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THIS PAPER EXAMINES a puzzle. The subtitles of both George Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge and his Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous indicate that these philosophical works fulfill a religious purpose, namely, to combat skepticism, atheism, and irreligion. (1) In both works Berkeley argues from the existence of the sensible world to the existence of God (2) as its cause. He then provides a description of God-as-cause on the basis of the characteristics of the sensible world. Surprisingly, given his religious objectives, neither description ascribes omnipotence or infinite power to God. (3) Following both descriptions, however, Berkeley claims that God is omnipotent (4) or almighty, (5) attributions that are also found in his sermons. (6) Since omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence are often considered the principal attributes of the Judeo-Christian God,7 why do Berkeley's principal descriptions of God make no allusions to omnipotence while he later freely ascribes omnipotence to God?

In this paper I hope to provide a plausible explanation of Berkeley's apparent ambivalence regarding God's omnipotence. I shall argue that his reluctance to ascribe omnipotence to God is the reluctance of a careful philosopher, that his willingness to do so is that of a religionist, and that his account of language explains why he can talk in two different voices. Focusing on the argument in Principles [section]146, (8) I first show that Berkeley's description of God is patterned after that in Article I of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the basic doctrinal statement of the Churches of England and Ireland. I argue that, given one clear, positive sense of omnipotence, the argument will not support the claim that God is omnipotent. Since it will be objected that there is no evidence that Berkeley used "omnipotent" in the sense I discuss, I turn to his discussion of linguistic uses, distinguish between philosophical and religious uses of "omnipotent," and argue that Berkeley holds that philosophical uses are problematic while religious uses are not. I then argue that his uses of "omnipotent" in the Principles and the Three Dialogues are religious uses.


Berkeley's Descriptions of God. In Principles, Section 146, (9) after concluding his argument for the existence of God, Berkeley writes, "I say if we consider all these things, and at the same time attend to the meaning and import of the attributes, one, eternal, infinitely wise, good, and perfect, we shall clearly perceive that they belong to the aforesaid spirit, who works all in all, and by whom all things consist." (10) While philosophers might find this description surprising--particularly the absence of allusions to the omni-attributes common in philosophical descriptions of God--it is a good Anglican description. The description of God in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion reads: "There is but one living and true God, ever-lasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible." (11) Notice that both Berkeley and the Thirty-Nine Articles describe God as one, as eternal or everlasting, (12) and as infinitely wise and good. (13) Since wise decisions require knowledge, we may take the claim of infinite wisdom to entail omniscience. There is no allusion to "without body, parts, or passions," although his attack on material substance, his argument that all causes are spiritual, (14) and his contention that spirits lack parts (15) entail that God is without body or parts. (16) He is silent regarding the absence of passions in God. (17) His argument in Section 146 concerns the cause of the sensible world, and his allusion to "the aforesaid spirit, who works all in all, and by whom all things consist" seems to cover "the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible." What is glaringly absent is any reference to the power of God.

If we examine the argument on which Berkeley based his description of God, we shall find the absence of an allusion to power even more puzzling. Berkeley wrote:
   But though there be some things which convince us, humane agents
   are concerned in producing them; yet it is evident to every one,
   that those things which are called the works of Nature, that is,
   the far greater part of the ideas or sensations perceived by us,
   are not produced by, or dependent on the wills of men. There is
   therefore some other spirit that causes them, since it is repugnant
   that they should subsist by themselves. See Sect. 29. But if we
   attentively consider the constant regularity, order, and
   concatenation of natural things, the surprising magnificence,
   beauty, and perfection of the larger, and the exquisite contrivance
   of the smaller parts of the creation, together with the exact
   harmony and correspondence of the whole, but above all, the never
   enough admired laws of pain and pleasure, and the instincts or
   natural inclinations, appetites, and passions of animals; I say if
   we consider all these things, and at the same time attend to the
   meaning and import of the attributes, one, eternal, infinitely
   wise, good, and perfect, we shall clearly perceive that they belong
   to the aforesaid spirit, who works all in all, and by whom all
   things consist. (18)

Berkeley infers the properties of God from the properties of the world. What exactly Berkeley means by claiming God is one is not entirely clear. It might mean that insofar as God is a spirit and spirits have no parts, (19) God is a simple substance, in which case it entails the "without ... parts" in the Thirty-Nine Articles. But if the sense of "one" in the Thirty-Nine Articles is uniqueness, it is likely that Berkeley understood it in that way as well. He had methodological reasons for claiming that there is one cause of the world: the explanation would be simpler than positing multiple causes. Further, the argument builds on that in Section 29, and there the question was "What is the cause of those ideas that I do not myself cause?" There the presumption was that there is one cause of those ideas I do not myself cause, and the presumption carries through. So, there are some grounds for Berkeley to understand oneness as uniqueness. "Eternal" is ambiguous between existing outside of time and existing at all times. If time is the succession of ideas, (20) then God-as-substance is properly outside time both because ideas are in spiritual substances (21) and because there is, presumably, no succession of ideas within God. (22) If we understand time in the more prosaic way that takes all existents to be "in" time, some having temporal limits, then God as the cause of the successive ideas that constitute the sensible world must exist at all times. Characterizing God as "infinitely wise, good, and perfect" requires examining the structures Berkeley ascribes to the world. Insofar as Berkeley ascribes perfection to the larger parts of the world, he has a basis for ascribing perfection to God. The appeals to wisdom and goodness seem to be based upon the intricate relations among the parts of the world, the fitting of means to ends, and their perfect regularity. (23) But there is no reference to the power of God, and there should be, since the argument assumes that God is the cause of the sensible world. Insofar as the argument is an expansion of that in Section 29, and insofar as Berkeley's commentary on the conclusions of that argument indicates that the Author of Nature is "more powerful" (24) than the finite perceiver who could cause some of his own ideas, (25) the cause of a world known to contain indefinitely many finite spirits (26) must be more powerful still. Why is there no explicit reference to the power of God?

While there is no explicit textual evidence that will answer that question, I believe there are plausible reasons why Berkeley was hesitant to discuss the power of God. The standard allusions at the time were to the omnipotence of God, and Berkeley's argument cannot support that conclusion. While the world of Section 146 is extremely complex, it is a finite world. (27) Hence, there is no basis in the argument to claim that God is infinitely powerful or omnipotent. To claim God is powerful, but not omnipotent, would raise questions regarding Berkeley's theological orthodoxy. So, perhaps, he attempted to sidestep the issue by remaining mute regarding the power of God. Indeed, Berkeley considered his description of God clearer than those stated in terms of infinite attributes. As he wrote in the Notebooks, "My Definition of ye Word God I think Much clearer than that of Descartes & Spinoza viz. ens summe perfectum, & absolute Infinitum or ens constans infinitis attributis quorum unumquodque est infinitum." (28) Perhaps if we reflect on the notion of omnipotence we can obtain a clearer understanding of the problem.


One Notion of Omnipotence. Omnipotence, the idea of all-powerfulness, is an odd notion. One conception of omnipotence is that all powers are actually or potentially contained in God. But the notion of potential powers in God is not available to Berkeley, since he held that God is purely active. (29) So, if Berkeley held that God is omnipotent, Berkeley might be committed to the claim that all powers are actually contained in God. This raises problems.

Claiming that every kind of power is contained in God is not a problem. (30) The problem arises with instances of power of a kind. If God is all-powerful, then all instances of all kinds of power are contained in God. Berkeley rejected that assumption. Section 146 begins with the words, "But though there be some things which convince us, humane agents are concerned in producing them." (31) If some powers are contained in humans--for example, instances of the powers of imagination or choice--then not all instances of all kinds of power are contained in God. (32) In that sense, God is not omnipotent. Notice that this is not a problem that arises with omniscience: God and I can have some of the same bits of knowledge (ideas) without diminishing what either of us knows. Knowledge involves a relation between the knower and the known. The bits of knowledge known are not part of the essence of God; only the actual knowing is essential to God. Power, on the other hand, involves a relation between power-as-cause and its resulting effect. But the effects are individual and follow from individual exercises of a power. So, while in cases of knowing the knowing relation is external in the sense that it is a relation between a mind and some bit of information (idea) that can be available to more than one mind, a relation of power is internal in the sense that it is a relation between a particular act of a mind and a particular effect, and no other individual act of any mind can result in the same individual, determinate effect. So, if human beings or other spiritual entities have any power at all, God cannot be omnipotent.

Theological philosophers have tried to work around this apparent problem. Many try, as Descartes sometimes does, (33) to contend that all power is in God insofar as all beings are dependent upon God. This does not seem to work. It implies that God gives, or more properly loans, some of his power to created spirits. This implies that, after creation, not all power is in God, just as when a bank loans me a sum of money the bank loses control of the money: in some sense the money is the bank's, but it doesn't "have" it, and, as the bank crises of a few years ago clearly showed, when money is loaned, the bank loses control of it. On such a view, all power is in God, at best, in only in a metaphorical sense. (34) Of course, there was a philosopher with whose work Berkeley was familiar who resolved this puzzle, namely, Spinoza. For Spinoza, human beings are merely finite modes of God, so human powers are contained in God. Spinoza's God is properly omnipotent.

Eighteenth-century philosophers' understanding of Spinoza generally followed the interpretation in Pierre Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary. Spinoza was the great atheist. That Berkeley deemed Spinoza an atheist is beyond question. (35) Berkeley needs a powerful God to explain the sensible world, (36) so atheism must be rejected. Since being deemed a Spinozist would be at least an ad hominem criticism of his position, it was at least pragmatic to avoid such charges. What could Berkeley do?

Beyond their causal dependence, Berkeley never spells out the sense in which finite spirits are dependent upon God. If Principles, Section 49 is taken as a general rejection of a substance-mode ontology, then he avoided the general problem of Spinozism, that finite minds are modes of the divine substance. Of course, Berkeley might avoid the letter of Spinozism without rejecting its general outlines. One of Berkeley's favorite biblical verses proclaims that God is the being "in whom we live, and move, and have our being;" (37) it is a verse Berkeley takes to show our "absolute and entire dependence" on God. (38) If we read the verse literally, it might be taken to indicate that finite spirits are parts of God, which is quasi-Spinozistic, theologically suspect insofar as it inconsistent with the Thirty-Nine Articles, and inconsistent with Berkeley's remarks on the unity of spirit.

So, if my reflections on omnipotence are plausible, we might have an explanation of Berkeley's silence regarding the power of God in Section 146. Of course, as the cause of the sensible world, God must be exceedingly powerful. By the time he wrote the Three Dialogues he seems to have worked out a way to express this without expressing a commitment to omnipotence: God is "powerful ... beyond comprehension." (39)


Language. Some are certain to object that the sense of omnipotence that I have considered is a bit odd, and that I have provided no evidence that it is the sense of omnipotence that Berkeley assumes. Regarding the first point, I plead guilty, although it is a sense of omnipotence with which Berkeley was familiar--namely, Spinoza's--and given the philosophical climate of the time, it is a sense Berkeley would wish to avoid. I also plead guilty regarding the second point, but I have good reason for doing so: Berkeley never defined "omnipotent" or "omnipotence" in any of his philosophical works. (40)

It is not as if there was no understanding of omnipotence available to Berkeley. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that there were three:

1. As an attribute of a god, esp. the Christian God or Christ: almighty; all-powerful, having infinite power; 2. gen. All-powerful, having absolute power. Also: having unlimited or great authority, force, or influence; extremely strong; 3. Unparalleled, utter, arrant; huge, mighty (cf. almighty adj. 2a). Freq. humorous. Obs, (41)

The third is a nonreligious sense; (42) the other two are obscure precisely where we would want clarity, namely, regarding what it means to be "all-powerful." Since Berkeley was acquainted with at least some of Aquinas's works, (43) it is likely that he was acquainted with Aquinas's worries about the prefix "all" and his solution to the problem of omnipotence:
   I answer that, All confess that God is omnipotent; but it seems
   difficult to explain in what His omnipotence precisely consists:
   for there may be doubt as to the precise meaning of the word 'all'
   when we say that God can do all things. If, however, we consider
   the matter aright, since power is said in reference to possible
   things, this phrase, "God can do all things," is rightly understood
   to mean that God can do all things that are possible; and for this
   reason He is said to be omnipotent. (44)

But this is not unambiguous. Does it mean that God is limited to what is possible--which would suggest that God is not all-powerful--or does God limit himself, as Descartes seems to suggest, insofar as God creates eternal truths that define the possible and the impossible? (45) And, of course, basing an account of the nature of God on the design of the sensible world can show what God-as-the-cause-of-the-world has done, but it cannot show what it is possible for God to do: there are not even prima facie reasons to believe that the limits of the possible are identical with those of the actual.

So, what should we do? Should we look for additional notions of omnipotence? No. Since Berkeley himself provides no account of omnipotence, such an inquiry would solve no puzzles. Nor can we make the standard eighteenth-century empiricist move and look behind the words to the ideas: (46) insofar as God is a spirit, we have notions, but no ideas, of God, and so we can only have notions of omnipotence. (47) Perhaps we should assume that Berkeley took his own advice.

Berkeley indicated that the purpose of the Introduction to the Principles was to "discover what those principles are, which have introduced all that doubtfulness and uncertainty, those absurdities and contradictions into the several sects of philosophy." (48) He focused on "the nature and abuse of language," (49) the cause of which abuse he took to be abstract ideas. For the philosopher, the meaning of words must be clear so we can avoid philosophical absurdities. (50) His discussion of language in the latter part of the Introduction points to some of the problems posed by words. One is that many words are equivocal and lead to verbal disputes. (51) We have seen that the word "omnipotent" is equivocal. Since it is not an idea-based word, Berkeley's standard practice of confining "my thought to my own ideas divested of words" (52) is not available to him. Insofar as Berkeley was a careful philosopher, a philosopher committed to precise meanings for words, the absence of references to omnipotence should not be surprising: had he introduced the notion of omnipotence into his philosophical description of God, it would have become imprecise and equivocal. So, on the basis of his prescriptions for the philosophically precise use of language, and thereby the possibility of knowledge, we should not be surprised that he eliminated omnipotence from his philosophical descriptions of God, particularly since the arguments on which his descriptions are based show that God is powerful but do not show the extent of God's powers.

So, the absence of the term "omnipotence" from Berkeley's philosophical descriptions of God seems based on his account of language. But how can we explain his subsequent use of "omnipotent" and its synonyms?

Had Berkeley held that language fulfills a solely a cognitive function, the puzzle would seem unsolvable. But Berkeley held that some words fulfill an emotive function, and, indeed, sometimes this is their primary function. As he wrote:
   Besides, the communicating of ideas marked by words is not the
   chief and only end of language, as is commonly supposed. There are
   other ends, as the raising of some passion, the exciting to, or
   deterring from an action, the putting the mind in some particular
   disposition; to which the former is in many cases barely
   subservient, and sometimes entirely omitted, when these can be
   obtained without it, as I think doth not infrequently happen in the
   familiar use of language. I entreat the reader to reflect with
   himself, and see if it doth not often happen either in hearing or
   reading a discourse, that the passions of fear, love, hatred,
   admiration, disdain, and the like, arise immediately in his mind
   upon the perception of certain words,
   without any ideas coming between. ... May we not, for example, be
   affected with the promise of a good thing, though we have not an
   idea of what it is? Or is not the being threatened with danger
   sufficient to excite a dread, though we think not of any particular
   evil likely to befall us, nor yet frame to ourselves an idea of
   danger in abstract? If any one shall join ever so little reflection
   of his own to what has been said, I believe it will evidently
   appear to him, that general names are often used in the propriety
   of language without the speaker's designing them for marks of ideas
   in his own, which he would have them raise in the mind of the
   hearer. (53)

In some contexts, Berkeley tells us, words are used to arouse emotions, or actions, or assent with little or no concern for the ideas they represent. As George Pitcher noted, this anticipates later instrumentalist theories of language, the kind of theory most fully developed by the later Wittgenstein. (54) This implies that the context in which a term is used is integral to its meaning. So, while a philosopher might eschew a word such as "omnipotent" due to its cognitive imprecision, the religionist might adopt it to invoke a sense of veneration for the divine. Verbal precision is not always the hallmark of religious discourse. While the religionist would claim that God is omnipotent in the sense of more powerful than any other being in the universe, he is likely to claim that the words "omnipotent," "almighty," and "Creator of heaven and earth" are synonymous or nearly synonymous, that is, he might not engage in the kind of precise analysis of the concept of omnipotence that we would expect from a philosopher. (55)

In defending his philosophy on a religious stage, all Berkeley needs to do is show that his philosophy is consistent with religious doctrine, a doctrine stated in terms that are less cognitively precise than when the same terms are used philosophically. In the remainder of this paper, I hope to show that it is plausible to claim that he does so.


Religion. We noted above that Berkeley freely uses words such as "omnipotent" and "almighty" in his sermons, in sections of the Principles following his description of God in Section 146, and in the Three Dialogues after describing God as "wise, powerful, and good, beyond comprehension," (56) I shall consider each of these.

First, we may ignore allusions to omnipotence in the sermons. Reverend Berkeley, as an Anglican priest, was wholly engulfed in the language of religion, with all the divine veneration and cognitive imprecision that religious language implies. So, the sermons might tell us something about Berkeley's commitments to religious language, but they are not philosophically important.

Second, the closing sections of the Principles, with their generous blending of argument and scriptural quotation, leave little question that Berkeley was intent on showing that his philosophy is consistent with Christianity. At some points he leans more toward religious than philosophical language. For example, when he says in Section 155, "Since it is downright impossible, that a soul pierced and enlightened with a thorough sense of the omnipresence, holiness, and justice of that Almighty Spirit, should persist in a remorseless violation of his laws," his remarks are addressed, at least in part, to a religious audience. Holiness, while religiously important, is not part of a typical philosophical description of God. Similarly, the "Almighty Spirit" seems to be more part of a religious language game than that of a precise philosophical description. (57)

Third, the argument in Principles, Sections 151 through 153 presents a reply to the argument from evil. Berkeley begins by noting that the slowly unfolding processes of nature "do not seem to have for their cause the immediate hand of an almighty Agent." (58) He explains that this procedure, operating the world in accordance with natural laws, speaks to the wisdom and goodness of God with respect to human needs. (59) In Section 152 he notes that "the very blemishes and defects of Nature are not without their use, in that they make an agreeable sort of variety, and augment the beauty of the rest of the creation, as shades in a picture serve to set off the brighter and more enlightened parts" and distinguishes the interests of humans from those of God, alluding specifically to the omnipotence of the creator. Berkeley wrote:
   But we must not imagine, that the inexplicably fine machine of an
   animal or vegetable, costs the great CREATOR any more pains or
   trouble in its production than a pebble doth: nothing being more
   evident, than that an omnipotent spirit can indifferently produce
   every thing by a mere fiat or act of his will.

Since Berkeley explicitly alludes to an "almighty Agent" (60) and an "omnipotent spirit," (61) and since the argument from evil poses a philosophical problem, doesn't this show that show that Berkeley the philosopher was committed to the omnipotence of God?

No. There are certain parameters that define the argument from evil: God must be assumed to be omnipotent and omnibenevolent, and one must grant that there is moral, natural, or epistemic evil in the world. (62) Since there is evil in the world, the proponent of the argument asks whether it does not follow that either God cannot prevent evil, and therefore is not omnipotent, or God does not care, and therefore is not omnibenevolent. Given his religious objectives, Berkeley cannot reply, "If you look at my explicit description of God in Section 146 you will notice that I did not claim that God is omnipotent, and in none of my writings do I claim that God is omnibenevolent, (63) so where's the problem?" Rather, he writes as if he assumes the standard parameters of the argument and offers what John Hick called the aesthetic reply. (64) As we noted, in Section 152 Berkeley alludes to the beauty engendered by "blemishes" in nature, and in Section 153, after identifying evil with pain, he remarks:
   whereas if we enlarge our view, so as to comprehend the various
   ends, connexions, and dependencies of things, on what occasions and
   in what proportions we are affected with pain and pleasure, the
   nature of human freedom, and the design with which we are put into
   the world; we shall be forced to acknowledge that those particular
   things, which considered in themselves appear to be evil, have the
   nature of good, when considered as linked with the whole system of
   beings. (65)

If this is an adequate reply to the argument from evil assuming that God has omni-attributes--as Berkeley seems to believe it is--it is effective with respect to any weaker account of the power and goodness of God. So, if, as I have argued, Berkeley eschewed ascriptions of omnipotence to God in Section 146, the reply to the argument from evil is more than adequate for Berkeley's weaker philosophical concept of God. If this is so, then Berkeley's use of "almighty" and "omnipotent" in these sections is philosophically superfluous; they are words directed at a religious audience.

Fourth, the two passages in the Three Dialogues where Berkeley uses the word "omnipotent" add another wrinkle to our considerations. Philosophical dialogues are curious entities. There are points at which one wonders whether the proponent (Philonous) is willing to accommodate his verbiage to the views of his antagonist (Hylas). While it is true that throughout the Three Dialogues Philonous entertains the various concepts of matter Hylas proposes only to criticize each, it is less clear that the same can be said regarding Hylas' concept of God. Hylas identifies himself as a Christian, (66) and one suspects that Philonous is willing to accommodate Hylas' religious notion of God.

The first passage in which we find the use of "omnipotence" is in a reply to Hylas' suggestion that matter might be an instrument God uses to cause ideas. An instrumental cause is a partial cause, such as the wrecking bar I use to remove a nail from a piece of wood: the bar provides leverage that allows me to grasp and remove the nail, although it is the force I apply to the bar that extracts the nail. Philonous asks first, "How therefore can you suppose, that an all-perfect Spirit, on whose will all things have an absolute and immediate dependence, should need an instrument in his operations, or not needing it make use of it?" (67) He then continues,
   The will of an omnipotent Spirit, is no sooner exerted than
   executed, without the application of means, which, if they are
   employed by inferior agents, it is not upon account of any real
   efficacy that is in them, or necessary aptitude to produce any
   effect, but merely in compliance with the laws of Nature, or those
   conditions prescribed to them by the first cause, who is himself
   above all limitation or prescription whatsoever. (68)

The notion of a perfect being is used in both philosophy and religion, and it is normally taken to entail omnipotence, but it is not the concept Berkeley regularly uses. Berkeley is consistently concerned with God-as-the-cause-of-the-sensible-world, the Author of Nature. Indeed, as we have seen, the Berkeley of the Notebooks prided himself in having a concept of God that is superior to the perfectionist account. (69) This suggests that Philonous was accommodating himself to Hylas' religious description of God for the sake of the argument. Hence, the use of "omnipotence" does not commit Berkeley the philosopher to God's omnipotence.

The second passage in which Berkeley uses "omnipotent" in the Three Dialogues is part of a discussion of the Mosaic account of creation, God's act of causing the world out of nothing. (70) It is the last of Hylas' challenges to immaterialism, challenges that were raised in response to Hylas and Philonous' agreement "to admit that opinion for true, which upon examination, shall appear most agreeable to common sense, and remote from scepticism." (71) Creation is properly a religious issue. Regarding some issues, for example, whether God decreed the existence of the world from eternity or only at some time, the immaterialist and the proponent of material substance are equally at a loss. As Philonous says:
   Pray consider what you are doing. Is it not evident, this objection
   concludes equally against a creation in any sense; nay, against
   every other act of the Deity, discoverable by the light of Nature?
   None of which can we conceive, otherwise than as performed in time,
   and having a beginning. God is a being of transcendent and
   unlimited perfections: his nature therefore is incomprehensible to
   finite spirits. It is not therefore to be expected, that any man,
   whether materialist or immaterialist, should have exactly just
   notions of the Deity, his attributes, and ways of operation. If
   then you would infer any thing against me, your difficulty must not
   be drawn from the inadequateness of our conceptions of the Divine
   Nature, which is unavoidable on any scheme; but from the denial of
   matter, of which there is not one word, directly or indirectly, in
   what you have now objected. (72)

This appeal to "the inadequateness of our conceptions of the Divine Nature" is reminiscent, on the one hand, of the "beyond comprehension" in Berkeley's description of God following the arguments for God's existence, (73) and, on the other, of the common religious views of the time.

After some discussion of the conceptual problems that face the doctrine of material substance with respect to the creation, Philonous turns to "the great advantages that arise from the belief of immaterialism, both in regard to religion and human learning." (74) He begins by giving a description of God. "When I say the being of a God, I do not mean an obscure general cause of things, whereof we have no conception"--which was the basis for Berkeley's arguments for God's existence--
   but God, in the strict and proper sense of the word. A being whose
   spirituality, omnipresence, providence, omniscience, infinite power
   and goodness, are as conspicuous as the existence of sensible
   things, of which (notwithstanding the fallacious pretences and
   affected scruples of scepticks) there is no more reason to doubt,
   than of our own being. (75)

Insofar as Berkeley is concerned with the advantages that accrue to immaterialism with respect to religion, it is reasonable to see this as primarily a religious concept of God, that each of its component concepts expresses veneration for the divine, and that each of the component concepts is acceptably imprecise. But this is the fundamental concept Philonous uses throughout this discussion. So, it is reasonable to suggest he assumes the religious concept when he turns to the advantages of immaterialism for natural philosophy (physics), which he does immediately after offering this description of God.

The initial remarks on natural philosophy are a series of questions regarding purely physical explanations. Even allowing that, contrary to his own principles, natural philosophers might talk of physical causes, Philonous argues through his questions that the natural philosophers' explanations are incomplete: "Can they account by the laws of motion, for sounds, tastes, smells, or colours, or for the regular course of things? Have they accounted by physical principles for the aptitude and contrivance, even of the most inconsiderable parts of the universe?" (76) Immaterialism has none of these disadvantages, as Philonous indicates through a series of conditional statements, the most relevant being, "If they [the natural philosophers] demonstrate an unlimited power in then-cause; God is active and omnipotent, but matter an inert mass." (77) Notice first that this is a conditional: it is only if the antecedent is realized that the use of omnipotent becomes an issue. That aside, Philonous' stated issue was to show the advantages of immaterialism to religion and human learning. He seems to be combining these objectives, using the familiar, religious notion of omnipotence to accommodate the possibility that a natural philosopher could prove that the cause with which he was concerned has unlimited power.

One more point should be noticed. If, as I have argued, Berkeley was primarily concerned with a religious notion of omnipotence in these two passages, he provides us with insight into the cognitive meaning of the religious notion of omnipotence: the notion is negative. God is "above all limitation and prescription;" (78) God has "unlimited power." (79) If God's power is unlimited than there is (1) no being that supersedes God's power, but (2) it is imprecise insofar as it tells us neither what powers God has nor the positive extent of God's powers.


Conclusion. So, does Berkeley attribute omnipotence to God? Sure. The eventually-to-be good bishop had no problems with venerating the Deity with the word "omnipotent," although on such occasions the cognitive meaning of that word is imprecise. I have shown, however, that in the descriptions of God in the Principles and Three Dialogues that are based on the arguments for God's existence, Berkeley did not use the word "omnipotent." I have argued that his hesitance can be explained by the limits posed by the argument for God's existence together with the ambiguity and imprecision of the word "omnipotent." As a careful philosopher, Berkeley found no grounds for attributing omnipotence to God, since the meaning of the word "omnipotence" is ambiguous and obscure.

James Madison University

Correspondence to: Department of Philosophy and Religion, 61 East Grace Street, MSC 8006, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA 22807.

(1) The subtitle of the Principles is "Wherein the chief causes of error and difficulty in the Sciences, with the grounds of Scepticism, Atheism, and Irreligion, are inquired into." The subtitle of the Three Dialogues is "In opposition to Sceptics and Atheists" (3d edition).

(2) In the Principles, God is referred to as the Author of Nature (PHK, [section] 146). References to The Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I (PHK) will be by section number, as will references to the Introduction to the Principles, in volume 2 of The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, 9 vols, (hereafter, Works), ed. A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1948-58). References to the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (DHP) will be by page in vol. 2 of Works. References to Passive Obedience (PO, Works, vol. 6) and Siris (Works, vol. 5) are by section. References to the Notebooks (N, also known as the Philosophical Commentaries, Works, vol. 1) will be by entry number.

(3) PHK, [section]146; DHP, 215.

(4) PHK, [section]152; DHP, 219 and 257.

(5) PHK, [section][section]151 and 155.

(6) Works 6:61, 108, 135.

(7) Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Michael Palmer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 4.

(8) There are several arguments in the Three Dialogues. First, there is an argument from the existence of the sensible world to the conclusion, "As sure therefore as the sensible world really exists, so sure is there an infinite omnipresent spirit who contains and supports it" (DHP, 212). Then Philonous clarifies his argument (DHP, 212-14) and distinguishes his position from Malebrache's position (DHP, 214-15), before concluding that "the Author of them [the ideas I perceive] to be wise, powerful, and good, beyond comprehension" (DHP, 215).

(9) This is explicitly an expansion of the argument at PHK, [section]29. On whether the argument at PHK, [section]29 is an earlier argument for the existence of God, see Ekaterina Y. Ksenjek and Daniel E. Flage, "Berkeley, the Author of Nature, and the Judeo-Christian God," History of Philosophy Quarterly 29, no. 3 (July 2012): 281-99.

(10) PHK, [section]146.

(11) The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, in the Book of Common Prayer, on the Church of England website at book-of-common-prayer/articles-of-religion.aspx#I. The article continues by discussing the unity of the Trinity. Describing God without appealing to omni-attributes is not unique to the Thirty-Nine Articles. Virtually the same description of God is found in the Augsburg Confession of Faith, Article I,; compare Westminster Shorter Catechism, q. 4,

(12) That these terms might not be synonymous is a topic I broach below.

(13) We might note that there is an ambiguity in Berkeley's description of God, vis-a-vis the Thirty-Nine Articles. While the punctuation makes clear that the Thirty-Nine Articles takes God to be infinitely powerful, infinitely wise, and infinitely good, it is unclear whether Berkeley intended the word "infinitely" to apply only to wisdom or whether it should extend to goodness and perfection. If he limited "infinitely" only to wise, the kinds of considerations I raise regarding the notion of omnipotence might also be raised regarding the notion of goodness, although to discuss that issue is beyond the scope of the present paper.

(14) PHK, [section]26.

(15) PHK, [section]27.

(16) There is some evidence that Berkeley limits the word "parts" to bits of extension. See PHK, [section][section]124, 130; DHP, 192.

(17) If passions are effects and God is pure act, it might not be puzzling that Berkeley leaves out the absence of passions. One reason might be that the description of the world in PHK, [section]146, upon which Berkeley claims the existence of God and bases his description of him, does not support such a negative claim.

(18) PHK, [section]146.

(19) PHK, [section]27.

(20) PHK, [section]98.

(21) In this sense all spiritual substances are outside of time.

(22) This is not to say that ideas perceived by God are unordered. See Daniel E. Flage, "Berkeley's Archetypes," Hermathena 171 (2001): 7-31.

(23) The world is finite, however, so ascribing infinite wisdom to God seems problematic unless one understands it loosely as incomprehensibly great or without (known) limits. See Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "infinite." Notice that both of these are negative conceptions of infinity.

(24) PHK, [section]33.

(25) PHK, [section]28.

(26) PHK, [section]145.

(27) This claim might be challenged on the basis of Section 147. There Berkeley writes, "We may even assert, that the existence of GOD is far more evidently perceived than the existence of men; because the effects of Nature are infinitely more numerous and considerable, than those ascribed to humane agents." I am inclined to believe that his use of "infinitely" here should be understood as without known limits (see previous note). The number of finite minds might be exceedingly great, but it does not seem reasonable to claim that the number is literally infinite. The structuring of ideas within finite minds is another level of complexity, and a third level of complexity is posed by the presumptive correlation of ideas among minds. The resulting world is, to human minds, incomprehensively complex, but it is unclear to me that it is literally infinite. See also my comments below on the closing sections of the Principles.

(28) N, #845. Of course it is unclear that he is here concerned with the description of God in Principles, Section 146, since eight entries earlier in the Notebooks he had written, "Every sensation of mine wch happens in Consequence of the general, known Laws of nature & is from without i.e. independent of my Will demonstrates the Being of a God. i.e. of an unextended incorporeal Spirit wch is omniscient, omnipotent etc." (N, #838), which clearly alludes to omnipotence.

(29) DHP, 213 and 231. In John Locke, Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), bk. 2, chap. 21, sec. 2, 309, Locke distinguishes between active and passive powers. An active power is the ability to make a change, while a passive power is the ability to receive a change. It is, presumably, in this sense that God is purely active, that is, God is incapable of changing.

(30) This assumes that God has the power to perceive, that is, know ideas, but does not do so sensibly.

(31) See PHK, [section]28, DHP, 218.

(32) Berkeley's remarks on moral philosophy suggest that free will is necessary for moral responsibility. PHK, [section]153; see PO, [section]30.

(33) This follows from his infinite substance/finite substance/modes distinction. See Principles of Philosophy I, [section][section]51-52.

(34) It is a short step from such a metaphorical understanding of "omnipotent" to Hume's suggestion that it is only as a matter of piety that we ascribe omni-attributes to God: "Nothing exists without a cause; and the original cause of this universe (whatever it be) we call God; and piously ascribe to him every species of perfection." David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947), 142.

(35) See N, #824, 845; DHP, 213; Siris, [section]354.

(36) PHK, [section]146.

(37) Acts 17:28; PHK, [section]149; DHP, 214.

(38) PHK, [section]149.

(39) DHP, 215.

(40) This claim is based on an electronic search of the Past Masters database of Berkeley's Works for "omnipotent" and "omnipotence."

(41) Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "omnipotent."

(42) As an example, the OED cites, "SHAKESPEARE Henry IV, Pt. 1 I. ii. 108 'This is the most omnipotent villaine that ever cried, stand, to a true man.'"

(43) See Alciphron, bk. 4, [section]20.

(44) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q. 25, a. 3.

(45) See Rene Descartes, The Philosophical Works of Descartes, vol. 3, The Corresponsence, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 24.

(46) See Introduction, [section][section]21, 22, and 24.

(47) But the back-to-the-ideas principle suggests that Berkeley took positive conceptions to be superior to negative conceptions, since defining a word such as apple involves a list of the constitutive properties of an apple (PHK, [section]1; compare Descartes on the infinite, The Philosophical Works of Descartes, vol. 2, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984], 31).

(48) Introduction, [section]4.

(49) Ibid., [section]6.

(50) See PHK, [section]5

(51) Introduction, [section]22

(52) Ibid.

(53) Intro., [section]20.

(54) George Pitcher, Berkeley (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), 79.

(55) Verbal precision is not always the hallmark of religious discussion. I recently heard a minister remark that "justice" is one of the most commonly used terms in the bible, but the bible contains no definition of the term. (Rev. Dr. Stephen D. Hay, "Let Justice Roll Down Like Water," a sermon preached at Asbury United Methodist Church, August 7, 2016.) Hay also commented that Proverbs 28:5 "clearly states the assumption that good people know what justice is so we do not need to define it" (email, September 1, 2016). See The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols., ed. George Arthur Buttrick (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), whose entry for "justice" reads: "JUSTICE. See Law; Righteousness; Peace in the OT" (2:1027).

(56) DHP, 215.

(57) Within limits, Section 155 concerns ties between God and morality. It is a topic Berkeley developed in Passive Obedience, where he is concerned with "a sovereign omniscient Spirit, who alone can make us for ever happy, or for ever miserable" (PO, [section]6).

(58) PHK, [section]151.

(59) See PHK, [section]62, PO, [section]7.

(60) PHK, [section]151.

(61) PHK, [section]152.

(62) Insofar as the problem discussed in Descartes's Fourth Meditation can be understood as an instance of the argument from evil--we err, so doesn't it follow that God is a deceiver?--the evil is epistemic.

(63) The claim regarding omnibenevolence is based on a search for "omnibenevolent," "omni-benevolent," "omnibenevolence," and "omnibenevolence" in the Past Masters database.

(64) See John Hick, "Evil, The Problem of," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 8 vols., ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 3:137

(65) PHK, [section]153.

(66) DHP, 212,217.

(67) DHP, 219.

(68) Ibid.

(69) N, #845.

(70) This is a response to Lady Percival's concern that immaterialism would not accommodate the Mosaic account of creation. See Percival's letter to Berkeley of 26 August 1710, in The Correspondence of George Berkeley, ed. Marc A. Hight (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 43; Berkeley's letter to Percival of 6 September 1710, ibid., 44-45; Works 8:37-38

(71) DHP, 172.

(72) DHP, 254.

(73) DHP, 215.

(74) DHP, 257.

(75) Ibid.

(76) Ibid.

(77) Ibid.

(78) DHP, 215.

(79) DHP, 257.
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Title Annotation:George Berkeley
Author:Flage, Daniel E.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jun 1, 2018

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