Hierarchy in proofs of the existence of God

Yesterday was my last class session for Humanities 3: Philosophy and Theology. Our final reading included Locke’s variation (from the Essay) on the proof of the existence of God, which has naturally been a recurring theme in the course. He emphasizes throughout that God must be an intellectual being, because it’s inconceivable that matter could produce intellect — and an intuition struck me: is there a proof of the existence of God that doesn’t rely in some way upon mind-body dualism?

I threw the question out to both sections, and some interesting conclusions emerged. First, in none of the other proofs we discussed — Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes — was mind-body dualism so obviously crucial as in Locke’s. Yet it does seem that belief in some kind of spiritual reality is necessary for infinite-regress-prevention proofs (like some of Aquinas’s Five Ways) to be proving God rather than, for example, the Big Bang. The end of all his proofs is “And this, everyone agrees, is God” — but it’s ultimately mind-body dualism that makes it seem intuitively obvious that the first cause or prime mover can’t be material.

Second, and more essentially, it seems that all the classical proofs depend more broadly on ontological hierarchy, of which mind-body dualism is a decisive piece. God can be purely spiritual and yet produce matter because the spiritual is above the material and can therefore produce it, while the opposite could never be the case. And while Anselm’s proof may seem immune to this, he isn’t sheerly trying to prove the “existence” of that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought — he’s trying to prove that that thing is God, in the familiar and traditional sense. The definition isn’t just a clever move to be able to deduce existence, but to be able to simultaneously deduce everything else we know about God — and that depends on an ontological hierarchy providing “objective” standards for what’s greater.

This reliance on mind-body dualism and ontological hierarchy, more than any logical missteps in the proofs, may account for why they are so unconvincing to most people today.

Observations on Early Moderns

Leibniz and Berkeley both seem to me to be absolutely right in most of their critiques of Locke, taken simply as critiques. Even Berkeley’s bold claim that matter doesn’t exist, if we limit “matter” to what Locke and his contemporaries thought “matter” was, now seems to be basically true. Their alternative systems, however, contain significant crackpot elements. The sheer amount of work “God” has to do in each should have tipped them off that they were cheating.

Looking at the index of Process and Reality, I see that Whitehead makes copious references to Locke and Hume, but only a few to Leibniz and Berkeley — despite the fact that his system seems to bear more resemblance to the latter. In fact, for all Whitehead’s love of Locke, it is difficult for me to discern the relationship between the two. So why the insistence on Locke and Hume? Is it a “political” move, to try to convince his logical positivist friends that he’s working out of the modern tradition? If so, it didn’t work.

Spinoza seems to me to be miles ahead of any of these guys. I’m not ready to sign on and become a Spinozan, but he’s clearly the true radical.

Locke on Memory

Locke’s notion of memory seems to be one of the sloppiest elements in the globally sloppy Essay Concerning Human Understanding. My sloppy version of his development: First, he goes with the common sense notion that we have some kind of storehouse of ideas called memory, which we can recall to consciousness. Some critic pointed out that in his bizarre tirade against the notion of “innate ideas,” Locke had claimed that we can’t properly be considered to have an idea at all if it’s not clearly grasped by consciousness — hence “innate ideas” are impossible, because we’re not always conscious of them from the moment of birth, etc. Rather than come up with some other argument against innate ideas, Locke decides that we don’t have a storehouse of memory at all, but rather that certain ideas are accompanied by a sensation of familiarity. (In my less charitable moments, I wonder if his choice of this route was dictated by his desire to do the minimum editing possible — figuring out another argument against innate ideas would require him to tear out huge chunks of Book I, and he is clearly disinclined to do major editing.)

Locke’s account of memory seems to be obviously wrong to me. (Clearly, the problem is his lack of any notion of unconscious or subconscious mental activity.) Yet I do think that in his very wrongness, he hits on something important: namely, the sensation of memory. We do often get a “false positive” on memories, as in cases of deja vu or most often in dreams (where the sensation that we have had the dream many times before is often a feature in a dream that we have only once). There is also a phenomenon where the sensation of memory is unaccompanied by any concrete idea — as when something is on the tip of our tongue. Finally, there are times when we are seeing something is “objectively” a memory, but do not have the sensation of remembering, or else the sensation only comes after continued observation, persuasion by others who think we should remember it, etc.

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