John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): The Divine Attributes

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John Stuart Mill was an original thinker. In fact, his father brought him up to be an original thinker, teaching him Latin and Greek at a very early age. By the time he became a teenager, Mill had learned both languages and much else besides. As a thinker, Mill contributed in many different areas of intellectual endeavor.

Among the things Mill believed was that human beings need to be as free as possible (without infringing on the freedom of other human beings) in order to pursue happiness and to increase the amount of knowledge in the world. This is what he argued in his influential essay On Liberty.

On the question of the existence of God, Mill argued that we ought not merely to accept the traditions handed down by our religions, but that instead we ought to investigate the evidence and see what it tells us.

To investigate God, Mill used natural theology — that is, he looked at nature and used his human reason to see what nature can tell us about God. As a result of his investigation, he concluded that the traditional description of God as omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good) is incorrect. Instead, God is limited in at least two of these areas. According to Mill,

These, then, are the net results of Natural Theology on the question of the divine attributes. A Being of great but limited power, how or by what limited we cannot even conjecture; of great and perhaps unlimited intelligence, but perhaps, also, more narrowly limited than his power: who desires, and pays some regard to, the happiness of his creatures, but who seems to have other motives of action which he cares more for, and who can hardly be supposed to have created the universe for that purpose only. Such is the Deity whom Natural Religion points to.

Let’s see how Mill arrived at these conclusions. First, let’s take omnipotence. Mill argued that God cannot be omnipotent because of the traces of design in the world. Readers will remember that one argument for the existence of God is the design argument; because the world is orderly, there must be a God to order the world. For example, both William Paley (1743-1805) and Mill used the example of an eye to argue that God must exist.

An eye is a very complex organ. It consists of a lens, a retina, rods, and many other parts, all of which when put together allow a living being to see. A creator must have made this ingenious organ because of its complexity, according to the design argument, and that creator is God.

Mill agreed with this argument; however, Mill says that the argument shows that God is not omnipotent. After all, if God were omnipotent, He could merely will that a creature be able to see, and that creature would be able to see — even without eyes! That God had to have recourse to the creation of an eye for His creatures to see shows that God’s power is limited, Mill believes. Any resort to a contrivance such as the eye disproves God’s omnipotence, according to Mill. In Mill’s words,

It is not too much to say that every indication of Design in the Kosmos is so much evidence against the Omnipotence of the Designer. For what is meant by Design? Contrivance, the adaptation of means to an end. But the necessity for contrivance — the need of employing means — is a consequence of the limitation of power.

For example, let’s say that you need to lift a weight of 4000 pounds. No human being is powerful enough to simply pick up the weight using his or her body only; instead, we must have recourse to a contrivance such as an arrangement of pulleys. By means of an arrangement of pulleys, we can lift the weight.

Mill further believes that God’s power is limited because He did not create matter and energy. Instead, according to Mill, these things existed, and God used them in His work. This also poses a limitation on God — God is limited by the materials He had to work with.

Still, Mill believes that God is very intelligent. The design of the eye is evidence of God’s intelligence, just as the design of a pulley is evidence of Humankind’s intelligence. Still, according to Mill, there is nothing to show that God is omniscient, although there is much evidence to show that God is very intelligent. In Mill’s words,

The fundamental principles of natural religion as deduced from the facts of the universe, negate his omnipotence. They do not, in the same manner, exclude omniscience: if we suppose limitation of power, there is nothing to contradict the supposition of perfect knowledge and perfect wisdom. But neither is there anything to prove it. The knowledge of the powers and properties of things necessary for planning and executing the arrangements of the Kosmos, is no doubt as much in excess of human knowledge as the power implied in creation is in excess of human power. And the skill, the subtlety of contrivance, the ingenuity as it would be called in the case of a human work, is often marvellous. But nothing obliges us to suppose that either the knowledge or the skill is infinite.

Moving on to God’s purported characteristic of omnibenevolence, Mill stated that if you look at how God designed His creatures, you will discover that He designed them to stay in existence for a short time. An individual human being can last for just over a hundred years at most; it’s difficult to tell just how long the human species will last, but we know that many species have become extinct.

In addition, if you look at God’s creatures, you will discover that God has paid some attention to our happiness. After all, we are capable of feeling many pleasures, although we can also feel many pains. In general, the pleasures help us to stay in existence (we get pleasure from eating and drinking and from having sex), and the pains also help us to stay in existence (if you touch a hot stove with your fingers, you will quickly move your fingers from the stove because of the pain of the burn you feel; if you could not feel the pain of the burn, you would keep touching the stove and could receive a very severe burn). However, this does not show that God is omnibenevolent, according to Mill:

If the motive of the Deity for creating sentient beings was the happiness of the beings he created, his purpose, in our corner of the universe at least, must be pronounced, taking past ages and all countries and races into account, to have been thus far an ignominious failure; and if God had no purpose but our happiness and that of other living creatures it is incredible that he would have called them into existence with the prospect of being so completely baffled.

So what about justice? According to Mill, the only justice that we can find in nature is that which Humankind has brought into existence. (To me, one of Humankind’s greatest inventions has been the legislated life.) In Mill’s words,

Such are the indications of Natural Religion in respect to the divine benevolence. If we look for any other of the moral attributes which a certain class of philosophers are accustomed to distinguish from benevolence, as for example Justice, we draw a total blank. There is no evidence whatever in Nature of divine justice, whatever standard of justice our ethical opinions may lead us to recognize. There is no shadow of justice in the general arrangements of Nature; and what imperfect realization it obtains in any human society (a most imperfect realization as yet) is the work of man himself, struggling upwards against immense natural difficulties, into civilization, and making to himself a second nature, far better and more unselfish than he was created with.

One can interpret Mill’s essay as showing the limitations of natural theology. After all, a real revelation could tell us much more about God’s characteristics.

Note: The quotations by John Stuart Mill that appear in this essay are from his Three Essays on Religion (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1875).

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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