Was the Bishop a Complete Idiot?

The Bishop was George Berkeley (1685-1753), and he could be blamed for the following question that’s sometimes asked – ‘Does the Moon still exist when no one is looking at it?’ This is usually dismissed as a piece of obvious nonsense – a joke rather than a serious question. Bishop Berkeley, knowing his Latin, put it this way – “esse est percipi” – to be, is to be perceived. Whatever is not being perceived, does not exist. 

This idea elicited a snort of derision from Dr. Samuel Johnson, as his biographer, James Boswell, tells us. After we came out of the church, we stood talking .. of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter .. 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 it rebounded from it. “I refute it thus”. Unfortunately for the dictatorially dismissive Doctor, we now know that it was the Bishop who was in the right.

As noted in recent posts, the stone the Doctor kicked was not a solid object, nor is anything else in our world. It was made of atoms, that are 99.99% empty space. This means that even if, like the good Doctor, we’re outraged to be told this, the stone was an illusion. Please note this difference – a ‘delusion’ means there was nothing there, whereas an ‘illusion’ means something was there, but it wasn’t what Dr. Johnson saw it as being.

You may object that the Doctor felt his ‘foot’ making violent contact with the ‘stone’, which travelled for some distance. Previous posts have pointed out, however, that nothing can ‘touch’ anything. Not only are ‘foot’ and ‘stone’ 99.99% empty space, but the electrons in each are negatively charged, and cannot ‘touch’ each other. It’s like trying to bring together the same poles of two powerful magnets. It can’t be done – end of story.

What this means is that the ‘solid reality’ we experience around us, is both ‘real’ to us, and yet also an illusion. When this is brought to our notice, it can be difficult for us to take it in. Most of us might follow Dr. Johnson in dismissing it as nonsense – but it’s actually proven scientific fact. We, and the ‘things’ in the world around us, are particular patterns in a universal dance of invisible and intangible Energy. 

Why then do we experience these ‘patterns’ as shapes, colours, sounds, smells, tastes and textures? It’s because these are mental images and experiences created by the electro-chemical processing of the data collected by our five senses. As the Bishop said, what exists for us is what our minds perceive, but that is not at all the same as what fundamentally exists in and of itself. That is invisible to us, and intangible to us. 

Science can employ mathematics to tell us what this fundamental Energy does – and the results of that are the technological wonders of our modern age. But science cannot tell us what Energy itself is. It is simply the great fundamental ‘given’ as the source of all that exists. Can we now ‘see’ that the moon is indeed ‘not there’ when no humans are looking at it. Yes, there are specific patterns of energy there, but they do not look like what we ‘see’. They do not look like anything at all !

It seems to me that if we are seriously interested in ‘truth’ and ‘reality’, we have to take this on board, and it has to have an impact on our ‘world view’, on our ideas and our beliefs. There is a very great deal about which we know very little, and even nothing at all. One of the follies of humanity is ‘fundamentalist’ exclusivity and dogmatism, both scientific and religious. The idea that science will ever present us with a “Theory of Everything” is a preposterous fantasy. Such a theory would need to ‘explain’ both the intrinsic nature of fundamental reality, and the subjectivity of conscious experience. Don’t hold your breath. The idea that any particular religion, with its ancient books, has possession of the full and final truth about anything whatsoever is an equal, and even more dangerous, fantasy.

So the Bishop wasn’t a complete idiot, and his ideas are now being taken as seriously as they have long deserved to be. Have a think about them …..  

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