The Problem of Other Minds and Solipsism

Solipsism is the belief that “I am the only mind that exists” or “My mental states are the only mental states.” However, a single survivor of a nuclear holocaust could learn to believe in these statements without being a solipsist. Solipsism is thus more accurately understood as the theory that, in principle, “being” refers to my existence and the presence of my mental experiences.

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Existence is everything I encounter—physical objects, other people, events, and processes—anything that is usually acknowledged as a constituent of the space and time in which I interact with others and is unavoidably perceived by me as part of the content of my consciousness. For the solipsist, it is not only that he believes that his thoughts, feelings, and emotions are, in fact, the only thoughts, experiences, and emotions.

Rather, the solipsist sees no meaning in the possibility that there are thoughts, sensations, and emotions other than his own. In short, a real solipsist interprets the word “pain” to imply “my agony.” As a result, he cannot imagine how this word might be used in any other context than this solely selfish one.

1. The Problem’s Importance :

A famous philosopher has never advocated solipsism. As a hypothesis, it is far from common sense if such a thing can be called that. Given this, one can properly wonder whether the topic of solipsism should receive philosophical consideration at all.

This question has two possible responses. First, while no great philosopher has expressly advocated solipsism, this is due to the inconsistency of much philosophical argumentation. Many philosophers have refused to embrace the logical consequences of their own deepest commitments and assumptions. The foundations of solipsism are at the heart of the belief that the individual derives his psychological ideas (thinking, willing, seeing, and so on) from “his situation,” that is, from “his own experience.” 

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Since Descartes did the selfish search for truth, the fundamental purpose of the critical examination of the nature and limits of knowledge, this perspective, or some variant of it, has been accepted by many philosophers. 

Second, solipsism deserves rigorous scrutiny since it is founded on three widely held philosophical presuppositions, which are essential and far-reaching in their own right. These are:

  • What I know for sure is the contents of my mind—my thoughts, experiences, affective states, and so on
  • There is no conceptual or logically required link between the mental and the physical. For example, there is no required link between the occurrence of certain conscious experiences or mental states and the “ownership” and behavioral tendencies of a specific type of body
  • A given individual’s experiences are inevitably private to that person.

These assumptions are unmistakably Cartesian, and they are commonly accepted by philosophers and non-philosophers alike. When confronted with the dilemma of solipsism, one is instantly confronted with fundamental concerns in the philosophy of mind. However implausible the problem of solipsism may appear, these latter difficulties are undeniably significant.

Also Read, Existentialism: Learn why do you Even Exist?

Indeed, one of the project’s strengths is that it demonstrates a direct link between seemingly unexceptional and unquestionably widespread common sense ideas and the adoption of solipsistic conclusions. If this relationship exists and we want to avoid those solipsistic conclusions, we must alter, or at the very least critically examine, the ideas from which they get logical sustenance.

2. The Problem’s Historical Roots :

René Descartes set the backdrop against which solipsism later emerged and was made to appear, if not plausible, at least undeniable, by introducing “methodic doubt” into philosophy. The ego revealed by the cogito, on the other hand, is a solitary awareness, a res cogitans that is not geographically stretched, is not necessarily located in anybody, and may be assured of its existence solely as a conscious mind. (A Discourse on Method and Meditations.)

This notion of the self is essentially solipsistic, and Descartes avoids the solipsistic consequences of his method of doubt by resorting to God’s kindness. He contends that God is not a deceiver and created man with an inbuilt propensity to believe in the presence of an external, public world equivalent to the private world of the “ideas” that are the sole immediate objects of consciousness. Such a public world must exist. (The sixth meditation.) Thus, God bridges the gap between the solitary awareness exposed by methodic skepticism and the intersubjective reality of public objects and other humans.

Under the Cartesian model of awareness, a modern philosopher cannot avoid solipsism without accepting Descartes’ function given to God (something few modern philosophers are willing to do). Given this, it is hardly unexpected to discover the specter of solipsism hanging increasingly more menacingly in the works of Descartes’ later successors, particularly those of the British empiricist tradition. 

Descartes’ view of the nature of the mind indicates that the individual receives the psychological conceptions he possesses “from his case,” that is, that each individual has unique and privileged access to his mind that everyone else does not have. Although this viewpoint employs terminology and conceptual categories that are antagonistic to solipsism (“the individual,” “other minds,” and so on), it is fundamentally conducive historically to the formation of solipsistic patterns of thought.

According to this viewpoint, what I know immediately and with the greatest certainty are the events in my mind—my thoughts, feelings, perceptions, desires, and so on—events that no one else knows. I do not know other minds in the same way that I know my own; indeed, if I am to be said to know other minds at all—that they exist and have a particular nature—it must be based on certain inferences that I have made from what is directly accessible to me, the behavior of other human beings. 

John Locke, the father of modern British empiricism, embraced the basics of the Cartesian approach. Locke claimed that all ideas have their beginnings in experience, rejecting Descartes’ theory that the mind holds concepts naturally at birth. The sole source of psychological notions is “reflection” (also known as introspection or “inner experience”). Such notions, without exception, emerge from the experience of the associated mental processes.

If I acquire psychological notions by introspecting on my mental operations, it implies that I do so independently of my bodily states. Any connections I establish between the two will be made once I have acquired my psychological ideas. As a result, the purported association between bodily and mental states is not logically essential. For example, I may realize that anytime I experience pain, my body is somehow wounded. Still, I may only discover this factual association after acquiring the concept of “pain.” Therefore, it cannot be part of what I mean by “pain” for my body to behave in this manner. 

3. The Analogy Argument :

So, what about my understanding of other people’s minds? According to Locke, there can only be one answer: because what I know directly is the existence and contents of my mind, my knowledge of the minds of others, if I am to be considered to possess such knowledge at all, must be indirect and analogical, an inference from my case. It is the so-called “argument from analogy” for other minds, which empiricist philosophers, especially those who embrace the Cartesian theory of consciousness, commonly accepted as a mechanism for avoiding solipsism.

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Observing how other people’s bodies respond in similar situations to mine, I can deduce that the mental life and succession of mental events that accompany my bodily activity are also existent in the case of others. For example, when I notice a problem that I cannot handle, I become frustrated and observe myself acting in a certain way. In the instance of another, I only observe the first and last terms of this three-term sequence, and based on this, I assume that the “hidden” middle word, frustration, has also occurred. 

The comparison argument, on the other hand, has fundamental flaws. If one accepts the Cartesian account of consciousness, one must accept its consequences. As we have seen, one of these implications is that there is no logically essential relationship between the conceptions of “mind” and “body”; my mind may be lodged in my body right now, but this is purely coincidental. The mind does not have to get ensconced in the body.

Its nature will be unaffected by the death of this body, and there is no reason why it should not have been located in a body that is fundamentally different from a human body. Similarly, any correlation between physiological action and mental states must be wholly contingent; there can be no conceptual connections between the contents of a mind at a particular time and the nature or behavior of the body in which it is based. 

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It begs how my ostensibly analogical inferences to other minds will take place at all. How can I apply psychological principles to others if I only know how they pertain to myself? To use another concrete example, if I learn what “pain” means by applying it to my situation, I will understand “pain” to imply “my pain” and the assumption that pain may be attributed to something.