Is matter real? Do objects only exist in the mind of a perceiver? 18th century philosopher, George Berkeley, answered ‘no’ to that first question and ‘yes’ to the second. In his A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, he claimed that esse est percipi, or ‘to be is to be perceived’; a thing only exists if a mind perceives it.
Berkeley’s idea seems unlikely today and even in his own era, he had a hard time finding converts. While tempting to ridicule, especially in the specific form Berkeley imagined it, there is nevertheless the glimmer of something deeply insightful in his philosophy. In this article, I will try to convince you of this.
Dan Dennett’s 1992 article entitled “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity” (available online here) is one of his earlier attempts to argue that the self isn’t real; specifically, that it is a fiction created by human beings who don’t know any better. The route he takes to get there is a somewhat jumbled, confused batch of mixed metaphors, semi-relevant thought experiments, and false implications. In this article, I will try to unravel the tangle Dennett gets himself into and in doing so, resist his conclusion.