Berkeley and Bagels

Berkeley and Bagels

Sitting one night at a community coffee shop, re-reading once more the Introduction to Berkley’s Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, I was interrupted by a friend named Ellie who inquired as to the subject matter of the book.  I informed her that was it was a book whereas the author claims that matter does not exist, that things exist only when perceived, and that it made clear everything.  The skeptic in me had been quieted and I could go about my life, secure in the knowledge of how things are, devoting myself to more timely pursuits.  I also recommended the coffee.  Ellie, it seemed, was not convinced.

Ellie: What are you getting on about?  Have you lost your marbles?

Eddie: Not at all.  I’ll start from the beginning.  What is that you are holding in your hand?

Ellie: A bagel.

Eddie: How do you know that it is there?

Ellie: Have you stopped at the pub on the way here?

Eddie: No really.  How do you know that what you hold in your hand is actually there?

Ellie: Duh.  I can feel it in my hand.

Eddie: Right.  And if you were to move your nose closer to it you’d smell it also.  And you can also see it with your eyes.

Ellie: So the bagel exists.  I guess it’s a thinking bagel if it exist.  Right?  Get it?  Descartes?  Sorry… a poor joke.

Eddie: Quite.  We’ve established that this bagel exists because you can see it, smell it, feel it, and soon you’ll taste it.

Ellie: That’s the plan.

Eddie: Yet can you tell me about the bagel that is on the roof?

Ellie: What bagel on the roof?

Eddie: Exactly.  We don’t know if there is or is not a bagel on the roof because it is not perceived by our senses.

Ellie: This sounds like that cat in a box.

Eddie: I’m not going there, mainly because I never understood that.  However, bear with me for a moment.  How do we know that the bagel is here?  Senses.

Ellie: So what.  This bagel isn’t going to disappear if I no longer perceive it.

Eddie: Well yes and no.  We seem to experience a permanency of things in the world around us.  The desk in your room when you entered appears to be the same as when you left.  Yet the bagel would disappear if it were not perceived by something, because perceiving is a thought, and thoughts occur within thinking things.  I think Berkley would say that the larger thinking thing keeping everything in place while we are not looking at them would be God.

Ellie: Okay, wait.  You lost me.  What did you mean when you said that the bagel would disappear if it were not perceived because perceiving is a thought.

Eddie: It has to do with abstract ideas.  Tell me, what is a sensory experience?

Ellie: You mean the five senses?  Touch, taste, smell, feel, hear.

Eddie: Yes, they are that, but they are impressions, thoughts, or happenings in the mind.  Let’s do a psychology test.  You’re familiar with JND, just noticeable differences right?

Ellie: Yes.  Thats when slight changes in something are made until the person being tested notices a difference.  Those thresholds are measured and vary according to a variety of factors.

Eddie: Fine.  Now suppose that we blindfold you and I take a small pin out and slowly move it toward your finger and await until you tell me that you feel it.  Until you actually feel the pin, it hasn’t touched you yet, correct?

Ellie: Okay.  But what if you are poking me on a less sensitive patch of skin?  Perhaps it would take more pressure for me to feel it than in other areas, though in all you are actually touching me with the pin.

Eddie: But how would we know if I were indeed touching you?

Ellie: You could use a magnifying glass to look closely.

Eddie: All of which supports my point.  We know nothing unless it is perceived.  Yet this just begins to get to the heart of the matter.

Ellie: Which is?

Eddie: Abstract ideas are impossible.  In knowing whether the pin touched you or not we relied upon some sort of sensory data to inform us that it was so.  Berkley writes that we cannot abstract an idea from a perception, and since perceptions are all ideas, we cannot separate an idea from an idea.  Can you imagine the pin touching you without thinking about it touching you?

Ellie: Wait.  You just made me choke on my bagel.  What do you mean think about something without thinking of something?  That’s absurd.

Eddie: Exactly.  We cannot think of something without having a thought about it.  Go ahead and try to think of the pin touching you without any sensory idea of it.

Ellie: That’s cheap.  You’re telling me that I’m not to imagine the thing I’m told to imagine.

Eddie: It isn’t cheap.  Its a contradiction.

Ellie: Wait a minute.  I’m going to need a lot more espresso if I’m going to keep up with this foolishness.

Eddie: Grab some for me also.

Ellie: Okay.  Let’s leave the pin prick and go to something else because I am finding it impossible to think of something and not so at the same time.  Let’s instead talk about bagels.  Is this a bagel?

Eddie: Though it looks a little different than the bagel you had before, I would say that it is a bagel.

Ellie: Why is that?

Eddie: Because it seems to fit a set of objects that fit within the classification of bagel as I understand it.

Ellie: This set of the word bagel, is there a particular bagel that it refers to?

Eddie: No.  The placeholder for the set, ‘bagel’, is a general term.  It refers to all of them but yet none of them specifically of itself.

Ellie: Is there an archetypal bagel?  Or perhaps a form for bagels?

Eddie: I don’t know about forms… never did understand Plato.  Yet no, there is no archetypal bagel that exists anywhere.  The term bagel acts as a general term to which anything resembling a bagel, as understood as such, might be referred by the term.

Ellie: So there is something that we can imagine and yet doesn’t exist.  The abstract idea of a bagel works. There are abstract ideas.

Eddie: Wait a minute.  The placeholder term bagel is a general term that refers to many particular things, but this isn’t to say that it is an abstract thought.  Suppose the only bagels you ever knew of were in this cafe.  Made and sold here.  Nobody outside of this shop makes bagels.  There are twelve varieties of bagel in the display case and constitutes our set of of the term bagel.

Ellie: I could imagine a thirteenth variety.

Eddie: You could.  Yet you’d be thinking of thoughts that are instances of combinations of things known.  You’d just be putting together possibilities, thoughts, but nothing abstract.  At the dawn of human existence nobody said “someday someone will invent the wheel” because at the time he did so it was invented.  The concept of a wheel is a thought, just like seeing one when he made it.  Likewise, the concept of a novel bagel is a thought, the same as perceiving a bagel is a thought.  Yet back to the point.  Suppose you went to another country and visited a coffee shop there and within there were some new bagels, almost completely different but similar enough that you call them bagels.  Your set has enlarged with more particulars.

Ellie: The point?

Eddie: The point is that wide variety of things generally referred to by the term bagel was increased, not some abstract notion of bagelness that is separate from descriptions of bagels.

Ellie: But wait, what if I want to use this notion of a bagelness.

Eddie: Okay.  Go ahead.  Tell me about it, what constitutes bagelness?

Ellie: Doughy, slightly tough on the outside, chewy on the inside, made with wheat, or perhaps barley, or rye, baked in a oven, and…

Eddie: You are describing perception ideas to me but not an abstract thought.  You’ve told me nothing about bagels that is not discerned from looking at a lot of particular bagels, and those qualities being sensory perceptions on top of that.

Ellie: So what, you want me to give you some sort of understanding of a bagel without any sensory description words?  What, a vulcan mind-meld like in Star Trek?

Eddie: That would be quite a trick if it were possible.  Since it isn’t it isn’t worth wondering about as it is one more example of how supposed abstract ideas can lead us astray.

Ellie: Okay.  Hold on.  You were pretty angry at some election results recently, going on and on about justice and civic duty.  Justice is a thing that exists and yet we can’t smell it or taste it.  Justice isn’t a bagel in a case.

Eddie: So what is justice?

Ellie: It is the quality of being fair and reasonable.  That’s what the dictionary says.

Eddie: Nice definition.  Now every argument about justice, from Socrates to Mill has been settled.  I’m sure that we’d all agree we want a just world and that the U.N. would benefit from your definition.

Ellie: Don’t make me throw a bagel at you!

Eddie: Sorry, not trying to be mean, just making a point.  Your definition doesn’t help us know what justice is and isn’t.  It sounds good, but then there are a lot of messy situations in life where it becomes quite hard to determine if something is just or not.  There is a heated argument four tables down on the war in Iraq where one side says it American actions there are a just cause, and the other side saying the war is never just.  Who is correct?

Ellie: Well, I’d know it when I see it.

Eddie: You know you just said…

Ellie: I know, I know.  But there must be justice in the world.  Right?

Eddie: I don’t know what Berkeley’s opinion is on Justice.  However, perhaps we can better understand if we return to bagels.  You see those baked goods in the window to your left?

Ellie: You mean the donuts?

Eddie: I say that they are bagels.

Ellie: Now you’re just trying to pick a fight.

Eddie: No, I’m trying to show the arbitrary nature of language.  The term bagel is a placeholder term denoting a set of particulars.  There isn’t any abstract bagel property independent of thought that latches onto bagels because there isn’t any bagel independent of being perceived.  There is a term we use to generally denote meaning toward things we commonly understand as bagels.  We both disagree that that particular pastry is a bagel or not.   Our discussion of whether that is a bagel or not would then likely continue along the lines of comparing various similarities and dissimilarities of particulars within and without the set commonly understood as bagel.  The term bagel itself is gibberish without the particulars.  We could easily change our placeholder term from bagel to gabel instead and it would be okay.

Ellie: So there is no justice other than what we all agree as that being within the set of particulars we all agree as being justice?  That isn’t particularly comforting.  But surely we can see a novel action and determine whether it is just or not.

Eddie: Can we determine if something novel is round or not?

Ellie: Yes.  Round could be said to be a universal to which we refer to in determining if something is round or not.

Eddie: I think there might be something in the talk about universals, particularly if we look at whether or not ‘same’ and ‘different’ are universals.  But I don’t want to get sidetracked.  Going back to our earlier point, can you judge something to be round without perceiving it to be round?

Ellie: Are we back there again?

Eddie: I’m afraid so.

Ellie: So if I’m to understand you correctly, we only have ideas.  Our senses are all ideas.  If there is no sensing thing, whether it be brain or spirit or soul or whatever, then there is no perception, and then nothing.  Otherwise, how’d you know it?

Eddie: Right.

Ellie: And to abstract a thought is to have a thought about something in which I cannot see or feel or sense it in any way.

Eddie: As far as I’ve understood the Introduction. I’ve to tell you… I’ve read this thing several times and had much coffee.

Ellie: And you’re sure that an abstract thought cannot be a something else?

Eddie: What would that something else be?  Something separated from sensory description?  How would you describe it?

Ellie: With a lot more coffee, that’s for sure.

Eddie: You cannot say X and not-X at the same time.

Ellie: What?

Eddie: You cannot say that is coffee and that is not coffee at the same time.  It is a contradiction.  Likewise you cannot say that you can imagine a thought about something without using thoughts (senses) about it.  That too is a contradiction.

Ellie: Why are you reading this book again?  Did you lose a bet?

Eddie: For class.  And also because when I got to Berkeley’s position on there being material substance he called it an abstraction and dismissed it as such.  Because this belief was a contradiction, it couldn’t exist, which meant that everything wasn’t material substance but the substance of the thing we do have…

Ellie: Bagels.

Eddie: Funny.  No… perceptions are by thinking things… perceptions are thoughts… and since things cannot be material substance they must be of the substance of thoughts.

Ellie: So what of this bagel?  Did I create it?

Eddie: No.  God created it.  You, me, the bagel, everything, are all thoughts in the mind of God.

Ellie: Well you’d think that God would be able to make tastier bagels.


Berkeley’s thought experiment was summarized in a limerick by Ronald Knox and an anonymous reply:

There was a young man who said “God

Must find it exceedingly odd

To think that the tree

Should continue 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 the tree

Will continue to be

Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”


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