Thursday, November 26, 2015

Falsifying Solipsism

The reason solipsism presents an inky philosophical problem boils down to the same reason that many other ridiculous dilemmas present problems. There is a (very common) fallacy going on where language is being given primacy over concepts, and concepts over what is existentially real. That is, we coin a word "X" based on some superficial observation or convention, then ask "what is X?". As if this word is somehow an existential thing. It isn't. Yet when we deal with philosophical problems we too often deal in words which we create, then try to backtrack and find some existential or objective conceptual substance to them. Or worse, we throw the words out there and assume they are objective and existential without even questioning it. But it just doesn't work that way. Many philosophical dilemmas, from Theseus' Ship to the entire field of Epistemology, are founded in this erroneous and fallacious way of thinking. And solipsism is no different. Solipsism, at its essence, is the idea that one's self, or one's mind, is the only thing you can be sure exists. And it's tricky to falsify only because the words "self" and "mind" are not objectively nailed down, but left open to interpretation. Therefore – when one attempts to put forth the obvious evidence that there appears to be an external world which cannot be directly manipulated by the mind, and from which the individual receives input which did not come from their own mind – the ambiguity in the definitions of 'self' and 'mind' allow the solipsism apologist to move the goalpost. They can claim that part of the mind is "locked" or "subconscious" or otherwise inaccessible to the direct experience or manipulation of the individual. And at this point we are stretching and expanding what a mind or self "is", because we started with the words, not existential things – yet we are treating those words as if they have intrinsic existential properties. If you start with things that can be empirically observed and objectively defined, assign those things terms, and use those terms to define solipsism, then falsifying it becomes trivially easy. I can observe that I have qualitative, phenomenal experiences. And I can observe that I react to those experiences, exerting an arbitrary will from what I experience. So from these observations I have empirically observed two things: 1) A function of qualitative and phenomenal input and arbitrary output which is experienced. I will define this as "consciousness". 2) That there is an object experiencing and participating in this function, which is me. I will define this as "self". So the self (as I have defined it here) has an input-output function called consciousness. From this, we will define an objective form of solipsism: ¬ there exists ¬self. Or, more plainly, nothing exists besides the self. To falsify solipsism, we need only to prove there exists ¬self, or that something besides the self exists.
For the input part of my consciousness to receive input (qualitative, phenomenal experience), there must be a source of that input. That is, an output. In a solipsistic universe, the only possible source of output would be the self. And the self does in fact have an output in the consciousness function in the form of an arbitrary will. The problem is that we receive input which is clearly not our own arbitrary will. We receive input which is different from and foreign to the output of our consciousness. We can observe this. You are observing it right now. Most of the sensory input you are currently experiencing is not being consciously willed into existence by you. You may be acting on it with your will, but it keeps acting on you regardless of your will, and it may behave in ways contrary to your will. Since we receive input which was not an output of the will – that is, of the self – that means this input must have been an output of something ¬self. This proves, empirically, logically, and undeniably there exists ¬self, that something other than the self exists. And this therefore disproves the original statement of solipsism: ¬ there exists ¬self.
You of course could revert back to some other statement of solipsism, or some other definition of the self, and proceed to move goalposts and create ambiguity. But if you do, then what are we even discussing? Anyone can make up a word and an idea and keep it vague enough to allow it to evade all analysis. But in doing so, you have removed all substance and validity from that idea itself. It may defy analysis, but it also defies usefulness and applicability. What, existentially, does a vague definition of solipsism even imply? What force does it carry? Exactly none.