Considering what he said and when he said it, I think George Berkeley is a leading contender for the title of the Greatest Metaphysical Philosopher In History. He was questioning the true existence of Cause-And-Effect before Hume, declaring that humans imposed our own view of reality upon the Cosmos before Kant, observing the centrality of language-problems to philosophy before Wittgenstein, and discussing the relativity of differing space-time perspectives before Einstein.
On Closed-Mindedness & The Possibility Of Discovering Truth
Berkeley felt that the average man was naturally closed-minded, overly accepting of “ancient and rooted prejudices” which had passed into “principles.” And Lord help us once a man has hold of a principle, for a principle is a “thought privileged from all examination.” In this frightening and complex world, a man will cling to his prejudice like a life-preserver… “and there is no absurdity so gross” that “the mind of man may not be prepared to swallow” as long as it comes coated in “principle.”
There is many a man, states Berkeley, “who shall reject a truth that is capable of demonstration, for no other reason but because it is newly known and contrary to the prejudices of mankind.” These men, he says, are quick to condemn a new idea before they even rightly comprehend it. This sort– the “illiterate bulk of mankind” — are “out of all danger of becoming skeptics.”
Berkeley most certainly does not consider himself of their ilk. He looks out at the world with the narrowed eye of the extreme skeptic. Some men with as skeptical a bend of mind as Berkeley would end their philosophy by giving up all hope of ever knowing the truth. Not only are we humans mostly ignorant of the true nature of reality, such a man might say, but we are not designed to know the truth!
“The faculties we have are few,” says Berkeley, putting forth this side of the argument, “and those designed by Nature for the support and comfort of life and not to penetrate into the inward essence and constitution of things.” Whereas human Spirits “partake of infinity,” our minds are finite, and that being the case, “it is not to be wondered at” if we “run into absurdities and contradictions” in our attempt to understand the world. Frankly put, “the nature of the infinite is not to be comprehended by that which is finite.”
But Berkeley does not accept that it absolutely impossible for the human mind to arrive at the truth. “Perhaps,” he writes, “we may be too partial to ourselves in placing the fault originally in our faculties, and not rather in the wrong use we make of them.” Our difficulties in understanding the world may not necessarily “spring from any darkness and intricacy in the objects or natural defect in the understanding, so much as from false principles which have been insisted upon.”
“We should believe that God has dealt more bountifully with the sons of men than to give them a strong desire for that knowledge which has been placed quite out of their reach.” Berkeley observes that when Nature implants an appetite in a creature, it also furnishes it with the means to satisfy that appetite, and he is convinced that humankind can arrive at the Truth if only we insist on making always “right deductions from true principles.”