Berkeley’s arguments for idealism

Melissa asked:

I am in a philosophy college course and have to select an argument from George Berkeley’s ‘Of the Principles of Human Knowledge’. I want to make sure I have a legitimate argument (with premises and conclusions) before I start writing my paper. If you could confirm or add any suggestions to my argument it would be much appreciated.

Premise 1. Neither our thoughts, nor passions, nor ideas formed by the imagination exist without the mind.

Premise 2. Their esse is percipi, nor it is they should have existence out of the minds or thinking things which perceive them. Conclusion. The various sensations or ideas imprinted on the senses cannot exist otherwise than in a mind receiving them.

Answer by Craig Skinner

I take it you mean ‘Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge’.

Your P1, P2 and Conclusion all say the same thing, namely that ideas (thoughts, passions, sensations) can only exist in minds. You simply assert something that everybody agrees with — Berkeley, his opponents, you, me, everybody. No argument is presented. What Berkeley contends is that minds (including God’s) and ideas are all that exist — matter doesn’t exist, the external world consists of ideas not matter. He is opposing the Lockean view that the external world consists of matter and we know about it through the senses which represent it to us as ideas of sensation (representative realism).

In support of his views he has several arguments. They are not formally presented with premises and conclusions. Two of them can be stated as follows.

1. Basic argument

P1. We perceive ordinary objects
P2. We perceive only ideas
Concl. Ordinary objects are ideas

Comment: valid, but flawed due to equivocation — ‘perceive’ has different senses in P1 (indirectly, mediately perceive)and P2 (directly perceive)

2. Better fit with common sense

Berkeley takes common sense to be,

(i) things are as they seem
(ii) things exist mind-independently

Comment: Berkeley says (correctly) that the Lockean view denies (i), holding that we cant know things in themselves, only indirectly as represented by our ideas of sensation. accepts (ii).

Berkeley says his view accepts (i) (clearly ideas are as they seem), accepts (ii) with an amendment allegedly not contrary to common sense, namely (ii*), things exist independently of any particular finite mind’s awareness of them. Nice try, but he skates over the common sense view that things exist independently of all minds.

His basic argument and his fit-with-common-sense argument are difficult ones to write about at length. And his argument against the existence of matter based on his rejection of abstraction, is even more tricky.

However, God is essential to Berkeley’s metaphysics, and you might like to deal with his argument for God’s existence. He says that his text is intended to combat scepticism and atheism by defending common sense and religion. He thinks materialism keeps God hidden behind, rather than revealed by, his creation.

His argument for God’s existence is two-part, but with no strict separation in the text Part 1. Causal argument for existence of other spirit(s) causing my ideas. Part 2. Design argument that this spirit is the biblical (eternal, omnipotent, infinite, benevolent) God.

Part 1. Causal argument

P1. My sensory ideas are not caused by me
P2. My sensory ideas are not caused by other ideas
Concl. My sensory ideas are caused by some other spirit

Comment: P1 is basic tenet for B: my sensory ideas are involuntary, ‘given’ to me, not chosen by me. Fair enough, you cant choose what to see when you look out of the window (only hallucinations and compulsive ideas are recognized by B as caused by me). P2. Also basic tenet — ideas are inert, have no causal power Argument is valid only if idealism is assumed. If we don’t assume this, we can say our sensory ideas are caused by a material external world. But even if we charitably agree with B’s idealism, allowing the argument as sound, it only establishes the source of or ideas as a mind, not as God. B. needs Part 2.

Part 2. Design argument

P. The world shows ‘grandeur, order and complexity of ideas’
Concl. There is a single, infinite, omnipotent, benevolent spirit (God) who designed/ supports it.

Comment: Design argument lost its force after Darwin. But weak even in B’s day. The P. focuses on the good aspects: we might equally well stress the bad (natural evil), drawing different conclusions. B. deals briefly, and conventionally, with natural evil (due to need for nature to work by simple general rules) and moral evil (due to our abuse of free will). But even if we grant a designer, it doesn’t follow there is a single designer, an omnipotent or infinite one, a benevolent one, one with any interest in us, even one with any self-awareness that it causes my ideas. B. thinks a spirit lacking understanding is incoherent, but this seems a psychological not a logical objection. To assume that an external mental source of our ideas is interested in what it does as it affects us is to beg the question.

B. fails to establish the existence of a god sufficient to support his metaphysics, let alone the biblical one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.