Lectures: Berkeley

Lectures: Berkeley

I. Philosophy after Descartes

A. At first, Cartesian rationalism thrived in philosophy

  • Philosophers such as Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) first made their names by writing responses to Descartes
  • Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677): actually wrote in axiom/theorem form
  • Gottfried von Leibniz (1646-1716): coinventor of calculus, also held very Cartesian philosophy

B. Especially in Britain, things started to take a more empiricist turn. With the growth of science, there was an increased focus on the nature of observation and use of the senses. This impacted philosophy as well.

C. “British Empricism”: usually refers to three major figures

  • John Locke (1634-1704)
  • George Berkeley (1685-1753)
  • David Hume (1711-1776), arguably the most important of the three
  • We’re going to focus on Berkeley, perhaps because his empricism is the simplest and in some ways the most radical
  • But you can’t understand Berkeley without first understanding Locke

II. Locke on perception

A. Some things Locke borrows directly from Descartes

  • The distinction between two different types of things: mind and matter.
  • Minds think, feel and perceive. They are immaterial and unextended.
  • Matter does not think, feel or perceive. Its most important trait is physical extension.
  • Perceptions, therefore, exist not in physical bodies, but are activities of the mind.
  • Throughout the empiricst tradition, the word “idea” is used very broadly: it means anything in the mind, including perceptions, thoughts, feelings, imaginations, memories, etc.

B. General model of perception. Example: flower

  • External material object (the flower itself) causes a set of ideas in the mind (the perception/image of the flower)
  • The image of the flower resembles the flower itself
  • There are certain qualities which are shared by both the image and the object. These are called primary qualities.
  • There are certain qualities which only the image really has. These qualities are only ideas. These are called secondary qualities.
  • The traditional view was that most or all qualities fall into the first group. Every quality of the image is also a quality of the flower itself: shape, size, texture, color, etc.
  • Locke and certain of his contemporaries suggested that this was mistaken, and insisted that many of the attributes of our ideas do not correspond at all to anything “out there”, e.g. color is a secondary quality
  • Secondary qualities include color, sound, taste, smell, softness/roughness
  • Primary qualities include extension (size), figure (shape), motion/rest, solidity, number

III. Berkeley’s Life

  • Born in 1685 in Kilkenny, Ireland
  • Studied at Trinity College, Dublin and eventually joined the faculty. He did most of his philosophical work early in his life.
  • While at Trinity, he became an Anglican clergy member
  • His lifelong dream was to found a University in the “New World”, and Bermuda in particular (Remember that both Ireland and America were then a part of the British empire)
  • Got married to Anne Forster and travelled to the Rhode Island colony to raise funds in 1728
  • Returned a few years later when the funding fell through. Went back to London and politicked to be appointed bishop.
  • Returned to Ireland as Bishop of Cloyne, until right before his death. (He died in Oxford visiting his son.)
  • The University of California system remembered his lifelong dream and named their Berkeley campus after him

IV. Berkeley’s reaction to Locke

1. Accepted Locke’s arguments that secondary qualities are ideas in the mind, but said they could be pushed further

  • From our point of view, there is no difference between primary and secondary qualities. Why should we think that extension is any different than color?
  • In our ideas, primary qualities are dependent on secondary qualities. In a visual image, size and shape just are certain configurations of color. Why should we suppose that size and shape can exist without color “out there”?
  • Conclusion: none of the qualities of our ideas correspond to qualities of external objects. Primary qualities and secondary qualities are both ideas.

2. Ideas cannot resemble things outside the mind.What could it mean to say that a color resembles something unperceivable? What could it mean to say that a feeling of touch resembles something intangible?

3. External objects cannot cause perceptions. How can something inert and material cause an idea in an active, immaterial mind or soul?

4. Without any of that, there is no reason to believe in material substances at all. In fact, the idea of them is incoherent. They are supposed to be matter, and thus substances that don’t think, feel or perceive. But they are also supposed to have primary qualities, which are ideas . How can a substance that doesn’t think, feel or perceive have ideas?

5. What are we left with? Immaterialism/idealism: the only things that exist are minds/souls and their ideas.

6. What is the flower then? Berkeley doesn’t think that the flower doesn’t exist. Instead, he thinks that it is just a collection of ideas or perceptions. As he says, Esse est Percipi. “To be is to be perceived.” For objects of sense, their being is their being perceived by us.

V. Skepticism and Sensible Things

Dramatis Personae of the Three Dialogues: Hylas and Philonous

  • Philonous (name comes from Greek for love of mind): Berkeley’s mouthpiece
  • Hylas (name comes from Greek word for matter): devil’s advocate

A. Skepticism

  • Hylas has been kept up at night pondering the fate of skeptics and philosophers who are supposed to be very wise but instead deny what seem to be the most simple truths and common sense
  • He meets and Philonous and tells him of his worry and Philonous shares the same worry
  • Hylas is suprised because he had heard that Philonous denied the existence of material substance,which naturally seems to him to be a very skeptical position
  • Philonous admits to being an immaterialist, but oddly suggests that it immaterialism is not a form of skepticism and that in fact, it is Hylas, who believes in matter, whose position leads to skepticism
  • Very Important Point: You can see everything that follows as a debate as to whose position leads to skepticism. Both Hylas and Philonous want to retain belief in the everyday sort of beliefs of common sense. The question is which metaphysical theory can do this better.
  • Before they can get into the debate, they have to agree on what skepticism is.
  • The first suggestion—that a skeptic is one who doubts everything—is rejected because they also want to include people who have strange and absurd beliefs rather than no beliefs.
  • Finally they agree that a skeptic—for their interests—is someone who denies or claims ignorance of the reality of sensible things
  • Sensible things are defined as things immediately perceived by the senses. The “immediately” here is important.

B. What do we sense? “Sensible qualities”. These are listed on p. 11. It is concluded that there remains nothing sensible except for sensible qualities or combinations of sensible qualities.

C. Secondary Qualities do not exist outside the mind (Here Berkeley is largely repeating Lockean arguments)

1. Heat and Cold

  • Argument from pain: Cold and heat often are pains or pleasures. Nothing can feel pain or pleasure except for minds, and so heat and cold can only exist in the mind.
  • Argument for perceptual relativity: The same water can feel cold to one hand and hot to another. If the heat or cold were in the water and not the the mind, the water would have to be hot and cold at the same time.

2. Tastes

  • Also pleasures and pains
  • Perceptual relativity: same thing can taste differently to different people
  • Here Hylas tries to make to distinction between the qualities as perceived vs.those in the things themselves.
  • Philonous objects: But we’re just talking about sensible qualities, which must be immediately perceived

3. Odors: perceptual relativity

4. Sounds

  • Hylas admits that the sensation of sound exists only in the mind, but says there is a difference between this as sound itself which is a motion of air
  • Philonous says it doesn’t make sense to talk about a sound that cannot be heard but only seen and felt (since that’s how we come to know about motion)
  • Again, the focus is on immediate objects of sense—we only immediate sense sound as sensation

5. Colors:

  • Perceptual relativity: microscopes, small animals, different light sources,
  • Hylas tries to make another distinction between colors as we perceive them and the real colors, which are motions in light particles. Philonous responds just as he did with sounds.

D. The same arguments show that Primary Qualities also do not exist outside the mind

1. Extension (size) and figure (shape)

  • Perceptual relativity: same things have different sizes and shapes from different distances, points of views, to different sized creatures

2. Motion

  • Perceptual relativity: time is measured by the succession of ideas in the mind. Motion is inversely proportional to time. So different motions can seem quick or slow depending on the observer

3. Solidity: perceptual relativity again

4. In general, so-called primary qualities presuppose extension, so once we acknowledge that extension exists only in the mind, it follows that they all do

VI. Object and Sensation

A. Hylas tries to make a distinction between two components of perception: the sensation and the object of sense

  • The sensation is an act of the mind. It is active, and cannot exist outside the mind.
  • The object is what is perceived. In terms of the perception, it is not active, but wholly passive. It can exist outside the mind.

B. Philonous suggests that the distinction breaks down

  • There is nothing active about perception. The mind might will something actively, but perception is not active.
  • We might turn our heads to view things, but what we perceive is altogether passive.
  • All we immediately perceive are sensible qualities, and as they’ve already concluded, these exist only in the mind

VII. Material substance

A. Material substance as substratum

1. Hylas then suggests that there needs to be material substance to serve as substratum for all the sensible qualities to “inhere in” or “spread under”

2. Philonous responds

  • What do you mean by qualities are “spread under” the material substance? That seems to require extension, but this is one of the very qualities in question. What does it mean to say that the substance “supports” qualities? Certainly not in the literal sense.
  • Conclusion: Hylas doesn’t even understand what he’s talking about
  • They’ve already concluded that sensible qualities are ideas . How can ideas exist in material substance? All that’s needed to support ideas is the mind.

B. Philonous goes on the offensive. He gives his “Master Argument” as to why material substance is impossible. The very idea of material substance involves a contradiction.

1. The argument

  • Material substance, as substances (and hence independently existing things) are supposed to be independent of the minds. That is, they must be able to exist unperceived and unconceived of.
  • Is it possible to conceive of such thing? No. How can you conceive of something unconceived of? That’s a contradiction in terms.
  • Conclusion: Hylas cannot even conceive of material substance. Yet he still thinks it exists.

2. This is a horrible argument. It commits what logicians call a “scope fallacy”.

  • Scope fallacies are a subclass of what are often called amphibolies , or errors arising from ambiguities in language. Suppose it’s true that “I believe someone is a spy.” That could mean one of two things, either that there is a particular person whom I believe to be a spy, or just that I believe there is at least one spy, even if I don’t have a particular person in mind. Berkeley’s argument is based on a similar confusion. He confuses the questions:
  • Is it possible that [Hylas conceives that {something exists such that (no one conceives of it)}]? – The answer to which is yes, with
  • Is it possible that [something exists such that {(Hylas conceives of it) and (no one conceives of it)}]? The answer to which is obviously no.

VIII. Distance

A. Hylas: if objects aren’t “out there”, why do we perceive them as outside or distant from ourselves?

B. Philonous: we don’t actually perceive the distance itself. We just perceive different ideas and colored patches of different sizes, and we learn by experience to make predictions about ideas we’ll have if we move around in certain ways.

IX. Resemblance

A. Hylas: ideas resemble external things in the way that a picture resembles the original (example: Julius Caesar)

B. Philonous: the supposed original things that our ideas resemble: are they perceivable or not?

  • If yes, then they too are sensible things, hence ideas, hence in the mind.
  • If no, then how can they possibly resemble ideas? How can something invisible resemble a color? How can something intangible resemble an idea of touch?

X. External things as cause of our ideas

A. Hylas repeats the Cartesian/Lockean picture of perception. External physical things bring about motion in the brain. This motion somehow causes ideas in the mind.

B. Philonous: The brain is just another sensible thing, and hence is a collection of sensible qualities, which are ideas, and thus exist only in the mind. How can one of the images in our mind be said to cause all the others?

C. Notice that Philonous’ position in many ways solves the problem of mind-brain interaction that Descartes faced. Philonous suggests that there is no causal relation between “a motion in the nerves, and the sensations of sound or color in the mind.” They might always go together, but one is not the cause of the other. What does cause our ideas? This turns us to:

XII. Berkeley’s argument for the existence of God

A. Matter doesn’t cause our ideas. What does?

B. Philonous suggests that it couldn’t be us. Look at how marvelous and beautiful the world is. Look at how great and various the number of things are. Look at how regular and well-ordered the world is. Obviously, the reality of all these things cannot depend on my mind alone. But we’ve already concluded that they can only exist within a mind. Therefore, there must be an infinite mind, and infinite intellect in which all things exist. This, of course, is God.

C. God is the cause of my ideas of sense.

D. Notice how this argument is backwards from that of Descartes. Descartes appeals to God to prove things about the nature of his perceptions. Berkeley uses the nature of his perceptions to prove God. (Here we have part of the difference between empiricsm and rationalism.)

XIII. Secondary Cause, Instruments, Occasions

A.But even if God exists and is ultimately the cause of everything I sense, couldn’t matter be a secondary cause? Philonous responds:

  • How can an unthinking, physical substance be the cause of thought in an immaterial, thinking thing?
  • Matter is supposed to work by motion, but motion is just a sensible quality, and hence, an idea, and hence, not active.

B. Couldn’t matter still be an instrument or tool God uses in bringing about our ideas? Philonous responds

  • Humans use instruments to do things they couldn’t do without them
  • God can do everything just by willing it. God has no need for instruments. I’ts an insult to the divine nature to even suggest otherwise.

C. Couldn’t matter still be the occasions of our perceptions. That is, God alone causes our ideas, but the presence/nonpresence of matter determines what sorts of perceptions and ideas God creates in us. This would explain the regularity and orderedness of our perceptions. Philonous responds:

  • God’s infinite wisdom alone is sufficient to explain the regularity and well-orderedness of our perceptions. He doesn’t need “reminders” of what perceptions to create when.
  • Again, it is insulting to the divine nature “to suppose that he is influenced, directed, or put in mind, when and what he is to act, by any unthinking substance”

XIV. Immaterialism contra Skepticism (end of second dialogue and beginning of third)

A. At this point, the entire Lockean picture has been dismantled. Nothing remains of the external objects or matter supposed by Locke and Hylas

B. Hylas still sticks to his belief in matter. He suggests that unless sensible things can be understood as things existing outside the mind, they have no reality at all.

C. Here we see how Hylas’ positions leads to skepticism. For him knowledge is knowledge of matter, however

  • Sense can give us no knowledge of matter. It can only give us knowledge of our ideas.
  • We can’t infer by reason the existence of matter from our ideas. Hylas admits that all of his experience is consistent with there being no matter at all.
  • Hylas can’t even clearly conceive of what matter is supposed to be or what characteristics it is supposed to have anymore. He has no clear concept of it at all.

D. Philnonus charges Hylas with being irrational. He doesn’t even seem to mean anything by “matter” at all. Yet, he’d sooner accept skepticism than to abandon the idea that if sensible things are real, they must exist independent from minds.

E. This very notion of matter—that sensible objects are not the very things we see and feel—is a bizarre invention of philosophers. No wonder people like Hylas and Descartes are pushed towards skepticism.

F. Philonous’s position gets around skepticism

  • For him, the being of something is its being perceived. Our ideas of something constitute the thing itself. We have immediate knowledge of flowers, chairs, books because we have immediate knowledge of our own ideas.
  • Traditional arguments for skepticism (evil genius, brain in the vat, etc.) don’t work against Berkeley. Reality just is what we perceive it to be.
  • The core of Philonous’s position. Esse est Percipi. Best statement of this: bottom of p. 63 onto p. 64.

XV. Objections to Immaterialism and Philonous’ Replies

(some are skipped)

O1: Suppose you were annihilated. Wouldn’t that mean that everything you perceived would cease to exist. For that matter, don’t the things you perceive cease to exist when you turn your head?

R1: They could still exist in some other mind. And since God always perceives everything, the objects of sense continue to exist with or without me, and regardless of where I turn my head.

O2: Isn’t the doctine of Esse est Percipi contrary to common sense?

R2: Ask ordinary people and you’ll find that they believe in those things and only those things perceived by sense. And they think what they see or feel are the very things themselves. They certainly don’t believe in some philosophical material substratum that no one can see or feel.

O3: According to immaterialism, what could be the difference between “real” things and things formed in the imagination or in dreams?

R3: Well, it’s true that all of these things are ideas. But there are differences. Things in dreams and imagination are dim, irregular and confused. They only exist in my mind. They are only perceiable by one sense. “Real things” are vivid and clear. They exist in other people’s minds as well as mine. They are perceivable by more than one sense.

O4: Doesn’t it sound weird to say that there are only minds or ideas?

R4: It may sound strange, but it doesn’t mean anything strange. It just means that there are only things perceiving and things perceived.

O5. If God causes all our ideas, doesn’t that make God the author of murder, sacrilege, adultery and other sins?

R5. Even people like Descartes and others who invoke matter as secondary cause, matter or occasion have this same problem. It’s no objection to immaterialism in particular. Moreover, it’s not the ideas that constitute outward physical acts that are morally wrong. Sin is the internal deviation of the will from God’s commands. We are responsible for our own volitions.

O6. If immaterialism is true, then aren’t oars that look crooked in water really crooked? And isn’t the moon really just a flat circle of a tiny diameter? Are people who think these things actually mistaken at all?

R6. Such people are not about what they actually perceive. Insofar as the oar is just a collection of ideas, it is in one sense really bent . The mistake comes in with the inferences they make from these ideas—by infering that the oar will still be bent if pulled out of the water or that if we were looking at the moon from a very different location that it would still look the same.

O7. If we get our ideas of pain from God, doesn’t that mean that God feels pain, and thus does not exist in a perfect state of being?

R7. It’s true that God has to have some idea of pain. He understands and is aware everything, including pain. But this doesn’t mean that God’s idea of pain is the same sort of feeling that we have. God just directly knows what pain is. He doesn’t need to perceive it or suffer it the way we do.

O8. Why would God deceive us into believing in matter if there is none?

R8. God hasn’t deceived anyone. God would only be guilty of deception if God said that matter existed in scripture (which he didn’t) or has made it so evident that no could help belieiving it. But the existence of matter is not made evident to all by God. The belief in matter is an obscure theory concocted by philosophers.

O9. If things are just certain perceptions, then how can the same thing be perceived so differently, for example, with the naked eye and with a microscope? Similarly, since we don’t have access to other people’s ideas, how can two people ever perceive the same thing?

R9. Technically, we’re having different perceptions when we look at something with the naked eye and with the microscope. So in that sense, strictly speaking, we’re seeing different things. But language has been constructed so that different ideas are collected together under a single name—otherwise we’d never get anywhere. And yes, strictly speaking, we only see our own ideas. Still, since my apple-ideas and your apple-ideas are similar, even identical, it is convenient to consider them the same thing for the sake of language.



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