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Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous

George Berkeley

Third Dialogue 251-end

Third Dialogue 242–250

Important Quotations

Summary

By this point, Philonous thinks that he has conclusively demonstrated that materialism is incoherent, and that his own view is perfectly coherent, is able to stand up to all skeptical doubt, and is best supported by the evidence, both everyday and scientific. The one task left to him, is to show that his view does not contradict Scriptures. When the Bible talks about creation, he explains, what is under discussion is actually the creation of sensations, not material objects. Moses never mentions solid, corporeal substances by name. Biblical creation proceeded like this: the ideas which constitute real things were always in God's mind, from all eternity. However, at a certain point He made them perceptible to human beings. It was when God made these ideas perceptible to human beings, that the Bible says they were "created" because that is when they began their existence relative to human beings.

Hylas asks how this account could be correct, since man was created after all other things. How could creation involve making ideas perceptible to man, if there was not yet any man to do the perceiving? Philonous explains that man is not the only sort of finite mind in the world; there are also angels, and God could have created the world by making everything perceptible to them rather than to us.

Philonous ends this discussion by pointing out that the idea of material creation is actually very dangerous: it leads men to discount Scriptures and become atheists, because most people find it inconceivable how a mere will of the spirit could give rise to a corporeal substance outside of the mind. By bypassing this impossibility, his own idealist account of creation actually makes Scriptures more plausible.

Hylas is now completely convinced of idealism. Philonous, welcoming him to the fold, runs through all of the advantages one gains from adopting this world view. First, idealism clearly proves the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, and so it combats atheism and other religious doubt. Second, it clears up natural science, ridding physics of obscure notions that do not help to explain anything. Once we eliminate the idea of matter, and realize that all objects are ideas, the laws of nature become much easier to understand. For instance, we no longer have to worry about how bodies could possibly causally interact with each other (we know that God is the only cause), or how the motion of bodies cause sensations in us (they do not; it is all sensations to begin with). Idealism also cleans things up considerably for metaphysics. By reducing the sorts of things in the world to ideas and spirits, idealism clears up all the trenchant metaphysical puzzles. We no longer have to worry, for instance, about how mind and body could interact. Idealism, even clears up mathematics by taking away the absolute existence of extended things, and leaving only the pure mathematical ideas to content with. Idealism also helps to make men more morally responsible, by reminding them that God is immediately present. Finally, idealism defeats skepticism once and for all.

Analysis

Berkeley's system upholds four tenets of basic sensibility: (1) We can trust our senses. (2) The things we see and feel are real. (3) The qualities we perceive as existing really do exist. (4) All skeptical doubt about the real existence of things is precluded. So is Berkeley really in league with the common man, or is he just an obscure philosopher parading in gardener's clothing?

The common person, as Berkeley points out numerous times, does hold these beliefs in common with Berkeley. The important question, though, is why the common man believes these things. Is it because he believes that real things are nothing but collections of sensations? Certainly not; not even Berkeley claims that the common man explicitly holds that real things are sensations.The common man, unlike Berkeley, Locke, and Descartes, puts no stock in the belief that the immediate objects of our perception are ideas. He is what philosophers call a "naïve realist". Because the common man does not think that there is any veil of ideas obscuring us from the real world, the common man is in no danger of falling prey to skepticism. He does not need to believe that real things are sensations, because he believes he has perfectly good and direct access to real, material things.

So why does Berkeley think that the common man will fall in league with him? Perhaps because he is convinced that the immediate objects of perception are ideas, and that he can persuade the common man of this as well. Once the common man realizes that the immediate objects of our perception are ideas, Berkeley's reasoning must go, surely he will rather admit that real things are sensations than give up the four tenets of common sense. But, of course, this is far from obvious. One might plausibly claim that the belief in mind-independent material objects is an even more dearly-beloved tenet of common sense than at least the first three of Berkeley's proclaimed principles of common sense. And the fourth of these (i.e. the denial of skepticism about the external world), as we have shown, is easily avoidable, even on a system that mixes materialism with a mediated view of perception. What is an even more likely scenario, though, is that Berkeley would fail to convince the common man to give up his direct realism. And it is for this, above all, that the common sense of the common man is to be commended. Though the mediated view of perception enjoyed a long vogue, it is becoming increasingly less popular, and for good reason: it is not really all that plausible. It requires us to believe in strange mental items, ideas, that somehow insert themselves between us and the world. It further asks us to believe that when we look out at the world, we are immediately apprehending nothing but the objects of our own mind: that the trees and books and faces we see are not really trees and books and faces but mental copies of these items. In short, it is an unattractive view which led Berkeley to adopt an even less attractive view.

Though Berkeley and the common man do share those four principles of common sense between them, it seems fair to say that they share little else. Berkeley arrives at his belief in these four principles by mixing a mediated theory of perception with an idealist account of real objects; the common man, in contrast, arrives at these four principles by mixing a direct realist theory of perception with a materialist account of real objects.

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