The WHAT of Berkeleian Idealism

Understanding Berkeley's Universe

Berkeley’s Big, Shocking Claim

George Berkeley says there is no such thing as matter. Tables and chairs are real. Trees and galaxies are real. But they aren’t made of material substance. There’s no such thing as matter at all.

The big, shocking claim that there’s no such thing as matter sometimes makes people go a little crazy. People immediately try to argue against it, or they immediately try to trace back Berkeley’s reasoning to find out where he went so wrong. There’s no law against reacting this way, but I recommend pausing before we get to the question of why he says it or whether it is true to find out exactly what it is that Berkeley intends to assert.

Here’s how Berkeley puts it talking about the table in his office (philosophers love talking about tables and chairs):

The Table I write on, I say, exists, that is, I see and feel it; and if I were out of my Study I should say it existed, meaning thereby that if I was in my Study I might perceive it, or that some other Spirit actually does perceive it. There was an Odor, that is, it was smelled; There was a Sound, that is to say, it was heard; a Colour or Figure, and it was perceived by Sight or Touch. This is all that I can understand by these and the like Expressions. For as to what is said of the absolute Existence of unthinking Things without any relation to their being perceived, that seems perfectly unintelligible. Their Esse is Percipi, nor is it possible they should have any Existence, out of the Minds or thinking Things which perceive them. (A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Section 4)

So the table exists in that Berkeley perceives it, or anyway, he would if he came into his study – and so would anyone else. But it doesn’t exist in any other way.

What exactly does that mean?

The MMORPG Concept

Fortunately for us, we have an advantage that none of Berkeley’s contemporaries had. Nowadays we have access to something remarkably similar to Berkeley’s universe: an MMORPG.

An MMORPG is a Massive, Multiplayer, Online Role Playing Game. Consider as an example the MMORP Life is Feudal, which describes itself as a Medieval Simulator (never played it but it looks cool). The idea is to put the player into a medieval world. You, as the player, exert your agency through an avatar, a human body in the game world. The world reacts to you.

Suppose you were trying to explain and MMORPG to someone who had never played one before. One way to do it would be to explain the way the world is brought to life out of the fundamental bits of sounds and coloured pixels, the rules of the game, and the platform that you play it on. So let’s consider those three elements, tying them to Berkeley’s universe as we go along.

Fundamental Particles

We experience an MMORPG in sound and colour. What are the people or trees in an MMORPG made of? Well, they’re made of those sounds and colours, aren’t they?

When you move left or right in the game, the colours change, changing the scenery around you. The sounds change too, perhaps the wind can be heard rushing through the trees or something. Other human characters might challenge you out loud, or grunt in pain if you attack them.

But the elements of the game world aren’t happening all the time by themselves. When you disconnect from an MMORPG, the trees don’t continue to rustle in the breeze. They aren’t quiet either; the trees aren’t in some kind of limbo when you’re not playing. They just aren’t there. If there’s no player, there’s no game happening, just as you’re not in Jail or in Park Place or anywhere in Monopoly when your game is sitting folded up on the shelf. Unless there are players, the game doesn’t take place, it doesn’t exist – that’s true of Monopoly and of any MMORPG. It’s also true of Berkeley’s universe.

In the quotation from Berkeley above, he also talks about sound and colour.

There was an Odor, that is, it was smelled; There was a Sound, that is to say, it was heard; a Colour or Figure, and it was perceived by Sight or Touch.

Our world is made of more than just sound and colour. There’s also odour and touch, as Berkeley says, and he could have named taste as well. (Maybe there are other senses available to us, like echolocation.) Just sound and colour function as the fundamental particles of the game world in an MMORPG, Berkeley is saying that his table just is certain ideas of vision and touch.

The Table I write on, I say, exists, that is, I see and feel it

Now maybe you’re thinking that I’ve cheated a little in my description of an MMORPG. After all, in the game, there are rules for how the world works. Heck, even in Monopoly, there are rules. And the rules are an important part of how the game works.

The Rules

When you start playing any videogame, you start learning the rules. You figure out whether the game more or less imitates the rules of the world we live in (as Life is Feudal does) or whether you can eat an item and fly like in Super Mario Brothers. If you were a game developer, you might dig deeper into the rules and look at them in their underlying programming language. In an MMORPG, the ultimate, authoritative rules exist as computer code. They state exactly how the world will behave when you play the game.

Our world obviously operates by rules as well. When you jump up in the air, gravity brings you back down. When you eat bread you’re nourished; if you drink bleach you die. Like newbie gamers, children have to learn the rules, such as not touching the red hot stove element.

We might call the rules that operate in the physical world the Laws of Nature. Most philosophers think there are Laws of Nature that describe how the universe works, and Berkeley would agree. We get into controversy when we ask how laws of nature operate, what gives them their oomph. We’ll get into Berkeley’s answer in another post. For now I’ll just point out that Berkeley expresses the existence of a table in terms of a rule about how the table can be perceived.

The Table I write on, I say, exists, that is, I see and feel it; and if I were out of my Study I should say it existed, meaning thereby that if I was in my Study I might perceive it, or that some other Spirit actually does perceive it.

Think again about the tree in the MMORPG. It’s not just sounds and colours, it’s sounds and colours brought together in a regular way such that they form an in-game tree. If you walk closer to the tree, it fills more and more of your screen. Maybe the tree is mapped into an internal biology structure. Maybe you can chop it down and make firewood, for example. But the fundamental thing that the tree is made out of, its fundamental particles or ‘atoms’ (more on atoms in other posts too) are colours and sounds arranged so as to make up a tree. In the same way, what Berkeley is saying about the table is that it is made of colours and ideas of touch that are arranged in certain rule-following ways.

What does made of mean in this context? How do ideas make something? Lots of people who aren’t Berkeleians would answer that by saying that fundamental particles enter into material compositional relations to produce material bodies. Berkeley can pretty much nod along, except that fundamental particles are colours and sounds and odours and ideas of the other senses, and the relations result in immaterial composition.

The Platform

With an MMORPG, of course, it isn’t enough to have the fundamental particles (the sounds and colours), or the rules (the code of the game). For any of it to work, you need a platform. In the case of Life is Feudal, that platform would be a PC: the computer follows the instructions of the code to display the sounds and colours to your vision.

Berkeley’s world lives on the platform of the mind. Whose mind? Well, yours, mine, other finite creatures’, and God’s. Here’s how Berkeley puts it, using the Latin words for ‘to be’ (esse) and ‘to be perceived’ (percipi). Remember, he’s talking about physical things like his table:

Their Esse is Percipi, nor is it possible they should have any Existence, out of the Minds or thinking Things which perceive them.

You might think that here I’m getting far away from my MMORPG example, because an MMORPG lives on a computer. The game designer writes the code out, and your computer does what the code says. When you move your character to the right, your computer goes looking in the code to find out what happens next, and then it displays that new content. But while MMORPGs do in fact live on computers, we can imagine them being right in our minds, I think.

Indulge me in a few thought experiments. First, notice that the game designer never has to write his code down. Suppose the game designer had a photographic memory and phenomenal reflexes, maybe he could just connect to your computer online so that when you move your character to the right, he remembers what happens in his code and adjusts your display accordingly. Even the brightest human being would be too slow and might forget his own rules. Berkeley thinks God plays the role of the game designer here, so slowness and forgetfulness aren’t worries. And yes, we’ll talk much more about the role God plays and why that role isn’t a philosophical deus ex machina.

Even in my thought experiment, the game is still running on a computer screen. But we can imagine that being otherwise too. Maybe he beams the game content into your brain, making you feel as though you’re looking into a screen and clicking a mouse, while really the designer is reading your neural impulses. Or – since with Berkeley we’re more interested in minds than brains – maybe the designer hypnotizes you and puts the game rules into your mind. When he says a trigger word, you feel like you’re playing an MMORPG on a computer. When you move your character to the right, you’re just accessing game rules in your own mind. In Berkeley’s universe, God acts directly on you to present you with the world (like the brain beam story), but He affects your mind rather than your brain (like the hypnotist example).

We do thought experiments like this to test for coherence in what we think. Does it make sense to imagine being hypnotized and having an MMORPG essentially running in your mind? It’s ridiculous, but it seems as if it is coherent, which is to say, within the power of an all-powerful God. In this case, what I’m trying to show is that, in addition the fundamental particles and the rules, you need a platform – but that platform could just be the player.

And in Berkeley’s world, the platform is the player. That is to say, the world of our experience exists in our minds. We interact in a common world, much as two players might meet and interact in an MMORPG. We share a common physical world, but that common physical world exists within our minds.

What Have we Got So Far?

If you’re with me so far, what we’ve talked about is how Berkeley’s world works.

  • Fundamental Particles. In an MMORPG, the fundamental particles are sounds and colours. In Berkeley’s world, the fundamental particles are sounds, colours, smells, feels and tastes.

  • The Rules. In an MMORPG, the fundamental particles are organized following certain rules. When those rules are in place, it’s possible to play the game. In Berkeley’s world, the fundamental particles are likewise organized in rule-following ways. Those rules are the laws of nature.

  • The Platform. MMORPGs run on computers. I used a somewhat weird thought experiment to argue that they don’t need to run on computers. You can imagine an MMORPG that runs in your mind, or anyway I can imagine that. Berkeley’s world is like that. It’s a massive, multi-person mental space, in which it is possible to interact with other minds.

So far, what I’ve done is clarify the what of Berkeley’s world. There are a lot of questions you might still have about how stuff works in this world, and that’s perfectly fair. But this is the what, the basic picture that we’ll be encountering again and again.

You might be wondering why anyone would believe this. That’s a different question, not the what but the why. It’s also a good question, so I’ll address it in my next post.


About Me

I really am a Berkeleian idealist. I came to my current view about halfway into a PhD program in another area of philosophy, and I dropped what I was doing and became a Berkeley scholar.

After leaving the academy I wrote a book about how I approach philosophy in general: How to be a Philosopher. Then I realized I wanted to spend some time on specifically Berkeleian questions, so I developed the Berkeleian Idealism Project as a way to do that.

Outside of Berkeley and philosophy, I have a background in corporate security and business writing. I provide ghostwriting and content writing services: if interested, please get in touch.