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Berkeley, Leibniz and common sense materialism


To: Charles R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley, Leibniz and common sense metaphysics
Date: 29th April 2011 13:22

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 18 April, with your fifth and final essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Can idealism be reconciled with our common sense view of ourselves as agents in a material world? Discuss with relation to either Berkeley's immaterialism, or Leibniz's theory of monads.'

This is an excellent paper. I am impressed by the work you have done here, in struggling with the problem of the relation between ourselves and God, or between the finite plurality and infinite unity -- or however one wishes to express this.

You are also one of the few students who have fully grasped that the difficulty in making sense of our existence is just as much on the side of materialism as it is on the side of idealism.

As it happens, the problem of separation between the Creator and his creatures wasn't actually the point of the question, which I will explain in a minute, but that's a minor detail.

Regarding the relation between ourselves and God in Berkeley's philosophy, there are two issues that need to be addressed. You have concentrated on the question of our independence, our ability to act for ourselves and exert our free will, despite the assumption of God's foreknowledge. As you note, this was a prominent topic in Medieval theology.

The other issue, which you mention but don't have a lot to say about, concerns the difference between actuality and mere possibility. If we accept that in some sense the thought of all possible worlds is in the mind of God, as Leibniz explicitly claimed, and which Berkeley would certainly not deny, the question arises what God has to *do* in order to make one of these possible worlds, one of the worlds merely 'thought', into an actual world, a world that actually *exists*.

One answer would be that there is nothing God has to do, because His mere thought about a possible world suffices for its actuality. This is a heretical notion, according to any view of Christian doctrine (I don't know whether, as a matter of fact, there were heretics who held this view) because what it means is that God is equally responsible for the existence of every possible world, including worlds of the utmost horror and depravity. Whereas, as we know, Leibniz claimed that God out of His infinite goodness *chose* to create this world, the 'best' of all possible worlds. This world is actual, while all the other worlds -- including the finite subjects enjoying experiences in those worlds -- are merely possible, mere thought, not actuality.

The idea that all possible worlds are equally real, and that what we term the 'actual' world is merely a function of perspective -- in other words, that every possible world is 'actual' in relation to the subjects inhabiting it -- has been defended by David Lewis (see 'On the Plurality of Worlds') although there are not many contemporary philosophers who would agree with Lewises radical view. I attempt a kind of reconciliation in the final chapter of my book 'Naive Metaphysics' (downloadable from the Pathways site).

But the problem remains. You can't define actuality in terms of perceiving subjects, if perceiving subjects exist in other possible worlds too!

I said I would talk about the point of the question, which is somewhat at an oblique angle from these issues.

Suppose God had created a world in which there existed intelligent beings who had the freedom of thought, but were immobile, like trees. They could talk to one another, discuss the weather and the movements of animals in the forest etc. but their own freedom was the freedom of thought. You could still be guilty of 'bad thoughts' or be praised for 'good thoughts'. There would still be a question for tree theologians to discuss, regarding whether God's foreknowledge of every good or bad thought deprived the subject of their free will.

But this isn't (and I would argue, couldn't be) the way things are. We are physical agents, 'agents in a material word'. This was the point Dr Johnson was making when he kicked the stone in the church courtyard after listening to one of Berkeley's sermons.

Why can't Berkeley say (as you in effect do when you talk about rapping your knuckles on the desk) that what we innocently describe as physical actions, are merely sequences of experience arranged by God? Would that be so bad? Dr Johnson thought it would be, and I tend to agree although I think a lot more argument needs to be given to back up the physical demonstration!

All the best,