Question of the Week: Solipsism?

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On October 3rd, the Mentionables received this question from Rachel Harper:

I found this group through Theology Gals where Tyler did an episode on presuppositional apologetics.
I have been having doubts related to the philosophical idea of solipsism and was wondering if you guys could please help me see what are the errors with this view and how do I get around it?
Thank you!
~Rachel

For the sake of the reader, Solipsism is the idea that one can only be certain that their own mind exists - and that anything outside of one’s own mind may be real, or may be an illusion of the mind.

Here are the answers from the team:

This is the answer from Nick Peters. For answers from Tyler Vela, Randall Hroziencik and Joel Furches, scroll below.

I have to say I find it interesting to hear about Solipsism. I wonder about a few things.

First off, who is convincing you of Solipsism?

Second, who are you writing to to find information otherwise?

Third, if you are convinced of Solipsism someday, who will you tell about it?

No great philosopher espouses this viewpoint. It's one of those things that if you reach this viewpoint, you've gone off the deep end. Solipsism in philosophy could be compared to Jesus mythicism in history.

This is the answer from Tyler Vela. For the answers from Randall Hroziencik and Joel Furches, scroll below.

Solipsisms can come in a lot of different varieties and as such need various different answers. I think Descartes was able to solve a kind of ontological solipsism with regard to the self – we can know that we exist as minds because we must exist as self-aware minds able to reflect on the question of existence in order to be skeptical of it in the first place. However, beyond that, could I be a butterfly dreaming? Could I be in the matrix? Could I be Napoleon in an insane asylum imagining this whole reality? The ability to resolve that issue is not easy, and I’m not sure even entirely possible. We could also talk about the problem known as “Last Thursdayism.” That is, how would we know if the entire realm of being, all of realty, did not begin to exist only last Thursday? Think about it. Imagine everything popped into existence last Thursday already in process – our minds full of memories that never happened, our bellies full of food we never ate, our immune systems fighting a cold we never actually caught… how would we know? All of the evidence of the world would look exactly like it did if history was real and not illusory. How would we know the difference? Well I’m not sure there is a good answer. I don’t think there is a possible answer that can give us certainty. What we can say is that in a theistic universe, specifically in the universe we see in the Bible created by the omni-reational, omni-benevolent God who we are told cannot lie (Num 23:19; Heb 6:18) it seems more plausible that our perception of reality would be accurate and not deceived. In fact, philosophers like Alvin Plantinga have argued that if evolution is true, then it gives us good reason to think that naturalism were false, or at least implausible because it would be more likely to select for mild delusion than accurate sense perception (something that many scientists now believe is true of the reliability of our sense perception as it relates to our belief forming faculties). Ultimately I think one of the problems that Christians have here is that we tend to want certainty of belief. I would simply argue that it is far more likely that we will merely get plausibility, reasonable or warranted belief and not necessarily certainty. We think that if we cannot be certain that some fundamental aspect of reality is true, that it is up in the air. Well just because I cannot be certain that the world didn’t begin last Thursday, doesn’t mean that I have any reason to think that it did start last Thursday. In fact, I would need a massive amount of compelling evidence to think that. John Locke used to give the example of standing on a train track. Basically, you hear the train coming, feel the rumble of the tracks, smell the coal burning, see it coming… do you say, “well I’m not certain that this ISNT the Matrix so I’m not going to move”? Of course not. In fact, Solipsism seems such an extreme form of sektpicism in most cases that it can just be dismissed. We should have the intellectual humility to admit when we don’t have absolute certainty (which we really almost never have if we are honest about it) but that does not mean we should throw out all of our well reasoned, warranted beliefs. Finally, as a presuppositionalist, I would also argue that to even engage with the Solipsist reasonably, God must exist as a necessary precondition for rationality. That is, the fact that the Solipsist can even ask the hyper-skeptical question and expect a reasonable answer, is testimony to the fact that God exists and that we and God’s creation really does exist and we can in fact know and have warranted true beliefs about it and our place in the world.

This is the answer from Joel Furches. For the answer from Randall Hroziencik, scroll below.

My field of specialty being behavioral development, I have frequently used more of a psychological rather than a philosophical approach to present evidence for things like sensus divinitatis and mind/body duality.

I believe that the same may be used here to address the concept of solipsism – specifically the arguments for mind/body duality. What I mean to say is that – if one may use behaviorism to support the notion of an immaterial mind, one may use these same arguments to support the notion of a material body. The argument cuts both ways. And if evidence suggests that – in addition to having a mind, you also have a body – this means that some part of you extends into a physical universe which actually exists outside of your mind.

Briefly, the argument goes this way:

Consider for a moment the concept of addiction. Addiction is an entirely biological phenomenon. When one conducts addiction studies on animals, the animal becomes addicted, and then seeks out the addictive substance consistently thereafter. Humans, however, have a unique property in relationship to addiction: the desire to break the addiction. And, in fact, there are instances of success in breaking the addiction.

This means that, at some level, humans break with their biology to assert a certain willpower that transcends mere biology. There is a measurable level of mind over matter.

A similar effect may be observed in the concept of marriage. Biologically, humans desire sex. It is a fundamental drive born out of the biological need to reproduce. And practically it may be seen that humans are frequently tempted to pursue any sexual encounter that presents itself.

However, humans exert willpower in the pursuit of more transcendent values of loyalty and fidelity – values that transcend biological urges.

On the other side of the spectrum – dealing with unpleasant physical sensations such as pain or depression – it has been discovered that the pursuit of transcendent values such as art, philosophy and – yes – religion have been a powerful coping mechanism to overcome these biological impediments.

All of these arguments for an immaterial mind which transcends the material body take it as given that humans actually have a physical nature. On Solipsism, this is no longer the default assumption. However, without assuming an outside world, the very fact that the mind is in constant interaction with byproducts of its physical nature adds a very personal and intrinsic part of mental nature which strongly suggests the reality of the body. And if the body exists, it extends into physical dimensions and interacts with a physical world.

Nor are these effects of a physical body something with which only other people have to cope. In reality, everyone struggles with addiction of some kind – whether it be addiction to hard drugs, to caffeine, to a Smartphone, to fatty/salty/sugary foods, or pornography, any given individual who contemplates solipsism must admit to a very personal struggle and interaction with their physical nature which extends down into the physical universe. No longer is the physical world something which exists outside of the mind – it is intrinsic to the mind.

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This is the answer from Randall Hroziencik. For the answer from Joel Furches, scroll below.

Great question, Rachel.  Recent questions have focused on Old Testament history, so it’s nice to have a pure theology-philosophy question this week.  Although all the questions that the Mentionables receive are very interesting, I really enjoy this type of question the most. 

I’m going to answer your question one way, but then give you a few other suggestions to explore further, which may also be helpful.  I’m going to use some information from my book Worldviews in Collision: The Reasons for One Man’s Journey from Skepticism to Christ, which I believe refutes the idea of solipsism.  Human thought or cognition may be defined as that group of mental processes which are concerned with attention, memory, problem-solving, decision-making, and the ability to produce and understand language.  Those who appeal to human thought as an evidence for God’s existence (as I do) do so based upon three premises: (1) Human thought can only be reliable if it is designed, rather than being attributable to chance, random processes in nature; (2) human thought is reliable; (3) therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that human thought is designed.

The first premise above is true, because if human thought were to be merely the result of random biochemical reactions, then we would have no reason to believe that our thinking is reliable.  In other words, we would not be able to trust our own thinking abilities – including the idea that our own mind exists simply because we think.  No one could really trust their thoughts if they are merely attributable to chance, random processes of biochemistry.

How can we verify the reliability of our thought faculties?  It turns out that there is no way to objectively cross-check our ability to think: We must assume that out thinking faculties are reliable.  If we did not, then we would be engaged in a sort of self-aware madness that would give us no reasonable foundation with which to properly conduct our thought life.  When we begin with the premise that our thinking faculties were designed, we then have a reasonable basis to accept their reliability. Is it possible that naturalistic, “no-God-in-the-picture” evolution could in any way account for human thought?  Chance, random processes of nature cannot realistically produce such intricately complex phenomena as human thinking abilities.  How could an impersonal, mindless universe produce something as personal and well-designed as human cognition?  Human thought – including the belief that, “I think, therefore I am” – seems to be clearly attributable to intelligent design.  That means there’s something beyond your mind.

The second premise is necessary if there is to be any kind of reasonable discussion on this topic.  If our thinking faculties are not reliable, then there is no reason to truly accept anything at all, once again including the thought, “I think, therefore I am.”  Based upon these first two premises, we can logically conclude that human thought is designed rather than evolved.  And, if a designer of your mind exists, then the idea of solipsism is refuted: A designer – whether the God of the Bible, the deistic god of the philosophers, or some other intelligent source – exists, and not just our own mind.  Some people might like this approach to tackling the idea of solipsism, because it is based upon the thinking mind.  Others might not be so convinced by this argument, however.  So, let me offer a few other suggestions to explore.

I would encourage you to examine the ontological argument for the existence of God, if you haven’t already.  Of all the classical arguments for God’s existence, the ontological argument is an a priori argument, meaning that it does not rely upon empirical conditions of any sort but rather is purely deductive in nature – making it especially well-suited to refuting the idea of solipsism.  For a good look at the ontological argument, I suggest Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, by Douglas Groothuis. 

Additionally, the area of presuppositional apologetics, which maintains that we should always reason from the scriptures rather than reason to the scriptures, promotes the idea that knowledge of God is a basic belief for all human beings – which I believe to be true.  If human beings are born knowing that God is real (Ecclesiastes 3:11), then it is not just our own mind that exists – there is something, or someone, beyond us as well.

The thinking, rational mind is an important part of who we are, of course, but we must be careful not to rely upon our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5), instead relying heavily upon God’s revelation to us, which is infallible (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  Unfortunately, solipsism focuses entirely on reasoning, at the expense of revelation.  It is a really fascinating idea, though, and well worth taking a look at because it is popular with some in our modern culture of skepticism and doubt.    

God bless,

Randy Hroziencik