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The Fourth Dialogue Between Hylas & Philonous

In 1713 George Berkeley wrote Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous on the nature of reality. Roger Jennings considers how it might have continued…

Philonous: Good morrow, Hylas. It is an unexpected pleasure to find you in the garden at so early an hour.

Hylas: I came in the hope of finding you. Having returned from my travels, I am keen to renew our former discussions.

Philonous: I would be delighted to pass the time of day with you. But as for our discussions, what more is there to say? By the end of our last meeting you appeared to accept all my reasonings.

Hylas: Whilst abroad I have given them much thought, and I have come to realise their wholly tendentious nature.

Philonous: That’s duelling talk, Hylas! But very well, fire away, and we will see where our conversation leads us.

Hylas: Let me start by summarising your position as I understand it. You assert that nothing exists except perceiving spirits and perceived ideas. There are finite spirits, such as you and me and other perceiving creatures, and an infinite spirit, namely God. The ideas we perceive through our senses are not of our own choosing, and therefore must be implanted in us by God, since material substance, if it existed at all, would necessarily be incapable of generating them. We blend or combine together these sensory ideas into collections comprising objects.

Philonous: A fair summary. Proceed.

Hylas: You argue then that through our senses we perceive only ideas?

Philonous: Absolutely. In sight, for example, we perceive the ideas of light, colours and shapes.

Hylas: Then please look up at that apple tree and tell me how many visual ideas you perceive.

Philonous: Impossible. There are far too many.

Hylas: Very well. Identify just one. That large apple nearest to us, for example. Is that an idea?

Philonous: Perhaps you are trying to catch me out. You know the apple constitutes not a single idea, but a collection of ideas.

Hylas: Since neither you nor I have observed the apple before, and thus have no memories of it, does this collection we see as the apple comprise only our current visual ideas?

Philonous: In fact, the sensory ideas we presently experience are merely a subset of the virtual infinity of ideas constituting that apple that exist in the mind of God.

Hylas: Including ideas that finite spirits have never, and may never, perceive, such as those relating to its flesh, core, and pips?

Philonous: Just so.

Hylas: Including also all the changing ideas of size, shape and colour exhibited by the apple as it has grown on the tree?

Philonous: That must be the case.

Hylas: Well, does that not mean that the collection comprising the apple includes mutually incompatible appearances – different shapes and sizes, for example?

Philonous: In one of our previous conversations I explained that, strictly speaking, the collections of ideas formed by different senses and at different moments constitute different objects.

Hylas: On that same basis, every time the angle or distance of our view alters, we perceive different objects. Right now, indeed, you and I looking at that apple must perceive different objects, since our angles of view differ. And as you also said – I made a note at the time – “We do not see the same object that we feel –”

Philonous: I appreciate that the argument is complex.

Hylas: I would call it incoherent. But to return to my original request, please identify just one visual idea that you currently perceive of that apple tree.

Philonous: Any patch of colour on any one of the apples provides an example of such an idea.

Hylas: But all the apples display gradually changing colours that merge into one another, lacking clear boundaries. Where does one visual idea stop and another start?

Philonous: Perhaps we have to accept that sensory ideas can have blurred boundaries.

Hylas: Or that representing things as ‘collections of ideas perceived by the senses’ is unintelligible. Our visual awareness, surely, is not simply one of blending countless colours and shapes into objects? And more generally speaking, our continuously changing sensory experience is not divisible into separate ideas. The notes sung by the bird in that tree, for example, may change continuously in pitch, like a glissando on a violin. How many separate aural ideas do we then perceive?

Philonous: I am not sure how to answer.

Hylas: Quite. And does the collection of ideas comprising the bird – its body, not its spirit – also include the aural ideas relating to its song?

Philonous: It includes all sensory ideas connected with the bird.

Hylas: Would you dissect a duck in search of its quack?

Philonous: That would be an act of sheer madness.

Hylas: And yet you judge the sounds made by birds to be part of the birds. Presumably you also consider the tastes of an apple – the apple ceasing to exist the instant it is eaten – to be part of the apple, too?

Philonous: I can only repeat that ideas imprinted on the senses are combined together to compose objects, including things such as apples and birds.

Hylas: How then are sensory ideas allocated between different collections comprising different things? In relation to that apple tree, if I, you, a bird or any other sentient being perceives, amongst a myriad of ideas, a tiny fleck of red, should it be allocated to a collection comprising the skin of a particular apple, a particular apple, or the whole tree? Can a single idea be a member simultaneously of different collections?

Philonous: I accept that there are some difficulties here.

Hylas: Let me add to those difficulties. Are we agreed that our own bodies, including all our sensory organs, are as much collections of ideas as the apples on that tree?

Philonous: What else can they be if nothing exists but perceiving spirits and perceived ideas?

Hylas: And are ideas passive and incapable of any active force, spirits alone possessing causative power?

Philonous: Indeed.

Hylas: So our sensory organs, as collections of ideas, cannot be the means by which our spirits – or as we may also say, our minds – perceive sensory ideas?

Philonous: All such ideas are imprinted in our minds by God.

Hylas: So the reason our good friend Tuphlos has been blind from birth is therefore not some defect of his eyes – which, by this reasoning, like all eyes, are functionless collections of ideas – but that God chooses not to imprint visual ideas in his mind. Why should God be so unkind?

Philonous: You must understand Hylas, that God imprints sensory ideas in accordance with the Laws of Nature.

Hylas: But what is this Nature? Surely not some spirit whose laws God must slavishly follow? God is meant to be the Supreme Spirit and the Author of Nature! Everything he does He must choose, fully aware of its consequences.

Philonous: Perhaps things which seem bad when considered in themselves have the nature of good when considered as part of the whole system of beings.

Hylas: Would you suggest the same in respect of our poor friend Nekros, whose body became covered in pustules – which, according to you, comprise collections of ideas – and who, after much vomiting – such outpourings also, according to you, comprising collections of ideas – died a protracted death, his mind full of God-implanted ideas that he experienced as the extremes of pain and distress?

Philonous: I can provide no other answer.

Hylas: You provide words but no answer… Allow me to illustrate a further difficulty by prodding you in the collection of ideas we call your stomach with the collection of ideas we call my right forefinger.

Philonous: I wish you wouldn’t.

Hylas: I wish only to make a philosophical point.

Philonous: I wish you would do so in a less annoying way.

Hylas: Please bear with me. My point is that we clearly have contradictory wishes regarding the sensory ideas we currently perceive. We both perceive visual ideas relating to my prodding finger, and you perceive tactile ideas relating to your stomach, which excite ideas of annoyance within you – although all ideas are supposedly inactive and incapable of generating others. Do we, as immaterial spirits, have the power to imprint sensory ideas in our own or in each other’s minds?

Philonous: Remember that in a previous discussion I suggested that we have the use of powers ultimately derived from God but immediately under the direction of our own wills, to produce motions in the limbs of our bodies.

Three Dialogues
Hylas & Philonous in discussion from Berkeley’s Three Dialogues (1713)

Hylas: Does that not raise a problem? According to you, our own bodies and their component parts – including our sensory organs, limbs and vocal chords – comprise passive collections of ideas imprinted in our minds by God. Thus any intention to move our limbs or to speak can be realised only through Him. According to a philosopher you admire, God alone “maintains that intercourse between spirits whereby they are able to perceive the existence of each other.”

Philonous: Wherein lies the problem?

Hylas: An obvious problem derives from the fact that different minds want different things. Right now, certainly, you do not wish to experience all the sensory ideas associated with the prodding of my finger. My question is, why does God favour my wishes over yours?

Philonous: Perhaps it amuses Him to indulge your rather unorthodox way of making a philosophical point.

Hylas: Would you think the same if I were to seize you by the throat and commence to throttle you? When we last met, I asked if you were not aware that by making God the immediate Author of all the motions in Nature, you make him the Author of murder, sacrilege, adultery and like heinous crimes. You sought to deflect my objection by saying that the sin lies in the intention not the act, but this only heightens the problem of why God should be complicit in turning sinful intentions into realities.

Philonous: I can only repeat that God imprints sensory ideas in our minds in accordance with the Laws of Nature.

Hylas: And I can only insist that talk of ‘Laws of Nature’ that for some unknown reason God chooses to impose upon Himself is obscurantist claptrap.

Philonous: You become intemperate in your choice of words – but at least you have stopped emphasising them with a prodding finger. You criticise my immaterialist doctrine, but offer no alternative.

Hylas: An alternative exists that is neither immaterialist nor materialist. Let us start by rejecting as unintelligible the notion that the objects of sensory perception are sensory ideas, or, as some might label them, sensations, impressions, or sense data. Such words designate nothing identifiable, and their use evidences conceptual confusion.

Philonous: What then do we perceive through our senses?

Hylas: According to you, the senses are functionless collections of ideas, so nothing is perceived through them! But let that pass. In fact, through our senses we perceive all sorts of things: apples, birds, fingers, trees, forests, hills, rivers, voices, clouds, sky, shadows and reflections… Crucially, through our senses we are directly aware of, for want of a better word, stuff, some of this stuff being identifiable as discrete objects. The existence of stuff – including the stuff of which we are ourselves composed – does not depend upon its being perceived, and in fact, most stuff is never perceived. Indeed, we conduct our entire lives on the basis of that fact: we do not doubt the existence of what lies beneath the surface of things – of objects shut away in cupboards and drawers; or, indeed, of our own internal organs. Belief that stuff exists independently of its being perceived is fundamental to any coherent and intelligible view of the world we experience.

Philonous: Have you forgotten all that we previously discussed and agreed? Did we not agree that “things immediately perceived by sense exist nowhere without the mind.”

Hylas: I do remember, and I am now ashamed to have agreed with a concept so flawed. The fallacy is to confuse the thing perceived with the perceiving of it. Of course all perceptual experience occurs within the experiencing minds of the perceivers. But it is perception of what? To say that we perceive sensory ideas is to say that we perceive perceptions, which tells us nothing. Rather, sensory perception is essentially perception of stuff, or of things located in three-dimensional space. The content of sensory experience can be intelligibly described in no other terms.

Philonous: Are you trying to resurrect matter under the guise of ‘stuff’? Did we not agree that material substance – if it existed at all – would be incapable of causing thought?

Hylas: How strange for you to assert that something does not exist, and then presume to say what it would be like if it did! You told me in our second discussion that to describe matter as capable of causing thought is to play with words. Why should I be playing with words if I attribute such properties to matter, and not you when you deny such properties to something you consider non-existent?

Philonous: But is it possible for matter to cause thought?

Hylas: Not just cause but also to experience thought. Is it not evident that configurations of stuff, in the form of brains, can perceive, think and feel? Indeed, by rejecting the traditional distinctions between ‘material’ and ‘immaterial’, we may begin to make sense of the reality of which we form a part.

Philonous: You will tell me next that trees, stones and rivers are thinking beings!

Hylas: Of course not. Consciousness, as far as we are aware, is a feature only of organisms with brains – and such creatures comprise a vanishingly small fraction of all stuff.

Philonous: But do you not reduce all that we experience as perception, thought and feeling to mere processes occurring within stuff taking the form of brains?

Hylas: To envisage a causal connection between thought and brain processes is not to reduce the former to the latter. In fact, a description of one cannot be substituted for a description of the other. What I experience when I look at or eat an apple is not reducible to a description of the corresponding activity in my brain – even assuming a full description of either were possible. A description of the brain activity can say nothing about what the experience is like. So I take nothing away from the reality of experience. We must also accept that conscious states, as real features of the world, can themselves function causally – as when, for example, I took it into my head to prod you with my forefinger.

Philonous: Are you or are you not a materialist?

Hylas: I have already said that we must discard outworn and unworkable concepts. If a materialist is someone who views matter as inert stuff incapable of causing or experiencing consciousness, then I am certainly not a materialist. I endeavour simply to identify a model of reality that squares with what we experience.

Philonous: Have I not already identified such a model? By jettisoning matter, my immaterialist doctrine avoids the contradictions inherent in the supposed separate but linked existence of mind and matter.

Hylas: But what you are left with is incoherent. You claim that you exist as a spirit, that is, as a thinking substance. What is the nature of this substance? Does this mental substance exist only by virtue of perceiving ideas? Do you, I and all sentient beings exist as dimensionless and positionless chunks of this mind-stuff? And if a spirit or mind is, in the words of your favourite philosopher, “indivisible, incorporeal and unextended” then how can ideas be imprinted in it, stored within it, or generated by it?

Philonous: We can have no idea of the nature of spirits, since they are active beings and cannot be represented by passive ideas. We can, however, form a notion of ourselves through intuition, and of God through reflection and reasoning.

Hylas: When did you, a finite spirit, start to exist, and to receive your God-implanted sensory ideas?

Philonous: I assume my spirit was created by God either when I was born or at some stage inside my mother’s womb.

Hylas: Don’t you mean inside the collection of ideas comprising the womb of the dimensionless and positionless spirit constituting your mother?

Philonous: Are you being facetious?

Hylas: I make, perhaps in a flippant way, a serious point, intended to bring home to you the incoherence of your immaterialism. Would you accept however that the sensory ideas implanted in our dimensionless and positionless spirits give us the experience of living in a world of stuff and objects – including our own bodies – that appear to have both dimension and position?

Philonous: I accept these as genuine features of the world that consists of our sensory ideas.

Hylas: Moreover, our bodies deteriorate as we grow old. You, for example, complain about the increasing weakness of your bladder. According to you, such undesirable changes can arise only from changes in the sensory ideas God chooses to implant in our minds.

Philonous: I can suggest no other cause.

Hylas: What then about death? The duration and unpleasantness of the process of dying must also be determined by the succession of sensory ideas that God chooses to imprint in our spirits. But what does death involve for immaterial spirits? Even if God stops feeding sensory ideas into them – as presumably He does when they sleep – they remain capable of perceiving ideas of thought, emotion, memory and imagination. Upon death, does God merely replace the imprinting of sensory ideas relating to this world with ones relating to a Heaven or Hell?

Philonous: Such mysteries are beyond our comprehension.

Hylas: Which is to say you have no idea! In fact, invoking a Supreme Spirit to explain the involuntary nature of our sensory experience and determine which intentions are realised in the form of such experiences, leads to confusion and absurdity, as I have shown. And those who try to explain immaterialism without God, claiming that we – together, presumably, with other sentient creatures such as that bird – create our own reality, simply ignore these crucial issues and become mired in even greater confusion and absurdity.

Philonous: How do you defend your own approach against the charge of absurdity?

Hylas: Any approach to reality – including yours – can be judged by its ability to account for the facts of experience and whether it hangs together on its own terms. The existence of configurations of independent stuff in the form of brains is wholly consistent with our experience as perceiving, thinking and feeling beings. And the existence of stuff independent of its perception is the only coherent explanation of our inability to alter the stuff we perceive merely through our perception of it.

Philonous: How do you account for the diverse appearance of the same stuff to different perceivers at the same moment, or to the same perceiver at different moments?

Hylas: By distinguishing – as you fail to do – between the appearances of things and the things themselves. Differences in the appearances of things are wholly consistent with a world of independently existing stuff capable of impinging in different ways upon the senses of different perceivers – themselves comprised of complexly structured stuff. There would be a problem only if such differences in appearance didn’t occur. It is an obvious fact that our sensory experience is perspectival. It varies between perceivers depending upon their relative position, the acuity of their senses, and crucially, upon the direction and focus of their attention – without which attention much of their surroundings simply passes unnoticed. The supposed imprinting by God of sensory ideas in immaterial spirits fails to provide a credible explanation of that and other features of our perceptions. By contrast, the functioning of complexly structured brains provides a coherent explanation of such features as sleep, dreams, hallucinations, mental disorders, memory loss, and personality change. These things are inexplicable in terms of immaterial spirits conceived as “simple, undivided, active beings.”

Philonous: Do you deny the existence of minds or spirits?

Hylas: I define a mind as a cognitive system realised within a brain. In that sense, minds clearly exist. I do not, however, conceive of minds as ghosts or spirits tethered to bodies during life but free-floating after death – although many do cling to this superstition. The imaginative powers of our brains, of course, allow us to conceive of all sorts of things – including spirits and gods – and attribute to them independent existence. They exist as part of an array of concepts, and, as such, can have immense power to affect our behaviour. Many people have killed or died for their own particular god.

Philonous: Do you deny the existence of God?

Hylas: I have already demonstrated the incoherent consequences of hypothesising a God who personally determines our sensory experience and selectively realises our intentions. But more than that, I deny that any of the variously postulated gods are remotely credible.

Philonous: You appear to ally yourself with the wretched sect of Atheists! I am so disturbed by what you have said that I feel unable to continue our discussion. Let us meet again when I have had time to gather my thoughts and regain my equanimity.

Hylas: By all means. As you gather your thoughts, take heed of what your pet philosopher called the ‘delusion of words’. Ironically, he ignored his own warning, uncritically adopting the language of ideas, so becoming irrecoverably “entangled in difficulties and mistakes.” But I will leave you to your musings, and I hope, when we meet again, to be able to recall you to your senses, and to the real world. Farewell for now.

© Roger Jennings 2014

Roger Jennings is a regular participant at the Kingston Philosophy Café, London. His paper ‘Stuff and Nonsense: Berkeley and Immaterialism’ can be accessed at e-voice.org.uk/kingstonphilosophycafe – selecting ‘Our Files’ and then ‘Philosophy Cafe discussions’.

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