I say that because in order to exist I must have used my computer to type it in, but George Berkeley “proved” that material things don’t exist. No pictures either this post, because after all my camera doesn’t exist, either.
Okay, the fact that I’ve got a whole cluster of time-sucking school stuff last week and this week to deal with is also a factor in keeping the posts here sparse at the moment. Berkeley just happens to be one of them.
Berkeley was what I would call a “philosophical” Empiricist (whereas I would describe myself as a “practical” empiricist – hence the “Applied” in this blog’s “Applied Empirical Naturalism” subtitle. Put simply, empiricism means that knowledge comes from observation via the senses. I’m a practical kind of guy, and I don’t think this in any way invalidates the use of the intellect to infer additional (testable) knowledge from one’s observations beyond what is directly observed. Berkeley, on the other hand, is a solipsist: he claims that nothing exists unless it is perceived – or is a perceiver.
His argument is a little hard to follow. As best I can tell, he’s starting with a Descartes-like observation that the only thing we ever actually experience are sensory perceptions. In other words, we can experience and know about the sensation of “heat”, but this sensation is just an idea in our minds. Even if there were something “behind” the sensation of heat that was causing it, we could not know anything about it directly, since we only ever experience the sensation.
In a way that is still not entirely clear to me, Berkeley then seems to take the leap from Descartes-style “the only thing I can be certain of existing from my direct observations are ideas, and my mind which contains them” to “since there is no direct empirical basis for claiming the existence of anything else, matter cannot be said to exist”.
Berkeley then goes on to claim that since only minds and ideas exist, and since there are some ideas that seem to be imposed on him (like if he sticks the idea of a red-hot-poker up the idea of his left nostril, he will have the idea of excruciating pain whether he wants to or not), that therefore there must be some other mind from which these ideas come. From this, he makes the leap to claiming that there must be an “infinite” mind which contains all these other ideas, by which he means Godô.
This also gives him a convenient explanation for things existing when nobody’s looking at them. See, God is always looking at everything, so nothing that exists is ever not being perceived.
Personally, I’m finding myself wondering if his argument also leaves open the possibility of an animistic reality instead. He claims that everything we experience (including “sensible things”, i.e. things we see, feel, smell, etc.) is just an idea, and an idea existing without a mind is absurd. Instead of postulating the existence of an “infinite” mind, though, wouldn’t the notion that anything that exists actually does, itself, have a mind (or “spirit” if you prefer) also satisfactorily explain how things can continue to exist even when nobody is observing them? Berkeley makes the claim that inanimate objects don’t have minds…but he gives no justification for this claim. I mean, he admits that he can’t directly observe other people’s minds (or the “infinite” mind either) and therefore can’t prove that anyone but him exists, but he never claims that other people don’t exist. So why couldn’t the continued existence of the fork that I ate dinner with be due to the fork’s own mind?
That “thump” you may have imagined hearing was probably Berkeley turning over in his grave. Berkeley was, after all, a Bishop, going through this whole philosophical exercise out of hatred of “skeptics” and “atheists”, and it amuses me to imagine how appalled he’d be to have his arguments used to support something that he probably felt only “heathens” and “savages” would consider…
Yeah, I know, not much of a post, but I’m a bit overloaded at the moment. Nonetheless, more to follow this week over the next few days, at least.