The paradox of anti-solipsism

Samuel asked:

To what extent is solipsism a relevant philosophical theory in modern society?

I have determined it to be irrelevant in an ethical sense but not in a philosophical one.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In a nutshell, ethical solipsism would be the view that other people simply don’t count in my deliberations. They are tools to use, or obstacles that get in my way, nothing more. By contrast, ‘philosophical’ or what I would term ontological solipsism is the view that I am the only entity that exists. You are just one of the characters in the story of my world — which is the one and only world.

For the ethical solipsist, people are ‘real’ in the sense that they are actually existing entities outside my own consciousness. I might or might not believe that these ‘things’ have something ‘inside’ — consciousness, a view of the world, desires and feelings — or not.

If they don’t have anything ‘inside’ then their apparent ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’ cannot give me sadness or pleasure. They are just pieces of malfunctioning biological equipment. But if they do have something ‘inside’ then, so what? So what if their suffering is real? Pain is bad when it’s in me, but if it’s in you then it doesn’t hurt me at all.

I once believed that it was possible to refute ethical solipsism, in whichever variety it occurs (see ‘In pursuit of the amoralist’, 2002 I don’t think that now. In practical reality, you don’t attempt to argue with a criminal psychopath, you lock them up.

I would go so far as to make the case for locking up ethical solipsists before they have committed any criminal acts — in a way similar to the 2002 movie ‘Minority Report’ based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. They are not criminals (yet) but they are ‘pre-criminals’. They are loaded weapons, ready to go off at any moment without warning.

Ontological solipsism is a different kettle of fish. You can be as moral as anyone if you are an ontological solipsist. That is because it is a metaphysical theory without any practical consequences. You look at the world in a funny way. That’s all. ‘This is all in me,’ you tell yourself. And then you go about your life the same way as everyone else, helping little old ladies across the road, etc.

This led Wittgenstein, for one, to conclude that the very notion of solipsism is meaningless, just a strange tendency to utter certain sequences of words, a tendency that can perhaps be cured by philosophical ‘therapy’. I don’t altogether agree. I think it means something to reject solipsism, in this sense, so what you reject must also be in some sense ‘meaningful’.

But now the problem really gets going. Let’s say that you absolutely turn your face against the very idea of ontological solipsism. Of course, the world is real. Of course the world doesn’t depend on me, you say. The world would exist, even if I did not. Well, OK then, and what about me. How did I get to be in the world?

I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place. A world without ‘I’ would be exactly the same as the world as it is now. It would have GK in it, just as it does now. Adding ‘I’ to the world, making it true that ‘I am GK’, is adding nothing, zero. And similarly with taking away. The very next moment I could cease to be but the person, GK, writing these words would continue without a pause. A different ‘I’, a different subject of consciousness would be thinking the thoughts I am thinking now.

Call this a paradox, the ‘paradox of anti-solipsism’. My name for it is the ‘idiotic conundrum’. As to the solution — I’m still working on that.

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