فصل 15

دوره: تاریخچه کوتاهی از فلسفه / درس 15

فصل 15

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chapter 15

The Elephant in the Room

George Berkeley (and John Locke)

Have you ever wondered if the light really does go off when you shut the fridge door and no one can see it? How could you tell? Perhaps you could rig up a remote camera. But then what happens when you turn the camera off? What about a tree falling in a forest where no one can hear it? Does it really make a noise? How do you know your bedroom continues to exist unobserved when you aren’t in it? Perhaps it vanishes every time you go out. You could ask someone else to check for you. The difficult question is: does it carry on existing when nobody is observing it? It’s not clear how you could answer these questions. Most of us think that objects do continue to exist unobserved because that is the simplest explanation. Most of us too believe that the world we observe is out there somewhere: it doesn’t just exist in our minds.

Though according to George Berkeley (1685–1753), an Irish philosopher who became Bishop of Cloyne, anything that stops being observed ceases to exist. If no mind is directly aware of the book you are reading, it won’t exist any more. When you are looking at the book you can see and touch the pages, but all that means for Berkeley is that you have experiences. It doesn’t mean that there is something out there in the world causing these experiences. The book is just a collection of ideas in your mind and in other people’s minds (and perhaps in God’s mind), not something beyond your mind. For Berkeley, the whole notion of an outside world made no sense at all. All of this seems to go against common sense. Surely we are surrounded by objects that continue to exist whether or not anyone is aware of them, aren’t we? Berkeley thought not.

Understandably, many people believed he had gone mad when he first started spelling out this theory. In fact it was only after his death that philosophers started taking him seriously and recognized what he was trying to do. When he heard about Berkeley’s theory, his contemporary Samuel Johnson kicked a stone hard in the street and declared, ‘I refute it thus’. Johnson’s point was that he was certain that material things do exist and aren’t just composed of ideas – he could feel that stone hard against his toe when he kicked it, so Berkeley must be wrong. But Berkeley was more intelligent than Johnson believed him to be. Feeling the hardness of a stone against your foot wouldn’t prove the existence of material objects, only the existence of the idea of a hard stone. It’s just that for Berkeley what we call a stone is nothing more than the sensations it gives rise to. There is no ‘real’ physical stone behind it causing the pain in the foot. In fact there is no reality at all beyond the ideas that we have.

Berkeley is sometimes described as an idealist and sometimes as an immaterialist. He was an idealist because he believed that all that exist are ideas; he was an immaterialist because he denied that material things – physical objects – exist. Like many of the philosophers discussed in this book, he was fascinated by the relationship between appearance and reality. Most philosophers, he believed, were mistaken about what that relationship was. In particular, he argued that John Locke was wrong about how our thoughts relate to the world. It’s easiest to understand Berkeley’s approach by comparing it with Locke’s.

If you look at an elephant, Locke thought, you don’t see the elephant itself. What you take to be an elephant is actually a representation; what he called an idea in your mind, something like a picture of an elephant. Locke used the word ‘idea’ to cover anything we could possibly think about or perceive. If you see a grey elephant, the greyness can’t simply be something in the elephant, because it would look a different colour under a different light. The greyness is what Locke called a ‘secondary quality’. It is produced by a combination of features of the elephant and features of our sensory apparatus, in this case the eye. The elephant’s skin colour, its texture and the smell of its dung are all secondary qualities.

Primary qualities, such as size and shape, according to Locke, are real features of things in the world. Ideas of primary qualities resemble those things. If you see a square object the real object that gives rise to your idea of that object is also square. But if you see a red square, the real object in the world that causes your perception isn’t red. Real objects are colourless. Sensations of colour, Locke believed, come from the interaction between the microscopic textures of objects and our visual system.

There’s a serious problem here, though. Locke believed that there is a world out there, the world that scientists try to describe, but that we only get at it indirectly. He was a realist in that he believed in the existence of a real world. This real world continues to exist even when no one is aware of it. The difficulty for Locke is knowing what that world is like. He thinks that our ideas of primary qualities such as shape and size are good pictures of that reality. But how could he possibly tell? As an empiricist, someone who believes that experience is the source of all our knowledge, he should have had good evidence for the claim that ideas of primary qualities resemble the real world. But his theory doesn’t explain how he could ever know what the real world is like since we can’t go and check this. How could he be so sure that ideas of primary qualities, such as shape and size, resemble the qualities of the real world out there?

Berkeley claimed to be more consistent. Unlike Locke he thought that we do perceive the world directly. That is because the world consists of nothing but ideas. The whole of experience is all that there is. In other words, the world and everything in it only exist in people’s minds.

Everything you experience and think about – a chair or a table, the number 3, and so on – for Berkeley only exists in the mind. An object is just a collection of ideas that you and other people have of it. It doesn’t have any existence beyond that. Without someone to see or hear them, objects simply stop existing, because objects aren’t anything over and above the ideas that people (and God) have of them. Berkeley summed up this strange view in Latin as ‘Esse est percipi’ – to be (or exist) is to be perceived.

So the fridge light can’t be on, and the tree can’t make a noise when there is no mind there to experience them. That might seem the obvious conclusion to draw from Berkeley’s immaterialism. But Berkeley didn’t think that objects were continually coming into and out of existence. Even he recognized that that would be weird. He believed that God guaranteed the continuing existence of our ideas. God was constantly perceiving things in the world, so they continued to exist.

This was captured in a pair of limericks written in the early twentieth century. Here’s the first one, which highlights the strangeness of the idea that a tree would stop existing if no one observed it: There once was a man who said ‘God Must think it exceedingly odd

If he finds that this tree

Continues to be When there’s no one about in the Quad.’

(A ‘quad’ is the name given to the squares of grass in courtyards in Oxford colleges.) This is surely right. The hardest thing to accept about Berkeley’s theory is that a tree wouldn’t be there if no one was experiencing it. And here is the solution, a message from God: 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.

An obvious difficulty for Berkeley, however, is explaining how we can ever be mistaken about anything. If all that we have are ideas, and there is no further world behind them, how do we tell the difference between real objects and optical illusions? His answer was that the difference between experience of what we call reality and experience of an illusion is that when we experience ‘reality’ our ideas don’t contradict each other. For example, if you see an oar in water, it may look bent at the point where it breaks the surface. For a realist such as Locke, the truth is that the oar is really straight – it just looks bent. For Berkeley, we have an idea of a bent oar, but this contradicts the ideas we will have if we reach into the water and touch it. We’ll then feel that it is straight.

Berkeley didn’t spend every hour of his day defending his immaterialism. There was much more to his life than that. He was a sociable and likeable man, and his friends included the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. In later life Berkeley hatched an ambitious plan to set up a college on the island of Bermuda and managed to raise quite a lot of money to do this. Unfortunately the plan failed, partly because he hadn’t realized how far from the mainland Bermuda was and how difficult it was to get supplies there. He did, however, after his death, have a West Coast university named after him – Berkeley in California. That came from a poem he wrote about America which included the line ‘Westward the course of empire takes its way’, a line that appealed to one of the university’s founders.

Perhaps even stranger than Berkeley’s immaterialism was his passion in later life for promoting tar water, an American folk medicine made from pine tar and water. This was supposed to cure just about every illness. He even went so far as to write a long poem about how amazing it was. Although tar water was popular for a time, and may even have worked as a cure for minor ailments since it does have mild antiseptic properties, it is, rightly, not a popular cure now. Berkeley’s idealism hasn’t caught on either.

Berkeley is an example of a philosopher who was prepared to follow an argument wherever it went, even when it seemed to lead to conclusions that defied common sense. Voltaire, in contrast, had little time for this kind of thinker, or, indeed, for most philosophers.

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