A Brief Introduction to Solipsism

By Jacob Burgess


The way we view the world is subjective. Everything I experience is inextricably linked to my past experiences and how I have interpreted these experiences. The only tools that I have to interpret my surroundings are my senses and my mind. But how can I be sure that what I see, touch, hear, smell, or taste is really there? There doesn’t seem to be any way around this problem; the only way that I can gain knowledge of anything is by trusting my senses. But what if they are feeding me misinformation? What if everything outside of my mind is an illusion, either created by my mind, or by something else? I can feel you rolling your eyes. I know it sounds ridiculous, but really think about it for a moment. How can you be sure? Is there any other way besides the senses to interpret our world, or some sort of way to test the accuracy of our senses? How can we really know that we don’t exist in a simulation or in a dream, and if we do, does that make all of this any less real? Seems pretty real to me. Well, I don’t have any answers for you, but these are the kinds of questions that a solipsist might ask. Solipsists believe that one’s mind is the only thing that can be sure to exist. The existence of other minds and the external world can’t be certain, and metaphysical solipsism even goes as far as to conclude that the external world and other minds do not exist.   


Origins of Solipsism


The very first solipsist was an ancient Greek sophist named Gorgias of Leontin (483-375 BC) He is the author of On Nature or the Non-Existent (also On Non-Existence), which has been lost. Today there are only two paraphrases left of the text. We know that the work developed a sceptical argument, which has been simplified as follows:


  1. Nothing exists.
  2. Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it.
  3. Even if something could be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.
  4. Even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood.


This has caused Gorgias to be labeled “The Nihilist,” as the argument seems to imply that he doesn’t believe anything exists. However, Gorgias himself may not have straightforwardly endorsed this view. Gorgias was a sophist, meaning he took a fee to teach rhetoric to those who could pay. Aristotle was one of Gorgias’ main critics, and he accused Gorgias of only wanting to make money by appearing wise and clever. Gorgias’ arguments are meant to be both persuasive and performative, and he goes to great lengths in his writings to demonstrate his ability to make absurd arguments appear stronger. For this reason, it is difficult to distinguish which views are really his. Plato was also a strong critic of Gorgias. In his dialogue Gorgias, Plato characterises Gorgias as an orator who merely entertains his audience and is uninterested in learning about actual matters since he has mastered the art of persuasion. This characterisation of Gorgias is demonstrated by his quote from the dialogue:  “Rhetoric is the only area of expertise you need to learn. You can ignore all the rest and still get the better of the professionals!”


Gorgias believed that persuasive words had power that was equal to that of the gods. In one of his surviving works, Econimum, he compares the effect speech has on the soul to the effect drugs have on the body:

Just as different drugs draw forth different humors from the body – some putting a stop to disease, others to life – so too with words: some cause pain, others joy, some strike fear, some stir the audience to boldness, some benumb and bewitch the soul with evil persuasion (Gorgias 32).


Later in the Plato’s Gorgias dialogue, Plato attempts to convince Gorgias that the power of persuasion is actually quite dangerous, as it allows an ignorant man to seem more intelligent than a smart man in front of an audience.

Solipsism and Descartes


In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes attempts to discover what is incontrovertibly certain. The first item of knowledge he believes he has found can be summed up with the famous statement Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am). Descartes argued that he could be sure without a doubt that he must exist, as if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to question his existence. However, Descartes goes on to argue that while he can’t doubt the existence of himself, he can doubt the existence of his body. From this, he reasoned that the person Descartes and Descartes’ body are two separate things, because one could be known to exist while the other couldn’t. Solipsism takes this idea a step further by claiming that only things that can be known to exist should be considered to exist. Descartes attempts prove the existence of other minds and the external world by building on this first item of knowledge, but solipsism finds these later arguments unconvincing.


Criticisms of Solipsism


Solipsism doesn’t seem to be capable of being falsified, as described by Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos; there wouldn’t appear to be any way to disprove the hypothesis. This doesn’t necessarily mean that solipsism is false, but it is rather troubling for the theory. Others have made the claim that the point solipsism tries to make it irrelevant. It is best to assume that the world exists independently of our minds, as the only way to escape our limited perception of it is through death. It has also been pointed out that if the external world existed within our own minds, it would seem plausible that we would be able to manipulate it without using our bodies. Because things like telekinesis seem to be impossible, the external world must therefore exist.


While the claims that solipsism make seem rather implausible, the questions it raises are definitely interesting to think about. Even if you become a radical sceptic convinced that only your mind exists and everything and everyone around you are only figments of your imagination, you are still likely to continue your imaginary life with little difference to the way you lived it before adopting solipsism. But I doubt any of you are likely to do that. Still, it’s fun to question existence. The most frustrating part about dealing with radical sceptics is that although their ideas may seem ridiculous, it is often incredibly difficult to come up with answers to the silly questions they keep asking.

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