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Reality kicks back

James Boswell relates in his Life of Johnson how he and Dr Johnson were discussing Bishop Berkeley’s solipsistic theory of the non-existence of the material world. Boswell remarked that although no one believed the theory, no one could refute it either. Dr Johnson kicked a large rock and said, as his foot rebounded, ‘I refute it thus.’ Dr Johnson’s point was that Berkeley’s denial of the rock’s existence is incompatible with finding an explanation of the rebound that he himself felt. Solipsism cannot accommodate any explanation of why that experiment – or any other experiment – should have one outcome rather than another. To explain the effect that the rock had on him, Dr Johnson was forced to take a position on the nature of rocks. Were they part of an autonomous external relaity, or were they figments of his imagination? In the latter case he would have to conclude that ‘his imagination’ was itself a vast, complex, autonomous universe. […]

But Dr Johnson’s idea is more than a refutation of solipsism. It also illustrates the criterion for reality that is used in science, namely, if something can kick back, it exists. ‘Kicking back’ here does not necessraily mean that the alleged object is responding to being kicked – to being pysically affected as Dr Johnson’s rock was. It is enough that when we ‘kick’ something, the object affects us in ways that require independent explanation. For example, Galileo had no means of affecting planets, but he could affect the light that came from them. His equivalent of kicking the rock was refracting that light through the lenses of his telescopes and eyes. That light responded by ‘kicking’ his retina back. The way it kicked back allowed him to conclude not only that the light was real, but that the heliocentric planetary motions required to explain the patterns in which the light arrived were also real.

By the way, Dr Johnson did not directly kick the rock either. A person is a mind, not a body. The Dr Johnson who per­formed the experiment was a mind, and that mind directly ‘kicked’ only some nerves, which transmitted signals to muscles, which propelled his foot towards the rock. Shortly afterwards, Dr Johnson perceived being ‘kicked back’ by the rock, but again only indirectly, after the impact had set up a pressure pattern in his shoe, and then in his skin, and had then led to electrical impulses in his nerves, and so forth. Dr Johnson’s mind, like Galileo’s and everone else’s, ‘kicked’ nerves and was ‘kicked back’ by nerves, and inferred the existence and properties of reality from those interactions alone. What Dr Johnson was entitled to infer about reality depends on how he could best explain what had happened. For example, if the sensation had seemed to depend only on the extension of his leg, and not on external factors, then he would probably have concluded that it was a property of his leg, or of his mind alone. He might have been suffering from a disease which gave him a rebounding sensation whenver he extended his leg in a certain way. But in fact the rebounding depended on what the rock did, such as being in a certain place, which was in turn related to other effects that the rock had, such as being seen, or affecting other people who kicked it. Dr Johnson perceived these effects to be autonomous (independent of himself) and quite complicated. [86-7]

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