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.