Berkeley\'s Theory of Immaterialism



Free Will & Determinism


MW 11:45



As man progressed through the various stages of evolution, it is assumed that at a certain point he began to ponder the world around him. Of course, these first attempts fell short of being scholarly, probably consisting of a few grunts and snorts at best. As time passed on, though, these ideas persisted and were eventually tackled by the more intellectual, so-called philosophers. Thus, excavation of "the external world" began.


As the authoritarianism of the ancients gave way to the more liberal views of the modernists, two main positions concerning epistemology and the nature of the world arose. The first view was exemplified by the empiricists, who stated that all knowledge comes from the senses. In opposition, the rationalists maintained that knowledge comes purely from deduction and that certain innate schema in the mind processes this knowledge. Those that belonged to the empiricist school of thought developed quite separate and distinct ideas concerning the nature of the substratum of sensible objects. John Locke and David Hume upheld the belief that sensible things were composed of material substance, the basic framework for the materialist position. The main figure who believed that material substance did not exist is George Berkeley. In truth, it is the immaterialist position that seems the most logical when placed under close scrutiny.


The initial groundwork for Berkeley\'s position is the truism that the materialist is a skeptic. In the writing of his three dialogues, Berkeley develops two characters: Hylas (the materialist) and Philonous (Berkeley himself). Philonous draws upon one central supposition of the materialist to formulate his argument of skepticism against him; this idea is that one can never perceive the real essence of anything. In short, the materialist feels that the information received through sense experience gives a representative picture of the outside world (the representative theory of perception), and one can not penetrate to the true essence of an object. This makes logical sense, for the only way to perceive this real essence would be to become the object itself! Although the idea is logical, it does contain certain grounding for agnosticism. Let the reader consider this: if there is no way to actually sense the true material essence of anything, and all knowledge in empiricism comes from the senses, then the real material essence can not be perceived and therefore it can not be posited. This deserves careful consideration, for thematerialist has been self-proclaimed a skeptic! If the believer in this theory were asked if a mythical beast such as a Cyclops existed he would most certainly say no. As part of his reply he might add that because it can not be sensed it is not a piece of knowledge. After being enlightened by the above proposed argument, though, that same materialist is logically forced to agree that, because the "material substratum" itself can not be sensed, its existence can not be treated as knowledge. The materialist belief has, in effect, become as futile as proving that the cyclops exists; his ideas have leaded him into skepticism.[1]


Having proven that the materialist is, at best, a doubter, Berkeley goes on to offer the compelling argument that primary and secondary qualities are, together, one thing. As the materialist believes, primary qualities of an object are those things that are abstract (not sense oriented). Examples of these would be number, figure, motion, and extension. Secondary qualities are those things that are concrete (sense oriented), such as color, smell, sound, and taste. The materialist feels that these primary qualities persist even when the secondary ones are not there. Thus, if a person were blind, then that individual would not be able to hear or to touch items; yet the so-called real qualities such as figure would remain existent in the objects. As previously shown, the materialist is agnostic in his belief of these real (primary) qualities. It is here that Berkeley directs an alternate hypothesis: that the abstract primary qualities don\'t exist at all. In fact, the immaterialist position states that these qualities are merely secondary in nature, as they, too, can not be perceived as being separate from an object. For instance, if a person is asked to imagine a primary quality alone, as an abstraction, it is impossible. To illustrate