This is a sample chapter from The Sacred History of Being:
I’ve chosen to look initially at the philosophical outlook of Berkeley through public criticism by Bertrand Russell.*1 He was born in Ireland in 1685, and became a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin when he was twenty-two years old. What was peculiar about his philosophy was that he denied the existence of matter, and in fact the reality of the objective world. He argued that material objects had existence only in so far as they are perceived by the viewer.
The obvious criticism of this theory is that if perception is the only thing which gives objects their reality, then when we are not looking at them, they should not exist.
‘To the objection that, in that case, a tree, for instance, would cease to exist if no-one was looking at it, he replied that God always perceives everything; if there were no God, what we take to material objects would have a jerky life, suddenly leaping into being when we look at them; but as it is, owing to God’s perceptions, trees and rocks and stones have an existence as continuous as common sense supposes. This is, in his opinion, a weighty argument for the existence of God.
His principal philosophical concerns were expressed in a small number of works written before he was twenty-eight years old. These concerns resemble remarkably those of ancient priestly interest which is a focus of the middle chapters of this book. His works were ‘A New Theory of Vision’ (1709); ‘The Principles of Human Knowledge’ (1710); and ‘The Dialogues of Hylas and Philonous’ (1713). The last of these is the one which presents the argument against matter. Russell considers that the first of these dialogues and the beginning of the second present the main aspects of the theory, and supplies a useful summary of the argument. This summary is reproduced here. Russell feels that Berkeley:
‘advances valid arguments in favour of a certain important conclusion, though not quite in favour of the conclusion he thinks he is proving. He thins he is proving that all reality is mental; what he is proving is that we perceive qualities, not things, and that qualities are relative to the percipient.’2
There are only two characters in the dialogue, Hylas and Philonous,*3 The former represents educated common sense, and Philonous, represents Berkeley himself. Shortly after the opening remarks,
‘Hylas says that he has heard strange reports of the opinions of Philonous, to the effect that he does not believe in material substance. ‘Can anything,’ he exclaims, ‘be more fantastical, more repugnant to Common Sense, or a more manifest piece of Scepticism, than to believe there is no such thing as matter?’ Philonous replies that he does not deny the reality of sensible things, i.e. of what is perceived immediately by the senses, but that we do not see the causes of colours or hear the causes of sounds. Both agree that the senses make no inferences. Philonous points out that by sight we perceive only light, colour, and figure; by hearing, only sounds; and so on. Consequently, apart from sensible qualities ther is nothing sensible, and sensible things are nothing but sensible qualities or combinations of sensible qualities.’
Philonous now sets to work to prove that ‘the reality of sensible things consists in being perceived’, as against the opinion of Hylas, that ‘to exist is one thing, and to be perceived is another’. That sense-data are mental is a thesis which Philonous supports by a detailed examination of the various senses. He begins with heat and cold. Great heat, he says, is a pain, and must be in a mind. Therefore heat is mental; and a similar argument applies to cold. This is reinforced by the famous argument about the the lukewarm water. When one of your hands is hot and the other cold, you put both into lukewarm water, which feels cold to one hand and hot to the other; but the water cannot be at once hot and cold. This finishes Hylas, who acknowledges that ‘heat and cold are only sensations existing in our minds’. But he points out hopefully that other sensible qualities remain.
Philonous next takes up tastes. He points out that a sweet taste is a pleasure and a bitter taste is a pain, and that pleasure and pain are mental. The same argument applies to odours, since they are pleasant or unpleasant.
Hylas makes a vigourous effort to rescue sound, which, he says, is motion in air, as may be seen from the fact that are no sounds in a vacuum.*4 We must, he says, ‘distinguish between sound as it is perceived by us, and as it is in itself; or between the sound which we immediately perceive and that which exists without us’. Philonous points out that what Hylas calls ‘real’ sound, being a movement, might possibly be seen or felt, but can certainly not be heard; therefore it is not sound as we know it in perception. As to this, Hylas now concedes that ‘sounds too have no real being without the mind’.
They now come to colours, and here Hylas begins confidently: ‘Pardon me: the case of colours is very different. Can anything be plainer than that we see them on the objects?’ Substances existing without the mind, he maintains, have the colours we see on them. But Philonous has no difficulty in disposing of this view. He begins with the sunset clouds, which are red and golden, and points out that a cloud, when you are close to it, has no such colours. He goes on to the difference made by a microscope, and to the yellowness of everything to a man who has jaundice. And very small insects, he says, must be able to see much smaller objects than we can see. Hylas thereupon says that colour is not in the objects, but in the light; it is, he says, a thin fluid substance. Philonous points out, as in the case of sound, that, according to Hylas, ‘real’ colours are something different from the red and blue that we see, and that this won’t do.
Hereupon Hylas gives way about all secondary qualities, but continues to say that primary qualities, notable figure and motion, are inherent in external unthinking substances. To this Philonous replies that things look big when we are near them and small when we are far off, and that a movement may seem quick to one man and slow to another.
At this point Hylas attempts a new departure. He made a mistake, he says, in not distinguishing the object from the sensation; the act of perceiving he admits to be mental, but not what is perceived; colours, for example, ‘have a real existence without the mind, in some unthinking substance’. To this Philonous replies: ‘That any immediate object of the senses – that is, any idea or combination of ideas – should exist in an unthinking substance, or exterior to all minds, is in itself an evident contradiction.’
At this point Russell points out that the argument has become a logical one, and is no longer empirical in nature. Berkeley has moved on to a discussion involving ideas, as expressed by Philonous a few pages later, where he says, ‘whatever is immediately perceived is an idea; and can any idea exist out of the mind?’.
After a metaphysical discussion of substance, Hylas returns to the discussion of visual sensations, with the argument that he sees things at a distance. To this Philonous replies that this is equally true of things seen in dreams, which everyone admits to be mental; further, that distance is not perceived by sight, but judged as the result of experience, and that, to a man born blind but now for the first time able to see, visual objects would not appear distant.
At the beginning of the second Dialogue, Hylas urges that certain traces in the brain are the causes of sensations, but Philonous retorts that ‘the brain, being a sensible thing, exists only in the mind’.
Russell ends his summary of the argument here, and divides Philonous’ argument into two parts. The first is the argument that we do not perceive material things, but only their secondary qualities, such as colours, sounds, etc. These secondary qualities exist in the mind, and are mental in nature. Russell thinks that Berkeley’s reasoning is ‘completely cogent as to the first point,’ but as to the second, ‘it suffers from the absence of any definition of the word ‘mental’. He relies… upon the received view that everything must be either material or mental, and that nothing is both’.
“When he says that we perceive qualities, not ‘things’ or ‘material substances’, and that there is no reason to suppose that the different qualities which common sense regards as all belonging to one ‘thing’ inhere in a substance distinct from each and all of them, his reasoning may be accepted. But when he goes on to say that sensible qualities – including primary qualities – are ‘mental’, the arguments are of very different kinds, and of very different degrees of validity. There are some attempting to prove logical necessity, while others are more empirical.” [p626]
Russell is not interested in Berkeley’s argument after this, as he explained. This is because he has exposed the same looseness of language which we saw employed by the most celebrated exponents of the ontological argument (and consequently the weakness of the argumentation), and the rest of Berkeley’s argument concerns a theological understanding of the world. We however shall press on, since Berkeley’s theological understanding is relevant to the subject of this book, and it also presents an alternative form of ontological argument, which Berkeley claims shows the reality of God.
The Second Dialogue opens with a discussion which functions to clarify whether the essentially skeptical view of Hylas is the correct response to Philonous’ argument. Philonous [p 166] asks to know ‘whether I rightly understand your hypothesis. You make certain traces in the brain to be the causes or occasions of our ideas. Pray tell me, whether by the brain you mean any sensible thing?’ Hylas confirms that this is his view, and that he cannot imagine what else Philonous thought he might mean. Philonous responds by defining that ‘sensible things are all immediately perceivable, are ideas; and these exist only in the mind.’ They both agree that Hylas has agreed to this much earlier in the argument.
Philonous then argues that, since the brain, being itself a sensible thing, ‘exists only in the mind’, and asks if Hylas would agree whether or not it is reasonable to suppose that ‘one idea or thing existing, occasions all other ideas.’ And that if this is his view, how does he account ‘for the origin of that primary idea of the brain itself?’ Hylas replies that he does not explain the origin of our ideas by a ‘brain which is perceptible to sense; rather he understands the brain being ‘only a combination of sensible ideas’, and that the explanation is by means of another brain which he imagines.
Philonous responds by suggesting that things imagined are as truly in the mind as things which are perceived. Hylas agrees. Philonous points out that Hylas has been ‘all this while accounting for ideas, by certain motions or impressions in the brain’ by means of ‘some alterations in an idea, whether sensible or imaginable,’ and that it does not matter which. Hylas is a little shaken by this, and says that he begins to suspect his own hypothesis.
A clue is presented as to where Philonous is going with this argument, since he says that ‘all we know or conceive are own ideas,’ with the exception of ‘spirits.’ And if we do not conceive it, then we ‘talk unintelligibly,’ instead of forming a reasonable hypothesis’. Hylas now crumbles, and says that he ‘now clearly see it was a mere dream’ to argue in terms of motions or impressions in the brain. Philonous responds by saying that ‘this way of explaining things… could never have satisfied any reasonable man’ since ‘what connexion is there between a motion in the nerves and the sensations of sound or colour in the mind?’ He agrees with Philonous that he is satisfied that no sensible things have a real existence. He also agrees the he is clearly a skeptic.
Philolaus then embarks on a long paean to the glories of the sensible world and its orderliness:
‘Raise now your thoughts from this ball of earth, to all those glorious luminaries that adorn the high arch of heaven. The motion and situation of the planet, are they not admirable for use and order? Were those (miscalled erratic) globes ever known to stray, in their repeated journeys through the pathless void? Do they not measure areas around the sun ever proportioned to the times? So fixed, so immutable are the laws by which the unseen Author of Nature actuates the universe. How vivid and radiant is the lustre of the fixed stars! How magnificent and rich that negligent profusion, with which they appear to be scattered throughout the whole azure vault!’
Philonous is appealing here to the heavens as a representation of the divine, whose uniformities point to something beyond the appearance. He says to Hylas that he ‘must call imagination to his aid,’ since ‘the feeble narrow sense cannot descry innumberable worlds revolving round the central fires [the stars]; and in those worlds the energy of an all-perfect mind displayed in endless forms.’
This is not a metaphorical appeal. Berkeley has introduced the notion that reality as it is represented to us is not simply the more or less complex response of the human brain to sensory data, but is a series of representations which are associated with cosmic ‘all-perfect’ mind:
‘Neither sense nor imagination are big enough to comprehend the boundless extent with all its glittering furniture. Though labouring mind exert and strain each power to its utmost reach, there still stands out ungrasped a surplusage immeasurable. Yet all the vast bodies that compose this mighty frame, how distant and remote soever, are by some secret mechanism, some divine art and force linked in a mutual dependence and intercourse with each other, even with this earth, which was almost slipped from my thoughts, and lost in the crowd of worlds. Is not the whole system immense, beautiful, glorious beyond expression and beyond thought!’
Both Philonous and Hylas by this point share the view that sensible things exist in mind only. Up to this point however, the view of Hylas has been a profound skepticism about reality, and our capacity to know it. By contrast, here Philonous shows, on the basis of the same evidence, that a quite different conclusion can be drawn, if the intellectual frame is changed. Philonous then attacks the skeptical position in general:
‘What treatment then do those philosophers deserve, who would deprive these noble and delightful scenes of all reality? How should those priciples be entertained, that lead us to think all the visible beauty of the creation a false imaginary glare? To be plain, can you expect this skepticism of yours will not be thought extravagantly absurd by all men of sense?’ Hylas is not impressed, and is not converted to Philonous’s outlook. He says that his comfort is that Philonous is ‘as much a sceptic as I am’. Philonous disagrees, which strikes Hylas as meaning that Philonous agreed all along to the premises of the argument, but is now denying the conclusion, leaving Hylas ‘to maintain those paradoxes’ which Philonous led him into.
Argument and evidence however do not by themselves lead to single and unambiguous conclusions. We arrive at conclusions only by the properties and processes of mind, and on the basis our notions and expectations. Philonous denies that he agreed with Hylas ‘in those notions that led to skepticism.’ He argues that Hylas ‘indeed said, the reality of sensible things consisted in an absolute existence out of the minds of spirits, or distinct from their being perceived.’ And, consequent to this vue, Hylas is ‘obliged deny sensible things any real existence’. And that, according to his own definition, he is therefore a professed sceptic. But Philonous says that he ‘neither said nor thought the reality of sensible things was to be defined after that manner.’ Instead he says that to him it is evident, for the reasons that Hylas allows, ‘that sensible things cannot exist otherwise than in a mind or spirit.’ And so he concludes that it is not the case that they have no real existence, ‘but that seeing they depend not on my thought, and have an existence distinct from being perceived by me, there must be some other mind wherein they exist’ [Berkeley’s emphasis]. As sure therefore as the sensible world really exists, so sure is there an infinite omnipresent spirit who contains and supports it.’
This is an interesting proof of the reality of divine Being, which differs from the other arguments we have looked at. Berkeley clarifies that this is not the Christian notion that God knows and comprehends all things. He argues (as Philonous) that ‘men commonly believe that all things are known or perceived by God, because they believe the being of a God, whereas I on the other side, immediately and necessarily conclude the being of a God, because all sensible things must be perceived by him.’[p 168]
Hylas objects that this is a footling distinction, saying ‘so long as we all believe the same thing, what matter is it how we come by that belief? To which Philonous replies that they don’t believe the same thing. ‘For philosophers, though they acknowledge all corporeal beings to be perceived by God, yet they attribute to them an absolute subsistence distinct from their being perceived by any mind whatever, which I do not.’ He asks, ‘is there no difference between saying, there is a God, therefore he perceives all things: and saying, sensible things do really exist; and if they really exist, they are necessarily perceived by an infinite mind: therefore there is an infinite mind, or God. This furnishes you with a direct and immediate demonstration, from a most evident principle, of the being of a God.’
Again Berkeley returns to the judgement that men make about sense data, which is not always the same, though the evidence is the same. As Philonous he says that ‘Divines and philosophers had proved beyond all controvery, from the beauty and usefulness of the several parts of the creation, that it was the workmanship of God. But that setting aside all help of astronomy and natural philosophy, all contemplation of the contrivance, order, and adjustment of things, and infinite mind should be necessarily inferred from the bare existence of the sensible world, is an advantage peculiar to them only who have made this easy reflexion: that the sensible world is that which we perceive by our several senses; and that nothing is perceived by the senses beside ideas; and that no idea or archetype of an idea can exist otherwise than in a mind.’
Berkeley regarded this as a powerful argument against atheism. Hylas says that ‘some eminent moderns’ entertain a notion of ‘seeing all things in God’, (a reference in particular to the French scholar Malebranche) and gives detail in response to questioning by Philonous. Hylas says that these men conceive that the soul being immaterial, ‘is incapable of being united with material things, so as to perceive them in themselves, but that she (the soul) by her union with the substance of God, which being spiritual is therefore purely intelligible, or capable of being the immediate object of a spirit’s thought. Besides, the divine essence contains in it perfections correspondent to each created being; and which are for that reason proper to exhibit or represent them to the mind.’
Philonous is not impressed with this argument, in that he argues it makes a created world ‘exist otherwise than in the mind of a spirit’. This is because, as he has said, ‘nothing is perceived by the senses besides ideas.’ He does not share the view with Malebranche that there is an absolute external world. According to Philonous, Malebranche ‘maintains that we are deceived by our senses, and know not the real natures or the true forms and figures of extended beings, of all which I hold the direct contrary.’ Hylas thinks however that what Philonous proposes comes near to ‘seeing all things in God’. The response of Philonous is that ‘few men think, yet all will have opinions. Hence men’s opinions are superficial and confused. It is nothing strange that tenets, which in themselves are ever so different, should nevertheless be confounded with each other by those who do not consider them attentively’ [p169]. He says he is very remote from the view of Malebranche, because Malebranche builds on the most abstract general ideas…though he (Philonous) agrees with holy Scripture, in ‘that in God we live, and move, and have our being’. He explains briefly the difference between his view and that of Malebranche:
‘It is evident that the things I perceive are my own ideas, and that no idea can exist unless it be in a mind. Nor is it less plain that these ideas or things by me perceived, either themselves or their archetypes, exist independently of my mind, since I know myself not to be their author, it being out of my power to determine at pleasure, what particular idea I shall be effected with upon opening my eyes or ears. They must therefore exist in some other mind, whose will it is they should be exhibited to me. The things, I say, immediately perceived, are ideas or sensations, call them what you will. But how can any idea or sensation exist in, or be produced by, anything but a mind or spirit? This indeed is inconceivable; and to assert that which is inconceivable, is to talk nonsense….’
It may be that the objection to the notion put forward by Malebranche is that it depicts reality as something which is perceived as outside the human mind by the human mind, whereas Berkeley does not make this distinction. For Berkeley it is as if his mind is a subset of the divine cosmic mind, perceiving a subset of the ideas in that mind. If he perceives ideas, it is because the cosmic mind wills it.
The ideas which present themselves to Philonous, he argues, ‘it is very conceivable that they should exist in, and be produced by, a spirit; since this is no more than I daily experience in myself, inasmuch as I perceive numberless ideas; and by an act of my Will can form a great variety of them, and raise them up in my imagination: though it must be confessed, these creatures of the fancy are not altogether so distinct, so strong, vivid, and permanent, as those perceived by my senses, which latter are called real things. From all which I conclude, there is a mind which affects me every moment with all the sensible impressions I perceive. And from the variety, order, and manner of these, I conclude the Author of them to be wise, powerful, and good, beyond comprehension.
Philonous emphasizes here that he is not saying that he sees ‘things by perceiving that which represents in the intelligible substance of God. This I do not understand; but I say, the things by me perceived are known by the understanding, and produced by the will, of an infinite spirit.’ So his objection is as I suggested, and he is not simply seeing what is ‘in’ God.
Beyond this, the Second Dialogue deals with Malebranche’s occasionalism, which sees the physical world as a place where God has the occasion to create motion and change, and also deals with ideas of substance.
1 Russell, Bertrand, The History of Western Philosophy, Chapter XVI, p 623 ‘Berkeley’
2 Op cit. p624
3 ‘Philonous’ is a composite of two Greek words, meaning ‘lover of mind’.
4 This information must have come from experimental data.