Objective reality doesn’t exist

When Descartes rebooted philosophy 400 years ago, he got rid of Aristotelian metaphysics, removing what he saw as superfluous. This started a drive towards empiricism, with each philosophy doubting more than the one before. It was inevitable that someone would eventually doubt objective reality altogether. Thus in the 18th century came George Berkeley and his concept of idealism.

Go outside now and look at a tree. Kick it if you want. That tree is objectively real – or is it? Strictly speaking, you don’t know that. All you know is that your mind is giving you the experience of kicking a tree. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the tree is real, that you understand what the tree is, that you perceive it correctly. To check, you must go outside your mind for a Gods-eye view. Good luck with that.

Berkeley’s solution to this is radical – since you can’t know empirically that objective reality exists, it doesn’t exist. Simple.

Berkeley said that “to be is to be perceived”. In other words, that tree only exists because there is a mind perceiving it. So why don’t  trees and rocks and deserts disappear when they’re by themselves? Because they never are by themselves. A mind is always perceiving them; the mind of God.

So what we experience as objective  reality is actually subjective-in-the-mind-of-God reality. But God is permanent and unchanging so this is enough.

The way Berkeley’s idealism talks about physical reality being observer-dependent reminds one of quantum physics. Berkeley also argued against the science of his day, saying that absolute time and space cannot exist, but that an object can only have motion by comparison to another – reminding one of Einstein’s relativity. Thus, if your only criterion for old philosophy is how it echoed future science, Berkeley wins – hands down.

On the other hand, Berkeley thinks that matter doesn’t exist, that rocks are made of ideas, that mathematics is incoherent and that there is no such thing as abstract thought.

Here’s a quote from the man himself. Marvel at the level of confidence/hubris on display:

It is plain that the very notion of what is called Matter or corporeal substance involves a contradiction in it. … Insomuch that I should not think it necessary to spend more time in exposing its absurdity. But, because the tenet of the existence of Matter seems to have taken so deep a root in the minds of philosophers, and draws after it so many ill consequences, I choose rather to be thought prolix and tedious than omit anything that might conduce to the full discovery and extirpation of that prejudice.

Berkeley’s philosophy was bold, whatever else you might say about it.


After Berkeley came Hegel, who was far more influential.

According to Hegel, history consists of a Mind (Hegel called it Spirit) seeking to understand itself. Now this seems explicitly theistic, but Hegel hedged on whether he was talking about God or the human spirit or something else. It was possible to be a Hegelian idealist and an atheist simultaneously. C.S. Lewis somehow managed it before his conversion to Christianity.

Fortunately Hegel’s philosophy is simple and easy to understand. Take this quote for example:

The knowledge, which is at the start or immediately our object, can be nothing else than just that which is immediate knowledge, knowledge of the immediate, of what is. We have, in dealing with it, to proceed, too, in an immediate way, to accept what is given, not altering anything in it as it is presented before us, and keeping mere apprehension free from conceptual comprehension. (…) This bare fact of certainty, however, is really and admittedly the abstractest and the poorest kind of truth. It merely says regarding what it knows: it is; and its truth contains solely the being of the fact it knows. (…) In the same way the certainty qua relation, the certainty “of” something, is an immediate pure relation; consciousness is I – nothing more, a pure this; the individual consciousness knows a pure this, or knows what is individual.

Clear as mud, I say.

A few more quotes. I don’t understand Hegel, so this is from someone who does at The Electric Agora:

Hegel’s relation to logic is an odd one. He doesn’t think about logic; he doesn’t think logically; he thinks logic.


In Hegel’s epistemology, all objects of thought come to us in a two-fold manner: an inner “for-itself,” and an outer “for another.” So, when Hegel writes of an object “turning inward” — which sounds very strange — what he’s saying is that mind’s attempt to understand the object has gone “into” the object as affirmation of the object’s self-subsistence: “That thing exists and does so wholly in and for itself.” But this affirmation is actually a negation, because the idea of the thing in its self-subsistence is empty: “Okay, the thing exists, but as what?” Mind only begins to comprehend the thing when it begins accounting for the thing’s relationship to other things. “That object is a tree; it is not the bench standing next to it.” “That tree is living wood, not metal,” and so forth. But in this, the object has been negated again, but in a positive way: the individual tree has lost its unique importance, but its substance has been preserved and brought into the idea of “trees” — a universal manifesting itself in this particular.

Hegel’s idealism was a complete system of philosophy that dominated the 19th century. It was said to have answered all the questions of philosophy. It was hugely influential, until the 20th century drift to materialism started as a reaction against it.

Are you looking for an alternative to materialism? Does throwing out objective reality seem a bit much? Never fear; there is another option which will be discussed next time.


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