John Locke
John Locke
March 22, 2017
David Hume
David Hume
March 23, 2017

British Empiricism

George Berkeley

G eorge Berkeley - known as Bishop Berkeley (Bishop of Cloyne) — was an Irish philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called "immaterialism" (later referred to as "subjective idealism" by others). This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers and, as a result, cannot exist without being perceived. Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.


29 August 1632 Wrington, Somerset, England


28 October 1704 (aged 72) High Laver, Essex, England


17th-century philosophy


Western philosophy

Main interests

Metaphysics, epistemology, political philosophy, philosophy of mind, education, economics

Chapter Ⅵ. British Empiricism

George Berkeley


Hayagriva dasa: Berkeley seems to argue against objective reality. For instance, three men standing in a field looking at a tree could all have different impressions or ideas of the tree. The problem is that although there are three different impressions of the tree, there is no tree as such. Now, how does the tree as such exist? In the mind of God? Is it possible for a conditioned living entity to perceive the suchness or essence of anything?

Srila Prabhupada: Since everything is God, or an expansion of God's energy, how can a tree or anything else exist independent of God? A clay pot is not different from earth. Since there is nothing but God's energy, how can we avoid God? Since nothing can exist independent of God, whatever we see must refer to God. As soon as we see a clay pot, we remember the potter. God is not only the original creator; He is the ingredient, the category, and the original substance as well. According to the Vedic conception, God is everything. That is a nondual conception. If you separate anything from God, you cannot say, sarvam khalv idam brahma (Chandogya Upanisad 3.14.1). "Everything is Brahman." Everything refers to God, and everything is God's property; therefore whatever exists should be utilized for God's service, and that is the object of our Krsna consciousness movement.

Syamasundara dasa: Berkeley maintained that nothing exists outside perception. Matter is simply perceived. For instance, this table is only an immaterial substance which enters my mind. It is not made of matter.

Srila Prabhupada: Then what is your mind? Is the mind also immaterial? This is the Sunyavadi position. They believe that everything is zero.

Syamasundara dasa: Berkeley says that everything is spiritual, not zero.

Srila Prabhupada: The spiritual is not an idea but a fact. The Sunyavadis cannot understand how spirit has form. They have no idea of sac-cid- ananda-vigraha [Bs. 5.1], our spiritual form of bliss. They really have no idea of spiritual existence.

Syamasundara dasa: Berkeley says that everything has form, but that it is not made of matter.

Srila Prab hupada: That is nice. Everything has form. It is not necessary that the form be material. We say that God has a spiritual form.

Syamasundara dasa: But Berkeley goes so far as to say that everything is made of spirit.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, in the higher sense, everything is spirit. We always say that materialism means forgetfulness of Krsna. As soon as we dovetail everything to Krsna, nothing is material but spiritual.

Syamasundara dasa: Berkeley uses the example of a book on a table. The only way the book exists is through the idea or sense impression in the mind. It doesn't enter the mind as matter but as spirit, something immaterial.

Srila Prabhupada: If it is not matter, it is spirit. If everything is spirit, why distinguish between the idea of the book and the book?

Syamasundara dasa: Well, for him there is no difference.

Srila Prabhupada: But he explains that the book is not material. If everything is spiritual, the idea is spiritual as well 'as the book. Why make the distinction?Sarvam khalv idam brahma ( Chandogya Upanisad 3.14.1). If everything is Brahman, why make these distinctions between the idea of the book and the book? Why is he trying so hard to attempt to explain?

Syamasundara dasa: He also states that God creates all objects.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, that's right, and because God creates all objects, there is no object that is not true. We cannot say that something false comes from something true. If God is truth, then whatever emanates from God is also truth. It is Mayavadi philosophy to say that everything that we are seeing is false. Brahma satyamjagan mithya.

Syamasundara dasa: No, he says it is real because God perceives it.

Srila Prabhupada: If it is real, and my idea of it is real, then everything is real. Why make these distinctions? Our philosophy is that there cannot be these distinctions. If the world emanates from God, can it be false? If everything is spiritual, why does he make the distinction in saying that it is not matter, that it is something else? As soon as we bring up the subject of matter, we imply that matter is something separately existing. In other words, there is duality. As soon as you say that this is not matter, you are making matter into something that is not true. If everything emanates from God and is true, there is no question of there being anything that is not true. If everything is spiritual, we cannot make these distinctions. When he says, "This is not matter," he implies that there is matter somewhere. If everything is spirit, there is no question of material existence.

Syamasundara dasa: He says that there are two types of objects: those which we actively sense, perceive, and experience, and those which are passively sensed, perceived, and experienced. Both are basically the same because they are equally spiritual.

Srila Prabhupada: But two types means duality. How does he distinguish between this type and that type? He distinguishes between the senses and the objects of the senses. If everything is spiritual, we can say that there is spiritual variety. But the senses and the objects of the senses are all real.

Syamasundara dasa: No, he says that they are real and made of spirit. They are not real in the sense that they are made of matter.

Srila Prabhupada: I do not understand this logic. If everything is spirit, why is he making these distinctions? There is no need to make such distinctions if you are spiritually realized. Rather, you can say that these are spiritual varieties. For instance, you can say that stone is not water, that air is not stone, that water is not air, and so on. These are all spiritual varieties. The exact Sanskrit word is savisesa, which indicates that everything is spirit but that there is variety.

Syamasundara dasa: Berkeley says that if no one experiences a thing, not even God, then it cannot exist. Things can exist only when they are perceived by God.

Srila Prabhupada: This means in one word that there is no existence except God, that nothing exists but God.

Syamasundara dasa: He uses the example of the far side of the North Star. We will never be able to perceive it from our viewpoint, but because God can perceive it, it must exist.

Srila Prabhupada: That's nice. The idea that something does not exist because I cannot perceive it is not very logical. I may not perceive many things, but that does not mean that they do not exist. In the beginning, this is what I understood you to say Berkeley was saying. That kind of logic is contradictory. God's perception is different. He is unlimited, and we are limited. Since He is unlimited, His perception is unlimited; therefore there are unlimited varieties of existence that we have not even perceived. We cannot say that objects do not exist just because we cannot perceive them.

Syamasundara dasa: He says that objects exist because of perception, whether it is God's perception or ours.

Srila Prabhupada: God's perception is another thing. Perception means cetana. Nityo nityanam cetanas cetananam (Katha Upanisad 2.2.13). The word cetana means "living." We are living, and God is also living, but He is the supreme living entity. We are the subordinate entities. Our perception is limited, and God's perception is unlimited. It is admitted that everything exists due to God's perception. Many objects exist that are not within our experience or perception. However, God experiences everything. In Bhagavad-gita, Krsna says that He knows everything, past, present, and future (Bg. 7.26). Nothing is beyond His experience.

Syamasundara dasa: He says that because God experiences all objects, objects are rendered potentially perceptible to human minds.

Srila Prabhupada: That's all right, because as we advance in Krsna consciousness, we experience objects through God, not directly. That is stated in the Vedas: yasmin vijnate sarvam evam vijnatam bhavanti. God experiences all things, and if we receive our experience from God, we are advanced. We are preaching that people should receive their experience, their perception, through Krsna. We shouldn't try to speculate because speculation is always imperfect. We are searching after the original source of everything, and Krsna says: aham sarvasya prabhavah ( Bg. 10.8). Krsna is the root of all emanations, of all creation. The conclusion should be that we should receive our experience through God; therefore we accept the experience of the Vedas. The Vedas were spoken by God, and they contain knowledge given by God. The word veda means knowledge, and the knowledge of the Vedas is perfect. The Vedic system is sruti-pramanam. As soon as an experience is corroborated or verified by Vedic statement, it is perfect. There is no need to philosophize. If we can receive perfect knowledge directly from the Vedas, why should we speculate? Why should we take so much unnecessary trouble?

dharmah svanusthitah pumsam
visvaksena-kathasu yah
notpadayed yadi ratim
srama eva hi kevalam

"Duties [dharma] executed by men, regardless of occupation, are only so much labor if they do not provoke attraction for the message of the Supreme Lord." (Bhag. 1.2.8) My speculation is always imperfect because I am imperfect.

Syamasundara dasa: There is an inherent tendency in men to want to experience something first hand rather than through someone else.

Srila Prabhupada: From the beginning of our lives, we are experiencing things through authority. A child receives experience by asking his parents. A child knows nothing about fire, and he wants to touch it because it is red. However, he receives knowledge from his parents that he shouldn't touch fire. In this way, he comes to understand certain basic laws of nature. The Vedas tell us that in order to know the transcendental science of Krsna, we must approach a guru. We cannot speculate about God, the spiritual world, and spiritual life.

Syamasundara dasa: Berkeley says that the world is real because if it were not real, we could not experience it.

Srila Prabhupada: That is also our version. The world is real because it was created by God. But the Mayavadis say that the world is unreal. Brahma satyamjagan mithya.

Syamasundara dasa: He states that the only way we can know that this table exists is through our senses, but these sense impressions are subtle, not material.

Srila Prabhupada: Instead of saying that they are not material, he should say that they are abstract. Abstract is the original position. The Sunyavadis cannot understand the abstract; therefore they say that the abstract is zero, nothing. But the abstract is not nothing.

Syamasundara dasa: Berkeley says that if this table were composed of matter, we would not be able to experience it because the only objects capable of entering our experience must be sensitive substances.

Srila Prabhupada: Krsna is nondifferent from everything because everything is Krsna. Fools look at the Deity and say, "This is not Krsna, this is stone." Because a fool cannot see anything but stone, God appears to him as stone. Unfortunate atheists make these distinctions. They will say, "Everything is Brahman, but not this stone Deity." Or, they will say, "Why go to the temple to worship when God is everywhere?" What they are saying is that God is everywhere, but not in the temple. This means that they have no clear idea. We see that everything has form. Are we to assume that we have form and God hasn't? Impersonalists have no conception of Krsna's original form. Krsna very kindly and mercifully appears before us so that we can experience Him. Ultimately, there is no distinction between matter and spirit, but because at the present moment I cannot conceive of spiritual form, God appears in the form of the Deity. Krsna says:

kleso 'dhikataras tesam
avyaktahi gatir duhkham
dehavadbhir avapyate

"For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied." (Bg. 12.5) People are going through unnecessary labor in order to meditate on something impersonal. Because they have no idea of God, they superficially say, "Everything is God." Still, they cannot see God in the temple in Hisarca-vigraha form. They cannot understand why all the acaryas like Ramanujacarya and Madhvacarya have established these temples. Are these acaryas simply fools? There has been Deity worship since time immemorial. Are all the people who have participated in Deity worship fools?

Syamasundara dasa: Berkeley says that spirit is the only genuine substance, that there is no substance that exists without thinking. In other words, there is thinking involved even in objects like this table. This table is made of spirit, and spirit is thinking and thoughtful.

Srila Prabhupada: That's nice. His conclusion is that everything is Brahman because thinking is also Brahman. At the present moment, we cannot perceive the spiritual; therefore God, out of His unlimited kindness, comes to us in a small, tangible, concrete form that we can dress, feed, and handle. We cannot say that this form is different from God.

arcye visnau siladhir gurusu
nara-matir vaisnave jati-buddhih

"One who considers the arca-murti or worshipable Deity of Lord Visnu to be stone, the spiritual master to be an ordinary human being, and a Vaisnava to belong to a particular caste or creed, is possessed of hellish intelligence and is doomed." (Padma Purana) It is horrible to think of these spiritual things in a material way. We should always offer respect and consider that Krsna is present. We should not think that the Deity is simply stone and cannot hear or see. There are sixty-four items mentioned in Nectar of Devotion (Bhakti- rasamrta-sindhu) that guide us in Deity worship.

Hayagriva dasa: In his last dialogue, Berkeley writes: "The apprehension of a distant Deity naturally disposes men to be negligent of their moral actions, which they would be more cautious of in case they thought Him immediately present and acting on their minds without the interposition of matter, or unthinking second causes."

Srila Prabhupada: The Vedic sastras say that God is everywhere; He is not distant. In Queen Kunti's prayers, it is said that God is both distant and near. God's proximity is manifest in His Paramatma feature. He is living in everyone's heart. Isvarah sarva-bhutanamhrd-dese 'rjuna tisthati (Bg. 18.61). If He is within our heart, how can He be distant? At the same time, He is present in His personal feature in Goloka Vrndavana, which is far, far beyond this material existence. That is God's all-pervasive quality. Although He is far, far away, He is still very near. The sun may be very far away, but its light is present in my room. Similarly, God is both far away and also within my heart. One who is expert in seeing God sees Him in both ways. Goloka eva nivasaty akhilatma-bhutah ( Brahma-samhita 5.37). Although He is living in His own abode, eternally enjoying Himself with His associates, He is still present everywhere. That is God.

Hayagriva dasa: In what way is God concerned with the moral or immoral actions of man? Is God indifferent to them, or has He simply set the laws of nature in motion, allowing men to follow their own course and reap the fruits of their own karma?

Srila Prabhupada: Because we have disobeyed God, we are thrown into this material world and placed under the supervision of material nature for correction. As long as we are in the material world, there is a distinction between what is moral and immoral. Actually, moral and immoral have no meaning, but in the material world, we have conceptions of them. When we are in the spiritual world, there is no conception of immorality. For instance, the gopis went to see Krsna in the dead of night, and ordinarily this is considered immoral, but because they were going to see Krsna, it was not immoral. In one sense, in the spiritual world everything is moral. In the material world there is duality in order for the material creation to work properly.

Syamasundara dasa: Berkeley gives two arguments for the existence of God: first, the things we perceive in our waking state are more vivid than those things we imagine or dream about, and this is because God's mind is activating these things.

Srila Prabhupada: We accept that. God is the superior mind, and because God sees, we can see. Because God walks, we can walk. This is also admitted inBrahma-samhita: yasya prabha prabhavato jagadanda-koti (Brahma-samhita 5.40). Due to the bodily effulgence of Krsna, many universes have come into being. In these universes, there are many varieties, many planets, and on each of the planets are many different living entities. All these varieties are there because they are emanating from Krsna.

Syamasundara dasa: Secondly, the things we perceive do not obey our wishes as our imaginations do, but resist them because they obey the will of God. God's will is arbitrary, and we cannot predict it.

Srila Prabhupada: Therefore it is better to always obey the orders of God. If we do what God says, we are perfect. In any case, there is no need for all this speculation. The basic proof of God is God. Krsna says, "I am God," and Narada, Vyasadeva, and Arjuna agree, "Yes, You are God." If we accept Krsna as God, we save ourselves much labor. Why speculate? In the causal ocean, the Maha-visnu is inhaling and exhaling, and many universes are being manifest and then destroyed by His breathing. When He breathes out, all the universes are created, and when He breathes in, they all return to His body. This entire creation is the dream of God, Maha-visnu.

Syamasundara dasa: Berkeley would maintain that our dreams are imperfect, and when we open our eyes, we see that everything is perfect; therefore there must be a perfect person, a perfect dreamer.

Srila Prabhupada: But when we open our eyes and see perfection, that is also dreaming. But the dreaming of the perfect is perfect also. That is absolute. Unless we accept the absolute, how can we say that His dream is perfect? The dream of the absolute is also perfect.

Syamasundara dasa: He also asserts a doctrine of divine arbitrariness. Because God's will is arbitrary, we cannot predict what will happen.

Srila Prabhupada: That is correct. Therefore a Vaisnava says, "If Krsna wills, I will do this." He never says, "I will do this." If Krsna so desires, a thing will be done. A Vaisnava always considers himself helpless without God. As far as we are concerned, we are always incapable.

Syamasundara dasa: Berkeley states that our repeated experience will discern the regular activity or will of God, and that by experiencing nature, we can understand that God's will is regular. In other words, we can come to understand the habits of God by observing the laws of nature.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita that nature is working under His direction (Bg. 9.10). Nature is not blind. Because it is working under the direction of God, it is perfect.

Syamasundara dasa: He also states that there is no necessary connection between cause and effect, but that things follow one another in sequence in time.

Srila Prabhupada: If there is no cause, why does he say that effect follows cause in a sequential order? This is contradictory. The supreme cause is Krsna, the cause of all causes. In that sense, we cannot say that there is no cause. The ultimate cause is the supreme, and to Krsna there is no difference between cause and effect. Since He is the supreme cause, He affects everything. In the absolute sense, there is no difference between cause and effect.

Syamasundara dasa: As an example, he would say that a rock falling in the water will not necessarily splash, but that it regularly follows in sequence that it will splash.

Srila Prabhupada: But we say that if God does not will this, it will not happen. It is all dependent on the supreme will. It is not necessary for the rock to splash. It is not compulsory. If God so wills, it will simply float. We admit that everything is affected by the will of God; therefore our best course is to depend totally on His will.

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