Berkeley On The Fallacy Of Causation


Berkeley –writing before Hume, mind you– states that the so-called “Laws Of Nature” are merely repeating patterns of the world which we have learned by experience.

Because we learn over time that one part of a pattern (our perception of the “Cause”) always is associated with another part of the same pattern (our perception of the “Effect”), Berkeley says we gain “a sort of foresight which enables us to regulate our actions for the benefit of life.” Without this ability, we would be cursed to live in a world of arbitrary physics wherein “we could not know how to act any way that might procure us the least pleasure, or remove the least pain of sense.” Life would be one long nightmare.

When we perceive certain Ideas of sense constantly followed by other Ideas, and we know this is not of our own doing,” explains Berkeley, “we forthwith attribute power and agency to the Ideas themselves, and make one the CAUSE of another.” But this is a rush to judgment, contends Berkeley, and in actuality, nothing could be “more absurd and unintelligible.”

Berkeley states that all we really know is that there are recurring patterns in the world. Causation is an assumption, a mind-projected imposition.

“For example,” he writes, “having observed that when we perceive by sight a certain round luminous figure we at the same time perceive by touch the idea or sensation called heat, we do from thence conclude the sun to be the CAUSE of the heat. And in like manner perceiving the motion and collision of bodies to be attended with sound, we are inclined to think the latter the EFFECT of the former.”

Similarly to how we learn to associate certain recurring patterns and assign to such patterns this human-imposed concept of “Causation,” we arrive at the notion of Distance. Distance, as odd as it sounds, is NOT something “immediately of itself perceived by sight” according to Berkeley. Instead, the concept of Distance “is only suggested to our thoughts by certain visible ideas and sensations attending vision, which in their own nature have no manner of similtude or relation either with Distance or things placed at a Distance.”

It is only experience that teaches us that certain visual relationships or size-ratios imply something we have come to call “Distance.” Without experience, we would have absolutely no reason for assuming that a smaller object should be farther away than a similar object appearing larger.

[If you really want to take your imagination out for a spin, try imagining a world in which Distance is implied, not by Size, but by Color… A world in which experience teaches it inhabitants that red objects are farther away violet objects, even though their Size remains the same. Perhaps this would be a world in which our eyesight naturally compensates (through inborn magnification abilities) for Distance until the point at which the object disappears entirely, color and all] ; )

Not Cause And Effect, But Sign And Symbol

“The connection of ideas does not imply the relation of cause and effect, but only of a mark or sign with the thing signified,” writes Berkeley. “The fire which I see is not the cause of the pain I suffer upon my approaching it, but the mark that forewarns me of it.”

I like to think of Berkeley’s view this way: suppose you are driving down a highway with mile markers. After every “3” marker, you discover that there appears a “4.” This does not imply that the 3 is the cause of the 4. Rather, they are both merely signs of a deeper plan, pattern, or relationship.

Some relatively simple symbols/ patterns/ Ideas are further combined into more complex Ideas which Berkeley calls “Machines.” Machines would include things of moving parts, such as plants and animals. “The reason why Ideas are formed into Machines,” he writes, “is the same with that for combining letters into words… That a few original Ideas may be made to signify a great number of effects and actions.” [..] “By this means an abundance of information is conveyed unto us.”

Berkeley believes that the true vocation of the philosopher should be attempting to understand the multitude of signs and symbols surrounding us– and “not pretending to explain things by corporeal causes.”


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