George Berkeley (1685-1753) was the Anglican Dean of Derry (1724), bishop of Cloyne (1734) and an important philosopher belonging to the school of idealism. Born in Ireland, Berkeley moved to Oxford in 1752 and became one of the so-called British empiricists.
Berkeley believed that the material world exists as an idea created in our minds, ultimately by God. In his New theory of Vision (1709), he argued that our sense of distance isn’t directly perceived but inferred from the repeated association of visual and tactile cues. All of existence, itself, is a group of interacting minds, connecting with archetypes, which themselves derive from God.
He uttered the famous line, perhaps adapted from Shakespeare,
To be is to be perceived or a perceiver.
This means that existence is either a mind or stimuli in a mind.
One way that Berkeley tried to support his view was to note that the idea of heat – what the philosopher John Locke called a “secondary quality” – is somewhat relative. If one of our hands is cold and the other hot, and we place them into warm water, the one hand feels hot and the other cold. Anyone can do this little experiment and see that it’s true. However, Berkeley added that Locke’s so-called “primary qualities” (e.g. shape, quantity) were also dependent on a perceiving mind. Berkeley, in fact, challenged the entire distinction between primary and secondary qualities, as elaborated upon at Wikipedia:
Berkeley maintains that the ideas created by sensations are all that people can know for sure. As a result, what is perceived as real consists only of ideas in the mind. The crux of his argument is that once an object is stripped of all its secondary qualities, it becomes very problematic to assign any acceptable meaning to the idea that there is some object. Not that we can’t picture to ourselves (in our minds) that some object exists apart from any perceiver—we clearly think we can do this—but rather, can we give any content to this idea in any particular case?¹
A slightly different take on the belief that the material world doesn’t exist independent of the mind has been popularized in many books reporting recent discoveries in sub-atomic physics, such as Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters and Fritzoff Capra’s The Turning Point.
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Deism is the belief, as exemplified by John Locke, in the reasonableness of Christianity. This belief arose in defense of the idea of God in the face of Newtonian physics.
Deism believes in a creator God while also accepting the importance of natural laws and dismissing the need for organized religion. Also, Deism downplays the element of the miraculous and the idea of divine intervention through grace and spiritual powers within God’s orderly creation.
The theological term “Deist” (a believer in God but not in institutionalized religion) emerged in 17th and 18th century England and France, and is also known as ‘natural religion.’ Most consider the writer Voltaire to be a Deist. And he encyclopedist Diderot characteristically said a Deist is someone who has not lived long enough to become an atheist.
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John Locke (1632-1704) was a British philosopher who had a profound influence on the school of empiricism.
Locke believed the human infant enters the world with a tabula rasa (i.e. a blank slate). Accordingly, we inherit nothing more than physical characteristics and a basic sense of goodness. This makes the mind free and equal among different individuals.
Although this may seem somewhat speculative today, Locke, himself, argued against abstract speculation in favor of recognizing the limits of knowledge through direct experience.
For Locke, we can only know about an object’s “primary qualities” of size, shape and motion. These qualities exist independently of perception. We can never know anything about an object’s “secondary qualities” of color, taste, smell, warmth, texture and sound because these are products of the object’s interaction with our senses–i.e. qualities that don’t inhere to the object itself.
Locke’s pragmatism didn’t close him off to the possibility of God’s existence. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) he argued for the “reasonableness” of the idea of God.
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