Rene Descartes is responsible for one of philosophy’s most famous and parroted phrases. “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am” has been the refrain of many thinkers and laymen, wishing to ground their existence in reality. Today we take a step beyond the self to ask a larger question: by thinking I may know I exist, how can the same be said for others? Solipsism, in its most basic form, refers to the idea that we know only that our own mind exists; this is also often referred to as the “denial of other minds.”
To illustrate this seemingly esoteric concept, let’s utilize a simple example. Right now, as you read this article, think about me, the supposed “person” writing it. You probably (hopefully) think that I have a mind and that it works much like your own. If you wanted to verify this you could probably hire someone to watch me and ensure I perform the actions that you suppose a mind is required for (walking, talking, eating, writing, reading). But even after gathering all this data you would still only be able to infer that I had a mind of my own. You have no way to verify your hunch, and as you may remember from a past article, induction is not a philosophically convincing tool.
Like many other abstract ideas in philosophy, solipsism often garners a chorus of “so what’s?” So what if we can’t prove that the world we perceive is anything but the creation of our own mind? Even if this theory is correct, it provides no way to utilize such knowledge in a beneficial way. If we believe that a fire is merely an invention of our mind, we should still avoid putting our hand in it for fear of the burn.
The implications for the real world are somewhat limited, yet solipsism is an interesting way of exploring other big questions in philosophy. Questions about the true nature of the universe, perception, knowledge, morality, and consequences are all related to the question of solipsism. Of course, this does not mean that solipsism is without its critics.
Despite solipsism being more or less impossible to entirely discredit, there has, and continues to be, a number of skeptics. Even if solipsism is acknowledged, we will almost certainly be forced to act as though it is false, or else we will cause ourselves some level of harm. If solipsism is real, a single mind would be responsible for all that has a staggering concept, even by the most conservative estimate of the universe’s contents. Some believers in solipsism fire back by pointing out that individuals are capable of creating worlds in their dreams and therefore such a process is at least conceivable.
Though somewhat useless in a practical sense, solipsism provides an interesting lens with which we can examine the world, ourselves, and others. As a parting tidbit, consider that when you read a piece advocating for hard-line solipsism, the author is either denying the possibility of their existence, or of your own.