Monday, December 1, 2008

Matter and Sense - By Philip Kreyche

Philip Kreyche
Dr. R. Moses

Matter and Sense: Berkeley vs Rand

Perception is a tricky thing. All are born differently, their minds, brains, eyes, all their organs which sense, develop in different ways depending on environment, culture, upbringing. Many things are held to be "in the eye of the beholder," and this phrase tends to be in reference to tastes, like aesthetics. People's understandings of aesthetics and values lead them to develop whole worldviews which always differ from one another, and these worldviews get passed on to others and over time these worldviews become cultures. Cultures, in turn, influence other worldviews, and so it goes on and on. Many can agree that the perception of value is an entirely subjective thing. They can agree that their tastes are all in their mind, but think still that there are definitive qualities and things that objectively exist outside of their minds, and that it is those qualities which they perceive and judge.

However, in the 17th and 18th centuries, a philosophical movement began that challenged even this basic idea that one can know whether something exists outside of their own mind. This movement was called Empiricism, and from this movement came George Berkeley, who claimed that a man cannot truly know whether something exists outside of his own mind's perception of that thing via the senses. I shall outline his philosophy, and subsequently present the contrary position of Ayn Rand, whose Objectivism puts its foot definitively down regarding the existance of things outside the senses. I shall also call into question a dilemma of ethical importance, and assume the position of either philosopher and argue their perceived positions, followed by a summary of my own position and which philosopher I would be most inclined to agree with.

We shall consider here the construct which will serve as the primary subject of the arguments: Matter. Matter, as defined by Merriam-Webster's dictionary, is a "material substance that occupies space, has mass, ... that constitutes the observable universe, and is interconvertible with energy" (Merriam-Webster, "Matter"). What exists within the universe can be said to be matter: I am matter, you are matter, trees, water, planets, are all made of some sort of matter. And what is made of matter is, as the dictionary says, "observable," that is, able to be perceived via a sense of some sort.

Empiricism is founded on the position that "[w]e have no source of knowledge in S or for the concepts we use in S other than sense experience" (Markie). This means that one cannot know anything that they have not experienced through their senses. One cannot know what a leaf truly looks like unless they have seen it, cannot know what it smells like until they have smelled it, etc. This position is held in opposition to the position that one can gain knowledge from reason alone, which the Rationalists like Decartes and Spinoza held (Markie).

George Berkeley, however, took Empiricism and the concept of Sense as the ultimate authority on reality to the nth degree: his position was not only that the mind and senses are the only ways of knowing anything about matter, but that matter necessarily does not even exist outside of its being perceived (Pereboom). The formalization of this concept was in his phrase esse est percipi, that is, "to be is to be perceived."

In his "Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge," Berkeley outlines a number a things that men commonly assume to exist outside of the perception of them, namely "houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word, sensible objects" (Berkeley, pt 1; sec 4). By sensible objects, he refers to objects that can be sensed. He expresses a sort of confusion at the apparent "contradiction" that this claim brings about: namely, that although men claim these things to exist outside of the mind, that they are still "things we perceive by sense ... And what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations?" (Berkeley, pt 1; sec 4). Because so-called "external things" are experienced by sense, Berkeley claims it is absurd to consider that those things have any existance apart from Sense.

To support his claim regarding knowledge of the existance of external objects sans perception, he refers us to his arguments about "abstractions." An abstraction is the quality of an abstract, which according to Merriam-Webster is " ... a quality apart from an object" (Merriam-Webster, "Abstract"). So to have an abstraction of something is to conceive a quality of something apart from that something. Berkeley's opinion on abstraction is that he "will not deny that [he] can abstract," assuming that what he is abstracting are qualities of matter that can actually be perceived to be separate from the matter (Berkeley, ch 1; sec 5). And as such, he considers that since the sense of matter is really the same thing as matter's apparent existence, then to conceive of matter's existence apart from it being perceived is impossible, as they are "the same thing, and cannot therefore be abstracted from each other" (Berkeley, ch 1; sec 5).

In opposition to Berkeley's position, I offer the position of Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand's philosophy was what we know as Objectivism. The Wikipedia entry on it defines some of its characteristics, including that "reality exists independent from consciousness; that individual persons are in contact with this reality through sensory perception; that human beings can gain objective knowledge from preception through the process of concept formation" (Wikipedia). As we can see, Objectivism shares at least one precept with Empiricism, that of the importance of sensory perception as the only real mode of gaining knowledge. But at the same time, it disagrees significantly with Berkeley's skepticism in that it holds that there is a reality apart from the mind, a reality which does not depend on the mind.

In Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistomology, her response to Berkleyan skepticism resides in the section where she discusses axioms. Axioms, according to Rand, are "propositions identifying a fundamental, self-evident truth" (Rand 55). They are assumptions which ultimately are the building blocks for presenting a reasoned argument, and such arguments constitute philosophies. So in effect, axioms are the cells which make up the bodies of philosophies.

Rand presents three basic concepts: existence, identity, and consciousness (Rand 50). These she considers axiomatic concepts. Her reasoning for presenting these three concepts as axioms is because she considers them "irreducible primaries," that is, concepts that cannot be broken into smaller concepts; along with this, she reasons that since one cannot prove consciousness without resorting to consciousness, and similarly with existence, that consciousness and existence must be assumed (Rand 50). To clarify, since consciousness and existence have no opposites that exist (unconsciousness merely being the lack of consciousness and nonexistence being literally non-existant), there are "no alternatives," and must therefore exist (Rand 58). Rand actually formulates these concepts into axioms thus: "Existence exists - Consciousness is conscious" (Rand 59).

Since our present subject regards matter and existence, and since Berkeley would not disagree with the axiom "consciousness is conscious," we will focus on Rand's concept of existence. As existence exists, we can reasonably extrapolate the phrase "to be is to be," a statement contrary to Berkley's "to be is to be perceived." In Rand's system, existence exists in and of itself, being an axiom, and is dependent on no other fact other than its own existence. In Berkley's system, existence is dependent on its existence being sensed by a mind, and is therefore dependent on a mind. With Rand, matter must simply exist for it to exist, while with Berkeley matter must be perceived in order to exist.

We will now entertain a sort of ethical situation which might involved these differing philosophies regarding matter and its existence. Suppose, for a moment, that an eminent scientist is working on a project that he claims will revolutionize science as we know it. Let's say it's a medical breakthrough. The scientist in question applies for a grant from the National Science Foundation to help with this breakthrough's conception. The president of the NSF is now in a position to accept or deny the scientist's application for grant money. Should the president accept or reject the scientist's proposal, in light of the scientist's reputation, the practicalness of the research, and the myriad other reasons why the research would yield much?

If the president of the NSF were a Berkleyan skeptic, he might feel justified in rejecting the proposal. For Berkeley might reason that despite the scientist's reputation, that there is in fact no real way of knowing whether the scientist's previous accomplishments actually exist unless the president perceived them personally, and that therefore there might be no reason to trust him with all the grant money he's requesting. Berkeley might also reason that since the eventual existence of the medicine and its properties will, when they are developed, only been sensed and tested by the scientists themselves, that the president would have no reasonable way to explain why he should take the scientists' word for it. For surely, if the scientists observe the properties of the medicine they develop, they can be reasonably be assured that those properties exist. But from that, Berkeley could reason, one could not conclude that the medicine would have the same perceived effects for anyone else, and that the president could not be sure not only that the medicine in fact had those properties until he saw them himself, but he could not even be sure if the medicine itself existed. With such an unsure position on the existence of matter without the self perceiving it, the president would be justified in not wanting to spend what little grant money is allowed the NSF from the U.S. government on something that he personally cannot verify until the money is gone. Berkeley would, in short, say that the president would be justified in rejecting the proposal despite every assurance.

Rand, contrarily, would probably say that the president would not necessarily be justified in rejecting the scientist's proposal. The scientist, eminent, has obviously built up an impressive amount of standing in the scientific community, achieved results which can be verified, results that exist independently of them being perceived. These achievements, understood, would provide a foundation for assuming that the scientist could achieve the same level of quality results as he had previously. The properties of the medicine, she would say, would also exist outside of their perception, and so if they could be tested and verified, those qualities and effects would necessarily exist regardless of one's sensing of them. According to Rand, the scientist's past achievements, along with the assurance that the medicine and all its properties would exist regardless of their perception by the individual, the president should instead accept the proposal and entrust the scientist with the funds necessary to complete his project.

I would be inclined to side with Rand rather than Berkeley. While I do agree where they agree, that is, on the importance of sense-perception as a foundational element of dependable epistemology, I cannot agree with Berkeley's hyperskepticism regarding the existence of matter being dependent on the mind. To me, if there is something that is being sensed, that's just it: there is something being sensed. Surely our senses are the only ways we have of knowing about external matter, but to say that those things would not exist if they were not being perceived is, to me, absurd.

I agree with Rand where she accuses Berkeley of "negat[ing] existence" with his claims (Rand 80). For say something must be perceived in order to exist. That implies that if it is not perceived, it does not exist. If it does not exist, how can it then be perceived? Berkeley supposes that there is no trustworthy construct of reality, nothing can be depended upon unless it is being experienced in the now, and the universe becomes an infinite chaos where instead of matter there is simply the "possibility of matter." Rand, conversely, supposes that there is a definite reality with definite matter, that matter cannot be perceived unless it first exists, and that subsequently we must learn about the properties of different forms of matter so we can form a conclusion about those things. This I consider to be the more reasonable supposition, because it means that there is a structured reality which we inhabit, and when humans behave as if they accept that idea, then advances are made, humans prolong the existence of their species, and happiness and good things are achieved.


Berkeley, George. "A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge." Classics of Western Philosophy. 7th ed. Ed. Steven Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing House, 2006.

Markie, Peter, "Rationalism vs. Empiricism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

"Matter." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. Oct 28 2008 URL =

Pereboom, Derk. "George Berkeley." Classics of Western Philosophy. 7th ed. Ed. Steven Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing House, 2006.

Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

"Objectivism (Ayn Rand)." Wikipedia, 2008. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Oct 28 2008 URL =

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