Scepticism is not always the answer

Jan 21, 2021 by

by Giles Fraser, Unherd:

Question life all you want – but it has no meaning without our shared humanity.

When I was an undergraduate, I had a strange recurring dream: What if I was the only person in the world? I imagined a reality in which every person I encountered was merely a prop in some elaborate masquerade designed to fool me that other humans existed. In this world, when the people were out of sight they would just stop, motionless, like machines that had temporarily performed their function.

The dream tended to be structured around me trying to catch them out. I would stand at the corner of a building and very quickly stick my head around the corner – quickly enough, I hoped, to find them still motionless, surprised by my stealth. But they were always too quick for me, always one step ahead. I could never expose this plot. But nor could I discount the possibility that it was nonetheless true.

This strange dream was, I suspect, partly inspired by a woman I met in Hinchingbrooke Hospital, where I helped out on the psycho-geriatric ward during my university holidays. The woman in question believed that her body was hollow and completely filled with urine. She would only sleep upright, for fear that she would drown. When encouraged to lie prone she would begin to panic, coughing and spluttering, with genuine fear in her eyes.

It wasn’t that she was stupid; in fact, far from it. She was still able to complete The Times’ crossword, for instance. But however much I tried to reason her out of her belief – genuinely held, I was convinced of that – she had a considered response. It drove me to distraction that I wasn’t able to find a way through her inter-locking explanations. Surely reason could expose such an obviously mistaken view of the world? But as hard as I tried, I was never able to puncture it. At turns angry and frustrated, I eventually gave up and spent my days holding her hand and talking with her about her grandchildren.

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