[lit-ideas] Re: Is it solipsistic in here, or is it just me?

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 15 Oct 2013 08:48:56 +0100 (BST)

>I think Popper would say Solipsismus (as the word is spelled in German 
-- from 'solus ipse') is self-refuting at the W3 level. Or then, again, 
he would not.>
Though nothing can be
"self-refuting" other than "at a W3 level", for Popper
solipsism is not one of these “self-refuting” things. [That solipsism might be
incompatible with there being a “W3 level” (unless the solipsist insists this
level is merely another within his all-encompassing ‘I’) would not make
solipsism “self-refuting”.]

The notion of “self-refuting”
can be variously understood – Popper’s view tends to take “self-refuting” to
mean logically “self-refuting” in a
sense developed below. (The first part of Popper’s Chair at L.S.E was
“Professor of Logic…” and his approach is very much that of a “Professor of
Logic.”) As to a straightforward example of a logically self-refuting statement
we must leave aside the famous “This statement is false”, for this is
paradoxical in that if it is true then it is false and vice versa – and such 
paradoxical statements are not logically
straightforward in terms of whether they are “self-refuting”. A more 
example might be “I argue that all arguments are invalid” – for if this
argument is valid then it must be invalid, and it is thus logically 
and there is no paradox here, for if we assume it is invalid this does not lead
to any conclusion that it must be valid. 

But this example can be used
to show how easy an otherwise self-refuting position can be made 
non-“self-refuting”: for a very similar
argument can be made without “self-refuting” if it exempts itself from its own
general strictures – so it is not “self-refuting” to say “I would argue that,
with the exception of this argument itself, all other arguments are invalid.” 
highlights two important possibilities – (1) it may be that the self-refuting
character of an argument or position may be avoided by more careful
formulation; (2) it may also be that the class of arguments or positions that
cannot be formulated without being “self-refuting” is extremely limited.

That the class of such
“self-refuting” positions is very limited is borne out by considering that the
character of a logically “self-refuting” position is that it is a logically
impossible position – yet very little is logically impossible. For example, it
is logically tenable (at least in the sense that it is not self-refuting) to
claim “There are no conclusive arguments” – provided we accept this claim
cannot itself be a conclusive argument and that no conclusive argument can be
given in its support:- it may be true a claim though it is not a conclusive
argument. It may be logically tenable to claim “There are no valid arguments”,
provided we accept this claim cannot itself be a valid argument – it may be
true though it is not a valid argument. But if we say “There are no true
statements” we are in a different boat, logically speaking – for this claim
cannot be true without being false, and so it is “self-refuting” (whereas if we
assume it is false this does not lead to any conclusion that it must be true). 

Does “solipsism” belong to
the narrow class of “self-refuting” positions or claims? There has been a
tendency among some philosophers to try to attack positions like solipsism as
“self-refuting”. But, while Popper’s sympathies lie with the anti-solipsist, he
does not think we can easily render solipsism “self-refuting” in any worthwhile
sense. His own preferred line of criticism is that solipsism belongs to that
class of doctrines that are ultimately irrefutable but that this very 
is their weakness – such “irrefutability is a vice not a virtue” logically
speaking. This line of criticism exposes the fallacy in thinking that because a
position, like solipsism, is irrefutable that therefore it has a strong claim
to be true.

That there is something
self-defeating about solipsism as a rational position or persuasive case might
be admitted: for if solipsism is true what is the rational point of trying to
persuade others of its truth? But that a position or claim is self-defeating in
this way would not make it “self-refuting” strictly speaking – where a 
“self-refuting” position is one that,
according to its own strictures, must be false.

But some philosophers have
blurred the picture by using “self-refuting” (and synonyms) in a sense much
less strict, including the sense where a position with a self-defeating
character is deemed “self-refuting”. In doing this, philosophers have often
clouded the issues and obscured the fallacy in thinking that because a position
like solipsism is irrefutable ergo it
has a strong claim to be true. Take a kind of argument against solipsism that
runs as follows: “Solipsism is “self-refuting” because the conditions necessary
to sensibly ask ‘Is solipsism true?’ are conditions incompatible with solipsism
being true.” [Versions of this argument can be found in Greek philosophy, later
in Kant and also in Wittgenstein.] What the philosopher typically does is
outline these “conditions necessary” in ways that spell out that these 
necessary” involve more than the ‘I’ of solipsism. Popper would not dispute
there are such “conditions” (how “necessary” we may leave aside) and that they
involve more than the ‘I’ of solipsism. The problem is whether those conditions
are such that the solipsist cannot, without “self-refuting”, claim that those
conditions are merely part of the ‘I’ of solipsism – and, implausible as it may
be, the solipsist can insist these conditions are merely part of the ‘I’ of
solipsism without “self-refuting”. The implausibility here does not make
solipsism “self-refuting”.

So there is something in the
above kind of argument insofar as it brings out the implausibility of solipsism
– but the argument falls short of showing solipsism is “self-refuting” or
otherwise logically flawed. Popper regards
all forms of such argument as logically inconclusive – and being logically
inconclusive they fail to show solipsism is logically self-refuting. 

This can be approached
another way: it is logically possible, and not merely “nonsense”, that
solipsism is true – in a similar way that the claim that “I am ‘a brain in vat’”
states something that is not beyond the bounds of logical possibility. So while
Popper finds solipsism absurd, he admits its assertion has sense (we can
understand the sense of such an assertion) and that it is logically possible
that the assertion is true. And this is not perhaps so surprising - for many
absurd possibilities are logical possibilities: e.g. it is logically possible 
that somewhere in the universe is a
rotating piece of rock that contains a capsule within which the ultimate laws
of physics are written; and it is logically possible that doing a certain kind
of dance in specific conditions will have the affect of conjuring up a horned
devil who then offers the dancer three wishes. And so on. Logic rules very
little out as impossible; conversely, the field of the logically impossible is
extremely narrow and the field of the logically possible is immensely wide.

Thus all (observable)
experience can be regarded as consistent with my being a ‘brain in a vat’ [for
the vat could create any (observable) experience] and equally all (observable)
experience can be regarded as consistent with the truth of solipsism [for all 
experience may be considered part of the solipsistic ‘I’].* No possible
observation or experience is logically inconsistent with – or falsifies – my
being a ‘vatted brain’, or my being all that exists, in a way that renders
solipsism “self-refuting”. The determined solipsist can explain all possible
experience in terms of the ‘solipsistic I’, however implausibly. If we say to
the solipsist that surely he has been surprised by something (let’s say the
remark that “He is a self-obsessed blowhard”) or disappointed in something
(love, say), and that these experiences of surprise and disappointment can
hardly be merely creations of his ‘I’, he can insist, without “self-refuting”,
that it would be to underestimate his ‘I’ to think it could not produce such 
surprises and disappointments to itself. (He may even add that in so answering
he is merely talking to himself.)

This post is long enough. Among
the many points left aside is that solipsism is not a position many
philosophers have taken seriously except that they have been led to it by a
subjective theory of knowledge that takes ‘experience’ as the ground of all
knowledge – for this raises the issue whether, if all my knowledge is grounded
in ‘my experience’, we can use ‘my experience’ to ground something more than a
form of solipsism. On this point, Popper has argued that on such subjective
foundations no theory of objective knowledge can be built – and his own theory
of ‘objective knowledge’ is posited as an alternative to what he has termed the
“subjectivist blunder” that has dominated most Western theories of knowledge
since Ancient Greece.


*There is a more general
point here worth considering**: when we consider the whole field of
‘experience’, or a subset like the ‘visual field’, there is nothing in that
field that tells us how it is constituted as philosophers wish to understand
this – the field is compatible, as experienced, with different philosophical
accounts of its constitution. This explains why debate about its philosophical
‘constitution’ cannot be scientifically decided by appeal to the ‘field’ itself 
i.e. cannot be decided by
‘observation’. For, example, there is nothing in the ‘visual field’ that tells
us whether it is constituted a la the rationalism of Descartes, or the sensory
inputs of Locke, or Kant’s attempt to synthesise rationalism and empiricism.
This also helps explain why there is nothing within the visual field, or the
whole field of ‘experience’, that can be decisive against the determined
solipsist – who may, without “self-refuting”, insist this whole field resides
within his all-encompassing ‘I’ (for what observation could refute his

**Perhaps someone on the
list can give a source for this more general point?

On Saturday, 12 October 2013, 22:16, "jlsperanza@xxxxxxx" <jlsperanza@xxxxxxx> 
In his post on Merwin, Geary philosophises on solitude:

"The existentialists, I guess, would say that we are radically alone in 
our existence even though there's no such thing as a self unto itself. 
 Or maybe I'm the only one who would say that.  We create our own 
selves out of the world we're taught and come to experience.  Let me 
get outta here before I get into trouble."

I think Popper would say Solipsismus (as the word is spelled in German 
-- from 'solus ipse') is self-refuting at the W3
 level. Or then, again, 
he would not.

The idea of a 'a self unto itself' is an interesting one -- also that 
of a self unto himself and that of a self into herself.

Freud saw this when he speaks of the 'id' (the it-self) as opposed to 
the ego (the self simpliciter).

Martin Buber opposed Freud and speaks of the 'we' rather than the 
'ego'. He famously pluralised Socrates's dictum, "I know that I know 
nothing" into the well-known adage: 'ignoramus'.



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