Solipsism and Other Minds – The Red King’s Dream

 

`He’s dreaming now,’ said Tweedledee: `and what do you think he’s dreaming about?’
Alice said `Nobody can guess that.’
`Why, about you!’ Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. `And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?’
`Where I am now, of course,’ said Alice.
`Not you!’ Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. `You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!’
`If that there King was to wake,’ added Tweedledum, `you’d go out– bang!–just like a candle!’
`I shouldn’t!’ Alice exclaimed indignantly. `Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?’
`Ditto,’ said Tweedledum.
`Ditto, ditto!’ cried Tweedledee.
He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn’t help saying `Hush! You’ll be waking him, I’m afraid, if you make so much noise.’
`Well, it’s no use your talking about waking him,’ said Tweedledum, `when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.’
`I am real!’ said Alice, and began to cry.
`You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying,’ Tweedledee remarked: `there’s nothing to cry about.’
`If I wasn’t real,’ Alice said–half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous–`I shouldn’t be able to cry.’
`I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?’ Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

– from Alice through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll – Chapter 4 – Tweedledum and Tweedledee

In short solipsism is the belief that I am all there is. That everything is but a figment of my own imagination. Even though this it is certainly possible to have such a belief especially in cases of extreme isolation (see solipsism syndrome) few of us seriously believe that this can be true. This is because our world/dream are populated by other beings like myself who can very well also be having similar all-encompassing dreams. I would then just be a character in someone else’s dream. In this way the possibility of solipsism is negated in our everyday experience.

The problem of how we can know of the existence of other minds has kept the philosophers busy for centuries. The problem was first stated by Descartes (Cogito ergo sum) and further elucidated by Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein initially believed that solipsism is the necessary conclusion of philosophy. In short his argument was that my knowledge of the world is limited by my language. I cannot know anything outside of my language. Later Wittgenstein made an about turn on this position when he realized that all language is public and that there is no such thing as private language. These counterintuitive difficulties of philosophy (paradoxes and solipsism) is created in the false belief that language can exists as an entity without context and without users. Language seems to get a life of it’s own when it is written down but this is illusionary as all language needs speakers (writers) and listeners (readers) for it to become more than just doodles or echolalia.

There are also some other ways to refute or at least circumvent solipsism:

1 – Kill the solipsist. Unfortunately the solipsist himself might not be convinced by this method 🙂

2 – One can imagine the existence of a truthful god who is beyond one’s own dream. This was Descartes’ way out. In this way we become characters within the Lord Vishnu’s cosmic dream, that is the shared world of Maya/illusion/phenomena. At least here we all live within the same dream and do not have to worry if other people live in totally different and incommensurable universes.

The notion of this universe, its heavens, hells, Mother Earth and everything within it, as a great dream dreamed by a single being in which all the dream characters are dreaming too, has in India enchanted and shaped the entire civilization. – Joseph Campbell

3 – So what if everything is just part of your (and my) cosmic dream?! What difference does it make? We still experience pain and suffering whether we are being dreamt or not. In this way one can see that solipsism is non-sensical, i.e. devoid of meaning because it makes no difference to my (and I presume also your) life. It is similar to the idea of an eternal return in which I will someday far in the future again sit here and again write these exact words as I have done an infinity of times before. Of this idea also I can only say – so what?! If there is no difference between my incarnations it is of no consequence. It is not as if I can remember a previous cycle and try and do things better this time round.

4 – Ultimately I believe that solipsism is refuted by the possible existence of other (cosmic dreaming) minds within my own dream universe.

This refutation was (I believe) first stated by Heinz von Foerster with his analogy of the man with the bowler hat:

He [the solipsist] insists that he is the sole reality, while everything else appears only in his imagination. How ever, he cannot deny that his imaginary universe is populated with apparitions that are not unlike himself. Hence, he has to concede that they themselves may insist that they are the sole reality and everything else is only a concoction of their imagination. In that case their imaginary universe will be populated with apparitions, one of which may be he, the gentleman with the bowler hat.
According to the Principle of Relativity which rejects a hypothesis when it does not hold for two instances together, although it holds for each instance separately (Earthlings and Venusians may be consistent in claiming to be in the center of the universe, but their claims fall to pieces if they should, ever get together), the solipsistic claim falls to pieces when besides me I invent another autonomous organism. However, it should be noted that since the Principle of Relativity is not a logical necessity, nor is it a proposition that can be proven to be either true or false, the crucial point to be recognized here is that I am free to choose either to adopt this principle or to reject it. If I reject it, I am the center of the universe, my reality are my dreams and my nightmares, my language is monologue, and my logic mono-logic. If I adopt it, neither me nor the other can be the center of the universe. As in the heliocentric system, there must be a third that is the central reference. It is the relation between Thou and I, and this relation is IDENTITY: Reality = Community
– Heinz Von Foerster, “On Constructing to Reality”, in W.F.E. Praiser (ed.), Environmental Design Research, Volume 2, Dowden, Hutchinson and Rose, 1973, pp. 44-45.) – Article online here…

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4 Comments on “Solipsism and Other Minds – The Red King’s Dream”


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