The Poets

July 19, 2009

God in the Quad: A Knox Limerick

What’s interesting about the philosopher and bishop George Berkeley is his ontological proof for the existence of God. According to the bishop things have being only insofar as they’re perceived- that tree, this child, that can of corn … all these literally owe their existence to being perceived by one of my five senses. That screen, those letters, and presumably that cup of coffee your holding would have absolutely no existence were it not for your perceiving them this very second.

In fact, according to Berkeley, we can hardly validate the existence of anything without immediate reference to one or more of the senses.

Think about it: Can you prove your neighbor across the way exists at this very moment without the use of one of these senses? Memory doesn’t count- these are images of your neighbor in the past. A quick phone call doesn’t work- your using a sense: hearing. For all accounts and purposes, your neighbor simply doesn’t exist .

What a strange world Berkeley would have us in: things entering and exiting our perceptions (that is to say, entering and exiting existence itself, having being one moment and non-being the next). How can this be? Berkeley has a solution.

If things owe their existence to being perceived, and cannot logically pop in and out of existence based on our perceiving them one moment and not the next, then how do we account for their existence apart from our perception of them? Berkeley’s answer is that there’s an Infinite Perceiver, namely God.

Things exist independently from their being perceived by one another because God perceives them all from an infinite perspective.

Therefore, and perhaps to your grief, your neighbor does exist; when you walk out of the room you can be assured that that coffee cup you set down will still be there when you return, since a Higher Perception keeps it from plunging into non-being.

This is the approach taken by Berkeley to show how God might exist within the parameters of a logical system of 'empirical' philosophy. He means to impart to us the possibility of an ontological proof based ever so strickly on our perceptions as sentient beings (hence his partial classification as an empirical philosopher, as strange as that may be).

With that said, this blog site is not dedicated to philosophy- it dedicates itself to poetry. Berkeley’s principle of perception, existence and God are presented here because his ideas are expressed beautifully (and philosophically) in a limerick written by Monsignor Ronald Knox : God in the Quad.

Here's that limerick below:

God in the Quad

There was a young man who said "God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue 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 the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God."

Of the Poem:

Here in our poem a quad is essentially the courtyard of a campus, or a quadrangle thereof.

The word Limerick comes from the name of a town in Ireland, and limericks as a poetic form are said to have emerged there (but this is far from certain). What is certain is that they were made popular by Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense.

The subject matter of limericks by tradition is usually risqué, next-to inappropriate, and commonly humorous.

A stanza consists of five lines whose rhyme scheme is AABBA. Lines 1, 2, and 5 usually have seven to ten syllables, while lines 3 and 4 will usually have five to seven.

One of the most popular limericks is Hickory Dickory Dock.

About our limerick above, do you remember this question: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This poem, along with our bishop, contends that God always perceives the tree, and that therefore anything it does- even crashing to the ground- is being observed. Therefore yes, the tree is heard.


Nancy said...

Thanks for posting this, John! I’ve always enjoyed limericks and am happy you have addressed this playful form. Their simplicity is such that even we non-poetic types can enjoy them (and I am slightly abashed to admit that the aforementioned off-color content is often part of the hilarity).

The age old thought question regarding existence - to which I agree with your conclusion - brings to mind another well known thought experiment. That of Schroedinger's cat, which attempts to interpret everyday objects by the application of quantum mechanics. Its purpose is to illustrate the apparent paradox of existence in two different states simultaneously.

But rather than bore you and your readers with such theoretical conjecture, I thought I would share this humorous poem by Cecil Adams on the topic. The poem was originally written as a continuous paragraph of single lines, but I broke it up into quatrains to make it easier on the eyes. Hopefully that is not peotic sacrilege.

(Sorry, this really has nothing to do with limericks, but my mind just veered out towards left base, so I followed it).

… see next comment …

Nancy said...

The story of Schroedinger's cat (an epic poem)

Dear Cecil:

Cecil, you're my final hope
Of finding out the true Straight Dope
For I have been reading of Schroedinger's cat
But none of my cats are at all like that.

This unusual animal (so it is said)
Is simultaneously live and dead!
What I don't understand is just why he
Can't be one or other, unquestionably.

My future now hangs in between eigenstates.
In one I'm enlightened, the other I ain't.

If you understand, Cecil, then show me the way
And rescue my psyche from quantum decay.
But if this queer thing has perplexed even you,
Then I will and won't see you in Schroedinger's zoo.

— Randy F., Chicago

Cecil replies:

Schroedinger, Erwin! Professor of physics!
Wrote daring equations! Confounded his critics!
(Not bad, eh? Don't worry. This part of the verse
Starts off pretty good, but it gets a lot worse.)

Win saw that the theory that Newton'd invented
By Einstein's discov'ries had been badly dented.
What now? wailed his colleagues. Said Erwin, "Don't panic,
No grease monkey I, but a quantum mechanic.

Consider electrons. Now, these teeny articles
Are sometimes like waves, and then sometimes like particles.
If that's not confusing, the nuclear dance
Of electrons and suchlike is governed by chance!

No sweat, though--my theory permits us to judge
Where some of 'em is and the rest of 'em was."
Not everyone bought this. It threatened to wreck
The comforting linkage of cause and effect.

E'en Einstein had doubts, and so Schroedinger tried
To tell him what quantum mechanics implied.
Said Win to Al, "Brother, suppose we've a cat,
And inside a tube we have put that cat at--

Along with a solitaire deck and some Fritos,
A bottle of Night Train, a couple mosquitoes
(Or something else rhyming) and, oh, if you got 'em,
One vial prussic acid, one decaying ottom

Or atom--whatever--but when it emits,
A trigger device blasts the vial into bits
Which snuffs our poor kitty. The odds of this crime
Are 50 to 50 per hour each time.

The cylinder's sealed. The hour's passed away. Is
Our pussy still purring--or pushing up daisies?
Now, you'd say the cat either lives or it don't
But quantum mechanics is stubborn and won't.

Statistically speaking, the cat (goes the joke),
Is half a cat breathing and half a cat croaked.
To some this may seem a ridiculous split,
But quantum mechanics must answer, "Tough shit.

We may not know much, but one thing's fo' sho':
There's things in the cosmos that we cannot know.
Shine light on electrons--you'll cause them to swerve.
The act of observing disturbs the observed--

Which ruins your test. But then if there's no testing
To see if a particle's moving or resting
Why try to conjecture? Pure useless endeavor!
We know probability--certainty, never.'

The effect of this notion? I very much fear
'Twill make doubtful all things that were formerly clear.
Till soon the cat doctors will say in reports,
"We've just flipped a coin and we've learned he's a corpse."'

So saith Herr Erwin. Quoth Albert, "You're nuts.
God doesn't play dice with the universe, putz.
I'll prove it!" he said, and the Lord knows he tried--
In vain--until fin'ly he more or less died.

Win spoke at the funeral: "Listen, dear friends,
Sweet Al was my buddy. I must make amends.
Though he doubted my theory, I'll say of this saint:
Ten-to-one he's in heaven--but five bucks says he ain't."

— Cecil Adams
May 7, 1982

Anonymous said...

No, the tree is not "heard," because "hearing" presupposes sensory apparatus. The tree falls, it sends out vibrations which, if there were an ear to hear it, it would be heard, thanks eventually to God, who is the ultimate essence of consciousness. Otherwise, it simply falls, sound waves travel, no one "hears" it. God's knowledge is not empirical,, since the Divinity does not "exist." The Divinity "is," and pure Being transcends existence and its conditions, as a substance transcends its accidents, to speak symbolically.

Ike Moss said...

Hi and thank you for posting the limerick which I was looking for for a friend.

Two questions: You say that logically an object can't just come in and out of existence, but what do you mean by "logically". Do you mean "intuitively" in that it just seems like nonsense to suggest such a thing? Or, do you mean logically given an assumption (for that is all it is) that nothing can come from nothing and no thing can simply be destroyed, leaving no trace. Surely an impotent God or some highly competent malicious demon could arrange it so that things just pop in and out of existence when ever we're around.

Question 2: I see this post appeared in 2009 and for all I know I'm the first person to read it in the last two years. Did the post exist during this time, and if so, does that mean that God reads your blog?

As of April 9th, 2010