Berkeley, Cohen & Materialism

I am a fan of Chapman Cohen, who about a century ago was a writer for Freethinker magazine and president of its parent organization in Great Britain, the National Secular Society. I have his Essays in Freethinking, Volume Two. I am not always in agreement with him, but his perspective is usually interesting.

His essay, The Ghost of Religion, is of particular interest — although in my opinion largely mistaken.To quote from the above-named book, p. 176-177

Berkeley did not deny the existence of matter. Nothing but ignorance of his meaning and of the history of philosophical speculation could be responsible for a statement of that kind. I admit that the opinion is very common, common from the time that the bombastic Sanuel Johnson imagined he disproved Berkeley by kicking a stone. All the same, Berkeley affirmed the existence of “matter” as clearly and as strongly as the most thorough-going Materialist.

….He affirms its existence over and over again in language as clear and as definite as it is possible to use. He says, if you mean by matter that which can be measured, weighed, tasted, touched, seen or smelled, then I say that matter exists, and exists because it is perceived. He says, I firmly believe in matter in this sense, and in so doing I agree with the vulgar — that is, with the ordinary man and not with those philosophers who argue that apart from the things we know, and which to us constitute matter, there is something else which we do not know, but only infer. And he asks what is that matter which cannot be apprehended by any of the senses? It is the very kernel of his reasoning that matter exists exactly as we see it, and in no other way. He did not question the testimony of the senses, he relied upon their absolute authority. He affirmed “matter” in what he took to be the only intelligible sense of the word, as connoting a synthesis of things perceived. When he was told that the matter we know through our senses was not the real matter, which was something unseen, unfelt, unsmellable and unweighable, he asked, How do you know? and what is the use of this matter which is unknown to the senses? In the second of his three dialogues, he asks his opponent whether this kind of “matter” does not really answer to “nothing,” since it exists only after an abstraction of all possible and knowable qualities? When, he says, you tell me the table exists, that it has colour, and shape and weight and form, I agree, and assert that this is the real table. What I deny is that apart from the table I know there is another table about which I know nothing, and can know nothing, but which you assert is the real one. To me that is a figment of the imagination.

What Berkeley was giving the world was a new analysis, and a new conception of matter. What he denied was the metaphysical “matter” which others had claimed underlay the world of phenomena….

Berkeley denied the existence of any underlying, unknown “matter,” because when he had abstracted from any object all that was due to sensation and its derivatives, what was left was nothing.

Cohen is in complete agreement with Berkeley to this point, and even castigates another atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, for not being a naive materialist. But before explaining why Cohen is wrong, let’s first take a quick look at where he and Berkeley part company.

As we have seen, Berkeley defined matter as being exactly equal to our empirical perceptions of it. Whatever properties we detect of the table in front of us, that is exactly what the table it. Its shape, its color, its hardness — everything we perceive about the table is what the table is. Take away all our senses perceive about the table and, according to Berkeley, nothing existing remains. To put it crudely, evidence = existence if by evidence we mean whatever our mind perceives.

In other words, for Berkeley, if you take away our perceptions of the table, nothing remains. But this creates a problem. How does the table continue to exist if no one is in the room to perceive it? If the table’s “material” is our sensual perceptions of it and nothing else, then when we walk out of the room and the table is no longer perceived by anyone, it must cease to exist!

Perhaps that is not a problem. When we walk back into the room and begin to perceive the table again, suddenly it pops into existence again. But why is it the same — why is there an apparent continuity of its properties between when it ceased to exist after we left the room to when it now begins to exist again after our return? Makes one think that maybe the table does not equal its perceived properties after all.

But Bishop Berkeley had a different solution to this dilemma in mind. The table doesn’t cease to exist when we leave the room because even after we are gone, God still remains and perceives the table. God provides the continuity. Material objects don’t have to pop in and out of existence when we stop looking because God never stops looking.

When we understand Berkeley’s meaning, we realize that he denies the existence of a “real” material world outside of our (or God’s) thoughts and perceptions.

Berkeley realized — correctly — that our experiences, that is, our sensual perceptions of light, color, sound, etc, are mental — their realm of existence is in our mind — and God’s mind. Cohen agrees with this, striking the God part.

But this naive materialism simply won’t stand up to what we know about how sensual perception actually works. Unlike Berkeley, Cohen mistakenly believes that the sensual “properties” we perceive actually belong to the material things outside of us. That redness, for example, exists outside of our mind’s experiences (that is to say, Cohen mistakenly assumes that redness is a “thing” and not a mental experience of some sort.)

But scientists know that photons don’t have color. And that there is no “color property” that the sensor cells on our cornea are capable of detecting. They detect not color or hue or saturation, but photons. From the patterns (spatial and temporal) in which photons are detected by the cells on our cornea, our mind creates experiences of hue, saturation, brightness, contrast, etc., properties which do not belong to photons at all, but certainly are “about” those photons our cornea detected. In short physiologically there is no way our experiences can be of the same nature as the things outside of us which those experiences are “about”.

What is paradoxical about Cohen’s essay is that he castigates Bradlaugh for clinging to the “ghost of religion” because Bradlaugh rejects naive materialism. Cohen prefers to deny that anything unknowable or undetectable can exist, because he knows that religion is ultimately about worshipping the unknowable or undetectable. Cohen embraces Berkeley’s formula that matter = sense perceptions precisely because he doesn’t want to admit that anything mysterious and ineffiable exists, for that whiffs of religion in his mind.

But since it is impossible for sense perceptions and “properties” to exist outside of our minds (the simulacrums created by our minds), Cohen gets pushed (though he doesn’t realize it) into the conclusion that all existence is mental, and that what he calls matter is mental as well.

That view fails scientifically for it leaves nothing for photons to “be” outside of us. And of course, as Berkeley saw, his position necessitated some permanent, all-pervading mind which keeps things in existence when we’re not looking. As an atheist, Cohen needs a different solution to this problem, and he apparently doesn’t realize it.

The unavoidable conclusion, I believe, is that stuff really does exist outside of our minds — and outside of God’s mind, if there is a God. There is a “real” world. (Not to say that our perceptions, feelings and thoughts aren’t “real”, but they are real in a way that is distinctly “other” than the world outside.) And this “real” world is inevitably unknowable to us. It is impossible to perceive its nature, because its nature is not sense perception, not — that is to say — any sort of human experience.

But if the material world is ultimately unknowable and imperceptible, doesn’t that open the door to religion?

Yes, I think so.

And it may also open the door to God — if by God we mean something unknowable and imperceptible and completely “other” than mental or spiritual* in nature.

But if so, it is a bodily and not a spiritual God. In fact “God” is a confusing term to imbue with this sort of meaning, since by conventional use the term “God” refers to a spiritual being of some kind, and what we have in mind must be characterized as an unknowable material being.

It also potentially opens the door to God in a different way. If an ultimately unknowable material world is admitted to exist, then why not an ultimately unknowable spiritual existence? Like, say, a supernatural deity.

But there is a solid basis for inferring the existence of unknowable matter. Is there a solid basis for inferring a spiritual God? Berkeley’s won’t do.

* I use “spiritual” here in its usual sense of referring to aspects of our personal experiences and feelings and not in the sense of referring to the material or “real” world outside of our minds.

This entry was posted in Articles Highlighted, Freethinkers, Naturalism. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply