Berkeley's Suitcase

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sciborg2

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« on: January 18, 2019, 08:08:19 pm »
Berkeley's Suitcase

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Early modern philosophy hoped to explain all bodily changes as variations of atomic motions. But even if such an explanation could be given (and that still seems as unlikely today as it did in Berkeley’s day), it would not free man from his walled citadel anymore than an Emperor walks among his people because his economic advisor explains their condition to him.

Another way to put the puzzle is this. If changes in bodies are produced at the level of atomic motion, then the bodies themselves seem to be reduced to a secondary explanatory state. Material bodies are like political bodies in this sense: we may generalize about the actions of some political party, but we recognize that the party itself is really an amalgam of many individuals, and that to generalize about them all is to say something that will not do justice to any one of them.

Locke was duly troubled. He wondered whether it is consistent with the goodness of God that He reserved for Himself the true atomic knowledge of things, and gave us only the sort of knowledge we get from our senses. Locke concludes that although “a man with microscopical eyes” might see things more truly, he would see things less usefully, for with our everyday vision we can discern things on the scale which is necessary for us to live our lives (see his Essay 2.18.12). Our creator had to choose on our behalf between the true and the useful, and He chose the second. This is not very satisfying justification for God’s activities – theodicy – for surely God Himself sees both the small and the large together; but Locke does not consider why God did not make us so as to see that way too. As we will shortly appreciate, Berkeley’s suggestion is that God created us in precisely this fashion.

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Consider first the isolation brought on by following the way of ideas. The suggestion that bodies (things that cannot be in minds) must be perceived indirectly by means of ideas (things that can be in minds) hinges on the belief that bodies cannot be in minds. Now, the reason for thinking that bodies cannot be in minds is that bodies are supposed to be of a nature incompatible with being in a mind: they are material. But if their materiality is put in doubt, there would be no reason to think that bodies cannot be in minds. And then the first sort of isolation would be unnecessary: man could directly perceive the world he inhabits.

Doubting that there are material bodies does not entail doubting that there are bodies. It is rather a question of reevaluating the status of ideas. For most early modern philosophers, ideas are intermediaries which bring us information about material things. But perhaps this is like one of those fairy tales where the messenger is really the prince in disguise; and as in the tale, once the onlookers know, they can clearly discern the princely features that had been there all along, for the ideas that were considered mere intermediaries have all the features of the bodies we always supposed they represented. All the colours and smells and sounds and tastes which early modern philosophy had banished to the mind are as common sense have always supposed they are – characteristics of the thing itself. We can therefore state Berkeley’s suggestion that ideas are bodies in the sense that a combination of shape, colour, smell, taste and so on is a cake, and another combination is an apple.

What Berkeley discovered is that doubting the existence of material bodies actually removes a great many other doubts. And so what seemed to Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke a sceptical attack, is to Berkeley merely a purgative. Of course our ideas do not point to anything beyond themselves, any more than bodies point to anything beyond themselves! Or in Philonous’ final words in Berkeley’s Three Dialogues, “the same principles which at first view lead to scepticism, pursued to a certain point, bring men back to common sense.” We find ourselves once again believing what Berkeley was so ashamed to doubt – that the world is rich with colours, odours, sounds and tastes.

Without matter, the second isolation, which is brought about by scale, can also be resolved. Bodies are made of ideas; but on Berkeley’s account, the ideas are composed of atoms. Consider what you see before you. Berkeley’s argument is that if you choose an object and narrow your vision, and then repeat this process, you will soon encounter a limit beyond which you cannot gain any more clarity. You have reached a sensory minimum. The sensory minimum is Berkeley’s atom.

Berkeley redefines the atom, then. On this view, God has given us simultaneously micro- and macroscopical eyes, insofar as perception reveals large-scale bodies, and simultaneously (though we may have to narrow our attention), their sensory minima. So his redefinition is just what Locke implicitly takes to be impossible even for a good God to create. Berkeley’s account also provides an elegant answer to the question of why atoms are indivisible. They are indivisible because they are atoms of sensation; so a limit on their divisibility is also a limit on what can be sensed by us. Another consequence of this approach is that research into atoms is likely to be restricted to those fields which study sensory phenomena, for example optics. And although ideas are composed of sensory atoms, there seems to be no reason to look to the atoms rather than to complex ideas for explanations. In other words, the truth about the body of a cat is as likely to lie at the macro- as at the micro-level of perception. This is a consequence of occupying the divine adjustable point of view Berkeley opens up to us. And so Berkeley has supplied us with the tiny, indivisible composing parts of bodies, and can also give bodies a sort of explanatory priority without following the path back to Aristotelianism.

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sciborg2

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« Reply #1 on: January 18, 2019, 08:09:16 pm »
Seems like you could get all of the advantages without Idealism here? You just embrace emergent levels of explanation and (possibly) top-down causation?
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