The Bishop George Berkeley is known as one of the three great British empiricists and for first proposing one of the most interesting and unique ideas in philosophy. What if everything wasn’t really what it seemed? What if the so called matter you were walking on was nothing more than an idea? Sounds like an idea that evolves out of a long night of passing the bong, but it’s not! This concept is actually the central belief behind Berkley’s idealism.
Idealism is the belief that reality is solely a collection of ides or minds — as opposed to materialism (belief in only matter) and dualism (belief in both matter and mind). Berkeley lets this idea come to life in a book he wrote called, The Principles of Human Knowledge. The basis behind Berkeley’s belief is the Latin phrase: esse ist percipi, or “to be is to be perceived.” Whatever is not being perceived does not exist. So, if we think of the age old question: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to perceive it, does it make a sound? Well, Berkeley would contend that it does not. Whats the basis for believing such a radical idea? Let’s find out…
So, how on earth would someone believe that something doesn’t exist simply because he/she is currently not perceiving it? Let’s try an experiment. I want you to think of a specific object you currently aren’t perceiving right now… Got something? Okay, let me ask you this. What the hell are you thinking about? If you’re thinking of a particular object in your mind, and you have an image of that object in your mind, then aren’t you thinking about a perceived object? One with a taste, smell, feel, look etc..? Surely this object in your mind is being pictured probably from some standpoint around that object as it would be seen if perceived by you. Berkeley believes that it’s impossible to think this way because to do so leads to an inconstancy. But, another problem now arises. Where does everything go when we don’t perceive it? Berkeley has a solution for that too.
Introducing the omni-perceiver
So where does the refrigerator go when we’re not in the kitchen? Or, how about your car when you’re not in the garage? Remember, Berkeley believes that everything is an idea, and not comprised of continually existing matter. But, to get around the idea of things dropping out of existence when we’re not around, Berkeley brings God into the picture. He believes that everything is an idea in the mind of god. This explains why when I open up the refrigerator the milk is still there. Without God to continue to perceive and watch your milk exist over time, there would be no reason for it to even be there again when I reopen the door later on. Fortunately for us, even if there is no one around to perceive your refrigerator, we don’t have to worry, God has it covered.
Berkeley’s idealism is quite an interesting idea. For most, it’s difficult to understand because it is so radically different then what we are all used to. We also have to keep in mind that Berkeley was a Bishop, an authoritative figure in the christian clergy. This makes his opinion a bit bias especially since his idealism hinges on the very existence of God. With all this said, Berkeley did influence a very large group of idealists to follow such as Immanuel Kant, and Arthur Schopenhauer. As crazy as his idea sounds, it is an interesting concept and the more you really think about it without any presumptions, the less wild it sounds. Until next time, Keep thinking!