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Role of God in Berkeley's idealism


To: Anthony K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Role of God in Berkeley's idealism
Date: 1st July 2008 12:20

Dear Anthony,

Thank you for your email of 19 June, with your fourth essay for Possible World Machine, entitled, 'Berkeley's Existence'.

I enjoyed reading this piece. You have managed in a very simple and yet gripping way to put over some of the main problems and issues with Berkeley's idealism, and with idealism generally.

'To exist is to be or to be perceived' allows two kinds of existence: existence as subjects who do the perceiving, and objects which the subjects perceive. We ourselves do not need to 'be perceived' in order to exist. The child who 'snuck into the garden' exists when he is awake and also when he is asleep. He is a 'substance' in the traditional, metaphysical sense of something which exists 'in itself' as opposed to properties which inhere in a substance, like blond hair or being five feet tall, or things that exist in relation to substances such as 'being a brother', or 'being American'.

Berkeley's starting point is the powerful intuition is that if we are questioning existence, then we have to take as our starting point the thing whose existence is most evident above all: ourselves. Descartes' 'I think therefore I am' ('cogito ergo sum'). Given that I exist and cannot doubt my existence, in what manner do trees or coffee cups exist? All the trees and coffee cups I will ever know are trees and coffee cups that I have perceived, or stumbled upon in some way. We have no concept of the 'existence' of pure matter or stuff filling space, but only the concept of what there is 'for us'.

Stumbling across something which you discussed with your friends proves existence in the sense of a 'possibility of being stumbled upon', but no more, Berkeley would say. Possibilities can be real. For example, the possibility that I could take an axe and reduce this computer to a pile of plastic, glass and metal rubble. In what sense does the rubble 'exist'? It is not merely something I imagine: it could be real -- if I choose to carry out the action.

Berkeley's first answer, therefore, to how the tree 'exists' when not perceived, is in terms of the concept of possibility, or the truth of 'counterfactual' or 'subjunctive' conditionals. 'What might have been, if...', or, 'What would be, if...'.

Remember that this started with a genuine difficulty: the problem of conceiving how space occupying matter can 'exist', given that our concept of existence is based on the Cogito. Berkeley's answer is that what we term 'matter' or 'physical objects' has a purely relational existence, exists 'for' a perceiving subject, rather than 'in itself'.

So why does the idealist need God? We could do without God if we were prepared to embrace the idea that counterfactual conditionals or subjunctive conditionals could be 'barely true', that is to say, true by virtue of counterfactual or subjunctive 'facts' alone, rather than by virtue of what is the case, here and now.

Common sense tells us that, 'If you had struck the match, it would have lit' is true by virtue of plain facts about the chemical constitution of the match. In other words, conditional statements require non-conditional facts to 'make them true'. If we accept this common sense argument, then the only available non-conditional fact is God. God perceives everything, all the time (and not just when we are not looking!). Or, rather, what we term perception of things outside us is, in actual fact, inspecting the content's of God's mind.

Berkeley thought that he had discovered the most powerful proof of the existence of God. The first step of the argument is that we have to be idealists because there is no other coherent theory of existence. The second step is to recognize that, without God, idealism is incoherent. Therefore theistic idealism is the only remaining possibility.

As an atheist and a non-idealist, I still find much to admire in Berkeley's metaphysical vision. Indeed, Berkeley is only part of a long and venerable tradition of idealism, which continued in the work of Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Bradley and then (shading into realism) Samuel Alexander and A.N. Whitehead, philosophers who thoroughly accept the discoveries of 20th Century physics and attempted to construct realist theories which retained the most important aspects of idealism, namely the idea that nothing simply 'exists' by itself, but only in relation to other things, and ultimately to the whole of existence. Both were theists, but in a way which ordinary believers would find incomprehensible.

Atheism can be regarded as the determined attempt to resist any impulse towards religion. In philosophy, especially metaphysics, it means something more: resistance to the very idea of an ultimate principle or ultimate explanation of things. There is no theory of everything. Existence is, ultimately, just given. ('Existence exists' as Ayn Rand said.) For anyone who has the impulse to philosophize, resistance to idealism is not an easy option but a strenuous discipline.

All the best,