Micah Redding — faith in humanity's future

The Solipsist's Fallacy

Solipsism is the belief that you can never truly know if anyone else is real.

This is a common endpoint for philosophy, the reductio ad absurdum at the end of long chains of reasoning. It’s what Descartes was trying to get around when he wrote “I think therefore I am”, though that may in fact be the purest expression of solipsism ever.

The argument is simple. I know that I am aware and conscious. I have internal experiences, real feelings, emotions and desires and thoughts. But there is no way to tell if the people around me are experiencing the same things. They may tell me they are thinking and feeling, but I have no way to confirm that. They may be saying and doing all the things I expect people to say and do, but never actually be conscious, never actually feel or think anything at all.

Science illustrates this vividly. After all, we can dissect a person’s brain, but we can’t see consciousness, we can’t determine whether there are actual thoughts or feelings there. No matter how far we unravel the circuitry of a person’s brain, we’ll never be able to discover if they actually feel anything.

The only way we can know consciousness is from the inside. And so we’ll never know if anyone else has it. In the end, we might very well be alone.


This whole thought process comes from a mistaken distinction between being and experience. We assume that we can separate our experience of a person from the actual existence of that person.

To be fair, consciousness tends to support that illusion. After all, it erects a wall between us and the world, so that behind that wall, we may have thoughts and conversations with ourselves that no one else can see.

But this is a bit like being able to lift the hood of your own car, but being unable to lift the hood of anyone else’s car. Just because you can’t see anyone else’s motor, doesn’t mean they don’t have one.

In fact, if you began to question whether or not all the cars around you had motors in them, we’d think you were crazy.

Of course all the cars have motors. We can tell there are motors because the cars are actually moving. We can see the exhaust, we can see them fueling up, we can watch the way they operate, and how fast they can go.

“But”, you argue, “Maybe they just seem to have motors in them!”

Not possible. By definition, working cars have motors. The fact that they move means there is a motor. It might be a small motor, it might be an electric motor - but it’s still a motor.

You might bring in an ultra-small car. “Look!” you say, “There’s no room for a motor!”

It doesn’t matter. I may not know where it is, or where it fits, but I know there’s a motor. If it runs, it has a motor.

“Not this one!” you say. “This car doesn’t have a motor! See, it just has this bucket of fuel, and that bucket drains into this little cup, and that cup periodically ignites and makes the whole thing move forward!”

That is a motor.

It may be a weird motor. You may be able to explain the whole process without ever using the word “motor”. But it’s a motor.

Now, admittedly, sometimes it’s hard to tell if a car has a motor in it. A car might be moving so slowly, it’s hard to tell if it’s running at all. But if it is working, then it has a motor.

The same thing is true when it comes to human consciousness. If a human being acts like they are conscious, then they are conscious. I don’t have to figure out where that consciousness comes from, how it works, or where it is “stored”. I don’t have to understand what’s going on “behind the scenes”. If it moves, it has a motor. If it communicates, it has consciousness.

This is exactly how we operate in normal life. None of us carry around a ghostbusters-like “consciousness detector”, to pick out conscious beings from non-conscious beings. Instead, we simply interact - and in that interaction, we know that the being on the other end is like us.

There is no deep divide between experience and being. And so, we are not alone.


Mark :

Check out the writing of the Frankfurt School: it was an anti-capatalist and an anti-Soviet communist body of thinkers. Erich Fromm, for example, challenged Freud's massive individualism. I think our damned obsession with theory and the desire to deconstruct everything (including deconstruction!) leaves us, often, looking for more myopia than empathy. Fromm said our psyche is influenced by SOCIOeconomic forces, among others. We are human in society. T Merton's 'No Man is an Island' is also a powerful testimony to the deadend muck-brained smart mouthed college thought. Solipsism is (a) an excuse to cast off restraint, or (b), a psychosis. Dialogue is the movement from obfuscation into communion--everything else is a waste of time.

Geoff Shupe:

Interesting approach. I'd like to hear you pursue this in greater detail. Allow me to play devil's advocate on a few things: You make the point that there is no difference between experience and being. While I agree with this, it seems to me that this is the very validation of Solipsism, rather than a counter of it; ala: since you can never experience being them, their sentience has no being because it does not have experience. 1) If you were to somehow step into their shoes, you would only experience it as all encompasingly being yourself, albeit them as them-self, with no concept of the other that was once you before you were them. If you were to somehow remain yourself experiencing them, that would be your distinct experience and not theirs. 2) Therefore because true empathy is an illusion, and if the definition of being is experience: you are truly alone. You take the example of a motor as your argument of analogy, that the observation of its action is the definition of its being, in that it acts similar therefore it is similar. How does this clear the hurdles posed by the 'chinese room,' a Turing test (along the lines of Blade Runner), or even simply the 'brain in a vat'? You define a 'motor' as being anything that moves, but I think that unfortunately makes the definition of a motor useless in its ubiquity. For example: by the same extension, a car would be anything that houses a motor. By your definition, I house the forces of metabolism which are to be considered a motor: therefore I am a car. The problem with the logic of your definition is that it provides no identity. The world would only consists of cars (anything that moves) and non-cars (things that don't move). Your definition of analogy does not provide a definition of distinction of me as myself. If we are all the same by such a broad definition, at what point is everyone else not me, or I them? At what point is there more than the Solipsist one-mind of distinction among similarity? It also seems to fail to provide validation for minds that are not like our own (animals, extraterrestrials, etc.). Even if the objective reality of the existence of others is such, it is without value unless as the god of your Solipsicist world you decide to value it. The notion that others are sentient beings like yourself is ultimately one of your own creation. So while Solipsism may or may not be an accurate model of reality, it is the only way to deal with it. Your thoughts?

Timothy Chutes:

I'm very aware of the argument you've tried to counter here, but never knew it was called Solipsism. There are two routes I try and take when I'm presented with this argument. The first was said by artificial intelligence scientist Ben Goertzel and is essentially: **It doesn't matter if you have consciousness or not; it appears that you do and therefore I have to interact with you like you do.** We can talk philosophy until the cows come home, but when it comes down to it this is the way we find ourselves acting. You can claim "brain in a vat" arguments or there exists only subjective reality, but I bet you don't step out in front of cars. Secondly I take the more philosophical route. I'm sure you've heard the term "the ghost in the machine." It was coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle in criticism of Cartesian dualism, which this Solipsism seems to be a derivative of. Essentially, he was arguing that the idea of mind-body separatism that permeated western philosophy (and sadly still does) is ridiculous literalism carried over from philosophy from before the biological sciences were well established. I find that this criticism is equally valid today. I honestly think a huge problem is that philosophers get hung up on words and the definitions of things. We draw these powerful analogies, but then it allows for philosophers to fall into categorical mistakes, which happens a frustrating amount of the time.


Quite the comprehensive critique, huh? :) Let me hit this point by point. Rather than belabor individual issues, I'll let you re-challenge me on things that don't make sense. Of which there may be a lot. 1) I'm not saying we have to experience *their experience* in order for it to be real. I'm saying that experience itself is something intimately connected with the way the world *is*. Thus, if we observe something *being* in a certain way, we know there is an *experience* involved. 2) If the "Chinese room" speaks Chinese, I would say it knows Chinese. (Though the dude operating it may not.) I think these kinds of thought experiments work by pretending there's a lot less work involved than there really is. 3) I defined "motor" as essentially anything that provides force by using up fuel. I didn't define "car". There are many things that determine whether something can be called a car, including "having a motor". You pass the "have a motor" test, but not the others. 4) A better distinction would be between "cars that move" and "cars that don't move". Although I didn't discuss them in the analogy, by extension, they would be like persons who no longer have a conscious existence. 5) The choice of "moving" as a test for a car is a rather simplistic one, designed to make the point clear. The test for a human being is more complex, involving communication and relationship. There are some human beings we can't perform this test on, just like there are some cars out of range of our ability to observe. 6) Other things can qualify as minds. The test we human beings know how to do is probably constrained to identifying human minds, however. The point of this exercise isn't to catalog all minds, but to identify that there are at least more than one. 7) Whether or not the existence of conscious others has value to you *is* determined by you. That doesn't change the fact of their existence. Make sense? ;)


I think you're exactly right. The problem arises from a cartesian thought process which I reject. For the same reason, I reject "brain in a vat" arguments as being philosophically irrelevant to the question of "what is real".


This might be a silly question - feel free to laugh if it is - but eh, would someone who is unconscious be considered a person? More questions come to mind like, what is "real", and why is the focus on humans? And.. do people generally prefer raisin bran to rice crispies? :-D


I believe that what they are saying when asking "how may I know anything outside of 'me' exists?" is that, when we dream, the 'people' in our dreams are not people, they have no consciousness, no thoughts, no feelings, other than those which we project onto them. Their behaviour is entirely constructed by our own mind, as is the behaviour of everything else in the dream world. When we wake we are aware that those people were merely our projections, but during our dream, we are mistaken to believe that they are conscious. How can we be sure that the 'real' world is anything more?


What is the definition of "real" in that case Craig?


I didn't dig into this, but I think the answer is that a completely unconscious person would be like an immobile car - you'd have to start it up to be able to tell what condition it was in. :) However, a sleeping person is not completely unconscious. We know this because when they wake up, they can tell us about their dream experiences. :)


Two comments, 1) the motor analogy is a straw man as it relies on agreed upon principles which consciousness does not. 2) you seem, to me, to be suggesting a sort of Turing test for consciousness. You state that you know those around you are not simulacra because of your interactions. Does this mean that a computer which passes you Turing test is conscious? Cheers, JF.


I'm not suggesting the principles of consciousness, I'm suggesting the way in which the principles of consciousness relate to the rest of reality. It doesn't matter how a motor works, we define it by its input and output. Similarly, it doesn't matter how consciousness works, we define it by its interaction with the rest of reality. Anything which gives off all the qualities of consciousness, is conscious by definition.