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An ideal time to get real

By John Warren - posted Friday, 7 July 2006

A previous article of mine “Dawkins, McGrath and me” in On Line Opinion, elicited a response from a reader which raised a number of issues bearing on those age-old questions: how do we understand our relation to the world, and use that understanding?

Thinking that I misunderstood the concepts “idealist” and “materialist”, the respondent clarified the difference between them “very crudely”: for idealists the world is an “idea”; for materialists it is a “thing”. He went further and recommended reading Bishop Berkeley as an antidote for materialist misconceptions.

It is, I think, a matter of some practical concern for sceptics. One of their great aims is to encourage people to separate reality and evidence-based belief from belief in disembodied spirits and the output of astrologists, fortune-tellers and assorted charlatans who peddle their fictions as reality.


My understanding is that idealists believe in a realm beyond the natural one we live in - a supernatural world. That world is occupied, for some, by an “absolute idea”; for others by a variety of gods and spirits, or an “intelligent design”.

The characteristic of all these supernatural beings or forces is that they have preordained a plan for developing the world and we, together with that world, are just the working-out of that plan. It follows that our relation to the supernatural is one-sided - as we cannot influence it, our role is like that of Rumpole of the Bailey: simply to obey.

Materialists and idealists have very different, almost diametrically opposed, ways of viewing the world.

Bishop Berkeley was a leading philosopher of idealism in the 18th century. His major work A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge was not an investigation into the nature of knowledge but rather a manipulation of words to justify a pre-established concept.

Berkeley, like other idealists, was a firm believer in the existence of God or equivalent, and a realm occupied by immaterial beings with immaterial minds. Berkeley sets out his aim in the first sentence of the essay’s preface:

What I here make public has, after a long and scrupulous inquiry, seemed to me evidently true, and not unuseful to be known, particularly to those who are tainted with skepticism, or want a demonstration of the existence, and immateriality of God, or the natural immortality of the soul.


Berkeley wanted to crush the unbelievers. Since his philosophising was directed to that end he did not, could not, contemplate the nature of knowledge separate from his belief that God was behind it all.

He summarised his position in the essay’s following paragraph:

It is evident to anyone who takes a survey of the objects of human knowledge, that they are either ideas actually imprinted on the senses, or else such as are perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind, or lastly by ideas formed by help of memory and imagination, either compounding, dividing, or barely representing those originally perceived in the aforesaid ways.

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Article edited by Allan Sharp.
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First published in the Skeptic as "Idealism & Materialism, Religion and Science".

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About the Author

John Warren has retired from work in soil conservation, agriculture and horticulture.

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