A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge

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  3. A TREATISE CONCERNING THE PRINCIPLES OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE
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So if, as idealists claim, there is and can be no such thing as matter or material substance, then they must abjure the remarkably successful corpuscularian mechanism at the heart of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. For example, it might be argued that it is a law of nature that a heated gas expands. As long as every corpuscularian mechanistic explanation can be successfully recast as the generalization of an ideational sequence, idealists do no worse than materialists in accounting for the results of scientific observation and experiment.

A seventh objection is that idealism subverts our ordinary suppositions about causation. But, strictly speaking, if idealism is true, then fire is one collection of ideas, and water another. Given that ideas, being inert and passive, are incapable of causing anything P 25 , it follows that fire cannot be the cause of heat and water cannot be the cause of cold.

These results seem absurd on their face: surely it is the fire not a mind that does the heating and the water not a mind that does the cooling P Just as there is no harm in saying that the sun rises even though on the Copernican hypothesis it does not actually rise, so there is no harm in saying that fire heats or water cools even though it is acknowledged that, strictly speaking, only a spirit can heat or cool anything. Besides, argues Berkeley, idealism is superior to alternative occasionalist materialist systems, such as the theory of Nicolas Malebranche , that agree with idealism in robbing sensible objects of causal power.

For occasionalist materialism must suppose that God has created a number of material substances to no purpose, given that it would have been just as easy for him to have produced directly what those material substances are held to occasion P An eighth objection is that the existence of matter is almost universally accepted, and it seems wrongheaded to suppose that so many people could be so wrong about this. First, he argues that this would not be the only time that a vast number of people had accepted something that, properly considered, is meaningless or self-contradictory P 54 : witness the almost universal acceptance of the metaphysics of subject, mode, and attribute for hundreds of years in the Schools.

For example, the proposition that the earth moves has been rejected by almost everyone who ever considered the matter, and yet the proposition is almost surely false P Berkeley goes on to explain how it might have come about that so many people take the world to contain material substances. People recognize, rightly, that their ideas of sense must be caused by something outside their minds. A ninth objection is that idealism is incompatible with the truths of science and mathematics.

For idealism entails that whatever is not perceived does not exist; so, for example, if the motion of the Earth is not perceived, then the Earth does not move; and hence, given that we do not perceive the Earth to move, it follows that the Earth is at rest. But this result contradicts the best astronomical theory.

In response, Berkeley provides further criticisms of the occasionalism presupposed by the first line of retreat, and ridicules the second line of retreat as involving the reduction of the idea of matter to the idea of nothingness, given that the positive ideas of quiddity, entity, and existence in general are purportedly abstract ideas that are, in actual fact, inconceivable and impossible see PI.

In the first of the Three Dialogues, Berkeley collects the objections to materialism that exist separately at P and P into a single sustained anti-materialist argument. The eleventh and final objection Berkeley considers is that idealism is incompatible with Scriptural reports that real sensible objects exist and that miracles such as the changing of water into wine have taken place P Berkeley makes short work of this objection, pointing out that idealism is fully compatible with indeed, entails the claim that real sensible objects exist, and with the claim that Jesus transformed water into wine.

After all, idealism entails that sensible objects are collections of ideas, and given that these ideas exist, it follows that sensible objects exist. Moreover, the water that Jesus changed, as well as the wine into which Jesus changed it, were both very real, inasmuch as the ideas of which they were composed were affecting, orderly, and distinct see P The rest of the Principles is devoted to discussion of the advantages and consequences of idealism, considered relative to its major opponent, materialism. Berkeley divides his discussion into two main parts, each devoted to one of the two kinds of beings he takes to exist: ideas P and spirits P He begins the first part by pointing out two general advantages of idealism over materialism, one philosophical and the other theological: i that the former is inconsistent with, while the latter naturally leads to, skepticism about the existence and nature of sensible objects P , and ii that the former avoids the atheism, idolatry, and Christian heresies that are natural outgrowths of the latter P He then moves on to the advantages of idealism over materialism with respect to the theory of ideas and sensible objects in the realms of science P , , morals P , arithmetic P , and geometry P , followed by a brief summary P of the main points argued for in P In the second part P , Berkeley also divides his discussion in two, first focusing on knowledge of the existence of finite spirits P , and then addressing knowledge of the existence of the only infinite spirit, namely, God P Whether matter be infinitely divisible?

And how it operates on spirit?

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Locke answers the first question positively, while Descartes answers it negatively. Descartes answers the second question positively, while Epicureans such as Pierre Gassendi answer it negatively. And while materialist monists such as Thomas Hobbes and staunch Epicureans explain the operation of body on spirit and vice versa as involving the transfer of motion from one material substance to another, materialist dualists including Descartes and Locke throw up their hands when asked as Descartes was asked by Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia to explain how an immaterial substance and a material substance are supposed to causally interact.

As Berkeley emphasizes, idealism avoids all of these disturbing questions and debates inasmuch as it entails the non-existence, indeed, the impossibility, of matter P 85—see P 9.


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In the next few sections P , Berkeley repeats the arguments of P that materialism leads to skepticism. If material objects existing outside our minds can stay the same while our ideas of them vary, if it is possible for us to have ideas of material objects as in dreams and hallucinations that are not really there to be perceived, then it possible for our senses to mislead us and, beyond that, it becomes impossible for us to know whether our ideas really conform to an external reality or even whether there is an external reality for our ideas to conform to P This contradicts the idea that God created the universe and that he is the only eternal, necessary being.

By contrast, Berkeley holds, idealism does not conflict with the basic tenets of Christian theology. Berkeley also notes that materialism provides support for idolatry, i. By contrast, idealism tells us that sensible beings are nothing but collections of ideas in our minds created in us by God. Given that ideas are fleeting, dependent beings and that there is no pre-existing disposition to worship beings of this kind, idealism does not conduce to idolatry, but conduces rather to the worship of the cause of such a wondrous system of ideas, namely, God P For, in particular, if the human body is a material substance composed of matter that is scattered after death, possibly entering other human bodies, then it is difficult to understand how all of the matter composing a human body immediately before death could be collected to reshape it after death.


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By contrast, if, as idealism holds, the human body is nothing but a collection of ideas, then it becomes easy to understand how the very same body that existed in the mind of God before death could exist in the mind of God after death P In particular, Berkeley argues, the attempt to abstract the idea of time from the idea of a succession of ideas in our minds something impossible, because what time is is the succession of ideas in our minds leads to the natural but wrongheaded thought, famously articulated by Augustine of Hippo , that the nature of time is inexplicable P Other difficulties ensue if it is held, as many proponents of abstraction do, that time, extension, and motion are infinitely divisible P Berkeley now turns to more particular difficulties faced by materialists who want to make room for science.

In his Essay, Locke writes that humans are incapable of scientific knowledge, in large part because the real internal constitution of any material substance i.

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A TREATISE CONCERNING THE PRINCIPLES OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE

But whereas materialism cannot in fact make room for scientific knowledge, idealism can: for idealist science tells us that sensible things are all ideas, things that are in their very nature transparent to the human mind, and that the laws of nature are no more than the rules in accordance with which God excites ideas in our minds, rules that can be discovered by observation and experiment. Berkeley goes on to say that while mechanist materialists in particular struggle to explain how the motion of insensible matter causes the observable properties of sensible things, idealists who claim that motion is an idea and hence, inactive avoid the difficulty altogether P Berkeley recognizes that some materialists, such as Isaac Newton , strive to explain the motion of some bodies such as the tides and the fact that unsupported objects fall to earth , as well as the cohesion of their parts, by postulating a universal law of attraction or gravitation.

But this hypothesis faces two major problems. The first is that the law of attraction does not so much explain as simply redescribe the motion of bodies P Setting himself against the popular research program of corpuscularian mechanism, Berkeley insists that science should treat phenomena as signs, rather than as causes, of other phenomena, signs that God uses to inform us of what will be beneficial and what will be harmful to us.

A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge

Berkeley then completes his account of the relative advantages of idealism by outlining in P some of the problems faced by the theory that Newton had advanced in his Principia, the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, published in The theory of the Principia assumes the existence of absolute space, absolute place position in absolute space , and absolute motion motion of a body from one absolute place to another , as well as absolute time already discussed under the rubric of the abstract idea of time at P Here, then, is yet another place in which the Doctrine of Abstraction leads even the most gifted scientific investigators into a conceptual morass from which their theories cannot be extricated.

The main problems arising in arithmetic derive from the Doctrine of Abstraction, which leads mathematicians and philosophers, such as Locke to believe that it is possible to abstract the idea of unity from any particular idea or collection of ideas, and thence form abstract ideas of numbers greater than one by repeating the idea of unity.

But, of course, as Berkeley has already argued see PI and P 13 , the Doctrine of Abstraction is false and the purported abstract idea of unity necessarily non-existent P In the case of geometry, the main problem arises from a supposition that is surprisingly neither an axiom nor a theorem of the Euclidean system, namely that finite extension is infinitely divisible. What, then, accounts for the problematic supposition?

Berkeley gives a twofold explanation. This provides Berkeley with yet another reason to characterize the effects of abstractionism and materialism on the seemingly well-founded discipline of geometry as intellectually pernicious. Berkeley then offers an interesting account of how those who are tempted by the Doctrine of Abstraction arrive at the conviction that finite extension is infinitely divisible. He begins by noting that geometrical reasoning treats particular finite lengths such as an inch as signs or representatives of much longer finite lengths such as a mile.

He then hypothesizes that abstractionists fail to distinguish between signifier and signified, and thereby come to see relatively short finite lengths as containing many more parts than can be discerned by sense. Most materialists, Berkeley claims, think that knowledge in general is representational, that knowledge of X is possible only if one perceives an idea of X.

Most materialists, then, are committed to the view that knowledge of a mind whether of its existence or of its properties is possible only when one has an idea that represents it. But, as Berkeley emphasizes, materialists have struggled to identify ideas that represent spirits P This, as it turns out, is no surprise: for, by the Likeness Principle P 8 , it is impossible for an idea to resemble anything but an idea; hence, because representation presupposes resemblance, it is impossible for an idea to represent anything but an idea; and therefore, since minds are not ideas, it is impossible for an idea to represent a mind P —see also P 27 and P It follows that the materialist is committed to the impossibility of self-knowledge.

This is the theory that the meaning of any categorematic term i. If this ideational theory of meaning is true, then terms referring to minds are meaningless if, as Berkeley claims, ideas cannot represent minds P But, of course, as everyone allows, terms referring to minds are meaningful. In the Principles, Berkeley offers us an answer to this question that might seem initially unsatisfactory.

A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge

As Berkeley argues, changes in our ideas that are produced according to regular, predictable patterns for our benefit i. We may reasonably presume, then, that what Berkeley takes to be sufficient evidence for the existence of other finite minds consists in ideational changes that are irregular, unpredictable, and sometimes gratuitously harmful. The second point is that the apparent imperfections and real pain that exist in the world are not inconsistent with the being and attributes of God.

But, he argues, in order to bring about his perfect providential aims, God has ordained that nature be governed by laws with necessary byproducts that give the appearance of imperfection when narrowly considered P Samuel C. Rickless University of California, San Diego Related Papers.

By Becko Copenhaver. Identity of Divine and Human Ideas in Berkeley. By Mark Pickering.

A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge

Eliot, T. Frost, R. Hopkins, G. Keats, J. Lawrence, D. Masters, E. Sandburg, C. Sassoon, S. Whitman, W. Wordsworth, W. Yeats, W. Roosevelt, T. Stein, G.