Monday, March 12, 2012

Berkeley's and Descartes' arguments for God's existence

To: Pat F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's and Descartes' arguments for God's existence
Date: 19 April 2007 11:14

Dear Pat,

Thank you for your email of 14 April, with your University of London essay in answer to the question, 'Does Berkeley succeed in proving the existence of God?' and your email of 15 April with your essay in answer to the question, 'Does Descartes prove the existence of God?'


I am sorry to admit that the authority of Anthony Flew (admittedly not having read what Flew, a recent convert to theism, has to say on this topic) is not sufficient to persuade me that there is any validity in the linguistic argument. I'm not convinced that Berkeley saw this as any more than a subsidiary consideration, in the light of the fact that he believed that he had a very powerful proof of the existence of God (Proof 1).

Insofar as the linguistic argument carries any sense of conviction, it is because of its implicit reliance on the teleological argument. Language as used by human beings expresses intentionality. Nature can be 'read' as similarly intentional and purposeful. Therefore, nature is the 'language' of that being whose intentionality it expresses.

Without the benefit of Darwin, Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion offers several competing hypotheses which can be used to block Berkeley's argument just as effectively as they block the traditional form of the teleological argument.

However, it seems to me that you have given far too short shrift to Proof 1.

The background assumption is immaterialism. Obviously, one could resist the argument by resisting Berkeley's attack on the idea of 'matter'. However, I take it that the essay question is looking for more interesting ways to object to Berkeley proof of the existence of God.

You say that the premise 3, 'Sensible things continue to exist when not perceived by any finite minds' is 'not supportable without assuming' the conclusion that 'there must be an infinite mind'.

However, Berkeley has powerful reasons for premise 3 which are not question-begging. We start with the analysis of statements about external objects in terms of hypothetical statements about impressions. I would accept that it is a unargued premise of the argument that, for example, it is true there is a red car outside my front door. That is, in Berkeley's terms, 'If I were to look outside my front door I would see a red car.' Of course, one can deny these beliefs, which would indeed result in an extreme form of solipsism of the present moment, but Berkeley in arguing for God is assuming what he knows his audience will grant, that we can make true statements about things we do not perceive at this moment.

But why do we need God? Why can't it just be the case that these hypothetical statements about impressions are, in fact, true? The unexpressed premise here -- whose truth is difficult to resist -- is that a counterfactual or subjunctive conditional statement cannot be *barely* true. If it is true that the match would light if you struck it, then there must be something about the actual match in virtue of which it would lit if struck.

Similarly, if it is true that I would see a red car if I looked, then there must be an actual state of affairs, not involving the independent existence of material objects, by virtue of which that conditional statement is true. That something can only consist in 'ideas', and ideas can only exist in a mind. That mind must be capacious enough (admittedly, not necessarily infinite) to contain all these 'missing' ideas.

Proof 2 does seem to be a bit of a curiosity. However, one way to view it is as plugging a gap in proof 1. So far as we are concerned merely with the need to have an existing ground in virtue of which subjunctive conditional statements about impressions are in fact true, there is no implication that this ground may be credited with being the active 'creator' of those impressions. Human beings experience impressions as merely given, so why can't the same be true of the very-large-or-infinite mind? Berkeley's retort to that suggestion would be that as we don't cause these ideas and ideas don't have the power to cause themselves, they must be actively caused by the very-large-or-infinite mind.

(I accept your point that a 'philosopher's God' which Berkeley proves is not the same thing as the 'entity worthy of worship' which is in fact what he is seeking to prove. This criticism applies to many of the so-called proofs of the existence of God offered by philosophers.)


I don't think that this essay question is asking about the Cartesian circle. It would be too much to expect a candidate to expound the controversy over the Cartesian circle and Descartes' two arguments for the existence of God in one essay question. However, it's OK to mention the Cartesian circle in order to say that you are not going to talk about it. The Cartesian circle is an objection to someone who has raised the possibility of radical scepticism in the way the Descartes raises it. So using this against Descartes is in a sense arguing ad hominem. His proofs stand up and deserve to be evaluated independently of the considerations developed in Meditation I.

What you do say about Descartes' two arguments for the existence of God is rather sketchy.

In discussing the ontological argument, you could have mentioned Kant's critique of the ontological argument, which is based on the claim that existence cannot be a predicate. To conceive of 1000 Pounds in my pocket is exactly the same as conceiving of 1000 existing pounds in my pocket.

The onus is now on the defender of the ontological argument to explain why conceiving of the existence of God is any different.

The argument from the idea of infinity is especially interesting because it is Descartes' own original proof. Discarding the confusing terminology of formal/ objective existence, the claim is that it is possible to discover within myself ideas or concepts which are such as to be incapable of being formulated purely on the basis of my finite experience and the use of logic.

The idea of infinity, mathematicians would claim, is easily definable in such terms. An infinite set is one which can be put into a 1-1 correspondence with a proper subset. Ergo, the idea of infinity. What is wrong with that suggestion?

As with the Berkeley essay, you are going to gain marks here for showing that you have detailed knowledge of the way Descartes carries out his two proofs. You will get more marks if you can find ways to defend the arguments against at least some of the objections you raise. Again, you will get marks for presenting alternative ways of understanding Descartes' arguments and giving reasons for preferring one interpretation against another. And so on.

All the best,