Butterflies

David Pears

  • Berkeley: The Central Arguments by A.C. Grayling
    Duckworth, 218 pp, £19.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 7156 2065 7
  • Essays on Berkeley: A Tercentennial Celebration edited by John Foster and Howard Robinson
    Oxford, 264 pp, £22.50, October 1986, ISBN 0 19 824734 6

As a child I collected butterflies, and I remember being impressed by a comic cartoon which showed another collector, older and more experienced than myself, who had accidentally swallowed a specimen he had been chasing. Later I felt the same sense of incongruity when I read Berkeley’s claim that everything he perceived was really in his mind. Surely he was overdoing it. True, his was only a case of mental ingestion, and anyway the butterfly would not be taken in by a single act: first, the blue of its wings, then with more difficulty their shape and size, and finally even the grainy arrangement of their scales which would only show up under a microscope. But how could he do it? His portrait does not show him with his hand over his mouth and an expression of dismay on his face like the man in the cartoon. On the contrary, he looks like someone who is happy to have made his point.

The tercentenary of his birth is a good moment to review his achievement. His claim is that nothing exists when it is not being perceived and that, when it is being perceived, it exists in the mind of the perceiver. This suggests that the butterfly clicked into existence when the collector first spotted it. But if this is why we find Berkeley’s claim incredible, we must think again. He also tells us that, when none of us is looking at it, it is sustained in the mind of God, like the tree in the quad and everything else.

There is a conversation at the beginning of Forster’s novel The Longest Journey which shows how important it is to add ‘and everything else’. If we forget this addition, it will look as if the butterfly would be in trouble without God’s sustaining mind, unable to cover the hundred yards between one collector’s visual field and another’s. But if the butterfly would be in trouble, so too would the hundred yards. Berkeley’s idealism is total. He is not telling us that we are located at different points in physical space, where God sends each of us the perceptions appropriate to that particular seat in the theatre. Everything is ingested, including space itself.

Perhaps this explains Boswell’s verdict: ‘Though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it.’ Maybe it is because the doctrine is total that it seems to be irrefutable. Any consideration that can be brought against it, or any piece of apparently contrary evidence, will be accepted by Berkeley only after it has been pre-digested by his theory. If he can make anything assimilable by the mind, why not everything? On the other hand, the truth of the matter can hardly depend on which side carries the onus of proof. Is it then a stand-off?

It is certainly a disappointment to those who expect a philosophical controversy to be settled like a scientific one. It also makes them feel that philosophy is not a serious subject. If Berkeley’s rejection of matter does not mean that we can walk through physical objects, how else can it be meant seriously? To take another example which gives practical people the same impression of frivolity, Zeno tells us that an arrow cannot traverse an infinitely divisible distance in a finite time, because it must first cover half the distance, then half the remainder, and so on. Are we then to suppose, like the character in Stoppard’s play, that Saint Sebastian died of fright?

What the two cases have in common is that the philosophy cannot change the ordinary beliefs. However, Zeno presumably was not trying to change our belief in motion, but only to challenge us to reconcile it with the infinite divisibility of space. Berkeley was not trying to change our belief in the world. He did not even regard his doctrine as in any way paradoxical. On the contrary, he thought that it agreed perfectly with common sense, and it is only the unconverted who find it paradoxical. Is this because they misunderstand it?

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