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Berkeley on primary qualities and the existence of God


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley on primary qualities and the existence of God
Date: 15th April 2009 12:02

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 18 March, with your University of London Modern Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Describe and evaluate the arguments that Berkeley used to show that there are no primary qualities in Locke's sense of that term and that all sensible qualities are mind dependant', and your email of 3 April, with your essay in response to the question, 'Expound and assess Berkeley's arguments for the existence of God.'

Berkeley's arguments against primary qualities

The main problem here is that you haven't sufficiently focused on Berkeley's attack on Locke's primary/ secondary quality distinction, as distinct from Berkeley's general argument against the notion of 'material substance' and for the claim that all we perceive are our own ideas.

It is in the context of the latter argument that one would raise objections to Berkeley's use of the argument from illusion, and in particular the illicit move which you describe from, e.g., 'I perceive that the rose is red' to 'I have a subjective object which is coloured red'. As you explain, my seeing that the rose is red is my way of seeing the rose, i.e. as an object in the world (a realist would say). Once we admit the 'subjective object' (as indeed Locke was prepared to do) we have taken the first step which inevitably leads to idealism. In other words, this is as much a criticism of Locke as it is of Berkeley.

However, I am mentioning this point to get it out of the way. What you are being asked to do here is specifically evaluate the arguments Berkeley gives against the primary/ secondary quality distinction.

If we put aside Berkeley's general arguments against material objects, in other words his argument for idealism, how good are his arguments against the primary/ secondary quality distinction?

I was able to find two arguments in your essay. The first argument concerns the alleged relativity to perception of secondary qualities -- their variability depending on the condition of the perceiver -- which is contrasted with the non-relativity to perception of primary qualities. The second argument is that, even if, per impossibile, material substances did exist, 'it is impossible to explain how material substances could ever have any causal effect on immaterial substances or spirits.'

It is not clear what you think of the first argument. Consider a circular table. If I sometimes perceive the table as circular (when viewing it from above) and sometimes as elliptical (when viewing it from an angle) does that show that there is no sense in which some object IS a particular shape, and its having this shape explains the appearance which I see? (Remember that we are putting aside the argument against material substance as such.) This seems very peculiar, especially when one considers that the circular shape of the table is an essential part of an explanation -- in terms of the geometry of light -- of why I see it as elliptical.

The second argument looks more like a part of Berkeley's general attack on material substances. According to Berkeley, the only 'causality' we understand is that which obtains between one idea and another idea.

However, there is another argument which you don't mention. This is Berkeley's claim that secondary qualities are in fact inseparable from primary qualities. If I am looking at a table, then my visual field contains an expanse which must be some colour or other. The 'abstract' concept of a particular shape such as a circle has no meaning apart from my capacity to experience ideas which have that shape. How good is that argument, in your view?

Existence of God

The challenge here is to explain why Berkeley rejects a version of idealism according to which (a) Ideas are 'the given': there is no possibility of explaining nor any need to explain what 'causes' ideas to exist in the first place. (b) Every statement describing facts about 'external objects' is a hypothetical statement about ideas that would be perceived in such-and-such circumstances; in cases where the antecedent is false, then the hypothetical statement lacks a truth value, in which case there is no need for an account of the 'fact' in question.

Berkeley's argument against (a) appears no different in principle from the use of the teleological argument for the existence of God, as used by the materialist or dualist. The 'given' is the variety and complexity of the objects of our experience. This complexity cannot be regarded as merely accidental, as would be the case if there were no ultimate explanation available.

I can see possible room here for distinguishing between acceptance that it is just a brute fact that the material world is the way it is, and acceptance that it is just a brute fact that my ideas are the way they are. We are far more inclined to believe that the fact that our experiences are the way they are must depend on *something*, because this is just the way we normally, pre-philosophically view experience. However, Berkeley has no right to avail himself of this intuition. The way 'we normally' view experience is 'as of' external objects in space, and this view is one that he has rejected.

Berkeley's argument against (b) (the argument from continuity) depends essentially on the powerful intuition that hypothetical conditional statements cannot be 'barely true'. For example, if it is a fact that the match if struck would light, then we assume that there must be something about the chemical composition of the match which would explain that fact. If I tell you that the cube of sugar which I just dissolved in my tea would have burned if I had struck it, you will want to know what property of sugar makes my claim true. If I then say that I am not making any claim about the actual properties of the sugar but merely telling you what 'would have happened if' you would rightly refuse to accept that I had made a meaningful statement with a truth value, true OR false.

However, there is a huge gap between admission that there is an objective 'something' by virtue of which hypothetical statements about sense experiences have a truth value, and the identification of the 'something' with God. Kant's theory of noumena provides an alternative to Berkeley: It is essential to Kant's theory that we can have no knowledge of noumena or 'things in themselves'.

All the best,