Solipsism, is the idea, that nothing but our own mind exists. Nothing, except ourselves is justified to exist- for we can never be sure. Ever had the absurd notion- that all life is but a dream? Well, this is exactly what solipsism says. Solipsists, not only deny the existence of the materialistic world, but they also dwell in denial of the existence of any other mind. This implies, that we can never know another persons mental state and therefore, all affairs of the mind are private and infallible. Another person’s state of mind can only be assumed- and never be determined. It can only be percieved weakly, with the aid of analogy. Solipsism, advocates the idea, that, ” I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum).
The theory of Solipsism provides three fundamentals, which are:
- My only certain knowledge is the content of my own mind- my thoughts, my experiences, my emotions, my affects etc.
- There is no necessary logical link between the mental and the physical states, that is, say, the mental state of a man can be contrary to his actual ‘possessions.’
- The experiences, emotions and mental states of any individual, are necessarily private and infallible, as we can never know the true mental condition of another mind.
Now, let us discuss these points, individually.
- My only certain knowledge is the content of my own mind – my thoughts, my experiences, my emotions, my affects etc.
This aspect basically implies, we can be certain of nothing but our own mind. We cannot be sure, whether anything else, except ‘ my thoughts, my experiences, my emotions, my affects- myself’ – everything else- might as well be an illusion. Think about it, what is the actual basis of reality? That it can be perceived by the sensory organs?
Well, a schizophrenic might see a woman standing where there is no one at all. The schizophrenic can interact with the woman- talk to her, touch her, see her, hear her etc. For him/her that woman is as real, as the chair you are currently seated upon. So, does that woman become real? No, she does not, because the majority of people cannot perceive that woman standing there. But what if it is the majority that is distorting reality- the majority that is deluded and schizophrenic- not the individual? So, once again, what is reality? What is perceived by sensory organs of the majority of people? How can we be sure it is actually real?
Thus, this theory concludes, that only our own mind and thoughts can be justified to exist. We cannot be sure of anything else. Hence, for that schizophrenic, that woman, is reality. We have no right to declare that woman is an delusion, for that cannot be proved. For you, reality could be the chair.
- There is no necessary logical link between the mental and physical, that is, say, the mental state of a man, can be contrary to his actual ‘possessions’.
Most of us have read stories of a ‘mad scientist’ that uproots a persons brain from the skull and sustains it in a ‘life- sustaining’ liquid. I remember reading this Roald Dahl story, when I was younger. It was a story of a ‘mad’ scientist that removes a person’s brain, attatches an eye and puts it in a container. I was fascinated with this idea- and still am, till date.
In philosophy, the argument of the ‘brain in a vat’ has been commonly used- specially to support solipsism. Now, this argument simply states that if a brain is removed from the body and suspended it in a vat of life-sustaining liquid, with it’s neurons connected by wires to a supercomputer which would provide it with electrical impulses identical to those the brain normally receives- the computer would then be creating a virtual reality, that would also include reactions to the brains own output. The person, with the ‘disembodied’ brain, could therefore have perfectly normal conscious experiences without having any actual contact with reality or real objects in the world. This virtual reality, that is stimulated by the computer, allows the brain to interact with it, in such a way that it seems no different from the reality we experience everyday. The basis of this argument is that, as the ‘electrical impulses’ received by the brain are it’s only mode of contact to the world outside, if identical electrical impulses are produced- a virtual reality can be stimulated. For example, if the supercomputer stimulates a reality in which the individual is walking in the rain, given, the correct impulses are provided- the man can taste, see, hear, touch and even smell the rain- well atleast in his own mind. His physical state, however, would be entirely different.
On the other hand, coma can be considered a profound state of unconsciousness. The body can be pinched- and hit- and bruised- but the mind will remain in the state of unconsciousness and not perceive any pain or harm Hence, the mental state will fail to be linked to the physical state.
Thus, the above arguments support the claim that there is no necessary logical link between the physical and mental.
- The experiences, emotions and mental states of any individual are necessarily private and infallible, as we can never know the actual or true mental state of another mind.
I like giving ‘X, ‘Y’ and ‘W’ examples, so let us take an ‘X’ , ‘Y’ and ‘W’ example for this.
* Let the wife be called X
* Let the husband be called W
* Let a common friend be called Y
Let’s suppose, X’s husband dies, in a car accident. Y can only assume X’s state of mind. Y can take only his observations to come to a conclusion of X’s current mental state. For example, if Y observed X seemed happy with W, then Y will assume X would be unhappy at W’s death. The further observation of X seeming unhappy will strengthen Y’s assumption that X would be unhappy- but this could be different from X’s actual mental state. The case actually could be that X only seemed to be happy with W, and infact was so unhappy that she planed the accident to kill him and now was internally rejoicing the fulfilment of her plans and just pretending to be unhappy. This is just one of the numerous possibilities of X’s actual mental state.
Also, even if Y assumes correctly and X is infact, unhappy by W’s death, Y can only assume the actual magnitude of this sorrow- and can never know X’s exact state of mind.
Therfore the above points explain how the experiences, emotions and mental states of any individual are necessarily private and infallible, for we can never know the true state of any other mind but ourselves.
Now that we’re clear with the concepts, let’s go a bit towards the history.
Solipsism is first recorded with the presocratic Greek sophist (483-375 B.C.) who is quoted by the Roman skeptic Sextus Empiricus as having stated:
- Nothing exists;
- Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and
- Even if something could be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.
In other words, this statement can be comprehended as:
I can only know about my existence. I think I exist, therefore, I exist. I can only know what I feel and what I think, but I cannot be sure it is real, for reality is just a concept which is never certain. We can assume the existence of other thoughts and objects, but never be certain they are not mere assumptions. All that is known to me, will be known only to me, for it can not be communicated in the exact state, as perceived.
Therefore, Solipsism denies any form of objective knowledge- for according to the solipsists, nothing is certain or real and therefore nothing can be certainly or really known.
The basic philosophy of Solipsism has been influential in philosophy since Descrates raised the search for incontrovertible certainty to the status of the primary goal of epistemology whilst also elevating epistemology to “first philosophy”.
Let us now study the different varieties of Solipsism in brief.
Metaphysical Solipsism maintains that the individual self of the solipsistic philosopher is the whole and absolute reality while the external world is just a vivid representation of that self with no individual existence. In other words, ‘The world exists, because I exist’. It implies that the external world cannot exist without the mind. Hence, the external world has no individual existence, all that exists is our mind- it’s thoughts and experiences.
It is considered logically sound. Some of the arguments that support solipsism are:
(a) The only thing we can be certain of- or know directly is our thoughts and our emotions. Everything else cannot exist independent of our thinking- atleast not for us, and therefore it has no concrete individual existence.
(b) Just because my sensory organs perceive something, it does not mean that it actually exists- but it will be nonetheless real for me- and hence no different from actual reality.
(c) I cannot know the actual state, or acknowledge the existence of anything outside my mind.
My mental states are the only things I have access to.
I cannot give an absolution about anything other than my mental states.
Only my mental states are certain to exist.
Hence, metaphysical solipsism implies anything cannot exist independent of the mind- all the external world is just an reflection of how we perceive it and cannot exist independent of our mind.
Epistemological Solipsism is the philosophy according to which only the contents of the solipsistic philosophers mind that are directly accessiblie can be considered worthy and real. The existence of the external world is considered an unnecessary hypothesis- and not actually false.
To support this argument, let us suppose a plant exists independent of our mind. How are we to study that plant- if it is independent of our perceptions?
Methodological Solipsism states that the individual self and its states are the sole grounds for philosophical construction.
Methodological Solipsism implies that things exist only as the mind perceives them. For example, death will exist for me, in the way I perceive it, not in the way society denies it- or the way it exists in a physical state.
The conclusion is that Solipsism is an ancient philosophy that denies the existence of anything except what the mind perceives. Nothing exists independent of perception- for if it does, it is invalid- as nothing can be known of it. Hence, reality is nothing, but a perception of the mind, that may differ from individual to individual.