God the Video Game Programmer

Is a pretty good metaphor for the metaphysics of George Berkeley. (Please remember, it is just a metaphor! So don't ask, "What programming language did God use to create the universe?" or "What platforms does the game run on?")

What Berkeley did, according to Berkeley scholars like A. A. Luce, was to slice through the tangles of existing metaphysics by realizing that only two kinds of entities were necessary to explain all human experience: spirits, which are active and intelligent, and thoughts. Berkeley avoided solipsism because his world was "designed" by a master spiritual being, God, who also created all other spirits. Due to his unique role in reality, God has the power to create thoughts that none of the other spirits can avoid thinking but at their own peril.

As I mentioned before, a decent metaphor for getting a handle on what Berkeley is up to is that God is the creator of a video game universe, while all the other spirits are players. (Again, it is a metaphor: yes, video game designers do not typically create their own users!) God has granted the players certain powers within his universe: they can choose (to an extent) what type of character they will be, they can alter (to an extent) features of the world. They may chop down a forest (given that they acquire the right tools) or build a town (given that they find stone). They may divert the course of a river or tear down a mountain. But the basic framework is God's, and attempting to ignore that framework has consequences. If you pretend that cliff that God put in that spot isn't really there, your character will be smashed up on the rocks below. If you pretend your character can breath water when it can't, your character will drown. If you burn too much coal, your character and those around him will become ill.

Now, God made the "game world" challenging and dramatic (otherwise why would the players remain interested?) but he is a loving designer: he also made it comprehensible; he wants the players to succeed! In designing the behavior of the "objects" in the world, he carefully "programmed" them so that, through the use of experiment and reason, the players could come to understand how the different aspects of the game world worked. Further, he hid layers and layers of further revelations within each "object," so that as the players acquired better and better tools and understanding, new aspects of the world would open to them. And this, for Berkeley, explains the success of science: God wanted us to have a world that would encourage us to explore and exercise our reason, so he built one that is orderly and amenable to such exploration. Berkeley saw no reason to multiply entities and posit "acts" and "potencies" and "substances" and "forms," or even "matter." There is us, and God, and the world God put before us.

So the conversion challenge any metaphysics that posits more entities faces is to convince me that these additional entities do some explanatory work beyond what Berkeley's metaphysics can do. And so far, I have not found any evidence that any of them can do so.


  1. Gene,

    I'm having a late night reading with Oakeshott and "Experience and It's Modes". Carefully going through it, Oakeshott seems to encompass a powerful argument for Idealism that seems to be reinforcing of Berkeley's "to be is to perceive, or to be perceived."

    His argument (tell me if I am wrong) seems damned near impossible to refute:

    1) You cannot divorce reality from experience. Why? Because the minute you make any attempt to do so, you fail; all of our ideas about how the world is are abstractions from experience. You cannot divorce them from experience, because experience presupposes something experienced, and something experienced presupposes an object of the experience (to be is to perceive, or to be perceived, from Berkeley). To separate one from the other is impossible in conception - it is only possible in abstraction. This is what he seems to be speaking of when he talks about "the whole of experience."

    2) Experience presupposes something mental. To have an experience is to have, in some way, a 'thought'; the idea of an experience without the ability of reflection or discernment is impossible, because to experience something is to conscious of something - and this consciousness implies thought, or something mental in nature.


    3) All of reality is in some way fundamentally mental.

    I do not think that there is any way around (1), and the other two seem to follow directly. I'm still not sure if I am an Idealist - it will require much more in the way of reading about Berkeley, Oakeshott, Bradley, and others that I have found from the British Idealism society you referenced me to - but wow. This argument seems very, very strong to me.


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