Bishop Berkeley’s strange world may be the one we live in


Ever since I heard of Bishop George Berkeley‘s (1685-1753) strange immaterialist doctrines about reality, I have had an affection for them. Unfortunately  have not yet been able to find a book explaining them. It was by means of an anecdote in Boswell’s Life of Johnson that a first heard of his views. Boswell and Johnson were walking the streets of London, when Boswell explained  that Bishop Berkeley had argued that it was easier to prove the existence of God than of the material world. Johnson replied, as he kicked a stone down the street, “I refute him thus”. Nevertheless, Berkeley was a few centuries ahead of his time. His thesis was that  something does not exist unless observed by a conscious mind, and second, that the conscious mind that perceives things absolutely when we are not around is God, the Absolute Observer.

From Wikipedia:

The next publication to appear was the Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710, which had great success and gave him a lasting reputation, though few accepted his theory that nothing exists outside the mind. This was followed in 1713 by Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in which he propounded his system of philosophy, the leading principle of which is that the world, as represented by our senses, depends for its existence on being perceived.

A useful exposition of Berkeley’s views is found in this month’s New English Review, written by Kenneth Francis.

I block and copy Francis’ article as follows:

According to Berkeley, Rock’s visible, tangible pint is caused by God. For Berkeley, God or religion is the basis for improving one’s life, not damaging it, and a common-sense view of life is the best path to achieving such a goal. Berkeley was unique and quite happy in his philosophical world view, while he thought other philosophers throughout history were usually frustrated and complicated matters by analysing everything beyond the reach of human reasoning. Being reasonable for Berkeley is being anti-sceptical and acknowledging that the only ‘real’ things that exist in the world are spirits who are created by an infinite Spirit, God. Put simply, the whole of reality is mental (certainly in the 21st century, in more ways than one).

Now at this point, one might argue that this so-called ‘real world’ does not deserve the title of reality. But for Berkeley it is, to a degree, in that it is a kind of second-class reality always one step in the shadows of God’s Mind and the minds of finite beings. What we perceive as matter plays second fiddle to Spirit. This philosophical theory was developed as an answer to scepticism and atheism that had crept into contemporary philosophy.

Berkeley hated atheism and wanted to put God centre stage, acknowledging that an Absolute Observer must reign supreme over perceiving reality. Such a supernatural eternal Absolute Entity would not require the multiplication of causes of beyond what is necessary to explain itself.
However, human ideas/consciousness require an explanation for its meaning as the alternative of solipsism (the belief that only oneself exits and everything else is an illusion) is less credible for explaining one’s existence.  So, we are left with the ultimate question: is consciousness/ideas connected to and part of God’s Mind?
Are the words that you are now reading on this page, including the backdrop to wherever you are reading, part of the conceptualized reality of a Supreme Entity, of which our collective consciousness is a manifestation? Berkeley believes that every-day objects are such a manifestation with multiple visual aspects that can change depending upon the circumstances. This also brings into play the problem of appearance and reality.
Wikipedia relates:
He remained at Cloyne until 1752, when he retired. With his wife and daughter Julia he went to Oxford to live with his son George and supervise his education.[12] He died soon afterward and was buried in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. His affectionate disposition and genial manners made him much loved and held in warm regard by many of his contemporaries. Anne outlived her husband by many years, and died in 1786.