The Good Bishop

One day I, Chuang Zhou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

—Chuang Tzu

In 1744 the Bishop of Cloyne, Ireland, published the bestselling book of his lifetime, one that ran through six editions in the first year of its publication. It was called Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water. In 1752, a year before his death, he even published a sequel: Further Reflections on Tar-Water.

The bishop’s recipe for making tar water was to put a quart of pine tar in a large glass vessel and pour a gallon of cold water over it. Stir for four minutes with a ladle or a stick, then let stand for forty-eight hours. At this point the liquid can be poured off. Its color ought to be no lighter than that of French white wine, and not darker than Spanish. The general rule for taking it is to drink half a pint night and morning on an empty stomach; children and “squeamish persons” may dilute it, and take less at a time but more frequently.

This regime, the bishop claimed, was a cure for all manner of afflictions. He describes a family with seven children during a smallpox epidemic. Six of the children, who drank tar-water, “came very well through the infection.” The seventh “could not be brought to drink the tar-water” (it seems that tar-water tastes rather foul), and we are to understand that he died. Tar-water was effective at curing “so many purulent ulcers” that the bishop tried it on “other foulnesses of the blood,” including “cutaneous eruptions” and the “foulest distempers…pleurisy and peripeumony.”


What motivated our tar-water fanatic—a man whom Immanuel Kant would later dub “the good bishop”—to so energetically promote a concoction made of pine sap was concern for his flock. (Not his sheep—the people in his diocese.) Cloyne, an isolated and impoverished rural area, had recently been hit by epidemics of smallpox and dysentery—or, as the bishop colorfully termed it, “bloody flux.” The author of a 1741 letter to an MP entitled “The Groans of Ireland” described the country as “the most miserable scene of universal distress, that I have ever read of in History.” It suffered from a “scarcity of bread (that in some places come near to a Famine).” So scarce was bread, in fact, that the bishop, in a gesture of solidarity with his congregation, stopped using flour to powder his wig until after the fall harvest.

The bishop thought he had found an inexpensive way to maintain the health of the bodies (and souls) of a devastated population. But his bestselling book did not stop at establishing the physiological virtues of pine-water, or at providing a scientific explanation for its effectiveness. Its third aim, as the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy puts it, was to “lead the mind of the reader, via gradual steps, toward contemplation of God.” The word “Siris” in the title is derived from the Greek word for chain, and the bishop’s “chain of philosophical reflections” leads from tar-water, albeit in a somewhat meandering fashion, to divinity.

Which brings us, somewhat abruptly, to God.


The mention of Chuang Tzu, Immanuel Kant and the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy may have prepared you, dear reader, for the revelation that the Bishop of Cloyne is best known today for other than his late writings on tar-water. It is his early writings, penned in his mid-twenties as a struggling research fellow at Trinity College, that make him a well-known if unfollowed figure today. In these early writings, perhaps more strongly and effectively than any other philosopher, George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, denied the existence of matter.

Today many people—think, Richard Dawkins and Co.—maintain that the universe and human existence can be explained through nothing more than matter. It can be satisfactorily explained, that is, with no need for any God, spirit, purpose, or meaning beyond what we matter-built people with our matter-build brains ourselves invent. This idea is commonly known as materialism. Those who disagree with Dawkins generally think that there exists something in addition to matter—the human spirit, or God, or a life-force—but they generally concede that, of course, matter also exists. Obviously. Physical stuff: chairs, tables, rocks, water. The debate between Dawkins and Co. and the people they tend to quarrel with concerns whether there is anything besides matter, rather than whether matter itself exists.

Berkeley radically opposed both of these camps. He thought matter did not exist at all. And although this might seem a rather radical doctrine, he did not even consider it a doctrine, but rather something that, with a little reflection, is completely self-evident. Not only that, but as a side-benefit, it proves the existence of God. Perhaps even more effectively than tar-water.


We all have dreams, and some of us have or have had hallucinations. In our dreams or hallucinations we see, feel, hear, smell and taste; we feel pleasure and pain; and when we are in them, we believe wholeheartedly in their reality. When we wake up, we realize—oh, it was a dream. Often, at least in the contemporary West, we say, it was just a dream. What we mean by this, when you think about it, is that there was no matter making up the objects in the dream, matter in the sense of real stuff. It was all in our heads. When we are awake, by contrast, and see a chair, we suppose that we are seeing a piece of real hunky-dory matter. And we suppose that this real matter, by being there, makes clear that we are now living in reality, whereas before, in our sleep—when there was no matter to our chairs— we were living in a dream.

In my dream, I see a chair. I stumble against it and hurt my foot—ouch! I am convinced, in the dream, that this is a real chair, that it is made of real material. That is why I can see it, and it is why it hurts when I crash into it. Yet I have no problem, when I wake up, in saying that my conviction in the dream was wrong, and that in fact there was no real chair (made up of matter) there at all.

I am thus perfectly willing to say that I sometimes (in my sleep, or my hallucination) see things, and feel them, and am even hurt by them, when there is no matter there for me to be seeing, feeling, or hurt by.

Berkeley asked, in essence, why, if I grant this in my dreams, I then insist on supposing that there is real matter causing any of my sensations—even my waking ones? Why, if the dream chair doesn’t need to be made of stuff, does my waking chair have to be? True, my waking chair behaves in ways that are more regular than my dream chair—it doesn’t, say, turn into a pink elephant all of a sudden—but why does regularity in behavior imply matter?

In fact, Berkeley argues, the difference between dreams and what we call reality has to do only with regularity. Reality regularly obeys the laws delineated by our natural sciences, while dreams often don’t. The idea of matter, however, adds nothing to our understanding of regularities. Not only that, but, as we shall see next, it is a completely meaningless term.


I sit at my desk in my office and write. I get thirsty. I leave the office, close the door behind me, and head to the kitchen. I drink some tea. I return to my office and, lo and behold, on opening the door I see my chair—it is the same chair, I suppose, that I was sitting on before I went to get my tea. One of the greatest arguments in favor of there being matter is that something must have remained in my office throughout my absence, and that this something left behind explains how the chair could have been there when I left the room and still be there when I come back. This is the role of matter: it exists even when we are not aware of it. It doesn’t care whether we see it or not.

We get into trouble, however, when we try to conceive of this matter—the material chair that remained in my office. What do we mean by it? What is it like? Is it brown? Is it solid on the back and cushiony on the seat? Does it weigh five kilograms? Is it comfortable? Is it good-looking?

The problem lies in what we mean by all of these qualities. Brown is the description of a certain quality of a perceived visual field—that is to say, brown is something that I see. I cannot imagine brown without imagining seeing brown. Sure, I can form a mathematical model of electromagnetic waves of a certain frequency—but this is something utterly different from what I mean by brown. Without a visual field, “brown” loses all its content—it is an empty piece of gibberish.

I can say the same for solid or cushiony. These are descriptions of certain tactile qualities—qualities of feeling. I can imagine something solid or cushiony only by imagining touching. Without a sense of touch, “solid” and “cushiony” are empty words. They are words that are tied to beings that can feel.

The same is even true of weighing five kilograms. Five kilograms is the description of how hard something is to pick up, or to push around. I cannot conceive of the meaning of five kilograms without imagining picking something up or pushing it around. It’s meaning is tied to a being that can feel resistance while it picks something up or pushes it around.

When I am in the kitchen making my tea, I can easily imagine my chair sitting in the office. I imagine it as brown, solid and cushiony, and weighing five kilograms. I have no problem with this. But all of these qualities are tied to me, or someone like me. The material chair that is in my office, however, is supposed to be characterized precisely by having nothing to do with me. It doesn’t need me. I could die of a gas leak in the kitchen—and the whole world and every living thing in it could die of a sudden and mysterious disease—and still the material chair would be in the office.

But what is this material chair? It is not brown, because it is not part of a visual field. It is not solid, or cushiony, because it is not touched. It does not weigh five kilograms, because it is not lifted or pushed around. The material chair, strange as it may seem, has no qualities.

I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that the chair is a collection of atoms. And that even if no one sees brown or feels hard and soft or imagines pushing anything around, the atoms are there.

The problem with your response is, I can now do to the atoms exactly what I just did to the chair. Atoms are supposed to be things that have a certain weight, a certain size, and certain qualities of attracting or repelling other atoms. Yet even though their weight is supposed to be much smaller than that of a chair, to conceive of weight at all I still need to think of pushing or picking up. To think of size, I need to think of seeing. To think of repelling and attracting, I have to imagine feeling a pull or a push. Without imagining these sensations, “size,” “weight,” and “attraction” are empty words. They have no meaning. My conception of an atom, though I may never see or hold one, is still tied to me. If I subtract imagined seeing, feeling, and pushing from my idea of the atom, there is nothing left of the idea. Just as there is nothing left of the chair.


So, if we are going to say that there is matter—stuff that does not depend for its existence on being perceived—then this matter has no qualities. But to say of something that it has no qualities is merely to say that it is an empty cipher—it doesn’t refer to anything. Why, Berkeley asked, should we confuse our notion of what exists with a meaningless term like matter? Rather, he suggested, esse est percipi (aut percipans). And since it might be a while since you took Latin, here it is in English: to be is to be perceived (or to perceive).

This “being” is exactly the “being” in your dreams and hallucinations. In them you have experiences that are just as real (come on, admit it) as your waking experiences, without the bother of relying on a meaningless term (“matter”) to back it all up. If you don’t need matter to perceive things in your dreams, why do you need it anywhere else?

Not only your dreams and hallucinations do perfectly well without any matter in them, however. When you play computer games (if you play computer games) you know that you can travel around in virtual worlds much as you do in our normal one. If you drive your virtual car 100 meters west, then north, then east, then south, you end up at the same virtual place where you began. Perhaps it is a city square with a pretty fountain in it. When you drove west away from the fountain, you stopped perceiving it. When you approached it from the north on the last leg of your drive, you perceived it again. The fountain is just like the chair in my office—it is something that I (or you) left behind and stopped perceiving, and then came back to and perceived again.

In the computer game, however, you do not consider that a material fountain was sitting in a fixed location as you drove around on your trip. You accept that the fountain did not continuously exist; rather, certain conditions caused the software of the game to recreate the image of the fountain on your return. The fountain in the computer game does not exist when it is not perceived.

The Matrix movies play with this same conceit. When you are plugged in, you navigate a consistent world that seems just like ours. My favorite scenes in The Matrix are the juicy beefsteak and the luscious chocolate cake that the Merovingian eats in the restaurant before going to have sex in the bathroom. The steak and the cake—if not the sex—are vividly sensuous. But instead of matter behind them, there is computer code. The delicious tastes and feelings don’t need matter to exist.


No one believed Berkeley. His philosophy—he was Irish after all—gave rise to numerous limericks. The problem of the chair continuing to exist in the office when I’m in the kitchen was presented as the problem of a tree existing in the courtyard (“Quad”) of a college when everyone is asleep:

There was a young man who said God,
must find it exceedingly odd
when he finds that the tree
continues to be
when no-one’s about in the Quad.

Berkeley’s weakness, in my view, is that he himself found it “exceedingly odd” that the tree shouldn’t continue to be in the quad—or the chair in the office. His response is summarized in a second limerick:

Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd
I’m always about in the Quad
And that’s why the tree
continues to be
Since observed by, yours faithfully, God.

As with tar-water, the bishop returns to God. And with a vengeance. Berkeley believes not only that esse est percipi is self-evident to anyone who thinks about it—he also believes that it is self-evident proof of the existence of God. Starting with the idea that the tree in the Quad must be perceived in order to exist, he adds to it the idea that it would be absurd to suppose that the tree popped in and out of existence as people popped in and out of the Quad. The conclusion? Something besides people must be perceiving the tree—and must be perceiving it continuously, so that it can exist continuously. And who is the only candidate for a being that is always perceiving the tree? Surely God. The syllogism looks like:

Esse est percipi. (To exist is to be perceived.)
The tree exists continuously.
Therefore, the tree is continuously perceived (and the only being who can continuously perceive the tree is God, and therefore God must continuously perceive the tree, and therefore God exists.)

Admittedly, the conclusion of my syllogism gets a little wound up in itself. It’s not as wound up, however, as it gets when you try to make it jive with some other ideas Berkeley had about God, as in this attempt by professional philosopher Lisa Downing (which ought to be enough to convince you never, ever to be a professional philosopher):

An X exists at time t if and only if God has an idea that corresponds to a volition that if a finite mind at t is in appropriate circumstances (e.g. in a particular place, looking in the right direction, or looking through a microscope), then it will have an idea that we would be disposed to call a perception of an X.


Berkeley’s problem, to my mind, is that he wanted to have it both ways. To have his cake and eat it too. In fact, to have his cake, eat it, and have even more cake. He wanted To Be = To Be Perceived. And he wanted objects (like the tree or the chair) to have continuous existence. And he wanted to keep certain ideas he already had about God.

The whole kafludle can be made much simpler if we conflate two ideas. The first is that, as we have seen, “matter” is really just a placeholder for “unperceived existence.” The problem that the material tree solves is that of existing without anyone seeing it, because that’s just what matter does. It’s there whether you like it or not; it’s there whether or not anyone has anything to do with it. But as we have also seen, this placeholder has no content. Whether it’s a tree or a chair or an atom, it needs our perception—real or imagined—to be more than an empty cipher. “Unperceived existence” and “matter” really come down to the same incoherent concept—a concept that sounds like a concept because we have words for it, but really isn’t a concept at all because those words are completely empty. We cannot have a concept of the world without perception, though we fool ourselves into it all the time—every time we think things are composed of matter.

The other conflation is between the perceiver and the perceived. Berkeley’s actual equation, is not To Be = To Be Perceived, but rather To Be = To Be Perceived (Or to Perceive). Not only does the tree in the Quad exist when a student is looking at it—the student also exists. (Berkeley called the tree an idea and the student a spirit, but he meant no more with these terms than just this: a perceived and a perceiver.) Yet when we try to isolate either the perceiver or the perceived, one from the other, we also end up with emptiness. This is clear with the perceived: if there’s no perceiver, it’s not perceived, and so doesn’t exist. But the same applies to the perceiver. If the perceiver has no perceptions, it’s not a perceiver, and so also does not exist. Perceiving and being perceived is like a dance performance; as Yeats wrote in “Among School Children,” “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” We cannot separate them. Without a dancer, there is no dance, and without a dance, there is no dancer. Without a perceiver, there is no perceived, and without a perceived, there is no perceiver.

If you ask yourself who or what you are, and you try to locate that thing by subtracting all your sensations, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, imagination, memories, convictions—everything you perceive—to find the “you” that is behind them all, you will end up, not with that essential “you,” the perceiver, who perceives all these things. You will end up, instead, with nothing at all. There’s nothing left. Even if you close your eyes, you will still feel hot or cold, comfortable or uncomfortable, you will hear random noises, or your heartbeat, you will smell the air, and taste the spittle in your mouth. You cannot detach yourself from your perceptions, both inner and outer. The world is not separate from the perceiving subject—but neither is the perceiving subject separate from the world.

The same is true if you try to locate the border between your body and the world. In your gut swim millions of bacteria, without which you cannot survive—nor they without you. Are they part of your body? They certainly don’t share your DNA. And yet if you remove them, you die. Or consider your body after you have just inhaled—is the air in your lungs part of your body, or separate from it? You cannot survive without it. If you consider it a part of you, and you exhale, that part of you has just left you and commingled with the atmosphere. If you do not consider it part of you, your body is filled with an alien substance—but one without which there would not even be a body in the first place. Some of that substance is taken up into your blood, and circulates through your entire body, and enters every last cell, and enables you to do everything that you ever do, including simply stay alive. Is it you, or not you? Your fingernails, your snot, your hair, all are you and not you. Your skin flakes off continually. Every seven years, your body is made of an entirely different set of atoms. Food goes in your mouth, and out your anus. The world is a part of you, and you are a part of the world.

Putting these two conflations together, we cannot conceive of a world without perception, and we cannot conceive of perception without a world. This is a paradox only so long as we persist in thinking of the world as separate from us. When the dancer and the dance are one—when the perceiver and the perceived are one—the paradox disappears.


This is the point, I believe, that the future Bishop of Cloyne was striving toward, before he got waylaid by God. Yet he ended up not far from it. He saw clearly the absurdity and emptiness of the idea of matter, and of the idea of existence divorced from perception—which are in fact the same idea. And he resolved this absurdity with a kind of universal perception, which he attributed to God. The tree exists continuously, because God perceives it continuously, and esse est percipi.

There is another way to resolve this continuity problem, however, and although it stared Berkeley in the face, he didn’t see it. It is the way that homo sapiens resolved the problem for the vast majority of its existence, more or less up until the time when it invented agriculture and began on a large scale to manipulate the natural world rather than play a more modest part in it. Esse est percipi (aut percipens)To be is to be perceived (or to perceive). It’s right there, in those parentheses. What if the tree itself perceives? What if the tree is, in Berkeley’s terminology, a spirit? And the rocks, and the rivers, and the clouds—what if they all also perceive, and are spirits?

Not long ago the idea that a tree perceives would get you laughed out of academia. Today it is an unquestioned scientific fact. (See Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Secret Life of Trees, or, for a treatment within fiction, Richard Powers’s The Overstory.) Trees perceive, trees communicate, trees protect their own, trees even sacrifice themselves for their relatives. Since we share a quarter of our genes with trees, and diverged from a common ancestor, this is perhaps not terribly surprising. As a Native American says to a newly enlightened white man in The Overstory, “We’ve been trying to tell you guys this since 1492.”

Are rocks and rivers and clouds also spirits? Our forebears absolutely believed they were. If we take seriously the suggestion I made above, that the world is not separate from us and we are not separate from the world, that we cannot conceive of a world without perception or of perception without a world, we may hesitate before dismissing this belief out of hand.

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