As man progressed through the various stages of evolution, it is
assumed that at a certain point he began to ponder the world around him. Of
course, these first attempts fell short of being scholarly, probably
consisting 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. As
the authoritarinism of the ancients gave way to the more liberal views of
the modernists, two main positions concerning epistemology and the nature
of the world arose. The first view was exemplified by the empiricists, who
stated that all knowledge comes from the senses. In opposition, the
rationalists maintained that knowledge comes purely from deduction, and
that this knowledge is processed by certain innate schema in the mind.
Those that belonged to the empiricist school of thought developed quite
separate and distinct ideas concerning the nature of the substratum of
sensible objects. John Locke and David Hume upheld the belief that
sensible things were composed of material substance, the basic framework
for the materialist position. The main figure who believed that material
substance did not exist is George Berkeley. In truth, it is the
immaterialist position that seems the most logical when placed under close
The initial groundwork for Berkeley’s position is the truism that the
materialist is a skeptic. In the writing of his three dialogues, Berkeley
develops two characters: Hylas (the materialist) and Philonous (Berkeley
himself). Philonous draws upon one central supposition of the materialist
to formulate his argument of skepticism against him; this idea is that one
can never perceive the real essence of anything. In short, the materialist
feels that the information received through sense experience gives a
representative picture of the outside world (the representative theory of
perception), and one can not penetrate to the true essece of an object.
This makes logical sense, for the only way to perceive this real essence
would be to become the object itself! Although the idea is logical, it
does contain a certain grounding for agnosticism. Let the reader consider
this: if there is no way to actually sense the true material essence of
anything, and all knowledge in empiricism comes from the senses, then the
real material essence can not be perceived and therefore it can not be
posited. This deserves careful consideration, for the materialist has been
self-proclaimed a skeptic! If the believer in this theory were asked if a
mythical beast such as a cyclops existed he would most certainly say no. As
part of his reply he might add that because it can not be sensed it is not
a piece of knowledge. After being enlightened by the above proposed
argument, though, that same materialist is logically forced to agree that,
because the “material substratum1” itself can not be sensed, its existence
can not be treated as knowledge. The materialist belief has, in effect,
become as futile as proving that the cyclops exists; his ideas have lead
him into skepticism.
Having proven that the materialist is, at best, a doubter, Berkeley
goes on to offer the compelling argument that primary and secondary
qualities are, together, one thing. As the materialist believes, primary
qualities of an object are those things that are abstract (not sense
oriented). Examples of these would be number, figure, motion, and
extension. Secondary qualities are those things that are concrete (sense
oriented), such as color, smell, sound, and taste. The materialist feels
that these primary qualities persist even when the secondary ones are not
there. Thus, if a person were blind, then that individual would not be
able to hear or to touch items; yet the so-called real qualities such as
figure would remain existent in the objects. As previously shown, the
materialist is agnostic in his belief of these real (primary) qualities.
It is here that Berkeley directs an alternate hypothesis: that the abstract
primary qualities don’t exist at all. In fact, the immaterialist position
states that these qualities are merely secondary in nature, as they, too,
can not be perceived as being separate from an object. For instance, if a
person is asked to imagine a primary quality alone, as an abstraction, it
is impossible. To illustrate this point, suppose that a person is asked to
think simply of number alone. This person may reply that the idea he is
formulating is that of three red spheres. In truth this is not an abstract
idea, because when the qualities of color (red) and shape (sphere) are
taken away, all that is left is three of nothing! Thus, it is impossible
to think of the abstraction of number, given that an abstract quality can
not focus on anything concrete (such as red spheres in the above mentioned
example). Therefore, it follows that, since no primary, abstract quality
can exist alone, it is the same as a secondary quality in which an actual
object must first be perceived.
Berkeley moves on to show that the perceived qualities of an object
are ideas which exist only in a mind. To do this, he states that a
sensation is an idea. This is logical, for sensations can not be felt by
mindless objects. However, it is this point which Berkeley scrutinizes in
the materialist statement that an external object “is a material substance
with the sensible qualities inhering in it.2″ The materialist is
proclaiming that sensible qualities, which exist in the mind only, are
actually in the object. Logically, the only possible way for this to occur
is if the external object had a mind for the qualities to be thought of and
stored by. The notion that inanimate objects have minds is ridiculous, and
thus the materialists’ belief has been reduced to absurdity. Let the
reader consider this example to reinforce the point. A ten-story building
is erected, and a person who lives in a single-story house in the country
sees the new building. To this person the structure may seem quite tall,
as he has never seen any building taller than three stories. However, a
construction worker comes across the same building and perceives its height
quite differently than the previous man. Since the second man usually works
on buildings about thirty stories high, he thinks that the building is
fairly short. Obviously, the new building can not be both tall and short
at the same time; yet this is the outcome if one believes that the quality
of tallness is inherent in the object. In fact, if the idealist
(immaterialist) position is considered it seems logical that one person
could view something differently than another. This is because the idea
concerning that thing could be different in the two separate minds.
At this point Berkeley explains that the so-called tertiary qualities
of an external object are non-existent. The materialist defines these
qualities 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[d] by the sense… and exist in the object that occasions
[them]3.” An example of this quality would be a burning candle. Suppose
that a person puts his finger in the flame long enough to feel the pain of
a burn. The materialist would attribute this pain to the lit candle
itself, stating that the ability to produce pain is inherent in it.
However, this can not be the case. As previously discussed, the external
objects are merely ideas which we perceive through sense experience. Just
as these objects do not possess any primary or secondary qualities, they
also 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 them
with, the nature of both ideas and minds deserves careful consideration.
Berkeley assumes the view that ideas are passive and only perceivable in a
mind. He goes on to state that these ideas are existent only when a mind is
perceiving them. This is logical, for when something is not being
ruminated upon it does not exist in the realm of knowledge at that
particular 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 exist
to me anymore. In accordance with the immaterialists’ view, my actively
perceiving 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 that
a person attends an art museum early on Sunday morning. As that person
views the artwork, the paintings themselves are sensible things, or ideas,
actively being perceived by a mind; in short, they exist. However, when
the museum closes and the person goes home, does the artwork continue to
exist? Obviously the person pursues other activities of the day, and he
ceases to think about what he did earlier. However, at a certain time
those paintings were part of what the person knew to be true through
sensation; the artwork was part of the person’s reality. Do the paintings
therefore cease to exist since they are no longer being thought of?
Berkley argues that such objects still exist because the mind of God is
always perceiving them. Unlike the materialists’ view, the immaterialist
puts God at the center of his views. In truth, God is the “omnipresent
external mind which knows and comprehends all things, and exhibits them to
our view in such a manner and according to such rules as He Himself has
ordained and are by us termed the ‘laws of nature.’4″ It is important to
stress the idea that God shows people the ideas in his mind, and these
ideas make up the reality beheld by the human mind. Therefore, for any
person to perceive something, the idea must be in the mind of God first.
The fact that there are two distinct minds raises questions about the
nature of these minds. The idealist proclaims that the human mind is
strictly finite in its ability to have sense experience. With this being
the case, a person can only have a single sensation at a time. Since
sensations 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 multiple
perceptions. These perceptions of God are also ideas, and it follows that
these ideas comprise the reality beheld in the finite human mind. Instead
of the materialists’ belief in the representative theory of perception,
where a material object has real (primary) qualities which humans perceive
as sensible (secondary) qualities, Berkeley has posited an alternate
theory. This is that God upholds all of the ideas which comprise human
reality, and people perceive these ideas as sensations directly from God’s
It should also be noted that just as the finite mind is different from
the infinite mind, the ideas in each mind have some certain distinctions.
The finite mind can only contemplate a limited range of thoughts. To
illustrate this, let the reader attempt to imagine an infinite number of
stars. After some intellection, the reader will realize that it is an
impossible task. This is because the human mind can only think in terms of
bounded entities; thus, in the above mentioned case, the reader may have
thought of a great many stars. However, the stars were finite in number and
could therefore not represent the notion of infinity. In short, the finite
mind can only conceive finite thoughts. Not only this, but, as previously
disgussed, humans can perceive only one thought at a time. If the reader
does not think this to be the case, then let her attempt to imagine a small
boy and a thunderstorm as completely separate ideas. Although both ideas
may be thought of, the only way for this to occur is when they are placed
in the same mental picture. In summary, the human mind has important
limits which can easily be observed.
On the contrary, the infinite mind of God is limitless in its ability
to perceive ideas. In God’s mind, an infinite thought (a thought without
boundaries) can exist. This infinite idea’s existence in God’s mind is
more that possible; it must necessarily be the case. This is because
infinite concepts such as the number system and the universe must come
from, as do all thoughts, a mind. However, since the human mind is finite
and therefore incapable of conceiving boundless thoughts, then those
infinite ideas must arise from the infinite mind of God. Not only does
God’s mind contain infinite thoughts, but it also must possess the ability
to think of, in the least, many thoughts at once. This is necessarily the
case 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 when
the 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 reader
picture 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. The
middle portion of the triangle is occupied by the finite minds of people.
Lastly, the bottom section contains the ideas perceived by humans. Because
God is at the pinnacle of the figure, He also perceives the ideas that
people do. However, since the human mind is finite, it can not conceive of
the infinite ideas in God’s mind at the apex of the triangle. Now, the
concepts of either perceiving or being perceived can be added to the
picture. Both the top and middle portions of the figure are minds, so both
of 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. As
previously shown, perceivers are active and the perceived is passive.
Lastly, the concept of existence can be applied to the triangle. Since
existence is that which is either perceived or perceives5, and each part of
the model has been shown to meet one of these criteria, then the entire
triangle must be considered to exist.
In the final analysis, it is evident that Berkley’s immaterialist
position is logically feasible. From his definitions of minds and ideas to
his careful attribution of their respective qualities, George Berkeley has
produced a compelling argument for his views. However, this is not all
that he has done; in fact, Berkeley has shown the necessary importance of
God. In the materialist view, a belief in God is not logically necessary
to uphold the “material substratum2.” Berkeley shows that God must exist,
for He is at the heart of Berkeley’s position. In short, the materialist
view 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.