Reading modern epistemology often feels slightly claustrophobic. In Descartes, or Hume, say, there’s a sense of being confined, ‘shut up’ in our own heads, trying to get out. The best expression of this is the fear of solipsism: the (never really accepted but always present) fear that there might be nothing in the universe except us.
The way this gets set up in such writers goes like this: all I can really be sure of is my own perceptions – I know that I seem to see and hear certain things, but no more. Now I ask myself how I am to infer that there are also real objects out there that ‘correspond to’ or ‘lie behind’ my perceptions of them. But no argument to that conclusion seems very good. Oh dear. I will have to try harder, because if no such argument can be found, then I will have to conclude that there is nothing ‘out there’.
A major supporting argument for this anxious approach is the ‘argument from illusion’. It’s quite simple: sometimes I think I perceive a real object, but it turns out that I was wrong (hallucinating, dreaming, etc.) and there was no object. But my perception was just the same as when I (supposedly) perceive real objects. So how am I to tell the difference?
Now I want to point out how, in quite a simple way, this fear and this ‘claustrophobic’ tone are mistaken. But I should be clear that I’m concerned with solipsism (the possibility that there is no world and no existence apart from me) rather than scepticism (the possibility that I don’t know anything). Responding to scepticism means providing a comprehensive account of knowledge, what it is, how we get it, etc., which is heavy work. So I’ll shy away from that.
Why is the fear of solipsism mistaken? Philosophers are usually good at drawing out the implications of their starting points, so their mistakes usually reside in the starting point itself. Here, I would suggest, the mistake is that the basic ‘data’ of consciousness, the initial form of perception, can be understood through the two terms ‘self’ and ‘object’. Rather, I think, a proper understanding must involve three terms: ‘self’, ‘object’, and ‘world’.
This is not an abstruse point. It is simply to say that when we perceive something, we do so against a background, and that all the things we perceive are, in the last analysis, perceived against the same background (in that different bits of that background are connected to each other through the matrix of spacetime). The relationship of the thing to the world is something like the relationship which the Gestalt psychologists called ‘figure-ground‘, and which is illustrated in ‘multi-stable’ pictures like that shown right, where either pillars or women appear as we shift which bits are ‘lifted out’ as ‘figures’ against a ‘ground’.
Now once this triadic relationship is recognised, we can observe a few things that swiftly show why solipsism is so absurd, and why it feels so inuitively wrong.
Becuase for one thing, the initial most basic meaning of the world is that it’s infinite. Not infinite in the precise mathematical sense in which cosmologists debate whether it’s infinite, but infinite in the sense that we can’t measure it, can’t limited it, because if we ever did put some definite limit on it, we would have to pick out that limit as an object – hence against the background of the world. The world is given as indefinitely expansive.
Whew, there it goes. The claustriphobia vanishes as soon as we recognise this fact: even in the absolute ground-floor most basic experience, we find that we are a small part of a big world, surrounded by ‘open space’ that we can spread our arms and dance in.
We might put it like this: Descartes expressed the starting point of the whole ‘claustrophobic’ style of philosophy in his famous “cogito, ergo sum”, “I think, therefore I am”. The significance of that is not just what it says but what it doesn’t say – he says that from the most basic experience we can have, we know that we the thinker exist: it’s indubitable because it’s just given in the first moment of consciousness. Nothing else is so given: hence it is only me and my private mind that I can be sure of.
But if all objects are seen against the background of the world, then we might add to this “cogito, ergo sum in mundo”, “I think, therefore I am in the world”. Or even “cogito, ergo est”, “I think, therefore it is.” This point was famously put by Heidegger: in the very definition of what it means for a person to ‘be’, is for it to ‘be-in-the-world’.
What of the argument from illusion though? Simple. When we are the victims of illusion, we revise only the object that appeared in the initial perception, not the world in which it appeared. The world is still there – we just find that we have mis-taken it, that our attempt to learn about it failed. To think that I’m dreaming is not to think that nothing exists, it’s to think of the real world as in a sense ‘separated’ from me by my dream. I perceive the world ‘confusedly’.
So the very most that the argument from illusion can show is that perhaps we are in a bad way as regards our knowing about the world, but not that we might be wrong about there being a world. That’s why I said earlier I am concerned to dismiss solipsism, not scepticism. The sceptical problem is still a worrying one, but hopefully we can at least approach it without the ‘claustrophobia’ of ‘I’m in my head, how do I get out’.
But what is that claustrophobia then? Why did such a mistake arise? What does it tell us? These questions will be examined in the sequel.