As man progressed through the various stages of evolution, it isassumed that at a certain point he began to ponder the world around him. Ofcourse, these first attempts fell short of being scholarly, probablyconsisting of a few grunts and snorts at best. As time passed on, though,these ideas persisted and were eventually tackled by the more intellectual,so-called philosophers.
Thus, excavation of “the external world” began. Asthe authoritarinism of the ancients gave way to the more liberal views ofthe modernists, two main positions concerning epistemology and the natureof the world arose. The first view was exemplified by the empiricists, whostated that all knowledge comes from the senses. In opposition, therationalists maintained that knowledge comes purely from deduction, andthat this knowledge is processed by certain innate schema in the mind.
Those that belonged to the empiricist school of thought developed quiteseparate and distinct ideas concerning the nature of the substratum ofsensible objects. John Locke and David Hume upheld the belief thatsensible things were composed of material substance, the basic frameworkfor the materialist position. The main figure who believed that materialsubstance did not exist is George Berkeley. In truth, it is theimmaterialist position that seems the most logical when placed under closescrutiny. The initial groundwork for Berkeley’s position is the truism that thematerialist is a skeptic.
In the writing of his three dialogues, Berkeleydevelops two characters: Hylas (the materialist) and Philonous (Berkeleyhimself). Philonous draws upon one central supposition of the materialistto formulate his argument of skepticism against him; this idea is that onecan never perceive the real essence of anything. In short, the materialistfeels that the information received through sense experience gives arepresentative picture of the outside world (the representative theory ofperception), and one can not penetrate to the true essece of an object. This makes logical sense, for the only way to perceive this real essencewould be to become the object itself! Although the idea is logical, itdoes contain a certain grounding for agnosticism.
Let the reader considerthis: if there is no way to actually sense the true material essence ofanything, and all knowledge in empiricism comes from the senses, then thereal material essence can not be perceived and therefore it can not beposited. This deserves careful consideration, for the materialist has beenself-proclaimed a skeptic! If the believer in this theory were asked if amythical beast such as a cyclops existed he would most certainly say no. Aspart of his reply he might add that because it can not be sensed it is nota piece of knowledge. After being enlightened by the above proposedargument, though, that same materialist is logically forced to agree that,because the “material substratum1” itself can not be sensed, its existencecan not be treated as knowledge.
The materialist belief has, in effect,become as futile as proving that the cyclops exists; his ideas have leadhim into skepticism. Having proven that the materialist is, at best, a doubter, Berkeleygoes on to offer the compelling argument that primary and secondaryqualities are, together, one thing. As the materialist believes, primaryqualities of an object are those things that are abstract (not senseoriented). Examples of these would be number, figure, motion, andextension. Secondary qualities are those things that are concrete (senseoriented), such as color, smell, sound, and taste. The materialist feelsthat these primary qualities persist even when the secondary ones are notthere.
Thus, if a person were blind, then that individual would not beable to hear or to touch items; yet the so-called real qualities such asfigure would remain existent in the objects. As previously shown, thematerialist is agnostic in his belief of these real (primary) qualities. It is here that Berkeley directs an alternate hypothesis: that the abstractprimary qualities don’t exist at all. In fact, the immaterialist positionstates that these qualities are merely secondary in nature, as they, too,can not be perceived as being separate from an object. For instance, if aperson is asked to imagine a primary quality alone, as an abstraction, itis impossible. To illustrate this point, suppose that a person is asked tothink simply of number alone.
This person may reply that the idea he isformulating is that of three red spheres. In truth this is not an abstractidea, because when the qualities of color (red) and shape (sphere) aretaken away, all that is left is three of nothing! Thus, it is impossibleto think of the abstraction of number, given that an abstract quality cannot focus on anything concrete (such as red spheres in the above mentionedexample). Therefore, it follows that, since no primary, abstract qualitycan exist alone, it is the same as a secondary quality in which an actualobject must first be perceived. Berkeley moves on to show that the perceived qualities of an objectare ideas which exist only in a mind. To do this, he states that asensation is an idea.
This is logical, for sensations can not be felt bymindless objects. However, it is this point which Berkeley scrutinizes inthe materialist statement that an external object “is a material substancewith the sensible qualities inhering in it. 2” The materialist isproclaiming that sensible qualities, which exist in the mind only, areactually in the object. Logically, the only possible way for this to occuris if the external object had a mind for the qualities to be thought of andstored by.
The notion that inanimate objects have minds is ridiculous, andthus the materialists’ belief has been reduced to absurdity. Let thereader consider this example to reinforce the point. A ten-story buildingis erected, and a person who lives in a single-story house in the countrysees the new building. To this person the structure may seem quite tall,as he has never seen any building taller than three stories. However, aconstruction worker comes across the same building and perceives its heightquite differently than the previous man.
Since the second man usually workson buildings about thirty stories high, he thinks that the building isfairly short. Obviously, the new building can not be both tall and shortat the same time; yet this is the outcome if one believes that the qualityof tallness is inherent in the object. In fact, if the idealist(immaterialist) position is considered it seems logical that one personcould view something differently than another. This is because the ideaconcerning that thing could be different in the two separate minds.
At this point Berkeley explains that the so-called tertiary qualitiesof an external object are non-existent. The materialist defines thesequalities as the ability in one object to produce change in another object. In the three dialogues, Hylas brings up the point that these qualities are”perceive by the sense. . . and exist in the object that occasions3.
” An example of this quality would be a burning candle. Supposethat a person puts his finger in the flame long enough to feel the pain ofa burn. The materialist would attribute this pain to the lit candleitself, stating that the ability to produce pain is inherent in it. However, this can not be the case. As previously discussed, the externalobjects are merely ideas which we perceive through sense experience. Justas these objects do not possess any primary or secondary qualities, theyalso can not have the ability to cause change in something else.
In fact,these tertiary qualities are also ideas perceived only in the mind. Given that objects are ideas and humans possess minds to perceive themwith, the nature of both ideas and minds deserves careful consideration. Berkeley assumes the view that ideas are passive and only perceivable in amind. He goes on to state that these ideas are existent only when a mind isperceiving them. This is logical, for when something is not beingruminated upon it does not exist in the realm of knowledge at thatparticular time.
As an example, if I were to move to another country and,after some time, forget about my old house in America, it would not existto me anymore. In accordance with the immaterialists’ view, my activelyperceiving mind would be electing not to reflect back upon the past. Thus,only the active mind can create the purely passive idea. Since an idea only exists when it is being perceived or reflected upon,this brings into question the nature of reality. For instance, assume thata person attends an art museum early on Sunday morning.
As that personviews the artwork, the paintings themselves are sensible things, or ideas,actively being perceived by a mind; in short, they exist. However, whenthe museum closes and the person goes home, does the artwork continue toexist? Obviously the person pursues other activities of the day, and heceases to think about what he did earlier. However, at a certain timethose paintings were part of what the person knew to be true throughsensation; the artwork was part of the person’s reality. Do the paintingstherefore cease to exist since they are no longer being thought of? Berkley argues that such objects still exist because the mind of God isalways perceiving them.
Unlike the materialists’ view, the immaterialistputs God at the center of his views. In truth, God is the “omnipresentexternal mind which knows and comprehends all things, and exhibits them toour view in such a manner and according to such rules as He Himself hasordained and are by us termed the ‘laws of nature. ‘4” It is important tostress the idea that God shows people the ideas in his mind, and theseideas make up the reality beheld by the human mind. Therefore, for anyperson to perceive something, the idea must be in the mind of God first.
The fact that there are two distinct minds raises questions about thenature of these minds. The idealist proclaims that the human mind isstrictly finite in its ability to have sense experience. With this beingthe case, a person can only have a single sensation at a time. Sincesensations are the same as ideas, humans can only have one idea at once. On the other hand, God’s mind is infinite and is thus able to have multipleperceptions.
These perceptions of God are also ideas, and it follows thatthese ideas comprise the reality beheld in the finite human mind. Insteadof the materialists’ belief in the representative theory of perception,where a material object has real (primary) qualities which humans perceiveas sensible (secondary) qualities, Berkeley has posited an alternatetheory. This is that God upholds all of the ideas which comprise humanreality, and people perceive these ideas as sensations directly from God’sinfinite mind. It should also be noted that just as the finite mind is different fromthe infinite mind, the ideas in each mind have some certain distinctions. The finite mind can only contemplate a limited range of thoughts.
Toillustrate this, let the reader attempt to imagine an infinite number ofstars. After some intellection, the reader will realize that it is animpossible task. This is because the human mind can only think in terms ofbounded entities; thus, in the above mentioned case, the reader may havethought of a great many stars. However, the stars were finite in number andcould therefore not represent the notion of infinity.
In short, the finitemind can only conceive finite thoughts. Not only this, but, as previouslydisgussed, humans can perceive only one thought at a time. If the readerdoes not think this to be the case, then let her attempt to imagine a smallboy and a thunderstorm as completely separate ideas. Although both ideasmay be thought of, the only way for this to occur is when they are placedin the same mental picture. In summary, the human mind has importantlimits which can easily be observed.
On the contrary, the infinite mind of God is limitless in its abilityto perceive ideas. In God’s mind, an infinite thought (a thought withoutboundaries) can exist. This infinite idea’s existence in God’s mind ismore that possible; it must necessarily be the case. This is becauseinfinite concepts such as the number system and the universe must comefrom, as do all thoughts, a mind. However, since the human mind is finiteand therefore incapable of conceiving boundless thoughts, then thoseinfinite ideas must arise from the infinite mind of God.
Not only doesGod’s mind contain infinite thoughts, but it also must possess the abilityto think of, in the least, many thoughts at once. This is necessarily thecase for the collection of God’s ideas which people call reality to exist;if God did not have this ability then external objects would not exist whenthe finite mind was not perceiving them. Thus far the immaterialist position has been considered in its parts;at this point it shall be viewed as one simple model. Let the readerpicture an isosceles triangle which is divided into three parts: the top,middle, and bottom. At the apex of the figure is God’s infinite mind. Themiddle portion of the triangle is occupied by the finite minds of people.
Lastly, the bottom section contains the ideas perceived by humans. BecauseGod is at the pinnacle of the figure, He also perceives the ideas thatpeople do. However, since the human mind is finite, it can not conceive ofthe infinite ideas in God’s mind at the apex of the triangle. Now, theconcepts of either perceiving or being perceived can be added to thepicture. Both the top and middle portions of the figure are minds, so bothof these sections are perceivers. At the bottom of the model are ideas,and since they do not act of their own volition, they are perceived.
Aspreviously shown, perceivers are active and the perceived is passive. Lastly, the concept of existence can be applied to the triangle. Sinceexistence is that which is either perceived or perceives5, and each part ofthe model has been shown to meet one of these criteria, then the entiretriangle must be considered to exist. In the final analysis, it is evident that Berkley’s immaterialistposition is logically feasible. From his definitions of minds and ideas tohis careful attribution of their respective qualities, George Berkeley hasproduced a compelling argument for his views.
However, this is not allthat he has done; in fact, Berkeley has shown the necessary importance ofGod. In the materialist view, a belief in God is not logically necessaryto uphold the “material substratum2. ” Berkeley shows that God must exist,for He is at the heart of Berkeley’s position. In short, the materialistview allows for atheism as a possible option.
Notes. George Berkeley. “Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. “Reason and Responsibility. Ed. Joel Feinberg p.
175. 2. Berkeley, p. 165. 3.
Berkeley, p. 165. 4. Berkeley, p. 191. 5.
Berkeley, p. 179.