Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On solipsism

To: Simone K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Onl solipsism
Date: 13 November 2001 17:04

Dear Simone,

Thank you for your essay of 1 November, on metaphysical solipsism. I am sorry that I have set such a bad example in taking nearly two weeks to respond.

I have been 'burning the candle at both ends' trying to get PhiloSophos.com up and running. It has been a distraction, and I have too many distractions at the moment.

Now, solipsism.

It is interesting to approach solipsism from the point of view of Occam's razor. The idea, I take it, is that there is something *given*, and the question is, What is the best metaphysical theory to account for this given? Physics, chemistry, biology are all assumed. The physical sciences are the same for the solipsist as for the non-solipsist. We can say the same about the Berkeleian immaterialist/idealist, or indeed for any 'revisionary' metaphysical theory that challenges the metaphysics of common sense.

What is the aim of a metaphysical theory? Not explanation. We leave explaining, theories about causes and effects, to the physical sciences. The aim is to describe what is actually there. In 'Naive Metaphysics' I talk of the aim of 'accounting' for reality, in the sense of 'doing one's accounts', in other words, adding everything up and seeing what is there. The point when we are doing metaphysics is to miss nothing out, otherwise the result is worthless.

As Wittgenstein comments in the 'Philosophical Investigations', "If a sign is useless, it is meaningless. That is the true meaning of Occam's Razor" (or words to that effect). The Berkeleian idealist is led to conclude from Descartes' 'Evil Demon' experiment that matter is a redundant concept (there is no meaningful difference between the thought that there is a world external to experience, and the thought that now and forever more experience will be such that there will appear to be a world external to experience). It is harder to state the corresponding thought entertained by the solipsist. But the idea is that the thought that there is really a *viewpoint* other than my own is redundant. In the world of my experience, there are objects, some of which behave in ways which make it appropriate to describe them using the language of psychology. In a similar way, for the Berkeleian idealist, in our world there are objects which it is appropriate to describe in terms of mass, volume, etc. But these notions are ultimately just terms which collect together experiences. We do not need to posit - or, rather, for the solipsist, I do not need to posit - anything 'beyond' or 'outside' of given experience.

Having compared solipsism to Berkeleian idealism, there is still a huge difference between the two theories. The Berkeleian idealist believes in a world apart from I, the world of finite spirits and ideas in God's mind. For the solipsist, *this* is all there is. The rest, all the things I say I 'believe' is just a way of describing the *this*, applying concepts to it.

I agree that for solipsism, the question "Where does my experience come from?" is impossible to answer. Descartes, in the First Meditation, considers the possibility that he himself is the author of his experiences, just as we are when we dream. As you say, it is no objection to this hypothesis that we cannot 'control' our experiences, or make them as we would like. Descartes never considers for one moment that solipsism might be true. Clearly there is something very peculiar about the idea that I make, or am the source of *this*. For the whole point about the solipsist's 'Occam's Razor' is that there is nothing but the *this*. There is nothing behind the scenes. In principle, there could be no cause that brought the *this* into being.

How can the solipsist accept that the *this* is here, without a cause? Well, isn't the same true of the physical universe (if you don't accept the Cosmological argument). The physical world is just here, without a cause. Yet, the latter idea seems somehow less absurd, less accidental, than the idea that *my* world has just popped into being from nothingness, without any external cause.

But it is not enough to point out that the non-solipsist's account of the genesis of the universe "seems somehow less absurd". We need to prove the absurdity of solipsism. Can that be done? What follows (and in particular, what follows for ethics) if it can't be done?

All the best,

Geoffrey