Immaterialism and Idealism within Theism

Immaterialism/Idealism (essentially the same thing) is a philosophy that I believe can prove fertile for theism. I will start with an exploration of the Immaterialist views of Berkeley, an outline of his arguments, a brief critique, and how I believe Immaterialism can be used within theism.

Bishop George Berkeley was one of the pioneers of what he called Immaterialism, a philosophy that can generally be referred to as Idealism.

Immaterialism is the rejection of matter. It is the claim that “two kinds of things exist in reality: (1) minds (or spirits), and (2) the ideas they perceive (Lawhead, 321).”

Berkeley writes, “Some truths there are so near and obvious to the mind, that a man need only open his eyes to see them… all [the objects in the universe] have not any subsistence without a mind, tha t their being (esse) is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit… To be convinced of which, the reader need only reflect and try to separate in his own thoughts the being of a sensible thing from its being perceived (Berkeley, 89).”

Outside of being perceived, objects do not exist. There is no such thing as matter. Berkeley’s philosophy is probably that which lead to the question: if a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Berkeley would respond by saying that just the fact that we conceive of such a question means that yes, because by our act of even imaging such a thing, it brings it into our mind and therefore into perception.

It follows from this that we can’t simply bring things into perspective on our own. There must be a cause for these perceptions. Our minds have images of a “w0rld” in them, but it doesn’t follow that these are created by oneself. Berkeley claimed that our perception is directly projected into our minds by God.

Berkeley brought up a few arguments for his Immaterialism, believing that it was wholly rational to hold such a view. He is famously known for saying “Esse est percipi” or “To be is to be perceived.” The first is a set of arguments:

“1. Primary (solidity, motion, rest, quantity, etc.) and secondary qualities (color, taste, etc.) cannot be separated in the mind, because they always appear together and are perceived in the same way

2. Thus, if one quality is mind dependent, the other will be also

3. …Secondary qualities are mind dependent

4. Therefore, primary qualities are mind dependent (Lawhead, 325)”


“1. All properties which are relative are subjective

2. Primary properties are relative properties

3. Therefore, primary properties are subjective (Geisler, 145)”

This argument leads to the entire world, including such objects as dirt, flowers, birds, and the like, to be equivalent to imagined things such as a flying pig. All of these things are subjective and have qualities that are mind-dependent.

Another argument was his argument from the mental dependency of ideas:

“1. Sensible objects are things present to us in sense experience

2. What is presented to us in sense experience consists solely of our ideas

3. Ideas exist solely in our minds

4. Therefore, sensible objects exist solely in our minds (Lawhead, 323)”

Again the argument seems sound.

It is telling that Berkeley’s arguments are still debated in philosophy. Generally speaking, the only way any one has ever gotten around them was by arguing either Occam’s Razor (which I don’t think applies, as it’s not really multiplying entites, rather, Immaterialism would vastly reduce the entities involved) or by rejecting them based on common sense (i.e. we can see that there is a material world, so there is one–an argument that seems circular at best). Hume said of Berkeley’s views that ‘Their only effect is to cause… momentary amazement and irresolution and confusion.” I would tend to agree, in light of the following two problems.

The first is that if our thoughts and the things we conceive are projected into our minds by God as defined by Christianity, then why do we have in our thoughts evil things? The problem of evil is particularly strong against Berkeley’s view that all of our thoughts are projected into our minds by God–or at least sustained by Him. Why would God project evil, or why would He sustain evil thoughts so that we could conceive of or perceive them?

The second problem is that of Christianity itself. It seems that, if we are just minds and there is no actual matter or a “world,” there should be no need for Jesus as a physical “New Adam” and savior. Why would God work within the seemingly obvious universe in a historical fashion (i.e. being historically tied into Jesus), if history is so tied into matter and the physical world, which does not exist? It seems backward.

A third problem that I don’t think is valid is the argument that what we see is obvious–there is a physical world. Logically, this argument doesn’t seem to have a foot to stand on, especially given that Berkeley’s arguments specifically break down such an argument. Generally, this third problem is the reason Immaterialism is rejected: we just can’t make any sense of it.

I do believe that Immaterialism could prove a fertile ground for the Christian. The first point I’d make is that the arguments for it seem fairly conclusive. I’ve read some arguments that supposedly refute Immaterialism, but they all generally amount to my third objection. Just because we innately view the world as physical does not mean it is. The second point is that if Immaterialism, especially that of Berkeleyan influence, were true, then theism is unavoidable. These two points seem to make Immaterialism more appealing to theists.

I suggest two ways to approach Immaterialism in a theistic way. These two ways are wholly different.

1. The first way would be to argue that Immaterialism is indeed unavoidable. But rather than embracing the idea that perceived objects are projected into our minds by God, one could rather argue that perceived objects do in fact exist as sustained immaterial (here using “immaterial” only to mean not-made-of-matter) objects.

In other words, Berkeley’s premise that things that are not perceived do not exist is true, but we can focus on the point he follows that with: that all things subsist in the mind of some immaterial spirit (in other words, all “things,” “objects,” etc. exist in terms of being perceived by some being). Further, rather than saying that this spirit then projects these objects and thoughts into our minds, one could embrace the idea that such things are rather projected into a universe–one that is not matter per se but some kind of non-matter substance. Perhaps some kind of idea-substance.

Everything in the universe would therefore be ideas, but individual created minds (i.e. ours) could have some control over how these things interact. Evil is in the universe because God created us and granted us some influence over this universe. Our ideas corrupted it on the fall into sin. While this view seems at first glance rather nonsensical, I believe that it gains footing with Berkeley’s arguments for Immaterialism, as well as the idea that “matter” is itself just super-condensed energy. Ideas, thoughts, and the like, could be energy, but not some kind of undefined substance known as “matter.”

Thus there is a real world and it is the one we experience, but our understanding of it is completely wrong. Rather than some physical, material world, the world is wholly sustained and upheld by the Creator. Matter as we know it is undefined and is, in actuality, incarnations of ideas into the universe. Incarnation here being defined as a “manifestation of a non-material thing (i.e. an idea) into something that can be defined as, for lack of a better term, ‘physical.'” I would call this view Incarnationalist Immaterialism (a term I coin here). It’s not one I’ve read anywhere, but one I’ve developed myself (though I don’t necessarily believe it–see below).

-I tend to think of this first view as a sort of compromise between what I tend to think of as a very solid case for Immaterialism and the “common sense argument” for an actual world.

2. Rather than embrace Immaterialism in any form, a theist could point to such arguments as evidence for God. If we cannot prove that there is even a physical realm, what grounds do we have for assuming such things as naturalism, phsyicalism, and the like. Note that with this view, the theist does not even need to agree with any for mof Idealism/Immaterialism, he or she can simply incorporate it into a general pattern of argumentation, using arguments for Immaterialism to show that the way we perceive the universe, including such basic things as matter, is questionable. Theism points to something unquestionable and objective: God.

-These views are wholly different, and I’m not sure which I myself would conform to, if either. What I do believe, however, is that Berkeley’s argumentation for Immaterialism is nearly flawless. It is when he attempts to incorporate God as the all-perceiver that his argument suffers the problem of evil. Nevertheless, Immaterialism is a compelling view that, while it may not have much sway in the so-called real world, philosophically speaking is of great interest.

Sources (not any particular format):

Berkeley, George. Edited by G.N. Wright. The Works of George Berkeley, Volume I. Bibliobazaar.

Geisler, Norman and Paul Feinberg. Introduction to Philosophy. Baker Academic.

Lawhead, William. The Voyage of Discovery. Thomson Advantage Books.

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


5 thoughts on “Immaterialism and Idealism within Theism

  1. you have got this wrong. u say why would God give us evil thoughts.. that is not what berkeley says.. he admits we have our own mind and imagination to have any thoughts and ideas of our own.. the ideas God gives us is the ‘matter’ which we percieve.. thoughts about evil etc are errornous thougts they are not from God they are from us.

    Posted by darryl | April 19, 2010, 1:42 PM
    • Darryl, thanks for your comment. I would defend myself by saying that there are a number of ways to interpret Berkeley. Some say that he is arguing that our thoughts go simply God => us, so it’s as though everything we see is being projected into our head’s by God. This is a more simplistic view, one that I was adhering to at the time of writing this entry. There is another (and there are many other) reading of Berkeley which asserts that he doesn’t believe this, but rather believes thoughts go God => some kind of “real world” which exists but is not independent of God’s thoughts => us. This is a more accurate interpretation of Berkeley, as I’m finding after reading more of his works. At the time of writing this entry I was going with the former view of Berkeley, now I believe the latter is more accurate.

      Thus, you have observed a development of my thought process. I should note I’m a rather big fan of Berkeley and have written on him in other places. I’m still developing my own version of idealism and I think it’s more a combination of Berkeley, Kant, and Husserl. Thanks again for your comment. It’s always gratifying to go back and look over how I’ve come a ways since writing some of the earlier stuff on here.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 19, 2010, 2:02 PM
  2. You are correct about the intepretation of Berkeley, even though there is a clear knowledge and foundation of his immaterialism, theres been quite a few ideas added to his teachings or certain things people feel were left out.

    I recently read a book the other day it explained that in George Berkeley’s lifetime he was meant to write 2 other books after A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge but apparently he started writing the first book but lost his work and shortly after he died. It’s interesting becuase in the second book he was going to address the problem of evil and how immaterialism explains morality while the belief in materialism leads to immorality. It’s a shame the books were never published.

    Berkeley in my opinion refutes materialism fully and at the same time proves the existance of God. Iv been an idealist for 4 years now. George berkeley is one of the best in this field. Metaphysics and idealism is the reality.

    Everything is mind / consciouness. You should check out the Christian denomination called Christian Science. The founder Mary Baker Eddy took it much further than Berkeley she concluded sin, evil, disease, death, inharmony are all unreal and illusion, matter is also unreal. Mind is only real. Mind being divine mind (God). So only God is real, and as God’s ideas we are Good. As it says in the bible ‘we were made in the image and likeness of God’ God being Good made in his likeness we are Good. So evil is illusion and unreal.

    If you think that is over religious, and your not into the bible. No problem many people have concluded only mind is real even atheists, check out John mctaggart for example.

    Idealism can not be refuted.

    Idealism is still around today. Mainly found in hindu and buddhist schools but in the west it’s coming back becuase it has no much evidence for it.

    Go over to this site.

    It’s a new book that only consciouness exists. Im sure you would like it.

    All the best.

    Posted by Darryl | April 28, 2010, 12:39 PM


  1. Pingback: The Paucity of Objections to George Berkeley’s Immaterialism « - October 9, 2009

  2. Pingback: Theistic Idealism « - December 27, 2009

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