Okay, this is a tricky one, because I learned in philosophy class that it was pretty much true, and so I didn’t bother memorizing all the reasons. After all, it made perfect sense to ME. But I keep meeting people who don’t get it.
Well, okay, good point. I don’t ever meet people. BUT I am constantly surprised to rediscover that of the little group of five people I DO know, only two of them will even give me the benefit of the doubt on this one.
So I’ll try to lay a foundation.
I titled this bit “solipsism,” because (if I’m remembering my terminology correctly), that’s the description of the ultimate logical result of the issues I’m going to discuss. It’s also considered, in terms of philosophical conversation, catastrophically bad. But, the thing is, it can’t be helped.
Solipsism, in brief, is where you discover through your philosophy that you cannot meaningfully account for anything other than your own self, and only that on the very basest level. A philosophy that collapses to solipsism is considered a failure, if I understand correctly. Mine does. Kinda.
Anyway, whatever, I don’t have any problem with solipsism. As I say, it makes sense to me. Descartes was starting with solipsism (not ending with it, which is the catastrophic failure bit), when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” It’s oft-quoted and, as a direct result, quite completely overlooked. The point of that essay was Descartes’s effort to find some absolutely solid foundation upon which to build his understanding of the universe.
Perhaps I should start there. What foundation could you use? The standard, most rational human foundation is human sensory experience. That which you can see with your own eyes, measure with reliable instruments…that is a reliable foundation.
But what of dreams, so vivid they seem real? What about hypnotic visions, or plain ol’ hallucinations. Everyone knows that the senses can, under some circumstances, provide entirely realistic impressions quite contrary to what everyone knows to be the truth. Consider advanced psychosis, like in A Beautiful Mind. Your mind can quietly people your world with sensations, experiences, even identities entirely of your own concoction, and the only apparatus you have by which to test these hallucinations against reality is, in fact, the same set of faculties generating the phantasms.
Consider in the world of the Matrix, where sensations are pumped directly into a person’s brain. It’s a theoretically realistic principle. I remember in our philosophy class we referred to that as the Brain in a Vat problem. If you were merely a brain, suspended in a complex chamber designed to keep you functioning and pumping you with the exact same electrical impulses you’d receive from your various nerves if you were alive…how would you know?
Solipsism. You can’t. Our only measure of reality is our nervous system, which we know to be subject to failure. And that leads to…nothing. That’s the PROBLEM with solipsism. You can kinda argue ANYONE to a standstill there, but you can’t do anything with it.
It makes perfect sense, to me, though. It perfectly describes what sounds most like reality to me. Men are, at essence, nothing more than motive will. We are nothing more than a Mind, constructing for ourselves bodies, worlds, experiences. That we consistently create similar enough structures that we can patch them together via language — well, that makes sense, given that we were all of us designed according to the same model, and given function through the power of the Word.
There I’m talking about Logos, not biblos. Y’know, for the Bible Majors out there.
(There’s another philosophical puzzle that goes along with the Brain in a Vat problem, and that’s the question of what physical bits make you you. If you cut off your arm, and replaced it with a prosthetic arm, would you still be you? What if you replaced your leg? Your kidneys? Your heart? The question is…where does your soul reside? I think everyone ends up guessing brain, because we’ve never heard of a successful brain transplant. That seems easy to me. I don’t know where I was going with this paragraph, but I’m kinda hoping Toby will jump to my aid here, because I know he’s fond of this puzzle. How exactly does it go?)
Anyway! Back to Descartes. Before we had The Matrix or A Beautiful Mind to pose the big questions of what can we rely on, Descartes was already working on it. He said, basically, that because there is a conscious will somewhere able to think “I think,” it must exist, and because I’m aware of that happening, the “I” must, necessarily, be me, so I can start out with complete faith that I am an extant consciousness. Congratulations. He’s reasoned his way all the way up to Brain in a Vat.
He builds from that, all the way up to a complete apology for contemporary assumptions of rational science. Oh, sure, there are huge logical leaps along the way, and you can’t really take many of his conclusions for granted, but you can easily admire his recognition of the problem, and his beginnings to answer.
There’s another bit in Descartes that I just love. It’s not new to him, but he did a good job with it. He posits (yeah, Kris, I said it again — that’s exactly the right word) posits, in fact, the Categorical Imperative. Wait…is that right? Or is Categorical Imperative something the Ferengi demand of the Bothans? I dunno. I THINK I’ve got my phrase right. Anyway, Dan can correct me here, because this is one of HIS favorite bits. It is, essentially, a philosophical rewording of the Golden Rule (which, yeah, appears in several cultures apart from Jesus’ teachings anyway).
But Descartes says, essentially, the only thing we can confidently believe in is the existence of people. Moreover, all people are equally absolute agents in a sea of uncertainty, and so there is a certain Human Greatness inherent to all Men which must be respected. So don’t do anything to deny or defy the greatness of others. Don’t keep them from achieving their potential. Of course, it goes without saying you shouldn’t limit your own potential, either.
Any of this sound familiar? Ugh. It’s too late, and I’m too tired to draw all the conclusions, but it should be quite apparent — throughout this article I’ve been describing the problems, the questions that first led me to some of the foundational stuff I’ve been talking about for the last week. If you’re curious (or unclear) what I meant by any particular thing herein, ask explicitly and I’ll clarify tomorrow. Until then, be glad you’re alive. I am.