Friday, September 10, 2010
Definition of a solipsist
On Fri, Aug 20, 2010 at 00:40:24
Dave asked this question:
I have not studied philosophy but I seem to keep gravitating to it unwittingly.
I spend a lot of time thinking and I recently discovered Solipsism and thought it fit almost perfectly with my beliefs.
However, upon trying to find out more about it I just found people using it as a device to make ironic jokes. I just seek clarification on what I am and whether I am a type of Solipsist.
People seem to think that Solipsists would not want to congregate because by definition they are denying everyone but themselves and see little value in others.
I believe in quite the opposite. If all other people are fabrications of my mind, I would find great value in meeting with them especially those with similar ideas. This is because I am not consciously creating them and the fact that they are aspects of my mind's creation means that they are aspects of myself and I have created them for a reason.
Have I got Solipsism right or wrong? Or am I specific type of Solipsist?
I don't want to get into a boring taxonomy of philosophical positions. And who cares about names and labels anyway? However, it is necessary to make some preliminary cuts with the analytical knife in order to address Dave's question.
The first cut the first option which I want to put on one side is scepticism about other minds. Scepticism about other minds, or more specifically the hypothesis that I am the only conscious being in the universe, could be contingently true if either of the following circumstances obtained:
(a) I live in a world populated by robots disguised as human beings, each controlled by a pre-programmed tape. (This is to rule out the possibility, which a materialist might argue for, that if the 'robots' are genuine examples of AI, then they have consciousness just as I do.) The super-intelligent alien scientist who created the robots and tapes has died.
(b) Mind-body dualism, of the epiphenomenalist variety, is true, but I am the only person with a mind as well as a body. Everyone else that I meet is a zombie, which behaves in every respect just like a human being except that it lacks a mind or consciousness. (I'm not asserting that this is necessarily a coherent possibility, merely that it is initially plausible. I actually think that it is incoherent, but I won't try to show that here.)
The second cut I want to make relates to another contingent possibility, related to the Matrix scenario. Imagine that the Machine World is devastated by a massive power cut, leaving only myself alive and my dreams of living in Sheffield in 2010 and answering questions for the Ask a Philosopher web site. Apart from my personal life-support system, all the machines have ground to a halt. It is possible that I am the only consciousness in the universe (assuming the absence of any alien life forms).
Well, actually, I am answering those questions, and not just dreaming that I am answering them, because we are assuming, by hypothesis, that I am in full possession of my intellectual faculties. However, the questions originate, not from named or anonymous surfers on the internet, but in the computer program my brain is interacting with. Dave and his question are the invention of the original Architect of the Matrix.
Why am I confident that none of these scenarios fits Dave's description? He states that he 'recently discovered Solipsism and thought it fit almost perfectly with my beliefs'. No plausible process of scientific investigation or inference to the best explanation could lead to the belief that I exist in a world populated by robots, or the other bizarre possibilities outlined above. You don't believe something just because it's possible, unless you are suffering from serious mental problems.
So now we need to supply an argument which Dave does not give which might plausibly have lead him to the conclusion that he is a 'solipsist'. By understanding how that argument works, we can diagnose exactly what kind of solipsist Dave is.
I suggest that the missing argument is along the lines given by Descartes at the beginning of the Meditations. All I know for certain is my own existence, and the fact that I have experiences. Descartes never actually goes this far: he proposes, as a sceptical hypothesis, the idea that an evil demon is deliberately deceiving me into thinking that a material world and other people exist, when in reality all there is, is myself and the evil demon. (Note, that this goes way beyond the Matrix scenario which assumes the existence of material objects in space.)
If all that exists is myself and the evil demon, then my experience, e.g., of looking at my computer monitor has two sides. It is my experience, but it is also produced by something external to my conscious mind. Dave would say at this point, 'Exactly! I am not consciously creating the computer monitor. But my mind is still the source of my experience.' But there is a problem here. What makes this 'unconscious' source of my conscious experience mine or part of me? My experience would be just as it is now if it was the evil demon who was responsible for it. Or, rather, 'my unconscious mind' is the evil demon for all intents and purposes.
This is still unsatisfactory, because one could argue that Dave is assuming something he has no right to assume: that when experience happens, it comes from somewhere, something is 'producing' it. Why?
A large part of the answer lies in our adherence to a certain model of causal explanation. You don't have an effect without a case. You can't have experience without something producing the experience. But isn't this a merely contingent matter? Based purely on my experience, I cannot say for certain whether it has an external cause or not.
I'm going to take a leap at this point I don't know whether Dave is willing to join me and assume that my experiences have no external cause. All that exists in the universe, all that I have any certain knowledge of, consists of my actual experiences. This isn't some crazy lunatic fantasy but a powerful philosophical position. This is all I know, and all that could ever be. Nothing that is not this could possibly have any impact on me, or have any meaning for me.
There are some subtle arguments that the solipsist can deploy, along the lines of Kantian and Husserlian phenomenology, to the effect that, in some sense, it is necessary that my existence takes the form of perception of 'objects in space', and that I identify myself as a 'person' in relation to other 'persons'. The details aren't important. What is important is that they allow, or indeed justify, my concept of 'other persons' as an essential part of my experience, characters in the story of my world. If my experience was not like this, if it didn't take this logical form, there wouldn't be anything describable as 'me' or 'I'.
A suitable name for this position (if you are into naming philosophical positions) is transcendental solipsism. The kind of solipsist that Dave is, is a transcendental solipsist.
One very curious feature of transcendental solipsism is that, prima facie, no practical consequences follow from this theory. It's not as if you look at people in a funny way. You deal with them exactly as you would do if you didn't believe in solipsism. You can attend solipsist philosophical conventions, and argue the toss with solipsists and anti-solipsists.
I said 'prima facie', because there is a problem here. You can deal with other persons in just the same way as you would if you weren't a solipsist (or Dave's kind of solipsist). But you don't have to. After all, they are just characters in the story of 'my world'. You can choose to behave ethically, if this helps to keep up the illusion that you are enjoying their 'company', but that's just your choice. On the other hand, it might be more fun if you played games with some of these characters. After all, they are just your barbie dolls and action men. Whatever you do with your human toys can't be 'wrong'.
Personally, I wouldn't like to be stuck with this view of ethics, which is why I think it is important to find an argument which would be sufficient to refute solipsism. But that's another story.