Solipsism is the view that the thinking, perceiving individual is the only thing that exists, that the appearance of other persons and other physical things is just that – an appearance – an illusion constructed by the mind of the one thinking, conscious entity, oneself. The world, as it presents itself to most of us, does not suggest that solipsism is true. The world of physical objects and other persons is salient and even intrusive. You may wish that your professors and the college don’t exist when your alarm clock goes off in the morning, but you believe that they do, and you act accordingly.
The world as it appears to Mike Ferris is, or at least appears to be, a world of physical objects, but a world absent other persons. This creates special problems. First, many of the physical objects Mike seems to see are artifacts – hot coffee on the stove, a movie playing, buildings, stores, answering machines and telephones. How could these things exist if there are no other people? Artifacts are the creations of persons. Mike knows that he didn’t create these artifacts, so there must be other people. But where is everybody?
The second problem is that Mike doesn’t know who he is, and that is related to the fact that one’s own identity may have something to do with how one is viewed by others. Without anyone to talk to, Mike has lost some sense of who he is. Does personhood require the existence of other persons or is it just knowledge of one’s own personhood that requires other persons? Mike appears to be a person – a thinking, reasoning creature, to us – even while he isn’t sure that he is.
The keys to Mike’s identity are revealed when he infers the kind of thing he is. When he realizes “I am Air Force!” In the kind of world he is experiencing, a world, after all, that is the product of his imagination, this is a start at figuring out who he is.
Mike’s nightmare world is revealed to be the collective hallucinations of a subject of a psychological experiment. Mike has been isolated in a room for weeks, fed and kept alive without any contact with others. He has a panic button – to be pressed only when the isolation becomes unbearable. Thus, the reality is that Mike believed that he was alone when surrounded by others just a few feet away – a fact he was fully aware of when he entered the box. But he came to believe that he was the last man on earth. We, in contrast, usually believe that we are surrounded by others. Could we – or I – be making the parallel mistake? Might you be the subject of a psychological study, (perhaps being administered by a computer) one which induces in you the belief that you are surrounded by other people?
The episode introduces us to some of the central questions in epistemology and metaphysics. Epistemology is the sub-field of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge. Epistemologists study concepts such as knowledge, belief, and justification and attempt to understand how they are related. Some of the key epistemological questions in the episode concern what we know, and how we know it. Is the world the way it appears to be, or might it be radically different? In fact, the world is radically different from the way it appears to Mike through most of the story, though his constructed world is based on the world he has experienced outside the box.
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with questions about existence and the connections among existing things. The issue of the nature of the self and the relationship between the individual and other persons is at the heart of this story. Is it possible for there to be just one person, or is it the case that persons only come in groups?
The method of philosophy is rational argument. Philosophers construct theories and systems, but those theories and systems are only worth our attention if the philosopher who advances the theory or system can give us reasons for taking them seriously. An organized set of reasons for taking a position seriously is an argument. Most of The Twilight Zone episodes contain arguments. In most cases, however, the arguments are not stated explicitly. As you watch each episode and reflect on it, you should try to formulate a philosophical argument based on the story. In “Where is Everybody,” for example, there is an implicit argument for solipsism: It is possible that the existence of other persons is the construction of one’s imagination. We can’t tell whether the other people and things we perceive are real, or just the creations of our imagination; therefore, it is possible that other persons, and other things are merely the products of our imagination, and the only thing that exists is one mind, namely my own. It’s up to us to examine arguments like this one, in order to determine whether they support their conclusions. When we do this, we’re doing philosophy.
Nagel, T. (1987) What Does It All Mean?, Oxford University Press, Chapter 2.