George Berkeley’s proof for the existence of God

Abstract

Most philosophers have given up George Berkeley’s proof for the existence of God as a lost cause, for in it, Berkeley seems to conclude more than he actually shows. I defend the proof by showing that its conclusion is not (as is often supposed) the thesis that an infinite and perfect God exists, but rather the much weaker thesis that a very powerful God exists and that this God’s agency is pervasive in nature. This interpretation, I argue, is consistent with the texts. It is also an important component of Berkeley’s philosophical project, which consists of launching many small arguments (rather than one large argument) against his philosophical and theological opponents.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Two recent readers argue that Berkeley supplements his proof at Treatise Sects. 26 and 29 with reasoning at Sect. 146. But it does not seem to me that Berkeley’s argument requires such strengthening (Flage and Ksenjek 2012).

  2. 2.

    Locke’s doctrine of ideas is notoriously vague, to the extent that Keith Allen and Jonathan Bennett both conclude in interesting fashions that there is no Lockean doctrine to be found (See Allen 2010; Bennett 1971).

  3. 3.

    Berkeley’s invocation of Ockham’s razor is in in the context of his already having shown that there is no material world, and so he takes himself to have already ruled out the supposition that there are as many material causes as there are events. Berkeley supposes, plausibly as it seems to me, that if one abandons the material hypothesis then one loses the justification for positing many material causes.

  4. 4.

    The name jars with Berkeley’s own inclination not to call minds ‘passive’, though certainly he would allow that our agency is not involved with these ideas. See 1710, Sects. 27, 89.

  5. 5.

    The first of the Anglican 39 Articles states that “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.” Berkeley certainly presented God as infinite in his sermons, see e.g. Berkeley (1751, pp. 132, 135).

  6. 6.

    Peter Browne’s suggestion that our knowledge of God is analogical is generally regarded as one of Berkeley’s targets. Browne (1728), for Berkeley’s critique see Berkeley (1732, pp. 4.16–4.22).

  7. 7.

    What persuaded Berkeley of the infinity of God, Samuel Rickless suggests, is that the beautiful and orderly features of the world are “innumerable and endless, that is, infinite in extent and aspect.” But a mathematically minded philosopher like Berkeley would hardly confuse the endless (or potentially infinite) with the boundless (or actually infinite). The features of the world might be endless, but any observation of them (including God’s own observation of them) would see that they fell short of showing God’s infinity, as Winkler rightly notes (Rickless 2013).

  8. 8.

    The 1641 Latin version reads “Dei nomine intelligo substantiam quandam infinitam, independentem, summe intelligentem, summe potentem”, and the 1647 French edition adds “éternelle, immuable” to this list (Descartes 1641/1647).

  9. 9.

    These characterizations of Hobbes and Spinoza may be contentious, but they are Berkeley’s: “Hobbes allowed a corporeal God; and Spinosa [sic] held the universe to be God.” (Berkeley 1732, p. 4.7.163), see also Berkeley (1706–1709), Sects. 825, 827. The divine language version of the argument does not rely on quite the same metaphysical assumptions as the passivity and continuity versions, and Berkeley notes that it does not address Hobbism or Spinozism, see 4.7.163—a concession on his part that contemporary readers often overlook. For example, Kline (1993).

References

  1. Allen, K. (2010). Locke on the nature of ideas. Archiv für die Geschichte der Philosophie, 92(3), 236–255.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Bennett, J. (1971). Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central themes. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Berkeley, G. (1706–1709). Notebooks. In A. A. Luce & T. E. Jessop (Eds.). (1948–1957), The works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, 9 volumes (Vol. 1). London: Nelson.

  4. Berkeley, G. (1707). Of infinites. In A. A. Luce & T. E. Jessop (Eds.). (1948–1957), The works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, 9 volumes (Vol. 1). London: Nelson.

  5. Berkeley, G. (1709). An essay toward a new theory of vision. In A. A. Luce & T. E. Jessop (Eds.). (1948–1957), The works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, 9 volumes (Vol. 1). London: Nelson.

  6. Berkeley, G. (1710). A treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge. In A. A. Luce & T. E. Jessop (Eds.). (1948–1957), The works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, 9 volumes (Vol. 1). London: Nelson.

  7. Berkeley, G. (1713). Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. In A. A. Luce & T. E. Jessop (Eds.). (1948–1957), The works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyn, 9 volumes (Vol. 1). London: Nelson.

  8. Berkeley, G. (1732). Alciphron. In A. A. Luce & T. E. Jessop (Eds.). (1948–1957), The works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, 9 volumes (Vol. 1). London: Nelson.

  9. Berkeley, G. (1733). The theory of vision, or visual language shewing the immediate presence and providence of a deity, vindicated and explained. In A. A. Luce & T. E. Jessop (Eds.). (1948–1957), The works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, 9 volumes (Vol. 1). London: Nelson.

  10. Berkeley, G. (1751). On the will of God. In A. A. Luce & T. E. Jessop (Eds.). (1948–1957), The works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, 9 volumes (Vol. 1). London: Nelson.

  11. Berman, D. (1994). George Berkeley: Idealism and the man. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Bettcher, T. (2008). Berkeley: A guide for the perplexed. London: Continuum.

  13. Browne, P. (1728). Procedure, extent and limits of human understanding. London: William Innys.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Descartes, R. (1641/1647). Meditations on first philosophy. In J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, & D. Murdoch (Eds.). (1985), The philosophical writings of descartes (Vol. 2). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  15. Dicker, G. (2011). Berkeley’s idealism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  16. Flage, D., & Ksenjek, E. (2012). Berkeley, the author of nature, and the Christian God. History of Philosophy Quarterly, 29(3), 265–299.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Fogelin, R. (2001). Berkeley and the principles of human knowledge. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Hooker, M. (1982). Berkeley’s argument from design. In C. Turbayne (Ed.), Berkeley: Critical and interpretive essays (pp. 261–270). Mineapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Hunter, H. (2015). Berkeley on doing good and meaning well. In S. Charles (Ed.), La philosophie pratique de George Berkeley. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Jesseph, D. (2005). Berkeley, God and Explanation. In Christia Mercer & Eileen O’Neill (Eds.), Early modern philosophy: mind, matter, and metaphysics (pp. 183–205). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Kline, A. D. (1993). Berkeley’s divine language argument. In D. Berman (Ed.), Alciphron in focus (pp. 185–199). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Lee, S. (2012). Berkeley on the activity of spirits. British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 20(3), 539–576.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. McDonough, J. (2008). Berkeley, human agency and divine concurrentism. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 46(4), 567–590.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Muehlmann, R. (1992). Berkeley’s ontology. Indianapolis: Hackett.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Pitcher, G. (1977). Berkeley. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Rickless, S. (2013). Where exactly does Berkeley argue for the existence of God in the principles? History of Philosophy Quarterly, 30(2), 147–160.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Winkler, K. (1989). Berkeley: An interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hugh Hunter.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hunter, H. George Berkeley’s proof for the existence of God. Int J Philos Relig 78, 183–193 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11153-015-9527-0

Download citation

Keywords

  • Early modern philosophy
  • George Berkeley
  • Philosophy of religion
  • God