...and seeing is believing!
That there are no substances, or substrates, is hardly a novel or a new thing to say. An English bishop named George Berkeley beat us to it 250 years ago, having taken offense at the commonsensical views of John Locke discussed above.1
Berkeley's position was this: there are minds, or souls on the one hand; and there are sensations, and ideas on the other. The former are selves, like you and me, and the latter are the entities known by selves—the so-called objects of knowledge.
But these objects of knowledge are not substances, or substrates, if by these we mean stolid, inert "things out there." The things we know are "in here," not out there, and they are sensations and/or ideas. Nor are there "things out there" which are similar to, or like our sensations and ideas. Anything like a sensation or an idea is also a sensation or an idea, and is to be found "in here," together with the rest of them.
Thus, the notion of a knowable substance or substrate involves a contradiction in terms, and is impossible. And, the notion of anunknowable substance or substrate is a useless notion, since, by definition, we could never have any knowledge of it.
Consider this startling statement from the good bishop's book:
20. In short, if there were external bodies, it is impossible we should ever come to know it; and if there were not, we might have the very same reasons to think there were that we have now. Suppose (what no one can deny possible) an intelligence without the help of external bodies, to be affected with the same train of sensations or ideas that you are, imprinted in the same order and with like vividness in his mind. I ask whether that intelligence hath not all the reason to believe the existence of corporeal substances, represented by his ideas, and exciting them in his mind, that you can possibly have for believing the same thing.2
Now, Berkeley was a man of the cloth, and knew where he was going with this line of reasoning. If there are no such things as external bodies, then we can't look to external bodies as the cause of our ideas and sensations. But, ideas and sensations do exist. Whence their cause? God.
In fact, Berkeley maintained that the entire universe as we know it is first an assembly of ideas in the mind of God. We are given to share these ideas, and only later make the understandable mistake of inferring to the existence of a world of material objects in order to explain how these ideas came about. But there are no such things as knowable material objects, etc.
Bishop Berkeley went far with the first half of his argument; i.e., that the notion of a knowable, unknowable external object involves a contradiction in terms. In fact, two and going-on three centuries of Idealist thinking can trace its roots to that simple observation. These very essays are born out of that insight, and I have been flattered, not angered, when I hear them referred to using the expression "Bishop Berkeley in a Cybermall."
However, the second half of his argument—that involving the necessary existence of a God in order to explain our having sensations and ideas—didn't go so far at all. In fact, it won him a good bit of ridicule from local pundits. No less a worthy than Dr. Samuel Johnson—the famous lexicographer—took the Bishop to task one night in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese—a London salon hangout for early 18th century movers and shakers.
"I refute you thusly," bellowed Dr. Johnson, as he pounded the oaken table so hard that all the plates and glasses in the pub shook and rattled, and that the paintings hanging on the walls all re-aligned themselves. Applause from onlookers then filled the room, and confirmed—at least for the man in the bar— that Berkeley had indeed been refuted, and exposed as a prolix apologetic for a basically theological view of things—not a commonsensical one. When a pub can be rattled to its foundations with the pounding of one man's fist, it makes no sense to say that there are no such things as material objects.3 Does it?
It might still, of course. Philosophers are interested in what is conceivable, not what pleases or fails to please the man in the street. The brutal sensations and subsequent ideas attendant to Dr. Johnson's outburst may indeed have first been sensations and ideas in the mind of God, or caused in another manner, and it may still make no sense—that outburst notwithstanding—for us to speak of the existence of oaken tables independent of our knowledge of oaken tables.
What other manner? You know the answer. There have been intervening events since 1710. Like movies and T.V. There is a good movie playing in a theater near you showing Dr. Johnson pounding his fist on the table in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. A very realistic movie. Stereo sound, digitally encoded. Wide screen. Great resolution. Convincing color. It's just as though you're there — Being-there, then...
Or, wait a few years and visit the trend-setting Cyber-Emporium in, say, Miami, Florida. Class A, deep-immersion experiences have come down in price. All your friends say you've got to do it.
You select Bishops, Dictionaries and Material Objects, and find yourself on a hot summer's night in a steamy London pub. It smells of perspiration and of bad breath. There are a lot of rotten teeth at this table.
It's late at night, and people are shouting at one another in order to be heard. At your side is a pretty 26 year-old peasant girl. She seems to know who you are. You want to hear what she's saying, but you can't.
Suddenly a large man at the end of the oaken bench roars, and a smaller man wearing a cassock, something purple at his throat, and a crucifix is seen to cringe. The large man smashes his fist down onto the table. You can feel the blow through your buttocks. Your flagon of beer spills.
"I refute you thusly," the large man shouts. The crowd explodes into claps and hollers, and the whole building seems to shake.
The girl at your side slips her hand between your legs, fingers active.
"Showed that wanker, didn't he?" she whispers in your ear. Her tongue is now in your ear, too, and your groin quickens with those familiar, consciousness-clogging symptoms of male arousal.
Being-there, then... in cyberspace!
This is not, of course, what Bishop Berkeley had in mind. In fact, it would have horrified him to think that the role he had so fondly reserved for the Deity, as the causer of our sensations and ideas, might 250 years later be taken over by man-made machines—that machines might one day play the role of God.4
Heresy! Yet, we still find Berkeley the philosopher taunting us with the possibility—that no man can deny—of certain sensations and ideas being created in the mind of a human being—an intelligence—without the help of a world of objects which somehow "caused" them. We're instructed that such a human being would have the same (bad) reasons for inferring to the existence of a world of objects under those circumstances as we have, under ours. That girl in London was as real as they get.
Cut to the chase, together with me, and admit that the occupant of a virtual reality chamber which provides plausible machine-generated sensations would make no mistake, other than the mistake we may make every day, in regarding his world as unconditionally "real," and with nothing "virtual" or second rate about that reality!
1See Berkeley's blockbuster exposée A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, first published in 1710—20 years after Locke's manifesto on behalf of a world of objects.
2Ibid. Italics added.
3Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, in Fleet Street, is still in existence today—a wonderful idea in the mind of God, and still a good place for lunch and a pint of cold lager.
4See below,Game of Life, in which chapter precisely this notion is contemplated, in all seriousness, and with considerable trembling.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.