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Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous

George Berkeley

Second Dialogue 210–215

Second Dialogue 208–210

Second Dialogue 210–215, page 2

page 1 of 2

Summary

Philonous now launches into his full idealist account. All there is in the world, he tells Hylas, are ideas and the minds that perceive or conceive them (called "spirits"). Some of our ideas are "real things" and some are not. For instance, products of our imagination are not real chairs, tables, etc., they are simply imagined chairs, tables, etc. Ideas in our memory are also not real things, but mere ideas. What are real things are our sensations. Or, rather, real objects are collections of sensations. When I see a chair, for example, my sensations of brown, hard, a certain size and a certain shape together actually comprise the chair. The chair just is that collection of sensations. The way that we can distinguish real things from mere fictional ideas, then, is the same way in which we can distinguish our sensations from all other ideas: real things are more vivid and they come to us involuntarily.

Because our sensations come to us involuntarily, we can conclude that we do not cause them. If they depended on our will, then we would be able to control when and how we had them. We can reason from this fact that there must be some other being controlling which sensations we have. This being is God, the ultimate, infinite perceiver. God plays a central role on this view: what makes an object exist, is not whether I perceive it or you perceive it. What makes an object exist is simply whether God perceives it. God brings all things into existence by conceiving of them, and maintains them in existence by continuing to conceive of them. All things exist in God's mind. Periodically, God will allow us access to these ideas, in certain fixed patterns which we call "the laws of nature". We experience these ideas as sensations. For instance, whenever God gives us the sensation "seeing fire" he accompanies it with the sensation "feeling heat", whenever he gives us the sensation "touching cat" he accompanies it with the sensation "feeling softness", and so on. "Cat", "soft", "fire", and "heat", though, are all simply ideas in God's and our own mind; none of these things has a mind-independent existence out in the world. In fact, there is no such thing as "out in the world". There is nothing outside of minds, except for minds themselves (or spirits) and all finite spirits (i.e. human beings) exist within God's mind.

After Philonous lays out this picture of the world, Hylas asks how this view is different from Malebranche's view. The Cartesian philosopher Malebranche, claimed that we see all things in God, a view which, on its surface, sounds much like Philonous' idealism. Malebranche's theory, though, goes like this: since the soul is immaterial, it is incapable of perceiving material things. The soul, therefore, joins with God who is Himself an immaterial, spiritual substance, and through this union, gains access to all ideas and the logical connections between them. This view, as Philonous is quick to point out, is a far cry from real idealism. Malebranche posits the existence of mind-independent material objects: they exist, we just do not have any immediate access to them. So not only does he run into all the usual materialist problems, he has an even worse problem to contend with: his material world is completely useless.

Analysis

Hylas could have avoided skepticism by relying on Locke's use of inference to the best explanation — the best explanation for so many marks of our sensory experience being that this experience is caused by mind-independent material objects that resemble our sensory ideas. However, he chooses not to do this, and now he is stuck trying to avoid skepticism by embracing idealism. The rest of the book is an attempt to flesh out the idealist picture, and to show why it is the best account of reality.

According to Berkeley's idealist view, there are only three types of things: there are ideas, there are finite minds, and there is God. We will treat the role of ideas more fully as Philonous gives more details of his theory, and we will also have more to say about spirits later on. But it is important to settle the issue of God immediately, because God is really the grounding for the entire metaphysical system, and His role is often misunderstood.

The way that Berkeley proves the existence of God is to ask two questions. First, since my sensations are not caused by me, who causes them? And second, how do objects stay in existence when I close my eyes? The answer to these questions is that God must keep everything in existence, and cause our sensations. But how? There have been two different positions that are often attributed to Berkeley on this point. On the first of these, God's role is as the absolute perceiver. Things have a continued existence (instead of constantly flickering in and out of existence whenever I close my eyes) because God is always perceiving them. There is a lot of textual evidence for this reading of Berkeley; look, for instance, at 2.212 and at 3.230–1. But there is also something very unappealing about this view: we retreat to God only when we need him. His role is important, but it is not central in the way that Berkeley seemed to promise it would be. Conceiving of God as back up perceiver is no better than Locke's conception of God as the link between the physical world and the mental, or Descartes' conception of God as the guarantor for the truth of our clear and distinct perceptions; in all of these cases God is more of a convenient fill-in, a Deux es Machina, than a grounding for the metaphysical system.

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