Monday, 19 March 2012 07:37

George Berkeley: Men of Ideas

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George Berkeley (1685-1753) was an Irish physicist, philosopher and Bishop. Along with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and David Hume he established the English empiricist school, the basis of modern science.

As an empiricist, a scientist, Berkeley studied mathematics and light and made seminal contributions to optics and perception.

However, despite his insistence on empiricism, Berkeley has come to represent immaterialist approach to phenomena.

In his earlier writings, like the empiricist, he attempted to demonstrate that perception of the world is done through our five senses and that there is no other way of understanding the world. As it were, we are part of the world perceiving that world through our senses and our senses are part of the world, and whatever we say about the world is still the world.

This is extreme empiricism, the belief that the individual can only know the empirical or material world and cannot know any other thing about the world. The so-called aspects of the world that people consider spiritual cannot be known through the five senses and empiricism rejects it.

God or spirit cannot be ascertained through our five senses; they are conjectural and in the realm of speculation hence not proper for science to talk about. Science deals with that which is perceivable and provable in the objective world.

Human beings cannot prove that there is a God behind the workings of matter, the young Berkeley said. All we know for sure is the empirical world and knowledge of it is through perception, our five senses. To engage in abstract intellectualization as to what the world is and what is behind the world, as Kant and other idealists do, is a waste of time since what they say cannot be shown as true.

We must, therefore, resist the urge to intellectualize the world; instead, we must limit ourselves to the perceptual world.

This is what science does; science does not take flight into mere intellectualization of what is, as philosophy does, but deals with what is in fact, what is verifiable.

Having said these wonderful things about empiricism, Berkeley seemed to contradict himself when he attempted theological thinking. He was a Bishop after all; as a bishop in the Christian Church he must have apriori accepted that God exists. So how do you reconcile God and matter?

Berkeley posited a God that enables us to have the five senses to perceive the phenomenal world. He seems to say that the world we perceive is an idea in the mind of God.

We see a tree. That tree is existent in the empirical world. Yet that tree is an idea in our minds.

Berkeley argues that we are able to have an idea of a tree through God’s mind in us. The tree is an idea put in our minds by God’s mind.

Berkeley does not believe that his system is solipsism in the sense that the tree does not exist outside us; solipsism believes that the seeming external world does not exist outside our minds but is in our minds and we project it out, as in a dream, and make it seem real to us, the dreamers of the world’ To Berkeley, the world exists outside our minds alright, but we have ideas of it in our minds.

The tree is out there but we know it through our minds, which is God mind in us. That is to say that the external world exists and the internal world of mind exists, God exists and matter exists.

It is difficult to know exactly what Berkeley is saying, what his conclusion is. Is the outside world in our minds or is it outside us?  Berkeley seems to be saying that the world, as an idea, is in our minds and yet is outside us. These are like eating your cake and still have it. It is unconvincing.

Berkeley saw himself as a realist, an empiricist, yet he seems an idealist. Arthur Schopenhauer, indeed, saw him as the father of idealism.

Consider this little experiment that Berkley talked about in his Dialogues. Have three buckets, one filled with cold water, one filled with hot water and the last filled with lukewarm water. Now stick your hands into the buckets, one hand into the bucket containing hot water and another into the bucket containing cold water, then withdraw both hands and stick them into the lukewarm water, what do you feel? One of your hands feel hot and the other feels cold despite the fact that they are both in a bucket of lukewarm water.

So, is the quality of heat or cold independent of your hands, is it outside your hand, and is it in the buckets?

Berkeley says that primary and secondary qualities of matter do not inhere in matter, in the objects of our perception, but in the perceiver.  This would seem to prove that the observer affects what he observes, is it not? It would seem to say that the external world is not outside the individual.

Erwin Schrodinger pretty much said the same thing in his quantum mechanics. If so, is empiricism enough?

Consider: a tree falls. Whether there is a human being to observe it or not, a tree did fall, right?  But it takes a human being to eventually observe that a tree fell. So did a tree fall without a human being making such observation? Did dinosaurs exist and become extinct without human beings making that observation?

Does the external world exist apart from human beings? Berkeley said yes; the world is outside us and exists apart from us.  Yet it takes us to eventually observe the world’s existence, for God gave us minds that can observe the existence of a separated world.

So what philosophical problem has Berkeley solved?  He managed to say that the empirical world exists apart of us but that there is something in us that observes that world. Now what? We are back to square one, not having solved any philosophical conundrum. We are as confused as we were before we read Berkeley.

Actually Berkeley’s problem is the problem of most Western philosophers; they write lots of verbiage but at the end have not helped you answer any of the questions that you began with. A waste of time, it would seem.


George Berkeley. Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. (1713)

George Berkeley. Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. (1710)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176