Sunday, August 14, 2011

Why Solipsism is Impossible

Solipsism is a huge problem for anyone interested in promoting introspection as a way to understand the mind (which includes me). You can only introspect on your own mind, not on anybody else’s. So technically, all you really know for sure is your own mind. The existence of any other minds is purely hypothetical.

The same would go for the existence of the entire world. If you accept introspectively known sense impressions as valid information, you realize that you have no other information. All your sensory data are known to you and only you, by mental impressions. A touch on the arm is known as the mental feeling of a touch on the arm. The arm itself knows nothing. All you can know for sure is the mental impressions you have of the world. You can’t know if anything else is really “out there.”

In the most extreme form, a solipsist asserts, “I am the only self that exists. All the rest of the world is, at best, a hypothesis, or possibly just a figment of my imagination.”

There is no way to refute solipsism. Any counter-argument against it would just be another figment of my imagination. If it is false, I could never know it, because my own mind is the only thing known to me. Solipsism is an extreme form of idealism, which says that only mental events can be known to exist (or, only mental events do exist).

Once you take introspective findings as valid knowledge, you are confronted with the question, How is introspective knowledge different from other, empirical knowledge, such as scientific knowledge? The difference is that introspective knowledge of one’s own mind is certain, whereas scientific knowledge is hypothetical, merely a set of agreed-upon propositions. Scientific knowledge cannot be certain because it is not acquired through introspection, which gives the only direct, certain knowledge. (Image: feelwelcome.com.uk)

Consequently, in scientific psychology, introspection is not allowed. No introspective observations can be accepted into discussion of how the mind works because introspection is private, and if you accept private data as valid, it takes precedence over hypothetical, consensus-based scientific data, and no further scientific agreement or progress can be expected or achieved. In other words, introspection implicitly carries the threat of idealism, and then solipsism, which is ultimately nihilistic. If my own mind is the only mind that can be known directly for sure, how is a scientific psychology possible? It isn’t. The threat of solipsism therefore is serious. It would destroy everything else. That’s why it is simply outlawed, and so is introspection. And that’s why there is no generally accepted methodology like “scientific introspection.” (Despite that, I have published a book by that title, explaining how it would be possible).

The threat of solipsism is false; not a real threat at all. It is based on a misunderstanding of the human mind, which does not, and cannot exist in isolation from other human minds. One's own self and mind are learned (acquired) from socialization and cannot ever be separated from that context. The image of Rodin’s solitary thinker is profoundly misleading. We are not monads, and never have been.

The philosophical problem of solipsism is posed by abstracting one’s own mind from that of others, but this abstraction presupposes that the world is already given as a shared world. Hence solipsism presupposes its own refutation. It is a confusion, not a valid proposition.

True solipsism would require that I do not experience myself as a single self in distinction from other selves, but that I experience myself as the only self that exists. But that is impossible, for self is only defined by other. So again, solipsism is impossible in principle.

What about a person, say, an infant, who has virtually no self-awareness. Could that person be a solipsist? Such a person does not have the resources to contemplate the possibility of solipsism. So the thesis of solipsism is impossible in principle in this case also.

Suppose a philosopher, using reason and analysis, abstracts the personal self away from its social origins and maintenance, and considers it as an absolute, transcendental ego, disconnected from all others. From that position of the abstracted transcendental ego, could solipsism be taken seriously?

Husserl, inventor of the transcendental ego, might seem to have believed that. But he also wrote that only his reflections on intersubjectivity make “full and proper sense” of the transcendental ego (Husserl cited by Zahavi, 1996). This is why Husserl claims that a phenomenological discussion of subjectivity in the end turns out to be a discussion not simply of the I, but of the we. Thus once again, even from the position of the transcendental ego, solipsism is not possible in principle.

What is possible: An object can be experienced in different mental attitudes. Hegel noted that a book can be experienced by the senses not as a book, but as merely an existent object with properties, not as a social, historical object with meaning. So it is possible to “pretend” or imagine that one’s own self is merely an existent object, divorced of its social meaning. But that is imagination. We can imagine flying pigs, too, but that doesn’t prove a thing. We can imagine an isolated, mondadic self, but to take that fantasy seriously is the delusion that constitutes solipsism. So that solves a problem you didn't even know you had. Don't thank me.

Reference
Zahavi, D. (1996). Husserl's Intersubjective Transformation of Transcendental Philosophy. Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 27 (3), 228-245.

9 comments:

  1. I don't care what you say, THANK YOU, You saved me from being crazy, I hate a lot in my mind, I sometimes thought "Am I schizophrenic" because my anxiety latched onto this notion so much that I was questioning and analyzing the simplest rational answers to the point It worried me for my own personal mental health... I did not believe my thoughts, but I was worried from reacting from my Irrational delusional thoughts, I get over it one day, but my anxiety comes back when I think about "why I thought like that" or entertain that Idea. It got so bad, it started to manifest. Your answers are perfect, it's like you freed me, I love you for that, not literal, but as a fellow human being. Thank You, Thank You. The reason why I said that so much, because I was thinking I wonder if people see the same colors as me,hear the same music as me, smell the same as me, what if this and that because I let Solipism drive me nearly crazy, your explanation makes so much sense, Thank You, if you are my imagination which I Know fully YOU'RE not, I don't really care, because I don't think like that no more to the point thinking about it now it doesn't make any sense until it doesn't bother me

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  2. Do you think wittensteins theory is valid? Doesn't the fact solopism exists as a theory prove it false? Why would
    You imagine something like that if all this we see
    Is to keep us from boredom?

    Do you think there are too many things that they have taken for real anyway; a mind, conciousness, imagination? Why would the presume these are real and everything else is imagined?
    When everything else they say is the imagination?

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  3. That bottom bit about the pig is exactly how I feel against solipsism, I could imagine anything, like world peace, flying rainbow unicorns outside my window, my pets living forever, but does that happen? No. You control your imagination but you can't control your reality. As a kid I had a wild imagination, but come to think of it, did you ever see santa, easter bunny? No? Then that is proof that the world exists and solipsism doesn't.

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  4. While I don't believe in solipsism as any sort of truth, your fundamental explanation of it as false is based on outside concepts, ie ideas that are not a part of solipsism, but within solipsism, exist as an attempt to disprove it.
    "It is based on a misunderstanding of the human mind, which does not, and cannot exist in isolation from other human minds. One's own self and mind are learned (acquired) from socialization and cannot ever be separated from that context"
    You give no proof that that a mind cannot exists on its own, nor do you give any real proof that socialization is a true experience.
    Those that say "I can imagine X yet X does not occur" likewise do not provide proof against the solopsistic mind. All that they prove is that the concept of complete mental control is false, and they expose a lack of control over the solopsistic mind, not a proof that it is not real.
    What we see in science is that within many systems, there are concepts within that system that are likely but cannot be proven given only what that system provides.
    It is impossible to disprove solipsism, thus, because one person cannot through any sort of math and science prove or disprove to a completely full degree the universe that he or she observes.

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    1. Thanks for this comment, Anon. Your reasoning seems right to me. I appreciate Godel's incompleteness theorem, but it seems to me it invites, rather than precludes, taking a larger context, and from that context, solipsism is revealed as self-contradictory.

      If you insist on remaining circumscribed by a given set of principles, as in "recieved" philosophy of science, you can spend a lot of time pursuing pseudo-puzzles, or, you can end up as a blind extremist, as some religionists do.

      As for evidence to support my claim that the human mind is fundamentally social - well, that would take more than a blog entry can support. I invite you to see my book, "The Three-In-One Mind: A Mental Architecture" (See http://billadamsphd.net).

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  5. Bill, you've got it backwards. You're using the flying pig as an argument against solipsism when it better fits an argument for solipsism. A solipsist would say that the mind of another is like a flying pig. It can be conceived of but, barring major advancements in the field of genetics, can't be experienced.

    I'm already repeating myself, but to your point about solipsism presupposing "that the world is already given as a shared world," I disagree. Imagine this hypothetical situation: you are dropped into a blank existence of which you are the only occupant. Next an apple is created and you observe it. Next another apple is created. Even if you lack the language to describe it, you now understand the idea of plurality. Next, just to reinforce the idea, two bananas appear. You now understand that the possibility of plurality is not limited to apples. Next a single orange appears. Could you not now conceive of a second orange in the absence of seeing one? The point here is plurality is a concept of the mind that could be applied to any other object of the mind.

    By no means am I arguing that I am the only mind in existence, but seemingly my mind is the only one that I can directly experience. Would you say the same about your own? Can you experience my mind? Seemingly, we arrive at the conclusion that there are others through comparisons of sensory experiences organized as mental objects (in this case, "my body" and "your body") and the apparent correlation between "my consciousness" and "my body." The idea of a self or of an external world is itself an object of the mind. The problem is that we have no way of knowing anything about the world in the absence of mental objects because they are in integrated into every experience. In this conceptual realm, when it comes to knowing whether our reality is solipsistic or not, there's a dead end in every direction.

    Oh, and also this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%BCnchhausen_trilemma

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  6. Solipism is literally impossible to prove. Solipist cannot make any kind of point in an argument, because if they truly believe that nothing else exists outside of their mind, then any type of proof they bring up is invalid, because nothing exists outside of their mind. The word "Proof" is just a Fragment of their imagination. The situation of creating anything inside of a dream while sleeping is also invalid, because that too is only a fragment of their imagination. The whole idea of solipism is also invalid, because that TOO is only a fragment of their imagination. So therefore a true solipist wouldn't have no need to argue, because any point they make would only jus be a fragment of their imagination. I think I've made my point. Besides solipsism is selfish, scary philosophy. What kind of person would think?

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    1. I'm glad I remembered to hit the "notify me" box because I love this topic.

      Marquel, I think there a lot of definitions of solipsism. I don't think that your definition is the generally accepted one. There's a difference between not knowing what is outside the mind (I think this is the generally accepted definition) and saying that nothing exists outside of the mind, which I agree is pointless speculation. However, I don't think that the generally accepted definition precludes consideration or imagination of what might be outside the mind.

      As Bill alluded to, there's a paradox in that, solipsism (using the generally accepted definition and not a definition that is specific to other minds) can only be conceived to the extent that plurality can be conceived. In other words, I can only conceive of my mind being the only thing that is knowable if I can first conceive of my mind as being a distinct object that is a subset of a greater reality. However, once we conceive of a mind, which gets filled through sensory experiences from an external world (I think most people would agree on that), the idea of solipsism, as is generally defined, becomes an apparent reality because for us to know anything about the world, the world must come into our minds, and to the extent that the world doesn't make it into the mind, the world is not known.

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  7. I agree that there's nothing more annoying than an argumentative solipsist. :)

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