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If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? In this brief clip, R.C. Sproul explains that Bishop George Berkeley saw this question not merely as a playful riddle but as an illustration of the necessity of God’s existence.
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Well, it was Bishop Berkeley who coined a Latin phrase that has become important in the history of philosophy, and that is the phrase, “Esse est percipi.” It means, in translation, “To be is to be perceived.” To be is to be perceived. So, if you would say to Bishop Berkeley, “Is there a sound in the forest if there is no one there to hear the tree fall?” Well, he would answer that question two different ways. On the one hand, he would say that if there is absolutely no one who perceives that tree falling, there would not be a sound. In fact, there wouldn’t even be a tree if we take this principle to its fullest conclusion. If to even be is to be perceived, that means that if it’s not perceived, it doesn’t exist. Not only the sound would disappear, but the tree would disappear, and if there were no one there to perceive the forest, the forest would disappear. Or, to take it to its ultimate conclusion, not only would the consequences of material things disappear, but matter itself would disappear, because matter itself is dependent upon someone’s perception for its very being. Ah ha! We are saying that what this man is concerned about is to stop the tide of materialism and to stop the tide of atheism. Now, some people assume that therefore, what Berkeley was saying was that matter doesn’t exist at all—the tree doesn’t exist, the sound doesn’t exist, you don’t exist, nothing exists, and everything is an illusion. Now, there are those popular readers of Berkeley who have come to the conclusion that this guy was just spinning out nonsense and talking about everything as an illusion. No, no, no. Berkeley believed in real truth. Berkeley believed in real sound. But he said there can’t be being without perception. Remember I said that he would answer the question about the sound in the forest two different ways. On the one hand, if you would say to him, “If no one perceives the sound would there be any sound?” He would say, “No.” But on the other hand, he would say, “If you aren't there, and I am not there, and nobody else in this world is there to hear that sound, there would still be sound because it would be heard by God.” God in this case, in simple terms, could be called the “Great Perceiver,” by whose perception reality holds together. And without His knowledge, the idea of things actually being in the mind of God, nothing would possibly or could possibly be.