allzermalmer

Truth suffers from too much analysis

What does Solipsism tell us?

Posted by allzermalmer on May 3, 2011

There is this idea within philosophy known as Solipsism. Solipsism says one of two things, which is either based on epistemology or metaphysics. Within metaphysics, it says that only my perceptions and thoughts exist. The epistemological position says that I can only know my experiences. The purposes of this post is only to deal with the epistemological position, and what it tells us. However, it seems impossible to deal with the epistemological without having ones toe in the water of the metaphysical issue.

Epistemological solipsism comes from the 1st person perspective, like what one experiences with their senses of sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell. It also deals with the thoughts that you have. So say that I am walking in the street, I see trees, and so I know there are trees. I am walking and I hear someone shouting at another, and I know this because of sound. I pick up this object and eat it, and I find it tastes good. I also felt this object, and know how it feels. I know that I had a thought where I was like, ‘This tastes very good.’

Now say that I come to meet Albert Einstein. He tells me all sorts of things, like how space and time are interconnected, and how space curves with things of mass, that light is both a wave and a particle. He tells me all of these things. Do I know that what he says is true? Of course I do not. I have never experienced anything that he tells me, and so I do not know. All I can do is believe that what they tell me is true, but I cannot know what he tells me is true.This goes with anything that someone tells me that I have no experienced myself.

So say that someone says that they performed an experiment, and that such-and-such happened. I do not know that it happened, and I can only believe him or not believe him. Now, I can come to have knowledge if I perform the experiment that they did. So say that the person set up certain conditions, like that of a recipe for making a cake. I get all the ingredients that are on the recipe, and I put it all together. I can find out if I get the same result, and then I know what happened.All I can say is this, the recipe that they gave me lead to me having this particular experience. I cannot say that they had the same experience as me, and all I can say is that they said they had such-and-such experiment.

Now this brings up some interesting issues. One of them is this, I cannot know what happened in the past, except for my memory of what happened in my past. So say that I was born in 1990. I would not know what happened in 1989, 1988, 1987 and backwards. This is not knowledge I can have. I can read books that talk about things that happened before 1990, but I cannot know that they happened. All I can know is that I read such-and-such that said such-and-such happened. I can believe it or not. I never know it happened, but I can believe that it happened.

The second issue is this, I cannot know what is going to happen in the future. I can only experience what happened in the past from my memory, or what is going on now in the present. I never experience the future, and so I can never know the future. I can only know the present, and the present becomes the past, which is my past. I can make an inductive inference that because such-and-such happened in the past, that it will happen in the future. This I cannot know.

The third issue is this, I cannot know that other people are having experiences like me, or similar to experiences like me. I can never experience what someone is experiencing, or even know that they are having experiences. All I can know is what I see and hear. I can see their body doing certain things, like bending over to pick up an object. I can know that they are saying “I am going to pick up this box on the floor to clean up the room.” I cannot know what they are thinking, or that they thought to do it. I cannot know if they are having an emotional reaction, or if they feel sad. I can only see their facial expression or the sound they make.

The fourth issue is this, I cannot know that things are happening, or going on, when I am not experiencing them myself.  So say that I am in my study, surrounded by books and a computer. I decide to leave this room to go to the kitchen to make a peanut-butter sandwich. As soon as I am out of sight of the study, I know longer know that it exists. I am not experiencing it, and have no first person experience of it to say that it exists. It is something that I just do not know. So as I watch the news, I see that there are things being brought up that are supposedly going on at Washington D.C. What I do know is that I am watching TV and there are these images on the TV, and these images are saying certain things. I know this. But now say that I turn off the TV. I n longer know that those things exist anymore, let alone that the city of Washington D.C. exists, or that the Library of Congress in D.C. exists. These are not things that are being experienced.I cannot know that a fish are swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, since I have no first hand experience of it.

Now there is this idea that is called falsifiability. Falsifiability states, a statement must be able to be refuted by experience through inter-subjective observation or experiment. So say that I make the statement, All Ravens are Black. Now the statement is a categorical statement, and is logically equivalent to No Raves are not Black, or All non Black are non Ravens. It also can carry this logical equivalent in propositional logic: If Raven, then Black. This carries the same meaning as, If not black, then not Raven.

So let us go with the typical conditional statement of propositional logic; If Raven then Black. Now falsifiability says that this statements has to have the possibility of being refuted by an observation by others, besides myself. It carries the logical inference of modus tollens. So say I come across a White Raven. This means that I have come across a Raven that is not Black. So If A then B; not B; thus not A.

Now what makes solipsism untestable is that it is not inter-subjective. You only have your first person experience, and cannot experience what someone else experiences or know that they have experiences to begin with, since you are assuming that this other person exists without being able to test if they do have experiences. Like I brought up before, I do not know that they experienced what they said they experienced, but I do know that they said they had a certain experience.

The second part of it is that one cannot refute that they are not the only thing that exists. One cannot know this, and so they can only believe it. From this belief, they make all sorts of other beliefs, and none of them can be known. So you cannot know that things exist when you are not experiencing them, know that other people are having experiences that they say they are or are thinking, cannot know that things happened in the past before you existed. From all of this, we find that a great deal of our ‘knowledge’ of things is just belief. It is not really knowledge. We cannot refute that things do not exist when they are not being experienced, since all we can know is what we experience. In order to refute solipsism, you must assume that it is false to show that it is false. This would just beg the question, and would not show that you refuted it.

The short man’s version is this, you cannot know that things are a certain way without you experiencing it, and all that you know are your experiences, which is  all that exists. So when it comes to the statement, “Julius Cesar was killed by Brutus”, is something that cannot be falsified. We cannot refute it because we can have no experience of it through observation, let alone an observation that is in principle able to be experienced by another person. Not to mention, one is assuming that this happened when you have no experience of it happening.

Now we can make the statement, “the Universe started from the Big Bang around 14 Billion years ago.” Now once we ask, What does ‘Universe’ mean, we come to realize it means ‘all that exists’. Now this is strange, since all that we know to exist is our experiences, and our experiences do not seem to have been 14 Billion years ago. Thus, if we really held to this idea, we have found that our experience refutes it, or at least our memory. But this is not inter-subjective. But this aside, we are stating that something happened when we did not experience it and that this happened in the past.

Now, supposedly, everyone is supposed to be subjective, and have their own point of view that no one else can logically experience. Thus, all of us only know what we experience. So the question could be, “what does this mean about our knowledge of things before humans came about?” The answer seems to be that they are just theoretical background view/belief. We carry this theoretical background view/belief that things exist when we are not observing them. We carry this theoretical background view/belief that the past exists. We carry this theoretical background view that there are other minds.

From these general theoretical background views, we can falsify statements. The statements themselves are not falsifiable, for the most part, if at all, without these theoretical background views. Without them, statements like, “the universe started 14 billion years ago”, would not be falsifiable. First, we would re-define universe to be those things that exist beyond our own 1st person experiences, and those of humans, since are giving them both a theoretical existence, which is not knowledge, but it is belief. From these beliefs we are going to build up other beliefs that we would call knowledge. They are not really knowledge, but for short hand we call them knowledge. They are just belief.

However, we come up with this other distinction. There is a difference between these two statements, even though they are both be theoretical background views/beliefs:
(1.) There is a penguin in Antarctica
(2.) The Universe began 14 Billion years ago

The difference is that the first statement is one that we can observe with our senses. The second is something that we would not be able to observe in principle, and this also holds for other people’s thoughts an experiences. Much of what we are told is based on things that go beyond our senses, and so they are theoretical background beliefs/views as well.

So in the end, we find that epistemological solipsism, with a hint of metaphysical solipsism, shows us that most of what we call knowledge is not really knowledge. It shows us that most of what we call knowledge is just a belief. Thus, we find that falsifiable statements, or beliefs, are built off of unfalsifiable beliefs. Our falsifiable statements are based off of theoretical background views/beliefs, and from these views we build up statements that we can show are false. This means, though, that they are not really falsifiable. What is more interesting is this, 1st hand knowledge is what we know and 2nd hand knowledge is just belief. We would also have to differentiate between observable and unobservable, since only the observable is falsifiable.

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