Does Matter Exist?

An Examination of the Ontologies of John Locke and George Berkeley

Photo by Shot by Cerqueira on Unsplash

More often than not, common sense would have one believe that the world is made up of matter. One knows this because one can simply walk up to any given object and immediately experience said object through the senses but is this actually true? 17th-century philosopher John Locke certainly thought so.

“All ideas come from sensation and reflection… First, our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, do convey into the mind, several distinct perceptions of things… wherein those objects do affect them… those we call sensible qualities, which when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external objects convey into the mind what produces… perceptions.”

-John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Locke quite clearly believes that humans form ideas through perception of material objects which exist outside of the mind. This common-sense view is actually quite nonsensical to Locke's contemporary, George Berkeley. Berkeley was, like Locke, an empiricist philosopher, he was also an Irish clergyman. Unlike Locke, however, Berkeley took empiricism to its logical extreme, essentially stating that all that exists are perceptions. This belief is an idealist ontology, which is to say that everything we perceive is only an idea, not matter which produces an idea in the mind. Berkeley did not necessarily outright reject the existence of matter but rather believed that there is no reason to believe that matter exists. One might ask how this possibly could be regarded as common sense, but Berkeley gives a convincing case for this philosophy in his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous.

It is necessary to first understand the broader context surrounding Berkeley’s philosophy and the motivation behind the promotion of these ideas. As mentioned previously, Berkeley was a clergyman in the midst of the ushering in of modern philosophy. This era of intellectualism was highly focused on the sciences and material world and Berkeley believed it was materialism that was responsible for scepticism and atheism. Thus, Berkeley sought to demonstrate the non-existence of matter to not only put an end to scepticism and atheism but to definitively put an end to philosophy. Not out of hatred for the discipline, but in favour of what he saw as common sense.

"To be is to be perceived." -George Berkeley

As stated earlier Berkeley believed that, logically speaking, we have no real reason to believe matter exists and that the only existing things are passively perceived ideas and actively perceiving spirits (i.e., minds). This is because, according to Berkeley, it is not possible to demonstrate the existence of mind-independent objects. It is important to note, however, that in saying this Berkeley did not believe all of reality to be a subjective construct but he does believe in a “real” reality. This assertion, however, raises an interesting question, for if no one is any longer perceiving any given object, does it then cease to exist? Berkeley asserted no because he believes God, in His infinite being and knowledge, is the unwavering perceiver of the entire universe that keeps everything in existence. This point makes it difficult for sceptics who accept Berkeley’s idealism to challenge the existence of God since such a being plays an essential role in the structure of reality itself. Additionally, if to be is to be perceived, then to have different perceptions of the “same” object are actually different objects. Berkeley uses a cork as an example; one perceives the cork with the naked eye differently than under a microscope. The perception under the microscope does not reveal more information about the cork, but rather reveals a different object entirely. The same goes for other forms of sensation; e.g., smell and touch. One does not discover more information about a given object, but rather reveals connections between the ideas that one receives through perception.

As can be distinctly noted, Berkeley’s ontology stands in stark contrast to Locke’s, which essentially takes the default view on the ontology of matter (viz., that it exists). One notable example is Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities. The difference between these two is that primary qualities are innate to an object and are mind-independent (e.g., extension, shape). Secondary qualities, on the other hand, are subjectively experienced and are thus dependent on the mind of an observer (e.g., colour, taste). Berkeley rejects this distinction and believes that they are too intertwined to separate and are both mind-dependent. To illustrate this point, Berkeley uses an example of a mite to challenge the supposedly primary quality of extension.

“Phil. A mite therefore must be supposed to see his own foot, and things equal or even less than it, as bodies of some considerable dimension; though at the same time they appear to you scarce discernible… Can one and the same thing be at the same time in itself of different dimensions?

Hyl. That were absurd to imagine…

Phil. Does it not therefore follow from hence likewise, that it is not really inherent to the object?”

-George Berkeley, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous

Berkeley uses this example to show that extension is not an inherent, mind-independent characteristic because, depending on perspective, any given object can appear larger or smaller relative to another. Locke’s philosophy is yet again challenged when Berkeley exploits a vulnerability; the substratum theory.

“Hyl. I do not pretend to have any proper positive idea of [substrata]. However I conclude it exists, because qualities cannot be conceived to exist without a support…

Phil. So that something distinct from, and exclusive of, extension, is supposed to be the substratum of extension… Can a thing be spread without extension? Or is not the idea of extension necessarily included in spreading?… Whatsoever therefore you suppose spread under anything, must have in itself an extension distinct from the extension of that thing under which it is spread… Consequently every corporeal substance, being the substratum of extension, must have in itself another extension by which it is qualified to be a substratum; and so on to infinity.”

This part of the dialogue shows why the substratum theory is incoherent; not only does no one have a positive idea of substance, but even then, it is illogical. Extension as a property would have to have a substantial, more foundational extension of itself ad infinitum. Berkeley also proposes another challenge to Locke’s philosophy in what he refers to as his “Master Argument.” In this argument, Berkeley asserts that it is simply impossible to even conceive an object existing outside of our minds. This is because when we have thought of this object, it already exists within our minds. It is impossible to imagine something that exists outside of our mind. This works especially well for Berkeley’s philosophy because, like Locke, he ties ideas and imagery together in the mind as opposed to separating them from abstract concepts or understandings, like Descartes with his chiliagon (1000-sided shape). The argument goes thus,

“Phil. How say you, Hylas, can you see a thing which is at the same time unseen?

Hyl. No, that were a contradiction.

Phil. Is it not as great a contradiction to talk of conceiving a thing which is unconceived?… The tree or house therefore which you think of is conceived by you… And what is conceived is surely in the mind… How then came you to say, you conceived a house or tree existing independent and out of all minds whatsoever?”

This is indeed a very thought-provoking argument and poses an interesting challenge to Locke’s materialism. Thus far, Berkeley has supposedly disproven Locke’s mind-independent primary qualities, substratum theory and even mind-independent objects as a whole. What sort of implications arise if one is to accept Berkeley’s ontology?

Locke’s ontology is relatively straightforward and is fairly easily understood. Berkeley’s ontology, however, offers a strong critique is quite solidly defended It is also, however, not without some questions that could potentially bring about some points of contention due to their metaphysical implications. Some of these problems include further ontological questions about objects as well as God’s role in the universe. For instance, if Berkeley is to have one believe that a different object is perceived with each sense, could this mean that there are infinitely many objects occupying a given space? As with the microscope example, one can always slightly change the scale of sight or focus on different parts of an object. Additionally, what of hallucinations? Berkeley states that we can tell the difference between dreams and real perceptions because real perceptions are more vivid. However if one vividly perceives an object differently (or an object that does not exist at all) due to a hallucination, does that differently perceived object exist alongside the other objects? While not necessarily implausible, this question could have odd implications.

A further question could be proposed about the aforementioned hallucinations: why do they happen? According to Locke’s materialist philosophy, they can be explained as accidents of matter, but this question is more difficult to answer with idealism. It seems that God would have to directly will a hallucination to happen, but why? Perhaps this hallucination’s effects are not immediately perceivable to finite human beings, but it somehow plays a bigger role in God’s plan for the universe. Indeed one might say the same about the philosophical conundrum of the Problem of Evil; i.e., how is it that an omnibenevolent God allows evil to exist within Creation (in this case, as it relates to natural disasters, etc.)? A materialist could answer the question thus; God created the universe as acting in accordance with physical laws and thus does not directly will evil, but allows it to exist for a greater purpose. An immaterialist, I find, would have a more difficult time answering this as it seems that since everything is an idea, these evil events would have to be directly willed by God which is irreconcilable with omnibenevolence. On one hand, an immaterialist may take the the Platonic view and present the idea that, due to our limited perspective, we simply do not know what is truly good or evil. This view, however, has some broader problems with the whole of Christian theology. On the other hand, perhaps an immaterialist would propose the same answer as the materialist but stipulate that while matter itself does not exist, the ideas we perceive do operate according to the same laws that matter does. This, however, seems to make the distinction between ideas and matter to be a bit more blurred and perhaps more arbitrary.

Berkeley’s idealist philosophy is indeed interesting and provides an interesting critique of materialism, but one could make a strong critical case against Berkeley’s metaphysics as well. It is quite clear that upon examination, some questions arise that could weaken Berkeley’s view. If anything, the comparison between these two philosophies shows the limits of what we can know with certainty and raises interesting questions about the true nature of reality. For it certainly does not seem intuitive that only ideas exist, neither can we truly confirm nor deny this empirically. Though it must be said, there is a very strong case to be made for his view.



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