June 10, 2006

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The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

The Foundational Argument of Berkeleian Metaphysics

Metaphysics (theory of reality) is notoriously difficult to get off the ground. There is very little to start from, because everything else starts from here. However, as Descartes so famously observed, I, the one reasoning about metaphysics, am, in fact, reasoning about metaphysics, and therefore must, in some sense, exist. Descartes has been challenged by Neitszche (in Beyond Good and Evil) and others, for his inference from "there is thinking going on" to "there must be a substance which does the thinking," and, as little sympathy as I have for Neitzsche in general, I think that this may be a just criticism, showing that Descartes had not thrown off the Aristotelian 'substance-accident' picture of the world well enough to make his project truly 'foundationalist' (this mistake is, of course, the least of Descartes' problems - *cough* Pineal gland *cough*). As I have blogged before, I think the best way to get around this is to stop worrying about the whole substance thing, since it's a metaphysical abstraction that doesn't seem relevant to the question of my existence, and identify the self with the event of thinking.

So I exist - as an event at least, if not as a substance. Now, the event that is me has certain characteristics, and it is from these characteristics that we must proceed in our foundational metaphysical reasoning. Analytic metaphysicians really haven't gone this route very much, mostly because there haven't really been a lot of analytic metaphysicians. As an editor observed in the introduction to some work of Leibniz that is still in a box somewhere due to my not yet having a bookshelf (yes, I know that's very helpful for those of you trying to find the reference), 20th century Anglo-American philosophers often studied metaphysics in the way one studies tropical diseases - in order to find a cure! (The situation has gotten somewhat better since the time of writing, which I believe was in the 1980s.) At any rate, I don't think metaphysics, even these fundamental questions of ontology, are diseases to be cured; I think they are legitimate and important questions to answer, and that they way to answer them is to pursue a line of reasoning that begins from the nature of the 'me' event.

From this point on, I don't think we have deductive certainties. We must reason probabilistically to determine what is most likely to be the case. In my paper "The Ontological Status of Dreams in Berkeleian Metaphysics" (currently being considered for publication by The Dualist) I develop a fairly detailed neo-Berkeleian ontology. I do not propose to do any such thing in this short post (God-willing, the journal will be published in a few months and the paper will be in it - if the paper isn't included I'll make sure it makes it online, either in another journal or on this site). Rather, I simply want to outline the basic chain of reasoning used to establish a Berkeleian metaphysical theory. For Berkeley's actual argument, go read his "Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge" - it's not very long or difficult, though it is rather dry; "Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous" presents basically the same argument in a much less dry, but also less rigorous, form. Here I will give you my own re-processing of the argument.

This argument is, as has been said, probabilistic in nature, and heavily dependent on Occam's Razor. Berkeley's account seeks to explain the phenomenon of my perceptions, and argues that the existence of God (or, at least, some 'super-mind') is a better explanation of these phenomena than the existence of (ontologically fundamental) material substance. Berkeley's arguments against matter are very interesting, but I'm going to ignore them here. Instead, I'm going to briefly go over (my version of) the positive argument in favor of Berkeley's view.

I am, and what I am is a mind. I have three types of ideas (where the word 'idea' is defined to mean any direct object of a mind): thoughts, perceptions, and volitions. Thoughts are those ideas that I make up myself by acts of my will, and volitions are the acts of will. Perceptions, however, are the problem. I don't create them (because I am a thinking, and am therefore anything I am not conscious of cannot be me). Clearly, however, they must come from somewhere (mustn't they? This may be another ungrounded though highly intuitive assumption, like Descartes' "a thinking presupposes a thing that thinks" assumption). What characteristics must their source have? Well, it must be active (since it is acting upon me), and it must have ideas (otherwise how could it be a source of ideas)? A thing that is active and has ideas is the same as a thing that thinks, i.e. a mind. It could be, of course, that some other totally mysterious something out there causes my perceptions, but this would be a very strange reasoning step to take, and would run afoul of Occam's Razor, because I already know that at least one mind exists, and I know that the existence of another mind could explain the phenomena in question, so it makes far more sense to posit the existence this other mind than to posit the existence of a Lockean "thing, I know not what" existing independent of any mind.

Thus having posited the existence of another mind, I have explained my perceptions. The question still remains of what these perceptions mean, why the mind causes them, what the mind's characteristics are, and whether he/she/it is in fact identical with the conventional idea of God (as Berkeley thinks he is). What we do know about the mind is that it is rational (since my perceptions are connected with one another in a coherent way), it has powers I lack (since I cannot impose ideas on other minds against their will), and it is far more intelligent than I am (since it is able to maintain a consistent physical world in the perceptions it gives me). I think Berkeley is unfairly importing theological ideas when he uses words like 'spirit' and 'God' in his discussion. However, I do think that he has established that minds (person-events) are the only entities whose ontologically fundamental existence we have good reason to believe in. The ideas of said minds (including the perceptions which make up the physical world) are very real, but not ontologically fundamental, since they supervene on the minds. If anything else exists in the universe, it is impossible for us to know anything about it.

Posted by Kenny at June 10, 2006 11:18 AM
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Why must a source of ideas itself have ideas? It seems commonsensical that our sensory apparatus enable purely material objects to cause in us sensory perceptions. According to commonsense, my perception of a chair is caused by the chair. We wouldn't typically take this to imply that the chair itself must have perceptions. So what's the basis for your premise?

Posted by: Richard at June 10, 2006 11:34 PM

Well, Berkeley disputes whether this is really commonsense. According to Berkeley its actually a prejudice instilled in us by our education. When someone who hasn't studied Aristotle and friends is asked whether the chair exists he says "of course it exists, I'm looking at it right here in front of me!" "Precisely," says Berkeley, "esse est percipii - to be is to be perceived. Of course it exists: you perceive it."

As to the claim about the source of ideas having ideas, we are talking here about the ontological source of ideas, not merely the stimulus which excites the idea. Since the chair (which, of course, is not an ontologically fundamental entity) is unthinking, Berkeley doesn't think that the chair can actually create ideas. You could respond with the extreme rationalism of Leibniz or Plato and claim that all of our ideas are innate and the chair merely 'excites' them, but since the mind is by definition a 'thinking,' I can't possibly have an idea I've never thought of before (my 'unconscious,' if such a thing exists, is not part of my self). Any other direction one tries to take in this runs into the infamous mind-body problem, which Berkeley's solution neatly side-steps. Even if it were commonsensical that your ideas were caused by the presence of ontologically fundamental physical objects, it would nonetheless be baffling and beyond our comprehension, whereas Berkeley's solution is rather simple and straightforward.

Posted by: Kenny at June 11, 2006 12:39 AM

Also, on a Berkeleyan analysis of perception, the chair doesn't so much cause your perception of the chair, because the Berkeleyan assault against skepticism involves arguments for the claim that the chair is not something separate from your perceptions (it's not some thing in itself that needs to be distinguished from your perceptions of it) -- the very chair you perceive is the very chair that exists in reality. So the sort of causation we can allow in talking about the chair causing our perceptions of a chair is very weak -- it's occasional causation: on the occasion our having some perceptions of a chair under some circumstances, we also have other peceptions of a chair. This argument becomes much stronger if you accept the Berkeleyan critique of matter. (That said, Richard, you're in good company: Lady Mary Shepherd, one of the more perceptive critics of Berkeley and Hume in the early modern period, develops at great length the very same argument you give. Margaret Atherton has a selection of Shepherd's argument in *Women Philosophers in the Early Modern Period*.)

Kenny, have you looked at Berkeley's "New Theory of Vision"? It's an early work that starts his trend toward idealism; his analysis of vision, which is universally recognized as brilliant even by people who diverge from it, provides some support for his idealism and also for his argument that God is a better explanation than matter. (He has an odd, but surprisingly well-thought-out argument that our visual sensations exhibit the properties of a language; and so it's not merely a matter of finding a cause for our ideas, it's also a matter of finding a cause that is capable of the rich complexity visual semiotics, in which one idea is a sign of another. He also develops this argument in his later works, "Theory of Vision Vindicated" and "Alciphron".)

Posted by: Brandon at June 11, 2006 12:50 PM

Brandon, thanks for your helpful comments. Yes, I have read the "New Theory of Vision," and I think I also read the "Theory of Vision Vindicated" quite a while ago, but I haven't read "Alciphron" yet. I'm actually going to start in September working on an honors thesis tentatively entitled "The Semantics of Sense Perception in Berkeley," so I imagine I will be becoming very familiar with the "New Theory of Vision" very soon!

Posted by: Kenny at June 11, 2006 1:10 PM

Hi Kenny,

While appealing, this argument doesn't really work. It is based in, essentially, an analogy. The activities of a known mind-- 'mine'-- and a postulated unknown mind are compared. A strong comparison lends credence to that postulated mind. Unfortunately, as you yourself note, this other mind has powers you lack, and, I add, rather significant ones. That is enough to break the analogy.

Posted by: themaiden at June 12, 2006 9:42 AM

Actually, all the argument needs is a basic Occam's Razor-type principle that says we ought to postulate an entity similar to known entities, rather than a completely unknown and unlike entity. The fact that the entity needs additional characteristics is not terribly troubling, because (a) the known characteristics of the known entity are also helpful to explaining the phenomenon (which gives us reason to suppose that the entity which causes the phenomenon is similar in these ways), and (b) the postulated entity is still simpler in the Occam's razor sense than the Lockean "thing I know not what" which Berkeley is responding to (or any other account of matter with which I am familiar). As Brandon noted, the argument is much stronger in conjunction with Berkeley's critique of materialism (by 'materialism' Berkeley means the belief that matter exists in a mind-independent way at all, not, as the word is currently used, the belief that only matter and/or energy exists).

Posted by: Kenny at June 12, 2006 10:00 AM

Some novelists (and others) claim that the mind is able to construct models (characters) which are capable of a level of autonomy which enables them to surprise their author. By extension, people who hear voices may be 'suffering' from semi-autonomous constructs which have escaped their control. Indeed, the 'I' that thinks that it thinks may also be such a construct. I'm not sure if Berkley, or Kenny, can help me decide if God is a semi-autonomous construct of my mind or vise-versa, or if we are all equally constructs of the mindiverse? Oh, I suppose that is God again isn't it? God wins two one then!
Cheers, bob.

Posted by: bob Macintosh at June 19, 2006 9:43 AM

Bob, Berkeley doesn't think that the other minds exist within God as 'semi-autonomous constructs.' He thinks that we are external to God, at least in some sense. However, a (broadly Berkeleian) idealist could take the position you suggest, that is, could claim that we are all, in some sense 'figments of the imagination' and God is just sort of dreaming us up. I think that Berkeley himself would have a hard time with this position. He seems to be rather strongly committed to the idea that we minds are independent and ontologically fundamental (although I'm sure he would say that God 'sustains' us).

I find it hard to conceive how any mind could be a 'semi-autonomous construct' of another mind in the way you suggest. At any rate, it is clearly impossible for God to be a semi-autonomous construct of your mind, because God is too much greater than you for you to dream him up. I'm not making a Cartesian argument that the idea of God proves the actual existence of God because I couldn't come up with such a great idea myself; rather, what I mean to say is that, since God has powers we lack and has greater intellect than we do, we could not simulate his actions, decisions, etc., internally. There simply must be some reality external to me, because I can't keep track of all the changes that go on in the world of my perceptions myself, yet these changes remain consistent and the world behaves reasonably according to set physical laws. This cannot be any kind of construct of my mind.

Posted by: Kenny at June 19, 2006 10:02 AM

You seem to think it is quite unproblematic to start from the premise that "I exist" as long as this is not understood to correspond to a substance. But I should have thought that Descartes' most questionable unjustified assumption is that there is one persisting self that has these thoughts, rather than just that thoughts are going on.

Posted by: Marco at June 19, 2006 11:02 AM

Well, the thoughts are certainly connected through time, aren't they? That is, there seems to be a continuous stream of thought from one moment to the next, which implies the persistence of the subject. If there isn't a stream of thought, then I'm not reasoning (because I don't reason in an instant, I reason over time), and it is impossible to doubt that I am reasoning, because doubt is a type of reason. None of my experience, none of these thoughts, could possibly occur in an instant, so there is very good reason to accept the persistence of the subject over time.

Posted by: Kenny at June 19, 2006 11:25 AM

Excuse me, I�m going to try and say the same thing again a bit more carefully. I�m so used to making the distinction between thought and reality, it�s hard to change. The way I tend to reason, I set up some assumptions and apply some rules and see what happens; along the lines of - Axioms of Euclid, rules of logic, Pythagoras� Theorem. The results can be surprising to the thinker; the �Game of Life� invented on the computer is a classic example of simple and determinate beginnings leading to complex and unpredictable results. In this sense, a train of thought or a mental model is or can be autonomous. Most of my trains hit the buffers or end up going round in circles or meandering in the wilderness to no great effect, but occasionally they come back and tell me something interesting.
Now one of the models that I quite often �run� in my thoughts is a model of my good wife. It works like this:- �Now what would Isabel say if she read what I�ve written so far?� I couldn�t tell you exactly what this model consists of or how it works, and it doesn�t always get the right answer, but it often comes quite close, and it quite often comes up with things that my �real� wife has never said to me before. I assume that when a writer says that her characters don�t always do what she wants or expects, that the same sort of thing is happening.
Now, some people hear Voices � I don�t have to explain that do I? And sometimes they hear the voice of God � Jean d�Arc style. So this is a serious and difficult and not a new question for Berkley and us, to know whether this voice is one of my thoughts gone seriously awol, or is actually the voice of God. I can quite easily tell the difference between my own thoughts and my wife, although some unfortunates get confused about things like this even, but God is particularly difficult.
I have of course, a model of myself available to thought. I can run the dual model of my wife and myself conversing about this comment � she says� I won�t bore you with our imagined argument, I don�t want to give you too many ideas. So there is abstract reasoning, mathematical reasoning, personal modelling, etc going on in the world that I can notice, and all of this enters into a model of myself as �thinking�. But the really interesting question is whether this model is me complete, or whether there is more to me than that, which �I� don�t know but perhaps my �real� wife could tell you something about, she being part of the world of thought that is sustained by God?
In the end I come close to Marco�s question as to whether it is at all possible to identify an �I� apart from the metaphysical thought. There is some thinking going on, some rational and some less so; but is there a thinker, apart from a thought about thinking and thinkers amongst other thoughts, but not particularly the author of those other thoughts? Is the thought of �I� more �substantial� than the thought of a unicorn? God does not sustain the thought of unicorns it seems; but does He think of me?

Posted by: bob Macintosh at June 20, 2006 10:08 AM

Bob, Berkeley doesn't think that God 'thinks' you, because then you would be a direct object of the divine mind, and a direct object of a mind is an idea, and you can't be an idea and a mind at the same time. I believe Kant addresses in the Prolegomena the idea that perhaps God does think the thing-in-itself directly and independent of any representation in some fashion incomprehensible to us. This has to do with his argument about God being a 'bound' of human reason or some such (that is, if I understand it correctly, there is the idea that insofar as we can do metaphysics and make claims about things like the existence and nature of God, we can do so by examining the boundary of human reason, and because of this we often hit things that we can't really conceive - but I don't understand Kant very well, so maybe I haven't got that right). Berkeley doesn't think this is possible.

Now, Berkeley's point - the point I think you are questioning - is that the 'I' is not itself an idea. However - and here's an interesting thought (which Berkeley doesn't discuss as far as I know) - perhaps the 'I' supervenes on the ideas, rather than the other way around. That is, perhaps the events of thinking are the real thing, and the phenomenon of self-awareness arises from the inter-relation of these ideas. Is this the sort of thing you are getting at?

The thought of 'I' is not more substantial than the thought of anything else, because all thoughts (in the Berkeleian sense of "an idea I create by an act of will" as opposed to a perception) are probably on the same ontological level. However, the though of 'I' is a notion (in the Berkeleian sense - 'notions' take the place of 'abstract ideas' in his epistemology because he doesn't believe in abstraction; notions are not properly ideas, but combinations of ideas) which relates to something that actually exists independently of the notion. 'Unicorn' is also a notion, but the thought of some specific unicorn is a proper idea and not a notion, since it is a (hypothetical) object of perception and therefore a direct object of the mind. The 'I' is a notion made up of a bunch of relational ideas which give me some vague understanding of what 'I' am.

Posted by: Kenny at June 20, 2006 10:26 AM

Ah, thanks for explaining; a bit disappointing though.. Mind and idea just become another dualism, it seems to me - 'mind' = 'thinking thing'. the same problems will arise as with Descartes only now it's all 'internal'. Where I was wanting to go was 'I think, therefore I am, and what I am is thought.' This leaves open the possiblity elsewhere - perhaps for God - of 'I do not think, therefore love is.'
which would be nice, I think. cheers, bob

Posted by: bob Macintosh at June 21, 2006 3:33 AM

Unlike Descartes though, there doesn't seem to be the same difficulty with how mind and idea affect one another that there is about how mind and body effect one another (or do you think there is?).

Posted by: Kenny at June 21, 2006 7:18 AM

Well, that's maybe for you to say, it's not my metaphysic. You said- "I am, and what I am is a mind. I have three types of ideas (where the word 'idea' is defined to mean any direct object of a mind): thoughts, perceptions, and volitions. Thoughts are those ideas that I make up myself by acts of my will, and volitions are the acts of will. Perceptions, however, are the problem. I don't create them (because I am a thinking, and am therefore anything I am not conscious of cannot be me)." There's a slide here, or a contradiction, which suggests that there is some sort of problem. I am a mind > I am a thinking > mind is not thinking. But I don't really see why or how you get from 'there is thinking' to 'me and my ideas' as two different kinds of thing. There is thinking, ok. Thinking is ideas, notions, perceptions, volitions, ok. where did this 'mind' thing suddenly spring from? I think it's just a notion, and not a particularly useful one at this point. Does Berkley (or you) consider the quiet mind at all, that is not full of percieving, willing, etc? Cheers, bob.

I just noticed this: "...they must come from somewhere... " If anything new must come from somewhere, then there is nothing new, since it must already have been wherever it came from, and if it was ever new there, well it must have come from somewhere else - no wonder God is eternal, everything is! (but this is not a new thought...:)

Posted by: bob Macintosh at June 22, 2006 5:31 AM

Bob - yes, this is a problem that I see as well, and this is why I brought up this suggesting (not in Berkeley) that perhaps the mind is not a thing separate from the thought-events.

As far as the ideas needing to come from somewhere, if they do begin to exist we need to explain that somehow, which the matter hypothesis doesn't. If they come from an eternal God then yes, he has always had these ideas, therefore the ideas are eternal. But giving a mind as their source will solve it even if the mind is not eternal, because we know that minds do give rise to new ideas (that is, all of these ideas are 'thoughts' for God), and that is how he can be their source.

Posted by: Kenny at June 22, 2006 7:17 AM

The idea of a "chair" does not exist outside the mind of the perceiver. As far as reality is concerned, it's just a bunch of particles shaped together by natural process (to make what we perceive as "wood") and then assembled by a carpenter to create the "chair".

The source of the idea of the "chair" is your own mind, the perceiver himself.

Posted by: Kal at February 26, 2007 11:42 AM

That may be so. That is, it is quite likely that 'chair' is a human concept. However, isn't it clear that, say, 'rabbit,' is not merely a human concept? At any rate Berkeley's theory isn't about the concepts we use to carve up reality. Rather, Berkeley's claim is that even the particles making up the 'chair' do not have a mind-independent existence. Only the perceptions exist.

Posted by: Kenny at February 26, 2007 12:31 PM

"Particles", so far as the concept of particles as we understand and perceive them goes, are only a human conctruct. But that which our mind interprets as "particles" does exist. The idea of a particle is my creation. I created it to represent that which stimulates my senses and behaves as what I deem "particles". But the "thing" itself is outside of my brain.

How do I know that to be true? Well how do you know it to be false?

Posted by: Kal at February 26, 2007 1:05 PM

A pseudo-Kantian "transcendental idealism," as you seem to be suggesting, is an entirely different theory than a Berkeleian "classic idealism." Both are capable of adequately explaining the world, but Berkeley wins on Occam's Razor. In other words, either might easily be true, but, if Occam's Razor is a valid principle, then it is more reasonable to accept Berkeley's analysis.

Posted by: Kenny at February 26, 2007 1:11 PM

In my opinion, there are two ways to look at it. One way is to declare it a tie, since assuming the existence of this "mind" is equivalent to assuming the existence of the "thing" (ie. same number of assumptions). So at best Occam's Razor does not help. The second way is to say that we can at least observe the "thing", but we can't observe the "mind". So Berkley is making a bigger assumption than Kant.

Of course, Occam's Razor is more a guideline :)

Posted by: Kal at February 26, 2007 1:57 PM

Actually, if you take a stricter Kantianism, Kant's system has not only finite minds, but also God, so Kant's system has everything Berkeley has, plus an unknowable "thing-in-itself" which is apparently (but I'm not a Kant expert) independent of any mind and provides the "matter" of our perceptions (we ourselves provide the "form"). Berkeley would object that our finite minds plus God, entities that already exist in Kant's system, are perfectly capable of explaining the phenomena without positing a "thing-in-itself" so Kant's system "multiplies entities beyond necessity," which is precisely what Occam's Razor enjoins against.

Posted by: Kenny at February 26, 2007 2:04 PM

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