In discussions about the nature of knowledge, skepticism looms large: How do we know we are not brains in vats? How do we know we are not dreaming? In raising these skeptical worries we are acutely aware that it doesn’t seem as if we are brains in vats, and it doesn’t seem as if we are in bed dreaming. It might be inappropriate, then, to think of “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” as simply raising another skeptical nightmare, because it doesn’t seem as if we’re in a cylinder. So what’s the epistemic bite? (Remember, “epistemic” comes from “epistemology” which means theory of knowledge.)
Five characters find themselves in what appears to be a very large cylindrical container. (Is it really large?) Four are resigned to their fate. They don’t know why they are there, but they are no longer trying to find out why they are there or what’s outside the cylinder. One of the five, the major, has just arrived. (How did he get there? That’s one of the things they don’t know.) The major asks: “What’s going on here? Where are we? What are we? Who are we?” Clearly there is knowledge the major lacks, knowledge that we ordinarily think we have. But it’s also seems that the major and the other four characters possess some knowledge. It’s a worthwhile exercise to consider what they do know. If we can attribute knowledge to the characters, then perhaps this is a case of local skepticism. If so, what kind of knowledge do they lack?
Solipsism, powerfully represented in “Where is Everybody?” is the view that nothing exists outside of an individual’s mind. It is the position that Descartes holds in the first two of his six Meditations. Once he establishes that he exists as a thinking thing, his first bit of knowledge, he considers what else he knows. He argues that the beliefs he has about things outside him – a piece of wax, the people on the street below – are arrived at by means of inferences from the immediate contents of his mind, and those inferences can be challenged. “Five Characters” is about a cylinder containing five interacting characters, and so it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with solipsism. The characters know that they are not alone. They each know that there are four other individuals in the cylinder. Yet the cylinder represents the limit of their collective experience, and their ignorance of what exists in the outside world. Their failed attempts to climb out of the cylinder mirror Descartes’ failed attempts to establish the existence of things and people outside his cylinder, that is, outside the confines of his mind or self.
Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditations 1,2.