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What if the objects around you are really just ideas and not physical matter? In this lesson, see how George Berkeley argued for this view and what motivated him to make such a claim.

Are Only Ideas Real?

When you see an object in front of you, like a tree, do you ever doubt whether it actually exists as physical matter? You might consider the objects you can see, touch, or feel to be separate from your ideas about them. From this point of view, objects exist and you use your senses to perceive them. What would you say to someone who suggests that only ideas exist? That only our ideas about objects can be said to be real? Perhaps you have some objections to this.In this lesson, we’ll look at how George Berkeley tackled this topic and why he rejected the views of many other philosophers.

Empiricism and Idealism

Some of Berkeley’s views were aligned with the main idea of empiricism, which argues that what we know comes from sense experience. However, unlike some of the other empiricists of his time, such as John Locke, Berkeley did not see a separation between a physical world and a mental world. Instead, his perspective was idealism, the view that mind-independent things do not exist.

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So you might wonder what that means. Does Berkeley think you’re hallucinating when you see a tree in front of you, one you can touch? Does he think that when you hear leaves rustling in the breeze, this comes from your imagination? Berkeley is not saying that our experiences of objects are hallucinations.He recognizes that we do experience sensations that appear to be connected to things like trees and their leaves. However, he doesn’t think the cause of those sensations is physical matter, like a material tree that’s totally separate from our minds. Instead, the tree, or other objects that we believe we are experiencing, are collections of ideas.

The Mind of God

You still might be scratching your head with confusion about how Berkeley can say that objects are just ideas. To better understand the context of his philosophy, let’s first look at the other popular theories of his time.

Scientific discoveries of the day were providing a view of a world that could exist without a supreme being, a god, as part of the plan.There were also philosophers at this point in history who were looking at sensations in our body as responses to physical matter. In many cases, this view did not require a god to be part of the equation. From this point of view, perhaps the world could operate without the existence of a god guiding it.

Still another approach of the time was to strongly question whether we know anything at all. Berkeley’s major motivations in making his claims were to incorporate God into explanations of how the world works and to confirm that there are some things we really can know about reality. Berkeley put God smack dab in the middle of the scene as a significant explanation for how the world can be explained.

According to Berkeley, it’s God that has structured our experience in a specific way. He explains that the concept of objects exists in God’s mind. When we experience the sensations of an object, like the color of a leaf for instance, we are perceiving an idea from within the mind of God. Ultimately, everything is made up of ideas and these ideas come from God.Berkeley is known well by the phrase ‘To be is to be perceived’, meaning that all that exists is our perception of things.

To help you remember his name, you might think of how Berkeley thought that even bark on a tree is a collection of ideas within the mind and not a separate object somewhere out there in the world.

Arguments for Idealism

Yet Berkeley’s idealism involved more than just an argument for belief in God. He makes an interesting case for his approach by arguing that objects do not really have qualities that we typically ascribe to them.

For instance, let’s say that you have a pot of boiling water. Heat is one quality of that water. But what about the qualities of room temperature water? If you were to put your hand in the freezer, then put your hand in water at room temperature, the water might seem to have the quality of warmth.

Then again, if you put your hand under hot water, then placed it in the warm water, the water would feel cold.Berkeley argues, as others have, that this shows qualities like temperature to be relative, even contradictory, and, in his view, not so material at all. Perceiving hot versus cold is about ideas, not an experience of a separate physical reality, he claims.He goes on to claim that the same sorts of problems come up when we look at qualities like the size of an object.

These, too, are relative to who is doing the perceiving. An object can’t be said to have any material qualities at all, separate from the mind of a person. Berkeley advocates for rejecting the view that objects in the world are made up of physical matter and qualities associated with matter.

Lesson Summary

George Berkeley was both an empiricist and an idealist. Empiricism involves the belief that what we know comes from sense experience, while idealism is the view that mind-independent things do not exist.This means that Berkeley believed there are no real material qualities of an object, that what are described as objects or physical matter are actually collections of ideas.

These ideas originate in the mind of God. To Berkeley, ‘To be is to be perceived’, meaning that all that exists is our perception of things.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve completed this lesson, you possess the knowledge necessary to:

  • Define empiricism and idealism
  • Describe George Berkeley’s ideas on empiricism and realism
  • Explain Berkley’s inclusion of God in his views

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