One of my favorite songs is by mewithoutYou.
It’s part of a concept album about a train wreck from which several animals escaped. This particular song is about the Elephant, who in a previous song, you discover, caused the crash so her friends could escape. The song has several layers of intertextuality. For instance, the title is reminiscent of “God in the Dock” by C.S. Lewis and the Elephant is a sort of savior figure in the song. In real life, in the 1910s, an Elephant was hanged in Erwin Tennessee. And the chaplain has a brief line during his prayer/address to the people wherein he notes his Berkleyianism.
In court, the Elephant meets the chaplain:
Good of our chaplain to sail Kalispell Bay
And now down on his marrow for this old fool to pray,
“Lord, for sixty-so years I’ve surrendered my love,
to emblems of kindness, and not the kindness they were emblems of,
Trammels and rings, with the strength of old strings,
and some hobble skirt spring, by the old problem caught,
Children, sometimes I think all our thoughts are just things,
and then sometimes think things are just thoughts.”
George Berkley (1685-1753) was an apparently brilliant man who contributed to philosophy, mathematics, optics, and theology. He was an empiricist and a Christian apologist who largely wrote about the possibility of knowledge in the world and what it means to perceive things. I am vastly oversimplifying his ideas here, but he also wrote an influential refutation of the Calculus of Leibniz and Newton that included a philosophical justification for how the Calculus still got correct answers. If I know the history correctly, his critiques lead to a more rigorous definition of the Calculus concepts based upon the limit (Morris Kline, Mathematics in Wester Culture, 246-248). More famously though, Berkeley denied the existence of the physical world. To him, everything was just thought. This seems so absurd to me, that I feel safe denying it without a second thought.
But, sometimes when I’m cleaning or building stuff in my garage, or organizing everything so that my hell semester coming up won’t kill me I give things second thoughts.
A friend of mine, who is a Thomist philosopher, was talking to me about the seeming opaqueness of the phrase, “God created matter.” He said, “What does that mean or entail?” He said, “If the arguments for God’s existence are true, then God is spirit or God is mind. For creation to be contained in God seems similar to saying that a thought is contained in a mind.” I thought, wow, that’s interesting. Then I thought more about it yesterday while my wife and I were running around town getting things situated and consolidated for easier bill paying yesterday. It hit me that Berkeley, though he’s probably wrong, isn’t crazy for this proposal. On several levels and with the presuppositions common in his day, the conclusion makes sense. And, on a certain level, it is a possible conclusion if you accept Aristotle and Aquinas’ theory of causality…which I do.
So, if you ever think thoughts are just things and then sometimes think things are just thoughts…you’re not crazy. Your just Berkeleyian.
Also, listen to that whole mewithoutYou album. If you’re disappointed then there’s nothing I can do about that.