Watering down our righteousness


Is the world an objective phenomenon that exists independently of our ideas? According to the philosopher George Berkeley, it isn’t. Though his controversial idea is often ridiculed, it is because it has been widely misinterpreted to mean “no object is real” or “the world does not really exist without us”, whereas his intention was quite different: he was proposing that our ideas are our reality. He illustrated this through a thought experiment that can be argued to have far-reaching implications on our thought process and on how we interact with others around us.

Briefly put, the experiment illustrates that if you immerse a cold hand and a warm hand in water of intermediate temperature, the water would feel warm to the cold hand and cold to the warm hand. Does that make the water cold, warm, or lukewarm? An “objective” world would only have one answer to that question, which is not the case here. With that and other examples, Berkeley argued that many characteristics do not inherently, objectively or independently exist but are present because they reside in our minds as perceivers.

What makes Berkeley’s experiment relevant is that it demonstrates how the world should not be perceived in black-or-white terms, but that we should acknowledge shades of grey. Furthermore, it illustrates a distinction between belief and fact; just because we believe something to be true with all our hearts and mind does not necessarily mean that that something is true or that it is the only truth. As seen from the experiment, the water was cold to one person but warm to another, and they were both right. There can be multiple truths! This has repercussions on how we interact with whom we term as the “other”, because it puts into perspective that we too are the “other” and that we are all living the same experience, life, from a different perspective that need not be looked at in terms of “right” and “wrong”. Tolerance is the virtue that emerges from that realization, as well as freedom; each party sees their beliefs as “right”, but freedom isn’t when one enforces their “right” opinion on the other, but when we allow both opinions to express themselves. Oftentimes, we can easily see another’s beliefs as fantastic and ludicrous, but the fact is, ours may be just as well to them! The water can be both warm and cold! And so, it would do us good to re-examine our beliefs from a different perspective, and perhaps discover some fantastic beliefs that we ourselves hold and that we should change.

Another powerful aspect that Berkeley’s experiment highlights is the issue of “contextualization”. When evaluating any belief we have or any information we receive (especially when we base our judgment on it), we should frame it in its own space and time, rather than use our frame of reference in that judgment. We should try to put ourselves in another’s shoes, or in this case, be the other hand. As the person with the cold hand for example, you cannot pronounce that the person with the warm hand who feels that the water is cool is a liar or worse. By doing your research and situating him/her in the right context, you may discover that the person was holding a cup of tea earlier so that it actually makes sense that that water should feel cool. It would also become apparent that using judgmental terms such as “liar” or enforcing your opinion from your standpoint is unfair and...quite false. Contextualization is an essential tool to cultivate, especially when we are thinking of history, thinking of the other, or pronouncing value judgments because it makes us look at matters from a relativistic angle rather than an absolute one.

Finally, Berkeley’s experiment exemplifies Socrates’s opinion, that “the only thing I know is that I know nothing.” Indeed, psychological research talks of a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Basically, people with lesser cognitive abilities tend to overestimate themselves and underestimate others while people with higher cognitive abilities do the opposite. The illusory superiority accentuates characteristics that the former have: believing they are always right and being overly confident in their opinions and beliefs, and thus being closed to other ideas. The more intelligent people, on the other hand, are more open to listening to other ideas because they have the awareness that other points of view exist and can be correct and that knowledge is too profound to be fully reached by anyone. Indeed, many thinkers throughout time have reached the conclusion that Socrates reached over 2000 years ago: not to be too righteous in your opinion and intolerant of others because the world is bigger than all of us, and we should put ourselves into perspective. Being open to ideas and doubt is what makes us grow, rather than priding ourselves on unquestionable beliefs. The water, after all, is not unquestionably cold or warm. Our standpoint determines which conclusion we would reach, and thus it is wiser to be open to all conclusions.

Ideas are powerful. Though Berkeley meant it in a different way, ideas still shape our reality. Our beliefs and how we treat other’s beliefs can breed either tolerance or intolerance, wonder or hatred, war or love. For the sake of a better world, let us treat other’s ideas, and our own, the way they should be treated: relativistic, changeable, and not as facts.

Khadija Hisham Alem,


(The author can be reached at: Khadija.alem@gmail.com)