In the introductory note to the ‘Portable Athiest’ anthology; Hitchens states two analogies, both I think are interlinked as part of an overall argument. The first one is possibly interesting in itself, as a lucid observation about cats and dogs. It goes something like this:
If a dog is domesticated by means of being given shelter, warmth, food, hygiene and water; they would treat such a provider as a God. If a cat is treated in a similar way, by being given shelter, warmth, food, hygiene and water; they think that they are God.
How interesting a mindset. For Hitchens, the strong suggestion here is that we need to be less like dogs and more like cats. This is not stated explicitly, however, the practice of worship by dogs is treated with explicit derision.
The second analogy, the actual subject of this post, is between our perspective of the world being likened to the philosophical doctrine of solipsism; which is the epistemological and metaphysical thesis that no outside minds exist, because we have no epistemic access to other minds we must presume that we have no grounds for believing in their existence; since we have access to our own thoughts (being presumably, the author of our thoughts), I (the author of my thoughts) am the only person that exists. Consider ‘I’ to be indexical to you (the reader, even if that means I’m reading this post again).
Hitchens likens solipsism with a sense of philosophical and human ignorance. Religious belief and superstitious supernaturalism, according to Hitchens, is the belief that human beings are the centre of the universe, or are central to the universe by virtue of being favoured by divinity, or being the possessors of consciousness itself; either way, as a blanket claim, human beings are taken to have a central place. This, Hitchens would call a solipsism. The suggestion is that a more advanced approach to things would be to acknowledge that we are not the centre of the universe, and accept the alternative, science-driven account of the place of human beings? I thought to consider that option, especially since Hitchens explicitly is appealing to natural selection.
Natural selection takes place, from a retrospective point of view, with us at the present and various stages where intermediary or proto-human structures lived. We are but one in a set of genii, and even higher order taxa. We have among our cousins, bananas and slugs; crustaceans and birds. That seems, prima facie, a less solipsistic vision of the world, although considering the current resource usage humankind are certainly pretending to be the centre of everything.
Adding to this however, is the consideration that evolution itself requires certain pre set conditions, certain elements need to be available; certain physical conditions wherin life may take place as a mere possibility. Beyond even this, certain conditions and laws of the universe are to be presupposed so even the physical conditions can maintain. For a universe to have slightly different laws may be a difficult thing to conceive, but it is certainly not difficult to concieve of differential physical conditions within the space of a given universe. Considering the issue of natural selection; within the earth a system has established where all classifications of life take place iwthin a closed locus. If there were to be other life beyond the earth, the conditions must obtain for the mere possibility of natural selection to take place, which is even less a guarantee than it taking place itself, let alone enough for conscious life.
Hitchen’s solipsistic metaphor seems then to turn into another solipsism. We are not the centre of the universe, but we may be completely alone as conscious beings of higher order thought. A cold and empty universe where the only people who can appreciate its vastness and complexity are limited by the ever changing conditions of wider environment of galaxies and beyond. That’s probably something to appreciate, but it’s also much more pessimistic. It’s also solipsistic.