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.