Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Solipsism: It's Epistemology, damn it.

So this evening I went to the bar with two people from the department because one of them called from my driveway asking if I wanted to go. And given how creepy that is I found it best to just go along with what they asked. At the bar we were talking about what we'd like to be known for in the department (in terms of specializations / areas of knowledge) and I mentioned that I was pretty sure no one knew me or thought of me having a specialization. Both of the people corrected me, however, and stated quite plainly that everyone in the department knew me because, apparently, I am the solipsist in the department.

Now, I'm ok being the departmental solipsist. The problem is that most people don't know what the fuck that means. So, since you're reading this, and you're obviously interested in exactly what the fuck it means when I say I am a solipsist, I'm going to explain it.

Solipsism is the philosophical idea that one's own mind is all that exists; this is the barebones, elementary understanding most people have. So when, in conversation, someone finds out that I am a solipsist they say "So you do not think I exist?" And that question is exactly the worst way to articulate the question with which solipsism as a philosophical problem is concerned.

First, let's rephrase that question to be more accommodating. Rather than the confrontational statement "I do not think you exist" let's rephrase it to be a question: "What is it for me to think that you exist?" Solipsism is not positing an ontological condition or denying that which is the case. Rather, solipsism is an inquiry into knowledge; it asks what one knows, how one knows, and what that type of knowledge does.

So let's try to answer the question. First, though, let's address the question of what it is to say "My mind exists" since solipsists have no problem with that statement. Solipsism takes thought as a primary phenomena; that which cannot be doubted. When Descartes applied doubt he ended at "I cannot doubt that I doubt", which has its problems. So, a more thorough conclusion would be: "Doubt cannot doubt doubt". Doubt is a self-reflective and self-acknowledging primary state; it does not go away; doubt does not dissolve doubt. This is why solipsism maintains the position "My* mind is all that exists" as the most fundamental; doubt/thought cannot be doubted or thought away; thought is primary.

So, then, when moving from "My* mind is all that exists" to "other things exist" what sort of knowledge claim is being made? It cannot be a knowledge claim of the same sort of direct, indubitable (now by definition) knowledge. Rather, something has to be assumed or posited. That there is another entity, that this entity has a mind, that this entity has phenomenal experience, are all assumptions or, at best, consequents of things posited. And since these assumptions or posits are not a priori, self-evidently true, they have a degree of wonk to them. As philosophers we do not want wonk. So, in pursuit of a wonkless philosophy I am a solipsist.

But why don't we want wonk?

Here's what happens if one has wonk in their philosophy:

Player A: Other people exist because I experience them as existing.
Player B: So all things experienced are true? If one experiences God and another does not experience God then there is a that one person and not the other?
Player A: Well, no....

Player A: Other people exist because it seems like they exist.
Player B: So, "seems" is a reliable and true method of detecting that which is the case? If I think it seems like I have cancer then I need not seek out a doctor to verify my having cancer?
Player A: Well, no...

Player A: One can claim that there are other people without having certainty of there being other people since certainty is not epistemologically available to human beings.
Player B: Are you certain of that?
Player A: Yeeeeeennnnnooo...FUCK

Here's the problem: What is it to claim that there are other people? The answer is going to be based upon an assumption, based upon an appeal to experience, based upon some attempted claim at self-evidence of experience. But these are all flawed methods of pseudo-knowledge because they are not certain. Moreoever, the sort of knowledge claim used in positing other people will not carry over to other sorts of knowledge claims. When one inquiries into whether or not one has a particular medical condition one will not utilize "seems" or "suppose" but rather will engage in an inquiry into verification whereby a degree of certainty is found within a particular context. One fucking looks to see if one has an open wound.

But to "fucking look" is an exercise in a particular kind of empirical knowledge which is founded upon a particular understanding of how it is that empirical knowledge can be trusted and reliable. Yet the fundamental claim of "there is another person" or "there is an external reality" does not follow this same sort of verification based upon a foundational understanding of knowledge. Rather, the claim itself becomes the foundation. One states that "when I look and see that there are other people I know there are other people because I look and see that there are other people" and so engages in a circular argument based upon an appeal to an empiricism which is, again, circular. And that shit don't fly round here.

If you can destroy any of that feel free. I would like to be wrong about this.

*The "my" claim posits some sort of entity "me" within which thought occurs. And that position is, ultimately, indefensible. So "my" mind is a sloppy way of saying "there is thought".


Roscoe said...

qualm- Looking out and seeing another person works just fine, in the exact same sense as an open wound.

This is to say, I look out, and see these douchebags golfing, and doing all the things people do. They are physical constructs, recognizable as people, acting recognizably as people.

Your wound/self-knowledge argument is kinda faulty, in that you may very well have to go to outside sources to verify this knowledge.

Cancer, as you raised, for example, or mental conditions.

Either our mind and senses can be decieved, or they can't. The topics they can be deceived on doesn't really matter, and trying to find distinction there, that kinda rips you apart.

_J_ said...

Yes. Here's what I'm trying to say with that example:

A doctor says to you "Seems like you have cancer." Well, that's not good enough. You want to know whether or not you have cancer.

So, usually, in these situations, there is then a test or operation done to discern whether or not the thing actually is cancer by directly engaging with the thing.

So there is a heirarchy of knowledge here: "seems" is less desireable and reliable and esteemed than "is the case". The statement "seems like you are sick" is different from "you are sick".

So what do we take from that? Human beings want to know what is the case rather than what seems to be the case.

Knowledge which is not certain is what "seems" to be the case. Certain knowledge is what "is" the case.

So, a solipsist, dealing with a priori knowledge and self-evident truths is dealing with a knowledge which is the case. Someone who posits other people or assumes other people is dealing with knowledge that seems to be the case.

_J_ said...

It's an example more than anything else. So someone who does not necessarily understand epistemology can say "oh, yeah, if a doctor said 'seems' i'd tell him to fuck off and find out whether or not I have cancer."

So, inevitably, human beings want certainty. But to get to the point of there being doctors and cancer and other people one has to disregard certainty.

It's a very odd situation wherein someone seeks certainty in an uncertain context. And I'm saying that if one wants certainty then be a solipsist. Or, dismiss certainty and just go along with whatever the doctor says because you can't Know so, fuck it.