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Everything You Wanted to Know About Solipsism But Were Afraid To Ask Because You Worried Nobody But You Exists[Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes, 28 seconds. Contains 2496 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter about weird ideas and people.
Today I’m scratching a longstanding itch of mine. We’re going to talk about one of the core ideas of my worldview, Solipsism.
I’m Stephen, your host, and I’ve been a solipsist for about 15 years. But as with many ideas usually laughed away rather than considered, we need to get on the same page on what I’m talking about because it’s probably not what you think it is.
As a good hack explain-y boy, we’ll start with a dictionary definition.
Fuck it, I’ll Just Google It
So, we’re barely a sentence into the subject and common definitions have already failed us. But that’s OK. This is *exactly* the kind of thing that solipsism is handy for.
I count 3 problems with this definition, but I think we should turn around and address the cartoon elephant who’s been making obscene gestures behind me this whole time.
Seeing Through A Glass Absurdly
Solipsism sits in a funny place within philosophy.
The only real argument against it I know that’s remotely compelling is no individual could possibly imagine the depth and complexity of the phenomenological world by themselves.
None of us are smart enough to do that.
But between the higher end of dreams and some of the more impressive hallucinogens, this seems at least arguable, even if it’d require a radical redefinition of “self” (put a pin in the self, we’re gonna come back).
I’ve heard Solipsism called the third rail of philosophy. The Philosopher Bertrand Russell once received a letter from a logician who claimed to be a solipsist and was surprised the idea wasn’t more widely shared.
IE: Solipsism is kind of silly when you get down to it. If someone believed they were the only mind, they wouldn’t really have any basis for meaningful action. Even a solipsist’s own desires would break down much past physical stimulation. Nihilism must surely follow, right? Except…
Solipsism is *hilarious*
I have so many dumb solipsism jokes and I’ve yet to grow bored with any of them.
Is it getting solipsistic in here or is it just me?
OK, yes, I have a terrible sense of humor.
But it provides a surprising antidote to the nihilism of so-called depressive realism: Silliness.
The insufferable inevitable determinism of something like Newtonian mechanics becomes very funny. But there’s something of a learning curve to enjoy the joke.
So unlike Russell’s logician friend, while I see the advantage of solipsism, I’m not surprised there aren’t more of us.
And while I’m pretty sure you’ll see the advantages by the end of this essay I’m not sure I recommend it. It can be pretty alienating and if you want excuses to do some bullshit it is pretty easy to twist around.
Also, while I’ve felt mostly benefits, it probably hasn’t helped my sense of motivation. Though that was broken long before I started experimenting with philosophy.
We shouldn’t assume people with less or different traumas will benefit in the same way or that there weren’t harms I undervalued. I suspect anyone with kids should tell me to fuck right off.
So before we get back to that awful definition I feel obligated to mention three things: The first is Mark Twain’s excellent unfinished novella The Mysterious Stranger, a real classic of solipsism fiction. Great ending.
The second is one of the only things I’ve read critical of solipsism that does a good job of contending against the idea rather than dismissing it just from the absurdity. From Philosophy Now, “Arguing With A Solipsist” by Raymond Tallis.
I so rarely find good arguments around solipsism that this was a pleasure to read. Tallis’ view misses some things.
So take one more sideroad before we go back to the first page of google.
I’ve been pretty cagey so far about what I actually mean. Obviously, I believe someone other than me will read this. So I can’t be a solipsist, right?
Well, to be fair, before I started writing here I wrote about as much and shared it with nobody. So that’s a little less compelling as evidence.
But before I explain what I really mean I want to step back and talk about what interested me in the idea.
My late teens and early 20s were about digging myself out of the trauma and ignorance of my childhood and teenage years.
I was profoundly deluded (I remain practically deluded).
I knew my beliefs were wrong and that my way of looking at the world was distorted. But I needed some way of changing that.
Initially, I looked for tools in self-help and found a few bits and pieces. I found more in Buddhism and Hinduism. But I was in something of the same frame of mind as Rene Descartes: I came to the conclusion the only way out was to doubt everything I could and find whatever firm ground I could find.
I’m not going to quote Descartes' famous maxim at you. Not because it’s a cliche, but because it’s misleading and wrong. Thought doesn’t prove the self. Nor is it the only thing in play.
Thinking is made of feeling. And the relevant information isn’t cognitive content, but the living continuous sense of having an experience at all.
If there’s a way for something that doesn’t exist to have an experience, It’s beyond my imagination. So if there’s experiencing, then something exists.
Even simulations are real in this sense if they’re self-aware.
(As is most likely the case with human experiences)
But even if “Experiencing” is real, that doesn’t prove anything about the content of the experience.
We’ve all made mountains of molehills or been paralyzed by the unclimbable height of a painted line.
To make things more complicated, our experience is a narrow slice of the feedback systems in our bodies. Orders of magnitude of orders of magnitude more complexity play out without our noticing or caring most of the time.
And this is true in time as well as in biology. So we have a little window of conscious experience in an iceberg of accumulated memory and underconscious processes.
And now, finally, 1,052 words into this essay, we can talk of the utility of Solipsism.
One of the core troubles of psychotherapy is access. Techniques to tease out the emotional knots of accumulated trauma and emotional anchors exist, but for the most part, you have to either become the person who can see each particular issue clearly or rely on janky hacks like hypnosis to work around that.
The alternative is finding ways to push new assumptions, contradictions, traumas, and delusions to the surface. An edge to work against.
The need to talk in Freudian psychoanalysis is one such edge, often criticized for being rather plodding and meandering.
Psychedelic drugs are another, opening a shitload of doors apparently at random. Who knows what you’ll find!
Solipsism is another edge to work from. A little quieter than psychedelics and faster than psychoanalysis. It also opens up some very useful ways to perceive one’s own horizon of ignorance.
Because the assumptions of solipsism are sharply at odds with everyday human culture, there’s friction that makes huge chunks of emotional content visible.
But how does this work?
Well, let’s go back to our awful definition of Solipsism:
the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.
I said this had three problems. Here they are:
It’s not a theory
It doesn’t prove the self
It doesn’t claim only the self can be known
Solipsism is just a fact you can perceive.
There’s not really a meaningful sense one can say, “I am a solipsist” anymore that one can say, “I’m an experiencer.” Like, sure. But that’s true of everybody. It’s part of what it means to be an “anybody”.
We don’t need to dance around the definition here: Solipsism is the living awareness of the gap in certainty between a living experience, the content of that experience, and everything else in the universe.
If you’re reading this, there’s not really any room to doubt that you’re experiencing it. Perhaps there’s a kind of self-aware machine intelligence that could process this essay without understanding it, but we couldn’t really say such a being was “reading” it.
Past that, everything else can be doubted to varying degrees.
So if you notice how certain you are that you’re having an experience, an authentically self-evident detail, you have something really handy.
You’ve got a reference point that’s internal to your subjectivity, always accessible, and can be compared to any other level of certainty you have. You have a kind of true north for what totally certain “feels” like.
In a world where people constantly overvalue their pronouncements, that’s a very useful little bit of knowledge.
The cool thing is it self-verifies on the fly. You’re still not dead. You can still have more experiences.
Now we need to go back to the disclaimers.
If you’re honest, though, you’ll find that you become substantially less certain of everything else. And while that might (or might now) be a more accurate assessment of a given piece of info, it can induce an ongoing existential crisis that is contrary to one’s usual human functioning.
There’s a lot of machinery in your head that’s functional the way it is but doesn’t need to be there and you’d be just fine without. But going from A to B might take months or years and there’s no way to know how much breaking it will mess with you until you’ve ripped apart your engine.
So I can’t suggest you play with this dangerous toy. Especially if others are dependent on you.
…Is it just me?
We can take a moment here to address the assumptions lots of people have about solipsism.
Why wouldn’t a solipsist reject the existence of other people?
(set aside the absurdity of solipsist as an identity for a moment, and also the absurdity of all identity)
The short answer is there’s no reason to do so. You can disbelieve in people’s personhood and they will behave exactly the same. Even if you’re an asshole to them because you don’t believe they’re real, they’ll react to your rude treatment, not anything else.
The point of the project of doubting everything that can be doubted isn’t to throw away everything. It’s to test your assumptions and see how different ways of thinking, acting and being play out so you can make better choices about how to live.
You can think yourself into an existential crisis easily enough if you layer the paranoia that other people aren’t real there. I mean, if you were the only person who exists what the fuck even is this essay. Hell of a job dreaming me into being.
Actually, if you do happen to be the person dreaming the world into being I’ve got a couple of requests. I think the whole “global capitalist civilization in decline dooming itself” is a bit tropey and maybe we could pick a more interesting future.
Just a thought.
The other solipsism cliche is narcissism, which I find frustrating because for me it’s lead to the the very opposite place. In seeing how badly I see other people, I must seek out more information about them.
I’ve seen my assumptions proven wrong or incomplete thousands of times. And taking the possibility I “create my own reality” literally was a very useful exercise in discovering the edges of such ideas.
The thing is that all this is a process and if you pay attention and watch you see things play out and you learn and try and do better over time.
Which is something clinical narcissists have an extreme amount of difficulty with because their first reaction to a problem is to look for a scapegoat to protect their lofty self image.
Relatable, frankly. But also poison to get comfortable doing.
The thing, though, with even the cliches of solipsism is you really can’t scapegoat anything. If your mind is all that is, you set all this *waves hand suggestively at everything* in motion and it persists only because you will it to be.
Anyone who follows that line of thinking very far is going to notice some real issues.
First, there’s like a lot of undesirable shit out there. No matter what your values are, the world doesn’t really conform to them. So that begs an explanation.
Second, you can’t change things through an act of will. There are some places where something that might as well be magic is possible, but it’s very clearly and obviously not the same thing as choosing from a menu. It involves forces outside the self.
Of course, all of this can be ignored by anyone. Beliefs are hardly binding and many of us simply ignore the problems with our own thinking as a matter of course. Narcissists have no monopoly on delusion.
And one can never have too many tools to dis-illusion themselves.
Well, that was fun.
I’m sure an essay about standing on the third rail of philosophy will go over super well and I’ll finally have enough positive affirmation to retire in peace.
While looking over the text I noticed I did skip an argument against Solipsism that’s at least popular, if not good.
“Well, it’s kind of absurd, right?”
And, sure. But that’s most of life apparently on this strange rock spinning unbelievably fast through an infinite void speckled with occasional exceptions.
The facts of the world are so extreme themselves that we should at least have a little fun interpreting them.
Especially when that fun can also help us see things a little better.
Thanks to diminishing returns that’s about as good as we can hope for over time unless we stumble on an actual new paradigm.
Oh, and before I forget, there’s another figure worth mentioning here. America’s forgotten Solipsist founded the Neo-American Church in an attempt to legalize the religious use of weed and psychedelics as sacraments while living at Tim Leary’s Ashram at Milbrook.
But Art Kleps is a story for another day.
Anyway, I know what you’re thinking.
You’re thinking, “This asshole can’t possibly be about to hit us up for money again”
I regret to inform you that while I enjoy writing this sort of thing it’s also kind of a job and only really works when people are willing to toss some money in the tip jar.
Money is fake too, so you might as well send some my way. Helps keep the bill collectors at bay and me in enough coffee to write. Every bit really does help.
Anyway, Shameless plugs aside, I’ve been kinda percolating this essay for a few years and I’m glad it’s out of me. Back to not really thinking about solipsism.
Even if you’re not real, I still believe in you.
See you soon for the rest of our discussion about the Californian Ideology, some shit on Climate Change, and ADHD.