Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge

20 in short if there were external bodies we could

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Unformatted text preview: tenable either. The materialists admit that they cannot understand how body can act upon spirit, or how it is possible for a body to imprint any idea in a mind; and that is tantamount to admitting that they don’t know how our ideas are produced. So the production of ideas or sensations in our minds can’t be a reason for supposing the existence of matter or corporeal substances, because it admittedly remains a mystery with or without that supposition. So even if it were possible for bodies to exist outside the mind, the belief that they actually do so must be a very shaky one; since it involves supposing, without any reason at all, that God has created countless things that are entirely useless and serve no purpose. 20. In short, if there were external bodies, we could not possibly come to know this; and if there were not, we might have the very same reasons to think there were that we have now. No-one can deny the following to be possible: A thinking being might, without the help of external bodies, be affected with the same series of sensations or ideas that you have, imprinted in the same order and with similar vividness in his mind. If that happened, would not that thinking being have all the reason to believe ‘There are corporeal substances that are represented by my ideas and cause them in my mind’ that you can possibly have for believing the same thing? Of course he would; and that consideration is enough, all on its own, to make any reasonable person suspect the strength of whatever arguments he may think he has for the existence of bodies outside the mind. 21. If, even after what has been said, more arguments were needed against the existence of matter, I could cite many errors and difficulties (not to mention impieties) that have sprung from that doctrine. It has led to countless controversies and disputes in philosophy, and many even more important ones in religion. But I shan’t go into the details of them here, because I think arguments about ·materialism’s· bad consequences are unnecessary for confirming what has, I think, been well enough proved a priori regarding its intrinsic defects, and the lack of good reasons to support it. [The word ‘materialism’ does not occur in the Principles. It is used in this version, in editorial interventions, with the meaning that Berkeley gives it elsewhere, namely as naming the doctrine that there is such a thing as mind-independent matter, not restricting it to the view that there is nothing but matter.] 22. I am afraid I have given you cause to think me needlessly long-winded in handling this subject. For what is the point of hammering away at something that can be proved in a line or two, convincing anyone who is capable of the least reflection? Look into your own thoughts, and try to conceive it possible for a sound or shape or motion or colour to exist outside the mind, or unperceived. Can you do it? This simple thought-experiment may make you see that what you have been defending is a downright contradiction. I am willing to stake my whole position on this: if you can so much as conceive it possible for 17 one extended movable substance - or in general for any one idea or anything like an idea to exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it, I shall cheerfully give up my opposition to matter; and as for all that great apparatus of external bodies that you argue for, I shall admit its existence, even though you cannot either give me any reason why you believe it exists, or assign any use to it when it is supposed to exist. I repeat: the bare possibility of your being right will count as an argument that you are right. 23. ‘But’, you say, ‘surely there is nothing easier than to imagine trees in a park, for instance, or books in a closet, with nobody there to perceive them.’ I reply that this is indeed easy to imagine; but let us look into what happens when you imagine it. You form in your mind certain ideas that you call ‘books’ and ‘trees’, and at the same time you omit to form the idea of anyone who might perceive them. But while you are doing this, you perceive or think of them! So your thought- experiment misses the point; it shows only that you have the power of imagining or forming ideas in your mind; but it does not show that you can conceive it possible for the objects of your thought to exist outside the mind. To show that, you would have to conceive them existing unconceived or unthought-of, which is an obvious contradiction. However hard we try to conceive the existence of external bodies, all we achieve is to contemplate our own ideas. The mind is misled into thinking that it can and does conceive bodies existing outside the mind or unthought-of because it pays no attention to itself, and so does not notice that it contains or thinks of the things that it conceives. Think about it a little and you will see that what I am saying is plainly true; there is really no need for any of the other disproofs of the existence of material substance. 24. It takes very little enquiry into our own thoughts to know for sure whether we c...
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