Common Sense? I

Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) is famous, or infamous, for arguing that esse est percipi – “to be is to be perceived”. What we humans experience as material objects exist solely in our perceptions of them. In other words, there are no material objects as such, but only minds (human and divine) containing mental ‘representations’. Hence the well-known question, ‘Is the moon still there when no one is looking at it?, and also the delightfully clever limericks above.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, characteristically perhaps, ridiculed Berkeley’s ideas. As his biographer James Boswell reports – “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it THUS’, he said.

In the same camp as Samuel Johnson was Jonathan Swift (‘Gulliver’s Travels’), who said he needn’t open his door for Berkeley, since the bishop ought to be able to walk through it. Such ‘refutations’ appear to deliver a suitably ‘solid’ victory for common sense, but they also suggest that Berkeley was a village idiot, rather than a renowned philosopher and theologian. Are we seriously to imagine that such supposed ‘refutations’ never occurred to the learned bishop? James Boswell is saying that although refuting such “sophistry” should have been easy, it proved “impossible” in practice. Others have had the same experience, and one wonders if the kicking of the stone amounts to little more than making the most of a bad job?

This blog post, however, is not about ways in which Berkeley’s philosophy, wilfully or otherwise, can be understood or misunderstood. Any “Great Philosophers” book will deal with that. Let’s just say for now, that Berkeley’s ideas do throw up a ‘problem’, but one that he provided a ‘solution’ for, by smuggling God in through the back door – hence the limericks! 

This post is about the ‘common sense’ that assured Dr. Johnson that a rock is solid. Common sense, we should recall, tells us that a cloudless sky is coloured blue, which we now know to be an illusion, due the way sunlight reacts with the earth’s atmosphere. Common sense tells us the planet we stand on is motionless when, beneath our feet, it’s rotating at high speed around its axis as well as, at the same time and in a different direction, around the sun. Feeling dizzy? Common sense tells us the sun ‘rises’ in the east, and ‘sets’ in the west, but that’s yet another illusion. The list could go on.

This is not to say that ‘common sense’ is so much rubbish. After all, it ferries us safely around our world from day to day, and often contains the distilled ‘wisdom of our ancestors’. But it can sometimes deceive us, and lead us to believe what is not the case. It therefore needs to be regularly challenged, scrutinised and either verified or modified, rather than being unthinkingly accepted as obvious ‘fact’ or ‘truth’. Philosophies and Religions of the West and East have, for centuries, explored the difference between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’. Platonism and Buddhism come to mind. So have the Arts such as, more recently, the movie trilogy based on “The Matrix”. And to this exploration, modern science is making its own fascinating contributions. 

All of this, for me at any rate, has important implications for how I can best try to understand words such as ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ or ‘God’. But, in the meantime, let’s just be suitably grateful for common sense while, at the same time, being prepared to have it challenged, scrutinised and, when appropriate, revised …..

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