Monday, January 24, 2011

Berkeley's First Dialogue

George Berkeley’s (Pronounced Bark-lee) Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous is an incredibly frustrating read.  Not so much that he’s hard to respond to, although his arguments are very obscure, but for a few reasons. I’m going to make a post for each dialogue that will include a synopsis of the dialogue, and my criticisms of it. Berkeley’s first argument goes something like this:

P1:  Physical objects are a bundle of sensible qualities, and nothing else.

            P1 (A): If you take away all of an objects sensible qualities,
                        nothing remains.

P2:  Sensible qualities exist only in the mind.

.˙.   Physical objects exist only in the mind.

I’m sure most people probably don’t agree with this at least on first glance, but as you read it may seem progressively tougher to object to, however, I still do and I will hopefully be able to effectively explain why.

Philonous, the immaterialist (Berkeley’s mouthpiece), argues that our perceptions of the outside world come down to ideas and ideas alone. In other words, nothing can exist unless it is in a mind.  Hylas, who accepts the existence of matter, states his original position, as most people probably accept, “To exist is one thing, to be perceived is another,” though because Berkeley gets to write the argument against his position himself, Hylas concedes a lot.

For the first part of the First Dialogue, Philonous explains that hot/cold, color, taste, pain, etc. can only exist in the mind, which for the most part, I don’t have too much of a problem with, especially pain and taste.  I would say that there is no inherent action that will produce an inherent response or sensation within a human being; in other words they are perceiver or mind-dependent. For example, I may find getting stabbed with a knife painful, while someone else may find it pleasurable; two actions, two different sensations.  The same may exist for color; everyone probably perceives the spectrum a little differently.  These are what used to be referred to as secondary qualities of a thing, and most people would agree that these are perceptions, not something that is intrinsically in an object.

Hylas finally concedes to Philonous that, yes, secondary qualities can’t exist outside of a mind, but these are not relevant to the true essence of a physical body, but rather says primary qualities are that which exist outside of the mind.  Primary qualities are things like mass, height, weight, speed, etc.  These are things people have created objective measurements for so we aren’t reliant purely upon our own personal perception of these things.  If I measure a table with a ruler and hand that ruler off to you, we should both get the same answer as to the dimensions of the table.  Philonous’ response to this, however, is by stating that we can only determine these qualities by having the secondary qualities. For example, I can only distinguish a table from the wall by a combination of colors, textures, sounds, etc. and therefore primary qualities are dependent on secondary qualities, so they must equally be mind-dependent.  This leads Philonous to the conclusion that since we perceive everything immediately, and everything is mind-dependent, then therefore everything that exists is an idea, because those are things we perceive immediately.


First of all, we don’t perceive things immediately.  Light hits our eye and causes a perception. When we look at things, technically, we don’t see the thing; different wavelengths of light hit our retina and affect our optic nerves in such a way that they cause images as perception (idea).  Philonous may disagree and say a physical object couldn’t cause an idea, only a mind could, however, the way we perceive the outside world gives us every indication that this is the case. Without this being true, there is no reason for us to have eyes or brains (I realize cognitive science was not as advanced in the 18th century as it is today, but they still knew what brains were and had some understanding of what they do). Our souls, as referred to in the text, should simply be able to detect ideas incorporeally.  Why would we need mind to be trapped in a body just for us to interact with ideas?  Particles that interact with our brain act as sensory mediators between the object itself, and our perception of it, creating a working model of the world.  This is the type of thing we observe when we look at the world, and only a trickster god, (the First Dialogue is used as support for his argument for God’s existence in the Second Dialogue) much less an all-perfect god, would make it appear like this and have it not actually be that way.  I don’t think the concept of interacting with the ideas of another mind really makes sense in itself, but it makes less sense because our perception isn’t immediate.

In addition to this, saying that something is its sensible qualities and nothing else also provides a quick pathway to solipsism, which from the dialogue, it is clear Philonous is not.  From the perception of any one mind, other minds only exist in their sensible qualities (behavior).  I hear the words come out of your mouth; I see your body language express emotions and concepts, and so on.  If I go by sensible qualities alone, there is no way for me to sense the internal contents of your mind, so therefore there should be no reason to believe your behavior has any mind behind it.  To me it’s clear that Philonous commits a fallacy of special pleading by apparently arbitrarily saying that spirits (minds) and God are not sensible.

Well, that’s all I have to say about the First Dialogue right now.  If I decide to say more I will create an update, but this is all I have to say currently. I’m watching Psycho for the first time tonight then I have jury duty in the morning. Hopefully it will be a good time. Good night. :)

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