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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Bishop Berkeley. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep


I think I’m a bit stumped. Tom Morris, the producer of In Our Time, and myself hatched the idea that we would leave the microphones open after programmes, because some of the chat afterwards (technical term for deconstruction) might be of interest to our listeners, and Tom would affix it to the podcast as a footnote. We slipped it in this week without any publicity and we’ll see what the reaction is after a few months.  

The reason I’m stumped is that this 10 minute chat after the programme as often as not forms the basis of what I report in this newsletter. So where do I go from here? I sense a philosophical problem coming on. One of the first tweets we got, as the programme this morning proceeded on its philosophical journey, was: “If nobody listens to In Our Time, does it still exist?” Beats me. 

One question I did ask in the aftermath, of Peter Millican, was how would he describe an idea? I’d liked to have gone on and said what did it look like? How did it arrive at the idea of being an idea? And how did we distinguish it from a sensation? I never got round to that.

I tend to take what they say of what we missed out as almost a personal reproach, although most of them are sensible enough and sporting enough to know that in 42 minutes you can only deliver 42 minutes’ worth of information and not 4 hours’ worth of information. On reflection, I don’t know what I’m worrying about. I always have far more material than I can use in this newsletter, and half of what I write about happens outside the studio in any case.

Afterwards I went to talk to Gwyneth Williams, who runs the channel, and found around her open-plan office a nest of creative talent which would be hard to meet in any other radio outfit.

On then to the office and the usual e-mails and interviewed by a 12-year-old, the son of a friend of mine, who is doing a project at school and asked some horribly difficult questions about the state of the world. When asked what he should be thinking about, I said, truthfully, “getting out and enjoying yourself and running around” and continued in that vein. I felt extremely frivolous. The New Seriousness is coming up on the outside very fast.

Off to lunch with an old pal who is one of the cleverest people I know. He did a brilliant but bleak anatomy of the effect of mega-money on London, of which, perhaps, more later.

After lunch found time to go for a brisk walk in Green Park. Just outside the park in Piccadilly was a group of people with whistles and megaphones, shouting very loudly but in a good, strong rhythm, to ‘Save the Dolphins’.  It’s still very touching that people who want to save anything, preserve anything, overthrow anything or release anybody come to London to speed on their cause.

In St James’s Park just time to see the cherry blossom in fullest bloom, the daffodils in fullest trumpeting form and a little snow beginning to fall.

The Lords were debating the level of unemployment in the United Kingdom. And after I’ve finished this dictation I’ll be meeting Tom Morris to have a cup of tea and discuss what we might put in the next eight programmes.  He’s told me he’s coming in a dinner jacket.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS Tom and I had a cup of tea and a piece of fruitcake.

PPS A snippet to report from a cab journey. The Polish driver told me that as a young man in Poland he avidly listened to the BBC World Service, and what a difference it made to his life. He wrote seven letters addressed to ‘BBC, Bush House, London’ and every one was answered! “But now it is gone”, he said ruefully.

Bush House

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by Dai Digital

    on 27 Mar 2014 10:28

    "Firstly unicorns are creatures of mythology,so their image comes from the heart"
    Firstly, mythological creatures one thing which can be explained by ignorance. They are a lack of knowledge, not an excess of 'spirit', which is a mythological concept in itself.

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by Dai Digital

    on 27 Mar 2014 09:18

    All the boring philosophy aside, I was delighted to hear of Berkeley's medical quackery.
    Rhydderch Braichfras* David, eccentric gentleman farmer of Glyngwernen Isaf, Felinfoel, Carmarthenshire, insisted that he been cured of childhood TB by rainwater skimmed from a barrel of tar, as prescribed by his family doctor.
    Where the doctor got this idea was a mystery to all. Mystery solved?

    * 'Freedom Strongarm'

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by All for All

    on 23 Mar 2014 07:53

    To think that matter might explain 'consciousness, and necessarily devalue or invalidate every notion of God, is of course a simple level-of-analysis error, as if from a drawing on a flat page to prove no third dimension. Without that third dimension the paper would shave no thickness, and neither the impress or ink.

    Similarly, given consciousness that - as far as can be told - is the tightly-bound accompaniment of a physical being (whose existence is in turn tightly-related to a vast coherent physical universe), to consider the possibility of non-existence of any other apparent consciousnesses, and indeed of any other physical entities, is but one of many privileges of imagination, of trial and error, one that need entertain us no further than (after Descartes) to arrive at, "I think therefore we are here".

    What respect we have for other consciousnesses, whether of those like us with physical being, or of that - or those - in whose supposed imagination we and all of our dimensions might just conceivably exist, that is a privilege of judgement, ours and of history upon us. Given the power to conceive self, and others, and reason and care as perhaps best (and so in fact) to rule, we still may still as individuals and species struggle to reject the shareable, but perhaps only for a while, unfit.

    To speak of reason and care and power as shareable - the latter of course in equal partnership democracy - is for some to speak of impossibility. People are not - and never have been - all wholly reasonable or caring, and so it may be opined that we never should expect a shared inclination to share power in ways fully respectful of reason and care, our past dictating no use for democracy in the evolved sense that Abraham Lincoln endorsed: 'rule of, for, by the people', necessarily the informed, agreed, equally empowered people.

    Does 'democracy' exist, not yet fully explored in our time? I think it might, as equal partnership: for our survival just as well, being the only social contract 'enforceable' as fully informed by reason and care.

    If the further experience of joy exists as a concept consciously driving, why not the social concept of democracy, in its realisation to afford freedom and security, peace and prosperity, survival for all?

    The possibility is attested to daily by politicians promising 'more equality', by even the further right deriding each other's actions (currently in the Ukraine) as 'mockery of democracy'.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by John Thompson

    on 22 Mar 2014 15:51

    Firstly unicorns are creatures of mythology,so their image comes from the heart.Love of the non-proven,no-graspable is celebrated by its coming into being,it has ancient associations with virginity.However the famous ‘horn’ of the unicorn,said to have healing powers,probably came from the rhino or narwhal whale.They were supposed to be good for poison.So I’m afraid all the unicorns are figments of your imagination not reality.Remember Pascal:the heart has reasons which reason knows not. So, material objects don’t exist according to Berkeley the idealist but they may have a parity with unicorns,only one comes from the heart and the other comes into
    existence only as an idea in the mind.Anything apart from ideas in minds is inconceivable,what is inconceivable doesn’t exist.You may dream of a unicorn but that doesn’t prove that unicorns exist.As an empiricist,you can’t believe in what you’ve never seen.

    If a tree falls, it makes sound waves - the definition of sound. The ear simply detects the waves and sends impulses to the brain, which then interprets them as sound. If a light is turned on and a blind person doesn't see it, it is still light.Schrodinger was trying to show how scientific theory worked.You don’t know if the theory is right or wrong unless it’s tested or proved.The absurdity of this experiment shows it doesn’t make sense in the world of classic physics.Quantum states don’t work for large objects.By looking at the experiment the person has influenced the experiment. Berkeley was dealing with the world of the new science of his day,classical physics
    of macroscopic reality,in which quantum mechanics was still a marsupial peeping out in a world of dinosaurs.Not having emerged fully.Berkeley dealt with everday objects.

    Terminology: ‘God’s’ and ‘gods’,is not a 2nd part of the franchise(e.g. Alien and Aliens): there is a whole world of difference.God is a figure in monotheistic relgions like Judaism,Christianity and Islam,the central belief in one God;gods were a part of pre-Christian beliefs of pagans, Greeks, Vikings etc,often used to describe forces beyond one’s control,so storms, tempests, hurricanes ,meteorites,plague could be used to denote them,there were often many gods for such people.You cannot both be God and god,one supersedes the other.

    If you must introduce an alarm clock(not part of the original experiment) with the cat,may I suggest allowing some ground up Unicorn’s horn in its milk?

    Modern science is all about how observation influences the outcome,affects results.The flaws in quantum theory is about the many states of a system until a measurement is made. By opening the box you pass from probability to certainty.Thought experiments thankfully are about provoking inner consciousness,not outer reality.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by D Heath

    on 22 Mar 2014 09:35

    Bishop Berkeleys Tree falling in a Forest v Schrödinger’s cat.

    Bishop Berkeleys legacy throws up questions. He believed in ideas, and the spiritual world rather than material world. In the Analyst he lampoons the idea of infinitesimal calculus as ‘Ghosts of departed quantities’. Given his perception of the universe, that makes his criticism of calculus somewhat ambiguous.

    No mention was made in the programme of the tree falling in the forest, which even if he did not actually discuss it, is what he has become most famous for. Rather than just go over the history, I would like to take that idea a pose some questions.
    It is interesting to compare and contrast Bishop Berkeley’s (actually William Fossett’s question) tree falling in a forest with Schrödinger’s cat. Note the role of the observer.

    In June 1883 in the magazine The Chautauquan, the question was put, "If a tree were to fall on an island where there were no human beings would there be any sound?" They then went on to answer the query with, "No. Sound is the sensation excited in the ear when the air or other medium is set in motion."[

    Philosopher- If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one (an observer) there to hear the tree fall, was there a sound? No, because a sound only exists when it heard. An observation is required.

    Physicist- A tree falling converts potential energy, into kinetic energy, and when the tree lands, part of that energy is dispersed in all direction through the medium of air as sound waves. Energy must be conserved. Sound exists whether or not there is an observer there to hear it. No observation is required.

    Physicist- If Schrödinger’s cat is placed in a box with a bottle that releases a poison gas when a random event occurs, such as the decay of a radioactive isotope. Is the cat dead or alive? The observer only knows the answer when they make an observation, by opening the box and collapsing the wave function into one or other state. Until the observation is made the cat is in a super state of being both alive and dead. An observation is required. The state really is undecided until it is observed (see also the double slit experiment).

    Philosopher- A cat is either alive or dead; there is not a middle state. If the cat is alive it knows itself to be alive. No external observation is required.

    Both the philosopher and physicist agree one scenario requires an observer, and the other scenario does not. They disagree which scenario requires an observer. They each argue their scenario is the one that requires an observer, and the others’ does not. They reach opposite conclusions for both - whether there is a sound, and if the cat is alive.
    If when a tree fell there were no sound, consider the following. The perception of the tree is an idea that God's mind has produced in the mind, and the tree continues to exist, simply because God is an infinite mind that perceives all, including the sound of a tree falling.
    If material objects do not exists, but only the idea on a material object exists, then if someone or even god(s) have the idea of unicorns, where are all the unicorns? A thing can only be defined in relation to things that it is not; surely the existence of god(s) requires the idea of god(s) to be perceived by non-god(s)?

    A truly unobserved event is one which realizes no effect (imparts no information) on any other, it therefore can have no legacy in the present (or ongoing) wider physical universe. It may then be recognized that the unobserved event was absolutely identical to an event which did not occur at all. The fact that the tree is known to have changed state from 'upright' to 'fallen' implies that the event must be observed to ask the question at all.
    Try pondering my two thought experiments.

    1. What would happen if a Schrödinger’s cat was placed in a box with a bottle of poison gas and an alarm clock? The poison gas bottle and the alarm clock are each rigged to be triggered by the decay of two separate radioactive isotopes. Would the cat in a super state of being alive and dead hear the alarm clock sound?

    2. If on a remote island, Schrödinger’s cat sits under a tree, and the tree falls onto the cat, killing the cat, the cat is no longer alive to perceive the tree falling, so did the tree fall? And if the tree did not fall, the cat must be alive, but if the cat is alive, it can perceive the tree falling, and if the tree falls, it kills the cat!


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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Barcud16

    on 21 Mar 2014 17:56

    Managing the 42 minutes of "In Our Time" must be demanding, to say the least, but I feel that a proper appreciation of Berkeley, and above all of his legacy, was not best served by the firmly historical approach of Thursday's programme. Hume's grudging acknowledgement of an Irish bishop's influence was nicely put, and Johnson's "refutation" was well integrated into the account...but where was the recognition of how particle physics, and its understanding of what used to be confidently described as "matter", opens up a whole new way of reading Berkeley? Alongside Knox's limericks we could put:
    "Kick the stone, Sam Johnson
    break your bones,
    but cloudy, cloudy
    is the stuff of stones"
    Not to mention Popper's "A note on Berkeley as precursor of Mach and Einstein" (P.225-236 in "Conjectures and Refutations".

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

    on 21 Mar 2014 16:29

    Berkeley critiqued Locke’s belief in material substance,he reacted against the emphasis on materialism,as it promoted atheism and scepticism.He placed God and spirit at the centre of his philosophy.All that exists are ideas in the mind.He was an immaterialist because he denied that material things-physical objects-exist.Through the senses the mind perceives ideas,sensations. Spirit was above matter,which was mind-dependent,inert,He opposed the transformation of the world of matter into an independent God by Locke and Descartes( for Hobbes there is no mind) . He denied that the material world caused perceptions(cf.Locke). The world consists of bundles of sensory ideas.It’s impossible for ideas to exist outside the mind.Esse est percipe:the essence of things is to be perceived.These ideas are the real world.

    Empiricists believe only what you can experience is real.He dismantles Locke’s distinction of the world as it appears to us and the world as it is in itself.We don’t know things as they are in themselves,only things as they appear.To Berkeley, appearance is reality.You only know sensations of concrete particulars,you don’t know the physical world.There is no evidence of matter,only ideas taking place in your mind.To Berkeley,matter cannot exist independently of you experiencing it. Turning the tables on matter,a ‘real table’ is an idea in the mind of God,just as the physical world exists continually in the mind of God.With God as the infinite spirit communicating the laws of science to our finite spirits.The only intelligible activity is the activity of spirits,whether ourselves or God.The mind is active,ideas are passive.

    Locke and Descartes said all we have are representations of the world of objects.We can never verify objects are out there except through the work of God,who guarantees we’re not deceived. The objects of our knowledge are the data of our experience.Our concept of anything must come back to our experience,which influenced Hume’s saying you couldn’t abstract away from your experience.Although Hume couldn’t prove causality,he said he had to assume it,unlike Berkeley.His idealism reversed the Copernican revolution in philosophy,although he was mathematician and scientist.We must distinguish the act of perceiving from the object perceived: the former is mental,the latter is not.Later,Russell was to speak of ‘universals’ as well as properties.

    You left out his influence(especially in The Problems of Philosophy)on Russell,who saw 19th century German philosophy as resting on a mistake.Russell wanted to go back to British empiricism and revise that tradition.Russell said there is no such thing as matter or mind,there is only a neutral medium of experience,We hypothesise logical contructions to concur with our experience.But he turned away from idealism and replaced ‘experience’ with ‘facts’ because they were objective and proof of an external world.For an atheist, Russell yet had a deep affinity with the Bishop.EvenWittgenstein did not argue with his denial of matter:”The world is the totality of facts,not things.”(Tractatus).Kant thought he opposed external reality,but Kant could never disprove what he said and spoke of transcendental idealism.

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