An Essay Concerning Human Understanding By John Locke Book II: Of Ideas, Chapters 12-33

19. What is positive, what negative, in our Idea of Infinite.

Every one that looks towards infinity does, as I have said, at first glance make some very large idea of that which he applies it to, let it be space or duration; and possibly he wearies his thoughts, by multiplying in his mind that first large idea: but yet by that he comes no nearer to the having a positive clear idea of what remains to make up a positive infinite, than the country fellow had of the water which was yet to come, and pass the channel of the river where he stood:

'Rusticus expectat dum defluat amnis, at ille Labitur, et labetur in omne volubilis aevum.'

20. Some think they have a positive Idea of Eternity, and not of infinite Space.

There are some I have met that put so much difference between infinite duration and infinite space, that they persuade themselves that they have a positive idea of eternity, but that they have not, nor can have any idea of infinite space. The reason of which mistake I suppose to be this — that finding, by a due contemplation of causes and effects, that it is necessary to admit some Eternal Being, and so to consider the real existence of that Being as taken up and commensurate to their idea of eternity; but, on the other side, not finding it necessary, but, on the contrary, apparently absurd, that body should be infinite, they forwardly conclude that they can have no idea of infinite space, because they can have no idea of infinite matter. Which consequence, I conceive, is very ill collected, because the existence of matter is no ways necessary to the existence of space, no more than the existence of motion, or the sun, is necessary to duration, though duration uses to be measured by it. And I doubt not but that a man may have the idea of ten thousand miles square, without any body so big, as well as the idea of ten thousand years, without any body so old. It seems as easy to me to have the idea of space empty of body, as to think of the capacity of a bushel without corn, or the hollow of a nut-shell without a kernel in it: it being no more necessary that there should be existing a solid body, infinitely extended, because we have an idea of the infinity of space, than it is necessary that the world should be eternal, because we have an idea of infinite duration. And why should we think our idea of infinite space requires the real existence of matter to support it, when we find that we have as clear an idea of an infinite duration to come, as we have of infinite duration past? Though I suppose nobody thinks it conceivable that anything does or has existed in that future duration. Nor is it possible to join our idea of future duration with present or past existence, any more than it is possible to make the ideas of yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow to be the same; or bring ages past and future together, and make them contemporary. But if these men are of the mind, that they have clearer ideas of infinite duration than of infinite space, because it is past doubt that God has existed from all eternity, but there is no real matter co-extended with infinite space; yet those philosophers who are of opinion that infinite space is possessed by God's infinite omnipresence, as well as infinite duration by his eternal existence, must be allowed to have as clear an idea of infinite space as of infinite duration; though neither of them, I think, has any positive idea of infinity in either case. For whatsoever positive ideas a man has in his mind of any quantity, he can repeat it, and add it to the former, as easy as he can add together the ideas of two days, or two paces, which are positive ideas of lengths he has in his mind, and so on as long as he pleases: whereby, if a man had a positive idea of infinite, either duration or space, he could add two infinites together; nay, make one infinite infinitely bigger than another — absurdities too gross to be confuted.

21. Supposed positive Ideas of Infinity, cause of Mistakes.

But yet if after all this, there be men who persuade themselves that they have clear positive comprehensive ideas of infinity, it is fit they enjoy their privilege: and I should be very glad (with some others that I know, who acknowledge they have none such) to be better informed by their communication. For I have been hitherto apt to think that the great and inextricable difficulties which perpetually involve all discourses concerning infinity, — whether of space, duration, or divisibility, have been the certain marks of a defect in our ideas of infinity, and the disproportion the nature thereof has to the comprehension of our narrow capacities. For, whilst men talk and dispute of infinite space or duration, as if they had as complete and positive ideas of them as they have of the names they use for them, or as they have of a yard, or an hour, or any other determinate quantity; it is no wonder if the incomprehensible nature of the thing they discourse of, or reason about, leads them into perplexities and contradictions, and their minds be overlaid by an object too large and mighty to be surveyed and managed by them. 22. All these are modes of Ideas got from Sensation and Reflection.

If I have dwelt pretty long on the consideration of duration, space, and number, and what arises from the contemplation of them, — Infinity, it is possibly no more than the matter requires; there being few simple ideas whose MODES give more exercise to the thoughts of men than those do. I pretend not to treat of them in their full latitude. It suffices to my design to show how the mind receives them, such as they are, from sensation and reflection; and how even the idea we have of infinity, how remote soever it may seem to be from any object of sense, or operation of our mind, has, nevertheless, as all our other ideas, its original there. Some mathematicians perhaps, of advanced speculations, may have other ways to introduce into their minds ideas of infinity. But this hinders not but that they themselves, as well as all other men, got the first ideas which they had of infinity from sensation and reflection, in the method we have here set down.

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