Hypothetical Necessity and the Laws of Nature: John Locke on God's Legislative Power

Elliot Rossiter
Concordia University College of Alberta
The focus of my dissertation is a general and comprehensive examination of Locke’s view of divine power. My basic argument is that John Locke is a theological voluntarist in his understanding of God’s creative and providential relationship with the world, including both the natural and moral order. As a voluntarist, Locke holds that God freely imposes both the physical and moral laws of nature onto creation by means of his will: this contrasts with the intellectualist perspective in which the laws of nature emerge from the essences of things. For Locke, there are no intrinsically necessary laws in the created order: both physical and moral laws are arbitrary determinations of the divine will. While these laws are not intrinsically necessary, they are hypothetically necessary. Hypothetical necessity involves things that could have been otherwise, but which are necessary based on the supposition of a free action and other relevant conditions pertaining to the actor. Concerning God, we can understand hypothetical necessity in the following way: □ [ → Y]. X is a variable that ranges over a subset of contingent propositions about actions. ‘P’ is the proposition ‘God is perfect’. And Y is any proposition that is a necessary consequent of both X and P. In any possible world in which God performs X, it is the case that Y will obtain. Supposing that God decides to create beings like us, God must of necessity craft the moral laws of nature in a way that harmonizes with our nature. What grounds this necessity is that God must act consistently with the perfection of the divine nature: to give us a different law would be less than perfect. Furthermore, I argue that certain physical laws of nature – those that help to realize our nature – are also hypothetically necessary.
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