My very first blog entry as ‘Provocateur’ concerned the nature of Reality (http://collegeblog.midbible.ac.uk/category/provocateur/page/6/). 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.
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.”