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Theistic Idealism

I’ve written about Idealism (which I’ve also referred to specifically as Immaterialism) before. I’ve also written about what I call the paucity of objections to Berkeley’s Immaterialism. Now I would like to return to the subject of my first post (the first link above) and discuss briefly (my definition of briefly is likely different than that of others’) what the philosophy known as Idealism can do in interactions with Theism. I am certainly both an Idealist by philosophy and a theist by religion, so these naturally combine for me.

I do not, however, think that Berkeley’s Immaterialism is correct. Rather, I see it as a step along the way to a kind of Idealism that I’ve been developing by piecing together Berkeley’s Immaterialism, some parts of Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, Husserl’s Phenomenology, and my own ideas. Berkeley has a great point, in my opinion, when he starts out by pointing to the idea that “to be is to be perceived (or to perceive).” But one of the things that Berkeley leaves out (at least in the writings of his that I’ve read–currently reading through Three Dialogues) is the demand for the ego or the “I” to be the view of reality. Berkeley makes no claims of exclusivity of mind for interpretation in the sense of demanding that the mind is where all perception must start. He assumes that people should know this, but, as with anything in philosophy, that’s not fair to the audience, no matter how studied. I believe that the ego must first be established in order to maintain an idealist philosophy. Further, I believe that there is literally no way to escape the inevitable conclusion that it is indeed “I” who ultimately interpret reality for myself (note that I’m not saying I determine reality or create it or sustain it, only that I am the ultimate arbiter for interpreting). Because “I” cannot escape myself (such an attempt would indeed be ludicrous) I must start off with glancing from myself to others. But it is the ego that ultimately interprets reality, this is a crucial point that cannot be stressed enough. But anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself and into issues I’m not planning to address here.

The problem, I believe, is that people tend to simply grant that objects in themselves are not only possible, but actual. I don’t see any grounds for granting that objects can or do exist of themselves, as mind-independent things, for there is no way for us to give something any kind of properties, modally or otherwise, that are not dependent, ultimately, on the mind. Assuming a priori that objects-in-themselves are actual is unfounded because, as our ego is the interpreter of reality, we cannot actually demonstrate that objects are mind independent, for there is no way for us to escape our ego in order to do so. We cannot become some being outside of mind that can objectively view such things.

Husserl, in a work with an extremely long title that I’m not going to type out here despite the fact that I will type it below and have now used more space than I would have just typing it out to begin with (and it is usually just referred to as Ideas anyway, which means I’ve spent a whole lot of extra time typing that I really did not have to), states, “…all real unities are ‘unities of sense.’ Unities of sense presuppose… a sense-bestowing consciousness which, for its part, exists absolutely and not by virtue of another sense-bestowal” (Ideas… 107, emphasis his). This is where theism comes into play. While Husserl was not here referring specifically to God, one can find the roots of immaterialism and idealism throughout his Ideas (something which apparently alienated him from his earlier followers). Husserl rightly notes that the thing which the physicist explores is necessarily the thing that is perceived, it is not something outside of perception (Ideas, 99). He states earlier that “…one must not let oneself be deceived by speaking of the physical thing as transcending consciousness or as ‘existing in itself'” (Ideas, 89). Husserl’s goal in Ideas was to found phenomenology as a science that explored essences (I’m heavily summing up), but I think he clearly has some very insightful thoughts on idealism in these and other passages. Husserl, mind you, does believe in a world external to our minds. I agree.

Here again theism permeates my philosophy, for I see the physical, external world as the ideas of God, who views them objectively (in the sense of absolutely, not in the sense of “as objects”) whereas we view them subjectively (here in the sense of not absolute, perhaps flawed, not complete, etc.). So without this absolute sense bestower (to use Husserl’s terms), there can be no perception, no sense. For in Him we move and have our being (Acts 17:28). So within our ego we have a kind of inescapable interpretation, we view reality from this perspective that we cannot escape. But we can clearly show that for any two people A and B, A and B’s perceptions of the world are going to be different on a number of points. But there must be some kind of objective (absolute) world from which we derive sensations and perceptions. However, because we cannot discuss any object as mind independent, this objective world is not mind-independent either, or if it is, then it is such in a way that we cannot access or understand, and in either case it is dependent on something else. So, in either case we have a metaphysics, not a physics, for physics deals with that which is perceived. If we want to establish how that which is perceived came to be, we must move into the realm of metaphysics, beyond the clutches of naturalism, beyond the access of science and firmly into the realm of philosophy, which governs both naturalism and science to begin with.


Berkeley, George. The Works of George Berkeley, Volume I. Bibliobazaar.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy: First Book. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. 1982.


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.

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.


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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.

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.

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