The Nature of Reality (Again)

My very first blog entry as ‘Provocateur’ concerned the nature of Reality ( I thought it about time I added a small update to that topic to see if I can provoke more discussion.

For those interested in questions on the nature of reality, one key thinker who can’t be avoided is George Berkeley (1685-1753). Berkeley became a bishop in the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. He was both a scientist and theologian, writing on subjects as diverse as economics and medicine. Berkeley’s main contribution to philosophy was his famous dictum ‘to be is to be perceived’ (Esse est percipi).

Locke (and other philosophers before Berkeley), had believed that the things we perceive have primary and secondary qualities. It was claimed that colour, taste and so on were ‘secondary’ or subjective qualities which depended on a mind to interpret them. But ‘primary’ qualities such as size and solidity were believed to be really ‘out there’ and not just interpretations of mind. A red brick for example is a solid, real thing we see and feel, even though the red colour may be ‘secondary’ – the result of the way light is reflected off the brick and interpreted by our minds.

Berkeley saw through the fallacious reasoning here and pointed out that the so-called ‘primary’ qualities depended just as much on our sensory interpretation as did the supposed ‘secondary’ qualities. Our idea of the brick being of a certain size and solidity depends on our sense of sight and touch. This led Berkeley to the astonishing conclusion that matter doesn’t exist at all! All that exists is ideas and minds.

We experience many things via our senses; shape, colour, feel, odour etc., and we link such ideas together to form composite ideas. For example, we put together the ideas red, smooth, round etc., and come up with ‘apple’. But each of the component ideas involved exist only within a mind. There is no abstract ‘thing’ out there which is just ‘red’. If we think about this, we’ll admit that the scent of an apple, the smell of an orange… smooth, for example, simply cannot exist abstractly without a mind. And just in case we still have the notion that our ideas about things are representations of tangible things which are actually out there, Berkeley puts us straight. He asks: ‘I appeal to anyone whether it be sense to assert that a colour is like something which is invisible.’

All of this led many thinkers to assume that Berkeley was suggesting that things disappear when we stop looking at them! (1) ‘Not at all’, says Berkeley; remember that famous saying of his, that to be is to be perceived? Well, everything is constantly being perceived… by God. And this is why my pan of baked beans will still be warming on the cooker when I return to the kitchen after typing this. At least, I hope it will; I’m famished.

End note
1) Ronald Knox wrote a little poem on this; the second verse was added later by an unknown wag.

There was a young man who said “God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that a tree
Should continue to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.

“Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the quad!
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by, Yours Faithfully, God.”

  1. Very thought provoking post.

    I think that information theory is perhaps also useful here. Then I can reformulate “minds and ideas” as processors and information. Specifically, lets says that information is in fact the fundamental building block of reality rather than matter. I’ll work with the most common definition of information – there must exist a sender, receiver and common interpretation function of the communicated data for it to be information. Therefore information is naturally relative to the individuals (i.e. based on their motivations and knowledge level), although there’s some disagreement as to whether multiple interpretations give rise to more meaning or nil overall meaning. Also what exactly is interpretation is slightly uncertain, but I take it as meaning that the information becomes directly applicable to the receiver. So let’s continue.

    For this conjecture to be true (matter = information), we must demonstrate that there is nothing which we observe which is not information. To return to your analogy, how should we – information wise – deconstruct a brick? Can everything about that brick be given purely in terms of information? Specifically, can all which entails the brick’s existence be formulated as information by identifying a sender, receiver and interpretation function. If we can do this then we can consequently say that, at the very least, matter is not a fundamental concept at all – information is all there really is. God would be the ultimate sender of all information, which would fit since He “spoke” the world into existence. Reality is simply an accumulation of information sent from God.

    In this paradigm we have it that humans do not create information as such, the same as we don’t create “matter” (if the first law of thermodynamics is to be believed). We discover it (as individuals) by finding its interpretation and joining it with other information to build bigger blocks of information, which can in turn allow us to interpret other information. Hence the universe can indeed be divided into two (relative to an individual/mind/processor), but slightly differently – that which we know and that which we don’t know, the observed and the unobserved information. Now this whole argument falls apart if there are things which cannot be observed by someone (i.e. there is no possible receiver). But if that were true then empirical science and logic would be fundamentally flawed anyway.

    You also have to accept this definition of information, which is maybe slightly tenuous. Perhaps information is in fact a subset of ideas (the others can’t be communicated). Not sure.


  2. Hello Si and thanks for your very interesting comment on my recent blog entry. You are exactly on the correct wavelength; Berekely was not saying ‘there isn’t really anything there’. He was saying that ‘matter’ isn’t there.

    He too spoke a great deal about ideas and the distinction between them and minds which perceive those ideas. In short, his theory looked at as a whole, simply posited that there is no matter, but it doesn’t make much difference to the way we live our lives. And one of the (several) ‘side benefits’ (so to speak) and perhaps the most important one (for me anyway), is that his theory ‘proves’ the existence of God.

    Thanks again; with every blessing


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