The Berkley Argument on God: ‘To Be is to Be Perceived’ so Shouldn't God Save Abused Children and the Assyrians?
By Abbey Mikha
‘To be is to be perceived’ is what George Berkley proposed in his famous yet uncertain argument. Bishop Berkeley was an Anglo-Irish philosopher whose main accomplishment was the development of a theory he called "immaterialism." This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead believes that these things that are familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers, and as a result cannot exist without being perceived. This may have been a truth in Berkley’s mind but my argument is that if it were true that ‘to be is to be perceived’ and that we exist because God perceives us as an idea in his super mind, then it would also be true that God is passive and does not perceive ideas which could save abused children from criminals. God is also responsible for those ideas which create the rise and fall of nations, even those early Christian nations such as the Assyrians who have worshipped him since the advent of Christianity, who are on the verge of extinction and are experiencing Genocide today.
George Berkeley tried to make sense of the Christian God of the Bible and he searched his own mind to be able to attribute the features of who he perceived to be his Creator. One of the main points in Berkleys argument on perception is that even for something to exist, that can be as simple and as complicated as an idea it must be perceived (Ariew and Watkins 139). Berkeley imagined a divine dialectic of ideas; Gods thoughts which are implanted into our psyches yet spontaneously pop up in our mind at his will. God is the writer and editor of the thoughts of human kind and all things which perceive. Berkley believed that things do not exist without some mind perceiving them; the mind which perceives humans is this super intelligence of the creator of the universe, the heavens and the earth; the one who also fashioned humans in the beginning long ago.
Ideas are manifested in our mind by this will of God. Berkeley compared God to a musician playing harmonious notes that human kind may not be able to understand (Ariew and Watkins 154). It is amazing how optimistic Berkeley is in regards to the tune God is playing. It makes one wonder if he doesn’t realize how much suffering there is in the world, and how much an Omnipotent God could do to change this. He calls the psyche of the creator the “eternal mind” (Ariew and Watkins 159) which never pauses and in which there is no questioning his everlasting continuousness.
Edward Sillem on Perception
The first main point in Edward Sillem`s argument is that Berkeley never meant for his theory on perception to be an abstract metaphysical principle (114). Berkeley, Sillem stated discovered the facts through experience (115). “The beginning of wisdom is to be found in a relish for the things which are known from actual perception and from the conscious experience of perceiving them” (Sillem 115). So, to understand perception is to seek to discover the mechanism of how we as humans perceive; one does not have to be highly educated to use this means of discovering the truth. Sillem reasoned that looking at the facts means analyzing perceived facts, and therefore also influencing our view of those facts (115). Sillem stated that the way in which we perceive things is our reality of them (116). Reality may be totally different then what we actually perceive, but what we perceive is the way we see the world, the things and the people around us.
Sillem also stated that “ideas are things which are perceived, and spiritual things are beings which perceive; it is impossible to find a material thing which perceives or a spiritual being which is perceived” (116). Here it can be argued that Berkeley himself states that we are perceived by God, so we are spiritual beings which are perceived by the Biblical God who may or may not exist. Sillem believed that Berkeleys metaphysical principle ‘to be is to be perceived’ is a statement about the ultimate actuality of things, and whether true or untrue should be decided by attention to the use of the word ‘existence’ when referring to particular things (116). The truth of Berkeleys principle Sillem believes is “incarnate within each and every concrete particular being” (119). Berkeley argues “what is perceivable but an idea? And can an idea exist without being actually perceived? (127). Berkeley believed that humans are an idea in God’s mind, and he tried to conjure the image of the unseen Biblical God who is distant from his creation.
Sillem explained that the actuality of sensible things consists in their being perceived right now by me, not by someone else (132). He continues about tables and chairs which are real for a person because he or she perceives them. However “he thought... that because things continue to exist when I am not perceiving them, and when no other human mind is perceiving them, they must be continuously perceived by some mind” (Sillem 132). That super mind is God.
Then Sillem brings up the issue of the motion of the earth which he says is “an idea of sense which exists really and independently of all human minds (133). So some other divine non-human mind is responsible for our place in the universe. No material things can exist without being perceived by an infinite spirit. “But so far as God is concerned material things exist because they are not only known by Him, but also willed by Him” (Sillem 134). Gods will is the immediate cause of all things, and because His will is omnipotent God has no need to use instrumental causes to produce any created effect“(Sillem 134). It is very evident that Berkeley was a highly idealistic person; although he admits the former about how little effort it takes for God to create an effect, he does not hold him accountable for this. In regards to the soul, Sillem stated that Berkeley believed that “the duration or continued existence of a spirit is due to the number of ideas or actions which succeed each other in that spirit’s mind” (141). It makes one wonder why then human existence is so fragile and at times can suddenly come to an end; why do bad things happen to good people?
Edward Sillems Discussion of Berkeleys Proofs for the Existence of God
Sillem goes on to discuss the proof for the existence of the Biblical God. These are important for this argument because if we are truly perceived by God then proof for his existence would be of paramount importance. One proof which we are interested in is the one where he uses the principle of immaterialism and perception.
Sillem believed that: In Berkeley`s view, it is necessary to establish the existence of God by arguing from effect to cause, showing, by an immediate inference from the beings of this world which we know from experience, that God must exist, and this in a way which is so cogent and easy for ordinary thinking people to follow that it admits of no escape or even questioning. Berkeley held that, if we know what the different beings familiar to us from experience are, we ought to be able to perceive at once and almost intuitively the absolute necessity of the divine existence. Such an ideal and convincing proof he professed to be able to provide from his forthright metaphysics of Immaterialism (144)
Berkeley said that men usually consider that all things are known by God, whereas he on the other hand instantly and unavoidably conclude the being of a God, because all reasonable things must be perceived by him (Sillem 145). A mind communicates itself to us in view of the rational universe, and Berkeley would like to conclude that this mind is God. Berkeley thought that those people who deny the existence of God should also deny the existence of other human beings and those who believe in the existence of other human beings should also believe in the existence of God (Sillem 150). The world does not owe itself to human perception; rather its existence is due to the perception of something much greater than us. Berkeley wants us to think of the universe as one galaxy ruled by the mind of one magnificent creator of things, beings, and ideas. The analysis of sensible things perceived by us, are administrated by laws so Berkeley concluded that God exists (Sillem 150). The existence of natural laws and a design shows that the whole universe is dependent on that one mind which was created by a will. One could argue that it is true that the universe is harmonious, although it may have been chaotic in the beginning of time, but there are many ways in which life could be better, especially where it concerns the relation of humans with other humans who are of different religions, cultures, and gods.
Berkeley claimed to have proven the existence of God as “a being whose spirituality, omnipresence, providence, omniscience, infinite power and goodness, are as conspicuous as the existence of sensible things, of which...there is no more reason to doubt, than of our own being” (167). This is an explanation of the unseen God whom the Bible speaks of.
“The order prevailing within the universe is proof of God’s wisdom and goodness; since those attributes of His are the sole cause of the order of the universe and of the laws of nature, and again since God wills this order for the good of mankind, He will conserve it in the future as long as He wills man to live in his present condition” (Sillem 160).
These sentiments are exactly the reason I question God; since God is so powerful he should be doing more for the meek who according to Christian tradition are supposed to inherit the earth.
A.C Grayling on Percevability
Gods mind is the Universal Library of everlasting ideas and God holds the power and the ability to produce ideas in us. This is a very significant control that God has over humanity and it can be used to manifest a lot of good on earth. “Berkeley concludes that God, the ‘Author of Nature’, is the ultimate source both of ideas and their connections” (Grayling 52). Some individuals want to explain the causes of our experiences since God has so much influence on them according to Berkeley. In the ontological argument for God’s existence Grayling considers thoughts on the non existence of God as a contradiction because “existence is a perfection and God is perfect” (87). God may be perfect but life for humans is not perfect. “However, God’s having qualitatively the same ideas I have, in fuller form perhaps, is logically independent of his causing them in me, since he could cause those ideas in me without himself having them in just that form...” (Grayling 99). God therefore has the power to stop negative things from occurring in human life without even thinking about it just by sensing what needs to be thought.
“God is affected by nothing whatever, perceives nothing by sense, and is ‘absolute and independent’...hence is not subject to the imperfections in which ‘to endure, or suffer, or feel anything by sense’ consist” (Grayling 100).” Therefore it is questionable why God would create us in a form where we cannot live his type of existence. To say that S perceives x is in part to say that there is x; if there were no x to be perceived then S cannot perceive it (Grayling 105). That would mean that when we perceive James Camerons hit movie Avatar, the characters exist on some other distant planet because we can perceive them. Of course prescribers of such a theory would hold that the former is false because there are always exceptions to the rule.
To say that there are potential ideas is “to say that God stands ready to cause those ideas of sense-to make them actual-in case any finite mind should be in a position to perceive them” (Grayling 109). Both authors Grayling and Sillem insist on this issue and I fear that they are not attempting to reflect how possibly dangerous this could be especially if the God we perceive to be good has hidden motives and intentions. Grayling states that “Pitcher... suggests that if God causes ideas in his own mind then he must be partially passive” (111). I agree with this point immensely because I see the passivity in Gods character which is evident in everyday life and it makes me wonder about his reasoning.
Gods Passiveness in Perception
Berkeley addresses the issue of existence and being perceived by explaining how we are perceived by God, so it is not wrong of me to elaborate on what I perceive of God because he is not afraid of the truth; according to Berkeley he is producing these ideas in me right now.
My argument is that if it were true that ‘to be is to be perceived’ and that we exist because God perceives us as an idea in Gods super mind, then it would also be true that God is passive and at times does not perceive ideas which could save abused children from criminals; God is also responsible for those ideas which create the rise and fall of nations, even those early Christian nations who have worshipped him since the advent of Christianity; such as the Assyrians, who are on the verge of extinction today. So it would be true that the omnipotent Christian God which Berkeley has reasoned exists, who is the ultimate perceiver and creator of ideas, has the power to help the helpless, yet sometimes does not; this is evident in life and unlike Berkeley who is highly idealistic and sees the world for its beauty, I see it for what it is. Therefore, if God is Omnipotent as Berkeley perceives, and he perceives us, it does not equal to that God is all loving since he a being of Superpower is not always there for the powerless.
An example of God’s passiveness in perception is evident from all the suffering in the world. Does an omnipotent God exist? This is a legitimate question that should be explored because if he does exist he should always be there for his creation because he can be. I may be expecting of God to keep a full time job since he has the power to do so; although the universe is ordered, we must expect more of the One who holds the keys to everything. Just because one can perceive that God is orderly, as evidenced by the universe and nature, does not naturally follow that he is also completely good. Sensitive questions such as why God allows young children to be abused should be explored. Grayling and Edwards both mentioned that God has the power to create ideas in any human mind without even thinking about it. How about transporting and insisting on the idea of that a criminal should stop their bad actions? Should not the most powerful God who is good help abused children who have been left in the hands of criminals? Since God can bring about ideas in human beings, should he not bring about the idea to the criminal that a child is an innocent being and should not be abused by anyone? It is not uncommon for children under the age of one to be abused in this world and we hear of these atrocities in the news all the time. Where is God at the time when such things are occurring?
Another example of the passive perception of God is evident among the first ancient nation to convert to Christianity, the Assyrians who today are on the verge of extinction and are experiencing Genocide. Why has God turned his back on this nation which has been so loyal to him throughout the years and has suffered so much persecution because of their faith in this God? Berkeley believed this God to be the ultimate perceiver so why are the first of his followers, who for centuries have worshipped him, experiencing ethnic cleansing and Genocide today?
Some people may argue that we exist although we are not perceived by a God who has turned his back on humans; we are alive though we are not perceived. If it were true that the Biblical Christian God exists and he is good then he would not betray his people, but when searching the world it seems that the followers of this God are amongst those in the world who are suffering, although they devotedly follow him.
Some people may argue that we live and die at the will of God, and if we receive his blessing we exist, if we have lost his favour, or it is time for us to leave the earth we lose our life. That may be true, but it still does not explain why the first followers of the Christian God have become a nation who has literally been crucified by the world, through the denied genocide which was perpetuated against Assyrians at the hands of the Kurds and Ottoman Turks, and the atrocities that are occurring in the land between two rivers, modern day Iraq and Syria today.
I am sure that many people would say these types of arguments are based on emotion, but it is these types of thoughts which when investigated further will lead the human race to understand why we exist, who created us, and for what purpose. If God has done many great things, such as create the universe, he must also be held responsible for the many negative things which have occurred in the history of the human race.
There is blood on the hands of God and tears of children and cries of nations. God should be held responsible more than he is by Berkeley. It seems that Berkeley is so appreciative of his existence that he does not consider the pain which is involved in human life. Some people may also argue that the devil is responsible for these things and that God only works through miracles. This is illogical because the omnipotent God Berkeley argues for could do anything conveniently perceiving it.
Thoughts on Perception
Even if the devil is the cause of evil in the world God should fight and defeat this evil since he is more powerful than him. The Christian God is described as benevolent, so if this is true we should see the evidence in everyday life and not just by miracles for various people rather for all good people of various nations, cultures, and religions. Even if God the ultimate perceiver and producer of ideas is doing his best to let us know that he is there and that he exists that is not enough since God is omnipotent he must be there for those who suffer upon the earth. If the Biblical Christian God of Berkeley exists and he is omnipotent he has truly betrayed many people, including abused children and the early Christian nations like the Assyrians. By passively observing them God has taken part in their suffering.
One must note that the all loving Jesus that is described in the bible is very different from the God that Berkley is telling us can do anything by perceiving yet unresponsively observes human beings without interference. Jesus gave his own life for his people!
Ariew, Roger, and Watkins Eric. Readings in Modern Philosophy Volume II Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Associated Texts. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.
Betbasoo, Peter. “Brief History of the Assyrians.” Aina Magazine. March 15, 2010. 6th paragraph. http://www.aina.org/aol/peter/brief.htm
Grayling A. C. Berkeley: The Central Arguments. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1986.
Sillem Edward. George Berkeley And The Proofs For The Existence Of God. New York: Longmans, Green and Co, 1957.
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