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In this writeup, I'll contend that Berkeley and Malebranche use the same microscopic observations to attain vastly different (even antagonistic) metaphysical conclusions. This is a result of their respective theories about the relationship between knowledge and sensory experience. To illustrate this relationship, I will analyze how each uses the process of exemplification and how their chosen examples are used to support their theories. After these analyses, I would like to describe the relationship between the rationalist project and Berkeley’s project in terms of the historiography of Imre Lakatos. But, before I approach this larger description, I will begin my analysis with the role of sense data in Malebranche’s philosophy.

Malebranche would like the senses to be mistrusted. Rather than getting to truth about the world directly from sense data (as people like Locke and Berkeley set out to do) he would prefer that the senses be used only as a sort of collapsible ladder on the way to the certainty provided by rationality/God. In this he is following the tradition of Cartesian rationalism, which, at its core, attempts to provide a clear and distinct foundation for human knowledge in rationality and God. A brief quotation from his Dialogues should be helpful in illustrating this:

Aristes: Could you not make the principles of your philosophy more accessible to the senses? Theodore: I am afraid, Aristes, that in doing so they would become less intelligible. Believe me, I always make them as tangible as possible. But I am afraid of corrupting them. It is allowable to corporealise truth, in order to adapt it to our natural weakness, and to sustain the attention of the mind which cannot get a grip of that which has no body. Yet it is necessary that the sensible should lead us to the intelligible, that the flesh should lead us to reason, and that the truth should appear as it really is without disguise. The information furnished by the senses is not solid. Only the intelligible can through its evidence and light supply food for intelligent minds. You know that is so (250-251 Malebranche).

So, here we see a pretty succinct summation of what Malebranche thinks that the senses are good for. Though they cannot be relied upon to furnish us with ‘solid’ information, they can lead us to the intelligible (that is, to certain knowledge). It seems that Malebranche wants us to view sensory data as sorts of pedagogical aids, like flash cards, that will lead us to real truths. Instead of accepting the information provided by the senses at face value, we should look to what that information may point towards. This ‘looking’ (a somewhat misleading term) should be done with our reason and our mind, not our perceptions and body.

Following this general program (the hierarchy of mind over body, the rational over the perceived) Malebranche, like Descartes (and Plato…), grounds our reason in God. From his Cartesian first principles, he derives (‘rationally’) a mechanical, atomistic worldview, where all change is the direct consequence of atoms banging into each other. To illustrate, and lend credence to his atomism, he begins to talk about the new empirical evidence that is being provided by the microscopists. For instance, he has Aristes ask, “…are those animals which are imperceptible to the eye and almost like atoms even under good microscopes the smallest?” (253 Malebranche, my emphasis). Here Malebranche is using semi-rhetorical language to insinuate that new discoveries in the microscopic world imply support for atomism. Even more indirectly, Malebranche works microscopic observations into his discussion of the infinite greatness of God (which, indirectly lends further support for the grounding of all knowledge in God, and rationality):

But this earth, which our friends the astronomers think so little of, is still too vast for me… The other day I was lying in the shade and it occurred to me to note the variety of herbs and small animals which I found under my eyes. Without moving from my place, I counted more than twenty kinds of insects in a very small space, and at least as many different plants. I took hold of one of the insects … I began to read a book which I had with me, and I found therein a very astounding thing, namely, that there is in the world an infinite number of insects at least a million times smaller than the one I had just been examining, fifty thousand times smaller than a grain of sand… These philosophers which ones? are very glad that the facts they put before us can be verified at any time, and that people are able to appreciate with certainty the multiplicity and delicacy of the wonderful works of the author of the universe. (252-253 Malebranche).

This passage has confusing elements to it, in particular the question of the identity of “these philosophers”. Depending on how you read Malebranche’s use of this phrase, the passage can have two distinct meanings, with differing implications for his philosophy as a whole. If you take Theodore as referring to the microscopists themselves, who are not necessarily affiliated with Malebranche’s Cartesian rationalism, then the following sentence (about the use of microscopic ‘facts’ to verify the marvels of creation) does not directly reflect on Malebranche’s own philosophy. But if we take “these philosophers” to mean rationalist philosophers (people like Theodore, Malebranche, and Descartes) then the role described for microscopic observations has important implications. Because of the somewhat misleading form of the dialogue, I will choose to take the statement to refer to Malebranche himself, rather than microscopists in general. This is because, regardless of whom the ‘character’ of Theodore is referring to, Malebranche chose to write that phrase, and put it in the mouth of a character who seems most representative of his own opinions throughout the Dialogues. Thus, any statements that Theodore ‘agrees’ to, I shall see as reflective of Malebranche’s own views.

Even after this clarification of meaning however, the role of these observations seems somewhat unclear. Malebranche seems to be saying here that microscopic observation can be used “with certainty” to verify the greatness of God and creation; but hasn’t he stated earlier that “only the intelligible can through its evidence and light supply food for intelligent mindsMalebranche]? It seems as though Malebranche is saying that the senses are uncertain, and should only be seen to indicate that there is a deeper level of Truth (here I should like to reiterate my comparison of sense data to pedagogical aids in Malebranche’s philosophy) but also that our senses can give us with certainty knowledge of the grandeur of God’s creation! Its as if he wants to have it both ways: the senses cannot be trusted, but when the senses furnish proof (indirectly) for the theory that the senses cannot be trusted, then we can certainly trust them!

So, it seems that Malebranche’s use of empirical (microscopic) examples is confused. I think a strong case can be made ascribing this philosophical confusion, to the larger confusion surrounding the astonishing findings of both astronomers (with the telescope) and microscopists. Early modern science had begun to displace notions of an anthro-centric universe by showing the vastness (and possible infinitude) of the cosmos. The infinite of the cosmos, though a little disconcerting, was to be expected. The cosmos were (generally) seen as the realm of the eternal, of the infinite marvel of God’s creation, and as such, it was not such a great surprise that they were unable to see the limits of the universe. The micro world, however, seems to have been more of a problem for comprehension. Coupled with the possible infinite of the macro cosmos, the findings of a possible microcosmic infinite seemed to displace any attempt at a human-centered cosmology.

As a backlash against this confusion, I think that people like Malebranche can be seen as attempting to collect these rogue facts and fit them into their more reassuring rationalist account of the world viewed through God’s greatness. Thus, the micro world is projected as firm evidence to support a theory that rejects the notion that the micro world can be seen as firm evidence to support anything. It seems that the rationalist project is beginning to be undermined here, both by antagonistic philosophies (as we shall see in Berkeley) and by extra-philosophical observations. But, rather than conceding defeat, Malebranche prefers to put these new observations under the yoke of rationalism, albeit in a necessarily confused (and confusing) manner. Malebranche (as we have seen above) relegates the senses to the role of pedagogical tools, and nothing more. The role of sense data in Berkeley’s philosophy is much different. Berkeley believes that there is a much stronger role for our ‘senses’. Berkeley, in fact, builds most of his philosophy around the senses. Throughout the dialogue, he comes to the (‘rational’) conclusion that sensible things do not exist except in our perceptions of them. Thus, something like ‘heat’ does not ‘inhere’ in an external material substance (as many other philosophers, notably Locke have posited) but exists only insofar as we perceive it. He develops this position through a systematic dialogue that roots out the errors in both rationalist philosophy and Lockean empiricism. It is in his discussion of the latter that we see what role microscopic observations play in his rhetoric. Berkeley’s uses new microscopic observations to used to illustrate a very specific point (unlike Malebranche’s rather indirect, and confused usage): that there can be no distinction between primary and secondary qualities, as Locke contends. The argument Locke presents is as follows:

Secondary qualities, as has been shown, are nothing but bare powers. For the colour and taste of opium are, as well as its soporific or anodyne virtues, mere powers depending on its primary qualities, whereby it is fitted to produce different operations, on different parts of our bodies (57, Locke).

Which is to say that secondary qualities (those that depend upon our perceptions, like colour and taste) are dependant upon primary Qualities (things that do not change relative to our perception, like Extension and Number). For example: the color of the grass may change over time, but the fact that we perceive the grass to have color indicates that that perception inheres in some variety of primary qualities (Form, Extension, Number, etc.) which do not change.

It is just this distinction that Berkeley is devoted to abolishing. His argument is that even primary qualities are dependant upon the circumstances under which we perceive them, thus the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is non-existent: all qualities are what Locke would call ‘secondary’. So, in order to show why this distinction is invalid, Berkeley attacks a number of examples of primary qualities, most notably (for our purposes) size/extension. This is where observations microscopic observations come in to play: Philonous: A mite … must be supposed to see his own foot, and things equal or even less than it, as bodies of some considerable dimension, though at the same time they appear to you scarce discernible or at best as so many visible points.

Hylas: I cannot deny it. P: And to creatures less than the mite they will seem yet larger. H: They will. P: To the extent that what you can hardly discern will to another extremely minute animal appear as some huge mountain. H: All this I grant. P: Can one and the same thing be at the same time in itself of different dimensions? H: That would be absurd to imagine. P: But from what you have laid down it follows that both the extension perceived by the mite itself, as likewise all those perceived by lesser animals, are each of them the true extension of the mite’s foot –that is to say, by your own principles you are led into an absurdity (423-424 Berkeley).

The dialogue form is a little cumbersome to quote, but here we can see the essence of the argument: if you allow that mites can see distinctly their own feet (which we see only as ‘so many visible points’) then you are led into the belief that extension is, like color and taste, a mutable property dependant upon the perceiver and not directly inherent to the perceived object. Though no direct reference is made to microscopic works (as Malebranche refers to Swammerdam) the connection is obvious. For, without the microscope, Berkeley would not be able to discuss a “creatures less than the mite” or even to converse about the feet of the mite, because before the microscope, neither of these phenomena were known.

From this rejection of the Lockean distinction, Berkeley goes on to build his own idealistic philosophy, based not upon the information about the real world that the senses are supposed to provide, but on the relation between perception and existence. The fundamental tenet of Berkeley’s idealism is that exist is to be perceived. He uses this ‘rationally’ derived ideal to prove that God must exist, because if he does not then we cannot exist, because if we are not perceived, we have no true existence. (He rejects the atheist’s skeptical position (that maybe we do not exist) based solely on his dislike of skepticism.) It seems that, without microscopic data to use, the force of Berkeley’s argument against Locke’s relatively simplistic empiricism may not have been as strong. For instance, it would be equally valid to say that someone appears a different size to us, depending upon how far away they are (which he does as well) but that is not as fantastic as using new discoveries and showing how they can be fit into an existing theory (his own). In addition to a comparison based on their respective uses of microscopic examples (to support their theories), I would like to conclude this writeup with a comparison of Malebranche and Berkeley on another, larger basis. Specifically I would like to characterize them based on their ability to describe new facts (like those provided by the microscope). To facilitate this comparison, I will use the notion of a degenerating or progressing research programme, as developed by Imre Lakatos.

Lakatos defines a progressive research programme as “progressing as long as its theoretical growth anticipates its empirical growth, that is, as long as it keeps predicting novel facts with some success (117 Lakatos).” He defines a degenerating programme as one in which “theoretical growth lags behind its empirical growth, that is, as long as it gives only post hoc explanations either of chance discoveries or of facts anticipated by, and discovered in, a rival programme (117 Lakatos).” Now, understanding the criteria (and simplistically defining Malebranchean rationalism and Berkeleyan idealism as individual research programmes) we can begin our analysis with Malebranche.

It seems that Malebranche’s theory can easily be seen as a degenerating research programme. As I stated above, its explanation of microscopic observations was not only post hoc but also somewhat contradictory to its own principles. The rationalist project is based on the idea that all knowledge is firmly grounded in God, and then our rationality, and that the data we get from the senses is, at best, helpful in showing us that rationality is the only way to certainty. But it seems as though Malebranche wants to allow seemingly confirmatory data from the senses to play a decisive role as well. He uses empirical evidence to illustrate a few points. Which, though a little confusing, is not contradictory. But his description of these observations as providing certain evidence is in direct contradiction to his fundamental programme. Obviously if he wanted to stick unflinchingly to his rationalist principles, he would not be so quick to attempt to adapt this new evidence to his theory.

Berkeley, on the other hand, is an equally obvious example of a progressive research programme. His theory is pitted against another (Locke’s) and he attempts to describe new facts (microscopic observations) in a way that does not compromise his core of principles, but in fact confirms them. His use of microscopic data seems to lead us inexorably to the conclusion that Locke’s account of the world cannot fully describe the examples he puts forth. But (surprise!) Berkeley has the explanation at hand: these examples can only be explained by his programme. Thus, the theoretical growth of Berkeley’s programme certainly anticipates its empirical growth. It is even, without ad hoc additions or alterations, able to explain new empirical evidence that is discovered external to itself (microscopic observations).

So, throughout this paper we have seen a variety of comparisons between Berkeley and Malebranche. I have characterized Malebranche’s use of microscopic observations as confused, and contradictory and his general programme as ‘degenerating’. In opposition to him, I have shown Berkeley to use the new microscopic data to the benefit of his attack on Locke, and illustrated his programme as a progressive one. These comparisons seem to me to be symptomatic of rationalism’s inability to encompass the new data that was provided by early modern science, and idealism’s much more sophisticated ability to do so.

Works referred to:

Berkeley, George. Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in Opposition to Skeptics and Atheists. In Modern Philosophy: an Anthology of Primary Resources. Eds. Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998.

Lakatos, Imre. “History of Science and its Rational Reconstructions” pp. 128-143 in Scientific Revolutions, edited by Ian Hacking (Oxford University Press, New York, 1981).

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (abridged version), pp. 7-133 in The Empiricists (Doubleday, New York, 1974).

Malebranche, Nicolas. Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion. Trans. M. Ginsberg. London: George Allen & Unwin. 1923.

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