Wednesday, February 22, 2012

'The solipsist's world has no more substance than a dream'

To: Frank Z.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: 'The solipsist's world has no more substance than a dream'
Date: 1 March 2007 12:32

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 22 February, with your second essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''The solipsist's world has no more substance than a dream, a story one makes up as one goes along.' - Discuss.'

You have provided an interesting take on the question of solipsism.

In the context of an investigation into ethics, one would expect that the question of solipsism relates to moral questions, and in particular to the question of how we recognize the value of other persons and their claim to have their interests taken into consideration when we act.

As the example of tyrannical political or religious leaders shows, some human individuals seem to have the need to make themselves 'the centre of the universe', effectively turning every other person in their orbit into a mere means for satisfying their desires or lust for power.

This situation is paradoxical as Hegel showed in his discussion of 'Master and Slave' in the Phenomenology of Spirit. The lust for power will not be satisfied with power over mere 'objects'. Power, to be power, has to be recognized as such by real subjects, who tremble at the tyrant's commands. However, by turning other persons into mere 'objects' to be manipulated at will, the tyrant deprives himself of that very power. The result is a predicament which is very much like that of the solipsist. The tyrant is reduced to a demanding child alone with his cupboard full of toys, whose voice no-one hears.

But is the tyrant a true solipsist? This is a crucial question. I want to say that solipsism cannot be true because it is incoherent.

Yes, it is possible that I am, unknowingly, alone in the universe. Imagine that over a period of time, super-intelligent aliens - the only beings that exist in the universe apart from human beings - have been quietly annihilating humans and replacing them with robots. Finally, only one non-robot is left, myself. Then the alien sun explodes, leaving me alone in the universe.

It is therefore an empirical question whether, in fact, other persons exist. However, the metaphysical solipsist claims that all that exists is my own mental state, not as a matter of contingency, but because the very notion of an 'object' which 'exists' apart from my own experience is, the solipsist holds, unintelligible. All I have are my own experiences. Every thought that I think, every action that I perform, takes place in the context of the world of my experience. It is impossible to conceive of there being anything else.

Why is that theory incoherent? The argument against that idea is that the metaphysical solipsist has surreptitiously imported the idea of 'truth' from our non-solipsist, common sense view of the world. In the world of my experience, some beliefs are still 'true' and other beliefs are still 'false'. It is true that in the world of my experience world war II ended in 1945 and false that in the world of my experience Paris is the capital of England. But where are these facts? The are all in my own head. It may seem to me that I am responding to something 'given' when I make these judgements, but in fact nothing is 'given', nothing is 'fixed', I can make any story I like and call it 'true'. That is why 'he solipsist's world has no more substance than a dream, a story one makes up as one goes along'.

So what?

I fully agree with you about the need for an 'element' of solipsism. This is why I reject the argument for morality which simply denies the reality of the subjective view. On the 'anti-solipsist' view which I reject, there is no difference between 'myself' and 'others'. We are all the same from the disinterested point of view. Hence the idea that, whenever we make a moral decision, we should discount ourselves as being in any way 'special' and just consider 'what needs to be done'.

On my view, the element of solipsism is countered by genuine recognition of the authority of the other. This is an asymmetrical rather than a symmetrical relationship. The ultimate, inexplicable truth is that I am GK. But as soon as I consider what is 'true' or 'false', I have to recognize that the very words which I use to express my thoughts only have meaning in relation to others. That is why the world does not collapse into my own dream.

As a consequence of this, I have to recognize that the claims of others are real, and have real moral force. That does not require I suppress myself and sacrifice myself for the good of others, but on the contrary, emphasizes that I have valid claims and other persons also have valid claims, and the moral life is one where one recognizes both.

All the best,

Geoffrey