An Analysis of Arguments by Berkeley for the Existence of a God

Categories: God

When first encountered with this question, the answer seems almost simple and obvious: one, possibly two. All one would have to do is read Berkeley and count exactly how many arguments he gives for the existence of God. However, it seems that after reading the text and reading two of the responses to the text and a response to one of the responses, it really is not that simple at all. Instead it became horribly complicated with questions of the importance and definitions of certain words that Berkeley uses.

In my essay, I am going to present Berkeley’s supposed arguments for the existence of God followed by three different philosopher’s opinions of what he actually meant in using these arguments and what the purpose of each argument was. The philosopher’s names are Jonathan Bennett, E.J. Furlong, and Jonathan Dancy.

The arguments that supposedly exist in Berkeley’s Principles and Dialogues are not presented in argument form, but I will use instead, Bennett’s argumentative form of the arguments.

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By using his form, I do not concede that Bennett is correct in his own opinions, but that he has laid out a clear path to the arguments that Berkeley has given us. The arguments’ names for the remainder of the essay will be the Continuity argument and the Independence argument (Bennett calls this argument the passivity argument, but for purely aesthetic reasons alone, I prefer to call it the independence argument). First of all, the continuity argument may be found, albeit in controversy, in 48 presented by Berkeley:

For though we hold indeed the objects of sense to be nothing else but ideas which cannot exist unperceived; yet we may not hence conclude they have no existence except only while they are perceived by us, since there may be some other spirit that perceives them, though we do not… It does not follow from the foregoing principles, that bodies are annihilated and created every moment, or exist not at all during the intervals between our perception of them.

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The argument form of this statement, according to Bennett would then go as follows:

(a) Objects are collections of ideas, and therefore cannot exist when not perceived by some spirit;

(b) No idea, and therefore no collection of ideas, can exist not perceived by some spirit;

(c) Objects do sometimes exist when not perceived by any human spirit;

(d) There must be one or more non human spirits which perceive objects when no human spirits perceives them.

What Berkeley is supposedly asking when presenting the first premise is if a mind is not perceiving of an idea, then how can that idea be called one that is existing? The second premise is simply a statement that material items as we think we know them, are just collections of ideas themselves, so they, too, fall victim to the need of perception to subsist. Since it is ‘obvious’ that objects do sometimes exist without human perception, the conclusion that there is a non human form, God, perceiving them while we do not is a necessary completion.

The second, the independence argument, stems from 29 in the Principles, and whose importance is certainly more evident in the Principles and the Three Dialogues than that of the continuity argument:

When in broad daylight I open my eyes, it is not in my power to choose whether I shall see or not, or to determine what particular objects shall present themselves to my view, and so likewise as to the hearing and other senses, the ideas imprinted on them are not creatures of my will. There is therefore some other will or spirit that produces them.

The argument form of this statement is given by Bennett:

(a) My ideas of sense (i.e. those which I have when I perceive objective states of affairs) come into my mind without being caused to do so by any act of my will;

(b) The occurrence of any idea must be caused by the will of some being in whose mind the idea occurs;

(c) My ideas of sense are in the mind of, and caused by the will of, some being other than myself.

Where the independence argument differs from the continuity argument is that the independence places more emphasis on the origination of ideas rather than the maintenance of them. Since there are these things, ideas of sense, which must be caused by something, yet aren’t caused by me, there must be caused by some greater being, God.

Bennett’s View

Bennett feels that although there certainly is something presented in the Principles which some readers interpret as an argument for continuity, it isn’t at all an argument to begin with. Since it is used so sparingly in the Principles, and mentioned just briefly in the Three Dialogues, it is obviously because Berkeley did ‘not seriously wish to employ the continuity argument at all’ and in fact, didn’t even care about continuity.

The above stated argument from 48 and 45 are seriously doubted by Bennett to even be a part of the continuity argument. In 45, Berkeley says, ‘…Upon shutting my eyes, all the furniture in the room is reduced to nothing, and barely upon opening them it is created.’ This is an example of perception being necessary for existence. Bennett does not doubt this fact, but what he does doubt is Berkeley’s willingness to believe wholeheartedly that objects really don’t disappear when we do not perceive them, or at least to put this belief into words. What Berkeley never does, Bennett says, is ‘reply that of course that would be absurd, but… On the contrary, he says that the charge itself [to think otherwise] is absurd…’ This is where Berkeley challenges the reader to bring forth an example of ‘ideas or their archetypes’ that exist without being perceived. Even the most important part of 48, stated above is doubted by Bennett to be at all conclusive:

The crucial expressions are ‘we may thence conclude’, ‘there may be some other spirit’, ‘it does not therefore follow’. These are not the words of someone who proposes to base the continuity argument on the absurdity that objects have a continuous existence.

Finally, however, Bennett finds a solution in the third dialogue. It occurs on page 178 of the Penguin edition and is, according to Bennett, the only part in either of the two publications in which the continuity argument is brought up:

When I deny sensible things an existence out of the mind, I do not mean my mind in particular, but all minds. Now it is plain they have an existence exterior to my mind, since I find them by experience to be independent of it. There is therefore some other mind wherein they exist, during the intervals between the times of my perceiving them: as likewise they did before my birth, and would do after my supposed annihilation.

However, the ambiguity of the word ‘depend’ etc. worries Bennett in this case, as it has in several other cases. In the first case Berkeley seems to use the word ‘independent’ to mean ‘not caused by’. In the second use of it, it seems to mean ‘owned by some mind other than mine’.

The reason that this is so important Bennett is that he believes that this is the only case throughout not just the third dialogue, but from the entire book, including Principles, in which he mentions the continuity argument. Yet, it seems that when Berkeley’s arguments for the existence of God are mentioned, this is certainly one of them. Bennett wonders why.

We could conclude that Bennett believes that the continuity argument is (a) not a valid one, (b) not thought of by Berkeley as important enough to consider, and (c) not influential enough on the remainder of the work to even be counted as one of Berkeley’s arguments for the existence of God. Although he does consider the two arguments ‘agreeably complimentary’ by nature, the continuity argument is not present enough for this to be an actuality.

Furlong’s and Dancy’s Views

E.J. Furlong does not necessarily disagree with Bennett on the issue of whether or not Berkeley stated the continuity argument in the Principles. In fact he says that … Mr. Bennett is certainly right in claiming that in the Principles Berkeley does not state his continuity argument for existence’. However, where he disagrees with Bennett is on the subject of whether or not Berkeley actually cared for the continuity argument, or whether he was concerned with intermittency’ (or the on and off again existence that esse est percipi seems to breed). In order to do this, however Furlong needs to go to the notebooks of Berkeley. In the notebooks, he finds a total of fourteen entries that are relevant to the concept of continuity. In his argument that continuity is important to Berkeley contains a list of five, more precisely, entries 194, 293a, 477a, 801, and 802, that pertain. Berkeley seems to realize the problem that is created in this esse est percipi and analyzes it. The conclusion to this is that continuity exists, and with it breathes a sigh of relief at finding this:

It is plain then that at the end of his notebook that the tree continues to be when no one’s about in the quad… When he had written his ‘intermittency entries’ 194 and 293a it had looked as if esse est percipi and the commonsense belief… were incompatible. Now he has found, to his relief, that they are compatible.

Dancy agrees with Furlong on most of the points, adding that the standard view, offered by Bennett’ is that while Berkeley’s continuity argument is present, it is circular, and is ‘not available to him’. However, he says, ‘we should be cautious before admitting that Berkeley does in fact use the continuity argument at all’. The conclusion that Dancy comes to is that he does agree with Bennett in that ‘Berkeley does not in fact use the continuity argument, despite the existing consensus of opinion that he does’. On the other hand, however, he disagrees with Bennett when Bennett says that Berkeley didn’t see the importance of continuity at all. According to Dancy, ‘Berkeley took it that considerations of independence and continuity cannot be disentangled, and are all part of one argument’.


If we are to look at the evidence before us as to exactly how many arguments that are laid before us as to Berkeley’s existence of God is concerned, it seems clear that there is only one. All three of the readers of philosophy agree, and in fact, all one would have to do is read the text to find out, that Berkeley really only had one argument. However, the disagreement occurs when the question arises ‘What influences are put into this argument?’ Bennett says that the independence argument exists by itself, while Dancy and Furlong believe that the two arguments, continuity (I hesitate to call this an argument, but I say this in a more traditional sense) and independence are inseparable and compliment each other. Evidently this area of Berkeley is ambiguous, and not a simple one to comprehend, especially when just reading Berkeley’s published texts.


  1. The Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, by George Berkeley, Penguin edition
  2. Locke and Berkeley, C.B. Martin, D.M. Armstrong
  3. Berkeley: an Introduction, Jonathan Dancy

Cite this page

An Analysis of Arguments by Berkeley for the Existence of a God. (2021, Sep 23). Retrieved from

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