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 you're 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 strictly 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.