George Berkeley

Bishop George Berkeley was an early modern Irish philosopher who made significant contributions to philosophy through his concept of ‘immaterialism’. The following is an excerpt from a rough draft of a paper I wrote on Berkeley’s philosophy. He is a particularly interesting study because he advocates a philosophical system of thought that he believed would save Christianity from atheism. It is obviously debatable how successful Berkeley is. Ultimately to agree with Berkeley’s system one must be a theist. That said, his philosophy will most likely not be understood or adopted very quickly.

Berkeley argued that ordinary objects such as houses, trees, and tables were only ideas. He did so with the following logical syllogism. His first premise was that humans perceive ordinary objects. Examples of ordinary objects include buildings, mountains, animals, everything else that would be considered a physical object. His second premise was that humans perceive only ideas. Finally, his conclusion stated that because of these two premises ordinary objects are ideas. His second premise seems noticeably more questionable than the first. However, Berkeley felt that this premise was widely accepted. He did attempt to respond to a possible objection to this second premise. Berkeley anticipated that his opponents would try to draw a line of distinction between two types of perception. The distinction was as follows, firstly that humans only mediately perceive objects and secondly that humans immediately perceive ideas. This would partially agree with Berkeley’s second premise, but it would argue that humans mediately perceive objects through ideas. So in other words, the ideas humans have represent the ordinary objects, allowing for the perception of these objects. By distinguishing between these two types of perception, the idealist conclusion Berkeley seeks is derailed.

But Berkeley knew this and attempted to respond to this line of reasoning. Berkeley did this by asking the question, “What allows an idea to represent a material object?” From here he again anticipates his opponents response will most likely have to do with resemblance. In other words the human idea which is immediately perceived resembles the material object with is mediately perceived through the idea. In easier language, the idea resembles the material object. To this foreseen argument Berkeley raises the objection that an idea can only resemble another idea, it is illogical to assume that an idea could be like a material thing. This is primarily because Berkeley believed two things could not be known to be different unless they could be compared. Simply stated this seems very reasonable, unless two things can be compared, it is impossible to know that they are alike. But for Berkeley the human mind could only compare ideas, because ideas are what are immediately perceived. So Berkeley felt that those who adopted a representationalist approach were wrong on the grounds that they asserted a likeness between idea and a non idea. This again is why Berkeley held that no material things exist.

Berkeley’s opponents did however have one other argument left with which to counter Berkeley. This argument primarily had to do with the explanatory power of material objects. In some ways this is the argument from common sense, in which Berkeley’s opponents appealed to what could perhaps be called the generally accepted pattern of thought for most people. This namely was simply the feeling that material objects are needed to account for the ideas humans have. If there are no real material objects, than what is responsible for all of the ideas humans have? Certainly most people would agree that the best and easiest explanation for the source of ideas are material objects. Simply said, the reason one has an idea of a tree is because there really is a tree planted in their front yard, and this material tree is responsible for their idea. However Berkeley has a response for this argument as well. His main response to this was as follows, how can one substance (in this case material) casually affect another substance of a different kind (in this case immaterial)? Even representationalists will concede that humans could have ideas without the existence of material objects, representationalists are also at a complete loss as to how two entities of entirely different substance interact and affect one another. Berkeley felt that in many ways believing material objects exist did not explain the problem of why humans have ideas at all. In fact, Berkeley argued that belief in material objects as the source of our ideas actually raised more questions than it answered. So where representationalist argue that material objects are needed to explain ideas, Berkeley argues that not only are they not needed, they don’t actually help solve the problem at all. This is extremely difficult for representationalists because they themselves acknowledge that it is at least possible that material objects are not the source of ideas. In summary Berkeley believed that all people ever mediately or immediately perceive are ideas not the material objects themselves.

Now to address Berkeley’s main argument for his position. Here Berkeley begins by stating that he will gladly give up his belief and renounce his argument on one condition. To quote him directly, “I am content to put the whole upon this issue: if you can but conceive it possible for one extended moveable substance, or in general, for any one idea or anything like an idea, to exist otherwise than a mind perceiving it.” Berkeley charges anyone who would disagree with him to simply and easily prove him wrong by thinking of a material object existing without being perceived. If one can but do this, he will relinquish his belief. The problem here is that this is an impossible condition. Like Berkeley goes onto point out in his own writings, one might be tempted to hold that thinking of such an occurrence is quite easily. Berkeley even acknowledges that some will point out how easily they can imagine a park and tress existing, all the while absent of any perceiver. But here of course lies the problem, that they themselves are thinking and perceiving the park and the trees all the time. As soon as one begins to try to prove Berkeley wrong, at least on his own terms, they are actually proving him right. Berkeley posits that all this proves is the power of the mind in forming ideas. Perhaps this statement by Berkeley sums it up the best, “When we do our utmost to conceive the existence of external bodies, we are all the while only contemplating our own ideas.” This is a rough sketch of how Berkeley argued philosophically for his belief that to exist was to be perceived.

In his “Principles of Human Knowledge” Berkeley lists eleven objections which he considers likely to be raised and attempts to refute them all to the satisfaction of the reader. Although these will be briefly addressed elsewhere, it is now necessary to examine in short how Berkeley argues for his position in a theological manner. Directly after his writing dealing with various objections, Berkeley turns to what he calls “Objections derived from the Scriptures.” The whole of Berkeley’s philosophy depends very heavily on G-d. For one thing, it is G-d that hold all things in existence by constantly perceiving them. It is also G-d that imprints ideas on the human senses. So for Berkeley, G-d truly does hold the world together in a very unique way.

Berkeley also firmly believes that his philosophy would prove a back breaking blow to atheism. He points out that the existence of material objects has long been strong evidence for Skepticism. This may be difficult for contemporary readers to understand. In short, mechanists of Berkeley’s day argued that the universe was like a large machine simply running on its own. So it is more understandable that Berkeley felt materialism threatened Christianity. This is why as far as Berkeley is concerned the existence of material objects serves as the foundation for atheism as well. Berkeley goes so far as to say that Atheism depends on material objects and if they were removed, Atheism would crumble.

In Berkeley’s attempt to answer objections raised from Scripture, he firmly holds that his beliefs in no way whatsoever contradict the Holy Bible. He recognizes that many will point to numerous passages which describe very material things and his only real response is to hold that his view does not contradict any of this.

Shortly after this he is forced to explain what he believes in regard to miracles, specifically do not miracles lose some of their power according to his arguments? Again his answer is a firm no. Citing the examples he puts forward, the rod of Moses was truly changed to a serpent, and the water in Cana was truly changed to wine. He again holds that this does not contradict what he has previously stated. His stubborn arguing that he has not contradicted himself may seem hard to understand until the eleven objections he covers previous to this discourse are examined. Some of the reasons why Berkeley so strongly feels that he is not contradicting himself will become clear from his answers to these objections as well as shed further light on his argument.

“All the choir of heaven and the furniture of earth- in a word, all those bodies which compose the frame of the world- have not any subsistence without a mind.”

“There was a young man who said God, must find it exceedingly odd when he finds that the tree continues to be when no one’s about in the Quad.

Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd I’m always about in the Quad And that’s why the tree continues to be Since observed by, yours faithfully, God.”

-George Berkeley


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