Monday, March 12, 2012


An important lesson about philosophizing can be taught through discussing solipsism. Solipsism is the thesis that only one’s mind truly exists with all other entities that you might ever think of, existing only as a part of one’s own mind or experience. This thesis should not be treated with disrespect. The proponents of this thesis think of it as a healthy philosophical point of view immune from lots of difficulties facing other more existentially inclusive ontological theses.

But can one adopt a solipsist ontology to start philosophizing? I have argued in the last article, I have written, that one must hold an ontological thesis prior to any attempt to philosophize. So, is solipsism a good candidate for such ontology? It is the main aim of this article to answer that particular question.

A solipsist can hold on all the assumptions I argued to be basic for any ontology suitable to entitle one to start philosophizing. He certainly holds on the assumption of his own existence. He is likely to hold on the assumption of the existence of thinking process, beliefs acting as the elements of thinking, and of motives. However since he is committed to the claim that only his own mind really exists, he can explain the existence of all those other entities I mentioned as only parts or components of his own mind, or his own mind’s experience.

How a solipsist thinks can further be clarified. If I were a solipsist, I would claim that I am now encountering the experience of sitting down at my desk writing on my laptop. I would further claim that it is only my mind which really exists. My desk and my laptop don’t really exist; they are just fragments of an experience which my mind, the only really existing entity, is having at the moment. It would be true, from a solipsist point of view, to further claim that my own body doesn’t really exist as well. My body is nothing but a collection of experiences I perceive acting in regular accordance with my motives and my beliefs. In short, a solipsist thinks that only his mind really exists and that anything else just exists as a component a highly advanced 3D movie this mind is watching all alone.

The significance of solipsism can be clarified by comparing it with the ontologically neutral position I discussed in the previous article. While neutrality leads into questioning any sort of assumption you might be inclined to hold, leaving you incapable of making any intellectual progress, solipsism allows you to hold on a wide variety of assumptions that can get you started. A solipsist can hold many different beliefs about his own experience. Based on his belief of the existence of his own mind, he can hold a belief in the existence of his own experience as a part of his mind. It is enough for a solipsist to experience perceptions, memories, thoughts, or motives to hold an assumption of their existence, at least as a part of his own mind.

However, a solipsist is likely to face significant challenges. One of the most significant motives that a solipsist can’t deny to experience is the motive to survive. He can’t further deny that a significant instrument for survival is knowledge of how to survive. Certainly, knowledge of how one can survive doesn’t have to be made explicit in terms of propositions or statements. A cat, a dog, or lots of other animals incapable to use language know a lot about survival. However, propositional knowledge, or knowledge explicitly expressed by the use of language, plays a significant more sophisticated role in survival of human beings when compared with mere instinct survival knowledge we share with other animals. Knowledge of importance of healthy food, playing sports, and avoidance of stress enhance our survival in a clear way. Avoidance of different sorts of dangerous entities whether viral, bacterial, electrical and so on is another example for the role of our propositional knowledge in our survival. It is highly unlikely for a solipsist to deny such facts. However, recognizing the significance of knowledge would have to push a solipsist a little bit away from his own comfort zone.

A solipsist might only be committed to the literal truth of one belief which is his own exclusive existence but recognizing the significance of propositional knowledge at least when it comes to satisfying his own motive of survival will lead him into expanding his conception of truth. A solipsist can’t deny, if he is really keen on satisfying his motive to survive, that the proposition “avoidance of high cholesterol diet is important to avoid heart diseases” is true while the proposition “eating healthy food is insignificant for your health” is false. What makes the first statement true while the second one false? A solipsist can’t answer this question by arguing that this is a fact about the real world since he doesn’t believe in the existence of a real world.

However, a solipsist can escape this problem by arguing that his own experiences are arranged in some sort to yield what can be called an illusion of an external world. He can further argue that his own experience is arranged in some way to signify his own survival dependence on regularities in this illusory external world. He, in addition, has to admit that his own experience signify the importance of organizing this illusory external world by use of proposition to enhance his own survival. In short, a solipsist can argue that holding on the assumption of the exclusive existence of his own mind and experiences occurring as a component of it, doesn’t necessarily contradict the further assumption that these experiences are complex and involve complex interactions with his motive and thinking process.

Anyway questioning the solipsist ontology is not over at this stage. First of all a solipsist might be asked to explain why experience is so organized in this complex way. It would have been easier for a solipsist to explain this experiential complexity by appeal to the existence of a real world organized in this complex way. However, explaining one’s preferred ontology all the way down is a difficult task no matter what ontology is considered. With the adoption of any ontology, one has to admit that explanation has to stop somewhere. Someone who adopts a naturalistic ontology will not be able to explain why physical laws of the world are so determined. Someone who adopts a religious ontology, on the other hand, can’t explain why God made the world in the way that it is or how God came into being without being circular in explanation. So, in order to be fair to a solipsist, we would have to ignore the question of explanation when it comes to the basic beliefs of his ontology.

A more significant reason to reject solipsism is related to the solipsist’s use of language. I have argued that a solipsist is unlikely to deny the significance of use of language to yield important beliefs related to his own survival among other things. But how can a solipsist acquire such a language? Such a language can’t come to existence independent from his own mind. This language might seem to him like being shared with others but certainly this is just an illusion. In reality, according to a solipsist ontology, language is only private to the mind of a solipsist which is the only entity that really exists. A solipsist, therefore can’t but claim that this language is his own creation. A simple explanation of how he creates such a language goes like the following. A solipsist when encounters a green object can decide to call it “green”. Later, when he encounters another green object, he would have to review his memories to remember that this object matches in color the other object he first called green to decide calling this new object “green” as well. This way, a solipsist can escape what is commonly called by philosophers “the acquisition challenge of language mastery”. However, there is another closely related challenge which is commonly called “the manifestation challenge of language mastery”. How can a solipsist be justified in taking himself to be using his own private language intelligibly? The problem is that the only way available for a solipsist to fix his use of language terms is made possible through making an appeal to memory. One can never be certain of his own memories. It is a common observation, that a solipsist can’t deny, that memory sometimes yields false beliefs. One’s memorial image of a green object is much less vivid when compared with a perceptual image of a green object. Those two images are totally experientially different from each other that resemblance can’t be guaranteed. When a solipsist decided to call a new object that he encounters “green” he does so by appeal to an unjustified belief of its resemblance to an insufficiently vivid image of a past object he called “green”. Therefore, a solipsist can never be justified in taking his terms to be fixed while he is using them. Without being certain about whether the terms of our language have a fixed meaning or not, one’s understanding of his own language is severely challenged. In short, a solipsist can never justify to himself that he understands what he is talking about whenever he uses the terms of his own private language. A solipsist can only escape this challenge by assuming the existence of other entities which will provide a fixture for the meaning of the terms he uses linguistically. However, expanding one’s ontological commitments in this way will make one not a solipsist after all. Therefore, we would have to consider another more suitable ontology to adopt.

Friday, March 9, 2012

What is it to Philosophize??

Why? Why do I have to raise questions? Why do I have to seek answers? Why do I have to think about anything what so ever? Why???

You can never have a totally neutral starting point when it comes to doing anything. You can never start from a point at which you have no belief what so ever. Lacking any sort of belief to start with will leave you incapable of gaining any. You will stay where you are enclosed in silence incapable of stating anything or moving in any direction.

One might think that to start philosophizing about something, one has to start from a position at which he stands neutral to all possible beliefs. Neutrality to all possible beliefs might seem as an essential requirement for a fair process of thinking. But this doesn’t work as a starting point in philosophizing. Neutrality in such case is itself a belief. Being neutral to it would lead one into questioning it as well. This assumption of importance of neutrality leads to one of the most vicious circularities you can ever think of. It will leave where you are, incapable of moving any forward. Neutrality to all possible beliefs is itself a self negating belief. One can’t hold on it if he is to be really neutral at heart.

Therefore, we should drop this requirement. The right place to start in philosophizing or to do anything, to state any claim, or to move in any direction is to have a set of beliefs which you take at least initially to be basic and unquestionable at least for the moment. This line of argument that I have offered so far bears a clear resemblance to the school of skeptic thought intiated by Descartes centuries ago. Descartes too thought that the right point to start philosophizing is take a skeptic stance, questioning all sorts of beliefs and in effect standing neutral to all of them. He attempted to break free from this vicious circle of neutrality by arguing that this process of thinking, going on in his mind while being skeptic to all sorts of beliefs, is itself an evidence for a belief that one has no option but to accept, namely one’s own existence as a thinking entity. He therefore, raised his most famous claim “Cogito ergo sum”; “I think therefore, I am”. But, it is obvious that concluding the Cogito can’t be reached unless one takes lots of beliefs to be basic and acceptable prior to the Cogito itself. One has to hold on beliefs about the rationality of our thinking, how something can stand as evidence for something else, and that what we are involved in while being skeptic or neutral to all possible beliefs is itself a form of thinking. Why shouldn’t we be skeptic about those beliefs just as well if we are really committed to Descartes’ skeptic program? Descartes’’ methodology in philosophy is infected with vicious circularity just in the same way as insistence on neutrality is. Following his school of thought will leave us exactly as we are, having nothing to start with.

Again, we can’t move in any direction unless we take some beliefs to be basic at least for a while. But what those beliefs might be? I think a set of beliefs which can mark a starting point for philosophizing or for merely moving in any direction can be minimally summed into the following:

· One’s own existence

· One’s ownership of the faculty of thinking

· Existence of beliefs, at least this initial set, as a starting block for the process of thinking

· One’s ownership of a variety of motives including the motive to move or to act at least intellectually.

But are those beliefs really enough? Those beliefs will be void of content if they can’t be explained by another set of beliefs. It is not enough to hold on those beliefs. One must have in addition, beliefs about what existence is, what thinking is, what beliefs really are, and what it is to be motivated to do anything. This set of additional beliefs must as well be accepted at least initially to make us capable of moving forward. Beliefs specifying the content of the other basic set of beliefs one must hold on to start moving forward, will make up an ontology in which you can have your starting point. Throughout human history, different ontologies have been created. Some persisted and some perished. Anyway, one must have a particular ontology formed of a set of beliefs taken for granted, again at least initially, to be capable of moving, of doing, and of living.

Holding on ontological commitments is the starting point for philosophizing, for thinking, for acting, and for anything that makes you who you are.

Among, those various ontolgies available for us to adopt, one is particularly interesting. Even though religious and naturalistic ontologies seem to be the most interesting but it is the solipsist ontology which is really peculiar. This ontology seems to be the most minimal of any ontologies we can ever think of. This ontology is based on the view that nothing exists but one’s own mind and what is going on in it. If ontologies can be stated explicitly in a finite set of basic beliefs, solipsism will provide us with the most limited one. But can solipsism be a successful ontology as a starting point? I will argue not but I will leave this to a later time.