Date of Award
Master of Arts
Joshua Spencer, Miren Boehm
Berkeley, George, God, Mind, Philosophy, Religion
I tackle a troubling question of interpretation: Does Berkeley's God feel pain? Berkeley's anti-skepticism seems to bar him from saying that God does not feel pain, for this would mean there is something to reality 'beyond' the perceptible. Yet Berkeley's concerns for common sense and orthodoxy bar him from saying that God does have an idea of pain. For Berkeley to have an idea of pain just is to suffer it, and an immutable God cannot suffer. Thus solving the pain problem requires answers to further questions: What are God's perceptions, for Berkeley? What are God's acts of will? How are the two related and how is God's mind related to humans' as a result?
I argue that Berkeley's God does not feel pain by way of answering these questions. I also argue that saying so leaves Berkeley saddled with neither skepticism nor heterodoxy. Berkeley is able to preserve God's immutability, God's personality, and reality's not lying across some 'veil of perception.'
Berkeley can dissolve the pain problem since God does not perceive passively as we do. What it means to say God 'perceives' is just that God's acts of will are intentional. Yet neither God nor reality is thereby placed across some skeptical chasm. God's acts of will contain their content in virtue of and are of necessity made manifest in each human being's perceptions. The 'real world' is our world: the contents of God's mind are simply made plain to human beings by way of their experience of the laws of nature. God does not occupy the same perspective with respect to God's own mind, however: God is "a being purely active."
By way of understanding the laws of nature as a language, Berkeley renders God more personal than other conceptions we might call to mind. Thus Berkeley's God is not a blind 'force of nature,' despite God's not feeling pain. God is rather a personal mind which continuously communicates with humans by way of symbols, namely human perceptions. Insofar as human beings are passive, this is the way with which we must be communicated.
The cost to my interpretation is that Berkeley cannot literally vindicate the utterances of "the vulgar": talk of God's feeling pain, delighting in righteousness or grieving over wickedness is at best metaphorical and at worst misleading. Strictly speaking the only contents of God's mind are God's perceptions and God's acts of will, and neither class of contents contains such feelings.
Knepley, Craig Berchet, "Berkeley and the Mind of God" (2015). Theses and Dissertations. 957.