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Berkeley's immaterialism and the reality principle


To: Christodoulos P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's immaterialism and the reality principle
Date: 10th May 2010 12:33

Dear Christos,

Thank you for your email of 30 April, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'In the light of the reality principle, does Berkeley's immaterialism represent a viable solution to the problem of constructing a universe without recourse to the notion of matter?'

I recently returned to thinking about this problem, and made a post in my blog 'Tentative Answers', with the title, 'Realism, idealism, solipsism':

You might like to look at this, as it gives a fresh angle to the issues which you have been grappling with in the Metaphysics program.

The crucial point in your argument comes where you say, 'In order to satisfy the reality principle we must find the 'reality' of those objects [sc. the objects we make judgements about] and generally the reality of the entire universe. First we must find the source of these experiences. But finding a source is still not enough. Consider Descartes' Evil Demon is the source, or... a lazy deity... There is no Master Plan.'

You suggest the possibility that an advanced civilization 'has the whole universe on a 'hard drive'.' This is an interesting hypothesis to speculate about, but it is one which Berkeley would have considered inadequate for his purposes because the advanced civilization and their 'hard drive' presumably are in the same position as we are, viz. that all they have is their experiences just as all we have is our experiences.

But why must there be a 'Master Plan'? The real question here is the logical status of this 'must'. There 'must' be a Master Plan, i.e. a non-deceiving, infinite deity, because otherwise there would be no difference between true and false judgement, no such thing as 'reality'.

However, let us consider how Descartes answered this question. He considers it necessary to prove the existence of a benevolent Deity by means of a logically compelling argument (in fact, two arguments, the argument from my infinite 'idea' of God, and also his version of Anselm's ontological argument).

Even with this proof, however, one runs into a difficulty which I considered way back at the beginning of the program, when I considered a 'Sophie's World' type scenario. God has written the story (the story of the universe, the 'master plan') and I am a character in that story. So far, so good. But when it comes to asking myself how it is that my judgements about the world (my judgements about the story) can be 'true' or 'false', the only answer is that they are 'true' of God says they are true, and 'false' if God says they are false. God isn't in a position to 'correct' my judgement, in the way that another human being might be. I can't argue with God. I can only accept, or reject.

Consider what you say right at the end of your essay: 'If I was God, it would make no difference to me if I created the universe in my mind or created the universe entirely out of matter and now sits besides me in a 'Universe Ball'. That way it will also look good, and more independent.'

That very last sentence is puzzling: in the Bible it says (something to the effect) that after seven days, God gazed at his Creation and was satisfied with it. He 'found it to be good'. If God was all-powerful why did he need to make the experiment in the first place? What difference does it make if the universe is in God's mind or in an externally existing 'universe ball'? The answer lies in the idea of 'independence'.

If the universe is 'out there', then even God can't make what is true false, or what is false true. The facts are the facts, regardless of how even God thinks of them. But if you'd said this to Berkeley he would have just laughed. You've simply assumed the very thing that Berkeley is criticized, without offering a shred of defence. Berkeley's point against Descartes (in effect) is that God can't do the logically impossible. He can't create 'matter' because the very notion of the material is incoherent.

In my Tentative Answers post, I consider this from a new angle. It is not that Berkeley thinks that the universe has 'less' in it than the materialist or dualist. On that view, the materialist says there are experiences and material objects, while the idealist says that there are just experiences and nothing else. But this is too narrow a way of looking at it. Berkeley's theory later transposed into Kant's theory of phenomena and noumena: Kant's criticism of Berkeley is, in effect, that the 'experiences' that 'exist' in God's mind are something we can have no concept of, they are noumenal entities beyond the range of our possible experience.

So, in effect, what the idealist is claiming is that the universe is more than the universe of the materialist, not less. The materialist's universe is the universe that we perceive with our senses, and which science seeks to describe. But what science fails to account for is the 'that' which appears and which science theorizes about -- the ultimate nature of things -- which the metaphysically minded materialist erroneously equates with 'bare matter'.

As you will gather, I reject the idealist view. However, as you argue in your essay, this rejection requires more than just an appeal to the reality principle.

All the best,