Monday, January 29, 2007

Back to University Again

Thoughts At DCU

It is now precisely 9.42 A.M. and I'm sitting at a computer terminal in Lab number 1 in the Computer Department of DCU. It's amazing how when one changes the environment one almost changes reality. I'm almost in another world. Normally, I should be teaching at this moment, giving instructions to students and imparting knowledge of some sort. Instead I am listening to the rather dull clicks of keys being hit on keyboards of the various computers around me. My students are learning how to construct or write their very own web pages. I am reminded of the famous great Irish Bishop, George Berkeley,(1685-1753) whose famous dictum "esse est percipi" rings in my mind. I've always thought that there was some great and profound truth at a personal experiential level in this contention. This Latin phrase translates as "To be is to be perceived!"
The learned Bishops's theory has been called "subjective idealism" or "immaterialism" in his own words. Berkeley took empiricism to its extreme. I cannot really know whether a thing exists at all in itself, rather I only know that it exists in so far as I can perceive it. Hence, I cannot know that anything exists at all outside my very own ken. In other words, all I can know about any object, say the breakfast that I'm eating, is my very own perception of this breakfast.
Berkeley's thought appeals to me, though I have not studied it at great depth. Rather, its main parameters appeal to me because they resonate with my lived experience and substantiate my understanding of my world, and my love of the works of Carl Gustave Jung, the great psychiatrist, whom I have often alluded to in these pages. Jung says that we see the world not as it is in itself but rather we see the world as we ourselves are. It also reaffirms me in my own personal spiritual approach to life. For example, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said the eye is the organ I see with, and whatever the peculiar characteristics of my eye, that in itself colours my perception of reality. Hence, Coleridge said that every single individual starts out with his very own presuppositions , conscious or unconscious, basic axioms or laws of nature about which he can do very little, before he then makes sense out of the life he finds before him or within him.
I suppose Berkeley implies, if I understand him correctly, that a thing exists if it is perceived, hence the above Latin dictum. The people in this room exist because I see them and hear them, and even smell them. (After all we all do fart! Excuse this rather Joycean interruption but humour, too, is important!) So, if I, the perceiver, am not here do these people in this room exist then? Berkeley's answer is simple. They do, of course, because they exist in a greater mind than my poor finite one, that is, in the mind of God. So Berkeley's theory is quite tight - all the reality that makes up this known world exists because there is a Grand Perceptor or Perceiver Par Excellence namely the Deity or God. Whether this latter be a personal God as it was for Berkeley or the God the deists did not bother our learned Bishop.
The goal of science for Berkeley, the ultimate empiricist, is to strip away the intellectualizations and conceptualizations of human perceptions to reach as close as possible the thing in itself. One probably never gets there, I should imagine, though one approaches nearer and nearer and nearer.
Ronald Knox composed a famous ditty summarising humorously the philosophy of Berkeley. It goes:

There was a young man who said "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."
"Dear Sir, your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the Quad
And that's why this tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God."

I won't go into Berkeley's primary and secondary qualities of objects except by referring to this famous almost Hallowe'en night activity or experiment. I remember well a lecturer at college talking about his "hands in water experiment." A person (perceiver) puts one hand in a basin of very cold water and the other hand in a basin of fairly hot water. Then he/she places both hands in a basin of luke warm water. The perceiver will get two distinct results - one hand, the hotter one will register cold while the other hand, the colder, will register hot. Hence heat is a secondary and not a primary quality of an object.
Quite simply Berekeley is the father of the turn to the subject or the father of the philosophical school of subjectivity and is acknowledged as such. Another way of putting this is to state that he is one of the founders of idealism.
I also like Berkeley because he was Irish - a home-grown philosopher if you like. Also he was a genial gentleman with an affectionate disposition. I read with appreciation that he did a lot of work while in London on behalf of homeless children or what they then called foundlings. George Berkeley is listed as one of the original governors and patrons of London's Foundling Hospital (1739)

As this post quotes Knox's limerick about Berkeley's philosophy and refers to the perception of a tree I thought that this post should contain a picture of one which I took in 2005 at Newbridge House.

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