In epistemology the problem of the external world is the challenge of proving that I can know that there are entities that exist other than me. Even if it is assumed that there is an external world, there remains the problem of other minds: the challenge of proving that I can know that there is at least one other being that has a mind. The common version of this problem tends to start with the assumption that other beings exist, and the challenge is to prove that I can know that these other beings have minds (or lack minds). Our good dead friend Descartes offered the best-known effort to solve the problem of the external world and in trying to solve this problem he also, perhaps unintentionally, attempted to solve the problem of other minds.
In his Meditations Descartes set out to create an infallible foundation of knowledge by his method of doubting his beliefs until he found a belief he could not doubt. As part of this project, he hoped to solve the problem of the external world. After his doubting spree in the first Meditation, he took his belief that he thinks and the belief that he exists to be certain and indubitable. In trying to prove that something exists other than him, Descartes attempts to prove that God exists—that is, he attempted to solve the problem of the external world by solving a version of the problem of other minds. Proving that God exists would prove that another mind exists, thus solving a limited version of each problem.
While Descartes grinds through a plethora of proofs, his key reasoning for the purposes of this essay is his notion that the cause of a belief must contain as much reality as the belief itself. Roughly put, you can think of this reasoning as analogous to reasoning that whatever charged a mobile phone battery must have at least as much power as in in the battery (assuming the battery charged from zero). Descartes based this reasoning on the principle that something cannot arise from nothing.
Roughly put, Descartes claimed that his idea of God is such that he could not be the cause of this idea—it had to be caused by something external to him. For example, Descartes notes that God is perfect and argues that he could not get the idea of a perfect being from his imperfect self. As another example, Descartes claims that God is infinite and that he (Descartes) could not create the idea of infinity from himself. From this he infers that God exists. He then goes on to argue that since God is perfect it follows that God is not a deceiver. Descartes then concludes that since God created us, we can generally trust our senses and thus we can infer that there is an external world. While this does not address the common version of the problem of other minds, it does offer a solution to the narrowest version: it does attempt to show that Descartes is not the only mind. In philosophical terms, success in this challenge would refute solipsism. That is the philosophical view that I am the only being in existence. Or, alternatively, it could be taken as the view that I am the only mind (thinking being) that exists. While I think that Descartes’ efforts to find certainty failed, his attempted solution to the problem of other minds provides a model that I will steal to attempt a solution to the problem of the other mind. My goal is modest: I am not trying to prove that other people have minds, I am just endeavoring to show that there is at least one other mind. I will do this with an aesthetic argument that was inspired by the combination of watching Wandavision and teaching Epistemology via Zoom this semester.
While teaching my Epistemology class at squares on Zoom I mentioned Wandavision as an example and had the realization that the quality of the show could be used to argue for the existence of other minds. While Descartes argued that the cause of an idea must equal or exceed the reality of the idea, I will replace this with the principle that cause of an idea must equal or exceed the quality of the idea in terms of creativity. As such, to show that something exists other than me, I just need to find an idea (or ideas) whose content exceeds my own creativity. That is, I need to find ideas that I could not create. This is extremely easy.
Wandavision, the show that inspired this argument, exceeds my creative abilities—I lack the skill and talent to write such a series. I can obviously say the same about many other movies, books, and stories—they are beyond my skill to create. As a writer, I am aware of the limits of my abilities and hence can safely draw these conclusions. I can also add in other art, such as music and drawing. I know my skills at music (none) and drawing (very limited) and know that I lack the ability to create most works I have heard or seen. Since I could not create such works, then there must be at least one other mind that is creating these works. There might be only one mind—it could be electing to create works of varying degrees. Or there might be many other minds creating these works. This does not, of course, show that there is an external world of the sort I think exists—it could be (as Descartes considered) just me and one other being who is causing all these ideas in my mind. While I would condemn the deception, I must thank them for the high quality works they create for me. As such, I can infer that at least one other mind exists and that I am not alone. But there are counter arguments.
One obvious counter argument is that I have an unknown talent or skill that allows me to create such works without being aware I am doing so. That is, I cannot consciously create such quality, but I can do so without being aware I am doing so. One could point to dreams as an obvious example of such creation: the best explanation for dreams is that their content is coming from me although I lack conscious control. My reply is to point out that my dreams do not match the quality of the works I encounter in the waking world in terms of the stories. Any art I see or music I hear in my dreams are always mere copies from when I am awake (or think I am awake) or of low quality. As such, I would seem to lack such a hidden and unknown faculty of creativity. I do agree it is not a logical impossibility that I have such a faculty, but there is no evidence for it existing beyond explaining my aesthetic experiences without any other mind existing—which would seem to be ad hoc.
A second obvious counter is to allow that something exists other than me, but this is not another mind. That is, the aesthetic experiences are created in a “mechanical” way without the sort of thinking that would be done by a mind. To use an analogy, this would be like having an AI art creator creating art without having a mind. There are two responses to this. The first is that this would still entail that I was not the only being in existence—there would also be this creator entity. The second is that such a high degree of creativity would seem to require a mind. It would pass tests analogous to the Turing test and thus is would be reasonable to infer there is at least one mind behind these creative works.
In closing, there are two main possibilities. The first is that I alone exist, and I have an unknown faculty of creativity that vastly exceeds my known skills and talents (and I can never consciously use these hidden abilities). The second is that at least one other being exists and is creating these works.