Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why I Simply Assume The Outside World Exists

Or, Why I Think Solipsism is Irrelevant At Best

I never read a lot of works on solipsism, nor do frequently read a lot of philosophy, though I certainly appreciate the power and value of so much of it.  Truth is, I just like to figure out things on my own (Mom used to said to me, when a kid, that I was trying to “reinvent the wheel”!).  Also, I find a lot of philosophy too academic to have any bearing on real world events, although I do appreciate (and even love to read!) about the finer points of what makes an argument valid, coherent, etc. (though largely limited to reading about fallacies).  I guess all this means I have a love-annoyance relationship with philosophy – appreciating its very real value in shining light on formerly dark aspects of the nature of things, but irritated that so much of it is not readily applicable to helping people determine what truly is valuable in life, nor how the academics findings are applicable to ordinary people.

Anyway, on to the topic in the blog title…

Solipsism is the view that we cannot be reasonably sure that anything exists outside our minds. Its advocates may accept Descartes “I think, therefore I am”, but they do reject the absolute certainty of the claim “there exists things outside our conscious thoughts”. This is because they consider such a claim either false or impossible to prove sufficiently. As such, it is an extreme form of skepticism (not that “extreme” equals “bizarrely untrue” as surely as 4 + 8 = 12).  

On the other hand, their critics claim solipsism encourages, if not mandates “philosophical poverty”, for where can it go from its base assumption?[1]

solipsism seems only to have found a facile way to avoid the more difficult task of a critical analysis of what is 'real' and what isn't, and what 'reality' means.[2]

I can certainly see what both sides are talking about. On one hand, I see nothing that would fatally defeat the notion that, in principle at least, our minds may well be hardwired to see the universe in a certain fundamental way - a way that our free will cannot exercise the slightest control over. Mainstream philosophers apparently handwave away this point of view as "absurd" without any evidence conclusively proving it absurd.  

On the other hand, the Solipsist assertion does nothing to prove the outside world does not exist (as if that is possible). Yet neither can they prove that our minds do, in fact, create all of reality, or even a small part of it – as though we exist under a Matrix-like regime. Likewise, the Solipsists claims are impossible to prove or even outright false.

In the end, it's difficult to see how discussions about Solipsism beyond what I just wrote can be of any value beyond academic parlor games (and movie plots, as noted above).  Therefore, as a matter of practical application, I side with mainstream philosophers despite their inability to conclusively demonstrate Solipsism is, in fact, a false view of reality.   After all, even if the Solipsists are right, I cannot in the slightest way will any changes in the basic laws of the reality I experience.  

Therefore, it is best to treat my perceptions as if it they were real (i.e. actually exist outside my mind).  After all, that outside world (or the involuntarily generated illusion) has considerable bearing on how my state of mind is, so it is best to learn how that reality (real or not) operates.  I can only do so if I ignore other Solipsists claims entirely.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solipsism#Philosophical_poverty
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solipsism#Philosophical_poverty


Todd said...

I really like the term "philosophical poverty." I'll remember that next time I see someone use the non-identity argument against AN. :)

As I see it, the real problem with solipsism, compared to other unanswerable riddles, is that it upsets the validity of person-valuing ethics. The answers to questions like "Is my red your blue?" or "Why is there anything?" are mostly irrelevant to human behavior; rape, torture, and murder would all still be wrong anyway. But the answer to "Do you also have a subjective mind, or am I the only one?" is crucial to determining if you're a being worthy of moral consideration, or if you're really no different from so many video game zombies.

I say we stick to Turing's "polite convention": if something appears to have a mind, the nice thing to do is act as if it actually does. Of course, he was talking about A.I., but same difference basically.

filrabat said...

Sounds good to me, Todd. I agree that the subjectivist stuff is annoying. Although I agree that some values out there are subjective, there is ultimately an objective core to morality.

If nothing else, that objective core consists of the link between our pain sensing, sometimes pleasure sensing, to our empathy and compassion systems; then concluding "pain is bad and we shouldn't inflict pointless and unbearable suffering onto others".

Shadow said...

Great post. I thought I already had left a comment on this, but well...

Been checking some Inmendham lately?


filrabat said...


Sorry for getting back so late with this, but I had a bit of stuff on my plate lately.

You did leave two comments, but for some reason they got stuck in the moderation box. I deleted the other one, as it was a repeat of what you just said. Thank you for the comments, regardless of what trouble you had with posting them.

I've watched a little Gary lately, though I'm not of his Efilist school of though (that discussion is a whole other topic).