On some alleged quantifier shift fallacies, Part II

Continuing our look at alleged cases of the quantifier shift fallacy committed by prominent philosophers, let’s turn to an example from John Locke.  As we’ve seen, Harry Gensler accuses Locke of reasoning as follows: “Everything is caused by something, so there must be some (one) thing that caused everything.”  What does Locke actually say?  The relevant passage is from Book IV, Chapter 10 of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

[Man] knows also that nothing cannot produce a being; therefore something must have existed from eternity.  In the next place, man knows, by an intuitive certainty, that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles.  If a man knows not that nonentity, or the absence of all being, cannot be equal to two right angles, it is impossible he should know any demonstration in Euclid.  If, therefore, we know there is some real being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration, that from eternity there has been something; since what was not from eternity had a beginning; and what had a beginning must be produced by something else.

Notice first that, like other defenders of the cosmological argument, Locke does not actually say “Everything is caused by something” – the atheist’s favorite straw man, which would, of course, invite the atheist’s favorite retort “So what caused God?”  What Locke actually says is that “Nothing cannot produce a being,” that “Nonentity cannot produce any real being,” and so forth.  This entails only that if something has come into being, then it must have had a cause.  It does not entail that everything has a cause.  But this premise isn’t the focus of Gensler’s criticism, and he may not have been trying to paraphrase Locke accurately since this particular misreading does not affect the point he is trying to make. 

But notice also that Locke does not say anything as blatantly fallacious as the argument Gensler attributes to him.  That is, he doesn’t say “Everything that comes into being has a cause, so there must be some (one) thing that caused everything that comes into being.”  To be sure, it is not at all difficult to see why Gensler and others would attribute this fallacy to Locke.  If the fact that “nonentity cannot produce any real being” is somehow supposed to show that “from eternity there has been something,” and if (as is evident from the rest of chapter 10) “something” is supposed to refer to some one particular thing, then it is not unreasonable at least to wonder whether the fallacious argument in question is how Locke gets from his premise to his conclusion.  Still, it would be unreasonable to assume that Locke must have been reasoning that way, if there is some plausible alternative way of reading him.  So is there?

There is.  As commentators on Locke know, his argument for God’s existence was influenced by a more detailed argument developed by the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth.  You can find a useful discussion of Locke’s argument and of Cudworth’s influence on it in Volume II, Chapter 14 of Michael Ayers’ magisterial Locke: Epistemology and Ontology.  Ayers begins his discussion of Cudworth’s version thus:

The relevant part of Cudworth’s long argument is briefly as follows.  First, since nothing can come from nothing, and something exists, then something must exist from eternity which is causa sui, existing necessarily or essentially (the standard ‘cosmological’ proof).  So far, Cudworth thought, theists and atheistic materialists are undivided.  But the atheists identify the eternal being with matter, arguing that the Lucretian principle that nothing can come from nothing rules out the creation of matter by something else... (p. 171)

As Ayers goes on to note, Cudworth then argues that the problem with taking matter to be the ultimate reality is that matter cannot produce thought, so that the ultimate cause of the thought that exists in the universe must be immaterial.  (As I have noted before, Cudworth was an early and important proponent of the argument that the modern mechanical conception of matter itself, to which the materialist no less than modern dualists like Cudworth is committed, rules out the possibility that mind can be material.)

Now Locke’s argument for God’s existence proceeds in a similar manner, and in general it is evident that Locke intended to reason along lines related to Cudworth’s.  (As Ayers notes, Locke does alter Cudworth’s argument somewhat so as to bring it into line with his own metaphysical commitments, but these alterations are irrelevant to our present concerns.)  But then it is clear how Locke can be interpreted in a way that does not attribute to him any quantifier shift fallacy.  Like Cudworth, what he is saying is that even the atheist (or at least the typical atheist of the day) acknowledges that something must have existed from eternity, even if the atheist takes this “something” to be the substrate of matter that underlies the particular material things that come into being and pass out of being.  The question is whether even matter considered as an eternal being could be the ultimate cause of things.  

In other words, Cudworth and Locke both seem to be arguing along lines similar to those which, as we have seen, Aquinas develops in the first part of the Third Way, in which he shows that something must have always existed, even if only what J. L. Mackie calls the “permanent stock of matter” that persists through the processes of generation and corruption.  As I noted in my book Locke (at pp. 85-86):

A standard criticism of the first stage of [Locke’s] argument is that it seems to commit a rather blatant fallacy, in that from the claim that there must always have been something in existence, it does not follow that there is some one thing that has always existed – it could be that there has instead always been something or other in existence, one thing preceded by another, which was preceded by another, and so on ad infinitum for all of past time, but without any individual one of them having always existed.  Now this objection is not by itself as telling as is often supposed.  Locke could reply that if we think of the series in question as a series of material things, it is highly unlikely that such a series could have kept going for an infinite number of years; eventually, through sheer chance, there would surely have come a point already at which all material things then in existence went out of existence together.  If the only things that exist or ever did exist are such material objects, then, the world would not exist now, for there would, after the point in past time just described, have been nothing left to bring the world back into being once every material thing died out.  So there must in fact be an eternal being which has kept the world in existence continuously.

A rejoinder to such a reply, though, would be to say that this “eternal being” might, for all that has been said, be nothing more than the collection of basic material elements out of which all individual material things are composed.  Even if every particular material object comes into and goes out of existence at some point, the set of fundamental corpuscles (or some suitable candidate from modern physics) as a whole remains in existence throughout.  Of course, Locke would say that this collection of material elements could never by itself generate perception, knowledge, and other mental properties, and I have suggested [earlier in the book] that he has good reason for saying this.

Like Aquinas, Cudworth and Locke can thus be interpreted as allowing for the sake of argument that matter might always have existed, and as then proceeding to argue (also like Aquinas, though working from different metaphysical assumptions) that even if this were the case, matter could not even in principle be the most fundamental everlasting being.  And if someone asks “Why doesn’t Locke make it more explicit that this is what he is doing?” the answer is arguably that establishing that something has always existed was not the step that needed defense in his day.  He could state that part of the argument more loosely because even the atheist of the day would have granted it.  What needed defense was rather the claim that the eternal being could not have been matter – and sure enough, that is precisely the claim that Locke devotes the bulk of the chapter to defending.

That does not mean that Locke’s argument is otherwise unproblematic.  As I go on to say on pp. 86-87 of Locke:

[That matter could never by itself generate mental properties] is consistent with the claim that, wherever the material world got the mental properties that are conjoined with (parts of) it, it has nevertheless existed eternally.  This would be consistent with the idea of a “demiurge,” a god who merely orders preexisting materials into a cosmos, but it would not be consistent with the traditional monotheistic conception of God as a creator who brings the world into existence out of nothing – a conception that is not only the one that Locke happens to want to defend in the Essay, but which is, as we shall see in the next chapter, absolutely crucial to the political philosophy he wants to defend in the Second Treatise of Government.

For Locke to get to the God of traditional monotheism, then, he will have to argue that even an infinitely old collection of basic material components must itself be explained in terms of God’s creative action.  And to do this would seem to require appealing to the idea that matter, being contingent, can only be explained by reference to something that exists necessarily or non-contingently.  But this would in turn require the endorsement of some explanatory principle that could license the inference in question – a principle like the per se causal series of the Scholastics, or the Principle of Sufficient Reason associated with Leibniz and other rationalist philosophers.  As an empiricist, though, Locke would seem to be in no position to advance such a principle.  As noted earlier, Hume and other later empiricists have argued compellingly that if we take seriously the thesis that we can have no idea that is not derived from experience [in the modern empiricist sense of “derived from experience,” I should have added], it seems that we can have no idea of a “necessary connection” between causes and effects, and thus no grounds for any inference to the effect that the material world simply must have its source in some immaterial necessary being, à la Scholasticism and rationalism.  Something similar could be said of the principle Locke appeals to in defense of the claim that the cause of a thing must be the source of its powers – a principle that Locke borrows from his Scholastic predecessors, but which does not sit well with his empiricist scruples.  

If something like Locke’s argument for God’s existence can be defended, then (and there are several contemporary philosophers who would defend an argument for an eternal First Cause of the world), it seems that it will have to be done on the basis of a general metaphysical picture other than the sort allowed for by his empiricism.  Once again, we see that Locke’s attempt to preserve some elements of the Scholastic inheritance while jettisoning others may threaten to force him into a dilemma: in this case, he can either give up a thoroughgoing empiricism and salvage his argument for God’s existence, or follow out the implications of his empiricism and give up the argument. It is not clear that he can have both the empiricism and the argument, though. (Whether some other argument for God’s existence can be defended on empiricist but non-Lockean lines – Berkeley’s argument, for example – is another question.)

However we ultimately judge Locke’s argument, though, the claim that it commits a quantifier shift fallacy does not constitute a fatal objection.

In our final post in this series, we’ll examine the claim that Aristotle commits a quantifier shift fallacy in the Nicomachean Ethics.
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