esse is percipi
...and seeing is believing!
That there are no substances, or substrates, is hardly a novel
or a new thing to say. An English bishop named George Berkeley
beat us to it 250 years ago, having taken offense at the
commonsensical views of John Locke discussed
Berkeley's position was this: there are minds, or souls on the
one hand; and there are sensations, and ideas on the other. The
former are selves, like you and me, and the latter are the
entities known by selvesthe so-called objects of knowledge.
But these objects of knowledge are not substances, or
substrates, if by these we mean stolid, inert "things out
there." The things we know are "in here," not out there, and
they are sensations and/or ideas. Nor are there "things out
there" which are similar to, or like our sensations and ideas.
Anything like a sensation or an idea is also a sensation or an
idea, and is to be found "in here," together with the rest of
Thus, the notion of a knowable substance or substrate involves a
contradiction in terms, and is impossible. And, the notion of an
unknowable substance or substrate is a useless notion, since, by
definition, we could never have any knowledge of it.
Consider this startling statement from the good bishop's book:
20. In short, if there were external bodies, it is impossible we
should ever come to know it; and if there were not, we might
have the very same reasons to think there were that we have now.
Suppose (what no one can deny possible) an intelligence without
the help of external bodies, to be affected with the same train
of sensations or ideas that you are, imprinted in the same order
and with like vividness in his mind. I ask whether that
intelligence hath not all the reason to believe the existence of
corporeal substances, represented by his ideas, and exciting
them in his mind, that you can possibly have for believing the
Now, Berkeley was a man of the cloth, and knew where he was
going with this line of reasoning. If there are no such things
as external bodies, then we can't look to external bodies as the
cause of our ideas and sensations. But, ideas and sensations do
exist. Whence their cause? God.
In fact, Berkeley maintained that the entire universe as we know
it is first an assembly of ideas in the mind of God. We are
given to share these ideas, and only later make the
understandable mistake of inferring to the existence of a world
of material objects in order to explain how these ideas came
about. But there are no such things as knowable material objects,
Bishop Berkeley went far with the first half of his argument;
i.e., that the notion of a knowable, unknowable external object
involves a contradiction in terms. In fact, two and going-on
three centuries of Idealist thinking can trace its roots to that
simple observation. These very essays are born out of that
insight, and I have been flattered, not angered, when I hear
them referred to using the expression "Bishop Berkeley in a
However, the second half of his argumentthat involving the
necessary existence of a God in order to explain our having
sensations and ideasdidn't go so far at all. In fact, it won
him a good bit of ridicule from local pundits. No less a worthy
than Dr. Samuel Johnsonthe famous lexicographertook the
Bishop to task one night in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheesea London
salon hangout for early 18th century movers and shakers.
"I refute you thusly," bellowed Dr. Johnson, as he pounded the
oaken table so hard that all the plates and glasses in the pub
shook and rattled, and that the paintings hanging on the walls
all re-aligned themselves. Applause from onlookers then filled
the room, and confirmedat least for the man in the bar
that Berkeley had indeed been refuted, and exposed as a prolix
apologetic for a basically theological view of thingsnot a
commonsensical one. When a pub can be rattled to its foundations
with the pounding of one man's fist, it makes no sense to say
that there are no such things as material
It might still, of course. Philosophers are interested in what
is conceivable, not what pleases or fails to please the man in
the street. The brutal sensations and subsequent ideas attendant
to Dr. Johnson's outburst may indeed have first been sensations
and ideas in the mind of God, or caused in another manner, and
it may still make no sensethat outburst notwithstandingfor
us to speak of the existence of oaken tables independent of our
knowledge of oaken tables.
What other manner? You know the answer. There have been
intervening events since 1710. Like movies and T.V. There is a
good movie playing in a theater near you showing Dr. Johnson
pounding his fist on the table in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. A
very realistic movie. Stereo sound, digitally encoded. Wide
screen. Great resolution. Convincing color. It's just as though
you're there Being-there, then...
Or, wait a few years and visit the trend-setting Cyber-Emporium
in, say, Miami, Florida. Class A, deep-immersion experiences have
come down in price. All your friends say you've got to do it.
You select Bishops, Dictionaries and Material Objects, and
find yourself on a hot summer's night in a steamy London pub. It
smells of perspiration and of bad breath. There are a lot of
rotten teeth at this table.
It's late at night, and people are shouting at one another in
order to be heard. At your side is a pretty 26 year-old peasant
girl. She seems to know who you are. You want to hear what she's
saying, but you can't.
Suddenly a large man at the end of the oaken bench roars, and a
smaller man wearing a cassock, something purple at his throat,
and a crucifix is seen to cringe. The large man smashes his fist
down onto the table. You can feel the blow through your
buttocks. Your flagon of beer spills.
"I refute you thusly," the large man shouts. The crowd explodes
into claps and hollers, and the whole building seems to shake.
The girl at your side slips her hand between your legs, fingers
"Showed that wanker, didn't he?" she whispers in your ear. Her
tongue is now in your ear, too, and your groin quickens with
those familiar, consciousness-clogging symptoms of male arousal.
Being-there, then... in cyberspace!
This is not, of course, what Bishop Berkeley had in mind. In
fact, it would have horrified him to think that the role he had
so fondly reserved for the Deity, as the causer of our
sensations and ideas, might 250 years later be taken over by
man-made machinesthat machines might one day play the role of
Heresy! Yet, we still find Berkeley the philosopher taunting us
with the possibilitythat no man can denyof certain
sensations and ideas being created in the mind of a human
beingan intelligencewithout the help of a world
of objects which
somehow "caused" them. We're instructed that such a human being
would have the same (bad) reasons for inferring to the existence
of a world of objects under those circumstances as we have,
under ours. That girl in London was as real as they get.
Cut to the chase, together with me, and admit that the occupant
of a virtual reality chamber which provides plausible
machine-generated sensations would make no mistake, other than
the mistake we may make every day, in regarding his world as
unconditionally "real," and with nothing "virtual" or second
rate about that reality!
1See Berkeley's blockbuster
exposée A Treatise Concerning the
Principles of Human Knowledge, first published in 171020
years after Locke's manifesto on behalf of a world of objects.
2Ibid. Italics added.
3Ye Olde Cheshire
Cheese, in Fleet Street, is still in
existence todaya wonderful idea in the mind of God, and still
a good place for lunch and a pint of cold lager.
4See below,Game of
Life, in which chapter precisely this notion is contemplated, in all
seriousness, and with considerable trembling.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.