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My philosophy professor once told our class: The only people who believe in solipsism are infants and madmen. I was inclined to agree at the time. Yet years later, I have still not encountered any good arguments to disprove this idea.

Thus, I am curious—is this question of the same ilk as the "free will vs. determinism" or as the previously asked on this page: How does one know one is not dreaming? Or is there a compelling argument that leads to a logical rejection which can reinforce my "intuitive" rejection of this idea?

I can see how direct disproof may be impossible, so I believe that answers could be open to weaker arguments such as ones of utility that relegate solipsism into such a useless corner that for one to hold such an idea would be counter-productive to rational thought.

  • Can we get some more context? Maybe describe your understanding of what solipsism means, what criticisms you've heard already and why you remain unpersuaded, etc. – Joseph Weissman Jun 10 '11 at 2:10
  • @Joe I suppose an edit may be order- by solipsism I refer to what is defined in wikipedia as "metaphysical solipsism" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysical_solipsism that is the idea that ones own mind is the only thing that has any real existence or to quote: "the self is the only existing reality and that all other reality, including the external world and other persons, are representations of that self having no independent existence." – user151 Jun 10 '11 at 2:16
  • @Joe and as to why I remain unpersuaded: this idea just does not jive with my acceptance of history- that is the story of the world before I existed – user151 Jun 10 '11 at 2:18
  • @jaskey13 What does "believe" mean? Certainly, solipsism is not a good world model to get peacefully through everyday business, but it is perfectly possible to believe in one thing, but pragmatically live according to another thing. (E.g: I can be convinced that life is totally meaningless, but think that I am happier if I talk about life as if it had meaning.) – Phira Jun 10 '11 at 8:15
  • By the way Wittgenstein believed in solipsism (or he at least thought the thought behind it is right - only it cannot be expressed) and he was neither an infant (at the time of writing) nor (arguably) a madman. In fact he was probably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century – Chuck Jun 10 '11 at 16:05
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I would compare it to someone believing that if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, it does not make a sound.

The definition of the question limits us to not being able to answer it, and both silent-tree-believers and solipsists opt for the most sceptical position, that is opposed to our common sense understanding of the world.

Our model of the world is based on imperfect information, and we constantly make inferential leaps. Most of us believe that we aren't dreaming, that when things are hidden behind obstacles they are still there, and that the sun will rise again tomorrow. Most of us also believe that other minds exist.

This series of assumptions turns out to be a really useful model for understanding and predicting our environment, and modifying our behaviour to meet our ends.

The fact that these cannot be proven, does not mean that they are false, or that it would be beneficial to consider them false.

One can say that they are not sure, and indeed, some versions of solipsism state simply that the only mind's existence the individual is sure of is their own. This really doesn't go very far, as at this level of scepticism, there's very little to be sure of at all - maybe each 'instant' we're recreated in a totally new world with a different history, and our memories and identities are fabricated.

I think the reason solipsism seems more important to argue against than a disbelief in e.g. object constancy is rooted in our conception of 'the ghost in the machine' and the mind-body problem. We're rather self-centred.

Some background and historical arguments:

Solipsism is a world view extrapolated from the problem of other minds. Simply stated, the problem of other minds is that we cannot know (or prove) that others have minds like our own.

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has an in-depth article about it. It presents a series of solutions to the problem (and by extension, to solipsism). The following is the uncomfortable conclusion:

This article has been almost entirely concerned with the epistemological problem of other minds. What generates the problem has been carefully delineated. The standard solutions have been outlined and the various critical responses discussed. What is clear is that there does not seem to be what might be called a received solution to the problem. It has been argued that the problem cannot be removed, nor can it be made easier to solve, by embracing any particular philosophy of mind.

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As you note, there can surely be no solid rebuke of solipsism, for the possibility is wholly untestable. However, I personally believe solipsism is bordering on incoherence and egoism, and exploring what it would really mean if all of existence as we know it was solely for us or perceived by us may help demonstrate that. Two possibilities arise:

1: The universe is some sort of simulation or model, all beings we perceive are merely agents of that system, and we are the sole target of the simulation. All of existence, therefore, is created for our benefit. We must then ask, why? Why are we so special as to merit all of this? And furthermore how? How, despite being special, are so many millions of mindless agents able to function in a way that I am unable to distinguish them from myself?

2: The universe exists largely as we are taught in school, the big bang, atoms, molecules, evolution, and the whole shebang, and yet we are the only being that actually experiences or "lives" - we are the only being with a mind. This should similarly raise some alarming questions, why do we have this ability, and yet all others do not? And again, how is it possible that we are so fundamentally and critically different from all other beings in the universe, and yet we cannot identify a difference?

To me, both cases seem highly implausible. Unprovable, but does it not seem very strange to think that either of these situations are how existence "really is"? Personally, the alternatives, that either 1: we are part of a simulation or other matter-less existence (like Berkeley's idealism) wherein the beings we perceive as similar to us are in fact thinking minds like us, or 2: the physical world exists largely as we understand it, and therefore again, things we perceive like us have reasonably similar mental states.

This is somewhat related to the philosophical theory of Functionalism, which could be vulgarly summarized as "if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it's a duck!" which might be a more robust response to solipsism than most other philosophies.

And, now that I've discussed why I think solipsism is bunk, let me share with you this wonderful short story, The Egg, it's a beautiful perspective on solipsism, and no matter how many times I read it, I get chills and a little smile every time I get to the end. I hope you enjoy it.

  • I would say the the second possibility is a very suitable idea to resolve numerous mind-body paradoxes. Namely if one asks which beings can experience qualia, the only possiblity is to draw the line around oneself. Any other approach (draw a line between humans and other animals, between animals with and without brain, between animals and plants, claim there is no qualia at all etc) would lead to further paradoxes. – Anixx Sep 15 '11 at 0:16
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    That's a fair point - it seems highly implausible, like I said, but it does resolve many philosophical challenges if it's true. You should look into Bishop Berkeley and his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, I suspect you'll like it. – dimo414 Sep 15 '11 at 13:43
  • And also a claim that we cannot identify a difference is doubtful. Both from subjective point of view (direct experience of qualia), but also from a point of view of natural science. For example, existence of a distinguished observer considered a non-desirable (but inextinguishable) consequence of several interpretations of quantum mechanics. Non-desirable because existence of such observer undermines the scientific method and the purpose of science to serve all people. – Anixx Sep 15 '11 at 13:51
  • I think you're taking me too literally. From a layman's perspective, we behave as if the people we interact with are like ourselves, both externally and internally. Although this is not enough to resolve the question of solipsism, as you point out, it is still worth remembering. My challenge is one of likelihood, not of possibility. "How is it possible that we are so fundamentally and critically different from all other beings in the universe, and yet we cannot identify a difference?" – dimo414 Sep 15 '11 at 14:07
  • @dimo414 I may have misunderstood you, but Berkeley didn't endorse solipsism; rather, he endorsed idealism. Yes, it's easy to go from idealism to solipsism (the coordination question), but that's where God came in. Still, it did resolve a lot of things, and I think his views don't get the respect they deserve. – R. Barzell Feb 28 '15 at 21:12
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This is quite old, but as I was having a discussion on Solipsism with a few friends of mine, I independently came up with what I feel is the best way of "disproving" Solipsism. Obviously, the concept is defined so that it cannot be proven or disproven inherently, and I believe others have come up with the same kind of argument against Solipsism.

  1. Assume that Solipsism is true
  2. Thus there must be an objective Solipsist mind ("It")
  3. But, "I" observe objects and minds ("They") that "I" perceive to be external
  4. Thus, "I" am a subset, or an aspect, of "It"
  5. Likewise, "They" are aspects of "It", and "I" and "They" are mutually exclusive
  6. If "I" and "They" are merely aspects of "It", "I" am not "It"
  7. Therefore, "They" are external to "I"

Now we have a disproof by contradiction.

Solipsism is thus isomorphic to Pantheism, as "I" and each member of "They" are aspects of "It".

Unfortunately, this is really just a semantics game. What exactly am I? Am I my conscious mind and subconscious mind, or am I my conscious mind, and I am influenced by my subconscious mind? Solipsism cannot be disproven, but to even be considered, it requires many more axioms to explain why certain things happen, and a rigorous definition of the self ("I").

  • It's a nice argument, but I don't think it's as damning as you imagine for the solipsist. It would work against a type of monistic solipsism that cannot distinguish between thinking part and thought part, but it's easily subsumed by identify the I/They distinction as a distinction between parts of the I -- with the observing bit doing the thinking and the observed bit receiving it. – virmaior Mar 1 '15 at 7:01
  • Agree completely. The whole argument is based on an assumed definition of the self. – Esaron Mar 2 '15 at 15:49
  • This doesn't work to disprove solipsism because a core tenet there is the admission that your subconscious mind (the one that contains the information on the entire universe, including what we perceive as "other minds" is somehow hiding all this information from your conscious mind and making you learn information consciously and through your 5 senses only. The better question in my mind is - Why? – LightCC Dec 15 '15 at 18:27
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While it may seem superficially simpler to assume one mind rather than many, it requires a fairly complex story to explain why the one existing entity perceives the apparent existence of many entities.

It also requires an explanation of the distinction between the real and the apparent existence of external entities --in other words, if I interact with you, and you exhibit all perceivable signs of being a real, external entity, then by what criterion am I justified in denying your real existence?

Therefore Occam's Razor actually weighs in against solipsism.

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Make up two numbers in your mind. Grab a calculator, add them. Note the result. Add the nimbers in uour head (adding them should be tricky enough so that you can’t know the answer in an instant). If the calculator was faster than you, what ever force is behind the calculator cannot be a product of your immagination.

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There is no way of proving the negative. It's pure demagoguery to assert that one cannot disprove solipsism therefore the empirical universe exist only as the figment of the imagination of the person making the claim.

Description: Demanding that one proves the non-existence of something in place of providing adequate evidence for the existence of that something. Although it may be possible to prove non-existence in special situations, such as showing that a container does not contain certain items, one cannot prove universal or absolute non-existence. The proof of existence must come from those who make the claims.

Logical Form:

I cannot prove that X exists, so you prove that it doesn’t. If you can’t, X exists. Example #1:

God exists. Until you can prove otherwise, I will continue to believe that he does. Explanation: There are decent reasons to believe in the existence of God, but, “because the existence of God cannot be disproven”, is not one of them.

Example #2:

Sheila: I know Elvis’ ghost is visiting me in my dreams. Ron: Yeah, I don’t think that really is his ghost. Sheila: Prove that it’s not! Explanation: Once again we are dealing with confusion of probability and possibility. The inability to, “prove”, in any sense of the word, that the ghost of Elvis is not visiting Sheila in her dreams is an impossible request because there is no test that proves the existence and presence of a ghost, so no way to prove the negative or the non-existence. It is up to Sheila to provide proof of this claim, or at least acknowledge that actually being visited by Elvis’ ghost is just a possibility, no matter how slim that possibility is.

Exception: If Ron were to say, “That is impossible”, “there is no way you are being visited”, or make some other claim that rules out any possibility no matter how remote (or crazy), then Sheila would be in the right to ask him for proof -- as long as she is making a point that he cannot know that for certain, and not actually expecting him to produce proof.

Tip: If you think you are being visited by aliens, gods, spirits, ghosts, or any other magical beings, just ask them for information that you can verify, specifically with a neutral third-party that would prove their existence. This would be simple for any advanced alien race, any god or heavenly being. Some ideas of things to ask for:

future lottery numbers (of course you will give all your winnings to charity) answers to scientific problems that do have scientific answers, but aren’t yet known exact details of major future events But if these beings just tell you things such as:

passages / ideas from the Bible whether you should take that new job or not where you left your car keys that they really exist, and others will continue to doubt you that you should never question their existence ...or anything else which is just as likely to come from your imagination that is untestable and unfalsifiable, then you might want to reconsider the fact that your being of choice is really paying you visits.

References:

You Can Prove a Negative. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/believing-bull/201109/you-can-prove-negative

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