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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

From theism to idealism

One of the joys that come with studying philosophy is that it inevitably involves becoming acquainted with the wackiest theories about the world. Of course, this has its disadvantages: someone outside philosophy, upon taking a quick glance at whatever book or paper you are currently working on, would be bewildered to read about zombies in what purports to be a serious academic piece (I speak from experience). This does little to improve the discipline’s reputation in academia at large, let alone wider society. Oh well.

As philosophical theories go, idealism surely ranks among the wackiest. An easy way to understand idealism is to contrast it to dualism and materialism. Dualism, in its traditional form, holds that there are, at bottom, two fundamental sorts of thing, namely, mind and matter. Materialism, on the other hand, holds that there is only one fundamental sort of thing, and that is matter – minds and mental states are either identical to or constituted by material things and states. Idealists agree with materialists that there is only one fundamental sort of thing, but claim, shockingly, that this thing is mind.

Idealism is most commonly associated with the thought of George Berkeley, the notorious Early Modern bishop and proponent of 'immaterialism'. Berkeley was reacting against the standard view of his day, according to which our mental experiences are caused by mind-independent material objects. Thus, my experience of my desk is caused by my mind-independent, material desk which, importantly, exists regardless of whether or not I experience it. Conversely, Berkeley's immaterialism dictates that my desk ‘exists’ while I don’t perceive it (and no one else perceives it), but only in a very loose sense:

“Bodies (…) do exist when not perceived but this existence is not actual. When I say a [body] exists no more is meant than that if in the light I open my eyes and look that way I shall see it” (Philosophical Commentaries 293a).

M.R. Ayers (1975, p.xii) takes this to roughly mean that ‘My desk exists’ is a short and inexact way of saying that ‘my desk would exist if someone were looking at it’. Here, my desk is not some material entity existing independently of experience. Rather, its existence depends on its being experienced by us. On this view, ‘material’ objects like desks are similar to sensations like pains, which cannot meaningfully be said to exist without being experienced. Material objects, construed as independent of experience, hence do not exist.

Berkeley famously argues for immaterialism on the basis that it is impossible to conceive of an unperceived material object, say, an unperceived desk. Try all you can, Berkeley tells us, you will not be able to imagine a desk without imagining it as perceived. Interestingly, Berkeley’s immaterialism is supposed to form the basis of an argument for the existence of God. The mental stuff that we call ‘experience’ has got to come from somewhere, and there must be an explanation for its stability and rich complexity. A stable and complex system of material objects is ruled out. Hence, a supreme, benevolent mind that sustains our experiences and ensures that their stability (e.g. that I experience the table whenever I turn towards it) seems a good candidate explanatory hypothesis. Arguments from idealism to theism have been taken up in more recent times (e.g. John Foster 2008).

However, the argument that interests me for today’s purposes is, instead, an argument from theism to idealism. This argument also has its roots in Berkeley:

“How can you suppose that an all-perfect Spirit, on whose will all things absolutely and immediately depend, would need an instrument in his operations, or that he would use one if he didn’t need it? Thus, it seems to me, you have to admit that it would be incompatible with the infinite perfection of God for him to use a lifeless inactive instrument such as matter is supposed to be.” (Dialogues, 34).

Berkeley seems to be relying on a principle of parsimony, more popularly known as Ockham’s Razor, which states that ‘we should not multiply entities beyond necessity’. That is, we should no postulate a new kind of entity if it doesn’t help us to explain anything, unless there is some other reason to postulate it.

Suppose that God already exists in our worldview. Obviously, we can’t deny the existence of our experience, with all its complexity and stability. Is there any need to postulate mind-independent material objects in order to explain the existence and character of such experience? No, says Berkeley, because God’s creative activity can carry out this explanatory work, without recourse to a “lifeless, inactive instrument such as matter”. In fact, Berkeley argues, a perfect being such as God would not make use of an instrument which He didn’t need. Thus, positing matter on top of experience and God is at best unnecessary, and at worst incoherent with divine perfection.

A very natural response here is to say that the absence of material things makes God out to be a deceiver, much like Descartes’ ‘evil demon’. After all, it sure looks like there are material beings like chairs, desks and trees. Would a perfect God make the world look material when it isn’t? But Berkeley can easily respond that our belief in material beings is our fault, not God’s, for jumping to conclusions about the causes of our experiences. If we were more careful, we would correctly conclude that material beings don’t exist (in the words of a famous Bengali polymath, ‘we read the world wrong and say that it deceives us’).

This problem, I think, is an excellent opportunity for Christians to check whether we have a solid, biblically-grounded theology of creation. If we do, we will easily spot the error in Berkeley’s crucial description of matter as a needless, “lifeless, inactive instrument”. Berkeley assumes that the material world’s value, if it has any at all, would be as a tool for causing the existence and character of our experience. Not so for Scripture. Genesis has God creating the natural world and declaring it to be good, well before humans even enter the picture. The final act of the book of Job (38-41) has God poetically confront Job with his utter finitude and insignificance relative to the cosmos. Fascinatingly, in describing the wonders of the natural world, God repeatedly insists that Job, as a human, has not seen such wonders:

" Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
“Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? "Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
" Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail?

The list goes on. One cannot escape the sense that, in this passage, the natural world has a life of its own, independently of Job's experience. Certainly, idealists like John Foster are right in saying that this world is a 'world for us' (2008, see link above), but it is more than that. The natural world has value in its own right, as a divine work of art only partially perceived by us humans. This, I think, is the proper response of anyone well acquainted with Scripture's account of creation -- to say nothing of its doctrine of the incarnation, which has God literally become decidedly material flesh. If we see this, we will not be perplexed by the specter of idealism, or speechless when asked why God would create dinosaurs long before humans were around to perceive them (again, I speak from experience). Berkeley, G., & Ayers, M.R. (1975). Philosophical works. London: Dent.

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