You are not the Center of the Universe, no not even in the Matrix

13 Sep

This post was at least partially inspired by a conversation with a certain someone. That someone will remain unnamed in order to protect him (or her) from violent retribution.

From time to time, solipsism rears its ugly head. For those not in the know, solipsism is basically the delusion in which you think you’re the center of the universe; or to be more precise, at least in the philosophical sense, it means that you think you are the only thing that is real – everything else is simply a product of your imagination. Your cat, your significant other, your job, everything that does, has, or will exist is simply a product of your awesome, awesome brain… though as much as hate to Godwin an argument so early on, I have to ask; why you be hatin’ on Jews so much. That’s right, if you’re the only real thing in the universe then the Holocaust is also a product of your diseased mind.

I realize that going there was something of a cheap shot, but I did it to demonstrate that solipsism is rather easily torn down, because despite what pretentious undergraduates (and people who misunderstand what Descartes was arguing when they should be focusing on the actual flaws in his argument) fail to understand is that it’s not difficult to determine that there are things external to our own minds going on. There’s even a technical term for it: Mataphysical Realism. Metaphysical realism is simply the idea that there is a world that is external to us, and that there is a way this world works.

This is true even if the world one perceives is created by a deceiving demon, one has been reduced to a brain in a jar, or one is trapped in an overhyped film. Even if the world is demonstrably an illusion we are still bound by metaphysical realism. I’m a strong supporter of phenomenology and intersubjectivity, as such I believe that we do, in a very real sense, create the world; that is to say there is no meaningful world beyond the world of human experience. Yet this doesn’t mean there is no world external to our experience. My existing doesn’t create gravity qua gravity, but it is what shapes how I am able to understand gravity.

I just realized I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this. I generally try to make these posts a bit more than short Philosophy 101 lectures, but really there’s not much to say about solipsism. It’s a rather amusing kind of arrogance and is easily deconstructed. So I suppose I shall simply end by saying don’t do it or you shall be mocked. Said mocking might involve pictures of cats.



Posted by on September 13, 2011 in Philosophy, Pop Culture


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6 responses to “You are not the Center of the Universe, no not even in the Matrix

  1. Bleeyargh

    September 13, 2011 at 9:05 am

    You should expound a bit when you’re more awake, because this post does not even begin to deconstruct solipsism, which is rather irritatingly like religion in that regard. It simply states, “Well I think that this stuff is real”. When solipsism does not even regard the body– or the brain, mind you– as real (much less the forces, like gravity, that seem to act on it), and does not swallow Freud’s ridiculous structured division of the deliberate and nondeliberate to thought experiences, it’s hard to say that by announcing metaphysical realism you’ve shown solipsism up.

    • Josh Benton

      September 13, 2011 at 10:03 am

      I suspected that I probably should have expounded more. Last night wasn’t one of my best nights and I mostly posted this to try and distract myself from something.

      That said, if metaphysical realism can be demonstrated, more particularly if because of metaphysical realism it can be shown that the world is contrary to one’s desires, solipsism is deconstructed. Taking myself as an example, if the world of my experiences is simply the product of my own mind, for whatever definition one cares to apply to mind, why don’t I have superpowers, and why aren’t the women I desire throwing themselves at my feet? Why would I create a world in which I’ve taken on a rather large amount of debt, and it seems the only way I’m going to be able to pay back that debt is by working at McDonald’s?

      These aren’t idle questions. If the world is a product of myself, there should never be a reason that I suffer, or that my desires remain unfulfilled. The ad hoc claim that suffering exists because I need to learn a lesson is simply so much non-sense; if the universe is simply an extension of myself, then there is nothing that I need to learn, because I am everything. Should I consider then that I am simply evil? Have I simply created a universe, and populated said universe, solely that I can inflict suffering on it? I suppose if I were a particularly self-destructive solipsist I might, because while solipsism might not recognize others as being meaningfully real, they are still a product of myself; therefore, I’d really rather not have suffering exist in my universe. The same is true of knowledge in the form of information. There are things I don’t know. Why don’t I know them? Why would I create some sort of avatar to hold that knowledge for me?

      If I am the source of the universe, nothing should exist that thwarts my will, because that would indicate that something exists that is beyond my will. Even if we try to fall back on the rather flimsy excuse of boredom, that only takes us so far; sure I might want to arrange the universe in such a way as to prevent me from being bored, yet I can’t see a single good reason for having generated a good number of events I’ve dealt with in my life. They were sources of pain and frustration rather than challenges that relieved the ennui of being the only thing that exists. Even if we were to ignore all the good reasons why it is obviously not the case that a solipsistic worldview is necessary to test or educate me, and fall back on those claims, the fact that I am being tested or educated indicates that there is more than likely something outside of myself. In this case I become trapped in some weird sort of solipsistic metaphysical realism; in which I’m trying to justify everything as a product of my own mind, yet obviously there is something that exists which is not myself, and I likely wind up back at the brain in the jar problem since it turns out that whether or not the reality I experience is reality as such, but is instead simply a simulacra, there is still a world outside of myself, and this world constrains me to its principles.

      I suppose that’s one of the reasons I’ve never found the deceiving demon/brain in a jar/Matrix “problem” to be all that interesting. In the end it’s true I can never know with absolute epistemological certainty that the reality I experience is reality as such rather than reality as sensory experience (and therefore possibly “false”). Because regardless of some abstract truth state in that reality, I am still bound by its rules. Even Neo, with his Space Jesus powers, was still constrained by external conditions; whereas the solipsist, as the creator of reality, could simply say, “Fuck this,” disintegrate the world and create something more awesome.

      I will say that solipsism is much like the God problem. All the problems that arise with the arguments in favor of God apply doubly to the solipsist. Only without the refuge of saying, “a magical man beyond our understanding did it,” because if we’re going to claim that we’re responsible for it, that it’s all simply a product of/extension of our solipsistic existence, then it falls to us to justify why we made it that way. Even the tired free will gambit falls apart, since there’s absolutely no reason for me to have endowed my creations with free will. They are not, after all, real in any meaningful sense of the word. Short of invoking some kind of Freudian super-unconsciousness, that can inflict all of this upon us without our knowledge or consent, that makes the world the way it is because we unconsciously desire it to be that way even if we really, really don’t think that is what we’d want there’s not a lot of ground for the solipsist to really stand on. Even then, I would think that kind of super-unconsciousness excuse would be problematic, since apparently the solipsist is a victim of his or her own unknown thoughts. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for said mind to be the center of the universe.

  2. Bleeyargh

    September 13, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Even this, regrettably, is not a convincing argument against the despicable solipsism. It contains far too many assumptions that are derived from our perceptions of experience and beliefs about mind. Saying, “Why can’t you make this the way you want it, since this is obviously what you would want” doesn’t hold water. No solipsist with even the barest lick of sense claims that a conscious control is being exerted by him over perceived surroundings. Referring to sensory experience (do dreams contain sensory experience, or merely simulate it?), desirable or otherwise, is problematic since even the concept of sense could be construed as illusory. Your basic claim that the solipsist believes that he is in some way deliberately constructing the “surrounds” is flat-out untrue. Even metaphysical solipsism, which is very much in the minority as the idea goes, does not assume that there is deliberation in every element– merely that every element is in some way a reflection of the self. The self needs not be conceptually simplistic and easy to define. Nor does it need to be internally consistent like a rubber ball. It does not need to be omnisciently self-aware.

    • Josh Benton

      September 13, 2011 at 12:34 pm

      All arguments are constructed from assumptions that are derived from our perceptions of experience, because we have no way of understanding anything beyond our perceptions of experience. This is as true of scientific argumentation as it is of philosophical argumentation. It doesn’t matter how many experiments we run, sensors we build etc.; the very nature of those experiments and those sensors is that they were designed by humans, based on human understanding derived from those very perceptions of our experience.

      That’s why attempting to dismiss the concept of sense as illusory is problematic. Neither the solipsist, or anyone else has demonstrated that there is another way that the self is capable of knowing or experiencing. Plato himself did a fairly good number against his Forms with his third man argument, and Wittgenstein nutpunched the idea of metaphysical referents pretty soundly in his later discussions of language. If a solipsist is going to claim that sense experience (rather than individual sense experiences themselves, which as I pointed out can be perfectly “false” without disproving metaphysical realism) itself is illusory, he or she has an uphill battle to demonstrate how it is that he or she is experiencing/knowing.

      I will take umbrage with one statement you made, however. That they are deliberately creating every element that “exists” is a claim I have heard from the mouths of those espousing a solipsistic worldview. Whether or not they were correct in the abstract sense (and here I use they not in the gender neutral sense I know vexes you, good sir, but to indicate I’ve heard it more than once), it is the point of view they were holding forth as correct; though I won’t claim that they speak for everyone who has ever held a solipsistic viewpoint. I will, however, agree that the self, at least in the case of we limited selves who don’t generate entire universes, need not and cannot be omnisciently self-aware. While I find Husserl’s stance on science, as paraphrased above, quite reasonable, his stance that the self could become ultimately transparent to the self is quite off base; it goes back to the idea that the consciousness is always conscious of something, which is what makes it consciousness, so in some respect always gets in its own way when turned inward. However, when applied to solipsism as I have heard it articulated, this seemingly wouldn’t and couldn’t apply.

      As an addendum, as with the idea of a soul, I don’t actually believe in mind as such. That is to say, I don’t believe that there is mind that exists independently of body, or as an interdependent but emergent property of brain. I fall much more closely in line with those later phenomenologists and philosophers of the body who regard it all as one interconnected system. Which is admittedly a discussion for a different day.

  3. Bleeyargh

    September 13, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    I don’t object to constructing arguments from experience or interpretation thereof; the statement merely points to the idea that arguing against solipsism using more objectivist ideas without conceptually meeting in the middle hardly constitutes a ringing defeat of solipsism.

    In any case, even the most cautious, slack solipsist (not the metaphysical solipsist) would say that you are arguing for them in a sense. They claim, as a group, that there is almost no certainty. They would say that there is knowing only when you lower your knowledge standards below a certain point. That the metaphysical types somehow go from “I can’t know that this it true, and indeed it might be false” to “If it is uncertain, it must be false” is something that they should scold their multifaceted selves for.

    You will note, however, that you’ve effectively asked solipsists to make a positive statement about experience/sense/knowledge. The closest they’ve come to a positive statement is “there are few (or no) positive statements about experience that can be made with certainty”.

    It sounds a bit like these self-identified solipsists you speak of are much like certain self-identified Marxists that you find in some sociology departments. They’ve heard of it and think that espousing their grossly shallow understanding of the concept will make them seem edgy and help them find sexy ladies (which would, in this sense, constitute a little metaphysical self-fellation).

    I’m sure that the solipsist will chuckle in his selves at the idea that these “other” self-identified solipsists claim that they are perfectly in charge of what’s happening.

    • Josh Benton

      September 13, 2011 at 4:33 pm

      If we are going to take solipsism to be an offshoot of branches of skepticism (and several of the dictionaries and encyclopedias I checked support this type of definition), then there are certain respects in which I will freely admit I am arguing with them. I’ve yet to see good evidence for any type of metaphysical referent; without such a thing, and more importantly without access to such a thing, it’s difficult for us to ever know, let alone demonstrate, much of anything with absolute certainty (epistemological or otherwise). I don’t, however, think we need anything approaching absolute certainty in order to make positive statements.

      I also differ in that I don’t consider some of the “official” examples of solipsism to be solipsism. The deceiving demon/brain in a jar/matrix reality by nature can’t be solipsistic, because they posit an outside force that is deceiving the perceiver. A world of illusion caused by an outside source, while still dealing with certainty and the self, is a different metaphysical problem from a world that is self-generated illusion and in which there is nothing beyond the self.

      And yes, I would like certain types of solipsist to make a positive statement. Not simply the self-identified and obviously deluded solipsists that I’ve dealt with, but any solipsist who asserts that sensory experience itself could be an illusion. It would do a great deal to shore up their claims, since negative statements only tell us what something isn’t, and frequently impart no useful information in the process. (This isn’t true of all negative claims, but it is a common enough problem). I much prefer negative claims to be reinforced by positive claims. “X is not Y because of Z,” much in the way I’ve phrased my objection to the above examples being included among definitions of solipsism. Perhaps this is a personal flaw; if so, it’s far from my only one.

      As for taking on any philosophy to seem edgy and find sexy ladies… I’m still waiting for my allotment.


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