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Explain Berkeleys Master Argument Philosophy Essay

In order to adequately explain Berkeleys master argument, it is important to assess it from two distinct perspectives: plausibility and persuasiveness. First, I will look at the persuasiveness of Berkeley’s ‘Master Argument’ (MA), predicated on the acceptance of his logic, and, subsequently, I will look at the plausibility of his argument, based on an assessment of the logic that it is grounded in. Through these two points I will be arguing that whilst Berkeley’s MA is persuasive on the face, it is implausible in of itself; making it inadequate to justify his broader argument.

On the construction of Berkeley’s MA, I intend so show that the argument, in of itself, is incredibly persuasive. And further, that it provides simple reasoning in support of its claims and demonstrates an awareness of objections to its conception.

Berkeley begins by establishing that for mind independent objects to necessarily exist, then we must be aware of this, either through our senses, or are able to deduce them through reason; a fair hypothesis. He elaborates by stating that we cannot know of the mind independence of objects through our sense, as our senses are based on our sensations, which are ideas. Thus, sensation alone is insufficient proof of mind independence. From there, he argues that if we know of the mind independence of objects, it must necessarily be through reason; then disputing that argument based on two grounds. First, he disputes the notion of reason being able to demonstrate that our sensory perception is mind independent. He does this by proffering the fact that hallucinations and dreams give us ideas that do not correspond with mind independent objects, or rather, that it is possible for our ideas to exist without a mind independent corresponding body. And further, he goes on to state that regardless of their existence, we have the same reason for believing that they do exist without a mind independent body. Thus, it is not possible to prove that mind independent objects exist.

Illusions present a problem to Berkeley’s argument, requiring the ability to correctly perceive reality. However, in order to answer this with Berkeley’s argument, it is necessary to accept that ideas, not objects, are what cause our sensations. And thus, an idea that is perceived as the result of an illusion, such as a mirage on the desert, actually exists as much as ideas of objects of reality. So, upon reaching the point where the mirage was visible, and realising that it does not exist, the true object, the desert, will be wholly manifest. This waterless desert is still, however, just as much of an object as the mirage; they are both ideas when they are perceived.

Berkeley’s scepticism is well argued, making a justifiable case that the existence of mind independent objects cannot be proven, through senses or reason; and, by doing so, providing a substantive position from which to support his argument that they do not. However, on the matter of its plausibility, logically, it will be necessary to further explore in order to judge.

In this section, I intend to put forth a justification on the implausibility of Berkeley’s argument. Berkeley, with Philonous as his mouthpiece, laid out his MA as follows:

"… I am content to put the whole upon this issue. If you can conceive it possible for any mixture or combination of qualities, or any sensible object whatsoever, to exist without the mind, then I will grant it actually to be so"

Given that Berkeley’s MA establishes that materialism is false, and, by extension, that idealism must be correct, it is important to look at how this conclusion is reached. He predicates it on the logic that the two are mutually exclusive, and thus the falsity of one establishes the truth of the other. However, I do not think it does so validly, and remain unconvinced on his logic. He constructs his arguments as so:

P1. If it is possible to conceive of a mind independent object, then it is possible that mind independent objects exist

P2. It is not possible to conceive of a mind independent object

C. It is not possible that there are mind independent objects

This establishes, by argumentum ad absurdum, that there can be no mind independent objects. However, even if P2 is granted as being correct, the argument is invalid because of the fallacious nature of the inferences. Berkeley is denying the antecedent, or rather:

P1. If A, then B

P2. Not A

C. Not B

To continue to support Berkeley’s argument requires a leap of faith; it is not logically proven. However, proponents of Berkeley would, from here, argue one of two things. The first being, to simply say that Berkeley never intended C. Philonous, though, certainly acts as if he has demonstrated ‘Not B’, in his discussions with Hylas. Further, in the Principles, Berkeley takes it that AB on P1 with P2 is proof of the falsity of idealism, or rather:

“If you can but conceive it possible for one extended moveable substance, or, in general, for any one idea, or anything like an idea, to exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it, I shall readily give up the cause.”

From this it becomes self-apparent that Berkeley believes that P2 is responsible for the establishment of certain truths, more specifically, the falsity of idealism by extension of the truth of materialism. Evidently, this is not a good option in support of Berkeley; albeit a plausible option. The second response, and the response I support as most plausible, is that the ‘if’ clauses in P1 and P2 be read as ‘only if’ clauses. Thus Berkeley would really be saying that he will accept materialism is true ‘only if’ it is also possible to conceive of a mind independent object. Predicated upon this, and by Modus Tollens, P2 demonstrates the fallaciousness of Materialism. This, then, is even more plausible than the first response. Materialism being conceivable doesn’t necessitate its truth, but if it is not even conceivable, than it grossly substantiates it as false; in doing so the MA would no longer be based on a denial of the antecedent. However, to do this it is necessary to accept that Berkeley confused sufficient and necessary conditions, while writing on the subject of metaphysics.

Consequently, I remain unconvinced on the plausibility of Berkeley’s MA; for, in of itself, the logic is fallacious through denial of the antecedent. Further, to rectify this necessitates either an acceptance of the responsibility of P2, or amendment of sufficient and necessary conditions. Such an amendment, would then, by Modus Tollens, demonstrate that Materialism is false. This to me, however, serves as more of a boast, something that seems inappropriate for the importance of his MA. It would be analogical to me saying “I will become a Muslim, if you can but show me a consistent idea of divinity.” Rather than being demonstrative of anything substantive.

Whilst I am easily persuaded on the apparent simplicity of Berkeley’s argument, it becomes clear, on further inspection, that his MA (As laid out in the Dialogues) does not provide a logical basis for the reasoning he tries to draw from it. As such, I cannot accept the plausibility of the MA, and am forced to reconsider the persuasiveness of it. Thus I conclude, that whilst well executed and supported, the MA, in of itself, is insufficient to justify Berkeley’s claims; requiring further evidence and logic to be properly substantiated.


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