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Tallis in Wonderland

Arguing with a Solipsist

Raymond Tallis takes it upon himself to prove that you exist.

In Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Value (1948), Bertrand Russell claimed that he had received an extraordinary letter from an eminent logician, Christine Ladd-Franklin. She informed him that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that her views were not shared. As Russell pointed out, her surprise was itself rather surprising. Solipsism, after all, is the belief that there is nothing outside of one’s own mind. This would rule out other minds being available to share Ladd-Franklin’s commitment to the doctrine.

Solipsism is one of those philosophical ideas that gives the discipline a dubious reputation in the eyes of the unsympathetic outside world. In the annals of infamy, it shares top ranking with Parmenides’ claim that all change is an illusion. If that were the case, we might ask, how did Parmenides come into being, and how did you, the reader, encounter this claim and move your eyes and mind from the beginning to the end of the phrase ‘all change is an illusion’? The thought, if true, could not, and would not, be actually thought.

And yet philosophical ideas like these are more – much more – interesting than they might seem in the light of the instant knock-down responses that apparently leave them for dead. In my book The Enduring Legacy of Parmenides: Unthinkable Thought (2007), I argued that Parmenides’ On Nature, where he made his seemingly self-refuting claim denying change, is probably one of the most important and influential texts in Western thought. Elizabeth Anscombe described subsequent philosophy as ‘footnotes on Parmenides’. And Einstein accepted the title ‘the Parmenidean’ from Karl Popper, when he agreed that the four-dimensional space-time continuum of General Relativity was similar to Parmenides’ unchanging universe. So let us be less hasty and look a little more carefully at solipsism. Let’s consider how one might arrive at this position, and at attempts to escape from it.

Being Is Sharing

It may be helpful to begin with something less than full-blown solipsism; namely, the belief that while there is indeed stuff out there, beyond my mind, there are no other minds. I am alone in the world.

The journey to this bleak conclusion begins with acknowledging the obvious truth that we can never be entirely sure what other people are thinking or feeling. We are all to some degree autistic: we may not notice, or fail to imagine, their experiences. Even if you are sitting next to me, I may not be aware that you are in pain or angry. Your thoughts are largely hidden from me. Indeed, our getting along together may rely on our being incompletely aware of how others are feeling about or thinking of us at any given moment. And I have even less idea how your sensations, emotions, and thoughts hang together.

Of course, we are given some access to others’ invisible experiences by their visible behaviour. We perceive the pain or anger or joy of others in their faces or postures. In inferring others’ experiences from their behaviour, we may operate by something like analogy: I know what you’re going through because I know what I’m feeling when I behave in a similar way. For the obtuse, such behaviour may be supplemented by direct report: “Can’t you see I’m in pain, you idiot?!” This does not, of course, entirely break down the barrier between my mind and yours.

Our intermittent access to the minds of others does not come anywhere near the (often doubtful) privilege of our continuous access to our own experiences, thoughts, and the like. Your behaviour, what is more, does not reveal what it is like to have your mental contents. The connection between my feeling pain and my screwing up my face is not the same as my inference from your screwing up your face to your experiencing pain. I may gain knowledge that you are in pain – though you could be pretending – but that’s not the same as my sharing your experience by replicating it within myself. I may ‘feel your pain’, as the saying goes, but I do not feel it in my ankle, where you have your pain, or track it over the days when you feel it. That is why as a doctor I have to ask you where the pain is, and, subsequently, whether you still have it.

Observing others’ behaviour may not, therefore, give us accurate, never mind continuous, access to the contents of their minds. But this deficiency is a long way from justifying solipsism and the awful thought that I am alone in the universe. Nevertheless, if I am to some degree sealed off from others, is it not possible that I am mistaken not only as regards the contents of other minds, but in my assumption that others have minds at all?

This deeply disturbing possibility is rejected by some philosophers on the grounds that ascribing minds like mine to people who behave like me is to embrace the best (that is to say, the most plausible) explanation. But this ‘Argument from Best Explanation’, while it might be invoked in the case of comparing explanations for what underlies classes of observations, hardly applies to ascribing consciousness to others on the basis of a single case – namely my own.

At this point, a digression – but I hope an interesting one – beckons: the Private Language Argument. In Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the very idea of a language understandable by only a single individual is incoherent because language is inherently social. We can seem to apply this argument here. If there are no other minds, there are no other persons to participate in the language in which I entertain the possibility that there are no other minds. My thought that ‘I am the only mind in the world’ would therefore lack meaning. Where, after all, would the idea of ‘I’ (implicitly opposed to ‘you’) come from? And how would I arrive at the concept of a mind as something that I alone have? How would the sum total of my consciousness gather itself together without any external assistance into an item that then names itself? We think to ourselves in a language that’s shared with others, whose meaning is established by a community. If I can think that I am alone in the universe and my thoughts have meaning, then I am not alone in the universe.

We could go beneath the inescapably public nature of language to the mutual dependency of the ‘we’ and the ‘I’. As Martin Heidegger would put it, our individual human existence as Da-sein – ‘being-there’ – is realized through ‘being-with-others’ – Mit-sein. Social interactions constitute what I am. There is no ‘I’ without ‘we’. If there is ‘I’, there must be ‘we’.

Frying Solo

Some readers may feel that these arguments don’t dig quite deep enough. With René Descartes, they might ask, how do I know that the universe in which I live out my life has any kind of reality independent of me? How can I be sure that it’s not a vast illusion? After all, since I can get many things wrong, is it not possible that I have got everything wrong?

This line of argument was criticized by Gilbert Ryle. The notion of counterfeit currency, he said, presupposes a real currency minted by the right authorities. Illusions count as mere illusions only against the background of things that are accepted as real, and it is the reality that exposes them as illusions.

This doesn’t quite see off the possibility that I am the only mind in the universe – that other, seemingly conscious, beings, are zombies, cunningly designed to look as if they are conscious. They ape the behaviour of actual people, being programmed to smile when they greet me, to cry out with apparent pain when they are damaged, and to seem to take offence when I question whether they are conscious.

Owen Savage cartoon
Cartoon © Owen Savage 2020. Instagram @oghsavage

But one would have to ask how such an arrangement arose. Who or what ordered the world so that I should be deceived in such a fundamental way? We soon find ourselves appealing to evil demons or mad scientists. This is quite a concession: I am no longer alone in the universe, though the company may not be pleasant. And its motives would be unclear.

We are now running out of options to defend solipsism. And there is a knock-down argument that has been waiting in the wings. Let us return to the letter to Bertrand Russell from Christine Ladd-Franklin. We may suppose that in writing such a letter she assumed that Russell was real and conscious; in short, that he was another mind. If she had thought otherwise, she would presumably have saved herself the time spent writing and the money spent on postage stamps. In recommending solipsism to another person to embrace, she was acting as if she did not believe solipsism to be true.

Ladd-Franklin’s communication with Russell is a particularly striking example of what philosophers call ‘pragmatic self-refutation’ – a topic I discussed many columns ago in relation to Parmenides (‘The Unthinkability of Philosophical Thoughts’, Philosophy Now Issue 64, 2007). Pragmatic self-refutation is the characteristic of an assertion that is undermined either by its own content or by the act of being asserted. Less blatant examples include Socrates’ falsely modest claim that he knew only one thing: that he knew nothing. Another is the assertion that all general statements are false. And readers will be familiar with the Cretan Liar paradox. If I, a Cretan, claim that everything that Cretans say is false, then my claim, if true, is false – so it cannot be true.

When I tell you that no-one exists apart from myself, this is not a logical contradiction – rather, the very act of my asserting it to you makes sense only if what I assert is untrue. And so, when we argue against someone who embraces solipsism, we should not be tempted to respond by challenging the logic or the empirical content of the position being advanced; we should simply reflect as follows. If Dr Ladd-Franklin was right, either she or Bertrand Russell would not exist, because solipsism has room for only one mind. If Russell did not exist as a conscious being, there would be no point writing to him. And if Ladd-Franklin did not exist, then there would be no interlocutor available for him to argue with. Dr Ladd-Franklin would be a coinage of Russell’s mind.

And now it gets personal. If there are readers unpersuaded by my rejection of solipsism, then their position must imply that I do not exist. Well, I am not going to accept that I do not exist on the say-so of a stranger. But I won’t take offence at this existential insult. After all, given that I do exist, if true, solipsism would rule out the existence of those other solipsists. Non-existent persons could not insult me by not taking my word for it that I really do exist.

That’s settled that then.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2020

Raymond Tallis’s new book, Seeing Ourselves: Reclaiming Humanity from God & Science is out now.

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