Solipsism – Part One
American author and artist James Thurber once stated: “Philosophy offers the rather cold consolation that perhaps we and our planet do not actually exist; religion presents the contradictory and scarcely more comforting thought that we exist but that we cannot hope to get anywhere until we cease to exist. Alcohol, in attempting to resolve the contradiction, produces vivid patterns of Truth which vanish like snow in the morning sun and cannot be recalled; the revelations of poetry are as wonderful as a comet in the skies, and as mysterious. Love, which was once believed to contain the Answer, we now know to be nothing more than an inherited behavior pattern.”
Thurber would probably not be pleased that I am consider him a philosopher since he made his fame as an artist. Born in Ohio and raised in both Virginia and Ohio, Thurber had a rather typical early twentieth century American boy’s childhood. Not so typical was an injury he suffered as a child when an arrow of his brother’s resulted in Thurber being blinded in one eye. He worked as a journalist in Ohio after attending but not graduating Ohio State University and then moved to New York City where he obtained a position on the staff of ”The New Yorker” magazine. Thurber become known for his cartoons of animals and his drawings of dogs soon had their own career on pages of periodicals, newspapers and books, often watching strong-willed women and seemingly weak men.
Thurber once remarked “The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people–that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.” Many enjoyed both his drawings and his books, of which there were more than just a few. Often people saw themselves on the pages of Thurber’s drawings; always they saw their neighbors. Few took offense, though, knowing that Thurber was pointing his pen not only at them but also himself.
Solipsism is the belief that the only true thing is the self. It states that the self is the starting point for all knowledge and that nothing truly exists outside the realm of the self and one’s experiences. Philosophy has never fully adopted solipsism and with good reason. It fails to allow for common experiences, shared experiences that mankind might have.
“There but for the grace of God go I” is an idiom attributed to Anglican priest James Bradford. It is also a paraphrase of the scripture found in the New Testament, I Corinthians 15:10. That the quote in English form is also attributed to a Roman Catholic priest is no surprise and quite fitting given Bradford’s life. Ordained an Anglican priest shortly before the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor took the throne as reigning monarch of England, he was later imprisoned and hung for his beliefs. Bradford preached of the connectivity of mankind and saw himself in the face of the lowest of it. Mostly, Bradford saw each man as a reflection of another except for perhaps life’s circumstances. He advocated spreading good will, not judgment.
However you might define reality, we are real. If you doubt that, get a hammer and bring it down intensely upon your finger. I really doubt you will question the pain experienced. Life is transitory but the travails we experience are very real to us. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Elie Wiesel was referring specifically to events leading up to World War II but his words ring true for everyday living.
We are not only real; we are connected one to another. Face Book at times will run a streamer at the top of personal pages giving ways people could contribute to charities helping the victims of natural disasters. Some people have protested this, good people with no motive for malice. “Wouldn’t it be better to help people in our own country?” was a common response people posted on their own pages. “Why do we have to see this ticker about giving to [insert country here]?” This was true when Hurricane Matthew devastated the country of Haiti. The unspoken meaning here is let those on the other side of the world help themselves while we help our neighbors.
That is a great thought except for one thing – Haiti was a country in dire straits even before the earthquake. How can someone with nothing have their lives and homes literally upturned by seismic and meteorological events then pull wealth out of their empty pockets to “help themselves”?
Every country has its poor, its disenfranchised societies. For many, these populations are simply uneducated, sometimes on purpose based upon gender, and/or the wrong ethnicity, again the victims of deliberate discrimination. Sometimes these populations suffer from illnesses that are not fully understood or greatly feared. Do these Face Book subscribers donate to these groups within their own countries? No one country has enough money given to completely render all needed assistance to these groups.
Reality may be a word that means different things to different people and sadly, many feel they are invisible and that their lives do not matter. Another thing all countries share is that somewhere today someone will take their own life. In spite of a number of terminal illnesses, accidents, and crimes that will result in death, people will feel their own personal situation has no meaning and is just a riddle too hard to contemplate resolution except by death.
Einstein might have been correct when he said “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” I prefer to believe that human stupidity is reversible, though. Another in common is countries where children and adults wear socks is that, at some point, one will end up with a mismatched sock. Seeming to defeat the laws of physics, one sock will magically disappear. Once during an epic spring cleaning, my spouse and children put all their mismatched socks into bags. The final count was an even one hundred pairless socks. Of course, once the socks were all laid out, pairs were found or someone remembered the puppy tearing a sock up, etc.
Just as our socks were real, the mystery of the disappearance of their matches had resolution. For an hour, said spouse and kids enjoyed making up stories about the disappearances. Their imaginations took flight and they did indeed come up with delightful tales. In fact, I think at least still imagines at least two socks are orbiting the earth as I type today! The reality was far less exciting and entertaining but resolution was found. We did not find all the socks but those that remained single became adorable little snowman figures (comment here and I’ll send you the instructions for this craft!).
Each living human being is real. Solutions exist if we only have faith that we can find them. It will not be easy but then, most things seldom are. Pain cannot be seen or even quantified on a scale with weights and balances and yet, pain is all too real for those experiencing. We should not share in another’s blame or guilt but we can and should offer to help.
Life is hard but it is not impossible. All we need to do is believe in ourselves. Perhaps that is the hardest problem philosophy has to solve. Today I hope you smile more than you cry and, when you pass another, your eyes are opened to not only see that other person but also your own value. We are real.