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New Pathways: Quotes from the Masters

April 30, 2013

Bart Simpson

I have completed a series of posts on influential figures in my life. And I am quite happy with what I did there. Thank you to everyone who liked, commented and took the time to read these posts. It was a great experience for me to share these things with you all.

It was good to reflect on the influence of several figureheads on my own personal development. For we so often take for granted what we are, and what we have become in this life. As if it is all our own possession, when much of it is thanks to the environment in which we have grown up. There are many others I could mention, and much more detail I could go into on the ones I did mention, but I think I am going to move on to a new weekly segment for the time being.

I have decided I am going to do a series of posts on Quotes from the Masters. I will take a quote I think to be very important or relevant, and I will then go into a detailed analysis of it, including my own view of it. If anyone has some quotes of their own that have inspired them that they want to share or suggest that I do a post on, then do feel free to share them with me.

I am going to start quite fittingly with a quote from George Berkeley, the first philosopher to open my mind to the complex world of philosophy lying behind the scientific surface of certainty and materialism:

‘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 with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world; yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question, may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For 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?’ (Berkeley, 1710: 25)

It was this statement by George Berkeley in his Principles of Human Knowledge, and some similar ones in his Dialogues between Hylas and Philinous, which opened my mind to the possibility of an idealism, underlying all our materialistic conceptions of the world. It is very similar to the ancient eastern mystic saying of, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to see it, does it make a sound.  (The picture of Bart Simpson refers to this quote used in that episode, his expression their is the moment of realization of its significance.)

So is Berkeley right? Is it absurd and repugnant to imagine something can exist unperceived when all we have known to exist has come via our perception of it during our own lifetime? This is the classic philosophical problem of our knowledge of the external world. But once we have gone this far, we can take our existential doubts much further if we like. I could go all the way to the extreme position of solipsism and argue nothing exists except my own perceptions. Everything else is just a figment of my imagination, nothing but a dreaming and a seeming.

It was this position of doubt which Descartes was lead to in his meditations. But he then find a way out of it via a series of arguments, which included a reliance on the ontological argument for the existence of God. An argument I believe to be invalid, though it does have a certain intuitive appeal. For Berkeley there is no question of getting back to a safe knowledge of the external world, for the external world, not only doesn’t exist according to Berkelian idealism, it is also a manifest contradiction. He does not himself go to the extreme of solipsism, for he believes, due to his religious views, that the all-seeing eye of God ensures the existence of ourselves, others and the world, by looking at it and perceiving it all the time. This itself is also very close to certain views in eastern philosophy and religion, particularly in Hinduism, regarding the oneness of existence, the state they call Brahman.

These types of views are not just appealing, they also are backed up by well-thought through arguments. Even David Hume, a very no nonsense philosopher, telling us to throw all non-scientific books into the flames, did not doubt the argument for idealism. He only doubted that we could really, in our everyday lives, act as if we believe this view to be true. So his concern was its  impracticability. So here a striving for knowledge terminates in a slightly stale and disappointing conclusion of scepticism.

To this day, the pondering of this question of idealism, and the problem of knowing the existence of the external world, can grab my interest and make me think. It makes me less quick to accept the beliefs other people, and education, try to impose on me. They can believe all they want in the existence of particles of matter in motion, banging into each other, if it eases their mind to have such an ordered view of the universe. But the end of the day, this is merely their view, and I need not go along with it.

The universe is a place full of mystery in my eyes, and it always has been, for it brought me into being. It gave me this perspective on it, and has presented me with so many unexepected things during my life that I never could have anticipated. The world as I perceive it is the one that I believe in. Not the one that education and science or religion have constructed for me. Their constructions are well and good. Nicely ordered, balanced, a source of  a unified view for humanity. And I give them full historical acknowledgment. But they are still human constructions. And guess what? I am a human too, and I can construct my view of the world as I perceive it.

I can not recommend the work of George Berkeley highly enough. This is what philosophy does at its best. It doesn’t just tell us what is the case with an orderly exposition. It inspires us to think through what is the case for ourselves. All those thoughts you have running through your head, you can unify them, organise them and make a whole world out of them which you then perceive as a real and existent place. The mind is our most powerful tool. Make it a tool for your own use, not someone else’s.

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