Berkeley’s Blunder (Part 1)

In Berkeley’s Principles of Human Understanding (I got a version from I am fascinated by his extreme ontological and epistemolgical views, as I believe most people are, and I wanted to try to pin-point why they, in my opinion, feel so wrong.

Berkeley’s Argument

Berkeley’s famous thesis that “to be is to be perceived” is a genuine conundrum on some levels. It says that matter cannot be the cause of our ideas through perception but rather ideas are the only things that can cause ideas. Now, this isn’t his entire argument but I feel one of Berkeley’s greater arguments comes in section 18.

The argument, more or less, goes like this:

1.)    If matter exists then either we know matter by our senses or we know it by reason.

2.)    We can’t know matter by our senses.

3.)    We can’t know matter by reason.

4.)    Therefore, matter does not exist.

The argument is deductively valid. If we created a conjunction of premises 2 and 3 we can them apply DeMorgan’s law to arrive at the negation of a disjunction thus creating a modus tollens move to the conclusion (the negation of the antecedent of the conditional in premise one). However, let’s look at the text to see why Berkeley believes premises 1, 2, and 3.

Berkeley’s Justification

Premise 1 is derived from this text here:

“Suppose it were possible for solid, figured, movable substances to exist outside the mind, corresponding to the ideas we have of bodies—how could we possibly know that there are any such things? We must know it either by sense or by reason.”(Berkeley S.18)

This quote is invaluable since we see that we are not just talking about matter but we are considering matter that has the quality of providing our ideas of bodies.

Premise 2 is justified by Berkeley’s ideas of sense perception. For Berkeley, your senses only inform you of the idea of an object. This is because when you are seeing an object you are merely having an idea of the object. There is an identity between ideas, sensations, and things immediately perceived by sense as shown here “Our senses give us knowledge only of our sensations—ideas—things that are immediately perceived by sense—call them what you will…”(Berkeley S.18).  So for Berkeley, this gives you no justification to believe in some object that exists unperceived (or outside the mind) that resembles the objects of our perception.

Premise 3 is justified by two key thoughts for Berkeley: There is no necessary connection between material things and our ideas; we could have all the same ideas and thoughts without any outside bodies existing (the evidence is found dreams and hallucinations according to Berkeley). So because of these two facts we should not infer from our reason that matter does exist.

My Response

I agree with premise 1 but take issue with premises 2 and 3. I believe there is a problem with the justification for each premise.

The justification for premise 2 has many flaws in its reasoning. Remembering Berkeley’s reasoning that sensations only inform us of our sensations, we have a statement that is true but boringly so (or tautologous in nature) . It is more interesting when one considers the identity that we established earlier that replaces sensations with ideas but this seems like question begging. If our senses only give us the power to know of ideas then you have already limited the human mind to never knowing the physical objects in question. It seems plausible, and consistent, that matter can interact with matter, if we are in fact just matter.  Verily the mind body problem caused these confusions for Berkeley “The materialists admit that they cannot understand how body can act upon spirit…” (Berkeley S.19).  And if the materialists of his day had a dogma of the soul holding them back then surely Berkeley had his reasons to be confused. Furthermore, I find it odd that Berkeley would choose such an extreme position simply because they were having a problem uniting the mind with the body.

The justification for premise three has problems as well. Remember that Berkeley gave us two reasons that we cannot infer matter’s existence from reason: there is no necessary connection between material things and our ideas and we could have all the same ideas and thoughts without any outside bodies existing. The first reason he gives is also question begging. If it were that case that physical objects caused our ideas through sense perception then we would have necessary connection between physical objects and our ideas. It seems that status of these objects is determined at the beginning of the question.  The second reason given seems to be a case of bad reasoning. When astronomists of the 1400′s and 1500′s were choosing between the new Copernican model or the old Ptolemaic model we could have, as Berkeley seems to think, just stayed with the Ptolemaic model. After all, Ptolemy could make sense of retrograde motion of stars and other phenomena that Copernicus was trying to solve. So since we don’t need Heliocentrism why bother? I feel this Berkeley argument is analogous, just because we don’t need matter (on his theory) it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Berkeleyan Response Next Week

Studying Philosophy, Getting a Job, and Saving the World

(I apologize in advance for any grammatical errors. My wife didn’t get the chance to proof read this).
So normally I like to post some fairly serious philosophy but today will be different. Normally, I just post slightly revised assignments from school. As a philosophy major I probably write 3 papers a month (mainly because I am taking 4 philosophy classes a the moment and 3 of them are upper division). The readers of this blog do not get the chance to the see the most polished pieces of work, I will admit, but this makes it easy to keep up on weekly posting (God knows what will happen in the summer). Today I finished a paper on Berkeley and I considered posting it but something happened that must be talked about.

So, every Sunday I wake up early with my beautiful wife and go to work with her. She works at the best coffee shop ever (Goldy’s corner) so I go with her because I can sit and drink unlimited drip coffee while I write this blog and do homework. Last time I ran into a peer at school, a philosophy major, who is graduating soon. This person is now teaching high schoolers philosophy and they are facing a problem; they must continually convince parents their subject is important.

I myself have friends who consider what I study useless (they won’t ever know I mentioned them since they will never read this blog) but I want the world to understand that we philosophy majors can get other jobs, in fact, our specialty is convincing people to hire us, but we should have a larger number of teaching positions available to us as early as middle school and this is why; philosophy teaches you how to think. Philosophy is a gym for the mind. America cannot think rationally and doesn’t want to. If you believe I am wrong I implore you to consider the political system we have in place. Right now we have rhetoric, which is a weapon in the hand of skilled wielder, being used to slash and hack at the weak of mind. This political system is reinforced early in life and needs to stop. If we can train children early in the art of rational thought then some people wouldn’t have even made it into office. Imagine Bush or Obama trying to convince Kant, Hume, Berkeley, Lewis, Russell, or any other philosopher of some of the the crap they convinced America to believe, it just wouldn’t happen. This is simply because philosophers think critically and often are skeptical. I don’t know of many philosophers who believe something they hear right away even if they want to believe it! People only will believe what they want to believe and it is a huge problem. We currently value beliefs that help us support our bias. We need to value beliefs that are true. If you don’t think having philosophy taught would change this I would like you to consider the fact that every political system, including the United States’, is based on the work of some philosopher. If everyone read Locke, Hobbes, Keynes, Malthus, Smith, and Marx (and many others) and were educated in how to think rationally, we would have a well informed society that can decide for itself how to vote. The standards for political rhetoric would be much higher. If the standards are higher then the people spewing the rhetoric would themselves be of a higher standard intellectually to keep up with the demand.

Hire philosophers to teach your kids and we will save the world.


An Objection to A-theory (Time)

If you are trying to conjure a reason to properly dispel A-theory you do not need to look to an extravagant abstract argument. Instead, one may offer a simple counter argument from real life examples.

For example, the satellites we send into orbit must have specially synchronized clocks that run faster so that they run the same speed here on earth. Why is this? Well simply put, it’s relativity in action. The physics of relativity predict that when something has a reference frame of greater velocity than some other object’s reference frame time will move slower for this object. This becomes a problem for the A-theorist (especially the Priorian A-theorist) since past, present, and future are properties of objects. I could be watching a satellite move through the sky and I would be seeing a present-past object. It would contain the properties of being now-present and once-past at the same time. This contradiction, of the past-present object,  is why those who understand relativity in physics love B-theory.  It seems like understanding things as being before or after one another is the proper way to understand things rather than some metaphysically serious commitment to “past-ness” or “present-ness” or even “futurity” of objects.

Defending Plato (Sort of..)

In this post we are not going to affirm Plato’s ideas but rather critique a formalization presented by my professor Tony Roark in lecture.


Roark’s Argument

            The argument from imperfection is fairly basic in nature. It claims that by knowing that which is imperfect we can see there must be a perfect standard by which to know the imperfect object. This is the argument more formally by Roark:

  1. 1.      Whenever we judge that some perceptible object is equal (to another), larger, smaller, beautiful, good, just, pious, etc., we judge that it is only imperfectly so. [Premise]
  2. 2.      If one judges that a perceptible object is only imperfectly F, she must have in mind something that is perfectly F to which she compares it and recognizes it to fall short of in terms of F-ness. [Premise]
  3. 3.      So we often have in mind something that is perfectly F. [1, 2]
  4. 4.      So there is something such that it is perfectly F and we have it in mind [3]
  5. 5.      So there is something that is perfectly F. [4]
  6. 6.      But no perceptible object is perfectly F. [Premise]
  7. 7.      Hence, there is something that is perfectly F (call it the “Form of F-ness”), distinct from any perceptible object, in comparison to which we judge perceptible objects to be imperfectly F. [5, 6] (Roark)


Of course Roark’s argument shows that the invalid move Plato makes is between 3 and 4. Simply having something in mind does not entail the conjunction of having it in mind and its very existence. This would be absurd on many levels if one were to consider it. This is why I believe the argument as presented is the incorrect way of presenting the argument. Now, since I do not know the specific pages that Roark garnered this argument I will assume it is from sections Phaedo 73-75. Here is where the analogy between recollection and knowing the perfect form is made by Plato.

Recollection Analogy

            In the Phaedo, starting around 73d we see a key passage stating “Well, you know what happens to lovers: whenever they see a lyre, a garment, or anything else that their beloved is accustomed to use, they know the lyre, and the image of the boy to whom it belongs comes into their mind.” This also goes for things that are dissimilar as presented here: “In all these cases the recollection can be occasioned by things that are similar, but it can also be occasioned by things that are dissimilar?—It can.” Thus this helps make the further analogy between the imperfect and the perfect. In the Phaedo Plato uses equality as an example. There is the equal itself (represented by Equal with a capital ‘e’) and physical objects that just seem equal. So when I see two objects that seem equal, but are not perfectly equal, we are able to know the ways in which they aren’t perfectly equal by recalling the Equal. So from perceiving something dissimilar (the truly non-equal things that seem equal) we recollect something. This is shown in the Phaedo after Plato, speaking to Simmias, gets Simmias to admit a few things about the equal objects and the equal itself: “As long as the sight of one thing makes you think of another, whether it be similar or dissimilar, this must of necessity be recollection.” So not just having something in mind entails existence but having something in mind entails recollecting that thing. This is a important move that Roark missed. This argument should instead be called The Argument from Recollection.

My Reformulation

I believe that argument should be formalized like this:

  1. If you have something in mind then you are recollecting that thing.
  2. If you can recollect something then surely that thing exists.
  3. When you see something that is imperfectly F (F being some quality) it often brings to mind something perfectly F.
  4. You can recollect something perfectly F. (1,3)
  5. Something perfectly F exists. (2,4).

This, I believe, is the more proper way of understanding the argument (at least for the gap between 3 and 4 in Roark’s argument).  Here we get the full picture of why having something in mind can lead to some things existence. When one considers whether the above premises are true, that is another story.




I’m using Stephanus pagination for Plato.

Tony , Roark. “The Phaedo.” N.p.. Web. 27 Oct 2013. <>.

Metaphysics in Harry Potter (1)

(If you haven’t read the Harry Potter series this probably won’t be fun because I don’t want to have to summarize the scene. Also, it says (1) because we will be doing more metaphysics of harry potter in a few months.)


In this post I will be discussing the metaphysics of time in the book Prisoner of Azkaban. There are two basic theories on time, A-theory and B-theory, and we will hold up the text to both of those theories and see if it will remain consistent.

Key Terms

In the metaphysics of time we have two basic theories, A and B-theory. A-theorists say that time is like a moving spotlight and the present moment is a metaphysically special moment. Existence, on this theory, is a property anything can have and only the present moment contains this property. Thus the future will be, the past has been, and the present is. There are different and more complicated A-theories (as well as B-theories) but we will focus on the most basic form above.
B-theorists state that the past, present, and future are all metaphysically real. The significance of this pertains more to special and general relativity in physics today which claims that time is a dimension space, hence the space-time world. In this understanding time is more like a place and most analogies that work for places work for time. So if you were on the phone with someone in New York and you said, “It is raining here,” and they were to say “It is sunny here,” neither of you are saying the word “here” in an objective way. In fact, there will be no objective “here” the same way that there is no objective “now” (Sider).

On A-theory

          Now, since there are multiple A-theories, some will allow for no movement through time but we will focus only an A-theory that allows us to move through time. On A-theory we have quite a ridiculous situation at hand. The present moment then, what is considered as ‘now’, will have to shift to the past. The timeturner, then, would need the ability to make any time in the past the current ‘now’ for the users of it. This creates a strange situation in which the once-past is the now-present and time would have to move on from that point again. Considering then the case of Harry saving his own life, we are bankrupt. The once-past had been traveled to before (we know that), but for some reason they needed to travel again, thus we got to see him save his life. If things had happened exactly this way before and Harry of the now-present never was able to travel back to once-past, however, then he would not have existed to save his own life.

On B-theory

           Here we have a more consistent situation. On A-theory there are no facts about the future so the freedom of will is ultimate. On B-theory there are facts about the future. So on this theory there is no free-will – at least for this paper. Thus the fatalistic sense of the universe makes sense due to the strange loop that occurs at this point in the story. Space-time is like a parade being viewed from above (the God’s eye view). There is a definite beginning and end and all the events in the middle. It would be best then to imagine this situation like a small circle of participants moving in circle in the middle the parade, for, on B-theory, it is just a fact that Harry Potter lives – thus it is just a matter of fact that he has gone back in time to save himself. This makes asking the question of “which Harry was the first to go back in time” irrelevant since B-theory would, in a strange way, answer “there is no first”.

To be continued….

Anselm’s Ontological Argument: How to define things into existence.

When one considers ontological arguments for Gods existence it is very natural to start with Anselm’s ontological argument. It is also the case that for most freshman, that are not well versed in philosophy but very curious about theology, to accept the arguments as if it proves God’s existence. Well I came here to burst your bubble as I explain what the argument really does.

Let’s begin with restating the argument:

  1. I can conceive of a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2.  If a being than which no greater can be conceived does not exist in reality but only in the mind alone, then I can conceive of a being greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived that exists in reality not merely in the mind alone.
  3. I cannot conceive of a being greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  4. Hence, a being than which no greater can be conceived exists.1 (citation)

Premise 1 establishes the definition of God (and our ability to conceive of him) so far so good. Premise 2 is an argument from contingency. Basically the being which exists in reality is greater than the being which exists in my mind since the being which exists in my mind is contingent upon me the thinker for its existence. Premise 3 is to make a modus tollens move, (to assure logical validity). Thus premise 4 follows deductively. So what does this mean? Does God now just exist? The answer is no and this is why.

Ontological arguments cannot truly prove anything, (by this I mean they do not demonstrate some things existence) since they presuppose the existence of something. For example Alvin Plantinga, a contemporary philosopher, proposed what he calls the “victorious ontological argument.”1 In this victorious version, Plantinga uses 20th century modal logic to convey the idea that if God is possible then he is necessary and if he is necessary then he exists. This argument seems to be a non-starter for most since you must first accept the existence of God. Surprisingly the theist, Plantinga, admits to this. Plantinga writes “Our verdict on these reformulated versions of St. Anselm’s argument must be as follows. They cannot, perhaps, be said to prove or establish their conclusion. But since it is rational to accept their central premise, they do show that it is rational to accept that conclusion”1According to the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, this is akin to saying “Either God exists or 2+2=5. It is not the case that 2+2=5. Therefore God exists.” In both arguments if someone doubts the existence of God then they are going to wind up with a false premise.1 If someone already does not accept the premise God exists, then one must also cast doubt to God being possible, or for that matter, a being of which no greater can be conceived.


1. Oppy, Graham, “Ontological Arguments”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


Descartes Debunked

Trevor Adams

Meditation Three


In Descartes Meditations, he develops a few tests for truth. The first test comes about from radical doubt as he tries to find something to be sure of. Descartes begins by treating anything that has the slightest doubt as if it were outright false. In doing so he is left to conclude that at least he exists and he is a thinking thing. In his attempt to rebuild the world he must try to rid himself of other doubt; this is where he makes his greatest mistake. Descartes introduces a test for truth that is all determined by what is said to be clear and distinct or vivid and clear. Descartes believes that he can treat anything that is vivid and clear as if it were true. In this paper I will demonstrate that Descartes’ test for truth is insufficient, subjective, and renders the rest of all his Meditations false (since everything hinges on this being a test for truth).

Descartes Argument

In this copy of the Meditations, Jonathan Bennett gives us deeper insight into exactly what Descartes meant when he said “vivid and clear.” We see that if something is vivid for Descartes this means that one can understand it immediately. For example, when a person is in pain, no one questions whether he or she is in pain when experiencing the sensation. However, when something is clear we must understand all the parts just as vividly; thus, when you are in pain, you may not fully understand why or exactly what it is that hurts but you have no doubt that you are in pain. When Descartes explains his concept of vivid and clear, he relates it to being sure of his existence. It seems that one could be vivid and clear of something if they are as sure of that thing as their own existence. In this passage we see the first use of vivid and clear and its origin:

“I am certain that I am a thinking thing. Doesn’t that tell me what it takes for me to be certain about anything? In this first item of knowledge there is simply a vivid and clear perception of what I am asserting; this wouldn’t be enough to make me certain of its truth if it could ever turn out that something that I perceived so vividly and clearly was false.”

We also gain insight when we look at the first thing he establishes as true because it is vivid and clear in this passage: “This idea of a supremely perfect and infinite being is, I say, true in the highest degree;… The idea is, moreover, utterly vivid and clear.” So this is the first thing he establishes to be true by his use of vivid and clear. What I want to understand is how God can honestly fit this bill for vividness and clearness before anything else. So far the argument looks like this:

1.)    If am certain of something in the same way I am certain of my own existence, then that thing is vivid and clear.

2.)    If something is vivid and clear then it is true.

3.)    I am certain of the idea of God just as my own existence.

4.)    Therefore the idea of God is vivid and clear.   1,3

5.)    Therefore the idea of God is true.   2,4

From here Descartes ascents to trusting in God’s existence and then he is able to rebuild the world.

My First Objection

First, it seems like nothing would be vivid and clear if you needed to be as sure of it as your own existence. How can one be as sure of triangles as ones’ own existence? I think that is too heavy of a standard. The cogito is so convincing only because it creates in itself an inherent contradiction that one cannot resolve and thus must come to a conclusion. It is obvious that one cannot doubt their own existence for who would even exist to doubt your existence if you did not exist? This level of self evidence is not apparent in the idea of God. In fact does the idea of anything hold up to that standard? I can doubt the idea of God and even triangles and I never commit myself to a contradiction like I do when I doubt my own existence. Thus premise three is false.

Cartesian Response to First Argument

            Perhaps it is the case that this isn’t the only criteria for understanding vividness and clearness. After all, we were provided supplemented text which suggests that is something else. In Bennett’s introduction we gain more insight from this passage: “I call a perception claram when it is present and accessible to the attentive mind—just as we say that we see something clare when it is present to the eye’s gaze and stimulates it with a sufficient degree of strength and accessibility.” For distinctness Descartes says that all parts of it must be claram. Thus the Cartesian response may be as simple as saying that the idea of God is clear or vivid to the mind just as when something is to the eye and not just in general but even every part of it, thus the idea is vivid and clear. Therefore, the new argument would go something like this:

I.            If something is present and clear to the mind just as something is clear to eye’s gaze then it is clear.

II.            If something is clear in all parts of it then it is vivid.

III.            The idea of God is present and clear to the mind just as something as something is clear to the eye’s gaze.

IV.            Therefore the idea of God is clear.   I,III

V.            The idea of God is clear in all its parts.

VI.            Therefore the idea of God is vivid.   II,V

  1. Therefore the idea of God is vivid and clear.   IV, VI


My Second Objection (Rebuttal)

            Second, I think it is otherwise too subjective. What if one was to be vivid and clear on something Descartes is not? And how would Descartes reconcile this? The problem lies in the defining something by analogy. To say that something is clear, if it is clear in the same way something is clear to the eye’s gaze, is not mathematically rigorous enough to stand up against the wind of logic. Thus premise one is in question in this argument. If one can understand premise one then vividness does have a more distinct definition. But how could someone understand this analogy? Perhaps one can simply run the reverse argument above and say that the idea of God is not as clear as something is clear to the eye’s gaze and thus the idea of God is not clear (modus tollens).  If one were to make this move then God will surely never make it to vivid state. Also, how could Descartes even rebut that?


            Overall, there is a strong sense of doubt in my mind about vividness and clearness being a test for truth. It seems insufficient. To make things worse it does not seem to gain any legitimacy when one really dives into the text. In short, the idea of what is vivid and clear isn’t very vivid and clear.


















Objective Truth From Formal Logic

There is an idea that you can prove the premises of an argument by creating valid arguments whose conclusion’s are the premises of the original argument. For example, if I have a 2 premise argument with a conclusion, and I want to prove the premises, I will create two more arguments whose conclusion’s are the premises of my original argument. You can see that this becomes problematic very quickly. This method of proving leads to two things; an infinite regress of arguments (which is impossible) or a circular argument.

So what do we do? I recommend that you introduce axioms. If axioms must exist so we can prove things then certain things need to be true for anything to be true. If these truths are not objective they will not fulfill the consequent of the conditional above. Thus objective truths must exist. QED