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Reason and Responsibility


As man progressed through the various stages of evolution,
it is assumed that at a certain point he began to ponder
the world around him. Of course, these first attempts fell
short of being scholarly, probably consisting of a few
grunts and snorts at best. As time passed on, though, these
ideas persisted and were eventually tackled by the more
intellectual, so-called philosophers. Thus, excavation of
"the external world" began. As the authoritarinism of the
ancients gave way to the more liberal views of the
modernists, two main positions concerning epistemology and
the nature of the world arose. The first view was
exemplified by the empiricists, who stated that all
knowledge comes from the senses. In opposition, the
rationalists maintained that knowledge comes purely from
deduction, and that this knowledge is processed by certain
innate schema in the mind. Those that belonged to the
empiricist school of thought developed quite separate and
distinct ideas concerning the nature of the substratum of
sensible objects. John Locke and David Hume upheld the
belief that sensible things were composed of material
substance, the basic framework for the materialist
position. The main figure who believed that material
substance did not exist is George Berkeley. In truth, it is
the immaterialist position that seems the most logical when
placed under close scrutiny.
The initial groundwork for Berkeley's position is the
truism that the materialist is a skeptic. In the writing of
his three dialogues, Berkeley develops two characters:
Hylas (the materialist) and Philonous (Berkeley himself).
Philonous draws upon one central supposition of the
materialist to formulate his argument of skepticism against
him; this idea is that one can never perceive the real
essence of anything. In short, the materialist feels that
the information received through sense experience gives a
representative picture of the outside world (the
representative theory of perception), and one can not
penetrate to the true essece of an object. This makes
logical sense, for the only way to perceive this real
essence would be to become the object itself! Although the
idea is logical, it does contain a certain grounding for
agnosticism. Let the reader consider this: if there is no
way to actually sense the true material essence of
anything, and all knowledge in empiricism comes from the
senses, then the real material essence can not be perceived
and therefore it can not be posited. This deserves careful
consideration, for the materialist has been self-proclaimed
a skeptic! If the believer in this theory were asked if a
mythical beast such as a cyclops existed he would most
certainly say no. As part of his reply he might add that
because it can not be sensed it is not a piece of
knowledge. After being enlightened by the above proposed
argument, though, that same materialist is logically forced
to agree that, because the "material substratum1" itself
can not be sensed, its existence can not be treated as
knowledge. The materialist belief has, in effect, become as
futile as proving that the cyclops exists; his ideas have
lead him into skepticism.
Having proven that the materialist is, at best, a doubter,
Berkeley goes on to offer the compelling argument that
primary and secondary qualities are, together, one thing.
As the materialist believes, primary qualities of an object
are those things that are abstract (not sense oriented).
Examples of these would be number, figure, motion, and
extension. Secondary qualities are those things that are
concrete (sense oriented), such as color, smell, sound, and
taste. The materialist feels that these primary qualities
persist even when the secondary ones are not there. Thus,
if a person were blind, then that individual would not be
able to hear or to touch items; yet the so-called real
qualities such as figure would remain existent in the
objects. As previously shown, the materialist is agnostic
in his belief of these real (primary) qualities. It is here
that Berkeley directs an alternate hypothesis: that the
abstract primary qualities don't exist at all. In fact, the
immaterialist position states that these qualities are
merely secondary in nature, as they, too, can not be
perceived as being separate from an object. For instance,
if a person is asked to imagine a primary quality alone, as
an abstraction, it is impossible. To illustrate this point,
suppose that a person is asked to think simply of number
alone. This person may reply that the idea he is
formulating is that of three red spheres. In truth this is
not an abstract idea, because when the qualities of color
(red) and shape (sphere) are taken away, all that is left
is three of nothing! Thus, it is impossible to think of the
abstraction of number, given that an abstract quality can
not focus on anything concrete (such as red spheres in the
above mentioned example). Therefore, it follows that, since
no primary, abstract quality can exist alone, it is the
same as a secondary quality in which an actual object must
first be perceived.
Berkeley moves on to show that the perceived qualities of
an object are ideas which exist only in a mind. To do this,
he states that a sensation is an idea. This is logical, for
sensations can not be felt by mindless objects. However, it
is this point which Berkeley scrutinizes in the materialist
statement that an external object "is a material substance
with the sensible qualities inhering in it.2" The
materialist is proclaiming that sensible qualities, which
exist in the mind only, are actually in the object.
Logically, the only possible way for this to occur is if
the external object had a mind for the qualities to be
thought of and stored by. The notion that inanimate objects
have minds is ridiculous, and thus the materialists' belief
has been reduced to absurdity. Let the reader consider this
example to reinforce the point. A ten-story building is
erected, and a person who lives in a single-story house in
the country sees the new building. To this person the
structure may seem quite tall, as he has never seen any
building taller than three stories. However, a construction
worker comes across the same building and perceives its
height quite differently than the previous man. Since the
second man usually works on buildings about thirty stories
high, he thinks that the building is fairly short.
Obviously, the new building can not be both tall and short
at the same time; yet this is the outcome if one believes
that the quality of tallness is inherent in the object. In
fact, if the idealist (immaterialist) position is
considered it seems logical that one person could view
something differently than another. This is because the
idea concerning that thing could be different in the two
separate minds.
At this point Berkeley explains that the so-called tertiary
qualities of an external object are non-existent. The
materialist defines these qualities as the ability in one
object to produce change in another object. In the three
dialogues, Hylas brings up the point that these qualities
are "perceive[d] by the sense... and exist in the object
that occasions [them]3." An example of this quality would
be a burning candle. Suppose that a person puts his finger
in the flame long enough to feel the pain of a burn. The
materialist would attribute this pain to the lit candle
itself, stating that the ability to produce pain is
inherent in it. However, this can not be the case. As
previously discussed, the external objects are merely ideas
which we perceive through sense experience. Just as these
objects do not possess any primary or secondary qualities,
they also can not have the ability to cause change in
something else. In fact, these tertiary qualities are also
ideas perceived only in the mind.
Given that objects are ideas and humans possess minds to
perceive them with, the nature of both ideas and minds
deserves careful consideration. Berkeley assumes the view
that ideas are passive and only perceivable in a mind. He
goes on to state that these ideas are existent only when a
mind is perceiving them. This is logical, for when
something is not being ruminated upon it does not exist in
the realm of knowledge at that particular time. As an
example, if I were to move to another country and, after
some time, forget about my old house in America, it would
not exist to me anymore. In accordance with the
immaterialists' view, my actively perceiving mind would be
electing not to reflect back upon the past. Thus, only the
active mind can create the purely passive idea.
Since an idea only exists when it is being perceived or
reflected upon, this brings into question the nature of
reality. For instance, assume that a person attends an art
museum early on Sunday morning. As that person views the
artwork, the paintings themselves are sensible things, or
ideas, actively being perceived by a mind; in short, they
exist. However, when the museum closes and the person goes
home, does the artwork continue to exist? Obviously the
person pursues other activities of the day, and he ceases
to think about what he did earlier. However, at a certain
time those paintings were part of what the person knew to
be true through sensation; the artwork was part of the
person's reality. Do the paintings therefore cease to exist
since they are no longer being thought of?
Berkley argues that such objects still exist because the
mind of God is always perceiving them. Unlike the
materialists' view, the immaterialist puts God at the
center of his views. In truth, God is the "omnipresent
external mind which knows and comprehends all things, and
exhibits them to our view in such a manner and according to
such rules as He Himself has ordained and are by us termed
the 'laws of nature.'4" It is important to stress the idea
that God shows people the ideas in his mind, and these
ideas make up the reality beheld by the human mind.
Therefore, for any person to perceive something, the idea
must be in the mind of God first.
The fact that there are two distinct minds raises questions
about the nature of these minds. The idealist proclaims
that the human mind is strictly finite in its ability to
have sense experience. With this being the case, a person
can only have a single sensation at a time. Since
sensations are the same as ideas, humans can only have one
idea at once. On the other hand, God's mind is infinite and
is thus able to have multiple perceptions. These
perceptions of God are also ideas, and it follows that
these ideas comprise the reality beheld in the finite human
mind. Instead of the materialists' belief in the
representative theory of perception, where a material
object has real (primary) qualities which humans perceive
as sensible (secondary) qualities, Berkeley has posited an
alternate theory. This is that God upholds all of the ideas
which comprise human reality, and people perceive these
ideas as sensations directly from God's infinite mind.
It should also be noted that just as the finite mind is
different from the infinite mind, the ideas in each mind
have some certain distinctions. The finite mind can only
contemplate a limited range of thoughts. To illustrate
this, let the reader attempt to imagine an infinite number
of stars. After some intellection, the reader will realize
that it is an impossible task. This is because the human
mind can only think in terms of bounded entities; thus, in
the above mentioned case, the reader may have thought of a
great many stars. However, the stars were finite in number
and could therefore not represent the notion of infinity.
In short, the finite mind can only conceive finite
thoughts. Not only this, but, as previously disgussed,
humans can perceive only one thought at a time. If the
reader does not think this to be the case, then let her
attempt to imagine a small boy and a thunderstorm as
completely separate ideas. Although both ideas may be
thought of, the only way for this to occur is when they are
placed in the same mental picture. In summary, the human
mind has important limits which can easily be observed.
On the contrary, the infinite mind of God is limitless in
its ability to perceive ideas. In God's mind, an infinite
thought (a thought without boundaries) can exist. This
infinite idea's existence in God's mind is more that
possible; it must necessarily be the case. This is because
infinite concepts such as the number system and the
universe must come from, as do all thoughts, a mind.
However, since the human mind is finite and therefore
incapable of conceiving boundless thoughts, then those
infinite ideas must arise from the infinite mind of God.
Not only does God's mind contain infinite thoughts, but it
also must possess the ability to think of, in the least,
many thoughts at once. This is necessarily the case for the
collection of God's ideas which people call reality to
exist; if God did not have this ability then external
objects would not exist when the finite mind was not
perceiving them.
Thus far the immaterialist position has been considered in
its parts; at this point it shall be viewed as one simple
model. Let the reader picture an isosceles triangle which
is divided into three parts: the top, middle, and bottom.
At the apex of the figure is God's infinite mind. The
middle portion of the triangle is occupied by the finite
minds of people. Lastly, the bottom section contains the
ideas perceived by humans. Because God is at the pinnacle
of the figure, He also perceives the ideas that people do.
However, since the human mind is finite, it can not
conceive of the infinite ideas in God's mind at the apex of
the triangle. Now, the concepts of either perceiving or
being perceived can be added to the picture. Both the top
and middle portions of the figure are minds, so both of
these sections are perceivers. At the bottom of the model
are ideas, and since they do not act of their own volition,
they are perceived. As previously shown, perceivers are
active and the perceived is passive. Lastly, the concept of
existence can be applied to the triangle. Since existence
is that which is either perceived or perceives5, and each
part of the model has been shown to meet one of these
criteria, then the entire triangle must be considered to
In the final analysis, it is evident that Berkley's
immaterialist position is logically feasible. From his
definitions of minds and ideas to his careful attribution
of their respective qualities, George Berkeley has produced
a compelling argument for his views. However, this is not
all that he has done; in fact, Berkeley has shown the
necessary importance of God. In the materialist view, a
belief in God is not logically necessary to uphold the
"material substratum2." Berkeley shows that God must exist,
for He is at the heart of Berkeley's position. In short,
the materialist view allows for atheism as a possible

George Berkeley. "Three Dialogues Between Hylas and
Reason and Responsibility. Ed. Joel Feinberg p. 175.
 2. Berkeley, p. 165.
 3. Berkeley, p. 165.
 4. Berkeley, p. 191.
 5. Berkeley, p. 179.


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