Berkeley’s Master Fallacy?

I'm currently teaching Modern Philosophy, and we are reading Berkeley's Three Dialogues.  Philonous's presentation of what Gallois (1974 Phil Review) calls Berkeley's "Master Argument"  (MA) was always particularly striking to me.   The majority of my concern about the argument was along Bertrand Russell's line of resistance: there is a confusion between imagining, say, a tree independent of mind and holding that the tree, in imagination, is dependent on the mind.  So I'm not sure the argument is sound.  I still have that concern, but yesterday morning I found myself having another problem with the argument.  Maybe NonSequitur readers can help me out here, because I, now, don't even think the argument is valid.  But it can be revised.  Here goes.

Here's Philonous's presentation of the MA (edited for space):

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

Is it not as great a contradiction to talk of conceiveing  a thing which is unconceived?

Now, I've always understood the MA to be one that establishes the falsity of materialism (or non-mentalism) and the truth of idealism (as the two being mutually exclusive and exhastive options).  That is, if you show the falsity of one, you've established the other.  The MA is a demonstration that materialism is false.  But as stated, it doesn't do so validly.  Here's a formalized version:

P1) If it is possible to conceive of a sensible object w/o a mind, then it is possible that those things exist without minds. 

P2) It is not possible to concieve of a sensible object w/o a mind.

C) It is not possible that there are sensible objects without minds.

Again, most folks object to P2.  That still seems right to me.  But even if you grant P2, the argument doesn't go through, because it's a fallacious form of inference: Denying the antecedent.  That is, the form of the argument is:

P1) If P, then M

P2) not-P

C) not-M

This is craziness.  Now, I think that there are two options for Berkeley-defenders to go here.  The first is to say that C, because it's not explicitly stated, isn't the conclusion.  But Philonous certainly seems to be convinced that he's shown not-M in the follow-up with Hylas.  And in the Principles, Berkeley takes it that MP on P1 with P2 establishes the falsity of idealism:

[I]f you can but conceive it possible for … any thing like an idea, to exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it, I shall readily give up the cause. (PHK  22)

Now, this seems clear that he does think that P2 establishes certain truths, specifically, the truth of materialism and the falsity of idealism.  So I'm unsure that this first option is really a good interpretive one for Berkeley-defenders.  But it seems  plausible philosophically.

The second option is to read all those IF-clauses as ONLY IF-clauses. And so P1 should be, rather:

P1*)  I will agree that Materialism is true ONLY IF it is possible to concieve of a thing existing independently of a mind.

P2, then, works just fine to show that Materialism is false, by Modus Tollens, now.  So the other interpretive strategy is to read Berkeley's argument as needing a switch of antecedents and consequents.

This, by the way, seems even more philosophically plausible than the first option, as I think that P1* is much more plausible than P1.  Just because materialism is concievable, it doesn't mean that materialism is true (as P1 runs); but if materialism isn't even consistently conceivable, then that counts as very good evidence that it's false (as P1* runs). 

So this strategy saves the MA from the fallacy of denying the antecedent and has it with a more philosophically plausible first premise.  The only problem: you have to take it that Berkeley mixed up necessary and sufficient conditions.  When he's doing metaphysics.  That's uncharitable, to say the least.  Oh, and it also doesn't save it from the old Russell objection that P2 is just false. 

9 thoughts on “Berkeley’s Master Fallacy?”

  1. Hi Argumentics,
    Formally, it's the fallacy of denying the antecedent.  So, it's of the same type of argument as:
    P1)  If Bill is a Bachelor, Bill is a Male.
    P2) Bill is not a Bachelor
    C) Bill is not Male.
    But you can see this isn't valid, as non-bachelorhood doesn't guarantee non-malehood. Married men abound.  The problem with the Master Argument, as I see it so far, is that it is of the same type as that.

  2. Yes. Well, let's assume it is the same type and that the translation is good. Let us even assume that Mr. Philonous meant it as deductively valid, as an instantiation of some valid scheme. (Both of which might be contested, but let's not do that. I wouldn't do that). Now let's go back to the argument. We have (1) If p then q, (2) not-p, therefore (3) not-q. We know that the following state of affairs can be the case: (1) is true, (2) is true, (3) is true. As you said, (1) and (2) don't guarantee anything indeed, but they don't contradict (3). So, again, it can be the case that P1, P2 & C are all true. They can be all true when both p and q are false. When we take (1) as true and p as false, then anything follows – amongst which, the fact that q is false (hence, (3) is true).
    I'm assuming you now know where I'm going with this. Mr. Philonous is simply saying that both p and q are false: neither one can conceive something outside the mind, nor is he granting that this is so.
    [Now, to my mind, the more general point to be made here is that in natural language not every conditional is an argument (or part of an argument). Conditionals, and especially counterfactuals or other conditionals where the antecedent is problematic, are often used to introduce, not support, claims.]

  3. On the two assumptions you identify: 1. There aren't translation issues, as Berkeley wrote in English.  2. The question about deductive validity is a legitimate one, and it seems that one strategy (the second I proposed) is to take the two commitments as a form of dialectical argumentation.  One that functions more as a boast.  Perhaps on analogy with a confident atheist saying:  if you can give me a merely consistent conception of divinity, I'll become a Catholic!  But that makes it no longer an argument, and more a boast.  I'm not inclined to do that with Berkeley's core argument of the Dialogues and Principles.  Moreover, he himself (or Philonous, in the Dialogues) seems to proceed as though something's been shown, not that a boast has been made.
    You're right that it could be that P1, P2, and C are all true.  They are consistent.  But we've been mislead in calling it the Master Argument if that's all that has been shown. 
    Your broader point  that not all conditionals are parts of arguments is well-taken.  But if we apply this interpretive attitude here, this brings us more back to taking the MA to be more a dialectical or rhetorical move, and less an argumentative move. 
    But clearly part of the case against Materialism in Berkeley's work is that materialism isn't consistently formulable.  The relevance of that to showing that the view is false has got to be more in the form of what I've called P1* (that the formulability of a view is a necessary condition for its truth) than in the form of P1 (that the formulabiliity of the view is sufficient for its truth).  Again, regardless of what you think of P2 (and I agree with Russell that it's false), P1, as formulated not only makes the argument fallacious, but P1 isn't very plausible at all.

  4. In response to point one…If it is possible to conceive of a sensible object w/o a mind, then it is possible that those things exist without minds.
    What thing can conceive (think) without a mind?  Having a mind is paramount to conceiving, or at least I think so…
    Things that exist without minds, IMHO, would be everything in the universe that man has not seen, experienced, or manipulated, which is about 99.9% of the universe.
    So, if I am reading this correctly, Berkley is not trying to say that things can be thought of without minds, but rather that all things exist until we think of them, outside of our consciousness, and are simply waiting to be discovered.
    "Nothing unreal exists" may be used to support the existence of god, but I believe it is useful here to describe the non-religious meaning of Berkley's statement, which is summed up in the last sentence…Is it not as great a contradiction to talk of conceiving a thing which is unconceived?
    This sounds like a description of the human imagination and its limitless ability to "conceive" any thought, and quite effectively at times make it seem real.  Can we conceive things that do not exist, absolutely!  Can things exist that we (as a collective race) have not conceived, absolutely!
    But, here is the rub of the whole:  Can something exist without sensing it? 
    Quantum Physics has gone on to prove that things really do exist outside of our consciousness and only "appear" when we focus our mind on them.  This would suggest that Berkley's question of whether something sensible can exist without the mind is answered yes.

  5. Hi Brian,
    I think you are responding to whether P2 is true.  Again, I don't accept the case for P2, either.  But that's not the point of the post, as I'm willing to give Berkeley/Philonous the truth of P2.  The point is that even with P2, the argument is of an invalid form, negation of the antecedent.
    But I'll take the bait, and give you Berkeley's master argument back at your comment:  tell me about those things that we can't conceive.  Either you will tell me, and so they are conceived; or you can't tell me, and so you don't know what you're talking about.  And so your claim is either self-contradictory or meaningless.  (This is Philonous's claim at the end of Part I).  Berkeley's case for P2 is slippery, and it's appealing in a way. Again, I think Russell's criticism about use and mention are right, I'd rather block the master argument with P1 and the clear formal problem than by denying P2 any day.

  6. Scott,
    OK, I think I understand…You are not rejecting that Berkley may be right, but that his argument was not sound.
    As reference, I used the excellent movie What the Bleep, Down the Rabbit Hole to defend Berkley's position, and as such, I commited the reverse of "The Straw Man" as Dr. Casey introduced us to in class on Friday.  I did not tear down a bad argument, but bolstered it through my efforts to make it seem better than it was.
    But before I walk further down this path, let me ask, what was Berkley's idea of a sensable object?  One that something else can sense, or one that can sense for itself?
    If it is the first, then I see Berkley's point supported by my previous post.
    If it is the second, there are many examples of sensible objects without minds…Sunflowers that follow the sun's path accross the sky, insects, like flys and mosquitoes, that move away as you reach to slap them, venus fly traps that close to capture prey.  All of these things sense without minds.
    But, to focus directly on the argument, the whole if a then b, not a, then not b way of looking at Berkley's argument might be incorrect in that it may be an oversimplification of Berkley's argument.  The last line of your topmost quote about concieving something not yet concieved is also an oversimplification of the argument.  This whole thing is beginning to sould a lot like a pure logic difference engine way of looking at Berkley's argument.  The reason why I say this is that you take the words THE MIND and change them to Minds.  This subtle change makes your argument of Berkley's argument being fallicous invalid.
    The Mind is Berkley representing the human mind.  By changing this in the "formalized" version, you change what Berkley was trying to say.  Things do indeed exist without minds, as I showed above.  But what things can be sensed without the mind, which is to say, the human mind, as Berkley was referring to.  Can humans sense sensible objects without their minds?  No.  This is Berkley's argument, and it is a good one.  One that cannot be taken any other way, which is why I think you are having problems with his argument.  Changing the wording of an argument changes the argument.

  7. Probably a more charitble way to read the argument is in modus ponens form:

    1. If it is not possible to conceive of a sensible object w/o a mind, then it is not possible that those things exist without minds.

    2. It is not possible to conceive of a sensible object w/o a mind.

    C. Therefore, it is not possible that those things exist without minds.

    Of course, this runs into an obvious objection: why should inconceivability determine possibility?

    Ultimately, I think the most charitible reading the argument is one where immaterialism is not the conclusion. In the actual text, the argument is presented to the materialist as a challenge. The burden of proof is assumed to be on the materialist, which seems fair since Berkeley says that he is willing to give up the cause if the materialist can show that material objects are indeed conceivable. The materialist cannot show it, because every act of conception of an object entails that the object is conceived, where the challenge is to conceive an object that is not conceived. Impossible. Hence, Berkeley does not give up the cause.

  8. Hi Aaron,
    Your (1) is my P1* contraposed. So it’s not a more charitable interpretation. It’s just my second one restated.
    You say the text is on the side of your (1), but, I did quote Berkely both from the 3Dialogues and Principles, and neither is in the form of your (1) or my P1*, but rather in the form of my P1. (Check my quotes above) Now, You’re right that “in the actual text”, Berkely presents it as a boast, but again, Philonous proceeds (and Berkely in the Principles, too), like he’s shown something. It’s not just a boast, but something more substantive. (Which, by the way, your ‘more charitable interpretation’ is posited on to begin with.)

Comments are closed.