Philosophical Idealism & the Spook of Solipsism

An inevitable consequence of discussing philosophical Idealism is facing rejection based on the perceived implication of solipsism, but what underlies that implication?

Idealism is the notion that all that exists are mental processes, and that physical phenomena are themselves only mental processes. This is really rather simple to demonstrate if one applies reason and accepts the evidence without prejudice and without regard to further consequences or implications of that evidence.

Since gravity is the most common protest of the physicalist, I will use that example.

What can you say of gravity other than having an experience of it? Can you somehow escape your own subjective perceptions and interpretations and verify gravity outside of your experience of it?

In fact, you can not.

The next trick up the physicalists sleeve will be an appeal to consensus. They posit that since gravity is similarly experienced by just about everyone, it must lie outside of experience.

The first issue here is that we really have no idea if we are having identical experiences of gravity, since we cannot see the content of other minds. We know that similar language and descriptions of gravity occur, but we do not know that actual experience is in agreement, or if consensus is just a function of language use.

The second issue is some simple math. If all individual experiences are subjective, then they all have an ‘objectivity value’ of zero. You can add and multiply zeroes infinitely and and you will never reach a sum greater than zero.

Put another way, if you have a million broken clocks, you will have one time in which more of the broken clocks have stopped than any other. However this will not tell you what time it is. The consensus of broken clocks is not an accurate timepiece.

Neither is the consensus of subjective experience and accurate indicator of anything outside of subjective experience.

If there is an objective physical reality outside of the experience of it, we would be unable to confirm it given the limitations of our subjectivity. And so it makes no sense to build any foundation of reasoning upon the abstract hypothesis of an untestable objective physical basis for reality.

It is at this point that people become prone to reject Idealism based on the concern that it might lead to solipsism. But once again, we must not reject evidence based on where it may lead. We must accept it on the strength of it’s own evidence, for such is the intellectual honesty and rigor required for making logical deductions.

My first response to the slippery slope to solipsism is that only one thing can make you a solipsist, and that is to explicitly believe that all of reality is just a manifestation of your  own individual mind. Just because Idealism might seemingly suggest solipsism does not alone make an Idealist a solipsist. A solipsist is someone who believes in and makes claims to a solipsist metaphysics specifically.

There are a few reasons why I do not believe in solipsism, and while these are based in more ephemeral modes of knowing like intuition, I do not think that nullifies them.

The greatest reason I doubt solipsism is the experience of beauty provided by creative endeavors. That so much beauty has been created outside of my own interests, talents and capabilities seems to suggest other agents at work.

While I accept that this is not a logical rebuttal of solipsism itself, it is enough to make me reject a belief in solipsism. Thus meaning that regardless of implications, I am not a solipsist. Further I would not build other ideas and beliefs upon any assumptions of a solipsist nature of reality. Thus any connection between what it is possible to know and what I believe is not relevant to solipsism at all.

And yet even as I scramble to deny the connection I must ask myself, why would I feel obligated to do so?

Why is solipsism something to be avoided at all costs?

I am not going to convince you of solipsism here, but rather try to pry open the reasons the very notion of it conjures up a strong sense of rejection.

It does not seem to be rejected on the merits of the evidence in its favor, so much as rejected as an intolerable outcome regardless of merit. Why is it intolerable?

It seems to me that it is intolerable because it denies the existence of other equal agents within reality. And so I believe we are averse to it for it because it denies either one’s own, or everyone else’s, existence.

And I can understand an intuitive rejection of that premise, but I think it also supposes something else, and that is that such a realization must necessarily lead to the belief that you are above the illusory standards of humanity and have permission to act with impropriety, ill will and complete self interest.

Basically I think we equate solipsism with some cosmic justification for selfishness. But that would be an incorrect assumption within the framework of solipsism.

If all of reality was a manifestation of your mind created to serve you, then you would be identical with the totality of reality, and therefore any harm done to other people in that reality is self-harm.

Solipsism would actually suggest that only by valuing others and treating them with dignity, respect and love can we ever be the recipients of these gifts ourselves.

Wait, why aren’t I a solipsist again? j/k

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4 thoughts on “Philosophical Idealism & the Spook of Solipsism

  1. Interesting. I’ve recently stumbled upon solipsism and it resonates with me because while I accept that there are other humans, animals, and possible aliens with different past, presents, and futures, that are completely and utterly different than me, they still experience reality relative to mine. Not precisely mine, but relative to my own. From this, it can be deduced that realitivly we are the same albeit experiencing separation from self.

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    1. When most people talk about solipsism, they generally mean the hard kind, wherein it is the belief that only the single observer exists. I have never met anyone who actually believed that, though. Most are closer to your version, that your reality is solipsistic, not that you are the only mind. 🙂

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