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.


  1. Solipsism is a theoretical philosophical and logical position based on the analysis of knowledge.

    It is not a psychological position. Well, it could be but it would be insane to think that others don't exist and are mere fabrications of your mind.

    You don't seem to be any type of solipsist at, but rather just confused.

    You say you haven't studied philosophy. I suggest you do. It isn't something you can understand with doing it properly. I'm not going to become a historian or chemist without studying it!

  2. I think this post obliquely supplies support for the philosophical views of Levinas! If ethics relies on a realism about individuals which exceeds my direct experience of them, then I think that suggests the otherness of others is essential for us to have an ethical responsibility towards them.

    I have always tried to refute solipsism by calling upon the capacity of the world to surprise us, deny us our intentions or otherwise turn its own directions. In particular, as levinas attempts to describe it, individuals have a very particular distance from us - a capacity to interrupt us and our comportment with the world which exceeds that of everyday inanimate things, which suggests a unique individual. I think that the existence of others is revealed in the way they express themselves with regard to us, but I think this argument perhaps needs a greater level of meat/description.

  3. As I explained, I have not studied philosophy and thus my question was not as articulate as I would have liked. As I gain more knowledge of philosophy I will hopefully be able to make my thoughts more concise by using concepts that are already familiar.

    I realise that I may have been wrong to use the words "I believe" in my question, in an effort to avoid tying myself in knots again let me propose as you say Descartes did, a sceptical hypothesis.

    The idea of the evil daemon was close, however staying with solipsism I like to think of this entity as either an aspect of my own mind that I am unaware of, or as a previous state of my own consciousness in which I fabricated this persistent illusion of reality for my own benefit before somehow subduing my awareness of it.

    The reasoning behind this intentional self-deception could be that in a state of full awareness I am an eternally lost soul tortured by my own loneliness and despair. In popular culture, I find the most terrifying stories are those in which the protagonist is found to be completely alone - one of my favourites being 'The Quiet Earth'. In feeling such intense despair, effective self-deception if possible, would be a vehicle to the bliss found in this ignorance.

    If the world in which I live and all of its many complexities are fabrications of my mind (or an intermediary), lets imagine that purely by existing at present in a constantly revised simulation such as that in the Matrix scenario, that due to progress this is currently best suited for its purpose.

    If at any point I could convince myself completely to believe in my most precious hypothesis, the simulation in its entirety would have failed. One could see as a non-solipsist that this way of thinking (being dangerous) could lead to madness. My fear and unwillingness to take this leap of faith and thus succumbing to a madness of recursive thought could suggest that the current revision is working well and its defence mechanism is effective.

    The conclusion I am reaching here is one in which the complexity, uncontrollability and unpredictability is such that it creates the perfect illusion and subsequent acceptance of the world in which we live. Without being fully aware I cannot see possibly how simple the illusion is. If this is the goal of this exercise: to deceive myself, then has it not succeeded satisfactorily so far? Ironically, if I am right, but convinced that I am wrong; would the illusion not be more perfect?

    As you said, this leads to the question of whether such a thing is a far more complex solution to the question than is needed. Why should we not believe in the simplest solution, that of a non-solipsist?

    My answer to this is that although I would live similarly to how I would without solipsism, I am merely following the rules that I feel necessary to sustain this pleasurable illusion that I see as life. So why believe in it at all, why not cast it aside? The difference may be as simple as my outlook and my enjoyment of my life.

    If I know that I must live life as any other should, and that the value of my life may only be as real as that of others, but I believe just enough that it is my own creation - I can live life with comfort and optimism. Life will be more exciting and interesting for me because I will see beauty in everything, everything will have a purpose. The more I cling onto this philosophy of life the more I can relax and enjoy it, the less stress, worry and fear I will face. Even if I was deluding myself, would that be detrimental to my life experience? A placebo is as good as a cure in most circumstances!

    If I feel rewarded by the presence and value of others, and in having what I would consider to be sound ethics, could it be proven that this is not exactly the intention of my imaginings? To put the greatest value in 'others' imaginable? I could test the illusion, but when such an imperfect world can seem so perfect in its deception, I fear what is beyond it.

  4. To put my conclusion in a simpler form could be to say:

    If the only differences to how I lived my life were that my contentment, optimism and life experience were enriched by entertaining solipsism rather than rejecting it, would that not be more than enough to justify my preference for it over non-solipsism?

    Belief in something which in your mind cannot be discounted is comforting, especially if it is interesting and challenges your perceptions. This is why I believe that we should respect each other and each other's beliefs, but be eager to disprove them when invited.

    If I am a solipsist I am one that sees value in everything rather than nothing.

    If I am faced with a test in which success leads to life and failure to death and I do not know the answer, as a solipsist I do not fear the question - for I am asking myself, and I want to live.

    Many of us already accept what we sense as reality without question, is it so impossible that one can be aware of the deception but know its value as a sanctuary from torment. When left alone to amuse ourselves with puzzles, the best puzzle would be one that we have forgotten how to solve.

    Thank you for entertaining my thoughts.

    The world is a surprising place, but sometimes I surprise even myself!

  5. I'm a solipsist. I have been for a long time and only recently have I found out that my belief actually has a name, which is solipsism. I simply believe that consciousness is everything that is being perceived and I'm only perceiving the things around me. In other words, if the person next to me is conscious then "I" must be conscious of that persons life and see through his eyes. Since I dont experience life through his eye, he is unconscious.

    I dont believe everything around me is created by my imagination though. I believe in God and that he created everything. I just dont believe God can create a separate consciousness that I am not consciously aware of. Also people ask if I believe God is conscious, I dont. I believe consciousness has limitations of what you can perceive. Seeing, knowing and hearing everything at the same time is beyond the limitations of consciousness.

    What I wrote may be hard for some people to grasp but within my mind it seems accurate...

  6. I can honestly say though, solipsism does not make life better. Socializing becomes pointless and it's hard to feel any emotional attachment toward others. You somewhat become a type of sociopath. It's a depressing state of mind and is the true definition of loneliness and solitude....

  7. I'm a solipsist, solipsism is extreme scepticism and extreme subjective idealism. The computer interacting with my brain might be that I'm the only one using virtual reality whereas everyone else are very realistic depictions of people but aren't real. Solipsism is the philosophical position that what I choose to do can be positive, in that it can be beneficial, because I only create something that pleasures me, and the realisation that I can extend my life with herbs and be wise & keep things simple because I created them myself; and people not being convinced of certain things, I'm certain of the evidence to the contrary because it's my creation. Plus solipsism makes you think (seriously!).

  8. WOW!! A friend of mine told me he thought he was a solipsist so I googled and researched. My questions so far are how is the belief different than that of a narsisitic, schzophrenic, or sociopath?? Is it a term that some brilliant borderline phychotic individual came up with to candy coat himself?? Lastly, why is the term not in the DMV diagnosis
    No judgement here, just curiousity.

  9. It's a strong philosophical position. Solipsism means that my self is the only certainty, and has three basic structures within its scepticism: 1. the belief that things are of their parts and don't really exist as things per se, for example, what you call a film might be a roll of tape, and what you call tape might be a narrow roll of paper stuck in place, scepticism is needed for the truth of this, 2. experience: what I experience is all that I could possibly know and possibly should care about, thus I know my own experience which with 3: subjective feelings, I can feel, with the power of thought, more of one case than the other, as a feeling that a good has happened is stronger than a bad, I can say that I did nothing wrong, or that I'm always happy, if I have a funny feeling this is handy for the future, for a funny feeling is my certainty that a suspicious thing is about to happen, I could feel like a future presence of trouble and it can happen, if I walk away then my experience is different, and I don't have a funny feeling, along with my subjective feelings for example I feel pleasure, so I can play with my objects or eat something nice, the scepticism is that what looks good can feel bad, my experience is that even a neutral can happen, and the feelings are that something is not real: it may look good or bad, yet your experience can have an opposite consequence, applied to a sphere, supposing I don't know what I'm trying to remember, I may have the feeling I saw it before, it might be just a structure, and I'm experiencing this sphere, I can easily remember that I saw it before but only I know it the way I do, thus it doesn't matter that I can't prove this true or that you can't convince me I'm wrong, what matters is the truth, the fact, the accuracy of an experience only as I know it, and thus supposing an object doesn't exist, I'm experiencing the sight and touch of it and my emotional feelings of my experiences, I think therefore I am everything. If you find any schizoidness in any of this behaviour, then if you were a solipsist and not schizophrenic then schizophrenia to you doesn't exist, I know I'm not phony therefore only the real exists.