Posted on 17 July 2020
George Berkeley (1685 – 1753) was an an Irish bishop and philosopher who believed ‘to be is to be perceived.’
Born into a noble family in County Kilkenny, Ireland, Berkeley went to university in Dublin and became ordained as as in the Anglican Church in 1710. This was the year when, still only 25 years old, his Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge was published.
Principles of Human Knowledge
The treatise was the first exposition of the then revolutionary theory that objects exist only as perception and not as matter separate from perception, summed up in his dictum ‘Esse est percipi’ (To be is to be perceived).
“This perceiving, active being is what I call mind, spirit, soul, or myself. By which words I do not denote any one of my ideas, but a thing entirely distinct from them, wherein they exist, or, which is the same thing, whereby they are perceived; for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived.”
Berkeley felt that current philosophies and science were a threat to the Christian way of life – particularly the philosophy of Materialism, which reduced God’s role as creator and preserver of all nature.
Previously, philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza and Locke had believed that the material world was a reality. Berkeley believed in a ‘spirit’ and thought all our ideas have an existence beyond our consciousness – but this existence is not of a material nature as its spiritual.
Berkeley argued that reality might be summed up as follows: there exists an infinite spirit (God) and a multitude of finite spirits (humans), and we are in communication with God via our experience.
Therefore, Barclay reasoned, it is our mind’s experience that gives us existence.
“All the choir of heaven and furniture of earth – in a word, all those bodies which compose the frame of the world – have not any subsistence without a mind.”
Imagine you are asleep in bed having a dream. In your dream, you bang your hand on a wooden table. You may feel the sensation of pain in your dream – but in reality you’re hand is absolutely fine.
For Berkeley, we may have a ‘sense’ of reality that is formed in the mind by experience, but ‘actual’ reality is beyond our comprehension. In this way, Barclay created a two-fold reality that was similar Plato’s Myth of the Cave – the difference being that, for Berkeley, we would see the shadows on the wall but we would never get to ‘actually’ see the fire that created them, we would just sense that the fire is there.
He argued that we can’t perceive the matter itself that our reality is made of. We can’t know whether our external reality is made of sound waves or of paper and writing. Our external reality might be made of a single bubble that floats on an ocean of other similar bubbles.
Time and Space
Material reality was not the only thing that Berkeley questioned. He was also questioning whether ‘time’ and ‘space’ had any absolute independence. Our own perception of time and space may be concepts created in the mind. For example, a week or two for us may not be a week or two for God (if God exists).
“Everything we see, hear, feel, or any way perceive by sense, being a sign or effect of the power of God; as is our perception of those very motions.”
Image from www.npg.org.uk/