Monday, June 20, 2011

Berkeley's Dialogues: the problem of mind

To: Michael W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's Dialogues: the problem of mind
Date: 7 March 2003 16:09

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your e-mail of 25 February, with your first essay for the Metaphysics program, on the topic 'Berkeley's Three Dialogues: the problem of mind'.

This is a thoughtful piece of writing which raises serious issues for the key notions in Berkeley's metaphysics of 'spirit' and 'idea'.

As spirits, we are subjects of experience; we also possess the mental capacities of thought and deliberation. However, you are right to point out that these two attributes do not amount to the same thing. Some entities which we would not hesitate to call 'subjects of experience' do not have the capacity to think or deliberate. Does this imply that something can be a 'spirit' but not a 'mind'? or that the terms 'mind' and 'mental' are equivocal?

There are two possible positions that Berkeley can take, corresponding to the views about the nature of animal mentality of Descartes and Hume. According to Descartes, non-human animals have no souls. Their movements are result of inner physical mechanisms, comparable to clockwork. Hume, by contrast held it to be self evident that human beings and non-human animals of different species were at different points on a continuum, with respect to possession of an inner life.

Either position is consistent with Berkeley's metaphysics. If animals are not spirits, then they are merely part of the furniture of the world of our perception, i.e. the universe of ideas in God's mind. If animals are spirits, then just like us, animals are subjects, as well as objects of awareness. Berkeley appears to have taken the latter view, although I cannot recall the place where he actually comes out says that 'animals are spirits'. In criticizing Locke on abstract ideas, he accepts that animals have ideas: the question being whether, as Locke thought, they only differ from us in lacking the 'capacity to form general ideas'. Anything that has ideas must be a subject of experience, and hence a spirit.

Berkeley viewed the 'archetypes' existing in God's mind of the objects which we touch and see on the model of Plato's world of 'Forms' or 'Ideas'. For Plato, however, ideas are what we would term concepts, not particulars. It remains the case that Plato saw our lower-grade world of 'sights and sounds' as somehow generated from the forms, though in a less idealistic way than Berkeley. For Plato, the material and spiritual worlds remain two, not one.

It is well known that the empiricists were lax about the difference between 'concept', 'belief', 'sensation' and 'perception'. The question for us is whether this laxity fatally undermines Berkeley's version of idealism.

The question you have raised is whether Berkeley's model can accommodate the distinction between sensation and perception. What exists in God's mind are the correlates of spatio-temporal particulars, like a horse or a tree. Horses and trees are things which we perceive. I don't see it as a problem, however, that extra knowledge is required to interpret a given piece of sensory stimulation as perception of an entity of a particular kind. That the entity exists is a fact about the world of ideas/ archetypes existing in the mind of God. Whether or not in receiving a piece of sensory stimulation I am aware of what it is that my senses are registering is a contingent question which depends on my knowledge and experience, and my mental powers. Just as a human being does not see the whole of reality but only a tiny part of it from a particular point of view, so what it is that one sees from a given point of view depends on one's level of mentality. That which is there to be seen continues to exist, whether I am aware of it or not.

One note of caution, however. Although there is ample evidence that Berkeley held the full-blown theistic version of idealism, he does also talk in a way which seems to imply that what is essential to idealism is the possibility of describing experience in terms of conditional statements about experience. The latter view is more clearly recognizable as 'subjective idealism'. In that case, the problems you raise become more pressing. To say that an eagle swooped overhead is to say, in conditional terms that 'if one were to look one would see an eagle'. But some people would see an eagle and some would just see a shadow streaking across the clouds. Now it seems one has to talk in terms of what a fully knowledgeable observer would see. But how knowledgeable is fully knowledgeable? How can the existence of the eagle be an objective fact, if it depends upon the subjective state of the subject who perceives it, or indeed any number of such subjects?

A good first essay.

All the best,

Geoffrey