A Christian Response to Berkeley’s Immaterialism
The philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753; pronounced “Barkley”) was born in Ireland, lived in both England and America, eventually became Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland, and is best known for three works: An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (published in 1709), Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713), and A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) (Tipton, 2005, p. 94; cf. Woolhouse, 1988, pp. 1-4). Berkeley is most famous for the doctrine of immaterialism, which is the focus of the Principles. While Berkeley thought of himself as being a Christian, as did most members of his readership, Berkeley’s immaterialism is nevertheless contrary to Christian doctrine.
The late Robert C. Solomon provided a concise definition of immaterialism: “The metaphysical view that accepts the existence of nonspatial, nonsensory entities such as numbers, minds, and ideas. The weak version asserts merely that there are such entities. The strong version asserts that there are only such entities (that is, there are no physical objects)” (2008, p. 628, emp. added, parenthetical item in orig.). Berkeley’s version is approximately the strong version, asserting that “all that exists are finite minds or spirits (such as ourselves), our ideas or perceptions and sensations, and an infinite spirit (God)” (Woolhouse, p. 4, parenthetical items in orig.).
Because most people take the existence of matter for granted as part of what we might call “common-sense metaphysics,” immaterialism may seem absurd upon our first encounter with it. Most of Berkeley’s readers today, as in his own day, are more accustomed to the realism typical of Aristotle (and of experimental science; cf. Berkeley, p. 57). The English philosopher John Locke followed this line: “There can be nothing more certain, than that the idea we receive from an external object is in our minds…. [H]ere, I think, we are provided with an evidence, that puts us past doubting: for I ask anyone, whether he be not invincibly conscious to himself of a different perception, when he looks on the Sun by day, and thinks on it by night?” (1997, p. 477).
Despite its unconventionality, however, Berkeley’s view is complex and thoughtful, and cannot be dismissed with a mere wave of the hand. His view involves issues that are “perennial in philosophy” and has been integral in a number of philosophical areas (Tipton, p. 104). Most important, Berkeley’s view has serious implications against biblical faith and has been influential. Therefore, Christian apologists should be prepared to refute it.
A SUMMARY OF BERKELEY’S VIEW
There are three ideas that constitute, in broad strokes, Berkeley’s immaterialism:
1. Humans are aware only of ideas. Berkeley wrote, “That neither our thoughts, nor passions, nor ideas formed by the imagination, exist without the mind, is what everybody will allow. And it seems no less evident that the various sensations or ideas imprinted on the sense…cannot exist otherwise than in the mind perceiving them” (pp. 53-54). Indeed, it is difficult for us to explain what constitutes an experience of an external object, if it is anything other than an experience of an idea (which idea may or may not be caused by an external object). It is fair to say that what we experience is not the matter itself, but our idea of the matter as presented to our intellect by our senses. But this is far from a denial that matter exists, the very denial that Berkeley made. In the introduction to the Principles, Berkeley accused medieval philosophers of making false abstractions, including the abstract idea of extension, which is part of any definition of matter (pp. 39-41). Furthermore, Berkeley insisted that there is no good account of what matter actually is:
If we inquire into what the most accurate philosophers declare themselves to mean by material substance; we shall find them acknowledge they have no other meaning annexed to those sounds but the idea of being in general, together with the relative notion of it supporting accidents. The general idea of being appears to me the most abstract and incomprehensible of all other; and as for its supporting accidents, this, as we have just now observed, cannot be understood (p. 58).
Berkeley did not wish to deny the existence of “things,” but to deny that “they can subsist without the minds which perceive them, or that they are resemblances of any archetypes existing without the mind” (1988, p. 86). “In short, if there were external bodies, it is impossible we should ever come to know it; and if there were not, we might have the very same reasons to think there were that we have now” (p. 60).
2. For a thing to exist is for it to be perceived. Berkeley stated this clearly: “[F]or an idea to exist in an unperceiving thing, is a manifest contradiction; for to have an idea is all one as to perceive; that therefore wherein colour, figure, and the like qualities exist, must perceive them” (p. 55). The implication is that things exist only when we perceive them. For example, my computer exists at the moment when I look at it, but when I leave the room and cease to perceive it, it no longer exists for me. Berkeley seems to indicate that all things continue to exist for God, who constantly perceives all things (pp. 68-69,79,81).
3. God produces all of our ideas in our minds directly. Berkeley wrote: “The ideas imprinted on the sense by the Author of Nature are called real things: and those excited in the imagination being less regular, vivid and constant, are more properly termed…images of things, which they copy and represent” (p. 64). On Berkeley’s account God benevolently places reality in our minds via ideas, so that perception of material things is unnecessary for knowledge.
A CRITIQUE OF BERKELEY’S VIEW
Consider three basic responses to Berkeley’s position:
1. We should be suspect of any philosophical position as contrary to everyday experience as Berkeley’s position is. After I summarized Berkeley’s position in a discussion with a Christian friend over dinner recently, he picked up his fork and responded, “This fork is matter!” This spontaneous incredulity should characterize our initial skepticism when we encounter such a counterintuitive position. To be fair, Berkeley rightly pointed out that even universal human assent does not guarantee truth (p. 72). Still, healthy skepticism does not imply that we have closed minds or are unwilling to honestly examine any given view.
2. Our limited understanding of matter (or how it interacts with perceivers) does not mean that matter is nonexistent. For centuries prior to Berkeley, philosophers had discussed matter, seldom concluding that matter does not exist (e.g., see Solomon, 2008, pp. 81-82,87,146, etc.). If we restricted our philosophical discussion to things that we fully understand, we would have very little to say indeed. In many matters, we must humbly defer to God, Whose “thoughts are higher” than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).
Furthermore, it is just as difficult (if not more so) for us to understand the implanting of ideas by virtue of divine fiat as it is for us to understand the perception of matter. If both are difficult to understand, then one explanation of knowledge is a priori no better than the other. (Berkeley had particular philosophical motivations for his rejection of matter, which are beyond the scope of this article; for more information see Tipton, 2005, pp. 95-99.)
3. God has not only revealed matter to us, but has documented that it exists. While our understanding of matter and perception is limited, we do not have to wonder about whether matter exists or whether we, in general, perceive it. The biblical record is far from devoid of reference to “things” of a material nature, and such things are presented as being both extended and external, and not merely mental (e.g., Genesis 1:24; Leviticus 7:19; Leviticus 15:20; Acts 21:25; etc.). In fact, God created matter before there were any human beings to perceive it (Genesis 1).
When God told Noah and his family that “every moving thing” was food for them (Genesis 9:3), God was not discussing a moving “idea” (what is the meaning of a “moving” idea?). God did not implant the idea of the moving things into Noah’s mind, but rather pointed Noah to external moving things for immediate and future reference. If this is not the case, then God was misrepresenting reality, and such is inconsistent with God’s nature (Titus 1:2).
Scripture teaches that humans have ideas about matter that are produced by beings other than God. What of occasions when malevolent spirits manipulated what appeared to be matter (e.g., Matthew 9:32-33; 12:22; 15:22-28; 17:14-18, etc.)? When an unclean spirit caused a man to cut himself, break his chains, and live in the mountains, his ideas of matter were not presented directly to him by God. How are we, on Berkeley’s account, to explain circumstances such as these? Also, what are we to make of sins of the flesh, so emphatically decried by the New Testament writers, if there is only the idea of flesh (e.g., 2 Corinthians 7:1; Galatians 5:16, 19-21; Jude 8), but not real flesh?
However, the paramount issue in this debate is the body of Jesus. John forcefully pointed out the danger involved in the denial of Christ putting on flesh (1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 7). In fact, those who deny that Christ came in the flesh are “antichrist.” It is eternally insufficient to reduce the incarnation to mere mental representation. While Berkeley would have us believe that the biblical discussion of matter consists of accommodating language rather than literal explanation (see p. 83), the Bible is sufficiently clear, not only about the existence of matter, but also about the necessity of our belief in it.
It is not the purpose of this article to evaluate Berkeley’s motivations in their historical context, and it is admitted that Berkeley’s motivation was noble to some degree. He desired to clarify previous philosophical views that he thought were unclear. Berkeley apparently did not intend to violate biblical doctrine (p. 83). Nevertheless, the denial of the existence of matter makes a mockery of many aspects of biblical teaching.
Berkeley, George (1988 reprint), Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philoous, ed. Roger Woolhouse (New York: Penguin).
Locke, John (1997 reprint), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Roger Woolhouse (New York: Penguin).
Solomon, Robert C. (2008), Introducing Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press), ninth edition.
Tipton, Ian (2005), “George Berkeley,” in The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig (New York: Routledge).
Woolhouse, Roger (1988 reprint), Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philoous, ed. Roger Woolhouse (New York: Penguin).
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