Mar 17, 2011 | By George Gantz
The Skeptic’s Dilemma – Solipsism
When I was a kid, my older brother used to tease me with questions that were beyond my understanding. One line of questioning I recall went like this – How do you know other people exist? Maybe you are dreaming. Maybe it’s all a movie in your brain and there is nobody there? How do you really know?
I had no good answer for these questions because every explanation I was able to come up with led to another question, and “I just know” was not good enough for my brother. As I recall I often ended up getting mad, sometimes trying to hit him – which amused him greatly and made the game so satisfying.
There are many variations on this line of questioning so I’m sure I was not the only child perplexed by it. In fact, it is one of the great questions, asked and answered by some of the greatest philosophers over the millennia. There have been many different answers – the answers vary based largely on what you accept as evidence or “proof”. If you are sensible, relying on the evidence of your own senses and the common reasoning we are all born with, this is sufficient. It is as clear as the nose on your face, so to speak. There are other people, they are just like me, and my relationships with them is what living is mostly about.
Philosophers, however, require a more firm proof, since the evidence of your senses and common reasoning are sometimes in error. The hard core skeptics accept nothing less than logical deductions based on incontrovertible or self-evident facts. These are quite difficult to come by, however. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), generally regarded as the father of skepticism, rested his reasoning on the statement “I think, therefore I am“, but philosophers after Descartes have questioned both this base and where Descartes went with it. Mathematical statements and logic are sometimes given a leading role as pure truths, but these are generally not useful in addressing mundane issues such as the existence of other people. Logic has it’s limits.
The bottom line is this – if you only accept deductive reasoning from self-evident facts, then you will never be able to conclude, beyond doubt, that other people exist. In essence, you will be stuck in the bubble of selfhood – with no way of “proving your way out of it”.
This outcome is known as solipsism, the belief that you alone, or the “you” that is your thoughts, ideas and perceptions, exists and all else is just an illusion. It is the inevitable consequence of the choice not to accept anything less than deductively provable truth.
Thankfully, this is not the way we live our lives – at least not if we are sane. How is it that we escape “the bubble of self”? Because we accept a proof that is less “perfect” than logical deduction from self-evident facts. We accept what we have experienced – that other people just like me do exist. We are also confident that the hard skeptic will never be able to prove the contrary.
The arguments about the existence of God strike me in much the same way. The skeptic can claim there is no proof. The believer accepts other evidence – and knows the skeptic has no dis-proof. The result is similar to the arguments with my brother many years ago – one side laughs at the other – the other side tries to hit back. The debate gets us nowhere.
This is one of the topics we will explore in this ISAS Forum. What is the truth – how do we find it – how are science and religion different (or are they different) – what can we learn from these two different modes of knowing? For additional material on this topic please check out the post Background Resources – Truth, in our “Resources” section.