Solipsism (Latin: solus, alone + ipse, self) is the position that nothing exists beyond oneself and one's immediate experiences. In philosophy, solipsism thus amounts to a refusal to acknowledge our common sense experience of the world as valid. The starting point of solipsism, the recognition that my own self-experience is the inevitable gate for any experience to reach me, represents a valid challenge to our common sense perception of things as simply ‘being there'.
The conclusion that everything in the outside world is nothing but a projection of my own self is philosophically quite untenable. Among other things, it makes genuine communication with others impossible, since each individual is bound, from the solipsist perspective, to consider others as non-existent entities. As a result, full-blown solipsism has hardly ever been adopted by a philosophical school.
The challenge of solipsism
On the other hand, much of modern philosophy rests on Descartes’ assumption that the “I” alone is certain. In medieval philosophy (and even for Descartes), the reality of the universe was guaranteed by God who created it. “I” was part of the world, and others were understood to be part of it on an equal footing, all belonging together to an organized and purposeful whole. In the modern scientific view, the world’s reality is taken as obvious on experimental and common sense grounds. With the loss of the absolute reference of a God transcending my own self, however, justifying the independent existence of a world outside me has become very problematic from a strictly philosophical viewpoint. Once my own self-awareness becomes the starting point of all certainty, every other entity I perceive becomes relative to my self and its reality can easily be challenged. If practically all modern and contemporary philosophies reject solipsism as a conclusion, they mostly remain open to its challenge. Thus, solipsism, the inability to go beyond one’s own world, stands as a reminder that the contemporary worldview generally lacks an ultimate point of reference.
Solipsism limits reality, but also knowledge of that reality to one’s own self. Accordingly, it is used for two related yet distinct concepts:
- A metaphysical belief that the universe is entirely the creation of one's own mind. Thus, in a sense, the belief that nothing 'exists' outside of one's own mind.
- An epistemological position that one's own perceptions are the only things that can be known with certainty. The nature of the external world—that is, the source of one's perceptions—therefore cannot be conclusively known; it may not even exist. This is also called external world skepticism.
Origin of solipsism
- 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
Epistemological solipsism is generally identified with statements 2 and 3 from Gorgias; metaphysical solipsism embraces all three.
Varieties of solipsism
Philosophical disputes about the character and the consequences of solipsism hinge on the questions of (1) whether there is anything approaching a rigorous definition of solipsism, (2) whether a unique definition can be singled out as the one and only proper definition, or (3) whether there are as many definitions of solipsism as there are solipsists.
Metaphysical solipsism is the variety of idealism which maintains that the individual self of the solipsistic philosopher is the whole of reality and that the external world and other persons are representations of that self, having no independent existence (Wood 1962, 295). More tersely, if more vaguely, it is expressed by the assertion "I myself only exist," in other words, it is the doctrine that no reality exists other than one's self.
One reason for the lack of support of this philosophical position is because of how strange it would be for a solipsist to preach solipsism—as if to convince everyone around them that they are purely a figment of the author's own imagination. The very idea of communicating philosophical ideas would be entirely pointless to a true solipsist, as according to them, there is no other mind with whom they would communicate their beliefs.
Methodological or epistemological solipsism
- Methodological solipsism is the epistemological thesis that the individual self and its states are the sole possible or proper starting point for philosophical construction. A skeptical turn along these lines is Cartesian skepticism.
- Methodological solipsism is the thesis that the mental properties or mental states of an organism can be determined without any reference to the society or the physical world in which the organism is embedded.
Jerry Fodor defines methodological solipsism as the extreme position that states that the content of someone's beliefs about, say, water has absolutely nothing to do with the substance water in the outside world, nor with the commonly accepted definition of the society in which that person lives. Everything is determined internally. Moreover, the only thing that other people have to go on in ascribing beliefs to someone else are the internal states of his or her physical brain.
Issues raised by solipsism
Once the philosopher’s own reflection had become the inevitable starting point of any investigation (rather than faith in a God or naïve assumptions about an external reality), it became also easy for philosophy to become stuck within the confines of the self. Willingly or not, most modern and contemporary philosophies thus adopt an implicit position that comes close to solipsism and is inherently egocentric.
Still, it is not true that emphasis on the role of the self inevitably amounts to solipsism. Historically, the growing importance of self-consciousness in the quest for truth has other origins than mere self-centeredness. First, the step away from automatic acceptance of truths given by tradition was an inevitable and necessary one in the development of human thought. At the dawn of the modern era, Francis Bacon and Empiricism on one hand, and René Descartes and Rationalism on the other hand emphasized the self’s responsibility in establishing criteria for true knowledge. Taking responsibility for identifying true knowledge, rather than delegating that decision to accepted ways of thinking, is an appropriate method and does not involve self-centeredness. Next, the discovery of the central position of our mind and its workings has been a crucial element in the development of human thought. An awareness of the complexities involved in these investigations does not necessarily imply that the self becomes the exclusive focus of interest.
What has plagued post-Cartesian philosophy is its inability to secure an ultimate foundation beyond the self’s questioning (the ‘cogito’). Ultimately, this has led many to discredit the very attempt to find such a foundation as foundationalism. As a result, solipsism has loomed large as a possible “reductio ad absurdum” of thought systems: if such or such a thought is brought to its logical conclusion, it can be said, it amounts to limiting all reality to the self, i.e., to solipsism. That conclusion would be ridiculous and unacceptable, thus a revision of the theory is required.
Solipsism in relation to other philosophies
Idealism and materialism
One of the most fundamental debates in philosophy concerns the "true" nature of the world—whether it is some ethereal plane of ideas, or a cold reality of atoms and energy. Materialism posits a separate 'world out there' that can be touched and felt, with the separate individual's physical and mental experiences reducible to the collisions of atoms and the interactions of firing neurons. The only thing that dreams and hallucinations prove are that some neurons can misfire and malfunction, but there is no fundamental reality behind an idea except as a brain-state.
Idealists, on the other hand, believe that the mind and its thoughts are the only true things that exist. This doctrine is often called Platonism after its most famous proponent. The material world is ephemeral, but a perfect triangle or "love" are eternal. Religious thinking tends to be some form of idealism, as God usually becomes the highest ideal. On this scale, solipsism tends toward extreme idealism. Thoughts and concepts are all that exist, and furthermore, only 'my' thoughts and consciousness exist. The so-called "reality" is nothing more than an idea that the solipsist has (perhaps unconsciously) created.
There is another option, of course: the belief that both ideals and "reality" exist. Dualists commonly argue that a clear distinction between the mind (or 'ideas') and matter is appropriate. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes concluded that he could not doubt the existence of himself (the famous cogito ergo sum argument), but that he could doubt the (separate) existence of his body. From this he inferred that the person Descartes must not be identical to the Descartes body, since one possessed a characteristic that the other did not: namely, it could be known to exist. Solipsism agrees with Descartes in this aspect, and goes further: only things that can be known to exist for sure should be considered to exist. The Descartes body could only exist as an idea in the mind of the person Descartes. Descartes and dualism go on to prove the actual existence of reality as opposed to a phantom existence (as well as the existence of God in Descartes’ case), using the realm of ideas merely as a starting point, but solipsism usually finds those further arguments unconvincing. The solipsist instead proposes that their own unconscious is the author of all seemingly "external" events from "reality."
Radical empiricism subjective idealism
The idealist philosopher George Berkeley argued that so-called physical objects do not exist independently of the mind that perceives them. An item truly exists only so long as it is observed; otherwise, it is not only meaningless, but simply nonexistent. The observer and the observed are one. Berkeley does attempt to show that things can and do exist apart from the human mind and our perception, but only because there is an all-encompassing Mind in which all 'ideas' are perceived—in other words, God, who observes all. The solipsist appreciates the fact that nothing exists outside of perception, but would further point out that Berkeley falls prey to the egocentric predicament—he can only make his own observations, and can't be truly sure that this God or other people exist to observe "reality."
Religious perspectives on solipsism
All world religions appear to take a clear stand against self-centeredness. The individual is requested to reject the emphasis on the self in favor of an emphasis on God and/or others. In that sense, solipsism is contrary to any religious perspective. On the other hand, however, the same religious traditions do emphasize the need to find one’s true self. They even emphasize that the genuine self is identical with the divine or the universe. In Hinduism, Brahman, the world soul, is seen as being one and the same as Atman, the individual soul. The Buddha is quoted as saying that he alone existed in all of heaven and earth. Similar statements can also be found in Islam’s mystical tradition.
Therefore, there is a sense in which the self as the all-encompassing reality, or solipsism, can be acceptable to the religious mind—it can even be a mandate to achieve that insight. In the religious perspective, however, it never means a reduction of the divine and cosmic dimension to the smallness of the selfish “I.” It rather means that the human self is the locus of the realization of the divine or cosmic aim. Significantly, overcoming attachments to one’s self is generally seen as the precondition for that self to achieve its divine and cosmic destiny.
While solipsism is not generally compatible with traditional views of God, it is somewhat related to Pantheism, the belief that everything is God and part of God. The difference is usually a matter of focus. The pantheist would tend to identify themselves with being a part of everything in reality, which is actually all God beneath the surface. For instance, many ancient Indian philosophies advocate the notion that all matter (and thus humans) is subtly interconnected with not only our immediate surroundings, but with everything in the universe; that all we can perceive is a kind of vision, Samsara. The solipsist, however, would be more likely to put themselves squarely in the center as the only item of reality, with all other beings in reality illusions. It could be said to be another naming dispute. "The Universe" / "God" for the pantheist is "My Unconscious Mind" / "Me" for the solipsist.
Thoughts somewhat similar to solipsism are present in much of eastern philosophy. Taoism and several interpretations of Buddhism, especially Zen, teach that drawing a distinction between self and universe is nonsensical and arbitrary, and merely an artifact of language rather than an inherent truth. Eastern thought generally teaches that there is a fundamental interconnection between the self and the universe.
"He who sees everything as nothing but the Self, and the Self in everything he sees, such a seer withdraws from nothing.
"For the enlightened, all that exists is nothing but the Self, so how could any suffering or delusion continue for those who know this oneness?"
Isha Upanishad; sloka 6, 7
The philosophy of Vedanta which says "Aham Brahamam," roughly translated as "I am the Absolute Truth," is truly nothing but solipsism in its sincerest sense. The "real" world is but an illusion in the mind of the observer. When the solipsist understands the "maya" or illusion of world, then he escapes the mundane and reaches the state of everlasting bliss.
Some later representatives of one Yogacara subschool (Prajnakaragupta, Ratnakirti) were proponents of extreme illusionism and solipsism (as well as of solipsism of this moment). The best example of such extreme ideas was the treatise of Ratnakirti (XI century) "Refutation of the existence of other minds" (Santanantara dusana).
Objections to solipsism
The following are some common critiques and responses about solipsism:
- People die
- A critic would point out that many (self-proclaimed) solipsists have died in the history of the world, and solipsism hasn't disappeared yet. However, the solipsist would respond that he or she has not died, and therefore his or her solipsism is not yet disproved. He or she never believed in the existence of those other solipsists in the first place.
- The applicability of the past
- The fact that an individual may find a statement such as "I think, therefore I am" applicable to them, yet not originating in their mind indicates that others have had a comparable degree of insight into their own mental processes, and that these are similar enough to the subject's. Further, existence in complete unity with reality means that learning is impossible—one would have to have awareness of all things. The metaphysical solipsist would respond that, much like other people are products of his own mind, so, too, is "the past" and its attendant information. Thus, "I think, therefore I am" would indeed have originated in their mind.
- Life is imperfect
- Why would a solipsist create things such as pain and loss for his or her self? More generally, it might be asked "If the world is completely in my head, how come I don't live the most fantastic life imaginable?" Various arguments have been suggested to counter that objection, one being that the solipsist never claims to have created himself.
- Solipsism undercuts morality
- If solipsism is true, then practically all standards for moral behavior would seem to be meaningless, according to this argument. There is no God, so that basis for morality is gone, but even secular humanism becomes meaningless since there are no such things as other humans. Everything and everyone else is just a figment of imagination. The problem with this argument is, if solipsism is true, then it doesn't matter that it has unfortunate implications.
- The practical solipsist needs a language to formulate his or her thoughts about solipsism
- Language is an essential tool to communicate with other minds. Why does a solipsist universe need a language? Indeed, one might even say, solipsism is necessarily incoherent, for to make an appeal to logical rules or empirical evidence the solipsist would implicitly have to affirm the very thing in which he or she purportedly refuses to believe: the 'reality' of intersubjectively valid criteria, and/or of a public, extra-mental world. Twentieth-century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has extensively discussed the implications of language for solipsism.
- Realism vs. solipsism
- An objection, raised by David Deutsch, among others, is that since the solipsist has no control over the "universe" he is creating for himself, there must be some unconscious part of his mind creating it. If the solipsist makes his unconscious mind the object of scientific study (e.g., by conducting experiments), he will find that it behaves with the same complexity as the universe offered by realism; therefore, the distinction between realism and solipsism collapses. What realism calls "the universe," solipsism calls "one's unconscious mind." The solipsist would claim that the apparent independence of real world events just shows how good his unconscious mind is at maintaining the illusion. The realist's world may be every bit as complex as the solipsist's unconscious, but when the solipsist dies, the entire universe will cease to exist.
- Philosophical poverty
- Some philosophers hold the viewpoint that solipsism is entirely empty and without content. Like a 'faith' argument, it seems sterile, i.e., allows no further argument, nor can it be falsified. Viewed in this way, 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.
Is solipsism falsifiable?
Solipsism is said to be unfalsifiable in the sense in which Karl Popper used the word: it is impossible to determine whether it is true or false. A solipsistic viewpoint held by a particular individual is unfalsifiable only to that individual, however. Any other person B might by introspection conclude that he or she (B) does in fact exist and therefore that A is proven wrong (though B might symmetrically doubt whether A exists, and therefore would not have disproved solipsism per se, only solipsism by A). Even though B has proven A wrong, there is no way for B to validly convince A to abandon solipsism, since A doubts B's very existence, let alone B's experiences or experimental results. The conclusion here is that the solipsist position makes genuine communication impossible.
Thought experiments about solipsism
Brain in a vat
A thought-experiment related to solipsism is the brain in a vat. The person performing the thought-experiment considers the possibility that they are trapped within some utterly unknowable reality, much like that illustrated in the movie The Matrix. A mad scientist could be sending impulses to one's brain, thereby creating "the world" as one knows it from the mad scientist's program. This raises the possibility that everything one thinks or knows is illusion. Or, at the least, that one cannot know with any certainty whether one's brain is in the "real world" or in a vat receiving impulses that would create an equivalent consciousness—or even if there is a real world, mad scientist, brain, or vat. This also can be connected to Descartes "Meditations," though Descartes only used his solipsism example so that he might prove it wrong.
Sole surviving soul
Would the last person left alive after a nuclear holocaust be a solipsist? Not necessarily, because for the solipsist, it is not merely the case that they believe that their thoughts, experiences, and emotions are, as a matter of contingent fact, the only thoughts, experiences, and emotions that can be. Rather, the solipsist can attach no meaning to the supposition that there could be thoughts, experiences, and emotions other than their own. In short, the metaphysical solipsist understands the word "pain," for example, to mean "one's own pain"—but this word cannot accordingly be construed to apply in any sense other than this exclusively egocentric, non-empathetic one.
Dream and paradox
An intriguing paradox concerning solipsism was described by the British writer Eric Bond Hutton. Hutton often had lucid dreams in which people and things seemed as solid and real as in waking life. This led him to wonder whether life itself was a dream, even whether he existed only in somebody else's dream. One day, he hit upon a magic formula to be used: "If I find myself asking 'Am I dreaming?' it proves that I am, since this question would never occur to me in waking life." Later, though, he was struck by a contradiction in his earlier reasoning. True, asking oneself "Am I dreaming?" would seem to prove that one is, since one does not ask oneself that question in waking life. And yet he had often done precisely that. So what was he to conclude? That it does not prove one is dreaming? Or that life really is a dream?
Similar in nature, though not involving any paradox, is Zhuangzi's Dream. Zhuangzi, the ancient Chinese philosopher, once had a vivid dream in which he was a butterfly, fluttering happily here and there. Suddenly he woke up, but afterward was never certain whether he was a man who once dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.
- Peter A. Angeles, Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1992), 284.
- Ledger Wood, "Solipsism," in Runes (ed.), Dictionary of Philosophy (Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams, and Company, 1962, 295).
- Jerry Fodor, “Methodological Solipsism Considered as a Research Strategy in Cognitive Science,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, (3) (1980): 63-73.
- See also, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lathe of Heaven (Eos, 1997, ISBN 978-0380791859).
- "Hutton's Paradox," Gift of Fire, June 1993.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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