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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Mind Tricks: Bishop Berkeley and the Idea of Everything | CALIFORNIA

Mind Tricks: George Berkeley and the Nature of Reality.
Berkeley's namesake philosopher didn't beileve in the objective reality of matter, an idea surprisingly resonant in modern physics.

Photo: Pat Joseph
"Lately, I’ve been spending time at Founders’ Rock trying and mostly failing to get a grasp on reality." writes Pat Joseph, editor of California and has been observed to exist.

Photo: Founder's Rock.
Credit: Pat Joseph

Founders’ Rock is an outcropping at the northeast corner of the UC Berkeley campus, where Gayley Road and Hearst Avenue meet, a lonely spot shaded by coffeeberry, oak, and eucalyptus. The rock itself—lichen-encrusted and moss-fringed—is an unassuming jumble.

Aside from the squirrels and transients—and lately, me—it receives few visitors. Most students and passers-by never pay it any mind. For them, it may as well not exist.

Yet for all its relative obscurity, Founders’ Rock is, as the name suggests, at the very heart of the University’s story, for it was here that the both the campus and the city that grew up around it came by their name, 150 years ago.

It was in the spring of 1860, just days after the first Pony Express rider made it to California, that the trustees of the College of California in Oakland first met to survey the land they had secured upon which to establish a new university. The real estate was an open swath of oak-studded savannah that sloped gently downward toward the bay and was reliably watered by a stream that spilled from the hills. The trustees, four of whom were reverends, hitched their teams by that stream, and gathered at the rock, then a prominent landmark in the surrounding landscape, to consecrate the site as a “seat of Christian learning.”

They would meet again at the “great rock” six years later and from it, they looked out to the Golden Gate, where ships weighed anchor and set sail. Observing the scene, one of the men was moved to recite a snatch of verse.

Westward the course of empire takes its way; the first four acts already passed. A fifth shall close the Drama with the day; Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

It was the final stanza in a poem by one George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. An Irishman who would have pronounced his surname to rhyme with “darkly,” Berkeley had himself once dreamed of creating a university in the New World—specifically Bermuda—where he hoped to educate both settlers and Native Americans. Whether it was due to that fact or simply in appreciation of his enthusiastic expression of manifest destiny, Berkeley struck the men as a capital name for the new institution.

As for the rock, it remained for many decades an important spot for campus observances, and its north-facing flank was long ago graced with a marble tablet bearing the date of the trustees’ original rendezvous: April 16, 1860. By then, the good bishop had been dead more than a hundred years, his own course having never run farther west than colonial Rhode Island, where he waited three years for the funds he needed to start his college in Bermuda. As is so often the case in academics, the money never materialized, and Berkeley returned home to the British Isles. Today, he is best remembered not as an educator or poet but as the philosopher whose famous dictum esse est percipi—to be is to be perceived—is a cornerstone of idealism.

We now tend to think of idealism as a naïve devotion to high-minded principles, but philosophical idealism is something different—an assertion that reality is fundamentally mind-dependent.

The well-known thought experiment about the tree that falls in a forest when no one is around to hear it is often erroneously, if understandably, credited to Berkeley. The question is, does the tree make a sound? The answer is no. When the tree falls, it creates a disturbance in the air that spreads outward in all directions, but it only registers as a sound if it chances upon an ear capable of hearing it. The sound’s esse, in other words, is indeed its percipi.

But while the example is certainly in keeping with Berkeley’s basic philosophy, his own notion of reality cut deeper still.

In his conception, it isn’t just the sound of the falling tree that requires a perceiver in order to be realized; without a perceiver, the tree itself does not exist. Nothing does. As he wrote in his 1710 treatise, Of the Principles of Human Knowledge: “All the choir of heaven and the furniture of the earth—in a word, all those bodies which compose the frame of the world—have not subsistence without a mind.”

Though Berkeley’s school of thought is now generally referred to as idealism, he himself called it “immaterialism.” Whatever –ism you prefer, the astonishing fact remains: The greatest public university in the world is named for a man who denied the objective reality of matter.

Founders’ Rock is part of the furniture of the earth—a piece brought up from the basement, apparently. According to the late Berkeley geologist Garniss Curtis, it began as intrusive rock that cooled and crystallized deep underground before being carried to its present site, considerably altered by chemical processes, and thrust to the surface by the forces of the Hayward Fault.

That fault is, of course, an underlying physical reality of life on the Cal campus, and its presence—largely unseen and only infrequently felt—explains much about the local topography. It was the action of the fault that created the backdrop of the Berkeley Hills, which rise abruptly to catch the Pacific sea-fogs and send them back to the bay as runoff. Strawberry Creek, the drainage that cuts through campus, crosses the fault zone in a culvert buried beneath Memorial Stadium. In the short space from where it plunges beneath the bleachers to where it emerges behind the Women’s Faculty Club, the creek is offset by more than a thousand feet, its course shunted sideways by the inexorable, slow-motion creep of the plates.