Is there a solution to the problem of hard solipsism, the philosophical position that only the mind is certain and that all things observed are a product of my own psyche? It’s a cliché that any piece of writing which begins with a question will inevitably result in a resounding “no”, and who am I to resist this precedent? Despite this, the issue is still worth investigating, and while a solution to the problem of hard solipsism is not forthcoming, considerable doubt can still be cast upon the solipsist position. To do this I could use a wide variety of topics, but for entirely selfish reasons, I’m (unsurprisingly) going to use a favourite film of mine, the 1954 classic, Godzilla. Patience, all will become apparent.
One of the central tenets of solipsism is most famously articulated in Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy in the well-known cogito ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am.” All things may be doubted to a greater or lesser degree, but the existence of one’s own mind, or at least some thinking thing, is undeniable. Every piece of information we know about the world is filtered through the senses before reaching the mind, and could conceivably be produced by a false stimulus entirely unlike the effect on the mind. In the end, it is a fact that when we think we see a tree, we are in fact experiencing a model constructed by our own brains based upon sense data from the eyes. So if our whole experience is based in the mind, is it not possible that the whole of reality is merely self-generated, using the same simulation “software” that the brain apparently uses to translate the world into a comprehensible form? Perhaps the whole of reality fits neatly into a mindscape, no external world necessary. This is not an easy position to argue against, as any counter-argument would rely upon evidence from the same dubious reality. Indeed, the committed solipsist could merely dismiss their opponent as a particularly troublesome figment of their imagination. As far as I can tell, this is a philosophical standpoint with no definitive defeater; nothing can be said to make hard solipsism untenable.
My attempted response relies on the distinction between deductive and inductive argument. This is a key difference. A sound deductive argument leads to a conclusion that cannot be doubted. If you accept that the premises of such an argument are true, you cannot deny the conclusion without lapsing into logical contradiction. For instance:
Premise 1: All carnivores eat meat.
Premise 2: All tigers are carnivores.
Conclusion: All tigers eat meat.
Accepting premises 1 and 2 while denying the conclusion is exactly akin to stating that “Tigers do and do not eat meat.” Deductive arguments are clearly powerful, but they are rarely applicable except in cases like mathematical proofs, where certainty is a possibility.
Inductive arguments, by contrast, only argue to the best explanation or most likely conclusion, not a certain one. Importantly, it is not logically impossible that the conclusion of an inductive argument be false; it is merely improbable. Another example:
Premise 1: Most swans are white.
Premise 2: There is a particular swan somewhere in the world.
Conclusion: That particular swan is white.
Because most swans are white, it is a fairly safe bet that any swan you happen to hear about it white too. But this is only a likelihood. The existence of black swans renders the conclusion uncertain. Inductive arguments are the most common kind of reasoning we employ, as we are rarely certain of an outcome, but we can usually make an educated guess and get by by predicting what will probably happen. My argument against solipsism is of the latter kind, and merely aims to cast it into doubt, not to show that it cannot possibly be true.
Godzilla is, to put it mildly, a very good film. Before the child-friendly goofiness of the later Showa era and the spectacular pyrotechnics of the more recent outings, there was a simple and terrifying black-and-white parable about the horror of nuclear fire. It’s still amazing how much they got right. Less than a decade after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the filmmakers were mature and level-headed enough to eschew blame and focus their allegory entirely upon the evils of the weapons themselves, not those who used them. At no point is there monstrous metaphor glorified; the closest anyone comes to adoration is desiring to keep Godzilla alive for scientific study. And instead of casting these people as strawman amoral scientists or animal rights activists, this option is immediately dropped in the face of the obvious fact that humanity cannot survive while sharing the planet with a colossal, radiation-spewing reptile. The allegory is perfect. Nuclear weapons are scientifically fascinating and superficially impressive, but this does not make them remotely safe or necessarily desirable. In the same vein, Dr. Serizawa is reluctant to use his Oxygen Destroyer on the principle that it too will be turned to terrible ends, but does not pig-headedly – and unrealistically – put his personal feelings before human life. The score is mesmerising, the cinematography is deeply atmospheric, and even sixty years on, it’s a fiercely intelligent and entertaining flick (utterly incorrect assertions about the Jurassic era notwithstanding).
This may seem to be a violent veer into tangent, but this is the backbone of my argument. I do not believe that I am capable of writing, scoring, and bringing to celluloid such a brilliant piece of art. This was the work of many hands, from humble workmen to the creative geniuses at the top, a work too great for a single, average person like myself. On the solipsist view, however, this is exactly what has happened. Godzilla, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Macbeth and Beethoven’s Ninth all ought to bear my name as their creator. If the entire world is a product of my mine, there is simply no-one else to do the work. I have to be personally responsible for every brilliant piece of art. A corollary is that I am also responsible for dreaming up every terrible creation as well. There are certain things for which I am unwilling to take the blame. Is there a more arrogant position it is possible to hold than the solipsist view that our entire reality and all the wonder and horror it contains are the product of one mind, my mind? Even making up a mediocre universe should overwhelm any finite mind, let alone one containing such incredible things. Clearly the solipsist has far greater confidence in his faculties than I do in my own – or his, for that matter. So, stated succinctly, this is my response to the problem of hard solipsism: I find it vanishingly improbable that I am solely responsible for the best movies ever made, Godzilla in particular. Not a knock-out blow, but at least we have leave to stop taking this point-of-view with anything but a pinch of salt.
[Also published at Podzilla! – The King of the Podcasts.]