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Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment: The Writings of Gershom Carmichael, ed. James Moore and Michael Silverthorne (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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On the Existence of God
In which it is demonstrated that an independent being exists
That something exists, we here assume as certain, and rightly so; for each man is intimately conscious to himself of at least his own existence as a thinking being; and hardly anyone doubts the existence of physical objects, perceived by sense. But that which is assumed to exist is either independent or dependent; that is, it is either sufficient to itself for existence, or it borrows its existence from elsewhere. If it is independent, we have what we aimed to demonstrate in the first place, so long as the properties of independent being, which we shall establish in the next Section, do not compel us to abandon this hypothesis and have recourse to another.
But if that whose existence is assumed is dependent, that on which it depends is either independent itself, or leads us, as we trace it back, to some first and independent cause; for in the subordination of causes, there can be no possibility of a circle or of a series running back to infinity. That the former is impossible, is clear by itself, but it is also clear that we should not admit the latter either. For the efficacy by whose power every particular effect exists, must necessarily be transmitted through all previous causes in a straight line; but no efficacy can be transmitted through an infinite series of causes, for the reason that infinity cannot be traversed; therefore no effect can depend on an infinite series of causes. The force of this argument will show more clearly, if we notice that every particular effect necessarily, so long as it exists, depends on some cause which is actually operative at the time; and it would be difficult to accept that there could be an infinite series of causes of this kind.
But it is most evidently clear that neither a circle nor an infinite series of dependent causes can exist without an independent cause; for either the whole range of dependent causes is itself dependent on something external, or it is not. If it is, we already have the independent cause which we are seeking, since it is distinct from the whole range of dependent causes. If it is not, then the whole mass of dependent causes will be independent; and nothing is more absurd than that. For since a whole includes every individual part, and its existence presupposes their existence, it is manifest that if none of the parts is sufficient to itself for existence, the whole cannot exist of itself either, but will still require an external cause. For an infinite number of effects will never be able to take the place of a cause, any more than an infinite series of weights, depending on each other, will be able to take the place of a fixed support. Necessarily therefore it must be conceded that there is an independent being which is prior and superior to particular dependent things.
In which it is shown that the independent being is a spirit, supremely perfect, from whom all things have their being, that is, is God
That which is independent must necessarily be supremely and infinitely perfect. For just as the perfection of any effect is measured either by the power or the will of the producing cause, so the measure of an independent being (if we may speak of measure) cannot be other than what is best for itself, i.e., a supreme and infinite measure. And as that which is sufficient to itself for existence, exists necessarily, so, by the same necessity, it enjoys every possible perfection. Hence the most perfect essence must be that which is possessed in the most perfect mode, and that is the independent mode.
Hence it follows (note this carefully) that anything which comes within the range of our sensation or reflection is dependent, by the very fact that it is not infinitely perfect but suffers from multiple defects.
But when we speak of something as supremely and infinitely perfect, we mean by that appellation to attribute to it every kind of pure and simple perfection and no imperfection. To put this in rather more technical language, it formally possesses absolutely every perfection, really pure as they exist in the object itself. The distinction that is taught in Ontology between pure perfections, or perfections simply so called, and qualified perfections, should be applied both to perfections absolutely regarded, as they exist in their own subject (in which sense only the divine perfections are pure and simply so called, all the rest being essentially limited and imperfect) and to perfections so far as they are represented by a given abstract idea. If the idea involves nothing in its comprehension which suggests defect or imperfection, it is said to represent a pure perfection, otherwise merely a qualified perfection. In this sense thought, as I go on to say, is a pure perfection, but extension is not.1 It contains all the attributes of any possible things whatsoever in the manner in which they can be contained in the most perfect being. That is, it contains them virtually, as in the first and sufficient cause; and at the same time it contains them eminently, as in that to which should be attributed everything whose idea suggests pure perfection shorn of imperfections, and which is also negatively detached from all imperfections.
Hence we understand that though the perfection of the supreme being does not exclude the existence of finite beings dependent on itself (since finite perfections cannot be formally contained in an infinite being, and if they depend on it, are contained in it so far as they are able), yet it does exclude the existence of another independent, and therefore infinitely perfect, being. It also requires that every other being, and every state in which any being can be, depend so completely upon the supremely perfect being, that nothing exists or can exist without its existence, its quality, its quantity, and its duration being determined by the independent being. For if anything existed which was independent of this Being, it would not contain, either formally or virtually, the perfections of the other, and so would not be infinitely perfect.
Hence finally it necessarily follows that the Supreme Being, independent and infinitely perfect, is spirit or thinking thing (res cogitativa), since to have the use of thought is much better and more perfect than to be without it. It also follows that, as the creator of bodies no less than of spirits, it is not body; for the very idea of physical nature involves imperfection. By all these arguments we have afforded a demonstration of the existence of an independent spirit, supremely perfect, from whom all things have their being, that is, of God himself.
In which it is shown that the physical world cannot subsist without an immaterial principle
The general demonstration which we have given leads us from any finite, and therefore dependent, thing to an independent, and therefore infinite, cause; and from this in turn, as if a priori, it leads us to the spiritual nature of that cause, and its power of causing all other things there may be; and so on to whatever may be demonstrated of God. But there are also innumerable more particular reasons afforded by individual parts of the universe, which all conspire to prove that there is an immaterial principle of things, that it is essentially a thinking principle, and that it is wise, powerful, and benevolent beyond anything that we can conceive. Once these points are proven, the cause of atheism is overturned.
To make it clear that we must necessarily acknowledge an immaterial principle, we need not repeat once again that matter, since it is the lowest of all things that exist and contains perfection of the lowest order, is far from the supreme eminence of perfection which we have shown above to be necessarily involved in independent and necessary existence; and that matter therefore exists neither of itself nor necessarily, but presupposes a superior cause by which its existence is determined. Assuming that matter exists, it is indifferent with regard to motion or rest, and no individual piece of matter is destined by the necessity of its nature to the one rather than to the other. Moreover, since the varieties of possible direction are infinite, if matter is not set on one course rather than another by some external cause, it must necessarily be at rest forever. In order therefore that existing matter may be set in motion, having no principle of motion in itself, it stands in need of the influence of some external and superior principle.
If you prefer to suppose that matter is in motion rather than at rest from the beginning—apart from the fact that this supposition has been soundly refuted by what I have already said—it makes no difference. For just as matter at rest continues in a state of rest, so no less necessarily, matter in motion perseveres in a state of motion and uniformly in direction, except insofar as it is compelled to change that state by the application of forces; and since these forces are assumed to exist merely as bodies, they can be applied only by means of an impulse.
Yet it is no less certain, that continual changes occur in the motions of matter, that they are plainly required for sustaining the fabric of the physical universe, and that they cannot be derived from any physical impulse. This is so true that, if we assumed the existence of every particle of matter as well as of the compound bodies which are compacted from them, and if we assumed that they were arranged in the same order in which they are now arranged to compose this universe of physical things, and if too they were stirred by the same movements which actually do occur in them; if we assumed also that individual portions of matter could continue not only their existence, but also the motions which they have (however it may be that this happens) according to laws of nature known and proved by experience, or could even communicate these motions by contact with other parts; if all these things, I say, were assumed, still the fabric of the universe could not subsist even for one moment, if the motions of bodies did not undergo continual changes from an external source.
And since these changes do not proceed from the impact of other bodies, they can only come about by the unceasing application of forces from some immaterial principle in accordance with fixed laws. We see the evident effects of forces of this kind in the gravitation of terrestrial bodies toward earth, in the curving orbs of planets and comets, in the hardness and elasticity of bodies, in those wonderful phenomena of light recently detected by the celebrated Newton, and in other such things. None of them, as has been shown time and again, can be derived from the laws of a mechanism, much less are they produced by the essential forces of inert matter.
In which it is proved that the physical world could not have been preserved forever, nor ever originally brought forth, without some force which operates above the laws of nature
The face of nature, as we now see it, could not have been preserved through infinite centuries, nor originally brought forth, by dint of those laws and applied forces by which today the fabric of the world is sustained.
The planets could not have turned for infinite centuries about the sun, without at last losing their projectile motion by one of those rare collisions of celestial matter, and rushing headlong by their own gravity into the sun once they had lost their motion; nor could the sun itself and the fixed stars have avoided the similar danger, by gravitation toward one another, of compacting, in the passage of infinite centuries, into a great immobile mass. Those flaming globes could not have emitted rays of light in every direction through infinite centuries without being at last exhausted of all light and heat. Finally, this globe itself, composed as it is of earth and water, could not have been irrigated by waters flowing down for infinite centuries, without its face being at last worn smooth, as the higher parts of the dry land were gradually carried down toward the sea.
But if physical nature, left to its own laws, could not have sustained itself forever in its own state, much less could it have arranged itself in the regular order which it has from any other state.
We may conclude therefore that the dry parts of the terraqueous globe were elevated above the surface of the waters, that the celestial bodies were placed at due distances from one another, that the sun and the other fixed stars were saturated with the most subtle fire, that the planets were propelled with great impetus, and so on, by some force and power which exceeds the laws of nature and is therefore without a doubt immaterial; even if we were to claim, contrary to all evidence of truth, that the said laws were essential to mater.
The propagation of animals and plants equally proclaims the same power. For it has been well known for a long time to all who are versed in these matters, that no new animal or plant could be formed by any laws of nature;2 things which are commonly said to be generated have in fact been previously formed, and simply expand and unfold as the new fluids rise. Hence it follows that the generation of plants and animals cannot have continued through infinite centuries, unless we assume an infinite number of individuals of every single species and therefore an infinite number of wholes (which is supremely absurd). For however small the mass of each individual one was, it would necessarily have had to contain all the threads of life, that is, all the originally solid parts, and thus a specific quantity of matter. Therefore the bodies of all plants and animals were fabricated by some immaterial agent, and one who operates above the laws of nature.
In which is shown from the structure of the physical world that it is the work of an intelligent and purposefully operating cause
It is fully established by the arguments of the previous section that the physical world, from whatever direction we view it, betokens a creator, whose power is superior to the laws of nature; and he reveals himself as intelligent and free, as well as powerful, by the fact that, though he necessarily employed his power in the original creation of the world, he does not exercise it in the same way in its daily governance, but operates for the most part by means of fixed laws adequate to this end.
But an intelligent and purposefully operating creator of the universe is more clearly attested by the overwhelming evidence of providential and benevolent design, which reveals itself in the apt disposition of all things, originally formed by that supernatural force and then preserved in accordance with fixed laws. So powerful is this evidence that it is much less conceivable that out of the infinite number of possible motions and combinations of motions, matter once set in motion formed of its own accord and without the direction of an intelligent principle, precisely that arrangement of things which we admire in this visible world, than that the whole Aeneid of Virgil could have been written in intelligible letters by the casual dripping of ink onto a page.
And here a vast store of things would suggest themselves to our thoughts (if our intention to be brief would allow it). Whether we contemplate the excellent order in which the various parts of the universe are laid out; or the striking beauty which shines out in individual things; or the marvellous utility found in all members of the creation and the exquisite adaptation of their structures to their specific ends, or the constant regularity of every individual thing in performing its operations; or the lavishly accumulated stock of all those things which make for the preservation of each kind of creature, and particularly of man; or finally the traces of thought, or even wisdom, which are perceptible in the operations of irrational agents: in all these things the evidence of infinite wisdom, power, and benevolence is more than manifest. But since I cannot spend time on this, anyone who wishes to see a large number of such phenomena surveyed and explained in detail, should consult The Wisdom of God in the Works of Creation, by the celebrated Ray, Pelling’s Discourse on the Existence of God, Cheyne’s Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion, Derham’s Physico-Theology and Astro-Theology, Nieuwentijt’s Religious Philosopher, and other books of the same tendency, which are widely available.3 He should look at the older books but pay particular attention to the recent ones. For the greater the progress made in the knowledge of nature, the more indications emerge, and the more clearly, of the divine Artificer.
In which the existence of an immaterial and essentially thinking principle is confirmed from the thinking to be found in man, both as viewed in itself and as combined with physical motions
But if the structure of the physical world points by such manifest signs to an immaterial and intelligent cause, how much more obvious are the signs we are obliged to recognize in the intellectual world. If matter cannot be brought into existence itself; if existing matter cannot move itself; if matter, however set in motion, is not sufficient to preserve the structure of the world for even a short while without the continuous application of new forces to it from elsewhere; if matter, together with those moving forces, whatever their source, by which we now see it impelled, is not adequate to give rise to the visible world or preserve it forever: much less could matter, by whatsoever means moved and by whatever forces impelled, acquire for itself the power of thinking.
Leaving aside arguments by which it has often been invincibly demonstrated that matter, however modified, cannot think, it is at least more than evident that thought does not belong essentially to matter, whatever motion or impulsion matter may undergo; as if matter could not be moved or impelled without immediately becoming conscious of itself. No matter under what conditions matter is moved or impelled, if (as atheists claim) it is the only vehicle of thought in man, it still needs the efficacy of a superior principle, and that an essentially thinking one, in order to be raised to a perfection that is not essentially appropriate to it. For thought cannot emerge by itself from things devoid of thought, especially if they are not mutually penetrable.
But if even thought of the lowest order cannot arise from matter however modified, much less can the nobler and more sublime modes of thought which the human mind experiences in itself. For often from the smallest and simplest principles, it arrives by long chains of reasoning at knowledge of the most recondite and abstract truths; it represents to itself at a glance not only things past and to come, but also infinite vistas of possible things; through earth and heaven it roams, yea, and ascends in its meditation beyond the bounds of both; it contemplates the idea of the most perfect being; it aspires to the beatific enjoyment of him, it recoils from his anger; and it is so strongly moved to obtain the former and avoid the latter that, without hesitation, it respects the divine precepts revealed to it, however contrary they may be to its desires, as the most sacred rules of morality which it may not violate with impunity.
Suppose we allowed the atheists to claim (yet no claim is more absurd) that there are certain distinct combinations of motions which, every time they happen to occur, necessarily give rise to thought. Since such a delicate combination of motions is required for such a singular effect (for out of an infinite number of equally possible combinations, scarcely one or two are suitable), it will certainly seem incredible that this combination occurs so frequently, is so constantly and regularly maintained and results in such remarkable effects. Certainly if no one ever dreamed that things which happen without purpose and by chance have their origin in men, much less should one think that the very power of taking thought from which such wonderful effects result, arose from a fortuitous concourse of atoms without the design of a superior cause.
Whatever then we suppose its inmost constitution to be, the mind gives evidence of some cause which is far superior to matter and also intelligent, and which (for the reasons given in the last section) possesses this intelligence essentially and independently, as well as all the other perfections to be found in the mind, so far as they are such.
This is also the strong implication of the wonderful phenomena of the union between the human mind and the body, that imperceptible reciprocity of thought and movement. When certain movements trouble the body, they are passed on by channels of which the mind itself is not aware, and are followed by certain perceptions in the mind which alert it to a timely concern for the body. In the other direction when the mind wishes to move a bodily limb, its decisions are taken up by specific motions of the animal spirits of which the mind is not conscious, which yet lead directly to the external motion whose execution it has itself commanded. Similar evidence is afforded by the stupendous construction of the organs that make this communication possible and by the imperceptible ties which connect the human mind, by mediation of the body, with all the visible parts of the world and especially with other men,4 and which in turn incline man to enter society and cultivate peace with others of his kind, which is the basis of the security of the human race on this earth and the firm foundation of all government and order among men. All these things, which cannot be thoroughly explained even by the most diligent and skilled investigators of nature, man could certainly never have provided for himself. Consequently if there was nothing existing in the world but the human race, one would be utterly unworthy of the name of man if one contended that man could be either created or preserved without the efficacy of the Deity.
In which remarkable events are adduced in support of the same conclusion
Furthermore the creator and preserver who is proclaimed by the fixed order of things that stay the same or move in regular courses, is also revealed as governor by extraordinary events which happen from time to time in the world. Concealed crimes are uncovered in marvellous ways; the designs of the impious are frustrated by unexpected events; oppressed innocence is vindicated and set free by an unlooked for coincidence of various accidents; contumacious sinners are afflicted with horrible punishments; governments are transferred from one man to another because of the sins of rulers and their subjects, with massive loss of life; while all the time, government and, through government, order of some kind are preserved in the world. If to all this we add miracles, which incontrovertible evidence tells us have occurred for the benefit of man beyond the ordinary laws of nature, and the no less wonderful predictions of future events, and revelation of the divine will by the testimony of both, no one in the face of all these things will be able to resist the conclusion that there is a God who judges justly, who has nature in his power and to whom all his works are known from the beginning of the world.
In which universal human consent is adduced to the same end, with some other considerations
Finally a great deal of weight is added to the previous arguments by the consent of almost all men, of every race and every age. However diverse their opinions on the nature and properties of God, they have nevertheless unanimously agreed that there is a Supreme Deity. Such universal agreement to a doctrine to which all the prejudices of the senses, the imagination, and the feelings are opposed, must necessarily be recognized as a native offspring of the reasoning faculties, as a seal which the divine hand has impressed upon his work.
Various other considerations could be given here, based upon a comparison between the belief which denies divine existence and that which affirms it. These include considerations of the great risk which the atheist runs if he is wrong; of the horrid consequences of atheism, which will destroy all virtue, all order in human society; of the ineluctable difficulties in which the atheist becomes involved in laboring to escape from certain difficulties in conceiving of the Deity; and of the weakness of the reasons which the atheist puts forward compared with the reasons which establish the opposite truth. But all this and much more that we must pass over, which has the strongest tendency to confirm and illustrate this most important truth, may be read in the celebrated Master Jacques Abbadie’s On the Truth of the Christian Religion, volume 1, section 1.5
On the arguments for proving the existence of God made by the celebrated Descartes
As no mention has been made above of the arguments which have been used to demonstrate the existence of the Deity by the celebrated Descartes in the third and fifth Meditations, the fame of the author and of his speculations seems to oblige us to explain this omission.6
In the third Meditation the celebrated author argues that any idea presupposes a cause of itself which has in itself so much reality and perfection, formally or eminently, as is contained in the idea itself objectively or by representation. Since therefore we have an idea which represents supreme and infinite perfection, it must necessarily be obtained from some cause which contains in itself all that perfection. I would consider this argument to be well-founded, if we were conceiving of God here in his own kind or, as the scholastics say, in his quiddity, such as one must believe the blessed inhabitants of heaven to enjoy, impressed upon them by the object itself, or by the exemplary cause. But since the idea of God which we have in this life is merely abstract, such an idea as can be formed, like other ideas, from simple sensations or reflections by variously separating or combining them, it is not obvious what can be inferred from this idea, more than from any other to be found in the mind.
You might perhaps argue that we can at least rightly infer from it that the first cause also of ourselves contains an idea of infinitely perfect being, and consequently that since it too has the power of actually possessing all the perfections of which it has the idea because it has the power of existing in itself, it is itself infinitely perfect. The celebrated author makes this argument toward the end of the same Meditation. I have myself shown above that being which exists by the internal necessity of its own nature, also possesses by the same necessity every perfection. But I do not see how it contributes to the elucidation of this question to say that the supreme Being has the idea of infinite perfection, unless he is supposed, by some voluntary act of his own, to impart existence to himself and the perfection which he possesses; but this is certainly not acceptable.
Another argument which the same author uses in the fifth Meditation, which infers that God exists from the fact that necessary existence, as a perfection, is involved in the idea of an absolutely perfect Being, suffers from a more obvious fallacy. For from the fact that some attribute is involved in the idea of something, it only follows that this attribute belongs to that thing, if that thing exists, not that the thing having this attribute actually exists.
Anyone who wants to read more about these questions should consult the Meditations of Descartes cited above, with the supplements, objections, and replies. He should also read the teaching of the celebrated Gerard de Vries on this subject in his Reasoned Discussions, in the dissertation “On infinite extension” and “On innate ideas of things,” and elsewhere.7
[1.] The three sentences preceding, beginning “the distinction … ,” were a footnote in Carmichael’s text. De Vries, De Natura Dei,“Determinationes Ontologicae,” ch. VIII, p. 121.
[2.] Carmichael’s note: See, among others, Archibald Pitcairn, an irreproachable witness, in his dissertation “On the Circulation of the Blood in Animals Born and Unborn,” where he demonstrates this very point about at least the initial motion of fluids, even if all the organs of the animal are assumed to be formed and already filled with fluids [“Dissertatio de circulatione sanguinis …”].
[3.] Ray, Wisdom of God; Pelling, Discourse; Cheyne, Philospohical Principles; Derham, Physico-Theology and Astro-Theology; Nieuwentijt, Religious Philosopher. It is noteworthy that these texts (with the exception of Pelling’s) were listed in the same order as items 353, 354, 355, 356, and 358 in the catalogue The Physiological Library Begun by Mr. [Robert] Stewart. For discussion, see Michael Barfoot, “Hume and the Culture of Science in the Early Eighteenth Century,” in Stewart, Studies, pp. 151–90.
[4.] Carmichael’s note: Compare what Malebranche says on this point at The Search after Truth, bk. II, pt. 1, ch. 7, pp. 112 ff.
[5.] Abbadie, Traité de la vérité, pp. 1–151.
[6.] René Descartes, Discourse on Method, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald Guess (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1993); pp. 70–81 and 88–93.
[7.] De Vries, Exercitationes Rationales.