It is likely that many people have, perhaps as some point in their lives, pondered the existence of the world of which they perceive through their senses. This world being the one full of trees, animals, and people that we can observe with our own two eyes, and touch with our hands. Is such a world really out there? Does it exist? Or is it an illusion, and nothing but a figment of our own imaginations? One might have, in fact, dismissed these questions as arbitrary, silly, or just down right irrational, “Well, obviously it exists. I can see it!” Others, however, might lose sleep over such questions while also wondering if they are alone in their contemplation. If you are this person you are far from alone because this has been the platform for a good deal of philosophical discussion (1). It is a question that some of the most gifted intellectuals have disagreed on.
It is important to observe the fact the world we believe we see is the result of sense data that has been received from our brain’s sense organs. Our brain then organizes this data in such a way as to give us the perception of objects in the world (chairs, tables, cars etc.). The question that obviously follows then is whether or not those images are representative of what actually exists externally to our own minds (if anything exists there at all). The other problem here is that if we tried to prove that the external world exists using our minds (how else would we go about doing that if we didn’t use our minds?) we’d rightly be accused of arguing in a circle (2). We would essentially be using our minds to vouch for our minds. We cannot get outside of our own minds, so to speak; philosopher Thomas Nagel, aware of this dilemma, writes that “If you try to prove the reliability of your impressions by appealing to your impressions, you’re arguing in a circle and won’t get anywhere” (3). Given this fact, the question pertaining to the justification of our belief that the external world really does exist all of a sudden becomes a very good one.
I’d also contend that this question is very important, as well as the conclusions that we come to. How so?
For a start, it is likely that the solipsist, one who does not believe in the existence of the external world, would be influenced by his solipsism and therefore approach important questions differently than if he were an objective realist (one who does believe in the existence of the external world). Our philosophies undoubtedly have an influence on our lives, both consciously and unconsciously. Also think of the impact that this would have on modern physics. Modern physics works on the assumption that the physical world and its laws, of which it studies, exists, and that this world is also a broad, interrelated network of forces that operates on matter. The scientist probably wouldn’t fancy the idea that all of his hard scientific work and effort is nothing but an illusion brought on by his or her own imagination. Theologically, this is crucial too. Did God, as Christians and Jews believe, actually create the world? To “create” is to essentially assert that something was actually made, especially in the physical, material sense. There is far more we’d need to consider when it comes to the relationship between solipsism and theology, a topic of its own that we will consider in the future.
Now, technically speaking, solipsism cannot be disproved. There is no evidence that could be presented against it that couldn’t be dismissed by the solipsist on the ground that the skeptic and his purported evidence aren’t the result of the solipsist’s own imagination. But although we can’t disprove this position we can find it unpersuasive, and the reasons for believing otherwise more persuasive.
The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) is particularly helpful. He argued that although we can’t ever be absolutely certain, it is more likely than not that the external world does exist. This, he argued, can be know through our sensory experience (4). Firstly, our human experience overwhelming attests to it. When, for example, I look at the sunset over the mountain, I cannot help observe all kinds of things. Such things come to all of us unavoidably, and our experience of them is irresistible. Contemporary philosopher William Lane Craig agrees saying that “we have a clear perception of a world of physical objects and in the absence of any reason to doubt our perception of the external world we are rational in believing that there is a world of physical objects out there” (5). Locke also made the argument that our senses all corroborate one another. For instance, if I see a tree, and doubt that it is there, I can still verify its presence through using my other senses. If, for example, I touch it, it feels hard, rough, and sharp at edges. I can likewise hear the wind blowing through its leaves and branches. I can also smell it if I tried hard enough. All these senses come together in unison in a way that supports the conclusion that there is an external world. None of these reasons prove it, but its gives one grounds to believe it.
Craig, moreover, argues that our belief in the external world is what philosophers refer to as a properly basic belief (it is interesting to know that 81.6% of western philosophers surveyed do believe that the external world exists) (6). These “are beliefs that are not founded upon any deeper proof or argument but they are simply given to you in your experience of the world, and you are rational to accept them unless you have some kind of a defeater, some kind of a reason, to doubt them” (7).
Thus, as Craig rightfully contends, the onus is on the skeptic to provide a defeater given that our overwhelming human experience affirms the existence of the external world. Craig admits that we cannot have absolute certainty, after all, absolutely certainty simply does not exist for most things in life, especially empirically unverifiable metaphysical truths that we all take for granted (that the universe wasn’t created five minutes ago with the appearance of age, that other minds other than my own exist, the laws of logic etc.). Rather, until we have reason to believe otherwise, we are warranted in holding to the belief.
So, does the external world exist? Quite likely.
1. Miller, A. 2002. Realism. Available.
2. Greco, J. 2009. Two Skeptical Arguments. Available.
3. Nagel, T. How Do We Know Anything? Available.
4. Priselac, M. Locke: Knowledge of the External World. Available.
5. Craig, W. Moral Argument (part 3). Available.
6. PhilPapers. Preliminary Survey results. Available.
7. Craig, W. Ibid.