direct sensations of good or evil, so there must be other sensations from which these notions are derived.
Locke begins with the experiences of pleasure and pain. You call ‘good’ whatever gives pleasure, and ‘evil’ whatever causes pain. (Apparently Epicurus who began Epicureanism, as well as Hobbes, had also thought like this.)
So, the goodness of pleasure, and the badness of pain, can become the basic standards of morality. But, Locke points out, there are also three kinds of law that prescribe us morality: divine law, civil law and the law of opinion or reputation.
The law of the land and the law of opinion come from human beings, and are not absolute and eternal: they differ according to place and to time. Locke believed, perhaps naively, that conformity to God’s law tends to advance the general good of mankind. God, to Locke, was of course the God of Anglican Christianity of the time.
He wrote that there is a core of agreement between divine laws, civil laws and the laws of opinion or reputation. All three agree for instance that stealing and killing are evil and that generosity and consideration for others are good. Locke wrote that God’s law is discovered by ‘the light of nature’ or by ‘the voice of revelation’. (Did he mean by ‘the light of nature’ that we see God’s law through the beauty and intelligent design of Nature? Shouler (see reference in my first paragraph) doesn’t tell use how Locke worked that out.)
According to Shouler, Locke had drifted into rationalism, abandoning his empiricism, when he wrote that morality is capable of demonstration just as mathematics is. This is in contradiction to his empiricist opinions on the sources of our morality, that it comes ultimately from our sensations of pleasure and pain, and from the laws of God and society.
Among Locke’s rationally demonstrable principles, is ‘Where there is no property there is no injustice’. That for me has a Marxist ring. He claims that this is as certain as any demonstration in Euclidean geometry. But Shouler points out that there are many injustices that don’t involve property.
When Locke returns to his empiricist foundation, he is on stronger ground: Though the moral codes of societies differ, he says, there is a high degree of uniformity too. This is so because the collective experience of citizens teaches all societies which behaviours are beneficial and which not. Societies know well that killing, stealing, and other practices, destroy community.