Solipsism and Atheism


Here, I have a two-for-one post, that I’m trying to push out the door between the dying gasps of my DSL modem.

First, I got this somewhat cryptic question.

Hello, what is your view on Solipsism, and how do I overcome it?

This was my response.

I’m assuming we’re talking about the general notion that we can only know that our own minds exist.

My opinion on the topic hinges mostly on what’s meant by “know”. In everyday language, and even in science, knowledge doesn’t require absolute proof. If you say, “I know that my car keys are in the kitchen”, you’re not making an assertion that you regard as absolutely true. You know they’re in the kitchen, because the evidence showed that to be true very recently.

It’s reasonable to say you know where they are.

Some people get stuck on this requirement that something be absolutely proved… but most people don’t require absolute proof that their truck won’t explode the next time it’s ran, or that they won’t be struck by a meteor when they walk outside. You can go ahead and leave the house, feel confident that you’re fine, and most likely be right.

When it comes to the existence of other minds, there’s a few things that clue me in. There’s these other entities/things that have knowledge that I don’t. They take actions that I can’t predict, or are out of my control. These actions are very similar to the types of actions I would take, as a mind controlling a body.

I think some may object, saying that a computer could do these things, but my view is that the human mind isn’t much more than an elaborate, biological computer. An electronic computer, then, is a very primitive mind. I see the two as largely in the same category.

Occam’s Razor says that the simplest answer, that accounts for the most data, with the fewest assumptions, is the most likely answer to be true. To say that these other entities don’t have minds, while being able to accomplish mind-like tasks, implies that there’s additional factors added to the scenario… additional assumptions. The easiest, readily available answer here is that other minds simply do exist.

I think there’s sufficient evidence to at least vaguely warrant as “knowledge”, that these minds exist, particularly when we can test that hypothesis. How would a mind react to different stimuli or situations?

In regards to overcoming it, I don’t believe there’s much to overcome. If you want a solution to “hard” solipsism – the notion that we can’t absolute prove we’re not a brain in a vat – I can’t help you there. Whether we (or just you) are brains in vats, or not, this thing we’re calling “reality” still does seem to operate by some set of rules, and we can still gain knowledge about what those rules are.

That’s perhaps an earful, but it basically my position.

I hope that helps.

I don’t know that my thoughts on this are all that great. I’m trying to focus on the key concepts here… what does it mean for us to “know” something… or whether “knowledge” requires absolute certainty.

Solipsism seems like a largely large red herring, where someone goes from being functional and practical, do barreling off the deep end.

While this particular reader didn’t say it, this mock conversation is usually how this goes:

“There’s a god!”

“Yeah? Where’s your evidence?”

“I, uh…”

“Okay, so I don’t accept your claim”

“Yes, but, can you prove that other minds exist. CAN YOU PROVE THAT REALITY EXISTS”

Why are we even going there? You don’t have to have an existential crisis because I don’t just automatically believe what you say without sufficient evidence. If I told you that I own an invisible, firebreathing dragon, you’d be rational to dismiss that claim if I had to evidence to back it up. I’m just applying the same to you.

We can, of course, talk about the standards of evidence, and basics of epistemology… but solipsism seems to just be hurled at us as some kind of “gotchya”.


My second thing I’d like to say into the internet is something I’m somewhat stealing from someone else, but am building upon it a little bit.

We occasionally get people telling us, as atheists, that “we don’t have a word for people who don’t believe in leprechauns.

You know what? Sure, I’ll grant that.

Do you know what else we don’t have? We don’t have a word for people who are agnostic about leprechauns. Also, and more importantly, we don’t have a word for people who do believe in leprechauns (I think I’m about to be corrected on that).

On the other hand, not only do we have a word for people who do believe in god(s), but we have separate words for different kinds of those beliefs. Not only that, we have separate words for people who have different variations of those kinds of beliefs… and variations of variations of those kinds of beliefs (“Southern Baptist Christian Monotheist”).

So if these words are so important to warrant an impossible flowchart of labels, and if these words are so important as to warrant rendering a political candidate unelectable… why can’t we have our word?

What’s your problem with that? This analogy to leprechauns has cherry picked an inconsequential position for comparison, unlike theism.



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