From time to time, I am asked how I would respond to various skeptical truth claims such as idealism, anti-realism, or solipsism. Just the other day, I received an email asking me the solipsist question. The interesting thing about this questioner is that they are seriously contemplating that they may be the only mind that exists. In other words, for them the question isn’t simply an intellectual one but an existential one.
I’ve addressed the question before. (See this article.) However, in this article I’m going to offer not a general response but rather one tailored to the grounds provided by the questioner for considering the hypothesis. Here’s what the individual wrote (which I share with permission):
“Recently I’ve come across the idea that only one single mind exist, being mine. I understand there are not many reasons to believe this, however, certain coincidences make me believe so. Specifically, coincidences that make me feel in control. Like, for example, the other day, I was talking about the actor and comedian Chevy Chase with my friend, and from across the restaurant we heard someone yell that exact name, definitely not misheard. Many of these happen often making me think maybe everything I see is a projection of what is in my own head. How can I help separate myself from this idea and convince myself it’s not true?”
This individual also shared that they have a psychiatric diagnosis which I will not disclose. However, I will begin by saying that the way the medical diagnosis manifests is consistent with a person suddenly finding a prima facie implausible skeptical scenario like solipsism to be very plausible. At this point, we should highlight two distinct and mutually reinforcing points: first, according to Ockham’s razor, the simpler explanation is the preferred one. And it is surely a simpler explanation that solipsism is false and the newly discovered allure of the view is a manifestation of the psychiatric diagnosis rather than that solipsism is, in fact, true. Second, the presence of the psychiatric condition provides an undercutting defeater for the deliverances of one’s intuitions regarding prima facie implausible skeptical theses like solipsism. To unpack what I mean, consider an analogy:
Jones has a tendency to experience auditory hallucinations. Then one day Jones believes he hears another person whispering to him when he is alone in a large house. Jones’ clinical diagnosis undercuts the ground he has to accept that he is hearing a genuine voice. Consequently, unless there is independent evidence provided for the voice (e.g. EVP recording), he ought to conclude that the voice was hallucinatory.
Similarly, unless our questioner has independent grounds to accept solipsism, the questioner should conclude that the plausibility and persistence of the thesis is a manifestation of the clinical diagnosis rather than a real-world tracking of the truth.
The questioner does actually provide some independent evidence to support the intuitive appeal of the solipsist hypothesis. That evidence is that the questioner experiences apparent coincidences such as hearing someone call out “Chevy Chase” just when the questioner is referencing the actor.
What the questioner is describing is commonly called synchronicity. I have my own fascinating, delightful, and haunting list of synchronous experiences. See for example, my articles “My Latest Cases of Synchronicity” and “Synchronicity in Margaritaville.” In the “Margaritaville” case, I was just about to eat a piece of sponge cake when Jimmy Buffet sang “Nibblin’ on sponge cake” (the first line of “Margaritaville”) on the radio. What a bizarre coincidence!
Or is it more than that?
Among the other cases I have experienced, there was the time when I was looking for a book and I failed to find it on the shelf. Then as I left the room, that very book suddenly fell off the shelf. And there is the fact that I have noticed over the years multiple instances where streetlights turn off the second I walk under them . In the former case, the thought occurred to me that I could have posited a spirit agency that knocked the book off the shelf (source). In the latter case, the thought has occurred to me (as it has occurred to many others) that the phenomenon in question is a manifestation of psychic power (source).
However, in cases like these chance seems to me to be a simpler and more plausible explanation. And I’m certainly not the only person to think this. Mathematician John Littlewood famously proposed what is called Littlewood’s Law which proposes that extremely unlikely and seemingly significant events should occur on a fairly regular basis to us all: he suggests a sort of “miracle” about once a month. But that is nothing more than chance at play combined with our penchant to find meaning and patterns where none exists.
This brings me back to the questioner’s evidence. It seems to me that Ockham’s Razor wins the day on this one: chance explained in terms of Littlewood’s Law is more than adequate to explain the kind of evidence the questioner has proposed. Needless to say, chance is far simpler than solipsism.