The Solipsist

On the face of it, it’s fairly simple to discover whether a person is conscious at a given time or not. When people are conscious, they tend to move, talk, and respond to external stimuli such as kicks, pricks, pinches and punches. When people are unconscious, they tend to remain stationary and relatively quiet, they don’t respond, at least in the normal way to external stimuli, they fall over when forcibly propped against walls, and so on. We can only say ‘tend to’ since there are grey areas like sleepwalking or daydreaming. But these do not alter the fact that there are many cases in which no doubt involved, and some symptoms of consciousness which are overwhelmingly reliable. In no sense are we always, or even often, in the dark about whether a human being is conscious.

But let us now ask: what status does this certainty have? We must remind ourselves of an important distinction between two ways in which the word ‘certain’ is used. In one way of using it, the certainty lies in the mind of the person who is certain of the thing in question. For example, I am certain that I have a pipe in my jacket pocket, though I recognise that it is possible that I am mistaken. My turning out to be mistaken would not convince me that I had not been certain of it at all. In another way of using it, the certainty lies in the fact itself: it is certain because it could not be otherwise

Now in which sense are we certain, at least in the clearest, most central cases, that if people talk, respond, move about without bumping into things etc., then they are in fact conscious? It seems that it cannot be the latter, stronger sense, since it is possible (i.e. involves no contradiction) to imagine just such physical creatures which do all these things and yet are not conscious, but have no point of view on the world, have an ‘outside’ but no ‘inside’. We can imagine, in other words, all these kinds of behaviour being exhibited without there being ‘anyone at home’.

But if we must accept that our certainty that other people are conscious is only a matter of being ‘certain in our own minds’, then there is a logical gap between the premise (the fact that such behaviour is exhibited) and the conclusion (that consciousness is present). And if there is such a gap between the evidence and what is the evidence for, then, it may be argued, there is room for doubt. And if there is room for doubt, then surely we must not regard as totally unreasonable, a person who seriously thinks there are no other minds in his world than his own – who really believes that other people are automata whose characteristics are exhausted by the physical aspect they present, or could present to him. A person takes this view is a solipsist…

Of course, how reasonable we think the solipsist’s position to be must depend upon how good we think the evidence is for the consciousness of other people…We will look at an even stronger argument for the solipsist, to the effect that the ‘evidence’ for other people’s consciousness is not just inconclusive, but is really no evidence  at all. (pp16-18)

Brown.G (1989) Minds, Brains and Machines. Bristol Classical Press. Bristol


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