philosophy

The Paucity of Objections to George Berkeley’s Immaterialism

Immaterialism is a topic I’ve been reading [and writing] a lot on recently (particularly the works of George Berkeley, and reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to go along with it as a balance of [transcendental] idealism).

The more I read it, the more it appeals to me, and the more I’ve been writing on the topic myself. What continues to shock me is the utter lack of any kind of good objections to immaterialism. The objections people come up with are readily answered by anyone who reads even a bit of George Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge.

So I decided to make a blog on it, of course!

One of my favorite web sites for cursory research on philosophy is the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. They generally provide some awesome work as far as philosophy is concerned, and I highly recommend it for those who want a free, quick research tool. Anyway, they list a few objections to Berkeley’s immaterialism (sometimes called universal immaterialism or dogmatic idealism), and, frankly, not one of them needed more than a few seconds of thought to answer.

For example:

One of the problems that people often bring up with Berkeley’s immaterialism relates to his principle, “Esse est percipi” or “to be is to be perceived.”

The argument is basically the classic question, “If a tree falls in a forest with no one around to hear it, does it make any sound?” A similar objection is written in a famous limerick:

There was a young man who said God,
must find it exceedingly odd
when he finds that the tree
continues to be
when noone’s about in the Quad.

But, it can be answered in a number of ways. The first is a counter-limerick (which I appreciate greatly):

Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd
I’m always about in the Quad
And that’s why the tree
continues to be
Since observed by, yours faithfully, God (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

In other words, immaterialists could simply reply:

Well, obviously someone hears/sees the tree, God is omniscient, after all.

But, it could be countered that God isn’t a given at all. Is there still a counter to this problem? Well, despite the fact that  I personally think Berkeley’s form of immaterialism makes the existence of God almost necessary, let us assume we aren’t to use that as a way out with his theory. After all, Berkeley himself, I don’t think, would want us to not subject his theory to further investigation. If there is a God to continually perceive everything, then it is a given that things exist, but let us look for other evidence. I suggest there are at least two answers to this objection to immaterialism:

1. So what? What does it matter if objects wink into and out of existence if there is no one to observe them? I think it’s very unclear as to how this objection really serves a defeater of immaterialism whatsoever. The objection suggests that if something doesn’t exist if it’s not perceived, then things are continually coming into and out of existence. But what relevance does that have to the truth claims of immaterialism itself? I think Berkeley would counter by simply saying that even asking this question is begging the question in favor of materialism. Further, there is no way to say whether or not objects actually do come into and out of existence, because if esse est percipi, then no one could ever observe such an occurance!

2. I’m about to make a point that I am continually shocked that people miss in response to such objections to Berkeley, for he basically makes this point himself: If someone asks the a question like that above (“If a tree falls…”), they have already answered the question for themselves, for the fact that they are asking about the tree means that they are actively conceiving of it in their minds, and therefore they are perceiving it actively. Thus, to even ask such a question is unreasonable, for when one asks such a question, he or she is perceiving of the item in question, and therefore it simply does exist, based on the core principle esse est percipi.

It is worth observing that even the Stanford entry misses this rather simple answer entirely.

There are certainly other objections to Berkeley’s immaterialism, but as I have neither the time nor the motivation to go into any more here, that is all for now.

I close with the thought that has been nagging me ever since I first started reading Berkeley: it seems that ever since he published his works, they have been largely ignored or the arguments therein have been made straw men and knocked over. I think that this is due to a few reasons, but the most obvious are that 1. it is a hard philosophy to really even conceive of, and 2. it is a philosophy that stands wholly in opposition to the core materialist assumptions of the Western world. I think that if 1. were answered in a satisfactory way, 2. could possibly be overthrown.

Sources:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/berkeley/

The Works of George Berkeley, Volume I. Bibliobazaar. [Specifically Principles of Human Knowledge, and Three Dialogues…]

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.

The Oxford Guide: Philosophy.

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.

Discussion

3 thoughts on “The Paucity of Objections to George Berkeley’s Immaterialism

  1. The simple fact is that Berkeley does not state that created minds have the power to produce ideas, thus they must be created somewhere else, now Berkeley does not further question the origin of Ideas by inferring that God is an Eternal Mind which accounts to why every thing exists in a constant manner (nothing stops existing when no created mind is looking at it, because God is there).

    Now the biggest error of Berkeley, is assuming the existence of God which he cannot prove, and if he cannot prove it and there is no God then how does he answer this question : Where do ideas come from?

    a)Their Innate… Does not work because if everything was innate I would not need to perceive anything at all.
    b) We assimilate Ideas through our experience with the external world (I think this is more reasonable than option a)

    Posted by Alex | November 7, 2012, 5:00 AM
  2. I believe you’ve missed out the most convincing criticism of Berkeley’s immaterialism here. There is definitely an issue with his dependence on God, but the biggest issue here, one which can avoid a debate over the existence of God, is Berkeley’s definition of material. He defines it as something which can exist independently of the mind, however this is just a definition he has employed to make his argument cohesive and literally impossible to refute. (As you noted, it is impossible to conceive of an unconceived thing). If Berkeley used the more cogent definition of material as an extended substance, then his immaterialism falls apart.

    Posted by Tristan Hedges | May 17, 2015, 6:02 AM

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