Volume > Issue > All the World Is Staged

All the World Is Staged


By Jason M. Morgan | May 2021
Jason M. Morgan, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, teaches history, language, and philosophy at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan. He is the author, most recently, of Law and Society in Imperial Japan: Suehiro Izutarō and the Search for Equity (Cambria Press, 2020).

Readers might remember the bestselling Norwegian novel translated into English in 1995 as Sophie’s World. A history of philosophy in fictionalized format, it relies on Berkeleyianism as a plot device, a clever way in which author Jostein Gaarder introduces a key philosophical school.

“Berkeleyianism” refers to the ideas of Anglican bishop George Berkeley of Ireland, who famously said, “To be is to be perceived.” For Berkeley — a later contemporary of Isaac Newton and a heavyweight wrestler with the philosophy of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and René Descartes — the things that our minds think they sense do not have material existence. That flitting butterfly, that chirping bird, this purple agate heavy in my hand are not really there. Instead, everything that populates the world is a stage setting in the mind of God (to state Berkeley’s position somewhat crudely). Our perceptions are but facsimiles of those dreamed-up props. We exist, Berkeley says, only because God thinks us into the existence that we in turn project from our minds and then mistakenly believe to be physical and concrete. Everything else we think we know flows from this initial proposition of our being an image in a kind of cosmic camera obscura.

Bishop Berkeley loaned his name to a university in California, but the man himself and his philosophy have largely slipped into oblivion since his days of (immaterial?) existence. Yes, there are those who espouse some version of “simulation theory” today, variants of ancient Hindu or Platonic ideas about the world as a refraction of higher order beings or ideas. However, by and large, people seem to live very much as though their bodies and the physical universe in toto were materially real.

Simulations don’t diet, for instance. Wisps of the divine imagination don’t have to worry about wearing masks to keep viruses from entering their bronchial tubes, or about getting evicted from unreal apartments for failing to pay figments of rent. And the dismissive term meatware that our computerized generation uses to refer to the slow, plodding, and hopelessly low-tech mortal coil indicates that the gross existence of matter continues to command grudging respect.

The new-New Agers preaching the singularity and dreaming of the day when humanity can decouple from bones and organs confirm the status quo: We are material beings. Few today seem to have internalized Bishop Berkeley’s weird notions about the world as a hologram beamed out of the awesome mind of Jehovah.

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