Sunday, December 23, 2012

But What of Bishop Berkeley?

"It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects have an existence natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But . . . . what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense, and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived?"
                                                           - George Berkeley, "Principles of Human Knowledge"

". . . [W]e stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. . . . Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it - 'I refute it thus.'   
                                                                                     - James Boswell, "Life of Johnson"

Dr. Samuel Jackson

Gadzooks! said I to myself as I awoke on the morning previous, I am spared. I am not destroyed, I am meant for something greater. The world is not extinguished, it continues, it thrums along as always, ticking like an eternal watch. Nothing has ended except my usual complacency. I mean henceforth to be a better man, to raise my sights and intend only goodness, benevolence, kindness towards others - to claim, in short, my higher calling.

I went outdoors and kicked a rock, if only to reassure myself with its impermeability, intransigence and sensible recalcitrance. It remained stolidly underfoot, unmoved, uncaring, unperceiving. It was real all right, and the world remained unscathed by the perfidy of the Mayan prophecies.

I very nearly imprecated a stoved toe, when of a sudden sprang a random thought rattling about the old sensorium: But what of Bishop Berkeley? 

What if my Johnsonian kick, my moment of naive perceptual realism, were but a phantasm and the world prove but a figment of my consciousness after all? Surely my foot bore sufficient testimony to the continuance of the world order, but now there was a small gnawing of doubt. What if the good bishop proved correct?

Bishop George "Told You So" Berkeley

If that were so then for all I knew the Mayans could have been on the money and the world had ended the previous evening with me none the wiser. None of us the wiser, for all of that. Dang and blast that Johnson. But no, I've never been persuaded by the good doctor, finding his refutation of Bishop Berkely fatheaded with that peculiarly Johnsonian fatheadedness.

So I've been laying low, biding my time until either I figure out a convincing refutation of my own for the good bishop, or the other shoe drops and my consciousness flies out the window for good. Whichever comes first. Frankly, I've stayed awake for about 48 hours now, just to keep my eye on things, make sure I'm really still here after all. What a disappointing turn of events, I thought, if I were to lose consciousness and go out of existence while asleep.

On the other hand, maybe it's all over and none of us the wiser. Or not. I can't tell. There's a bright side, however, if it's really over: I'll be spared all the effort of having to become a better person. My amoral status quo, at least, will go on uninterrupted.

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