How Do I Know I’m Not the Only Conscious Being in the Universe?

Is there any way of knowing for certain that we are not the only conscious being in the universe? Let’s look at the evidence.

Sep 7, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
how do i know im not the only conscious being

 

There is no denying that the human mind can only process a singular, subjective experience of the world, through which all other people, experiences and ideas are processed. So how can I know that I am not the only conscious being in the universe? This is the core theory of solipsism, which argues that the existence our mind is the only certainty available to us. It is a difficult question to answer, partly because it can be understood in so many different ways, as applicable to so many different contexts, which this article hopes to straighten out. 

 

We Know That Other Minds Exist

You Were Always On My Mind, Wangechi Mutu, 2007
You Were Always On My Mind, Wangechi Mutu, 2007, via Tate

 

The problem of other minds, also known as the problem of intersubjectivity or the problem of solipsism, is a philosophical and epistemological challenge concerning the existence and nature of other conscious minds apart from one’s own. The issue arises from the fact that our direct access to the world is through our own subjective experience. Each individual can be aware of their own thoughts, feelings, and consciousness, but they do not have direct access to the inner experiences of others. In other words, you can be certain of your own mind’s existence, but you cannot be certain that other people or beings have minds in the same way you do.

 

Solipsism Is Unbearable

Wanderer in the Storm, Julius von Leypold, 1835
Wanderer in the Storm, Julius von Leypold, 1835, via The Met

 

This problem leads to a philosophical dilemma. One option we have before us is that of solipsism. Solipsism is an extreme position – one so extreme that few philosophers actually hold it. In this context, solipsism is the view that only one’s own mind is certain to exist, and everything else, including other people and the external world, might be an illusion or a fiction of one’s own mind’s making. This position is isolating by its very nature, as it denies the existence of any other conscious being – or at least, our ability to be certain that they exist.

 

There are many and various philosophical responses to solipsism which attempt to show it to be false. Even if we can’t demonstrate that solipsism is false, we might have another reason to reject it. That reason being: that to live in a world where we might be utterly alone is unbearable.

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We Know Our Minds Are Separate From Our Bodies

Rooms of the Mind, Katy Moran, 2009
Rooms of the Mind, Katy Moran, 2009, via Tate

 

The problem of whether we are the only conscious being in the universe leads to a dilemma, or a choice between two options. Aside from solipsism, what’s the alternative? Historically, the alternative has often been dualistic. Many philosophers, especially those writing from a religious perspective or a perspective influenced by a religious culture, acknowledge the existence of other minds but posit that the mind is fundamentally different from the physical body.

 

According to this view, each individual has direct access to their own mental experiences (their mind) but must infer the existence of other minds based on external behaviors and communication. This has a host of problems attached as well – for one thing, it isn’t clear that we are capable of accurately inferring what mental experiences others have.

 

The Philosophy of Mind Shows That Other Minds Exist

States of Mind: Those Who Go, Umberto Boccioni, 1912
States of Mind: Those Who Go, Umberto Boccioni, 1912, via The Met

 

The two options we have explored so far do not seem especially appealing. Both dualism and solipsism have certain intractable problems. However, perhaps we can turn to the philosophy of mind for answers. Perhaps we don’t have to settle for either horn of this dilemma. In philosophy, as in everyday life, most people generally accept the existence of other minds. Indeed, the basis of the philosophy of mind is an attempt to understand how the mind works, which presupposes the mind’s existence.  

 

Many philosophers would hold that it is a basic facet of human sociability that we have an ability to attribute mental states, such as beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions, to oneself and to others. This is how we understand and predict the behavior of others, assuming that they have similar mental experiences to us. In this sense, a belief that we are the only conscious being in the universe would obscure our social practices and deny us the ability to live with others. Despite the many and various reasons for us to assume the existence of other conscious beings, the problem of other minds remains a philosophical challenge because the existence of those minds cannot be conclusively proven or directly experienced.

 

Therefore, this inference involves trust based that our shared experiences and our apparent successes when attempting to communicate with others are, in fact, successes. The problem of other minds is an ongoing topic of debate in philosophy of mind and epistemology. If we were the only conscious being in the universe – that is, if we were effectively alone – then the very purpose and point of philosophy would itself be called into question.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.