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Solipsism redefined?

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  1. Feb 1, 2007 #1
    Ok... Solipsism is the thought that perhaps you are the only being in existence and that everything you percieve and experience is but a figment of your imagination. It has long been claimed to be unfalsifyible. But here is why solipsism cannot be. We have to attack it from several angles so bare with me.

    First rationale: If you are truly the only thing in existence, then there can be no such thing as temporality (ie the world of opposites, comparisons, and cause and effect). In other words YOU ARE IT and you haven't a molecular structure or atoms- the existence of these would imply that you exist in some kind of temporal system that precedes your existence thus suggesting that you are not truly alone. So if it is the case then that you are truly singular in every way then you have nothing to compare yourself to. Without something to compare yourself to you would not and indeed could not feel anything that would even remotely suggest temporality such as feelings like hatred, fear, want or desire. The only thing that you would feel would be utter peace and even that would not be definable. As the sole conscious and singular entity you could only be self aware. There would be no possible way for you to experience anything or even concoct the concept of experiencing something since that would imply that you somehow can comprehend the idea of the existence of things other than yourself. Some might claim that over eons and eons it is possible that something could possibly evolve into existence that happens to possess the capacity for false emotions and true solipsism. But in truth if you are all that is and you are truly singular, this ultimately means that you are "stable" and you cannot evolve since evolution would require that you respond to your environment and you don't have one. At best you are surrounded by empty space and this empty space would mean nothing to you since there is nothing external of you for you to percieve and thus define the concepts of distance and hence space. So if you take it to the extreme and suggest that you TRULY are alone, then solipsism is not possible.

    Second rationale: If you are a biological organism or if you are simply composed of more than one particle, then you by definition exist within a temporal system. One might suggest that an organism could evolve in this case over eons and eons that possesses the capacity for true solipsism but all of your emotions including want, desire, fear, love and hatred would had to have evolved as a result of a real perception of other entities. Otherwise these emotions could never be defined. Our basic emotions mean what they mean to us because of how they have served us and they therefore could never have evolved independently of an external reality.
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  3. Feb 2, 2007 #2


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    So is this a linguistic argument, that one can't rationally consider oneself to be alone?
  4. Feb 2, 2007 #3


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    The problem with most (all) arguments against solipsism, is that they already assume it to be false in the argumentation.

    Look at this argument for instance:
    It is implicitly assumed here that "a temporal system" exists of which you are materially part. But such need not to be the case! Assuming solipsism, all your "temporal experience" (and more specifically your memory) is just as well part of the illusion as anything else. Time flow is just as much an illusion as is the existence of your body, or, by extension, the external world. You are only aware of the "now" and "one moment ago" with its memories, is part of the illusion.

    This is absolutely not a necessity. In the same way as you can have the illusion of a body, or an external world, you can have the illusion that in that fictional external world, there are fictional items with similar bodies as your fictional body. It's also part of the illusion.

    The "stability" comes again with the hypothesis of a true temporal evolution, which was, we concluded, also in fact an illusion. You are not "surrounded by empty space" ; space is just as well part of the illusion.

    In order to help you grasp the concept of solipsism, imagine that all that exists (and we're even leaving here solipsism), is a string of characters (a mapping between {1,...,n} and the set of lettres {"a","b"....} making up the contents of a book. (no "paper" book of course, just an abstract mapping between Platonic natural numbers and a finite set of characters). Imagine now that "you" are a character (personage) in the book, which has the illusion of having lived the book.
  5. Feb 2, 2007 #4
    Just a clarification. In this argument I am not assuming that a temporal system DOES exists. But I am suggesting that there would had to have been, at some point leading up to the here and now a system of comparisons by which I could compare my sense of self with something else. If I in my state of aloneness NEVER had exposure to something other than myself at some point, I could never even conceptualize emotions such as fear or desire. I may infact be in a solipsistic dream state now, but at some point I would had to have ACTUALLY experienced something other than myself in order to have a referenece for those emotions I experience that suggest interaction. The only thing I can know with certainty is my own sense of self and the effect my emotions have on it. The problem with solipsism is that the arguments for it tend to become more and more "less plausible" to the point where truly it is not likely.
  6. Feb 2, 2007 #5


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    But that is already a hypothesis which needs not to be true. Consider my "character in a Platonic book" case. A simple mapping between a finite set of natural numbers and a finite set of characters is all that is needed for this "world" to exist. No space, no time, no matter, no body. Just a story encoded by a finite mapping. The story can be as complicated as you wish. It can be the equivalent of a 500.000 page novel, describing the wanderings of a character, and that character is then your subjective experience. Timeless, evolution less, but entirely an illusion.

    EDIT: such a finite mapping can even be put equal to a single Goedel number. So certain natural numbers, by themselves, could be an entire world containing an illusionary "self". Think about it: purely an abstract natural number, in the Platonic sense, can be an arbitrary complicated "story" and thus a solipsist world of a "self", full of illusions.

    EDIT(2): you can push this even further, and consider the Goedel number corresponding to an entire computer simulation of a world. That natural number would then be, by itself, a world described by the simulation, in all thinkable details, and "lived" by a character undergoing the simulation (with the simulation).
    So all possible computer-simulatable worlds are already Platonically existing, by the mere existence of the natural numbers.

    Why would that be so ? You are implicitly assuming that you need to go through a kind of material "learning cycle" before your illusions can be what they are, but that doesn't need to be so. Your illusions just are. You ARE your illusions.

    Again, this pre-supposes a kind of material carrier of your "being" which needs to go through a learning cycle "before" finally experiencing its "current" illusion. The suggestions of interaction are just part of the same set of illusions which make you think you have a body, you have a past, there is some outer world, or there is some space, or there are others. consider your "learning cycle" part of the illusion of your memory!

    Yes, that's the only absolute truth we (I) have. All the rest is hypothesis.
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2007
  7. Feb 2, 2007 #6

    Well, keep thinking! These kinds of approaches have been considerd before though.

    I think you need to look deeper in to your own premises - ask what you mean when you say *I* - or *we* - question the ideology of the mono-self.

    And then head in to meaning, and what it is and how it works. Separate emotions from the meanings applied by human awareness, and see what's left over.

    Thirdly, one possible counter on your last point there is that it is possible - which we all know from our own dreams - for completely random and unassociated, non-logical events to be presented to us and to yet make perfect sense... in other words, just because it all seems logical that emotions evolved like that, doesn't negate the possibility that we just see it like that because of a trick of meaning.

    Howver, that's just word games, of course - what is really important is that solipsism is based on religious ideas of an individual, atomic self - soul if you like - that's where it is most easily attacked - in its own premises.
  8. Feb 2, 2007 #7
    Well, that;s just playing with words, surely? Especially the fuzzy meaning of *existence*.... you don't actually pin down how those things exist in any way - you just widen the meaning of the word *existence* to include those abstractions.

    Besides, even in your model there is somethig that needs to be pre-supposed - the existence of the self. And it is arguments such as this that define self in to existence in the first place. (or rather, widen the meaning of existence, to incorporate our ideological beliefs, lol.)

    Have you hear dof the *beetle in the box* argument?

    I agree in many ways, but it seems to me that my illusions aren't 'flat' -= i.e. I can specifically remember my illusions forming over time in to a greater level of complexity... and then I watched my kids do it as well.

    Problem with your argument is it boils down to my illusions versus your illusions... i.e. the more you rely on such linguistic, ideological, limiting models, the more it really is only literally about illusions - ideas - ideologies versus ideologies.

    And the opposite presumes a disembodied self of some kind - which is FAR more of a presumption. Far more likely that the truth is all around us - what we are experiencing - a mental self-construct hosted in material body which has experiences... re Husserl.

    Well, that is an idea that has many layers - one of which I agree with, and the lower layers I don't! Just because our interactions are really about mental activity doesn't mean that those interactons werepart of an artificial memory installed in to us - even the artificial memory was experienced on some level, even if it is only as a memory.

    Still, yes - I can agree with the idea there - just, I wonder about the whole implication of illusion - to me, more like *Maya* than just pure illusion - like, appearence of truth.

    No, ALL of that is an ideological belief.
  9. Feb 2, 2007 #8
    That anology will already suffer from the fact that the only way that "character" can come alive is when there is "someone else" reading the book....
  10. Feb 2, 2007 #9

    Interesting thought.
  11. Feb 2, 2007 #10


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    No, that's the point. Take our "material" universe. We take it that the matter in it doesn't come alive because "someone is watching it". In the same way, you could conceive that the "character" comes to life just by its abstract Platonic existance. The number = the character = the illusion = the self in this case.

    Don't confuse "the character as the mental picture build in the mind of the reader" with the self I'm trying to illustrate, and which is simply the number itself. If you give Platonic existence to mathematical concepts, then you could imagine that this mathematical structure is, in itself, rich enough to be self-conscious. This would then be a kind of solipsist self. It could be YOUR self, in fact :smile:
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2007
  12. Feb 2, 2007 #11


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    I was only trying to find an illustration of a "solipsist world". So we limit the ontology to the strict minimum, and in the case I illustrate, the ontology is limited to the abstact concept of a number, which can be thought of having the structure of a story, which is in a 1-1 mapping with the experience of the self.
    In the same way as we have our "laws of nature" which are in the end a mathematical structure, and which are supposed to "describe" nature (which makes nature itself into the equivalence of a mathematical object), and of which a small part is the "material carrier of our self" and hence the structure that describes our subjective experience, in the solipsist idea, we could limit the entire universe to just the description of the subjective experience, which is nothing else but the "self". It is the strict minimum of "nature" that has to exist to carry a "self" with those subjective experiences.

    Well, following Descartes, that's the only thing that is not open to negation: my subjective experience exists for me, without any doubt. All the rest is hypothesis, but not this.

    But that also could be an illusion, build into your fake memory (which is a structure of relationships, encoded in our number).

    Whole of nature could just be a description of your subjective experience, which contains your "experience of memory", and even your "experience of formation of your souvenirs" etc.... In fact, illusion = self = subjective experience = the strict minimum of a "nature".

    All you need for a self to exist, is a structure which carries it, and the minimum structure that carries it is the desciption of its experience in one form or another, such as a number.
  13. Feb 2, 2007 #12
    I think one point that musn't be clouded is the starting point of the discourse and there truly can be only one- I AM. When you take that as very fundamental and serious as it is you quickly realize that the only evidence for or against solipsism that is ultimately admissible is what YOU can muster via your own metaphysical analysis. Everything external of your own self awareness, and everything that is supposed cannot truly be admitted as evidence. Interestingly in order to attempt to discredit solipsism you must first truly adopt solipsism.
  14. Feb 3, 2007 #13
    Carry a self?? Pre-supposition of the self? Teleological argument? Starts with the presumption of *self* which could just as easily be, and probably is - in fact, seems to be - the product of a process, not the start of it. Although on the surface it seems as though you are talking about a process with consciousness at the end of it, I am not taling about what you describe as the process, but the assumption in your argument - you start with the un-questioned belief in self, and then look to explain it. What should be the thing up for debate is already a concrete conclusion before you even start. Be careful of that, lol.

    Is our day to day understanding and experience of the world really mathematical though? Or, is your example using an anology, and yet, gaining nothing fromt he analogy except a false new way of looking at it?

    More important, *sunjective* is an ideological pre-supposition... teleology again?

    Well, e-mail the Buddha and tell him then, because he had an idea regarding non-existecne of self. So, it is only *given* to you...

    Insisting that the self really *exists* in that sense is an ideological standpoint, not a *given* of any kind. Many peope don't agree with Descartes - see Gilbert Ryle.

    However - we are playing with the menaing of *existence* again - *self* has an archaeology as a concept, and is deeply based on presuppositions inherited from religious standpoints, most importantly a subtle sense of the *wholeness* and singularity of the self, as some kind of mono-entity/spirit/essential thing. Compare with Wittgenstein;s assertiont hat *I* is a grammatical conceit.

    Well, difficult to see here, but that is based on ideological beliefs relating to *moments* which we very rarely, if ever question. We exist in a continuum of some kind - whether temporal, physical or conceptual. What is very hard to see is that memory itself generates the sense of that continuum, so as long as the memory is there, the sense ofcontinuum is there. *Moments*, as you are inferring it - although you don't use the word but it is implied in the sense of a whole setof memories becoming *active* at one point, artificially generating a sense of the past - are also an idea, not an actual thing, but, if external *time* does exist, it still makes no difference - because what we are really talking about is something we percieve - i.e. our own sense of continuum. As long as we percieve it, then thatis the thing that we percieve, and so the self-sense of having a past is a real experience. Fact is, at any one moment all the past memories are gone - they don't exist, so our sense of having a past and being in a continuum is artificial anyway - so in a way, what you say is true, and at each *now* the setof memories is just installed information, artificially generating a sense of continuum.

    But that doesn't mean that the memories did not happen, it just points to how we process and store information.

    We could have just had our memories installed, I guess -but I am far more suspicious of ways of looking at the world based on ideas in vogue at the moment - like computers have info installed,therefore brains might... every age does that - uses what is going on as its analogy point. It's THAT we need to be supicious of *Oh, it's like the Matrix...* Maybe, unitl the next analogy point come along.

    Tat analogy point - i,e, Matrix type ideas seems to have resonance or a greater possibility of truth just because ofin vogue ideas - whereas, in fact, it's justone of an infinity of possibilites picked at random, all with equally little chance of being true - same as *MAybe sea slugs smoke caterpillars and their drug laced imagination generates what we think of as *us*...* Same difference. Far more likely that we are actually seeing is based on what is going on.

    Have you considered that *subjective* maybe an artificial conceptual creation, and an ideological belief? In fact, we can negate your idea easily, not by proving or disproving sollipsism, just by examining our own language use to explore how we made up concepts like *subjective* in the first place. Once they are seen as artificial, then thereis no basis for them to be *true*, or any ide based on them.

    Could you explain that more? The first part - sure - but the second part about the number...?? Tell you what, looked at fromanother perspective, consider the number I. Not one, but *I* as in I am... the number I -an ideological belief in the existence of self.
  15. Feb 3, 2007 #14
    Bilateral arguments regarding solipsism are ultimately futile. No thinker can deny that initially all one really has and can prove beyond any doubt is their own consciousness and therefore quantitative analyses are not admissible and any temptation to draw comparisons has to be be avoided. This fact limits the number of possible positions on solipsism to ones that are based on introspection only. Although I'm enjoying reading all of these various thoughts and ideas, the only ones that ultimately count are my own and those that bare my scrutiny. If I may digress a bit here I'd like to make the observation (not of anyone's comments in particular...) that it is interesting to note how many arguments are based on comparisons and not on metaphysical introspection. For those of us who shun metaphysics, sorry - in this case it's all we got and all of our philosophical training is more or less of no use to us on this matter. I'd have to concur with "Ghostfaith's" statement and suggest that the Buddha would likely be better suited to solve the issue of solipsism than we philosophers.:frown:
  16. Feb 3, 2007 #15
    Well, the Buddha was a philosopher of course, and the first thing he would say is that the *self* which is ideoligically at the fundamental heart of solipsism is an illusion.

    Now, many people may go nuts with that, lol, trying to work out what can be having the illusion in that case... And the obvious answer is that the illusion comes first, and the self second.
  17. Feb 4, 2007 #16
    But Buddha's view isn't solipsistic. For example Buddha did not believe that he was the only thing in existence. Buddha's view simply redefines reality to include something of a dual nature- multiplicity stemming from singularity, that singularity being something that ALL have access to. From Buddha's perspective one can internally access the realm of singularity and oneness and then reaccess the realm of multiplicity in whatever form and at whatever coordinates you so choose. It doesn't discount others. It simply discredits others' egos.
  18. Feb 4, 2007 #17
    No. I don't think it is true to say that. The Buddha's thought is more complex. The Buddha rejected all forms - all ideologies - very deliberately. The Buddha doesn't come from a premise of any ideology of the self - he deconstructs it.

    Anyone who does anythign like that - and I'm reminded of Castaneda's stuff as well - has to work by speaking your language - so if you use the *I* and are believing in the I, then they will say *you are...* but they are attempting to generate a non-linguistic awareness of the artificiality of the I concept. So they may say *look within...* but they are using the language of the person they are speaking to, and then refining the meanings of what they say until you see their profound meaning.

    The Buddha doesn't discredit egos - egos hadn't been invented then. In Castaneda's idea, there is *the dreamer and the dreamed*... what they both say - Castaneda, and the Buddha - on a sophisticated level is that the dream comes first, and the dreamer second... Which is the same as Wittgenstein's assertion that *I* is a product of grammar.
  19. Feb 4, 2007 #18
    Exactly. He DECONSTRUCTS self and of course ego is the self.
    I'm not sure what you mean here. Perhaps an explicit definition for ego wasn't around then, but ego certainly was. From the perspective of a non-solipsist, a confirmed and actualized solipsist couldn't survive for one moment. Boddidharma ate, drank, slept, lived for years and eventually died. He also was an altruist. He did profess the illusion, not merely as his own but the illusion af all. Use a tree as a simple metaphor. An actualized tree without eyes doesn't care that it has branches (oneness). The branches with eyes only percieve each other and don't realize they are one with the tree (multiplicity). This suggests that the collective consciousness of the tree resides at a higher level than that of the "individual" branches. The branches have egos - the tree does not.
  20. Feb 4, 2007 #19
    Well, you need to be careful with that, in my view, Philly. All concepts, especially ones like *ego* have an archaeology - like Nietszche said, nothing *is* - everything has become... So, just because we view ego in a certain way now, doesn't mean that it has always been viewed, or, crucially, always existed in the way that we percieve it as doing now.

    That is so hard ot accept because we have an ingrained ideology of the self as a mono-thing, and therefore unchanging over time. However, wild children, cut off from civilisation, don't have an ego int he way that people brought up in cities do - they just don't. They don't have the same conceptual sense of self.

    *Ego* is an idea - used to try to point to somethign which is not really a thing. Just giving it a name artificially denotes existence and *singleness* to the thing - makes it a *thing*.

    Once the construction of the self is considered, solipsism is seen as a construction based on that foundation - all constructed - and we can negate it not by proving objective reality, but by uncovering the archaeology of our own thought.

    You can't know that. You are still remaining ideologically loyal to the idea of a kind of soul-self, a mono-thing, an entity which must be unchanging through time. It isn't even unchanging through one life time, never mind over thousands of years. Apes, at the point they were developing rudimentary language with rudimentary references to individuals as a functional language use may well havehad a rudimentary proto-ego - nothing like what we mostly have today... it is not an unchanging thing.

    Bodhidarma is Ta Mo - a Buddhist sage who travelled to China and taught at Shaolin - he isn't Gautama Buddha - just, by the by.

    Buddhism has many elements of compassion and altruism, that's true - no body gets it ALL right, lol... But, the kind of concepts they worked with are known to open up the emotions of compassion. It doesn't meant hat they didn't fundamentaly believe in thenon-existence of self. Some times it is the people who don't actually care who offer the best help, and do the most seemingly altruistic things.

    In our modern world we have the Matrix analogy,which say a solipsist might be eating illusion - anything. But, sollipsism can generate an infinity of possibilities - maybe you are God, entertaining yourself? But they all involve answers in the *unknowable* - and yet the unknowable is a made up idea, a place where we can pretend the final statges, or the foundation stages of our questions exist - to excuse ourselves from exploring our own *known* - where all of the questions come from, and consequently all of the answers are.

    Well, that is really about categorisation, not about any *higher truth*. Maybe each of the cells in your body is aware in its own way? To see all of your cells as making up *you*is a choice and a judgement - a categorisation - an ideological belief.

    Do all the people in the world added up together make a collective consciousness?

    Thing is to see these as artificial categorizations,a nd allow a little undecidability in to the equation. Individualk egos are born out of a social installation - all of the *meanings* in our language and society. There's no strict split one way or the other - part of the *ego* appears to bein our head, and yet, it is formed out of language and meaning that exists within a culture.

    What I'm saying is that Buddha, and others - say, Derrida - are challenging those categorisations, and opening up not new knowledge, but new ways of seeing - because the old ways generate specific ways of seeing - like, still trying to get to grips with solipsism - instead of trying to answer it with the kind of answer the question itself suggests, try to see that the question IS suggesting what the answer must be like. Look at new ways of looking at the information. Find new answers - answers that explore the assumptions in the question.

    Hope that helps.
  21. Feb 4, 2007 #20
    Thanks for your clarifications and thoughts Ghostfaith and thank you for pointing out my error with Bodhidarma and Siddhartha Gautama. In a nutshell I think that part of our disagreement here is over semantics. Without ego (or self) solipsism is mute. The reason I suggest that ego (the concept of self) was around in the days of Buddha is because all conscious entities in a temporal universe need to possess a self concept of some sort by virtue of their own inextricable perception of physical individuality. We are truly looking at two possible truths- the self as one of many selves, or the self as the only self and we need to be completely sensitive to both of these possibilities. But I don't see solipsism as a spiritual issue fundamentally. Spiritualism is something for the solipsist and non-solipsist alike and doesn't really speak to the fundamental question- do you and I both exist, or is it just me? (or just you?). Spiritualism has a place in either domain. The discourse really can't begin in any way other than with the question "What do you know with absolute certainty about your own existence?", followed by "What can you deduce from that?" Beyond that it isn't about how far someone else has gotten with their quest for truth but "How far can YOU get?..."
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