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Why the World Is Not My Idea ... or George’s


Ralph Estling

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 22.2, March / April 1998

Dear George,

Thank you for your letter of the 11th. Yes, the fact that things exist is a bit of a problem. Still, your argument that existence is an enigma, inexplicable, is no reason to believe it’s all a miracle. Since humans first evolved, they have found countless enigmas and inexplicable things that, over the centuries, have been explained, and always without the need for miracles. Miracles have certainly been invoked, but they were never really necessary. Why things exist, why there is something, a universe for example, rather than nothing, is a question that has been asked for many thousands of years. The philosopher Leibniz asked it and then gave an answer, but it slips my mind now what it was, though it had something to do with God. Enigmas and inexplicable questions still exist, but given time, research, and intelligent surmise, there’s no reason to insist they never can be answered in a rational way. We've no cause to assume that, just because something is unanswerable right now, it will be eternally unanswerable. The history of the human race indicates very much the opposite. There is no need (except in ourselves perhaps) to fall back on the miraculous. This is what the history of human thought teaches us.

You have a funny idea of what hubris is. You claim that our minds create all that exists, we create reality by thinking, and when I deny this and say reality is already out there and doesn't need you or me or anyone to make it real, you say I show hubris. You're right, it’s not possible to prove that the universe is not merely a figment of my imagination, or yours, or somebody else’s. At least not while that person is alive. But if that person then dies, and the universe continues to exist, then I think we have a pretty good answer. So I'll make this contract with you: If the universe is my personal creation and I die before you and, as a result, the universe blinks out of existence and is never seen or heard of again, you've won. On the other hand, if you say the universe is a figment of your imagination and you die first and reality just goes on as if nothing has happened, then I win the bet.

Solipsism, like most forms of schizophrenia, can never be argued away; any resourceful schizophrenic can always maintain he can't be proven wrong. As a matter of fact, he can, quite easily. All you need do is beat the hell out of him and then ask why, if the world is his creation, he created it in such a way that he allows himself to have the hell beaten out of him. Or why does he have a toothache? Or piles? Or have all kinds of unpleasant things happen to him, such as getting locked up in an asylum? Of course, if your solipsist is also a masochist, you have a problem.

So I guess the best solution is to believe (until you have some good reason not to) that there is a physical universe out there, outside of our thoughts about it. Look at it this way: If the universe is your thought, your idea, your creation, then why have you created such a disagreeable fellow as I to argue with you and upset you so? Seems pretty illogical, if you ask me. So, yes, I have thought over the possibility that the universe is merely somebody’s idea, and I've come to the conclusion that the notion doesn't make much sense, even within its own frame of logic. Something which, even by its own internal rules of consistency, doesn't add up, is not to be given much credence, or much of our time. Our time is limited, and growing more limited by the hour. It’s not to be wasted. Once it’s finished, there won't be any more.

No, since you ask, I don't think that when all the data are in, we'll find that matter and spirit are the same thing. I'm reasonably sure that mind and matter are the same thing, that what we call mind is a manifestation of the functioning of the brain. But I'm reasonably sure that “All” is not “Mind.” All is space, time, matter, and energy. True, without mind, nothing can be discerned. But that doesn't mean that nothing is there. It’s like the old riddle: If a tree falls and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer is quite obvious: No, there’s no sound, as sound is a product of waves of air hitting a tympanic membrane and then being transported to a brain. But there are sound waves. These are intrinsic and have nothing to do with our minds, so far as their existence goes. Existence exists; it doesn't need us as a crutch.

Hubris? Well, I'm quite sure that when I die, the universe will continue to go its merry way, just as if nothing had happened. After all, it’s been going its merry way for fifteen billion years or so before I was born. Of course, I could argue, as Bertrand Russell did, that the universe came into existence five minutes ago, courtesy of my mind, complete with my dirty socks in the laundry hamper, and then challenge you, and everybody else, to prove me wrong. But, on reflection, I think I'll leave things as they are and just go on pretending that there really is reality out there that I can, if I want to, discern, and let it go at that.

Yes, there’s no getting around the fact that I prefer reason (or what I take to be reason) to what I take to be nonsense. Still, I have to insist once again that no one can disprove a negative (you accuse me of not having “an iota of proof in the opposite direction”). Rational argument requires that the proposer of an idea produce evidence for the idea, not that the rest of the world produce evidence against it; although, of course, if others do happen to have evidence against it, that certainly helps hit it on the head. But this so-called negative evidence isn't required. I cannot prove that there aren't eleven purple and green leprechauns, totally invisible, totally inaudible, totally beyond any sensual experience, even that which is enhanced by machines, right here in my study, cavorting around completely beyond my range of perception. But reason leads me to believe that there aren't, and that the idea there might be, until proven otherwise, is extravagant, unnecessary, and not required.

And this is the best way I know of for separating sanity from insanity. Always assuming we want to.



Ralph Estling

The late Ralph Estling (1930–2007) was a prolific writer, with many articles published in the British magazine New Scientist and the Skeptical Inquirer.