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George Berkeley | 5. God and Metaphysics

George Berkeley
 (1685 –1753)

God and Metaphysics | Part 5

1. Metaphysics and Theology

In section 3 of the Principles, where Berkeley stated that we have intuitive knowledge of the fact that for sensible qualities to exist they must be perceived,

he also stated that when we say that the table is in the room that we have left we mean that if we were to return there we could perceive it “or that some other spirit actually does perceive it.

This shows that Berkeley was concerned with the problem of giving an account, within the terms of his immaterialism, of the continued existence of things that are not being perceived by any human being. It also shows that he considered 2 ways of dealing with this problem.

1) One way was to extend the doctrine that the existence of sensible things is their being perceived into the doctrine that the existence of sensible things is their being perceptible.

2) The other way was to argue that when sensible things are not being perceived by human beings they must be perceived by “some other spirit.”

2. Berkeley was Not a Phenomenalist

The first way points in the direction of the modern theory of phenomenalism, the theory according to which, in John Stuart Mill’s happily chosen words, material objects are “permanent possibilities of sensation.”

But might not anything, even material substances possessing only primary qualities, be perceptible, even if not actually being perceived?

Some 20th century upholders of phenomenalism argued

that the world was perceptible before there was any life or mind, in the sense that if there had been gods or human beings they would have perceived it.

This could not be possible on Berkeley’s theory, however,

since, as we have seen, he held that only ideas or sensible things can be like ideas or sensible things, so that what is perceptible is limited by what is perceived.

3. Perceptible Objects Perceived by God

The perceptible, therefore, is limited to the mind-dependent, and, for Berkeley, the very notion of something that might be perceived, but is not, is unacceptable.

Thus it seems that Berkeley was forced to supplement his phenomenalist account of unperceived objects with the view that

whatever is not being actually perceived by human beings, but is only perceptible by them, must be an object of perception by “some other spirit.”

He used this same expression in section 48 of the Principles, where he denied that

bodies are annihilated and created every moment,
or exist not at all during the intervals between our perception of them.

In the Three Dialogues (2) he argued that since sensible things do not depend on the thought of human beings and exist independently of them “there must be some other mind wherein they exist.”

This other mind is God;

and thus, according to Berkeley, the existence of sensible things when not being perceived by finite spirits is a proof of the existence of an infinite spirit who perceives them always.

Indeed, Berkeley considered it a merit of immaterialism that it enables this brief and, as he thought, conclusive proof to be formulated.

4. Our Ideas Come From God

In the Principles Berkeley put forward another proof of the existence of God, this time a proof based upon God as the cause of our ideas.

As has been shown, Berkeley held that ideas are passive and that the only active beings are minds or spirits.

Now some of our ideas, namely, ideas of imagination, we ourselves produce, but others, the ideas of sense, come to us without our willing them:

“There is therefore some other will or spirit that produces them” (Principles, §29).

That this is God may be concluded from the regular order in which these ideas come to us. The knowledge we have of God is analogous to the knowledge we have of other men.

Since people are active spirits, we do not have ideas of them, but only of their expressions, words, and bodily movements. Through these we recognize them as possessors of minds and wills like those we know ourselves to have.

Similarly, God reveals himself to us in the order of nature: “everything we see, hear, feel, or in any wise perceive by sense, being a sign or effect of the Power of God.

5. Active Spirits and Passive Ideas

These, then, are the elements of Berkeley’s metaphysics:

There are active spirits on the one hand and passive ideas on the other.

The latter could not exist apart from the former, but the ideas in the minds of human beings are caused in them by God and sustained by him when they are not perceiving them.

Regularly recurring groups of ideas are called bodies, and the ideas that form them are arbitrarily connected together and might have been connected quite differently.

Thus there is no natural necessity or internal reason about the laws of nature, but the regular sequences of ideas reveal to us a single infinite being who orders things for our benefit.

Active spirits and passive ideas are of different natures:

The mind is not blue because the idea of blue is in it, nor is the mind extended because it has an idea of extension. Ideas are neither parts nor properties of minds.

Berkeley seems to have thought that the relationship is unique, for he said that sensible qualities are in the mind “only as they are perceived by it, that is, not by way of mode or attribute, but only by way of idea” (Principles, §49).

6. God’s Ideas and Our Ideas

As already seen, Berkeley held that God

was both the cause of the ideas in the minds of embodied finite spirits and also the Mind in which these ideas continued to exist when embodied finite spirits were not perceiving them.

Berkeley was thus faced with the problem of how the ideas in finite minds are related to the ideas in God’s mind.

If we recall Berkeley’s claim that he was on the side of common sense against the sceptics,

then we should expect the ideas that continue to exist in God’s mind to be identical with those that had been in the minds of the embodied finite spirits who had formerly perceived them.

However, he found that there were difficulties in this view:

Humans perceive ideas of sense by means of sense organs, and their ideas vary in accordance with their position and condition, but God does not have sense organs.

Furthermore, some ideas—for example, those of heat and cold, and sensations of smell and taste—are inseparable from sensations of pain and pleasure,

but God is impassible, that is, not subject to feeling or emotion;
hence he cannot be supposed to perceive ideas of this nature.

In the Three Dialogues (3), therefore, Berkeley concluded that “God knows or has ideas; but his ideas are not conveyed to Him by sense, as ours are.”

From this it is natural to conclude that the ideas that God perceives are not identical with the ideas that embodied finite spirits perceive.

Berkeley was obviously thinking along these lines when, in the same Dialogue, he said that the things that one perceives, “they or their archetypes,” must, since one does not cause them, have an existence outside one’s mind.

Elsewhere in this Dialogue he distinguished between what is “ectypal or natural” and what is “archetypal and eternal.”

Thus Berkeley’s arguments and the language he used combine to suggest that the ideas in God’s mind are not the same ideas as those in the minds of embodied percipients.

This point was taken up by the Samuel Johnson in his correspondence with Berkeley:

Johnson suggested that Berkeley’s view is that “the real original and permanent existence of things is archetypal, being ideas in Divine Mind, and that our ideas are copies of them.”

Johnson was too polite to press the point, but it follows that what we directly perceive are copies or representatives of divine originals,

so that Berkeley’s claim to have reinstated the direct, unmediated perception of common sense, in place of the representative and sceptical theory of the philosophers and scientists, cannot be substantiated.

In his reply, Berkeley hardly met this point when he stated that material substance is impossibility because it is held to exist apart from mind, whereas the archetypes in the divine mind are obviously inseparable from God’s knowledge of them.