Max McGuinness at The Dubliner:
There was a young man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”
“Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the Quad
And that’s why this tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God.”
So goes the one lasting Irish contribution to the history of philosophy. This ditty by Ronald Knox is a paraphrase of the bizarre thoughts of Bishop Berkeley, who held court in Trinity during the early 18th Century. Berkeley was an idealist, more specifically an immaterialist, who denied the existence of the material world. All that truly existed for the Bishop were the contents of our own tiny minds – our perceptions. This view is summarised in the maxim esse est percipi – to be is to be perceived. Thence the bewilderment of the young man in Knox’s doggerel, anxious no doubt that were he to take his eye off his wallet, it would indeed disappear. Fear not. As long as God is around to keep an eye on things, they’ll stay right where they are. So you’d better believe in God, right? Or else He might just stop watching over that pad of yours in Ranelagh…and puff! It vanishes when you trot out to buy a pint of milk.
So next time some moon-faced spelt-chewer murmurs, “If a tree falls in the forest and no-one’s around, does it make a sound?” (‘Deepshit’ Chopra pseudo-spirituality), you can retort, “‘Twas a Mick who thought o’ that one, so ‘twas.” And there, alas, is the end; no Irishman has been so clever since. Idealism may be crackers but it is still frightfully hard to refute.