Questions have been the very heart and soul of philosophy and, unlike any other discipline, it has raised more questions than it has answered. The dire intellectual need to discern the abstract, in the form of reality and truth, consumes all thinkers alike. They all seek answers that spring from an objective source to bring an end to the seemingly perpetual quest for knowledge. However, it is not that simple. Philosophy, over the years, has gotten mired down in countless irrefutable hypotheses, thriving on the body of possibilities and reason. This is especially true of metaphysical discussions, which have resulted in the blossoming of unconventional, at times, bizarre theories to explain reality.
What is real? One way to grasp reality amounts to the way you understand the world external to you. But what if that understanding is faulty? Take, for instance, the understanding of the earth as a flat disc. Today we can ‘claim to know’ that the earth is spherical, yet in those times the supposed axiom of the earth being flat was the foundational truth on which the early peoples developed an understanding of other concepts and ideas. This is disconcerting, because there’s a pretty high possibility of us assuming a false belief as an irrefutable fact, because although there are proofs to make claims, science per se isn’t perfect, just workable.
Let us now go even further to understand the concept of matter that we assume to be real. As Bertrand Russell discussed in his Problems of Philosophy, whatever we perceive is the mere appearance of an object, as opposed to its reality. The surface of an apple that is seen with the naked eye is very different when viewed under the microscope, its colour varies with the changing source of light too. In short, what your perception leads you into believing is real is actually nothing but the appearance of the apple, in varying degrees of magnification. If this is the case, then the existence of the apple becomes questionable. Does an actual apple exist at all?
For some, it does not. A philosopher named Bishop Berkeley, for instance, argued in favour of immaterialism – that rather than being a form of matter, an apple in actuality is the amalgamation of several qualities which cannot exist independent of the mind. You can test this, try defining an apple devoid of its qualities and properties. It is almost impossible to do so. So are the qualities (of the objects) that we perceive in the universe, are they created by our imagination or do they exist as a comprehensive whole contained in an underlying substratum called matter? This is the starting point of the idea of ‘solipsism.’
Solipsism revolves around the idea that only I exist and weave the fabric of my reality. The certainty I can ascribe to my experience is limited to my own existence and thoughts, everything else in this world, including the existence of this article, is doubtable. This may seem very absurd to hear, at first, but it’s a possibility that is hard to deny.
The empirical experiences one goes through forms an essential part of their own subjective reality. One can, in no way validate the experience of anybody else (egocentric predicament). One’s understanding of the apple is theirs alone and cannot be grasped by anyone else. The comprehension of all that is external to their consciousness is beyond their ability.
Thus, your thoughts and ideas are the only undisputed and obvious entities that exist. This is to say that all humans have their own psychological conceptions whose understanding is forbidden to others. And so, we cannot be certain of the independent existence of other bodies and minds.
The theory of solipsism has subtly remained embedded in other philosophical ideas. One such idea was propounded by Rene Descartes’ principle of “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). Descartes was convinced that he was being deceived, by an evil genius, into believing some essentially flawed concepts as true. Maintaining that every thought is dubitable, he cleansed his mind of all distortions and came up with the most irrefutable, indubitable truth (as the basic frame of reference to understand all the other truths)- “I think therefore I am.”
Solipsism takes this idea of Cogito way too seriously. Nothing but the mind is true for the solipsist. While Descartes did believe in rationality and mathematics as a means to search for truth, for the solipsist (metaphysically and epistemologically) such conceptions are your own inventions, something you make up in your head, bereft of any independent existence (here your consciousness shall assume the place of Descartes’ demon). One can understand it as a perpetual state of hallucination, characterised by vivid details. If you are a solipsist, then whatever you experience, this article, your friends, family, nature, all the coolest things in the world are actually an invention of your own! An understanding of the world devoid of the ego is impossible.
However fascinating it may sound, solipsism has some dire outcomes, when accepted as a lifestyle choice. It possesses the potential to throw the world into utter chaos. Since everything that one sees around them is a creation of their imagination, they would have all the power of calling the shots and asserting their dominance over the entire world around them. Morality and ethics would lose their credibility and an individual’s will would determine the fate of all that is around them. Or else, it could make a person abnegate everything, despairing about the loneliness they experience every second of their existence, since they have no proof of the existence of any other. Either way, solipsism could inflict more harm than good.
Difficult to refute, solipsism continues to haunt the imagination of humankind. However, rejecting the theory altogether wouldn’t be right either, given the crucial questions it raises on reality and the foundations of epistemological speculations. The question of solipsism has stirred minds and propelled philosophy from a state of certainty to that of unpredictability, thereby adding profundity and beauty to the subject. And as long as such ingenious thoughts continue to flow in the body of philosophy, the answer to this problem, along with all problems, I believe, is not too far away.
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