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a new sense, perhaps we would no more doubt of their existence than a blind man
doubts the existence of light and colours when he becomes able to see.
I answer first that if what you mean by ‘matter’ is only the unknown support of unknown
qualities, it doesn’t matter whether there is such a thing or not, since it no way concerns
us; and I don’t see what good it will do us to dispute about we know not what, and we
know not why.
78. But secondly, if we had a new sense it could only furnish us with new ideas or
sensations; and then we should have the same reason against their existing in an
unperceiving substance that I have already offered with relation to shape, motion, colour,
and the like. Qualities, as I have shown, are nothing but sensations or ideas, which exist 33
only in a mind perceiving them; and this is true not only of the ideas we are acquainted
with at present but likewise of all possible ideas whatsoever.
79. You will insist:
What if I have no reason to believe in the existence of matter? What if I cannot
find any use for it, or explain anything by it, or even conceive what is meant by that
word? It is still not a contradiction to say ‘Matter exists, and it is in general a
substance, or occasion of ideas’; though admittedly there may be great difficulties
in unfolding the meaning of those words, or standing by any particular account of
what they mean.
I answer that when words are used without a meaning you may put them together as you
please without danger of running into a contradiction. You may say, for example, that
‘Twice two is equal to seven’, so long as you declare that you don’t intend those words in
their usual meanings, but for marks of you know not what. And by the same reason you
may say ‘There is an inert thoughtless substance without qualities, which is the occasion of
our ideas’. We shall understand just as much by one proposition as by the other.
80. In the last place, you will say:
What if we give up the cause of material substance, and say only that matter is an
unknown something, neither substance nor quality, neither spirit nor idea, inert,
thoughtless, indivisible, immovable, unextended, existing in no place? Whatever
arguments may be brought against substance or occasion, or any other positive
notion of matter, are of no effect so long as this negative definition of ‘matter’ is
I answer that you may, if you see fit, use ‘matter’ in the same sense that other men use
‘nothing’, thus making those terms equivalent. For, after all, this is what appears to me to
be the result of that definition: when I attentively consider its parts, either all together or
one at a time, I do not find there is any kind of effect or impression made on my mind
different from what is caused by the term ‘nothing’.
81. You may reply that this definition includes something that sufficiently distinguishes it
from ‘nothing’, namely the positive, abstract idea of quiddity [= ‘being-the-kind-of-thingit-is’], entity, or existence. I admit that those who claim to be able to form abstract general
ideas do talk as if they had such an idea; they call it the most abstract and general notion
of all, while I call it the most incomprehensible. I see no reason to deny that there is a
great variety of spirits, of different orders and capacities, whose abilities are far greater
and more numerous than those the author of my being has bestowed on me. And for me to
claim, on the basis of my own few, niggardly, narrow inlets of perception, what ideas the
inexhaustible power of the supreme spirit may imprint upon them would certainly be the
utmost folly and presumption. For all I know, there may be innumerable sorts of ideas or
sensations that differ from one another, and from any that I have perceived, as much as
colours differ from sounds. But however ready I am to acknowledge how little I grasp of
the endless variety of spirits and ideas that might possibly exist, when someone claims to
have a notion of entity or existence - abstracted from spirit and idea, from perceiving and
being perceived - I suspect him of a downright inconsistency and of trifling with words.
And now we should consider the objections that may be made on religious grounds.
82. Some people think this: 34
Although the arguments for the real existence of bodies that are drawn from
reason do not amount to demonstrations, yet the Holy Scriptures are so clear
about this that they will sufficiently convince every good Christian that bodies do
really exist and are something more than mere ideas. Holy Writ relates innumerable
facts that obviously involve the reality of timber, stone, mountains, rivers, cities,
and human bodies.
I answer that any writing at all, religious or secular, which uses ‘timber’, ‘stone’ and such
words in their common meanings, or so as to have some meaning, runs no risk of having
its truth called into question by my doctrine. That all those things really exist, that there
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- Spring '13