Opposing poems: Ronald Knox on Berkeleyism

There once was a 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.”

This limerick by the English priest and Sherlock Holmes fanatic Ronald Knox plays with the belief of Bishop George Berkeley that matter doesn’t exist – in the 18th century he wrote and preached that matter is only the product of mind and ideas, and needs to be observed in order to exist. Einstein, quantum physics and Schrodinger’s cat may lead us in that direction these days, but at the time it was radically new in the West. (In the East, ideas about the illusory nature of matter have been around for millennia.) It picked up the derisive name of “immaterialism“. And in his ‘Life of Samuel Johnson’, James Boswell recounts their hearing Berkeley preach:

“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 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. 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‘.”

Philosophically, Johnson’s response is considered a logical fallacy, now called the “appeal to the stone“.

Ronald Knox, the 20th century priest, limerick author and Sherlockian, is probably also the author of this limerick that opposes the first one:

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

Perhaps we can think of the whole issue like this: if you play a strategy game like Civilization on the computer, you can only see part of the world at any one time. You move the cursor up, down or sideways, and you bring other parts of the world to the screen. What’s on the screen exists visually for you because that’s the part of the game world you can see; but the rest of the game world doesn’t exist visually – it exists as pure data in a program, and only materialises when you move the cursor to look at it. Berkeley suggests the physical world behaves similarly and, despite Samuel Johnson, this can’t be disproved. In that case, God would not cause the unobserved world to materialise – God would be the program, the organising principle for the data which would remain immaterial until observed…

Colour me Agnostic.

Photo: “Bishop Berkeley” by Infidelic is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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