Wednesday, 26 May 2021

More on George Berkeley and his Immaterialism

As a preliminary people might like to read my brief introduction to Berkeley's metaphysic:

A very brief introduction to Immaterialism

Incidentally, what I haven't mentioned before is that I did part of a Ph.D thesis on Berkeley's metaphysic; specifically on immaterialism's implications for the ontological status of the microscopic realm i.e in what sense do objects/processes exist that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. I never completed it, but I think I have an excellent grasp of his ideas. 


Alleged Difficulties for Immaterialism 

I have just read the following recent article:

Mind over matter: the contradictions of George Berkeley

The author says:

"Some asked how hallucinations fit into his picture, alleging that they sever the link between ideas and reality in some distinct way his system cannot account for. Another classic objection has it that the corollary of believing that things do not exist unless they are being perceived is that objects must be continually popping in and out of existence depending on whether they are being looked at or not, which is metaphysically untidy to say the least."

First of all, it's worth pointing out that the way of establishing whether something is a hallucination or not is precisely the same regardless of whether one subscribes to Berkeley's metaphysic or not. A hallucination would be a creation of one's own mind rather than part of God's conception of the world. So it would lack certain characteristics of real things. Typically, one might appear to see something, but on approaching it and reaching out one's hand, fail to experience the associated appropriate tactile sensation.

This notion that whenever we look away, or close our eyes, objects spontaneously disappear under his metaphysic, is question begging. They appear to be assuming there is a material reality independent of our perceptions, but that also, paradoxically, its reality is dependent on whether we are looking at it or not. But, Berkeley thought the external world is entirely cashed out by our perceptions.  So, it is incorrect to suppose that objects are constantly appearing and disappearing out of existence.  That erroneously ascribes a position to him that he did not hold.

Incidentally, unlike the author, I wouldn't appeal to the limerick by Ronald Knox to resolve this alleged problem.   Here's the limerick:

There was a young man who said “God

Must find it exceedingly odd

To think that the tree

Should continue to be

When there’s no one about in the quad” 
“Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd;

I am always about in the quad.

And that’s why the tree

Will continue to be

Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”

First of all, as I have just said, there isn't any problem in the first place.  Apart from that, I think it's simply not correct to say that Berkeley held that the external world exists by being observed by God.  That, again, seems to imply that the external world has some type of prior existence, and it is God's perceptions of it that keeps it in existence.  No, the external world is simply a conception within God's mind that he conveys to us.

To elucidate, our relationship to the external world might be compared to playing an online multiplayer computer game.  The numerous players seem to see and interact within the same environment.  The reality of objects in that environment -- such as a tree -- are represented by appropriately lit pixels. But, the pixels representing the tree, change depending on the perspective and distance the character controlled by the player is in relationship to that tree.  And, of course, there won't be any pixels representing the tree should the character be turned so that he is facing away from it.  As I said in my first blog post on Berkeley, this is explained by the fact that the computer game environment is governed by rules implemented by a computer programmer.  Likewise, our external world exhibits uniformity due to physical laws with such physical laws simply being directly caused by God.

Extending the computer game analogy further, although the character we control is within the computer game environment, we ourselves certainly are not.  We are sitting in our bedrooms or wherever we are when we play such games.  Indeed, we could not be part of that game environment as our existence is not captured by lit pixels!  In a similar manner, immaterialism holds we are not literally within the "material" world.  What we label the "material" world is nothing but our perceptions, and it is therefore nonsensical to suppose we are part of it.  Of course, our bodies are part of the "material" world  i.e the those perceptions we identify with our bodies, but our selves and their conscious states are not part of that reality.

Support from Quantum Mechanics  

I think Berkeley's metaphysic gets some support when we consider the implications of quantum mechanics. Or, at least it gets support in as much as it presents arguably insurmountable difficulties for those who suppose that reality is of a certain definite character considered entirely independent of one's perceptions or measurements.   

The main difficulty is that subatomic particles, such as electrons, can either be particles or waves, but cannot simultaneously be both (just like an object cannot simultaneously be both a sphere and a cube).  Yet, depending on the particular experiment, electrons behave either exactly like particles, or they behave exactly like waves.  So what are they?  Does their nature, their essence, change depending on how we measure/observe them? But that makes no sense since a thing's nature shouldn't change depending on how we observe it.

There is no problem under Berkeley's immaterialism though. Berkeley would have thought that a subatomic particle's reality (be it a photon, an electron or whatever) is purely a question of whether it plays a fruitful role in our scientific theories or not. It doesn't matter if, say, electrons exhibit particle like behaviour within one experimental context and wavelike behaviour under another since the reality of an electron cannot be abstracted from our perceptions/measurements of them.  All that matters is that nature exhibits regularities that we can mathematically describe. In this regard, quantum mechanics is a runaway success.

It's important to note that this doesn't amount to the denial of the existence of electrons and other subatomic particles any more than it is a denial of everyday macroscopic objects (see near the end of my first blog post on Berkeley).


  1. I just read Principles and I'm midway through the Three Dialogues. Could you explain a bit more what you mean by :

    "But, Berkeley thought the external world is entirely cashed out by our perceptions. So, it is incorrect to suppose that objects are constantly appearing and disappearing out of existence. That erroneously ascribes a position to him that he did not hold."

    It seems to me that Berkeley was very explicit in saying that if we are not perceiving reality, something else must be doing so (or, if not perceiving, then otherwise imagining, constructing, etc. - the distinction here seems incidental to me, the important point being that everything exists only as mental ideas) or it indeed would cease to exist. As we must generate our own imaginings for them to exist (or a computer must process information to create a virtual world), so must God, according to Berekeley, be continuously generating what we think of as external reality.

    So I just wondered : did you here only mean to emphasise the difference between God perceiving versus God constructing reality, or something else ?

    1. I'm using the word "disappear" to depict a situation where an object exists, but then spontaneously acausally doesn't exist, it actually disappears into thin air, so to speak. And that surely is the objection that people have in mind.

      The objection only seems to make sense if we suppose that objects are *not* equated with our perceptions, but nevertheless *depend* on being perceived for their existence. In which case they would continually pop in and out of existence if we, for example, continually blink.

      But this objection makes no sense for Berkeley's position since an object is *equated* with all possible perceptions of it. First I have a perception of a tree, then I close my eyes and I don't perceive it. But there is no object that acaually spontaneously disappears since the tree is defined as *nothing but* our perceptions.

      Anyway, the idea that God perceives the tree (like we perceive the tree), implies the tree has the same relationship to God's mind as our minds. Us perceiving a tree is different from us imagining a tree in our minds, right? The tree is imposed on our mind from without (either from the external material world, or in Berkeley's philosophy, from God's mind). But, anyway, an imagined tree is different from a perceived tree.

      But God has to "imagine" a tree, not perceive it. The tree is part of his conception of the world. So he conceives the world rather than perceives it.

      I admit it's been a long times since I read Berkeley's Principles and Dialogues, but from what I recollect he seems to contradict himself at parts. I think he was developing his ideas as he matured. Anyway, this is the more complex part of his philosophy where there is much disagreement. I decided to comment on it because I just feel that the objection doesn't have merit.

    2. Thanks ! An interesting and subtle point.

      Berkeley's idea that God imagines the world we experience seems reasonably clear and intuitive to me. God is always imagining the world (or in modern parlance, the simulation is always running...) so it never depends on _our_ perception or imagination.

      I find the notion of a godless idealism much more interesting though. If objects are exactly equated with our perceptions of them, doesn't this mean that they are therefore constantly changing and indeed even vanishing from existence and re-appearing ? After all, if I no longer have the perception of a tree, then the tree no longer exists. True, there is no material substance that was affected (because there is no material substance at all), but the idea of the tree ceases to be. And then when I open my eyes it's back. Just as if I myself imagine a tree, then stop, my imaginary tree can be created and destroyed at will.

      For me the difficulty with this is not really that the world doesn't exist unless we're looking at it - it's more that when we look again, it appears to be entirely self-consistent with what we saw previously. Naively, I would expect imagination to be haphazard and random... I mean, I get all kinds of garbage popping in to my head all the time. Now the imagination of a deity, sure, that could solve it. But if it's just our own minds... I think that's a more difficult and interesting problem.


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