I often profess a fondness for the belief that the world exists only for me, and that the existence of other human beings, as well as all other things, is predicated upon my ability to perceive them. In short, when you leave a room, you no longer exist since I can no longer see you.
This theory, a variation on immaterialism or subjective realism, is not my own. Philosopher George Berkley developed the theory that became immortalized in the dictum, "Esse est percipi" (To be is to be perceived). He argued that ideas are dependent upon being perceived by minds for their very existence, and that human beings are incapable of knowing such abstractions as matter.
The question most associated with this theory is:
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
My version of the question might be:
If a person breathes but I am not there to see it, is the person alive?
I sometimes think not.
There’s more to the theory. Much more. But you get the drift.
Anyway, for reasons that I fail to understand, whenever I profess a fondness for this philosophy, certain people in my vicinity (and thus existing) become distraught, angry and even enraged with me over my assertions, even though this belief in no way impacts their own lives and does not change the way in which we interact with one another.
Whether or not I believe that a person continues to exist when he or she leaves the room does not actually change their state of existence in any way. Either they exist or they do not. Nevertheless, they often become angry with me, as if my thoughts somehow rule the world and their very existence is dependent upon my belief in it. They aren’t debating the point with me or engaging in a philosophical discussion. Typically they roll their eyes, call me names and yell at me.
This concern over a person’s beliefs when those beliefs do not impact the lives of others baffles me.
The same thing happens when talk about loving my dog as much as my daughter or when I worry about the dangers created by religion, just to name two recent examples.
The amount of love that I have for my dog and my daughter does not alter the lives of others in anyway, nor does it infringe on anyone’s capacity to love, so why so much criticism and complaint when I make the assertion that I love both equally? I love my dog and I love my daughter in equally immeasurable quantities. Why does this statement make so many people irate? Why is it anyone’s business anyway?
Similarly, my defense of my reluctant atheism does not threaten the beliefs of others or impact the means by which they worship, yet I am attacked on this point quite often as well.
In fact, it is I who should feel threatened. The beliefs of the religious impact my life every single day. Religious belief sends my tax dollars to faith-based initiatives. It permits institutions like churches to avoid paying property taxes, thus increasing the tax burden on homeowners like me. It fills the local CVS parking lot with parishioners from the adjacent church every Sunday, making it impossible for me to park. It convinces lunatics that suicide bombing is justified and rewarded with one thousand virgins in the afterlife. It creates holy wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (to name a few), where even more of my tax dollars are sent in order to keep Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, fundamentalists and moderates, and many other combinations from killing one another. It prevents my gay friends from marrying in the church of their choice and interrupts my football games with knocks on the door by people trying to spread The Good News.
Yet do I scream and yell when I find these Born-Again Christians at my doorstep with Watchtower in hand?
Of course not. If the game is over, I often I invite them into my home for cookies, milk and healthy debate.
So why can’t others treat my belief with the same degree of civility? How does my fondness for Berkley’s philosophy of immaterialism impact anyone else in any way? Does my affection for immaterialism make a person feel less material? Does it cause a person to question their existence?
I doubt it.
So why get so angry about this? If you think that this philosophy is illogical, foolish, or downright stupid, that’s fine. Even debate with me if you’d like.
But don’t raise your voice and become irate.
After all, if you think that you exist, shouldn’t that be good enough for you?
Do you really need me to be in agreement in order to feel complete?