Philosophy – Bishop Berkley

Are you familiar with the expression “if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound ?”. Its tempting to say yes, but if you think about it “sound” is not waves through the air hitting your ear – it’s what happens in your mind when they get there. If there is no person to hear it, there isnt any “sound”; since sound is a human sense as is taste or sight.

This is reminiscent of the writings of Irish Ecclesiastic Bishop Berkeley in the 18th century who thought that nothing existed unless someone was aware of it. In answer to the obvious objection that if it were true then things would constantly wink in and out of existence he said that God was always observing the whole universe and that is what kept it in existence. In a sense that is how Berkley conceptualised God – something like us, capable of observing, but bigger and more powerful – powerful enough in fact to simultaneously observe the whole universe. And this is an idea that finds an echo in the modern world of science, in the filed of quantum mechanics, where the observer and the act of observation influence the thing being observed.

There is a famous limerick by Thomas Carlyle about it –

There was a young man who said God
must think it exceedingly odd
that my favourite tree continues to be
When there’s no-one about in the Quad

Dear sir, your astonishments odd
I am always about in the Quad
which is why the tree continues to be
since observed by, yours faithfully, God

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