Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The refutation of solipsism

To: Nicola A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The refutation of solipsism
Date: 11th January 2011 12:58

Dear Nicola,

Thank you for your email of 3 January, 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 said one thing in your essay which I found very striking: 'I do not believe that there really is much moral difference in believing 'you' are the only one that exists and matters, than believing that 'God' is the only being that matters.'

Although the context of your remark is particular religious sects who see no problem in sacrificing individuals to their 'god', there is a philosophical counterpart to this claim in certain metaphysical systems. I'm thinking particularly of Hegel's theory of the Absolute (known as 'objective idealism') according to which the Absolute is the only thing that 'really' exists, and we are merely component parts of the Absolute. This vision reaches its strongest ethical expression in the ethics of F.H. Bradley ('Ethical Studies') where in one particular chapter, 'My Station and Its Duties' Bradley passionately argues that we should view ourselves as merely component parts of the 'social organism' (although later in the book he does consider objections to this view). The hymn 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' expresses this sentiment.

For the good of the social organism one may need to sacrifice the individual, just as a surgeon would amputate a gangrened leg or remove a diseased kidney.

However, the topic of this essay is solipsism. What is solipsism? It is the name of a theory and also characterizes an actual psychological condition (that of the psychopath). As a theory, it doesn't or shouldn't lead to random violence or abuse. It's just a theory which as a philosopher one happens to hold. Whereas psychopaths generally didn't get that way as a result of studying philosophy!

Let's look at the psychopath. You make the objection that if the psychopath's world 'has no more substance than a dream' then why do psychopaths languish in prisons or secure mental institutions? If we are talking about dreams, then it is a general observation that we can't control our dreams completely, although we can make some things happen in our dreams by wishing it. What makes the psychopath's world 'dreamlike' is the fact that only they and their interests are 'real' or 'count' for anything.

One has to be careful here, because many of those we label psychopaths enjoy torturing their victims. But if your victim isn't real, then their pain isn't real either. This just goes to show the danger of label-mongering. I suspect that there is no simple explanation or formula that covers all cases of criminal insanity.

What about the philosophical solipsist, who apparently lives a normal life, respecting the ethical claims of others, who believes (in his/her study) that 'the world is the world of my possible experience, and other persons are just characters in that world'? How do you refute this belief? If everything that will ever happen to me is just 'my experience', then what possible leverage could one get against this view? I won't put my hand in fire because it will lead to a bad experience.

The argument against the philosophical solipsist turns on the idea of truth. We all have the idea of truth. I don't mean the absolute Truth, with a capital 'T', just the way things are, however that may be. I think that there's enough petrol in my Scimitar to get me to Newark and back. As it happens, I'm wrong. My belief wasn't true. Experience teaches us (sometimes, not always unfortunately) which of our beliefs are true and which are false.

But how does the (philosophical) solipsist account for this? The aim is to give the 'best explanation' for my experience. If my car runs out of petrol, when I didn't expect it, I might suspect a leak. But I can't see anything wrong. Maybe a neighbour syphoned it off from my tank during the night. But that's unlikely. It's much more likely that I made a miscalculation when I last filled up, and the petrol gauge is faulty.

The problem is that according to the theory of solipsism there is no other way in which my beliefs can fail to be true, except by things that can turn up in the course of my experience. It's all down to me, and the explanations I am prepared to consider. But nothing in my experience forces me to give rational rather than irrational explanations. If I were becoming increasingly irrational, there would be no way to test this for myself.

The argument against the solipsist theory is that experience is not a hermetically sealed 'world'. There is another viewpoint besides my own, from which my behaviour can be judged independently of how I am inclined to view it. Your viewpoint, for example. That is the basis for the refutation of solipsism. The world of my possible experience is only half the picture. We need to recognize that we are subjects existing in a world which we did not make, potential objects of another person's perception and judgement.

All the best,

Geoffrey