In this series, I will be taking a look at the epistemology of J Adam Johnson, head of maintenance at Covenant Fellowship Church and Owner/CEO at The Mars Hill House of Intellectual Discourse. Johnson is largely dependent upon the subjective idealism of George Berkeley for his epistemology, according to which all knowledge consists, not of mind-independent entities, but of bundles of percepts or sensations described by Berkeley as "ideas." This post will therefore consist primarily of a look at the epistemology and metaphysics of Berkeley himself.
Berkeley is famous for his subjectivism idealism: The position according to which reality consists only of minds and their ideas, but not matter(Downing, 2013). He refers to his critique of the view that matter exists as "materialism." It ought to be kept in mind that by "materialism" he does not mean "physicalism." That is, the view he is critiquing is not that reality consists only of matter(Downing, 2013). Rather, what he is critiquing is the view that matter exists at all. When we perceive an apparent object, what we are perceiving is merely an idea, rather than a mind-independent object, a quite radical view which put him at odds with both the rationalists and materialists of his day. He enshrined this view in the now famous Latin phrase "esse est percipi (aut percipere"("to be is to be perceived (or to perceive)"(Downing, 2013).
While subjective idealism is ordinarily associated with radical skepticism, Berkeley reverses this charge and argues that it is materialism that tends to issue in skepticism and irreligion(Downing, 2013). His reason for holding to this view is that a materialist ontology entails that our senses mislead us about the nature of reality(Downing, 2013). Furthermore, he believes that a world in which matter exists is a mechanistic world whose causality one would expect to run necessarily and smoothly apart from God's will(Downing, 2013).
To summarize his argument briefly: When we perceive ordinary objects, we are only perceiving ideas. Therefore, these ordinary objects are themselves ideas(Downing, 2013). The intuitive response against such a view, held by many of both the rationalists and empiricists of his day, is that the "ideas" by which we are made aware of ordinary objects is a kind of mediated knowledge according to which our ideas represent the mind-independent objects, enabling us to perceive them(Downing, 2013).
Berkeley rejects this response on the grounds that such correspondence requires "resemblance"; a notion he sees as incoherent. Since the mind only perceives ideas, it cannot compare its ideas with non-ideas(Downing, 2013). Therefore, we never have knowledge of non-ideas and knowledge is only ever knowledge of ideas rather than non-independent things(Downing, 2013). The notion of a non-ideal object is therefore not something that the mind can even comprehend, and to hold to it means that our senses are radically deceived or mistaken about the way the world really is(Downing, 2013). For example, the sensory qualities which we attribute to objects, such as color and sound, all purely sensory qualities(Downing, 2013). They do not inhere in the things in themselves and there is no way for us to conceive of non-sensory means of either perceiving or thinking about mind-independent objects(Downing, 2013).
The intuitive response to this is a kind of pragmatic argument(Downing, 2013). The best explanation for being able to navigate a material world is that mind-independent objects exist(Downing, 2013). It is therefore highly counterintuitive to suppose that our experience of the world is merely ideal rather than material. But this runs into the problem that we have no way of explaining how a material object impinges upon an immaterial mind; the famous problem encountered by Descartes in his dialogue with Elizabeth(Downing, 2013). They are therefore unable to provide a cogent account of the metaphysics of causation operative in mediate perception(Downing, 2013).
One of the more interesting arguments Berkeley use to attempt to prove that all of our perceptions are of ideas is the so-called relativity argument(Downing, 2013). That is, sensible qualities like color and heat are relative to the the observer or perceiver. What feels hot may feel cold to another living creature, what tastes sweet to one may taste bitter to another, what looks like it is one color may appear to be another to one who is color-blind, and so on. More radically, non-human animals perceive the world in a manner that is very different from ours(Downing, 2013). For example, snakes perceive infrared light whereas we do not. Butterflies are capable of detecting UV rays whereas humans are not.
But does this mean that the primary/second quality distinction, held to by many philosophers of Berkeley's time, ought to be utterly abolished? Berkeley thinks so(Downing, 2013).. His motivation is that such a view leads to skepticism and the aforementioned relativity arguments hold as much for primary qualities as secondary ones(Downing, 2013). He likewise martials against this position his earlier argument according to which the notion of a mind-independent entity cannot be conceived of in the abstract mind apart from antecedent perception of it(Downing, 2013). That is, we simply cannot think of such a thing stripped of its sensory qualities since the only way we can conceive of ideas is by first perceiving them through sensation(Downing, 2013).
It is important to note that in Berkeley's "idealism", "ideal" does not mean "not real." He affirms the reality of such entities, but he does not believe they are material(Downing, 2013). Instead, apparent objects are bundles of ideas imparted to us by means of sensation(Downing, 2013). For example, a banana is a bundle of percepts consisting of its color, shape, taste, and so on. This immaterial world of ordinary objects is dependent upon our minds because it consists of ideas whose existence consists in our perception of them(Downing, 2013).
Ideas are perceived by minds or "spirits." Rather than being a mind/matter dualist, therefore, he is a kind of spirit/idea dualist(Downing, 2013). God is an infinite spirit who directly produces ideas in finite spirits. Ideas are merely perceive, and minds or spirits are active(Downing, 2013).
One of the stronger objections to Berkeley's view is that, if to be is to be perceived, to not perceive something entails that it does not exist unless and until I perceive it. Thus, the bed ceases to exist when it is not in my room and it resumes its existence when I reenter. Berkeley's response to this argument is that God ordains that such things exist upon a subject's pragmatic necessity.
Yet this is hardly conducive to Berkeley's avowed project of doing away with skepticism by virtue of the commonsense view entailing that ordinary objects are radically at odds with our perception of them. Berkeley's response is that God always perceives all things and that therefore all things always exist. But is doesn't such a view make unnecessary the position that we only perceive ideas? One could just as easily argue that we only perceive God's ideas, since all ideas are dependent upon Him for their origin and continued existence, as Malebranche contends.
In any case, I believe this is where Berkeley's argument falls apart. Keeping in mind that he believes that "to be is to be perceived", this does not hold even in the case of God. To be sure, God has in eternity past had foreknowledge of the world. But this does not mean that the world existed. The world clear came into existence at a specific point in space and time(space and time themselves being creations outside of which God exists). God had "ideas" of the world before its existence, but it was not until the exercise of His will (read: desire) that they actually existed. It is certainly true that He ordains all things according to the counsel of His will, but it is not until His will and not His mind actualizes such things that they exist. God's ideas of creation are merely His blueprints, and it is only upon the execution of His counsel in spacetime according to His will that they actually exist. Thus, for God to "perceive" such "ideas" alone, though necessary, is not sufficient for their existence.
I believe biblical teaching on the origin and nature of creation in general constitutes sufficient grounds for the rejection of every element of Berkeley's idealism. First, we have established that for God to have an idea of something does not necessarily entail the thing's existence. It is not until the execution of the counsel(read: His ideas) according to His will and power that the thing comes into existence. Second, creation existed before any creatures did. When God said "let there be light"(note that regardless of God's "idea" of light, it is not until He speaks that it actually exists) there is no indication that there were any finite spirits or creatures there to perceive it. Therefore, light, and anything else God produced before the creation of spirits chronologically preceded, and is therefore not dependent upon the perception of, finite creatures. One may perhaps object that there were possibly angels there to witness God's primordial creation of the universe, but even in such a case, their perception of creation is consequent upon the creation of the universe according to the will and power of God, the execution of which, as we have seen, constitutes the sine qua non of its existence subsequent to God's having ideas of them.
Since we have seen that Berkeley cannot appeal to God's having ideas of things as upholding their continued existence in the absence of our perception of them, the only other option is that things cease to exist when our perception of them ceases. Yet this is contrary to what the Bible teaches about the relation of human perception of objects to their existence. The most commonsense approach is simply to argue that God upholds all things according to the word of His power independent of our perception of them, preserving their existence and persistence throughout space and time. Furthermore, it is clear that God's work of creating all of the heavens and the earth was completed at the time of creation(Gen. 2:1). Berkeley's position requires that hitherto undiscovered parts of creation do not exist until we discover and perceive them. But this would contradict Gen. 2:1. Therefore, his position does not hold.
"You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, since you created all things, and because of your will they existed and were created!"(Rev. 4:11)
"In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined by the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counse of His will"(Eph. 1:11).
"Our God is in the heavens, He does whatever He pleases"(Ps. 115:3, cf. Ps. 135:6).
It is possible that, in my previous article on the subject, I may have misunderstood Berkeley's understanding of the relation of perception to existence. In it, I argued that, based on Berkeley's maxim "to be is to be perceived" is unbiblical because the creation of the world existed in God's mind, and yet the world did not exist until the execution of His will of decree for the creation of the world. I believe I may have misinterpreted Berkeley here, reading him as saying "to be perceived is to be" rather than "to be is to be perceived."
That is, it is possible that as Berkeley would have it, nothing can exist unless it is perceived by some agent. If it is not perceived by at least some agent, it does not exist. However, it may not necessarily be the case that to be perceived necessarily entails that something exists. To be perceived may be a necessary condition of an object's existence, but it might not necessarily be a sufficient condition for its existence.
This is hardly exhaustive of our critique, however, and there are many other elements of Berkeley's epistemology and metaphysics, as well as Johnson's apologetics, to be examined in subsequent articles in this series.
Downing, Lisa, "George Berkeley", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/berkeley/>.