Berkeley in the Machine

by Anonymous

How real is the world around you? Most of us can look at the things around us and think nothing of it. I see a tree because a tree is there. However, perhaps things are not as cut and dry as that. What if the tree is there because you see it? You do not see the world as it exists, the world exists because you, or someone else, is there to see it. This is one of the ideas of George Berkeley, an Irish philosopher who argued that the world was not material, but rather constructed of perception. In this paper, I will argue that his ideas are correct using both the context of his own writings as well as in that of the modern-day simulation theory.

Explaining Berkeley’s ideas starts with his critique of John Locke’s beliefs about the nature of objects. John Locke believed that objects had two kinds of qualities. Primary qualities are intrinsic to the object itself. This includes things like its size and shape, things that are consider to be objective. For example, being married is an inherent quality of the object “husband”. They are part of the very definition of that thing, not something that is perceived. They simply are. By contrast, secondary qualities are passed on our perception. This includes properties like color, or taste. For example, we know apples to be red. If I ask you to imagine an apple, that is what you will see. However, nothing about the nature of an apple suggests that it must be red by its very definition. In fact, some apples are green. These qualities are not inherent to the object “apple”, they are simply something that we perceive them to be. Berkeley contends that Locke’s primary and secondary qualities are one and the same. On the subject he says this,

“Now it is certain that primary qualities are inseparably united with secondary ones, and can’t be abstracted from them even in thought, it clearly follows that primary qualities exist only in the mind, just as secondary ones do… Speaking for myself, I see quite clearly that I can’t form an idea of an extended moving body unless I also give it some color or other perceptible quality”

(Berkeley 13)

Materialist philosophers contend that objects can be separated between the material, “real” qualities and those qualities that are simply perceived and that reside within the mind. However, Berkeley has illustrated that you cannot divorce these material traits from the perceived one. You cannot think of conceive of something having a shape without also conceiving a secondary quality as well. You cannot think of an apple in the abstract without it’s color or taste. Even a task as basic as “think of a square, or any basic shape” will illustrate this. No matter what shape you are thinking of right now, I can guarantee that you are also thinking of a color. A shape is delineated by out outline, an outline that you cannot perceive without that outline having a color, probably black. Try as you might, you will find that you cannot conceive of a shape without also thinking of a color. There is no aspect of an object that is not perceived. Everything that we can known about an object must come from perception. In reality, there is no separation in between that which is material and that which might be considered purely psychological. “For all unthinking things, to exist is to be perceived; so they couldn’t possibly exist out of the minds or thinking things that perceive them” (Berkeley 11). In the current age, Berkeley’s ideas are expanded upon.

In modern times, many thinkers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk have been talking about the idea that reality is a simulation. As a result, the theory has been gaining traction in the popular culture. The technology being invented by humanity is improving at an exponential rate. This included advancements in AI. For example, in 2016 the Japanese National Science Museum displayed a robot named “Alter” which was able to generate it’s own body movements based on the proximity of other objects, temperature and humidity, creating the sense that it was moving its limbs like any person would. Additionally, computer generated graphics are becoming more lifelike every day. In the span of forty years, video game graphics have gone from barely recognizable blocky symbols to sprawling worlds with highly detailed simulations of lighting effects, weather and physics. The point is that it is entirely feasible that we will be able to generate realistic worlds populated by lifelike characters with wills of their own in the future. The predecessors of that technology already exist. In fact, we already have games that attempt to do this. When I was in high school, I played a game called Spore which allowed me to create a single celled organism and guide its evolution all the way to the space age. Another such game is The Sims, a long running series that allows the player to create people and interfere with them as they go about their simulated life. So, humanity has the inclination to create simulations and they will eventually have the technology to make them indistinguishable from reality. However, how do we know that we ourselves are not in a simulation as well? In a research paper published in Philoshical Quarterly in 2003, Nick Bostrom writes this, “Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many simulations. Suppose these simulated people are conscious. Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations” (Bostrom). Let’s assume that humanity can and will create lifelike simulations in the future that are so realistic as to be indistinguishable from reality. In these simulations are people like us, their minds simulated to such a degree that they are either have genuine free will or at least appear to have it and believe that they do. In time, they advance to such a degree that they create simulations of their own, similarly populated with people having free will, and so on. If we agree that such a chain is possible, then how can we assume that we are at the top of it? In this chain of events there are far more simulated minds than those of the originators. Thus, it is more probable that we ourselves are among those simulated minds and that our reality is one of the simulations.

So, what does all of that have to do with Berkeley? I believe that Berkley’s ideas and the simulation theory fit together like a hand to a glove. To reiterate, Berkeley’s position is that everything that exists does so because it is perceived. There is no difference between the material world and the mental, perceived world. If we are indeed living in a simulation, then this makes a lot of sense. Everything that exists in such a reality is exists only because someone is there to see it, either the simulated people within it or the observers on the outside. In a way, Berkeley was arguing for the simulation theory before it was cool. One argument against Berkeley’s ideas is this; if everything exists only in perception then objects must cease to exist when they are not being perceived. If we are not perceiving other minds, than the only mind that truly exists must be that of the self, otherwise known as solipsism. Berkeley counters by postulating the idea of God as the all perceiver, someone who is perceiving all things at all times. Indeed, he argues that such a being must exist. In his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, he writes, “To me it is evident, for the reasons you agree to, that sensible things can’t exist except in a mind or spirit. From this I conclude not that they have no real existence but that—seeing they don’t depend on my thought, and have an existence distinct from being perceived by me—there must be some other mind in which they exist. As sure as the sensible world really exists, therefore, so sure is there an infinite, omnipresent Spirit who contains and supports it.” (Berkeley 29). Your room does not cease to exist when you step out of it because God is there to perceive it while you are away. Other minds can exist outside of your perception because God is perceiving them as well. In the context of a simulation, both of those ideas can exist at the same time. The machine running the simulation acts as the all perceiver by rendering objects in the environment even as 6there are no simulated people to see those objects. It does this for the benefit of whoever might be monitoring the simulation. However, we can also consider tricks that video game developers use to conserve computational power. In a video game, objects are only fully rendered when there is a need for the player to see it. Speaking in an interview with Ars Technica, video game developer Andy Gavin says this about the process, “If the level was, lets call it 30 megabytes, well maybe you only need at any one moment in time one megabyte but the level’s actually 30 megabytes. I would chunk the entire level into 64 thousand pages … then the level consisted of 30 megabytes of pages, 16, 18 pages that could fit in memory … [the game] is constantly figuring out which pages it’s going to load in if you’re going this way and which page it’s gonna load in if you’re going that way and it throws away old pages that it doesn’t need and loads new ones into their place” (Dacanay, 26:21 – 27:33).

So, I argue that it is entirely possible that your room momentarily ceases to exist when you leave and if there is nobody observing that segment of the simulation.

Not everything needs to exist at the same time for the simulated mind to perceive their experience as reality. Naturally, the simulation would also be capable of simulating other minds, even when they are not in contact with you. After all, it isn’t to your benefit or perspective that the simulation is meant to serve, but rather for those that created it.

What does this all mean for us, the simulated people living in a world that may not be what we though it was? In researching this paper, I’ve seen many people question the meaning of their existence in light of this information. Well, it need not mean anything at all. We may be in an incredible complex video game, being observed by an advanced species that is more interested in their own amusement than our best interest, but we still need to go to the grocery store every once in a while because we’re hungry and we need to eat. I still have to write this paper on the Sunday before it’s due and be disappointed by the grade later. On whatever level of existence we may be on, this world is the one we’ve got. Bostrom himself, in the closing of his paper arguing for the existence for the simulation, remarks,

“the implications are not all that radical … the truth of [the simulation] should have no tendency to make us ‘go crazy’ or to prevent us from going about our business and making plans and predictions for tomorrow”

(Bostrom 13)

Life goes on, as it always has.

Bibliography Berkeley, George. (1713). Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. Retrieved from Internet Archive website:

Berkeley, George. (1710). The Principles of Human Knowledge. Retrieved from Internet Archive website:

Bostrom, Nick. “Are We Living In A Computer Simulation?”. The Philosophical Quarterly, vol 53, no. 211, 2003, pp. 243-255. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.1111/1467-9213.00309.

Sean Dacanay, “How Crash Bandicoot Hacked The Original Playstation | War Stories | Ars Technica” Youtube, uploaded by Ars Technica, 27 Feb. 2020 Smith, Mat. “Japan’s Latest Humanoid Robot Makes Its Own Moves.” Engadget, 17 Feb. 2020,