Berkeley's Argument for the Existence of God

Explain and assess the arguments that Berkeley used to demonstrate the existence of God.


The existence or non-existence of God or gods is a topic that has generated an immense amount of debate over millennia. George Berkeley’s arguments are unique and quite different than the scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas who worked from an Aristotelian base. Berkeley takes a much different approach. His entire work seems to be building to the proof of the necessity of God. To arrange this overall argument he begins with conceptions about the nature of existence. 

When we interact with something in the world we assume it to be in the world. But, the only way that we can know this is through our perception of the thing. For instance, if someone asks me if a shnuck exists, I don’t know. If they ask me if I like it, I have no idea. If they ask me what kind of shnuck I like, I have no idea. If they ask me if shnucks should or should not be eaten, I have no idea. I have never heard of such a thing and have no notion of its existence or non-existence. I have no reference, no perception, no idea.

I do have the capacity to perceive, obtain references, and get ideas. I know this because I have perceptions, references, and ideas whose existence I have an immediate and direct experience of. If someone hands me a schnuck and I see in my hand an apple, I now have a perception of it, and many references and ideas from my past experience.

I still, however, do not have proof that the apple exists in a world that is separate or outside of my idea of the apple. My perception and idea of the apple is a real experience, and I therefore know that reality exists, but only insofar as the idea is perceived by me as a perceptive entity. Thus, there is not, and can never be, proof of a reality outside of and separate from my idea of reality, separate from my mind.

This case that Berkeley makes for the nature of existence is very important for his argument in favour of the existence of God. Essentially it’s a sceptical argument against realism, especially na├»ve realism, where the proposal that the outside reality truly is an outside reality separate from our mind is based primarily on the assumption of that truth being self-evident through the quality of our perception.

This brings up a strong objection to Berkeley’s argument, imaginary things. I can imagine a dragon. I thus have an idea of a dragon. And yet I can’t go out into the world and find a dragon. Therefore the dragon only exists in my mind and not in the world of material reality. Berkeley, however, has a strong answer to this line of scepticism against his scepticism of realism. When the person goes searching for a dragon in so-called physical reality, they are actually seeking an idea of a dragon where the perception has a different quality. The thing that has this different quality, this different aspect of perception, is still an idea. This quality of the idea is the difference, and the difference of this perception is wholly contained in mind.

Having an idea, of whatever variety of quality it may be, necessitates two things: the idea and the perception of the idea. In other words, the thought and the thinker. The thing that has the ability to perceive is active, the thing perceived passive. The spirit directs the attention so that it actively guides what idea will be perceived. The mind is cause, the mental notion is affected. This is in opposition to the realist conception that there are things that happen to us. For instance, if someone threw an apple at me and it hit me, it may seem that my mental spirit was not the cause of this, rather that my perception was caused by something outside of my mind. However, I only have direct access to my perception of these ideas, and therefore it must be my spirit that is the cause of these ideas. As Berkeley’s concepts move from his more sceptical phase to these more affirmative assertions, I think this is where his beliefs start to become less tenable.

Since ideas are caused by mind spirit then an obvious question is to find out how many such spirits there are. If there is seeming incoherence in the world then it would seem reasonable to think that there are multiple spirits at work. Berkeley however argued that there is such harmony in the world that it necessitates the existence of a single God. With the proposition of a single great spirit it seems to me that the disharmonies of the world either conflict with this view by showing that there are multiple spirits at work, e.g. another spirit was the cause of the idea of the apple be thrown at and hitting me, or that the God spirit has disharmonies within itself.

Another argument in favour of Berkeley’s position of a single perceiving spirit is object permanence. To exist ideas must be perceived, and they only exist while actively perceived by mind, so when my mind isn’t perceiving the apple, it’s not an idea, and thus has no existence of any kind. This points out that there is a major stumbling block for Berkeley’s theories in determining where the content of ideas come from. Nevertheless, Berkeley makes the case that object permanence is possible because the great God mind spirit continues to perceive the ideas that we are not perceiving at the moment. This however seems to be making an argument back toward a reality separate from the individual perceiver’s mind, and thus becomes an argument for realism, a realism based on God as the creator of the external perceptible world of ideas that the personal spirit has access to.

Berkeley makes a unique, complex, and difficult to understand series of arguments starting with an immaterialist conception of perception and leading to the assertion of a single all-encompassing God. The entire series of arguments seems to generate fundamental contradictions, although the end point and the beginning could be seen as a self-reinforcing connected loop. Whether or not such conceptions are convincing must be left to the perceiving spirit of the individual thinker.

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