A Philosopher's Blog

Playing with Solipsism

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 21, 2013
Ol' Solipsism

Ol’ Solipsism (Photo credit: found_drama)

Imagine that you are the only being that exists.  Not that you are the last person on earth, but that the earth and everything other than you is merely the product of your deranged imagination. This, very crudely put, is solipsism.

As with watching Star Trek, most philosophers go through a solipsism phase. As with the Macarena and Gangnam Style, this phases usually fades with merciful rapidity. This fading is, however, usually not due to a definitive refutation of solipsism. In many cases, philosophers just get bored with it and move on. In other cases, it is very much like the fads of childhood-it is okay to accept the fad as a kid, but once you grow up you need to move on to adult things. Likewise for solipsism-a philosopher who plays with it too long will be shamed by her fellows. Mostly.

Just for fun, I thought I would play a bit with solipsism-in the manner of an adult who finds an favorite childhood toy in the attic and spends a few moments playing with it before setting it aside, presumably to go write a status update about it on Facebook.

Interestingly enough, solipsism actually has a lot going for it-at least in terms of solving philosophical problems and meeting various conditions of philosophical goodness.

One obvious thing in favor of solipsism is that, as per Descartes’ wax example, every experience seems to serve to prove that I exist rather than that something else  exists. For example, if I seem to be playing around with some wax, I can (as per Descartes) doubt that the wax exists. However, my experience seems to show rather clearly that I exist and doubting my existence would just serve to prove I exist. In fact, as skeptics have argued for centuries, it seems impossible to prove that there is anything external to myself-be it an external world or other minds. As such, solipsism seems to be the safest bet: I know I exist, but I have no knowledge about anything else.

Another factor in favor of solipsism is its economy and simplicity. All the theory requires is that I, whatever I am, exist. As such, there would presumably be just one ontological kind (me). Any other theory (other than the theory that there is nothing) would need more stuff and would need more complexity. These seem to be significant advantages for solipsism.

A third factor is that solipsism seems to solve many philosophical problems. The problem of the external world? Solved: no such thing. The problem of other minds? Solved: no such things. The mind-body problem? Probably solved. And so on for many other problems.

Naturally, there are various objections to solipsism.

One obvious objection, which I stole from Descartes (or myself), is that if I was the only being in existence, then I would surely have made myself better. However, I make no claims to being omnipotent-so perhaps I made myself as well as I could. Or perhaps I did not create myself at all-maybe I just appeared ex-nihilo. In any case, this does not seem to be a fatal problem.

A related objection is the argument from bad experiences:  cannot be the only thing in existence because of the bad experiences I have.  I’ve experience illness, injury, pain and so on. Surely, the argument goes, if I was the only being in existence I would not have these bad experiences. All my experiences would be good.

Laying aside the possibility that I am a masochist, the easy and obvious reply is to point out that a person’s dreams are produced by the person, yet dreams can be nightmares. I’ve written up many of my nightmares as horror adventures for games such as Dark Conspiracy and Call of Cthulhu so it can be gathered that I do have some rather awful nightmares. I also have dreams with more mundane woes and suffering, such as nightmares about illnesses, injuries and so on. Given that it is accepted that a person can generate awful dreams, it would seem to make sense that the same sort of thing could happen in the case of solipsism. That is, if I can dream nightmares I can also  “live” them.

Another objection is that the alleged real world contains things that I do not understand (like specialized mathematics) and things I could not create (like works of art). As such, I cannot be the only being that exists.

The easy and obvious reply to the understanding reply is that I understand as much as I do and the extent of my understanding defines what seems possible to me. To be a bit clearer, I have no understanding of the specialized mathematics that lies beyond my understanding and hence I do not really know if there is anything there I do not actually know. That is, what is allegedly beyond my understanding might not exist at all. Interestingly, any attempt to show that something exists beyond my understanding (and hence must be created by someone else) would fail. To the degree I understand it, I can attribute it to my own creation. To the degree I do not, I can attribute it to my own ignorance.

In terms of the art objection, the easy reply is to note that I can dream of art that I apparently cannot create myself. To use an example, in the waking world, I have little skill when it comes to painting. But I have had dreams in which I saw magnificent  original paintings I had not seen in real life.  The same applies to dream statues, architecture and so on. As such, the art that seems beyond me in the world could be produced in the same way it occurs in dreams.

Descartes (or me), I think, had the most promising project for refuting solipsism: if I can find something that I cannot possible be the cause of, then that gives me a good reason to believe that I am not the only being in existence. Or, more accurately, that I am not the only being to ever exist. However, there does not seem to be anything like that-after all, everything I experience falls within the limits of me and hence could all be about and only me.

But surely that is crazy.

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5 Responses

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  1. WTP said, on June 21, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Sooo, 22 paragraphs about intellectual masturbation. Got it.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 21, 2013 at 10:19 am

    A Philosopher’s View of the World…assuming it exists? 🙂 All thinking begins with unprovable assumptions. We have to assume something about the world and postulate it as true before we can begin thinking about the world. After all, everything we experience in the world falls within the limits of our experience, and our experience of the world is all we can ever really know about the world. It is experience all the way down.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 21, 2013 at 10:29 am

      That is the skeptical challenge-how to stop what seems to be an infinite regress that makes knowledge impossible.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 21, 2013 at 4:51 pm

        All can we know is our experience of the world, but we can know that, because it’s the only thing we do know. What becomes problematic is our interpretation and explanation of that experience to others. We should attempt to discard our presupposed, learned interpretations as much as possible and attempt to experience the world as it presents itself to our consciousness.

        Most peoples are so hopelessly bound to interpretations of the world they have been taught it’s almost impossible for them to grasp another interpretation, which may in fact be a more valid one than the one they hold.

        I once asked my late Father, what he thought when he saw the sun setting: 1) the sun is setting, or 2) the earth is rotating on its axis. He answered 2, which, although I understood where we was coming from, astounded me. I said to him: why would you not simply believe what you see? that the sun is setting? even if science has explained it otherwise? He said because he knew the scientific answer was the correct one. I said, well, science may have an accurate explanation for it but I don’t allow that to override what I experience, have experienced, and will always experience. Even the weatherperson says sunrise and sunset, because that’s what we perceive.

        For all practical purposes, for me, the earth may as well be still and the sun in motion, because that’s my experience of the world, and it suits me just fine 🙂 Other minds also agree, and live their lives every day because of what they see, not because of an abstract, virtually meaningless (when it comes to practical value) scientific explanation.

        Last time I checked, science is dehumanizing us at breakneck speed, whereas my perceptions aren’t.

  3. tugz18 said, on July 1, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Thank you for a great post, I really enjoyed reading it.
    It’s true, as much as people argue that the world we live in is definitely different to our dreams, there are many similarities. I suppose the main difference is our dreams are more based in our own ‘lives’ and fail to follow a sequential narrative.
    I look forward to reading your other posts.


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