Solipsism is the belief that there is nothing outside one’s own mind. It’s a strange view that very few people have seriously advocated, but it’s surprisingly difficult to disprove, and so it’s kind of a sticky problem in the history of Western philosophy. Understanding solipsism will allow you to understand one of the most central problems of philosophy: the boundaries between the self and the world.
Psychologists believe that we all start life as solipsists. At the moment of birth, a baby can barely sense its surroundings, so its perceptions are entirely internal. Very young infants may not be able to distinguish between their own body and external objects. As they grow, babies learn the limits of their own bodies and slowly develop an awareness of the outside world.
Even then, however, there are some quirks — for example, you’ve probably seen parents play “peek-a-boo” with babies. Why is this simple game so amusing for babies? The answer is that babies lack what psychologists call “object permanence,” meaning they think the only things that exist are the things in their immediate field of vision; if something gets hidden, the baby believes that it has ceased to exist. As we’ll see, philosophical solipsism has some surprising commonalities with the thinking of babies.
II. Types of Solipsism
Solipsism exists in all three major branches of philosophy:
In the philosophy of knowledge (epistemology), solipsism is the idea that we cannot know anything outside our own minds. Solipsists argue that the only true knowledge is what we know about our own internal thinking. Everything else is uncertain and untrustworthy. This is the most common form of solipsism. Alternatively, epistemological solipsism might mean that you are the only being in the universe capable of knowledge (see last section), which is a slightly different position.
In ethics, solipsism is the idea that the self is the only thing that matters morally. The moral choice in any situation is to do whatever you think is best for yourself, without regard for anyone else. Almost no one defends ethical solipsism directly, but some philosophers have argued for ideas that may (in the eyes of their critics) lead to ethical solipsism. So, you might criticize someone by accusing them of ethical solipsism, but few people would accept that label willingly.
In metaphysics, or the philosophy of reality, solipsism is the idea that only the self exists. According to solipsism, I am the only real thing in the universe, and everything I see outside myself is an illusion. This implies that the other forms of solipsism are also true — if I’m the only thing that exists, then clearly I am the only thing that matters ethically, and also the only thing that can be known.
III. Solipsism vs. Nihilism
People often confuse solipsism with nihilism, but in fact they’re quite different philosophies. When people say “nihilist,” they often mean “moral solipsist.” But nihilism is one step further beyond solipsism: for solipsism, only the self matters; for nihilism, not even the self matters. Nihilism is the view that absolutely nothing matters.
Whether or not it’s true, nihilism is almost impossible to believe in consistently. If you were truly a nihilist, you would never leave the bed — you wouldn’t even turn over in bed to make yourself more comfortable. As soon as you move your body into a more comfortable position, you reveal that at least one thing matters to you: being more comfortable. As soon as you eat something or open your mouth to speak, you again reveal that something matters to you.
This, of course, doesn’t get us very far. It only gets you as far as solipsism, and most people would like to move beyond both nihilism and solipsism. However, it does demonstrate that nearly every “nihilist” is actually a solipsist, not a nihilist at all.
IV. Quotes About Solipsism
“Today’s sub-40s have different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without once having loved something more than yourself.” (David Foster Wallace)
David Foster Wallace was a prominent social critic and novelist who wrote on the landscape of American culture in the 1990s. Wallace observed that the culture had sunk into solipsism: everyone was just trying to accumulate wealth and security for themselves without regard for higher principles or a greater search for meaning. He argued that the younger generation was rebelling against this solipsism by embracing countercultural music and art much as their parents had done in the 1960s.
“Everyone sees only their own reflection in the mirror of thought.” (Marty Rubin)
In this quote, the novelist Marty Rubin is expressing a kind of epistemological solipsism. As he sees it, we can never fully escape the distortions and limitations of an individual perspective, so our knowledge is always somewhat solipsistic, no matter how hard we try to perceive the world objectively.
V. The History and Importance of Solipsism
The first recorded example of solipsism comes from Gorgias, a Greek philosopher who lived around the same time as Socrates. Gorgias is said to have based his philosophy on three claims:
- Nothing exists
- Even if something exists, we can’t know anything about it
- Even if we could know anything, we can’t communicate our knowledge.
Each of these is a different form of solipsism — so Gorgias’s argument is like a Russian nesting-doll, where each layer of solipsism contains another. However, the argument was probably not taken very seriously by other philosophers at the time. Gorgias was considered a sophist, or someone who was trained to make elegant, attractive arguments but not to pay attention to whether or not they were true.
As we’ve been describing it, solipsism is a unique feature of Western philosophy. However, many Indian and Chinese philosophies/religions have notions of the self that can seem similar to solipsism. For example, Zen Buddhism teaches that there is no boundary between the self and the world; the goal of Zen meditation is to forget the distinction between “I” and everything else. At first glance, this might look like solipsism, but really it’s the opposite. Whereas solipsism reduces the universe to the individual mind, Zen meditation dissolves the mind into the universe. In other words, solipsism questions the existence of everything outside the self; Zen questions the existence of the self.
VI. Solipsism in Popular Culture
The webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has a comic about the kind of solipsism experienced by babies. In the comic, a baby floats in a sea of nothingness, with all of reality having disappeared. It turns out that the baby’s father is just playing peek-a-boo, which causes the baby to believe that nothing exists (due to a lack of “object permanence”).
“I just think if you really thought about it, you’d decide to build your home on a different hilltop.”
“And…why would I do that?”
“Because…deep down, I think you’ll realize that you’re forcing an entire village out of their homes just for you.”
“And that’sssssssss … bad?”
(Kuzco and Pacha, The Emperor’s New Groove)
At the beginning of The Emperor’s New Groove, Emperor Kuzco is just about the most selfish person imaginable. In this exchange, he demonstrates that he’s actually a moral solipsist — he not only wants to force the villagers out of their homes, he doesn’t even see anything wrong with this sort of behavior. Kuzco’s perspective is obviously not backed up with any sort of philosophical reasoning, but it does resemble the philosophy of solipsism.
The Problem of Other Minds
How do you know that other people have minds? That is, how do you know that they have conscious experiences, feelings, etc., the same way you do? What if everyone around you was a kind of biological robot, identical to a conscious human being, but lacking conscious awareness? Such beings would behave identically to conscious humans, and there would be no way to prove whether or not they have feelings and consciousness.
In philosophy, this is known as the “problem of other minds.” So far, no one has come up with a way to prove that other people have internal consciousness. But philosophers are divided on what exactly this means. For some, it suggests that some form of solipsism must be true. If you can’t prove that other people have minds, then you can’t know they do. This would suggest that you are the only being in the universe capable of knowledge!
There are many responses to this view, but two are particularly persuasive: first, you might say that consciousness is observable. Some philosophers and neurobiologists argue that we will eventually understand the biological mechanism that produces consciousness, and so eventually we will be able to scan the brain and prove that the person is having conscious experiences.
Alternatively, you could make a more pragmatic argument for the existence of other minds. If it doesn’t make a difference in practical life, then it doesn’t make a difference at all according to the philosophy of pragmatism. So the pragmatic argument basically goes like this: OK, assume for the sake of argument that other people don’t have conscious minds. Will this change your behavior? Will you live your life any differently? A pragmatist might say “no” — the presence or absence of other minds makes no difference to our behavior as long as other beings around us behave as though they have minds.