God and Matter in Locke

Although we never made time to talk it out thoroughly, Margaret Wilson and I shared an interest in, and enthusiasm for, the tenth chapter in Locke’s Essay IV, entitled ‘Of Our Knowledge of the Existence of a GOD.’ In the present paper, written in sad tribute to her work and her person, I shall expound that deep, subtle, intricate, flawed chapter. While I shall evaluate its arguments as I go, I chiefly aim just to make clear what happens in those nineteen sections, which I shall refer to by their numbers alone. They aim to show that ‘we are capable of knowing . . . that there is a GOD’ by cogently inferring this from secure premises. A god is any being that is ‘eternal, most powerful, and most knowing;’ given such a being, Locke adds laconically, ‘it matters not’ whether we call it God. This line of argument will be my topic in sections B through E. Two subsidiary themes in the chapter concern matter. One is this: given that there is a god, is it (or he) material or immaterial? Although he argues at length for God’s immateriality, Locke remarks in 13 that this in itself is of little moment. Someone with an otherwise correct theology is in good shape even if he wrongly thinks God to be made of matter - except, Locke adds, for a risk that he runs. Philosophers who are ‘devoted to matter,’ if they think God to be material, will comfortably conclude that everything is matter and will then ‘let slide out of their minds’ their theology, i.e. their view that the material world includes ‘an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent being.’ Section 13 also argues that if the materialists do thus drift into atheism, ‘they destroy their own [materialist] hypothesis.’ This is too clever by half; it is neither well done nor instructive, and I shall not expound it. Some of the Chapter’s richest treasures concern God’s immateriality..
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