|'Today I saw a chair that wasn't there. It wasn't there again today. I wish I wish, it would go away'|
Of all the Empiricist philosophers, the notions of Bishop George Berkeley seem to be the most absurd. Most folk, if they regard him at all, remember his idea that: 'material objects do not exist independently of the observing mind'.
Berkeley (1685-1753) was born in Ireland to William Berkeley, a member of the English nobility. He enjoyed a varied and well travelled professional life and in 1734 was appointed the Bishop of Cloyne, Ireland. Berkeley wrote extensively on many subjects throughout his life including optics and mathematics although, much of his controversial philosophical work was composed whilst in his mid-20s.
Berkeley accepted Locke's notion that secondary sensible qualities of objects are mere ideas in the mind. Thus, the colour of an object will vary according to ambient light. The sound elicited from an object will depend on the distance of the observer from the object; place an object in a vacuum and there is no sound at all. The smell of an object will change whether the perceiver has sinusitis, or not. There is nothing very controversial here and the savants of the time had no trouble assimilating such notions, although they quibbled over intellectual trifles and minutiae. Where Berkeley deviated from common sensibility concerned his concept of material objects. Locke acknowledged that secondary sensible qualities are observer dependent but did not deny the independent existence of material objects. A material object, according to Locke, has primary characteristics such as size, shape and solidity which exist as physical entities and therefore, owe an existence independent of the casual onlooker. Berkeley took the case one step further and declared that all primary, so-called solid material characteristics are illusory and only exist in the mind of the observer. Berkeley declared: 'can an object exist if there is no one to observe that object?' Berkeley thought it incoherent to consider any object existing, materially. Objects are only a perception and a conjured notion of the mind; without minds there can be no material world. By extension, a mind can only know perceptions and ideas, not the objects themselves. This concept in itself leads to solipsism. Solipsism considers that nothing can exist outside the mind. In its extreme form, it states that only 'my mind' exists and that everything in the world is simply a projection of my insular existence. Therefore, any comments pertaining to this post will be nought but projections of my turbulent and disordered psyche. If no comments are forthcoming it will be an indication that my current medication is starting to take hold.
So, according to the good Bishop, what happens to a chair placed in a room? If we stand in the room the chair exists in the mind of the perceiver. If we leave the room and slam the door shut the chair is no longer seen and therefore no longer exists. Everything in the universe is immaterial and what we 'see' is an immaterial idea elaborated by a sentient mind. Do objects actually comply with Berkeley's shaky existence? When the door shuts will the chair disappear? Berkeley manages to overcome this problem by stating that all objects are perceived by an infinite god. Thus, all unperceived matter is ultimately a projection of the mind of god. I’m glad Berkeley proposed this solution. Otherwise, I would be forever leaving the door slightly ajar, trying to determine the exact moment the chair ‘winked’ out of existence. I suspect the project would have been demanding and ultimately I would have been driven quite sane.
As expected, Berkeley's radical notions were greeted with ridicule by the leading minds of the day. Dr Samuel Johnson famously kicked a large stone and exclaimed: "I refute it thus". Berkeley's thesis defies our common-sense intuitive grasp of what we consider as 'reality'. The genius of the proposition becomes apparent when we try to refute it. Like extreme solipsism, immaterialism is a hard concept to falsify, if we stick to rational analysis. Some say that Berkeley's concept is not so daft in the light of modern quantum theory. Experimental evidence suggests that matter, at the quantum level, does not exist until it is measured or in other words, unless observed.