You are on page 1of 8


TOPIC OF TERM PAPER. Berkeley does not believe in the existence of material objects. Is he right?

MOTIVATION. This paper examines some arguments about existence or non-existence of the material world presented by George Berkeley. The topic is analyzed in three sub-titles and a conclusion is drawn after the discussion. OUTLINE
1. Scientific Approaches towards the Arguments of Berkeley 2. Passivity Argument of Berkeley 3. Locke in the Material World 4. Conclusions Drawn

Ceren Burak DA 040100531 Electronics and Communication Eng.


Although it is subject to debate among the historians of philosophy, it is mostly agreed that at first Descartes put the existence of a material world into question1;
Suppose that I am dreaming; and that these particulars that my eyes are open, that I am moving my head and stretching out my hands are not true. Perhaps, indeed, I do not even have such hands or such a body at all. 2

It is probable that Berkeley was influenced by these words of Descartes; however the solution which Descartes failed to find against this problem was settled at the right center of Berkeleys philosophy. Denial of the material world is one of the fundamental parts of his incorporeal philosophy and his arguments should be well-analyzed in order to comprehend him better as well as deciding on the existence of a material world.

Scientific Approaches towards the Arguments of Berkeley In the first part of the book named Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, Berkeley puts his argument on the existence of the heat in the mind forward. He says that upon putting our hands near the fire, we perceive only one simple uniform sensation but we perceive the heat and the pain simultaneously. He concludes; Seeing therefore they are both immediately perceived at the same time and the fire affects you only with one simple, or uncompounded idea, it follows that this same simple idea is both the intense heat immediately perceived, and the pain; and consequently, that the intense heat immediately perceived, is nothing distinct from a particular sort of pain. (Dialogues, 176) Since, pain cannot be perceived in an unperceiving material, there he reaches the conclusion that a great heat cannot exist without the mind. However, it is not that true; because the sensation of hotness (or the heat flow) and the pain are in fact two different sensations. We know that human senses the hotness by the Ruffini receptor cells3 on his epidermis and the pain by the free nerve endings4. There are two specialized receptor structures for hotness and pain on our skin. It means we have two distinct sensations, and naturally perceptions in our minds. There is also a different sensation receptor structure for the coldness which is named as Krauss receptor. When Hylas says that there is no difference between the

Berkeleys Principles and Dialogues, Background Source Materials, Edited by C. J. McCracken and I. C. Tipton, Cambridge Philosophical Texts in Context, 2000; Part 1: Rene Descartes

Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes, 1641

A flattened capsule containing nerve endings that are thought to be heat receptors sensitive to temperature increases from 25 to 45 C.

How Pain Nerve Cells Act When They Are In Pain,

behaviors of coldness and hotness, Philonous corresponds with the words that same thing cannot be at the same time both cold and warm; Suppose now one of your hands hot, and the other cold, and that they are both at once put into the same vessel of water, in an intermediate state; will not the water seem cold to one hand, and warm to the other? (Dialogues, 179) Since two hands have different specialized receptor systems, it is quite expected that hotness receptor will be working at one hand whereas the coldness receptor at the other. These actions of receptor cells will send different signals to the brain and that makes various sensations for the hands. Besides, temperature is a relative concept and we can talk about the hotness or coldness of a system only with a frame of reference. While the water can be hotter than the right hand, it can be also colder than the left hand. Hot or cold does not describe a system; instead a system can be described by being colder or hotter than a reference. An attempt to justify Berkeley at this point can be based on the mechanism of heat flow. In order to feel a hotness or coldness, there should be heat exchange between two systems which are the hand and the fire, for instance. If one system is not the hand which makes us perceive the heat, then we cannot conclude that there is heat exchange by sensation. From here, we may conclude that there is no heat if there is no sensing and perceiving being. However, if we put an experiment between two objects which are at different temperatures, we can observe the heat with using a thermometer. We know that when the system gets a balance, one of the objects is hotter than before while the other is colder, without touching it. Therefore, even though we do not feel, we simply know that there is heat. In the examination of sounds and the hearing, a similar discussion is held;
Hylas. It is this very motion in the external air, that produces in the mind the sensation of sound. For, striking on the drum of the ear, it causeth a vibration, which by the auditory nerves being communicated to the brain, the soul is thereupon affected with the sensation called sound. Philonous. What! is sound then a sensation? Hylas. I tell you, as perceived by us, it is a particular sensation in the mind. Philonous. And can any sensation exist without the mind? Hylas. No certainly.5

Philonous is benefited of the confusion of the concepts sound and hearing. Sound is not a sensation but simply pressure differences in the air due to the motion of the air molecules, as Hylas states. It is what excites the hearing receptors in the ear and provides a sensation. In the same discussion, they talk about the motion in the sensations. Hylas mentions that idea of motion belongs to the sight and touch, not to the hearing and Philonous says that according to him then real sounds may possibly be seen or felt but never heard. In fact the idea of motion also refers to the hearing as well as sight and touch. We can understand that an object moves with

Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, George Berkeley, The First Dialogue, 181

listening to its siren. If it is coming towards us, then the sound it emits gets louder and louder as it approaches [Doppler Effect in physics]. It should also be noted that we do not need to hear the sounds for they exist. Even though we do not hear by our ears, we know that there are infra and ultra sounds which are below and above the threshold of human ear but can be detected through devices. Berkeley gives a curious example of the extension being not a primary quality due to its changeability for different perceivers.
A mite therefore must be supposed to see his own foot, and things equal or even less than it, as bodies of some considerable dimension; though at the same time they appear to you scarce discernible, or at best as so many visible points... Can one and the same thing be at the same time in itself of different dimensions? 6

An object does not need to exist only in one dimension. It can have other qualities that we cannot observe due to the insufficient sensitivity of our sensations but surely belong to the object itself. Quantum world is one serious example of this situation. We do not observe the inner structure of the objects around us by our sensations, however what we find out experimentally is all the objects have an atomic structure which are made of even smaller particles, quarks etc. Thus, a table can be a table from our frame of reference, but it is certainly a mix of some fundamental particles in the quantum world. This argument does not make a table non-existent. Those atoms which make up the table exist; on the other hand a table is a table just for us, in other words it is defined as table from our point of view. If it makes the concept of table existent only for us, then we can conclude that table exists only in our perception.

Passivity Argument of Berkeley It is an interesting point that as we observe the nature and keep experimenting on it, we discover some facts that we havent known before, such facts that we cannot imagine before penetrating it. If the entire world is formed by our mind, it sounds odd that we falsify our theories as we measure. If its made up of our mind, then we expect that we should know every rule of this world or even govern all these by using our minds. However, Berkeleys Passivity Argument compensates this missing. Since the formation of this world does not depend on human will, according to Berkeley it is passive and real. As he states in The Dialogues, the mind is active when it produces, puts an end to or changes anything. The mind can only produce, discontinue or change anything by an act of the will. Therefore, the mind is to be accounted active in its perceptions, so far forth as volition is included in them, just like breathing. But if we are passive in other words, not acting by will or not conscious of our cause, then there should be some cause for these passive actions of human, like his sensory ideas. Noted by Stanford

Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, George Berkeley, The First Dialogue, 188

Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there are three choices for this question; which are other ideas, we (human himself) or some other spirit. Berkeley states, 1. Ideas are manifestly passive there is no power or activity in them, 2. They are mind-dependent, so they cannot have any characteristics which they are not perceived to have, 3. Therefore, ideas are passive, that is, they possess no causal power, in order to refute the first option. Secondly, although we can cause some ideas at will, our sensory ideas are involuntary and we do not have any control on their content. If we are not conscious of what we are doing, then how can we create a world by ourselves? This argument gives rise to the existence of another spirit, or God.7 So, even though this world is only a reflection of our perception, we are not totally responsible of creating it. There are some parts that we remain passive and that is why observing the nature and understanding the hidden mechanism underneath it is significant. Berkeley distinguishes the manifest differences between the ideas of imagination and ideas of sense which are actually defined as imaginary things and the real things. By doing so, he does not only find a premise for the Passivity Argument for Gods Existence, but also founds a scientific structure for his philosophy. He clearly makes a distinction between the real and the imaginary as noting that the ideas that constitute real things exhibit a steadiness, vivacity, and distinctness that chimerical ideas do not. The most crucial feature that he points to, however, is order.8 There is a pattern which is embodied in the laws of nature and makes the nature regular. Thus, it constitutes a coherent real world and nature should be well analyzed to see the regularity. Although God could make a watch run (that is, produce in us ideas of a watch running) without the watch having any internal mechanism (that is, without it being the case that, were we to open the watch, we would have ideas of an internal mechanism), he cannot do so if he is to act in accordance with the laws of nature, which he has established for our benefit, to make the world regular and predictable. 9

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, George Berkeley, published Sep 10, 2004, revised Jan 19, 2011, Part 3.1.3 Gods existence

Stanford Ency. of Philosophy, George Berkeley, Part 3.2.1 Real things vs. imaginary ones

Stanford Ency. of Philosophy, George Berkeley, Part 3.2.2 Hidden Structures and internal mechanism and Part 3.2.3 Scientific Explanation

Locke in the Material World I think, Locke gives a controversial definition of quality in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding;
and the power to produce any idea in our mind, I call quality of the subject wherein the power is. Thus, a snowball having the power to produce in us the ideas of white, cold and round, the powers to produce those ideas in us as they are in the snowball I call qualities10

Although the power which Locke states can be interpreted as a kind of energy that makes a snowball as it looks like, it can be analyzed in a different manner. Since we perceive the snowball in these qualities, that power which makes us perceive it may not be necessarily in the snowball, but in our mind. If this power comes from our mind instead of the object itself, simply there is no need of the material of the object. Maybe what Berkeley tries to tell is that we give meaning to the objects by using their qualities and that is not about their power to be seen like this before us, but simply it is due to the powers of our minds. We have a belief of external world which we cannot exactly prove. Locke says, As to myself, I think God has given me assurance enough of the existence of things without me (Essay, 4.11.3) He also offers four concurrent reasons for the assurance of external world derived from the senses.11 1. We require sense organs in order to sense things; that indicates exterior causes. In other words, if we can form everything in our minds, then why do we have senses? We simply do not need them. 2. There is a manifest difference between the ideas laid up in our memories and those which force themselves upon us and we cannot avoid having, from the words of Locke. Even though I have the idea of light and sun and I can relive them again and again in my mind, I cannot avoid the ideas which the light or sun produces in me when I look at the sun. If everything is a product of my mind, why there is a difference between these images? 3. Many of our ideas are accompanied by painful or pleasant sensations, whereas the same ideas, when called up in the memory, are not. 4. Our sensory organs are in an order, they confirm each other. In order to communicate with other perceivers, sense organs are important. Although everyone experiences his own perception, Berkeley distinguishes the real and the imaginary world of the mind. Therefore, the realities of the minds should somewhat intersect to keep their believability.

The Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke, Part 2.8.8.


Berkeleys Principles and Dialogues, Background Source Materials, Edited by C. J. McCracken and I. C. Tipton, Cambridge Philosophical Texts in Context, 2000; Part 8: John Locke

Again it is significant for sensory organs to be in an arrangement to be able to give the common sense of external world. The second concurrent reason is received as the Passivity Argument of Berkeley. While Locke concludes that difference brings us a strong belief of external world, Berkeley reaches to a different point. He connects it to some spirit produces our ideas of sense which he names as God.

Conclusions Drawn Berkeleys distinction of real and imaginary in the perception gives a clear way to the nonexistence of the material world. Although the argument that he assumes the cause of these involuntary actions and ideas of sense as God is relatively weaker than his other arguments that he presents in Dialogues, his understanding is important in order to see the exact place of external world in the philosophy. We are not altogether so certain of the existence of material world, it is not intuitive and demonstrative knowledge but from Lockes phrase, it is sensitive knowledge that goes beyond bare probability. I have a belief of the external world, however as Hume says, belief is a feeling based on the force and vivacity of ideas, rather than an intellectual act of reason. Therefore, it is pathetic to be able to so certain of something which we do not need even questioning the existence of it until starting to think about it which does not help the situation, since it is a pure belief. In conclusion, the existence of the external world is oddly up to your choice and that is why Berkeley was right in his own way.

MAIN TEXT: Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, George Berkeley SUPPLEMANTARY TEXTS: Berkeleys Principles and Dialogues, Background Source Materials, Edited by C. J. McCracken and I. C. Tipton, Cambridge Philosophical Texts in Context, 2000 Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes, 1641 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, George Berkeley, published Sep 10, 2004, revised Jan 19, 2011 The Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke