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Berkeley's arguments against material objects


To: David S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's arguments against material objects
Date: 22 July 2004 10:05

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 9 July, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Critically discuss Bishop Berkeley's arguments against the existence of material objects'.

A general comment: in an essay critically discussing the arguments of a philosopher, it is helpful to have references to the texts in which these arguments are to be found. This applies even if you are using a book about the philosopher in question rather than the original texts. This is not a requirement for the Pathways programs, but it is required if you decide to go on to the Associate or Fellowship.

I have to own up that I am guilty myself of not providing enough references. So this might seem a case of, 'Don't do as I do, do as I tell you'!

Let's summarize: According to you, Berkeley uses three arguments. We can call these the Redundancy argument, the Master argument and the Causation argument.

Redundancy argument. According to the Redundancy argument, a complete description can be given of the world of our experience, purely in terms of experience, without referring to matter. Therefore, the concept of matter is redundant. Intuitively, if everything we experience or will ever experience is exactly the same with matter taken away, then nothing has, in fact, been 'taken away'. 'Matter' is an empty concept, which serves no purpose in accounting for experience.

You give the objection that not all experiences are on the same level. If all there is to reality is just 'experience', then there is no way to distinguish *veridical* experience from dreams, or Matrix-like illusions or virtual realities. At this point you mention the role of God. However, there is an answer to this which is available to Berkeley which doesn't bring in God. This is to say that the sum total of truths about the world is given in the form of *conditional* statements about experiences. This is how one distinguishes, e.g. 'The oasis is an illusion' from 'The oasis is not an illusion'. (One of these statements will be true and the other false: 'If you were to go up close, you would see sand' vs 'If you were to go up close, you would see water'.)

Having brought in God, you object, 'Why should God choose not to create space and matter?' In other words, why should God be bound by our notions of ontological parsimony? What we require here is something stronger than the way Occam's Razor is normally understood - something like Wittgenstein's 'If a sign is useless, it is meaningless' (Tractatus 3.328).

In response to Berkeley's Master argument, attacking the coherence of the concept of matter, you say 'There must be some mind independent thing about actual objects that distinguishes them from possible objects. And there is no requirement in reality that this aspect of actual objects is conceivable by a finite mind.' Now, there are two ways to respond to this. The more modest way is to talk, as above, about the truth of conditional statements about experiences. 'There is an eleventh planet' is true or false depending on the truth or falsity of conditional statements about possible perceptions of an eleventh planet. The problem with this is that we have to swallow the idea that such conditional statements can be 'barely true', i.e. true even though there is no non-conditional fact which makes them true. That is where God 'immodestly' comes in.

When you say, 'There is no requirement in reality that this aspect of actual objects is conceivable by a finite Mind' Berkeley would say, 'Exactly!' Kant would be even more emphatic here, in denying that we can form any positive notion of 'noumena' or 'things in themselves'. But this is not the way to save matter, quite the contrary.

Coming to the third argument, there is an obvious rejoinder to the argument from Causation, that mind-matter interaction is inconceivable. We can respond by totally agreeing with Berkeley. Cartesian dualism cannot be sustained. If you take the Cartesian starting point, then Berkeleian idealism is the inevitable conclusion. However, in this case there is an overlooked alternative: material monism.

Berkeley argued that introspection allows us to directly observe the operation of cause and effect amongst our 'ideas'. This argument looks decidedly weaker in the light of Hume's critique of causation. According to Hume, we never observe the 'causal connection' itself, but merely a 'constant conjunction'. 'Cause' turns out to be redundant in the same way as 'matter', being replaced by the notion of a universally true statement of constant conjunction.

- You have worked hard with this essay. Some good ideas here.

All the best,