Thursday, November 4, 2010

Solipsism and Agnosticism

Most everyone has heard of solipsism, even if he or she doesn't know what the word means.  Anyone who has watched the Matrix movies has been introduced to the concept.  The basic idea is that we all live in our heads and only in our heads, and we don't have any way of knowing if the world we sense is "truly real".

Our senses report data to our brains, but we don't really know if what our brains perceive is a reality that is objectively true.  This is not just because our senses and our brains are imperfect, which they are.  It is because we have no way of knowing what is real in an absolute sense because we have no absolute reference point by which to judge.  There is always the possibility that our reality is some sort of dream or hallucination that is being imposed on us by someone or something that lives in a reality that is "actually real" (or at least more so than ours).

A consideration of the implications of solipsism tells us that we can never "know" anything with absolute certainty.  There is always some possibility that we are wrong, even if that possibility is very, very remote.  The question that faces us then, as we go about our lives trying to make important decisions, is choosing the degree of certainty that we are comfortable with when deciding that we "know" something.

The religious continually use solipsistic reasoning to try to corner atheists into thinking we are actually agnostic.  Their goal is to pressure most atheists into admitting doubt and thus make religious beliefs seem respectable.  They also wish to paint atheists into the "strong atheism" corner--to get them to take the seemingly unreasonable and affirmative position that they are 100% certain that there is no god.  Consequently, they present the "doubt" brought on by a consideration of solipsism and complete, affirmative certainty as the only two options.  Either admit you are agnostic or you are a "strong atheist" claiming certainty that god doesn't exist.

They do this by confusing the question of the universe's origins with the question of god's existence.  These are obviously two different questions to any objective, logical thinker.  To the religious, however, they are the same question because in their minds they have already accepted the idea that god is the only possible explanation.  They accept it so thoroughly that they are not even aware that they are confusing the two questions and that doing so shows they are engaging in circular reasoning.

The reason the religious try to make non-believers choose between "agnostic" or a "strong atheist" is to make it easier for believers to argue that they do not bear the burden of proof.  They are desperate to get out from under this burden because they know they cannot bear it in any way.  If a non-believer makes the mistake of choosing one of these two options in this false dichotomy, then he or she has implicitly taken on the burden of proof.

Any argument based on solipsism or an attempt to get you to say you are agnostic--such as by calling atheism a religion--has this goal in mind.   But, the argument fails for many of the same reasons that the argument from existence fails.  The lack of evidence for an extraordinary proposition that cannot be disproved meets whatever burden of proof we have.  All atheists should make this point whenever the burden of proof comes up as an issue in a debate: 

"The complete lack of evidence for such an extraordinary proposition meets whatever burden of proof we atheists have."

Clarifications can be added either before or after that statement: 

"The existence of god cannot be disproved--ever."


"The god hypothesis is essentially a belief in magic.  Such an extraordinary proposition needs to be proved by those who believe in it." 

One of the good things about solipsism/agnosticism based arguments is that you can turn their reasoning on them because it applies with equal validity to every proposition imaginable.

For example:  If god does exist in some fashion, then even he cannot know for absolute certainty that he exists and is not merely a hallucination or magically constructed phantasm made by another, greater magical being. The rather obvious reason for this is that there is no objectively verifiable standard for "absolute certainty".

If one of them tries this argument with you, you can say:

"But, using your reasoning, even god himself, if he existed, would be agnostic as to his own existence.  Because there is an extremely remote possibility that he is merely the imaginary construct of some other being in some plane of existence that is more "real" than his own."

The religious would define agnosticism with reference to the most ridiculous reaches of solipsism, which stretches the concept to and beyond its breaking point.  Under that definition, I would have to say that I am agnostic as to the question of whether I am really sitting in my office chair typing on my computer keyboard because there is a chance, however slim, that I might be just imagining it.

Such an all-encompassing definition renders the term "agnosticism" meaningless--except to the extent that you can use it as armor to fend off the horrible social pressures exerted on us non-believers by the theists. If you can't bring yourself to accept the ultimate intellectual violation and simply join the deluded, then, rather than face their wrath, you can use the "agnostic" label as a subterfuge that allows you to allow them to save face.

At the end of Orwell's "1984" the protagonist had his ability to think independently so thoroughly destroyed that he couldn't even bring himself to admit that he knew 2 plus 2 equals 4. Well, this sort of agnosticism is similar to that scenario. We all know that 2 plus 2 equals 4, but there is an infinitesimal chance that we are wrong. After all, how do we know that we really exist? How do we know that the universe we live in is real and that we have observed its rules correctly? Where is the ultimate mathematical yardstick by which we can judge the correctness of our calculations? How can we ever know that we have achieved a true observation? If knowing requires some absolute, objective standard be found and met, then we can never "know" anything.

Solipsism is a "trick" of philosophy.  It is a tool used to teach the importance of epistemology, ontology, open-mindedness regarding new evidence, and skepticism.  It's implications, when taken seriously as the religious would have us do, however, are not worthy of consideration.  It can be very quickly reduced to the absurd.

What I am getting at is that the true lesson of solipsism is that there is no such "absolute" standard and that we don't need to find it and meet it in order to say that we know something. Those who say we can never know anything, have taken the absurd negative example of solipsism seriously and thus mistaken the Socratic question for the lesson they were meant to learn from the futility of trying to answer it.

Some things are simply beyond proof. The nonexistence of all gods is one of those things because the god concept is far too malleable (as is any concept with "magic" at its core) to be disproved empirically. Thus, the "proof" can only consist of 1. a lack of evidence for the positive, opposite hypothesis; 2. the mountains of evidence showing that gods are man-made constructs (the clear history of fakes, the sheer impossibility of the claimed entity); and 3. the fact that logic leads inexorably from these observations to the conclusion that gods don't exist.

When there is no evidence at all for a thing, then it almost certainly doesn't exist (with the exception of probable variations of similar things that have been proven to exist--i.e., previously unknown types of flora or fauna that are within normal parameters of form and function). There is no evidence for any god nor for any magical entity of any sort. The claimed attributes are extremely improbable--so much so that one should require not just evidence but more evidence than normal for such claims. Everyone knows that the improbable magical creatures in the Harry Potter books don't exist, even though disproving their existence would be almost as hard as disproving the existence of gods. It is only when the question of gods comes up that people suddenly lose their ability or their will to think logically.

As I have pointed out before, the lack of evidence for gods meets whatever burden of proof required to conclude they don't exist.  Reserving judgment, calling yourself agnostic implies that you think you have the burden of proving conclusively that gods don't exist, even though it is literally not possible to do that.  I think that is exactly why the religious try so hard to get atheists to say they are agnostic--so they can get us to implicitly accept that we have the burden of proof.

If you click on this link, it will take you to a very good defenses of agnosticism.  The author does a very good job of defending and explaining his position, but I can't help but see that he has fallen into the trap of the theists.

The author doesn't distinguish between the question of the origins of the universe and the issue of whether the god hypothesis has merit.  Whenever this happens, whether you are speaking to a believer or an agnostic, you can say:

"We don't know how the universe came to be, but being agnostic on the question of the universe's origins doesn't mean you have to be agnostic on the question of whether "an invisible magic man in the sky did it" is a reasonable theory."

The author also implicitly accepts that he has the burden of proof with regard to the god hypothesis and must meet it before declaring himself an atheist.  And, most telling, he ends by saying that he calls himself agnostic because that is what makes him most comfortable--even though he is about a certain as anyone that there is no god.  Obviously, this lack of comfort level helps explain why he embraces that label and fails to see the problems with his reasoning.

I am repeating myself here, so I will simply rephrase my primary points on this subject:

1. The point of solipsism isn't that we can't know anything but that knowing something requires less than an absolute certainty that we can't define in any event.

2. Atheism is not a claim to absolute knowledge. One can reach a conclusion without closing one's mind. (Though in some cases, such as creationism, one might well conclude that re-examining the subject repeatedly is worse than a waste of time).

3. A lack of empirical evidence for a thing is evidence (though not conclusive proof) that the thing doesn't exist.

4. If the thing is also highly improbable and not subject to disproof, that lack of evidence is all one will ever have and is sufficient to reach a conclusion.

I can more than understand why one would call oneself an agnostic when dealing with religious people. I have done it myself on numerous occasions. But non-believers should resort to this sort of tactic only when necessary for their self-protection.  Otherwise, the implication is that atheists have the burden of proof, which is simply not true.


  1. This is very interesting! I have always considered myself an agnostic atheist rather than a strong atheist because my criterion for knowledge is absolute certitude.

    However, I disagree that asserting I am an agnostic atheist shifts the burden of proof onto me in a religious argument. I simply say that there is no good reason to believe in God. Admitting that the idea of God is an extravagant possibility does not contradict my claim. "The lack of evidence for an extraordinary proposition that cannot be disproved meets whatever burden of proof we have," especially if we are defending my said assertion. The theist still has to provide arguments and/or evidence to support their claim.

    Secondly, solipsism does not suggest that we cannot know anything. For instance, it is still possible to be certain of one's own existence. I believe it was Descartes who said, "I think, therefore I am." In addition, it's possible to absolutely know that you don't absolutely know anything besides your own existence. Thus, there is two absolute truths of which everyone can be sure.

    In sum, the vast improbability of God is enough to disregard the idea of God, and it is the job of the theist to prove me wrong despite my lack of certitude.

  2. Excellent comment, Jet. I just want to add a couple of points. My point wasn't that calling oneself agnostic shifted the burden of proof. My point was that if you do call yourself agnostic, then you have implicitly accepted the idea that you have a burden of proof and that you can't meet it. I also made the point that I think this is an incorrect assumption because the non-believer's burden has been met in this instance by the lack of evidence for god.
    Second, Descartes' assertion "cogito ergo sum" is often said to be a partial refutation of solipsism and proof that one can be certain of one's own existence, but it actually proves only that Descartes decided to set his own standards with regard to sufficiency of proof on that score. That is, he decided that his apparent awareness of his own thoughts was sufficient to prove his existence. It can mean no more than that because it does not even propose any sort of absolute standard by which to judge evidence of existence.

  3. In addition to Atheism and Agnosticism, there is a third option. Apatheism. It doesn't matter whether or not God exists. There is also "Apathetic Agnostic." "We don't know and we don't care."