If a tree falls over in the forest, where nobody can hear it, does it make a sound?
This is the frustratingly basic argument common at the start of any discussion regarding immaterialism. Whilst the answer seems intuitively obvious based upon how we understand the universe to work, the immaterialist viewpoint (that the tree cannot make a sound unless someone is there to perceive it) has proven difficult to refute nonetheless.
Full disclosure – unlike all preceding blogs, this one lacks the digital angle congruent with this site’s mission statement (Well, apart from a small nod to some science fiction below). But it’s my site, so..
17th Century Irish Bishop George Berkeley, is the most renowned Philosopher purporting an immaterialist theory. Essentially it is this:
- We receive all our comprehension of reality via our senses alone (at this stage in agreement with Lockean empiricism).
- This includes how the sense of “matter” is reported to us, i.e. mainly (but not exclusively) via touch.
- So for example, we perceive a solid table via touching its surface, seeing it, smelling its wood, tasting it even (if we we’re a bit weird and decided to lick it!), knocking on its surface and hearing the sound of the knock, and so on.
- The demarcation from one object to another, or to space, is detected via refraction of light through our vision (the end of a particular colour/shape), plus a number of other sensory processes, yet crucially they are all exclusively sensory. Our senses are the only way we interact with, and understand our world, and our existence within it.
- It would not exist (to us) without this sensory data, and therefore only exists in our subjective sensory universe. (John Locke continues to nod along, but now an eyebrow becomes raised..)
- There is no evidence that the table exists as a “thing” in the universe alone without us, and if for instance, we turned our backs it could plausibly evaporate into the space behind us. Equally, a room we walked out of could disappear, closed doors would contain nothing behind them until opened and peered through, and so on and so forth. We would have no way of proving events and situations were otherwise.
As a man of the cloth, George Berkeley is compelled to fit this philosophy into something which is compatible with his Christian faith (And indeed, his other job!). This is what defines Berkeley’s specific version of immaterialism. He believed that God perceives these objects (this world and the things in it, the universe etc.) upon our behalf, thus ensuring (enabling) their objective existence for us all to then perceive.
It’s a philosophy neatly summarised in this poem by Ronald Knox:
There was a young man who said, “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”
Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
NB – The “quad” in this poem refers to a forest clearing (a ye olde English thing).
If you were to substitute God for sentient AI machines capable of constructing a world for our perceptions akin to a kind of mind prison (whilst harnessing the humans as an energy source), you basically have the plot for “The Matrix”.
Conceivably to the immaterialist, we could all be living in a Matrix constructed by some form of superior intelligence. In Berkeley’s case it is God, or a benevolent Christian God specifically.
Equally, we could be the only person (mind) that exists at all. In this immaterialist mind frame we have no objective evidence of other minds. The “Problem of other minds” is a famous philosophical argument linked to the Cartesian reductionist proposition.
Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am), initially makes no other proposition other than we know we exist through our ability to hold a thought in the first place. All other senses could be illusory, implanted by some evil Demon (the illustration famously used by Descartes).
We could, for instance, exist in a Truman Show-esque simulation, a theory labelled “Solipsism”, the daunting (terrifying) feeling that only you actually exist.
Rare Philosophy Joke alert – Is it Solipsistic in here, or is it just me?
However, we all kind of know this to be wrong don’t we..?
Philosopher Samuel Johnson is known for his famous refutation of Berkeley’s immaterialism:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that everything 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.”
And here I arrive back at the title. The reason I was compelled to write this was that I found that in Samuel Johnson fashion, my wife inadvertently destroyed immaterialism through an insult.
I was walking down the street, not paying enough attention, when I tripped over a curb. “I can’t believe you never noticed that you clumsy git” she said (Or words to that affect).
Indeed I never, she was correct!
Unlike Samuel Johnson’s large stone, I never actually perceived this curb, yet still (needlessly in the immaterialist context) it assaulted my existence. My senses were not on hand to report it to my mind, and if it were to somehow not exist objectively on its own it would have been of no consequence to the order of all other things whatsoever. My wife perception of the curb merely followed on from my own encounter with it, so she never perceived it either at that crucial second, indeed this all happened behind her back and there were no other witnesses (Thankfully!).
It was at that moment in my mind that immaterialism became apparent bullsh*t..
She, quite unbeknownst to her, refuted it thus!