God and Empiricism

What follows below is a paper I wrote for my 'Philosophy of God' class -Jeff

Commit it to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
-David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Sect. XII, Part III), concerning any volume of divinity or metaphysics

The notion of God and his existence has undergone many changes throughout the history of empiricist philosophy. While the great medieval philosopher Aquinas “felt that the most important concern of the philosopher was with the primary substance or God,” some modern philosophers “went so far as to say that any reference to things that transcend the senses is cognitively meaningless since there is no evidence on which such ideas can be either affirmed or denied” (Klocker, v-vi). God changed from being the philosopher’s main ally and object of thought to being, at best, a vague entity very much separated from philosophy. Two British empiricists, John Locke and David Hume, were fundamental influences on a turn away from the study of God and metaphysics in the course of empiricism, and their influence is still felt today. As the above quote proclaims, metaphysics, according to Hume, should be ‘committed to the flames,’ for it can only contain ‘sophistry and illusion.’ What brought about this radical change? This paper will explore views of God in early modern empiricism, especially that of John Locke and David Hume.

Historical Empiricism

Philosophical empiricism “refers to a philosophical approach that looks to this world, to experience, as the source of all knowledge. The empiricist turns away from rationalism and idealism, from innate ideas as well as from separated Platonic forms” (ix). The historical background of empiricism will help in our understanding of how later empiricists formed their own ideas of God.


The earliest and most widely recognized proponent of the empiricist approach is the ancient philosopher Aristotle. As a biologist, he saw the importance of objects in our experience and their importance in explaining the world in which he lived. Since its inception, “empiricism has always managed to ally itself with natural science and has seen itself as either a continuance of the scientific method or as a means of giving science a philosophical support” (Ibid xiii). Aristotle derived what transcended our world from the objects he experienced in the world. He looked at the ‘effects’ in nature, and applied to them his reason, seeking their cause. He states in his Physics, “The natural course is to proceed from what is clearer and more knowable to us, to what is more knowable and clear by nature; for the two are not the same. Hence we must start thus with things which are less clear by nature, but clearer to us, and move on to things which are by nature clearer and more knowable” (Ackrill 81). Aristotle looked at the two main approaches to reality, the materialistic and Platonic approaches, in the philosophy of his time, but was satisfied with neither, for the materialists looked too much to the world to posit any idea of something that transcends our world, and the Platonists looked to the transcendent forms almost exclusively, ignoring that which is in our world. Aristotle “wanted to establish a theory of reality that would allow both values and sense objects to be real” (Jones 216).

Aristotle stumbled upon a discovery that there must be some sort of transcendent being; if there are many changing things in our world, there must be a source of the motion that enables them to change. This ‘first mover’ is what we call god. In the words of Aristotle, “there must clearly be something that causes things that move themselves at one time to be and at another not to be” (Ackrill 127). Aristotle doesn’t completely abandon Plato’s ideas of transcendent realities; rather, “in his own objective and matter of fact manner, Aristotle has drawn from Plato’s demonstration the lesson it teaches concerning the origin of our philosophical notion of god. Men, Aristotle says, have derived it from two sources: their own souls and the motion of stars” (Gilson 32). Aristotle’s god differs greatly from the God of Christianity. The ‘prime mover’ is an indifferent and uncaring god, without any providential plan for the world. “The god of Aristotle… would be ‘transcendent and remote,’ and ‘indifferent to [lesser intelligences] if he were aware of them” (Jones 231). In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas revived the work of Aristotle and applied some parts of it to Christian philosophy.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas approached philosophy in a fundamentally Aristotelian way, even though the philosophical and theological scholars of his day were against his doing so:

“At the beginning of his life, Greek and Arabian philosophy was just entering the Latin world; three years after his death, the large-scale condemnation of Aristotelianism in Paris by Bishop Stephen Tempier signalized what turned out to be a defeat for Christian thinkers in the presence of Greek and Arabian philosophers, Platonists and Aristotelians alike” (Pegis xi).

Aquinas is credited as saying, “Nihil in intellectu quod prius no fuerit in sensu,” that is, “nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses.” Aquinas follows Aristotle’s philosophical approach by choosing as his starting point the world of everyday experience. Aquinas was somewhat of a pupil of Aristotle, “to whom he owed his method, his principles, up to even his all-important notion of the fundamental actuality of being. Aristotle’s philosophy wasn’t enough, though: “St. Thomas breathed into Aristotle’s conception of the world a vision that the Stagirite himself had never known” (xxviii). Thomas had to rework some of Aristotle’s philosophical principles and entirely disregard others to make his system of philosophy work. As an empiricist, Aquinas was fundamentally opposed to the Platonic philosophical approach (the approach which begins with a transcendent reality), mainly because of the blatant dualism (separation of the transcendent and the real) of Plato’s philosophy. Aristotle’s “ultimate opponent was Plato himself… According to St. Thomas, [Plato’s] method succeeded in forcing Plato to have a dis-existentialized view of being, of man and of knowledge” (xvi, xviii).

St. Thomas, being the faithful clergyman he was, sought to use philosophy as a tool by which he could reinforce theology. For Thomas, “the supreme expression of wisdom was theology” (Gilson 75), and all other pursuits were secondary. With this understanding, St. Thomas presupposed “the proper object of theology is God, who is the highest conceivable object of human knowledge” (76). In Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas summarizes two of the arguments for the existence of God acquired from Aristotle and modified slightly for Aquinas’ purposes. The first and most recognized of his arguments is based on Aristotle’s argument from motion. “Everything that is moved is moved by another… This mover is itself either moved or not moved. If it is not, we have reached our conclusion—namely, that we must posit some unmoved mover. This we call God” (Aquinas 86). St. Thomas most famously describes the existence of God in his Summa Theologiae, through the ‘five ways.’ He argues from motion, from the nature of efficient cause, from possibility and necessity, from the gradation found in things and from the governance of the world (Pegis 25-27). All of Thomas’ philosophical arguments for the existence of God flowed from his desire to support the theology he lived. He knew that philosophy could not grasp the entirety of God’s existence—it could only touch some small hint at the infinite reality of God—but his main objective was to provide philosophical support for his theology.

Modern Empiricism

Many forces brought about the radical change in the focus of philosophy from the time of Aquinas to the time of the Modern philosophers. The governments and institutions of society were in flux, and many old ideas were being overturned. Philosophers were now mostly laymen: “Modern philosophy has been created by laymen, not by churchmen, and to the ends of the natural cities of men, not to end of the supernatural city of God” (Gilson 74). It was not that these modern philosophers were entirely unconcerned with the philosophical notion of God; rather, they were much more interested in the political crises of their time, and the human condition in general. “The transition from medieval philosophy to early modern philosophy is best illustrated by the change that took place in the social condition of the philosophers themselves” (74). God was no longer the primary concern of philosophy.

John Locke

“During his lifetime Locke witnessed some of the stormiest events in English history… in 1649, when Locke was seventeen, Charles I was executed” (Mayer 175). Oliver Cromwell and his Independent party ruled England in a dictatorial style for a time. The Restoration of Charles II occurred in 1660 (175). These and many other societal events forced John Locke to look at his world and explore political philosophy and human understanding from an empirical perspective, as opposed to earlier rationalist modern philosophers, who focused more on the knowledge prior to sense experience (a priori knowledge). Locke was an Oxford graduate who majored in physics and left with a distaste of physics and the classics, and a tendency towards liberalism (177). He wrote his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (containing most of his philosophical treatment of God) while he was a political exile in Holland, and published it in 1690. His Essay “remains one of the landmarks of modern philosophy” (176). In his Essay, Locke attacks the doctrine of innate ideas, speaks of how ideas are formed and where they come from, deals with confusion in words and semantics in general and analyzes the types of knowledge and the limits of human understanding (177).

Locke started with our world of sensible, changing things, following the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas. Locke “begins with a rejection of the Cartesian doctrine of innate ideas and insists that the sources of knowledge are experiential” (Klocker 38). In his Essay, Locke states, “Whence has [the mind] all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience” (The Empiricists 10). Locke denies any a priori knowledge using children as his example: “He that attentively considers the state of a child, at his first coming into the world, will have little reason to think him stored with plenty of ideas, that are to be the matter of his future knowledge” (11-12).

Locke added subjectivity to empiricism through his concept of ‘ideas.’ “What is experienced is nothing else but the ideas which result from sensation and reflection, and these become the data with which the new empiricism is forced to work. It is from such data that all knowledge of the external world is derived and from which any notion of a being transcendent to the world can be had” (Klocker 38). Locke’s ideas imply that there must be an external reality, because there must be a source for his ideas (which result from sensation and reflection). Locke further divides his ideas into complex and simple ideas. Simple ideas are direct sense experiences, (e.g. the hardness and coldness of ice). Complex ideas are groupings in our mind we make of two or more simple ideas (e.g. ‘ice’ is a smooth, solid and cold substance). However, because we are not sure that we know every simple idea, or primary quality of an object, we can never know the real essence of an object. “The word ‘god,’ then, is a term signifying more simply the entire collection of impressions produced by something or other outside the mind. This is the nominal essence of the thing as opposed to the real essence which we can never know” (Klocker 40).

Locke, however, has problems with his theory of knowledge. He wants to “reconcile a basic, commonsense realism” grounded in what we can clearly perceive in the external world of everyday objects with his “theory of knowledge which necessarily calls such a realism into question” (Ibid 42). How can there be a concrete, definite reality if we can only know that our ideas of this reality exist? Because of his troubles with this problem, Locke does not depend solely on his theory of human knowledge for his proof of the existence of God.

Locke also makes the distinction between intuitive and deductive knowledge. There is a difference in the clearness of our knowledge due to the different way the mind perceives the “agreement or disagreement of any of its ideas” (The Empiricists 78). Intuitive knowledge is that which occurs when “the mind perceives the agreement or disagreement of two ideas immediately by themselves, without the intervention of any other” (78). For deductive knowledge, “the mind perceives the agreement or disagreement of any of its ideas, but not immediately” (79). Deductive knowledge incorporates reasoning and demonstrative proofs to help the mind in its process of relating ideas to one another. Locke’s understanding of deductive knowledge “provides him with the starting point for any and all proofs, and it furnishes him with the possibility of transcending the basic experience from which all our ideas come” (Klocker 43). Locke’s theory of deductive knowledge necessitates a hierarchy of knowledge, with intuitive knowledge at its height, and muddled demonstrative knowledge below, with all other posited types of knowledge disregarded as faith or opinion (43).

John Locke applies his theories of knowledge and ideas to the metaphysical world in book four of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Before determining whether we have knowledge of the existence of a God, Locke determines that “we perceive [our own existence] so plainly and so certainly, that it neither needs nor is capable of any proof. For nothing can be more evident to us than our own existence” (The Empiricists 98). He also speaks about ‘immaterial spirits’ as justifiable objects of knowledge:

For putting together the ideas of thinking and willing, or the power of moving or quieting corporeal motion, joined to substance, of which we have no distinct idea, we have the idea of an immaterial spirit; and by putting together the ideas of coherent solid parts, and a power of being moved, joined with substance, of which likewise we have no positive idea, we have the idea of matter (59).

In a similar way to our discovery of ‘immaterial spirits,’ Locke’s “idea of God arises, as do all our other ideas, from either sensation or reflection. In this case it is more properly from reflection that the notion of God is derived” (Klocker 45).

Locke’s first treatment of God, through an idea, incorporates the ideas of existence, duration, knowledge power, and other enjoyable qualities combined with the idea of infinity (45). Even though this treatment of God is necessitated by Locke’s epistemology, it is inadequate, as God is only some sort of infinite ‘complex idea’ completed by many simple ideas.

Locke’s second treatment of God’s existence depends on our intuition. Only intuitive knowledge is absolutely true. Thus, all of our knowledge must in some way incorporate intuitive knowledge if it is to be legitimate. “If Locke hopes to build a true and certain demonstration for the existence of God, he must somehow ground such a demonstration in intuitive knowledge” (47). Locke himself states the following concerning the types of knowledge in relation to the entities known: “We have the knowledge of our own existence by intuition; of the existence of God by demonstration; and of other things by sensation… As for our own existence, we perceive it so plainly and so certainly, that it neither needs nor is capable of any proof” (The Empiricists 98). Locke ridicules any man skeptical of his own existence: “Let him for me enjoy his beloved happiness of being nothing, until hunger or some other pain convince him of the contrary” (100). Because there is nothing outside of ourselves that we can intuit and be certain exists, we must begin our demonstration of God’s existence with intuitive knowledge of our own existence.

We must use our perception and reason to provide certitude in our knowledge of God’s existence because we have no a priori knowledge of God (Klocker 48). As was shown earlier, “it is certain that man exists” (48). It is also intuitive that there must be an existing cause for anything that now is in existence; “Nothing cannot produce a Being; therefore something must have existed from Eternity… Nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles” (The Empiricists 100). Another way of saying is: for every effect, there is a cause (the same maxim upon which Aquinas’ first proof from motion rests). This being must also have been most powerful and most knowing, for the eternal being “must also have all that which is in and belongs to its being from another too” (100). Locke concludes, “There is an eternal, most powerful, and most knowing Being; which whether any one will please to call God, it matters not. The thing is evident; and from this idea duly considered, will easily be deduced all those other attributes, which we ought to ascribe to this eternal Being” (101). From this demonstration of God’s existence, Locke believes he is more certain than of any proof “our senses have not immediately discovered to us” (100).

Locke seems to be diverging from his original theory of ideas “to a more realistic theory of knowledge that can make immediate contact with at least one thing — the existing self” (Klocker 52). Locke diverged slightly from his theory of knowledge for this proof of God because of its insufficiency in dealing with reality and true existence. If all that we are certain of are our ideas, then how can we be certain that any of our ideas transcend themselves and point to an external world? “It may be that in this case his common sense was better than his philosophy, but [Klocker doesn’t] think Locke would admit he had given up his previous conclusions that ideas are all that we know.” One other problem with Locke’s argument is the fact that it cannot escape the ideal world and apply to reality. “The argument, despite Locke’s best efforts, falls back into an ontological argument” because “the whole argument moves on the ideal level and never really gets into the existential order” (53). Besides these problems, Klocker points out that “Locke asserts more” than the simple truth “whatever is caused is caused totally by an agent which must possess in itself whatever we find in the effect” (54). In the way that Locke phrases his causal proposition (“every effect demands a cause”), there is no implied perfection or idea of infinity in the cause.

Although “Locke thought he had established the reality of something outside the human mind” (57), it was not very convincing to David Hume, who decided to take Locke’s skepticism and develop it further.

David Hume

David Hume is regarded as “the last of the great triumvirate of ‘British empiricists’” (Morris 1). He was a student at Edinburgh, in England, and loved philosophy, even though his family wanted him to enter law. He decided to go to France to write about many different topics. His Treatise of Human Nature dwelt on epistemology, man’s emotions and morality, but was not well received. Another work, Essays, Moral and Political (published in 1741) gained him more exposure, but his greatest claim to fame during his own lifetime was his History of England. Hume was involved in many political happenings in France and Britain, and was “especially famous in France” (Mayer 213). For a time, he lived with French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but this relationship ended quickly because of Rousseau’s lack of appreciation and persecution mania (212-214).

Hume’s ideas of God and metaphysics left a very bad taste in the mouths of those who still studied rationalism or scholastic philosophy, but his main intent was to “develop a more scientific method in philosophy” (214). In his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume distinguishes between impressions and ideas. Impressions are “vivid and lively perceptions,” and ideas are “faint images of these [impressions] used in thinking and reasoning” (Klocker 58). Hume’s impressions are the same as Locke’s simple ideas. Substance, according to Hume, is that which is composed of many impressions. However, Hume takes the skepticism of Locke further. “Hume is not willing to go so far as to assert the actual existence of such substances… If all we know are impressions or ideas, how can we affirm the actual existence of anything except the impression or the idea?” (58). Hume proposed that existence added nothing to meaning because the mere thought of something is the same as the thing existing. But Hume’s problem was: “Can we get beyond meaning?” (58).

We have an opinion that things in our perceptions have a continual existence, and this opinion is from our imagination (not our reason or from our senses), because our senses do not continually perceive the things in question, and reason confirms this. Hume writes in his Treatise of Human Nature,

“Our memory presents us with a vast number of instances of perceptions perfectly resembling each other, that return at different distances of time, and after considerable interruptions. This resemblance gives us a propension to consider interrupted perceptions as the same… [It] makes us believe the continued existence of body… ‘Tis a false opinion that any of our objects, or perceptions, are identically the same after an interruption; and consequently the opinion of their identity can never arise from reason, but must arise from the imagination” (Hume 208-209).

The human mind, then, cannot prove that any things exist apart from our perceptions of them. “Hume is sure that he has perceptions. He is not sure of their source” (Klocker 60).

Hume denied “any philosophical justification or demonstration for the existence” of any objects outside the mind, but he “never denied [their] actual existence” (61). Hume speaks of causality with the understanding that there are, in fact, objects existing outside the mind. “He speaks of causality as the only possible way to establish the existence of anything” (61). Hume questions the rationalist principle of causality, which states: whatever begins to be must have a cause (61). Hume finds, though, that the only way to establish cause and effect is from experience; we must relate ideas gained through experience to one another in order to determine a cause and effect. Hume also explores the rationalist principle of necessary connection, and determines that “there is never any experience of necessity,” and thereby we cannot say that any cause has a necessary effect. Hume highlights the problem of induction, which states that a person may not rationally apply a result found in a limited set of experiences to any and all possible experiences. In doing so, one would be moving from the observed to the unobserved, which would be irrational. “Any inference from experience is based on the supposition that nature is uniform—that the future will be like the past” (Morris 9), but there is no reason to believe in uniformity in nature, according to Hume. In the words of Klocker, “There is not in our experience any certitude that one thing is the cause of another.”

According to Hume, there can be no arguments grounded in causality. He “has literally destroyed ahead of time any argument from effect to cause,” thus negating the arguments of most empiricists before him (including those mentioned in this paper). How, then, can Hume speak of God’s existence? There are two parts to Hume’s theory of God’s existence, and both, to a certain degree, deal with causality.

Hume denies the validity of the Cartesian notion of God as the ‘prime mover’ (Hume 159-160), for we cannot derive our idea of God from sense impressions (i.e. motion). He also denies that any a priori argument for God’s existence can be used, for “whatever is may not be, and there is nothing in the intelligibility of any being which indicates necessary existence” (Klocker 65, emphasis mine). We must, then, use experience for our proof of God’s existence. But Hume realizes that there are very narrow limits to our reason—it struggles to go beyond the ordinary world of sense experience. Hume further denies the popular argument from the order in nature of his day; since nothing is perfect in nature, we could never argue for a ‘highest’ being, who would contain all qualities possessed in nature, but only for a ‘superior’ being (67). Hume also speaks of the notion of God in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In it, he suggests a skeptical approach (that of the character in the Dialogues named ‘Philo’) to the existence of God is most manageable. All the popular arguments for God’s existence have some problem or another, and we cannot ever reach any certifiable conclusions about God’s existence, except that there most likely is a God. “Hume’s ‘skeptical solution’ limits our inquiries to common life, where no sophisticated metaphysical arguments are available and none are required” (Morris 10).

Hume is an ‘academic’ (mitigated) skeptic, proposing that reason alone is not the way in which man can live and discover truth rather than a radical (Pyrrhonian) skeptic, who would deny any sort of truth. In addition to his distaste for rationalism, Hume dislikes religion: “Since religion is not universal in the way that our non-rational beliefs in causation or physical objects are, perhaps it can eventually be dislodged from human thinking altogether” (Morris 16). No one can summarize Hume’s thoughts concerning metaphysics and theology better than Hume himself:

Divinity or Theology, as it proves the existence of a Deity, and the immortality of souls, is composed partly of reasonings concerning particular, partly concerning general facts. It has a foundation in reason, so far as it is supported by experience. But its best and most solid foundation is faith and divine revelation… If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion (Hume 165).

“Hume’s treatment of the arguments he knew for the existence of God had its influence on later empiricism… Hume’s criticism tended more and more in the years to come to restrict the validity of demonstration to the area of the physical” (Klocker 76). After Hume, the significance of God and His existence were all but removed from philosophy and from the study of science. Although not a complete atheist, Hume “supplies the approach for the naturalistic mentality that sees the world as sufficient for itself and the possibility of a morality without God” that becomes more popular in later years.


            There is a great difference between Hume’s skeptical notion of God and Aquinas and Aristotle’s taken-for-granted ‘prime mover,’ and this difference can only be accounted for by changing times in which the philosophers lived, in addition to changing philosophical outlooks. What was important to the philosophers of each time period was the main subject of each philosopher’s thought. For Aristotle, it was the source of the natural things he studied, and for Aquinas it was theology, but for Locke and Hume, it was the ever-changing political landscape and a philosophical rationalism that was failing to aid society in making a perfect world. Through his definition of ‘idea,’ Locke inadvertently changed the course of modern empiricist philosophy by adding a strong dose of subjectivity. Hume further expanded this subjectivity to form a skeptical view of things outside our own impressions, especially those having to do with metaphysics or theology. Because of this, modern empiricist philosophy’s view of God is quite different than that proposed by earlier philosophers.

Works Cited

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