The tree in Berkeley’s square (no nightingale)

George Berkeley is most famous for his immaterialist view of reality, which is nicely, if incompletely, summed up in Monsignor Ronald Knox’s limerick:

There was a young man who said “God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”

“Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”

As I mentioned in recent blogs, Berkeley’s suggestions are more than simply some attempt to be abstruse, but have echoes in the work of people as diverse as Arthur Eddington, Paul Davies, Werner Heisenberg, John Archibald Wheeler and William Dembski. Indeed, a current thread on Peaceful Science touches on some of the major issues, and particularly on the fact that, counterintuitive to our ingrained cultural materialism, the whole idea of “matter” is deeply, perhaps insolubly, problematic.

Berkeley not only saw this, but realised, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, that giving matter a free ride in terms of assuming its fundamental reality automatically defines the world in favour of either atheism or greatly diluted theology. Here’s a poor résumé of his case and some of its implications.

After Descartes, particularly, matter was conceived as a mind-independent reality. In theological terms, God creates material reality, PLUS he creates minds (“spirits” in Berkeley’s terminology) that are conscious, willing and perceiving of that material reality.

Immediately that sets up the perennial and continuing mind-body problem. How can an immaterial mind interact with a material world – or even with a material body and brain? Come to that, how can God, as an immaterial Spirit, do so?

The eliminative materialist simply concludes that minds are an epiphenomenon of matter – your thoughts and your will are an illusion resulting from the blind interactions of matter. And God is by the same token equally illusory, a projection from your own illusory consciousness. All can be explained by the fundamental reality of matter.

But there is a massive problem with that, and that is is why eliminative materialism has few supporters, and why most people fudge the whole question. And that problem is summed up in Descartes’ first axiom: Cogito, ergo sum. When it comes down to it, the only reality we know for certain is our conscious existence. Descartes was right to see that all other knowledge whatsoever derives from that core truth.

Berkeley argues (starting from where the materialists do) that all we can ever know of reality is what our minds perceive through our senses, and what we deduce from those sense impressions.

In subsequent centuries, scientific developments have only reinforced what was already said in his time: given matter, we can know nothing as it is “in itself,” but only as it is represented to us through sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch. Berkeley points out how the use of instruments such as telescopes (and, of course, large hadron colliders or supercomputers) changes nothing at all: they just modify and refine our sense impressions. Eddington’s “two tables” is a celebrated recognition of this:

In a very detailed way, Berkeley works through how, once we rigorously factor out what is our purely subjective sensory interpretation of whatever is “out there,” there is really nothing definite that we can say about this supposition we call “matter” at all. It has no qualities other than those we must exclude as mere subjective perceptions.

Not only sight, sound and so on, but “palpable” qualities like mass, position, or velocity turn out to be impossible to pin down. There remains literally nothing that can be positively said about matter. It ends up being as nebulous a thing as Aristotle’s “prime matter,” which cannot exist without superadded form, and which therefore must be considered a doubtful entity, accepted by faith. In the end, if there is nothing positive you can say about something, Occam’s razor should be applied to it.

This lack of any substantial qualities makes it extremely problematic to posit matter as the basic “stuff” of reality. In Berkeley’s time he perceived its other main problem as the destruction of religion, but we’re now so far down that logical road that it seems unimportant, since religion has become mere unfounded opinion sitting uncomfortably with the truth of materialism, accepted by faith.

But more problematic is the way the unfounded belief in matter ends up making the one thing we do know for certain – our consious minds – some kind of epiphenomenon. Our minds simply must be the products of matter, presto changeo, despite the lack of any rational connection whatsoever between “assemblage of objective material particles” and “unified subjective consciousness.” If the constant experience of mind cannot be described in material terms, the logical thing to do is jettison matter.

Berkeley, seeing this, instead takes this more rational tack. Since there are really no grounds for contradicting the existence of our minds, and since minds, unlike the ideas based on sensory perceptions they contain, cannot be reduced to such perceptions (ie minds have no size, shape, colour, etc), the one thing we know prior to our sensory impressions is the existence of spirit, because that is what we experience ourselves to be.

Consequent to that, we know what our senses and reason present to our minds (which Berkely terms “ideas,”) and it is eminently reasonable to say that they, and not some airy-fairy matter lying behind them, are the fundamental external reality. Hence the idea of the tree in the quad only existing when someone is looking.

But the second stanza of Knox’s limerick takes us beyond solipcism. Since there is, indeed, a solid and consistent sensory reality shared by all, which is fully investigable by science, and which is more permanent than the ideas we manufacture for ourselves in dreams or hallucinations, say, it follows that the ideas gained by our senses are given to our minds by a greater Spirit, who is “always about in the quad.”

Think about this christianly: if God is Spirit, and the First Reality, and we are spirits whom he creates and loves, then the communication of ideas between these spirits is entirely natural and appropriate. The question then becomes why God would need, or even wish, to create some indefinable and problematic intermediate substrate called “matter” through which to channel those ideas. Matter is actually both a meaningless, and a superfluous, hypothesis.

You can dispense with mind, in which case matter alone becomes both incoherent and a source of endless philosophical problems.

Or you can dispense with matter, and be left with minds that we know by daily experience, and which can easily explain external realities.

We can, of course, retain both, as Descartes did. But the tendency of that is to keep the problems and lose the solutions. The question to answer in that is why both are needed.

Three considerations about this. First, what we now know about information, and how we interact daily with reality through electronic media, and even the existence of serious scientists who discuss the universe as a “Matrix,” put Berkeley’s ideas at the heart of current issues. “It from bit” is more plausible now than it ever was in his day.

Secondly, consider Christian creation theology, as it stands following the decline of the Deism that flourished in Berkeley’s days. Creation, christologically, is the speaking forth of reality by the Logos of God, Christ. Berkeley tended to speak of reality as an idea in the mind of God: but once one adds the concept of “logos” or “dabar” – the word of God – reality is simply whatever thoughts in God’s mind are spoken to us.

Thirdly, what we have regained in our historical appreciation of the pre-scientific mind shows that any idea we might have, that Berkeley’s demotion of matter is bizarrre or unnatural, depends on our recent philosophical traditions, not on innate human insights. On the Peaceful Science thread, Ashwin points out how at one time (including the time when the Hebrew Bible was written) people regarded all events whatsoever as the work of active minds or spirits. The idea of events as the interactions of passive matter really only came in with the mechanical philosophy of the early-modern scientists.

Remember how those Egyptian tomb paintings depict the air, Shu, holding up Nut, the sky, above the earth, Geb? The earth, the sky, and everything else are the gods themselves, and the “material” phenomena are the epiphenomena that appear to our senses. Theologically, Egyptian polytheism is a declension from the truth about God, but not because the Bible depicts the world as “real matter” rather than “false gods.” Genesis describes creation primarily as what God speaks, does it not?

Remember how Owen Barfield describes the ancient way of thinking as participation in the reality we experience? That idea is alien to the materialist edifice of a subjective self set apart from a material reality, but fits nicely with the idea of reality as shared idea.

As Berkeley repeatedly points out, this is not to make the world merely an ephemeral illusion made up of nebulous ideas, a kind of virtual reality. Quite the reverse – it is to make the faithful word of God the solid truth and foundation of creation. What God speaks is. Furthermore it is to make the phenomena we experience through our senses no longer illusory representations of an unknowable matter (whatever “substrate” that might or might not be), but the actual reality God has created for us.

All scientific exploration remains intact under this scheme – but the legs are cut out from under materialism. The question is simply whether philsophical materialism is now so fundamental to science – even as practised by believers – that scientists will simply refuse to think about Berkeley’s ideas (just another clergyman counting angels on the head of a pin), and struggle on with a superstitious faith in this indefinable “matter.” If so they will inevitably continue to struggle with all kinds of problems with the integration of science and faith that are, under materialism, simply insoluble.

Is such doctrinaire materialism irrational? Sure, but then the US has Trump and the UK has Brexit, without admitting their nations have gone stark staring mad.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Philosophy, Science, Theology, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The tree in Berkeley’s square (no nightingale)

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    While I am generally in agreement with your comments, I would like to make an additional comment in that as a scientist, I am forced to consider the intelligibility of the Universe and accessibility to human intellect and inquiry, a mystery. I cannot fathom (scientifically) how we can come to such a profound understanding of the Creation – perhaps God has a greater purpose for is creation than we may comprehend?

    I consider the intelligibility of the Universe a profound aspect, and combined with the constants of science, me thinks we have no excuse for believing in materialism.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      In the context of Berkleyan immaterialism, intelligibility becomes less mysterious, I think.

      And that’s because, instead of seeing humans as minds adrift in a mass of material events, most of which they have no good reason to comprehend, Berkeley sees “reality” as a communication between God and human minds. Clear speech does not guarantee understanding (as many of Jesus’s rebukes of his diciples show), and may even be deliberately spoken to show the limitations of understanding. But language is there, essentially, to be comprehended:

      The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.…

      Maybe the “comprehensible universe paradox” is yet another example of the materialist paradigm simply not working and so generating problems. It goes along with many others, such as:
      “How can inert matter produce conscious minds?” (dissolves if mind is primary).
      “How can free will exist in a law-driven material world?” (easy if the world is formed by mind, not matter).
      “How can God or an immaterial human interact with matter?” (easy if it doesn’t have to because reality is not material).
      “What does ‘natural’ actually mean, and what distinguishes it from ‘supernatural’?” (Answer – some definition about the nature of the phenomena, such as their regularity, rather than trying to leave God out of his world.)

      It might be fun to think of any other examples of perennial philosophical or scientifc conundrums, and see whether they too arise simply from assuming the independent existence of matter.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        Hi Jon,

        You have referred to one of my favourite Psalms. The speech is one of silence, and the writer than becomes more conscious of the Law of God.

        On more mundane matters, I am inclined to the view that intelligibility points to the coherence of the Universe, where everything is “related” (I use the term with trepidation) and interdependent, and nothing is out of place. This also indicates that (we can refer to the Word, but science cannot do this) everything is accessible to human intellect because all life has a commonality (theologically, God created it all to serve His will).

        I suppose I can talk on this till ‘the cows come home’, but this will suffice.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          The speech is one of silence, and the writer than becomes more conscious of the Law of God.

          Quite so – however interpreted, the psalm stresses an analogy of communication between God and man through both the creation and the revelation of Scripture.

  2. Peter Hickman says:

    You say, “the one thing we know prior to our sensory impressions is the existence of spirit, because that is what we experience ourselves to be” and “if … we are spirits whom he creates and loves”.
    I’m not sure that I can say that my experience confirms the existence of spirit. I think I can say only that my experience is consistent with the existence of spirit, but that there may be another explanation.
    You think that we are spirits. Why is that, and what do you mean by it?
    I understand that God is Spirit – that he is immaterial. Evidently we are not entirely immaterial. I am familiar with the Watchman Nee description of a tripartite man, summarised by some as ‘we are a spirit, we have a soul, we live in a body’. Is that how you think of it?
    Forgive me if this appears to be an ignorant question, but it seems to me that a lot of theology hangs on it.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter

      Berkeley takes “spirit” to mean the conscious self, effectively, as distinct from the ideas that are in it. And if we accept some kind of biblical anthropology, that seems a reasonable understanding of “spirit” is, corresponding to what is most difficult (or impossible) to reduce to material causes. It is the same as the mind, in other words, only that can sometimes stand for the thoughts we have, as opposed to the “subject” thinking them, which is what he stresses.

      If that is so, we know our own spirits directly, by experience, and (as Berkeley argues) that is the only way we can know them because, being immaterial, they cannot be “known” objectively, only experienced subjectively. The spirits of others we know by inference (that touches base with the”theory of mind” in psychology), and the spirit of God we know by the permanance and power of what it reveals to us through our senses (here accepting, for the discussion, his anti-materialism). In other words, we know God’s spirit by what he does as a subject, not in some “objective” way – that fits the old theology that the invisible God is known through his visible creation.

      I’ve never been that persuaded by the tri-partite view of Christian anthropology: Genesis talks of God’s spirit enlivening dust to become (not contain) a living soul. I think that resulting unity is important, and it’s nicely maintained in Thomistic thought because the spirit is seen as the animating principle – the form – of the body.

      Some of the Bible’s usage is confusing, I think, simply because it’s not technical, but colloquial. In the NT “soul” sometimes is used in the OT way, and sometimes as a synonym for “spirit.” And sometimes it’s the contrast between the old creation (psuchikos = soulish) and the new (pneumatikos = spiritual).

      Aquinas has to juggle here to deal with the theology of being with the Lord when out of the body after death, and before the resurrection – he sees the soul as immortal because rational, and existing in some attenuated way outside the body – which without the soul is “prime matter,” only given the inert form of a corpse, since prime matter can’t exist on its own (and is as difficuot to grasp as matter itself, though Berkeley’s spectacles).

      I think Berkleyan immaterialism might handle anthropology as well, or even better: the body, like all realities beyond our minds, is that which God makes real to our senses, which indeed operates in a real way, the only difference really from Aquinas being that it is a direct communication to our spirits, not placed in an inert substrate called “matter”.

      So although he doesn’t spell this out, the spirit/body union remains the same, only the body is a direct communication by the spirit of God, not separate “matter.” Death, then, would be the withdrawal of that particular communication, and resurrection its replacement with a new, better, word from God. The “intermediate” state would involve whatever limited communion God might choose to give, in such a state. To Berkeley the spirit is immortal, as in Thomism, simply because it is spirit.

      I hope that’s slightly clearer than mud. The important thing when grappling with Berekely is not to confuse “matter” with “reality” – he’s saying that spirit is more real, solid and immediate than the “modern” idea of matter, which slips from ones grasp as one tries to say anything useful about it.

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