The forgotten scientific revolution of 1710 and George Berkeley

Scientists have always used their own ideas to describe and explain their environment and from those descriptions and explanations they have constructed what they, and everybody else, calls science. In 1710, George Berkeley destroyed all that by the simple assertion that ideas have no role in science. Science can only be discovered from data, and data are only diagrams and numbers.

The sort of explanation proper to science then, is not causal explanation, but reduction to regularity          (1)

By ‘regularity’, Berkeley meant diagrams and numbers.

He identified the flaw in traditional science as an illogical use of the ‘equals’ sign in equations. Equations are comparisons and it is only possible to compare similar things. A pear can only be compared with another pear. It can not be compared with an apple. Scientists who write equations like distance=speed x time, break that rule and whatever is derived from such equations is not science. When combined with language it is useful though, so it can be described as useful fiction.

The consequence of scientists using their own ideas in science is that the science we have is invented and the objective science of data is lost. ‘What do we learn’, Berkeley asked about invented science, ‘but our own ideas’. He wanted to liberate science from the vocabulary of the human mind and find a new objective vocabulary in ‘regularities’.

Berkeley proposed the removal from the vocabulary of science of anything not required for the description of diagrams and numbers. The key items in a very long list are ‘material object’ and ‘speed’ because virtually everyone believes that they see material bodies like cars, moving along roads with various speeds.

Berkeley asserted (a) that what we see are data and therefore logical, and (b) that logic only allows equations of numbers, so it follows that what we see are not material objects or speeds.

Berkeley became known amongst philosophers as an ‘immaterialist’ but he could more logically be known as the discoverer of video-recording because the reason we do not see material objects or speeds is that everything we see is a video-recording. When we drive, we hold material steering wheels in our hands but we see video-recordings of the road ahead, in our pasts.

Thus Berkeley was right in 1710 and everyone else was wrong. His revolution should not have foundered. This article aims to revive it.

Sight-lines in the past

The belief that we see material objects and speeds rather than video-recordings of them implies that we see in the directions north-present, south-present, east-present, west-present etc but that is false. We actually see in the directions north-past, south-past, east-past, west-past etc. By displacing what we see into the past, our sight-lines ensure that what we see are recordings.

The first observations that revealed the true directions of our sight-lines were those in 1676 on the planet Jupiter. They exploited the annual variation of the Earth-Jupiter distance due to Earth’s orbit round the sun, to show that as Jupiter becomes further from the Earth its images also become deeper in Earth’s past and as the planets become closer again their images become less deep in the other’s past. That analysis is compatible with Berkeley’s law that equations only contain numbers while the standard interpretation that the observations represent the first measurement of the speed of light is not. The reinterpretation of those very famous observations is a necessary step in the re-launch of Berkeley’s revolution.

The simplest way to observe the directions of sight-lines though is to stand between a pair of mirrors and study the geometry of one’s own past with its images located at the intersection of sight-lines and image streams, as discussed in the previous article.

The evidence of a mirror

When an observer looks northward into a mirror, he is looking at a two-dimensional north-past/south-past plane in his past. If the mirror is one metre from him, the image he sees is located one metre north-past and one metre south-past from him and is at the intersection of his sight-line and his image stream. There are no material objects or concepts of time and distance, in the past so there is no concept of speed. Clocks and rulers both measure along north-past and south-past directions and one second is the same as 300 million metres.


Fig 1: How an observer sees his image in a mrror.

A traffic camera

Image streams do not always descend straight into the past and sometimes two of them diverge, as when a vehicle passes a traffic camera.


Fig 2 A data diagram in the past obtained by a traffic camera.

Shortly after the vehicle passes the camera, the camera takes a photo from ‘a’ and records two diverging columns of images picked out by a multiply reflected sight-line. One column consists of images of the camera and one of images of the vehicle. The images occur at a series of locations b, c, d, e, f. in the past and from those locations an angle of divergence, α, and the slopes D and D-1 of the image columns are obtained. Then a little trigonometry yields:

D2=(1+S)/(1-S)               (6)

S=(D-D-1)/(D+D-1)         (7)

S=sin(α)                          (8)

D and S are both numbers so equations (6), (7) and (8) only contain numbers. There are no concepts of time, distance or speed.

Fig 2 provides evidence to support a charge against the vehicle’s driver for exceeding the permitted value of S but it does not provide evidence to support a charge of speeding because speed is only an idea and ideas have no role in a description of data in the past.

In fig 3 it is shown how the concepts of traditional science are inserted into fig 2 by breaking Berkeley’s law that equations can only contain numbers.


Fig 3: The illegal insertion of time, distance and speed into fig 2.

Two lines of constant time, tb and tc, are drawn and the distances between the camera and vehicle at the times tb and tc are equated to vtb and vtc where v is the relative speed of camera and vehicle, The broken arrows are attributed to light paths with a constant speed of light. In the resulting equations, v(tb-tc)=2hi, or v=2hi/(tb-tc), v is a speed, (tb-tc) is a time and 2hi is a distance.

The perspective of philosophers

In 1710, Berkeley was writing for an audience of philosophers rather than scientists, so the author of the long article on Berkeley in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy describes his revolution this way:

If Berkeley’s Likeness Principle, the thesis that an idea can only be like another idea, is granted, representationalist materialism is in serious trouble. For how are material objects now to be characterized?

In scientific terms, this reads

If Berkeley’s law is granted, traditional science is finished because the law removes the concepts of material body and speed.

The freedom of scientists to make things up is then at an end.

The next article will look at the concept of the big bang.

Good bye and thank you for joining me

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