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George Berkeley (1685-1753)
by Terence Green
Not one thing exists
The world is merely a thought:
Bishop George Berkeley was an Irish philosopher who proposed one of the more audacious, outlandish, or preposterous theories you’re likely to meet. Unlike some bishops, then and now, Berkeley was a sincere believer, and a man of delicate sensibilities. He was repulsed by the idea, then popular due to the influence of Newton and Descartes, that the universe was essentially a big machine put into motion by God. Not only did this separate us from God – once the machine is operating, God just stands by in his overalls like a happy mechanic, only intervening when it breaks down – it was just ugly. Where’s the beauty in such a vision?
Berkeley’s response was ingenious (or crazy): the world of matter doesn’t actually exist! You may think that the apple you’re eating has an independent material existence. You may see it, taste it, smell it, feel it, even hear its magnificent crunch. But in fact, for Berkeley, there are only the experiences, with nothing material behind them. That apple, like everything else, only exists in minds: in your mind, the mind of others also experiencing it, and ultimately, in the mind of God. In Berkeley’s snappy Latin, esse est percipi: that is, ‘To be is to be perceived’. It’s true that the world we perceive with our senses appears to be material, but to Berkeley that’s just an illusion, or a confusion: all that actually exists are ideas and the minds that perceive them, matter doesn’t exist. So where do these ideas ultimately come from? God, of course! Only obtuse and inattentive people, Berkeley continues, could possibly think otherwise. And, says the Bishop, if you find this hard to believe, then look in your Bible – it also doesn’t say that the so-called material world exists independent from the mind of God.
If you do find this a bit hard to accept, you’re not alone: it was said that the French philosopher Malebranche ceased to exist in the material realm after suffering a fit of apoplexy brought on by arguing with Berkeley’s idea.
© Terence Green 2021
Terence Green is a writer, historian and lecturer who lives in Paekakariki, New Zealand.