Physical Objects Disappear
George Berkeley’s Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713) is a remarkable book. It is a short, well-written set of dialogues, arguing in exemplary style that there can be no external physical objects which are somehow perceived by our sensory apparatus.
And over 20 years ago, it had the most amazing effect on the globality of my experience.
Who is Berkeley? You know that old philosophical question about the tree in the forest, would it make a sound if no one were there to hear it? He’s the guy in the 18th century who answered “No.” Berkeley argued tirelessly that there is no external physical substance. Our thoughts do not point to external objects like rocks and automobiles. Rocks and automobiles do not cause our thoughts.
When I was in grad school going for a philosophy doctorate, my teacher Colin Murray Turbayne was acknowledged as one of the world’s great Berkeley scholars. But to get a good grade in his class, you could never write anything against Berkeley. So we had to study Berkeley really carefully, because his ideas sounded so utterly unintuitive, crazy really. But after several months, they began to make sense.
One day after a lot of reading, Berkeley’s arguments crystallized, and it felt like a fog cleared from my mind. The feelings and convictions about supposed external objects vanished! The concepts of material substance and the attendant inside/outside distinction vanished. Nor were they necessary to explain our experiences. I was shaking with excitement, and not just because I thought I’d now get an “A” in Professor Turbayne’s class.
I went to Professor Turbayne’s office. He instantly saw that something was different. He looked questioningly at me, and I could only nod. He smiled and said, “Aha! Now go write about it!”
Since that time, over two decades years ago, the inside/outside distinction has been useless to me. The notion of “material substance” has been just like the notion of “Santa Claus.” And amazingly enough, the dissolution of these notions has made it easier for me to interact in what is often called the physical world. Because I haven’t seen anything as physical for decades, there has been no fear factor. I learned to rollerblade and ride a bicycle with no brakes in the traffic-filled streets of New York City.
Perceptions that are usually called “physical” occur as a kind of language that has no inside or outside, where each concept refers to other concepts in a growing and consistent way. But there’s nothing Out There to which any of these ideas refer.
In my case, it was an excellent shake-up, like a mental Vege-matic blender, preparing me for nonduality teachings.