Sunday, July 20, 2014

Did Berkeley have a "radically subjective" view of experience?

I am reading an excellent introduction to British Idealism: British Idealism: A Guide for the Perplexed. If you are at all interested in this subject, I highly recommend this book.

But I do have a minor complaint: the authors repeat the common misperception of Berkeley as having had a "radically subjective view of experience." (The book only treats Berkeley peripherally, as a forerunner of 19th and 20th-century idealism, which is what makes this a minor quibble.) I am writing a paper at present tracing the history of this error, as well as that of the repeated attempts to correct it. (Collingwood is among those who sought to rectify this mistake.) The key oversight behind this misperception, from Hegel onward, has been to ignore the role of the mind of God in Berkeley's metaphysics.

I don't intend to summarize the historical work from that paper here. Instead, I offer a metaphor intended to clarify the objective nature of reality as Berkeley sees it: Berkeley's God is like the creator of the video game, Mind of God: from Genesis to RevelationTM, and all other conscious beings are akin to players in that game. (Note that this is only a metaphor, and as with all metaphors, if pushed too far it will yield ridiculous results. For instance, if you find yourself asking "What program debugger did God use?" or "How many lines of code did he write?" you have taken the metaphor too literally.)

For Berkeley, the ideas God had in programming Mind of God create the sights, the sounds, and the rules of the game. For the players in the game, these ideas are objectively real. If they travel down a road that comes to a fork, every one of them who is not hallucinatory will see the fork and have to choose the left or right path. And for someone who is hallucinatory, their attempts to neglect the fork will be thwarted. If a player tries to ignore the fact that in Mind of God there is a drop off of a tall cliff down to some jagged rocks immediately ahead of him, he will find his game player body smashed to bits on the rocks. If she attacks a monster  too many levels above her rank, she will lose. If a player pretends he doesn't need to eat, he will see his life force points draining away. If a player tries to move something God has deemed immovable, she will fail.

Within the parameters set by God, the players are free: they may choose to fight a monster or not, to take a road heading east or one heading west, to unite with other players or to go it alone. They will also have their own judgments about the game: they may think a particular forest looks frightening, or be soothed by a seaside vista. But in so far as those judgments concern the actual "coding" of the game, they are susceptible to being tested against that reality, and being proven objectively true or objectively false. If the player believes that the frightening forest is filled with goblins, when he heads into it he will discover either that it actually is and his judgment was correct, or it actually isn't, and he was wrong.

Michael Oakeshott once said that reality is "not whatever I happen to think; it is what I am obliged to think." And for Berkeley, what one is "obliged to think" are the thoughts in the mind of God. The question any idealist metaphysics must face is, "Why do we seem to perceive a common reality with certain intractable features?" Berkeley may not have answered that question in a completely satisfactory way, and perhaps other idealists have done better. But he did provide an answer, and that answer is why, in his view, (human) experience is not "radically subjective," but is an objective world of ideas.

NOTE: The mind of God provides an objective reality for all lesser conscious beings, such as humans. But there is another question one might ask: In Berkeley's view, is reality objective or subjective for God? It tomorrow God decides that 2+2=5, does Berkeley think it will? I am not sure he ever addresses that question.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Euphemisms II

It's not just abortion where these euphemisms bug me either. I think it is sometimes OK to euthanize your pet, but... you did not "...