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The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener
THE WORLD: Why I Am Not a Solipsist
Let me not look aloft and see my own Feature and form upon the Judgment-throne.
G. K. CHESTERTON
Solipsism is the insane belief that only one's self exists. All other parts of the universe, including other people, are unsubstantial figments in the mind of the single person who alone is truly real. It is almost the same as thinking one is God, and so far as I know, there has never been an authentic solipsist outside a mental institution or who in the past was not considered mad. Why, then, should I waste time beginning my confessional with a chapter on why I am not a solipsist?
One reason is that many philosophers have maintained that solipsism cannot be refuted in any rational way; that a belief in other people and in an outside world must rest on some kind of "animal faith," or perhaps it is no more than a posit one has to make to keep sane, or because it is convenient. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in opinions that, although far from solipsistic, are strongly tinged with solipsistic arguments. Curiously, such opinions are sometimesexpressed by eminent physicists who are concerned with the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics. In this chapter I shall try to untangle some of the linguistic snarls in these old debates, and take a clear stand that is essential to all of my beliefs in the rest of the book.
Bertrand Russell enjoyed recalling a letter he once received from a respected logician, Mrs. Christine Ladd-Franklin, in which she professed to be a solipsist. The doctrine seemed to her so irrefutable, she added, that she couldn't understand why no other philosophers were solipsists! In a trivial sense, solipsism is indeed irrefutable. We are all trapped in what has been called our "egocentric predicament." Everything we know about the world is based on information received through our senses. This world of our experiencethe totality of all we see, hear, taste, touch, feel, and smellis sometimes called our "phenomenal world." Obviously there is no way to perceive anything except what can be perceived, to experience anything except what can be experienced. Charles S. Peirce invented a useful word for this phenomenal world. He called it the "phaneron."
What grounds do we have for believing that anything exists outside our private phaneron? Let us admit at once that there is no way to prove to a solipsist (in the unlikely event you ever meet one) that anything exists outside his or her phaneron, if by "prove" you mean the way you prove a theorem in logic or mathematics. The situation is even worse than that. As philosophers have often pointed out, there is no way a solipsist can demonstrate even to himself that he existed before yesterday. Perhaps he and his entire phenomenal world, including all his memories, jumped into reality last Tuesday. Nor can he prove that he and his phaneron will exist beyond next Thursday. Thus one is finally reduced to what has been called a "solipsism of the moment." One can be certain only that "I exist now," the starting point of Descartes's philosophy.
But wait! Even this is dubious. Perhaps, dear reader, you are only a figment in the dream of some god, as Sherlock Holmes was a figment in the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are Hindus who believe that the entire universe, including you and me, is a dream of Brahma. It will cease to be real as soon as Brahma awakes. Alice, behind the looking glass, thought she was dreaming about the Red King. But the Red King sleeps through the story, and Alice is told that she is just a "sort of thing" in the Red King's dream. A student in oneof Morris Cohen's philosophy classes once raised a hand to ask, "How do I know I exist?" Professor Cohen's reply was, "Who's asking?"1
Because all our knowledge of the world and other people derives from information that filters into our consciousness through our senses, there is no ironclad way to refute solipsism. By "ironclad" I mean in a strictly logical manner. There is no absolute way to refute anything outside of pure logic and mathematics, and even there refutation is always within a formal system with agreed-upon axioms and rules. Accept the axioms and rules of Euclidean geometry and you can indeed refute the statement that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is more than 180 degrees. But this is not much different from refuting the statement that there are seven eggs in half a dozen. Nevertheless, in spite of its strict irrefutability, no sane philosopher has been a solipsist. Why?
It is difficult to discuss this question without approaching it historically. The reason is simple. Any fundamental view one can take toward any significant metaphysical question has been so well expressed and so expertly defended by great thinkers of the past that it is almost impossible to say anything new on the topic or to improve old arguments.
Aristotle held the commonsense opinion, an opinion held by almost everybody sincephilosophers, scientists, and ordinary peoplethat behind the phaneron there is an independently existing world of "matter." No matter, now, what we mean by matter. It existed before human beings existed, and would continue to exist if all humans ceased to exist. It is this outside world that causes the inner world of our sensations, the world we perceive as our phaneron. Before Aristotle, Plato argued not only for the existence of such an external world (it produces the shadows in his famous allegory of the cave), he also argued for the independent existence, apart from both matter and human minds, of such universal ideas as cowness and the number three. For Aristotle, universals have no reality apart from the material universe, as the shape of a vase cannot exist apart from the vase. In the Middle Ages this debate usually took the form of nominalism versus Platonic realism, with complex terminological distinctions and subtle shades of opinion which need not concern us. The important point is that medieval Scholastics were "realists" in believing, as did Plato and Aristotle, that there is a vast world "out there," behind the world of appearance, that does not require our perceptions in order to exist.
The first great historical turn in Western philosophy on this question came in the early eighteenth century with the writings of Bishop George Berkeley, a devout Irish Anglican who spent several years in Newport, Rhode Island, in a vain attempt to establish a Christian college in Bermuda. I wonder how many students at the University of California, in Berkeley, know that the town was named for the bishop because, Russell tells us in his History of Western Philosophy, Berkeley had written the line, "Westward the course of empire takes its way." The bishop's last book was on the medicinal value of tar-water, a monograph that compares favorably with Aldous Huxley's treatise on how to cure eye refraction defects by wiggling your eyeballs.
It is easy to joke about Berkeley's philosophy, but he defended it with enormous skill, and I have read many later books on God-centered idealism that did little more than repeat Berkeley's arguments and not half so well. To understand those arguments it is best to say first a word about the bishop's distinguished predecessor, John Locke.
Locke, also a good Anglican, no more doubted than did earlier Christian philosophers that God had created a natural world which exists independently of human minds. As to the ultimate nature of matter, Locke readily admitted (as would Immanuel Kant) that it is transcendent and unknowable. As for the knowable part of matter, Locke divided its properties into two classes: primary and secondary. Primary properties are not dependent on perceptions. For example, a rock is solid whether anyone kicks it or not. But color, a secondary quality, depends on the complicated process of seeing. In the night all cats are gray, and in total darkness they are not even gray.
The distinction is still useful, but Berkeley saw clearly that there is a deeper sense in which all qualities are secondary. How do we know a rock is solid unless we feel or kick it? Indeed, all we can know about any material object is what we learn about it through our senses. Why assume a mysterious, unknowable substance behind our phaneron?
Now, one reason that Aristotle and the Schoolmen, as well as ordinary people and scientists, make such an assumption had been explained a thousand times before Berkeley was born. It is because it is the simplest hypothesis that accounts for the phaneron's peculiar regularities. Turn your back on a tree, then look at it again. It is still there. Go to sleep, wake up, and the room has the same furniture it had the day before. Moreover, our senses agree with one another. A cube not only looks like a cube, it feels like a cube. We can see, feel, smell, andtaste an apple. Put the fruit in the refrigerator, remove it an hour later and take another bite. The apple looks, feels, smells, and tastes the same as before.
We, who of course are not solipsists, all believe that other people exist. Is it not an astonishing set of coincidencesastonishing, that is, to anyone who doubts an external worldthat everybody sees essentially the same phaneron? We walk the same streets of the same cities. We find the same buildings at the same locations. Two people can see the same spiral galaxy through a telescope. Not only that, they see the same spiral structure. The hypothesis that there is an external world, not dependent on human minds, made of something, is so obviously useful and so strongly confirmed by experience down through the ages that we can say without exaggerating that it is better confirmed than any other empirical hypothesis. So useful is the posit that it is almost impossible for anyone except a madman or a professional metaphysician to comprehend a reason for doubting it.
Please observe that I have said nothing about the essential nature of the external world; only that something lurks behind the phaneron to preserve its complex regularities. Berkeley himself never doubted this. He only doubted that the "something" was material, by which he meant something more like pebbles than like thoughts. These doubts are strongly supported by modern physics. We now know that matter is not at all like pebbles. It is more like pure mathematics. Every particle can be viewed as a probability wave in an abstract multidimensional space. It is not observable directly, like a tree. Its properties are all inferred from complicated experiments. No one today knows what an electron is aside from its properties. All that Berkeley wanted to avoid was the idea that behind our perception of rocks, trees, and water is some sort of material substance similar to rocks, trees, and waterperhaps made of hard little pieces, as the Greek atomists maintainedand that this substance exists all by itself without the necessity of being perceived, even by a god. In addition, he saw no reason why GodBerkeley believed of course in the Old Testament Jehovah who created the heaven and the earthwould have to go through the unnecessary labor of first making matter, capable of existing all by itself, then endowing it with a special structure that would cause the phaneron.
At the heart of Berkeley's vision was a deep, emotional aversion to the notion that anything can exist without a mind to perceive it. It is an aversion that many people haveI myself can feel itthough noteveryone. Let us try to understand it. Imagine a universe that consists of nothing, absolutely nothing, but a single pebble suspended in space-time. No minds of any sort exist, including the minds of gods. There is only that lonesome pebble. Would it not be pointless, ridiculous, absurd, meaningless, preposterous (substitute here any word you like that expresses your aversion) to suppose that such a stone exists? In Berkeley's phrase, unperceived matter is a "stupid, thoughtless somewhat." And if this is true of one unperceived pebble, would it not also be true of unperceived stars and planets? I am persuaded that this vague but powerful emotion, rather than any rational argument, is the subtle secret behind Berkeley's philosophy. We find it expressed today in physicist John Wheeler's view that a universe without minds to perceive it is so "pointless" that we might as well say it doesn't exist.
Here is how Miguel de Unamuno expressed the same emotion in his Tragic Sense of Life:
What would a universe be without any consciousness capable of reflecting it and knowing it? What would objectified reason be without will and feeling? For us it would be equivalent to nothinga thousand times more dreadful than nothing ... . It is not, therefore, rational necessity, but vital anguish that impels us to believe in God.2
"To be," said Berkeley in his most famous phrase, "is to be perceived." Grant this and the rest of his system follows smoothly. The bishop knew as well as Samuel Johnson that stones resist kicks, and as well as any materialist that there is something out there, independent of ourselves. For Berkeley, that something is the mind of God. Never mind what he meant by mind. The tree on the quad, as the old limerick goes, exists when no person perceives it because God perceives it. Concede God, and the entire world, with all its incredible patterns, is instantly restored. The only difference is that instead of saying that matter is behind the phaneron you say God is behind it. The Schoolmen and Locke had maintained that God first created matter (or perhaps gave form to a formless, preexisting primal matter), then used the matter to build the universe we inhabit and perceive. But why go around Robin Hood's barn? Is it not simpler, Berkeley asked, to rest our phaneron directly on God? In fact, Berkeley offered his philosophy as a new way of proving the existence of God.
All the objects and patterns and laws of the universe, for Berkeley,are timeless ideas in the mind of God. There is no need to interpose matter (in the sense of an "unthinking substance" with an absolute existence apart from God) between God and our minds. Berkeley was convinced that this view not only better accords with Scripture than any other epistemology, but that it also better accords with common sense. For do not ordinary people believe that what they perceive are the real objects, and not just the properties of some mysterious substratumin modern terms, the structure of quantum wave systemsbehind the things they see? If Berkeley were around today he would probably argue that quantum mechanics has reduced matter to pure mathematics, and that abstract mathematical ideas are more easily conceived as thoughts of God than as properties of empty space-timethat is, properties of nothing.
James Boswell fully understood, when he told how Johnson said "I refute it thus" and booted a large stone with such force that his foot rebounded, that Johnson had not in any way refuted Berkeley. For Berkeley, stones are as firm as they are in the universe of any atheist who puts a nonmental substance behind the phaneron. Berkeley's universe is as much "out there," beyond what Lord Dunsany liked to call "the fields we know," as the universe of Aristotle, Aquinas, or Locke. Go through the writings of these men and wherever they speak of matter or substance, change the word to "the mind of God" and you convert their epistemologies to Berkeley's.
Berkeley's linguistic trick of getting rid of matter by changing its name had an enormous influence on Kant and Hegel, and on all the post-Hegelian idealists in Germany and elsewhere. In my opinion there is no finer defense of God-centered objective idealism than lecture 11 of Josiah Royce's Spirit of Modern Philosophy. It is almost pure Berkeley. Like the bishop, Royce finds it absurd to imagine a substratum of matter capable of existing without being perceived. It is as absurd, he writes, as square circles, or two hills side by side with no valley between them, or the integral square root of 65. Then, in a passage of uncharacteristic confusion, he adds that substance without perception is the same kind of nonsense as "Snarks, Boojums and Jabberwocks." (Royce betrays no recognition that a Jabberwock is no more a contradiction than a unicorn or an ostrich.) Berkeley found unperceived matter repugnant and let it go at that. Royce tried to make it logically inconsistent. In this he surely failed. Nevertheless, the center of his argument is the same as Berkeley's. The regularities of our phaneron,and the existence of other persons, force us to believe in a reality behind our phenomenal world Because nothing can exist without being perceived, we are forced to posit a divine mind or Absolute Self to perceive the universe.
This is not the place to discuss the thousand subtleties that distinguish the various languages fabricated by philosophers who call themselves idealists from those who call themselves realists. In my opinion the differences between the various schools are mostly verbal, with strong emotions supporting terminological preferences. The only point I want to stress here is that almost without exception the great philosophers of the past believed in a world independent of human minds. All agreed that the essence of this world is beyond our comprehension. What can we know, Kant asked, about any material object as a thing-in-itself apart from our perceptions of it? If we are atheists we can call the substratum "matter" or "substance" or "space-time events" or "pure mathematics." If we believe in some kind of deity we can also use such terms if we like or we can call the substratum "God," "the Absolute," "the Tao," "Brahman," or whatever poetic word we prefer as a name for the ultimate ground of being.
I myself am a theist (as some readers may be surprised to learn) but if you ask me to tell you anything about the nature of what lies beyond the phaneronis it the mind of God, or pure mathematics, or some other kind of transcendent "stuff"?my answer is "How should I know?" As I will be saying over and over again in this rambling volume, I am not dismayed by ultimate mysteries. What is the difference between something and nothing? Why is there something rather than nothing? Should the something of which the universe is fundamentally composed be regarded as like atoms or be regarded as more like a mind? Or is the substratum best thought of as something neutral: material when structured one way, mental when structured another way? I have no desire even to try to answer such questions. I find nothing absurd about the notion that the external world is the mind of God, nor do I find it repulsive to suppose that God can create a world of substance, utterly unlike ideas in God's mind or anybody's mind, that can exist whether God thinks about it or not. How can I, a mere mortal slightly above an ape in intelligence, know what it means to say that something is "created" by God, or "thought" by God? One can play endless metaphysical games with such phrases,3 but I can no more grasp what is behind such questions than my cat can understand what is behind the clatter I make while I type this paragraph.
There are, however, some lower-order questions about these mysteries that can be answered. What kind of language, with what metaphors, is preferable for talking about the external world? And what do we mean by "preferable"? Before I give my opinions, let us consider another way of viewing "reality"a third language, if you like, which was brilliantly defended by John Stuart Mill. It is a language curiously close to Bishop Berkeley's even though it abandons Berkeley's dictum that nothing can exist without being perceived. Change Berkeley's Christian God to an impersonal that-which-is, and you arrive at something not far from Mill's epistemology. Because it does not demand a personal deity, it has held a strong attraction for modern philosophers who call themselves pragmatists, positivists, and phenomenologists.
Mill's clearest defense of his epistemology is in Chapter 11 of his book on the philosophy of Sir William Hamilton. Accept the phaneron, said Mill, just as it is. Don't trouble yourself with what lies behind it. Simply define the external world as the set of all those "objects" in your phaneron that cannot be influenced by your will. Since these regularities, be they people or things, are what we all deem to be the outside world, the problem of a substratum never arises. It becomes a pseudoproblem. Matter, said Mill, is the "permanent possibility of sensation." There is no need to posit either a material substratum or a divine substratum. A tree is obviously outside us in the sense that it remains there whether we look at it or not. It continues to exist not because God perceives it but because it is that part of the phaneron that behaves that way. Why say more? To talk of a substratum, matter or mind, that causes the tree to exist is to add nothing to what we already know. There is no need to prove an external world because it is "there" by definition. The total collection of objects in our phaneron that exist independently of our experience of them is all we mean, and just what we mean, by "external world."
Mill summed it up this way:
The belief in such permanent possibilities seems to me to include all that is essential or characteristic in the belief in substance. I believe that Calcutta exists, though I do not perceive it, and that it would still exist if every percipient inhabitant were suddenly to leave the place, or be struck dead. But when I analyse the belief, all I find in it is, that were these events to take place, the Permanent Possibility of Sensation which I call Calcutta would still remain; that if I were suddenly transported to the banks of theHoogly, I should still have the sensations which, if now present, would lead me to affirm that Calcutta exists here and now.4
Most philosophers, Mill admits, fancy there is some kind of material or spiritual substratum behind the phaneron. He sees nothing wrong with this belief; he just finds it superfluous. In modern terminology, to assert the existence of such a substratum is to add no surplus meaning to what can be stated in the language of phenomenalism.
As I have said, this point of view has strongly influenced philosophers of many schools. William James, in Pragmatism and in its sequel, The Meaning of Truth, often talked as if he held such a position. In my opinion this is a misreading of James's language, understandable in view of his many confusions and ambiguities. But space is limited and I content myself with quoting from a letter that James wrote in 1907, when controversy over pragmatism was at its height and critics were accusing James of denying that a mind-independent world exists.
James was shocked by this charge. "I am," he writes, "a natural realist," and he adds that he speaks also for his co-pragmatists F.C.S. Schiller and John Dewey. Imagine, James says, a handful of beans flung onto a table. Someone looks at them and notices various patterns. The recognition of these patterns is what James calls truth.
Whatever he does, so long as he takes account of them [the beans], his account is neither false nor irrelevant. If neither, why not call it true? It fits the beans-minus-him, and expresses the total fact, of beans-plus-him ... . All that Schiller and I contend for is that there is no "truth" without some interest, and that nonintellectual interests play a part as well as intellectual ones. Whereupon we are accused of denying the beans or denying being in any way constrained by them! It's too silly! 5
It seems to me that in this letter James spilled the beans about his epistemology. As we shall argue in the next chapter, his radical effort to redefine truth was essentially a linguistic program, not a basic change in the Aristotelian doctrine that truth is a correspondence of ideas with a structured outside world. As James's letter makes clear, he takes for granted that truth must fit the beans. In spite of pragmatism's novel language, James is not denying a world of objects independent of human minds.
As to the ultimate nature of such objects James is never clear (howcould he be?), nor need this ambiguity concern us. In The Meaning of Truth he tells us that his critics often say that he admits the existence of objects outside human minds whereas Dewey and Schiller do not. Not so, James says. "We all three absolutely agree in admitting the transcendency of the objects ... ." Again, he writes that Dewey's epistemology is meaningless unless one posits "independent entities." Dewey, James insists, "holds as firmly as I do to objects independent of judgments."
Does this mean that James and Dewey believed in a transcendent matter behind the "independent objects" of one's phaneron? Or did they, like Mill, define "independent objects" as regularities in the phaneron, as the permanent possibilities of sensation?
Dewey wrote often about this question, and with almost as much ambiguity as James. In Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, the most mature account of his epistemology, we read:
That stones, stars, trees, cats and dogs, etc., exist independently of the particular processes of a knower at a given time is as groun-dedly established fact of knowledge as anything can well be. For as sets of connected existential distinctions, they have emerged and been tested over and over again in the inquiries of individuals and of the race. In most cases it would be a gratuitous waste of energy to repeat the operations by which they have been instituted and confirmed. For the individual knower to suppose that he constructed them in his immediate mental processes is as absurd as it would be for him to suppose that he created the streets and houses he sees as he travels through a city.6
There is, therefore, not the slightest doubt that the leading pragmatists, as did Mill, firmly believed in objects independent of human minds. What remains is a subtler question. To account for such objects is it necessary to put beans behind their patterns, or should we simply recognize the mind-independence of the patterns and let it go at that? My impression is that Dewey, unlike James, took the Millian view. In an earlier paper on the topic, in Essays and Experimental Logic, Dewey argues that the question is meaningless. It cannot even be posed, he claims, without assuming the very existence of the external world one is trying to prove.
I think it fair to summarize Dewey's position as follows: We are, in one of his most frequently intoned phrases, organisms interacting withan environment. The interaction is what Dewey calls experience. Within our experience we quickly learn as children the bifurcation between subjective and objective. We can easily imagine squashing an imaginary stone in our hand. We know we cannot do this with a "real" stone. The reality of objects in our environment is taken for granted because an organism cannot interact with something that doesn't exist. Because the assumption of an external world is implicit in the very concept of interaction, the task of proving the reality of an external world never arises.
In a footnote Dewey refers to a book by Hans Reichenbach, Experience and Prediction, in which the existence of an external world is treated as a philosophical conundrum. "According to my view," Dewey writes, "the problem is artificially generated by the kind of premises I call epistemological. When we act and find environing things in stubborn opposition to our desires and efforts, the externality of the environment to the self is a direct constituent of direct experience."7
This third approach, the view that it is meaningless to ask if there is a substratum behind the phaneron was also defended by several members of the Vienna Circle, notably by Rudolf Carnap. Carnap's first major work, The Logical Structure of the World, was an attempt to show that on the basis of a single primitive relation, similarity, one can construct a consistent solipsistic language in which it is possible to make any empirical statement about the world that can be made in a realist language. Because the two languages are two ways of saying the same thing, there is no surplus empirical content to the language of Aristotelian realism. The decision over which language to adopt is a practical one. Which is the most convenient? Carnap soon opted strongly for the "thing" language, the realist language of science and common sense, not because it is truer, but because it is the most efficient language for talking about experience.8
Similar views have been taken by philosophers who call themselves phenomenologists, but they disagree on so many details, and write with such uniform opacity, that someone better informed than I should be trusted for insight into their opinions. Some look upon the external world as somehow a cooperative creation of independent minds. You'll find this "collective solipsism" caricatured in George Orwell's 1984 where all "truth" about the world and its history is manufactured by the political party in power. Some anthropologists whoare extreme cultural relativists have argued that the laws of science as well as all the theorems of mathematics have no reality apart from human cultures. Laws about gravity, and the fact that 2 + 3 = 5, are not truths that transcend human minds. They are aspects of a culture's folkways, like its traffic laws or its rules of etiquette.9
Not all members of the Vienna Circle went along with Carnap's convenience-of-language approach. Herbert Feigl was the first leading heretic to argue that realism has firmer support than the mere efficiency of its language. For some twenty years he and Carnap debated this question, each modifying his views slightly but remaining unconvinced. Outside the Vienna Circle most philosophers of science sided with Feigl.
When I was an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Chicago I attended a seminar given by Bertrand Russell. Carnap, then a professor at Chicago, went to these sessions and often engaged Russell in spirited debates which I only partly comprehended. On one occasion they got into a tangled argument over whether science should assert, as an ontological thesis, the reality of a world behind the phaneron. Carnap struggled to keep the argument technical, but Russell slyly turned it into a discussion of whether their respective wives (Russell's new wife was knitting and smiling in a back-row seat) existed in some ontologically real sense or should be regarded as mere logical fictions based on regularities in their husbands' phaneron.
The next day I happened to be in the campus post office, where faculty members came to pick up mail. Professor Charles Hartshorne, a whimsical philosopher from whom I was then taking a stimulating course, walked in, recognized me, and stopped to chat.
"Did you attend the Russell seminar yesterday?" he asked. "I was unable to go."
"Yes," I said. "It was exciting. Russell tried to persuade Carnap that his wife existed, but Carnap wouldn't admit it."
Hartshorne laughed. Then, by a quirk of fate, in walked Carnap to get his mail. Hartshorne introduced us (it was the first time I had met Carnap; years later we would collaborate on a book); then, to my profound embarrassment, Hartshorne said: "Mr. Gardner tells me that yesterday Russell tried to convince you your wife existed, but you wouldn't admit it."
Carnap did not smile. He glowered down at me and said, "But that was not the point at all."
Of course he was right. No sane philosopher doubts the existence of persons and objects outside his or her mind. One is fully justified, Carnap once wrote, in believing that the stars would continue on their courses if all minds disappeared. Philosophers differ only in what they mean when they say that the stars would so continue.
Carnap's final opinions can be found in his reply to critics in The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, a volume edited by Paul Schilpp. There Carnap explains why he rejects as meaningless such assertions as that the external world is "real," as well as the metaphysical claims of solipsism and numerous varieties of idealism and phenomenalism. Instead of taking metaphysical sides, Carnap sidesteps the controversies altogether by replacing them with questions about the usefulness of different languages in a specified context. If realism is taken as an ontological thesis, Carnap writes, he is not a realist. If realism is understood as a preference for a realistic language over a phenomenal one, in science, philosophy, and everyday speech, "then I am also a realist." The phenomenal language is rejected, not because it is false but because "it is an absolutely private language which can only be used for soliloquy, but not for common communication between two persons." Willard Van Orman Quine takes essentially the same position of metaphysical neutrality in his famous essay "On What There Is."
One of the most colorful arguments for a substratum behind the phaneron is Reichenbach's argument, alluded to briefly a few pages back. Taking a cue from Plato's cave, Reichenbach imagines that our universe consists entirely of a huge cubical box with translucent sides. Outside the box, birds are flying about, but all we can see are their shadows on the cube's top and sides. At first we think the shadows are the only realities. Eventually, after observing numerous regularities in the shifting shadow patterns, a Copernicus comes along to announce the bold hypothesis that the shadows are caused by objectsin this case, birdsthat exist outside the box.
Imagine the cube shrinking until it becomes the skin of our body. We now have, says Reichenbach, a useful analogy with human experience. It is obvious that all we know about the world outside of us is what we infer from what is inside our skin, or rather inside our skull where the sensory inputs are interpreted. But the regularities of those inputs, such as the patterns of flying birds on our retinas, suggest the hypothesis that outside our eyes is a world independent of our innerexperience. This hypothesis has enormous explanatory and predictive power. Moreover, it is a theory of extreme simplicity and therefore, by the principle of Occam's razor, preferable to more complex explanations. The hypothesis is confirmed empirically in the same way any other theory is confirmed. Indeed, it is better confirmed because all human beings, throughout all history, have confirmed it every minute of their waking life. We cannot say the hypothesis is absolutely certain, but surely it is as close to being certain as anything we have a right to believe.
It is not correct, Reichenbach goes on, to say that this hypothesis has no surplus value over a subjectivist view. In the first place it means something quite different to the person who affirms it. It is one thing to believe that the shadows of birds on the roof of Reichenbach's cube are all there is, quite another thing to believe they are shadows of something outside the cube, and still another thing to believe it meaningless to ask which point of view is true. We can never, of course, prove to a phenomenologist that outside birds generate the shadows. Even if we bore a hole in the roof, and through it see birds flapping about, he can still maintain that the birds are illusions caused by the shadows and therefore less real than the shadows. We can, however, assign to his theory a probability of being true that is indistinguishable from zero.
I am aware that the term "realism" has had so many different meanings in the history of philosophy that it has become almost useless unless it is defined with extreme precision. I am also aware that there have been many schools of realism, each with its preferred terminology for describing the complicated chain of causal events that go from an object "out there" to the object's perception by a mind.
Consider a familiar chain. You see on a television screen a lady wearing a red dress. Where is the color red? Obviously you can answer in a score of different ways, all correct, depending on how you define your terms. Even if you are in the studio, seeing the lady in the flesh, the causal chain is far from simple. Light shining on her dress is reflected in an intricate pattern of electromagnetic waves. The pattern is refracted by your corneas and eye lenses to produce an upside-down image on each of your retinas. These images are translated into electrical impulses which travel along optic nerves to both sides of your brain. Then, by a process nobody understands, the brain interprets this information and gives you the sensation of red. From one perspective, nature is a rich pattern of colors, sounds, and smells. From anotherperspective we can agree with Alfred North Whitehead:
The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly. 10
The lady's dress is made of atoms, which in turn are made of protons, electrons, and neutrons. What are they made of? Physics necessarily reaches a point at which the nature of matter plunges into darkness. Some particles may turn out to be made of quarks, but then one can wonder what quarks are made of. A dog knows a tree's structure in part, but knows nothing about atoms. A modern physicist knows a great deal about atoms, but there is always that cutoff point beyond which the tree's "stuff" continues to elude understanding. Is the ultimate nature of the stuff known to a god? Who can say? We cannot even understand the question except in the mistiest way. There may not even be an ultimate nature. For all we know, the structure of matter may have infinite levels like an infinite set of Oriental boxes.
In this book I use the term "realism" in the broad sense of a belief in the reality of something (the nature of which we leave in limbo) that is behind the phaneron, and which generates the phaneron and its weird regularities. This something is independent of human minds in the sense that it existed before there were human minds, and would exist if the human race vanished. I am not here concerned with realism as a view opposed to idealism, or realism in the Platonic sense of a view opposed to nominalism or conceptualism. As I shall use the word it is clear that even Berkeley and Royce were realists. The term of contrast is not "idealism" but "subjectivism." It is subjectivism either in the strong sense of denying that there are beans behind the phaneron, or in the weaker sense of regarding the bean question as meaningless and therefore not worth asking.
Let me summarize three major reasons for affirming realism. The first two can be accepted by a Deweyan or a Carnapian, but the third, which introduces emotional meaning, would (I believe) have been rejected by both Dewey and Carnap. Of course they could have accepted it in a sense, like accepting the fact that some persons prefer Mozart to Wagner, but I think they would have said that feelings are insufficient grounds for making what they would have considered a needless metaphysicalleap. My own view is that emotions are the only grounds for metaphysical leaps. In any case, it is the third reason that, for me, tips the scales toward realism as a justified ontological conviction.
1. The convenience argument. The language of realism is necessary for communication between minds. It explains why realism has been preferred by almost all philosophers, theologians, and scientists, and by all ordinary people.
Most people are "naïve realists" who suppose that when they look at a stone they see the actual stone, and there are philosophers who defend this as a preferable language for realism. But it is not difficult to explain to a naive realist something about modern theories of matter. After you have done so he or she will remain convinced that those waves and particles, out there and independent of our minds, are what make a stone look like a stone.
When G. E. Moore, in the course of a lecture, gave his famous "proof" of the external world by waving a hand and saying, "Here is one hand," then waving the other hand and saying, "Here is another," he was performing a symbolic act of common sense essentially the same as Johnson's kick of the stone. As Moore went on to say, the proof is just the same if you hold up a sock and say, "Here is a sock." To prove that objects existed in the past you need only add, "A moment ago I held up a sock." Moore was fully aware that he was not stating logical proofs. He was merely insisting, as was Johnson, that no sane person doubts the existence of rocks and socks as things independent of the mind.
If the big bang model of the universe is true, there is no way a mind (we leave aside the possibility of the bang being perceived by a god) could have witnessed the explosion. Note how needlessly complicated becomes the language of a subjectivist if he wants to explain why he believes that the universe existed three minutes after the bang. He is forced to say it existed because had there been a mind around somewhere, perhaps in a hyper-space-time, it could have observed the fireball. If he wants to explain why stars would continue to exist if all minds disappeared, he has to add that they would exist in the sense that if a mind existed it could see the stars. The subjectivist can say, "There is a penny in the box," only because he is sure that if the box is opened he will see the penny. He can say that the works inside a watch cause its hands to move, but only because he is sure that if he opened the watch he would see the wheels.
Philosophers call these "counterfactual statements." They lead into curious problems about the language of science that need not detain us. My point is simpler. The counterfactuals quoted above are needless complications. Ordinary people, even scientists and philosophers, do not hesitate to say the penny is in the box whether anyone opens it or not. Why scratch your left ear with your right hand? Not the least of the virtues of commonsense realism, from Aristotle to Karl Popper, is that it enables a philosopher who adopts it to converse about epistemology with ordinary people without mystifying and exasperating them.
2. The empirical argument. Realism is the simplest and best-confirmed hypothesis that accounts for the regularities of the phaneron.
Although Reichenbach opposed this argument to Carnap's metaphysical neutrality, Carnap was willing to accept it in a sense. Replying to critics in The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, he wrote:
Later, Reichenbach gave to the thesis of realism an interpretation in scientific terms, as asserting the possibility of induction and prediction; a similar interpretation was proposed by Feigl. On the basis of these interpretations, the thesis is, of course, meaningful; in this version, it is a synthetic, empirical statement about a certain structural property of the world. I am doubtful, however, whether it is advisable to give to old theses and controversies a meaning by reinterpretation; I have similar doubts about Quine's reinterpretation of the term "nominalism."11
I take this to mean that Carnap had no quarrel with the claim that realism has a surplus value provided realism is taken as an empirical hypothesis rather than an ontological assertion. From Carnap's perspective, Reichenbach's cube argument simply strengthens the overwhelming convenience of the realist language. From Reichenbach's perspective, when convenience becomes that overwhelming, one has good grounds for an ontological leap. Now that we have photographed craters on the far side of the moon, no one hesitates to say that those craters exist. If the hypothesis that objects exist outside the phaneron is supported by even more convincing empirical evidence, why not embrace realism in an ontological sense?
3. The emotive argument. An ontological commitment to realism has a strong and salutary emotional effect on those who make it.
As I will stress in later chapters, I agree with William James that emotional meanings play fundamental roles in decisions about philosophical questions. I agree with James that in the absence of compelling counterarguments, emotions can be legitimate grounds for metaphysical jumps.
Realism, I am persuaded, reflects a healthy attitude toward oneself and others, and humility before the impenetrable mystery of being. Subjectivism reflects a narcissism which in extreme form can lead to madness. Let me speak plainly. There is a monstrous difference between thinking of another person as ontologically real, existing in his or her own right, and thinking of that person as a useful construct based on the patterns of your phaneron. There is almost as huge an emotional difference between the realist's belief and the pale gray view which sees no difference between the languages of realism and phenomenalism except one of efficiency. Even an authentic solipsist, if trained in philosophy, could accept the enormous convenience of the realist language. The convenience would simply underscore the incredible subtlety and complexity of his illusion.
It is easier to doubt matter, said James in his Psychology, than to doubt other minds. "We need them too much ... . A psychic solipsism is too hideous a mockery of our wants ... ." The belief that it is useful or convenient to assume that other people exist is, as Bertrand Russell wrote, "not enough to allay my sense of loneliness ... . For what I desire is not that the belief in solipsism should be false in the pragmatic sense, but that other people should in fact exist."12 Yet all the arguments about the lack of a need for a substratum behind our perceptions of stones apply with equal force to our perceptions of human beings.
Russell once spoke on solipsism at a meeting chaired by Whitehead. As Russell tells it in his autobiography, he said he could not believe he had written those parts of Whitehead's books which he (Russell) could not understand, although he could find no way to prove he hadn't. He meant, of course, no logical proof. But there are many things, indeed the most important things, that a living person of flesh and bone is compelled to believe for emotional reasonscall it animal instinct if you prefer. One of them is the existence of other persons on an ontological level, a level that goes beyond the patterns of the phaneron.
The point is worth stressing because we live at a time when there is an upsurge of public interest in the paranormal, sometimes joined toan interest in Hindu philosophies that regard the universe as maya, a set of illusions created by a god. Since our minds are at one with the Supreme Mind, it follows that we are partly responsible for the universe's existence and its structure. This sense of the physical world's unreality is embodied in several native religions (Christian Science for one) and in the popularity of such recent books as those by Carlos Castaneda about his imaginary guru Don Juan. In Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull a bird raises its consciousness so high that it can fly right through a mountain as if it weren't there. In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind extraterrestrial spaceships flit back and forth through a mesa. A small number of eminent physicists, Eugene Wigner for example, believe that properties of the universe, perhaps its very existence, depend in some subtle way upon its perception by conscious minds. Since these opinions derive from certain technicalities in quantum mechanics, I will say no more about them here.13
Although there has never been a sane solipsist, the doctrine often haunts young minds. G. K. Chesterton is a case in point. In his autobiography he writes about a period in his youth during which the notion that maybe nothing existed except himself and his own phaneron had caused him considerable anguish. He later became a realist, and there are many places in his writings where he warns against the psychic dangers of solipsistic speculation. The epigraph heading this chapter is a couplet from his poem "The Mirror of Madmen." Another vivid defense of realism is "Wonder and the Wooden Post," an essay in Chesterton's posthumous book, The Coloured Lands. But nowhere did GK defend his realism with more passionate intensity than in a story called "The Crime of Gabriel Gale." It can be found in The Poet and the Lunatics, my favorite among GK's many collections of mystery stories about detectives other than Father Brown.
Since this book may be hard to come by, here is a brief summary of the story's plot. Gabriel Gale, poet, artist, and detective, is accused of a terrible crime. It seems that on a wild and stormy night Gale had thrown a rope around the neck of a young man who was preparing for the Anglican ministry. After dragging the poor fellow into a wood, Gale pinned him for the night against a tree by forcing the two prongs of a large pitchfork into the trunk on either side of the man's neck. After Gale is arrested for attempted murder, he suggests to the police that they obtain the opinion of his victim.
The surprising reply comes by telegraph: "Can never be sufficiently grateful to Gale for his great kindness which more than saved my life."
It turns out that the young man had been going through the same insane phase that had tormented GK in his youth. He was on the verge of believing that his phaneron did not depend on anything that was not entirely inside his head. Gabriel Gale, always sensitive to the psychoses of others (having felt most of them himself), had realized that the man's mind was near the snapping point. Gale's remedy was radical. By pinning the man to the tree he had convinced him, not by logic (no one is ever convinced by logic of anything important) but by an overpowering experience. He found himelf firmly bound to something that his mind could in no way modify.
"We are all tied to trees and pinned with pitchforks," Gale tells the half-comprehending police. "And as long as these are solid we know the stars will stand and the hills will not melt at our word. Can't you imagine the huge tide of healthy relief and thanks, like a hymn of praise from all nature, that went up from that captive nailed to the tree, when he had wrestled till the dawn and received at last the great and glorious news; the news that he was only a man?"
The story ends when the man, now a curate, remarks casually to an atheist, "God wants you to play the game."
"How do you know what God wants?" asks the atheist. "You never were God were you?"
"Yes," says the clergyman in a queer voice. "I was God once for about fourteen hours. But I gave it up. I found it was too much of a strain."14
THE WHYS OF A PHILOSOPHICAL SCRIVENER. Copyright © 1983, 1999 by Martin Gardner. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.