Monday, March 25, 2013

Solipsism vs Occum's Razor

I’ve been troubled for quite some time by the idea of solipsism, that only my mind exists and everything else is my imagination. While we, myself included, nonetheless deny solipsism as we go about our lives, the question is why do we – why do I – deny solipsism? No one, including myself, can prove a world outside of their mind exists. If there were such a proof, the word ‘solipsism’ wouldn’t exist.

Of course, we have to (I should stop doing that, huh?) I have to deny solipsism to get anywhere with any my other thoughts, supposing there is somewhere to go. I have to deny solipsism to give meaning to my interactions with the world. Don’t I? But suppose my whole life is a dream and at the end of my supposed life, I wake up and brush off the whole experience as it were the same as any other night’s dream. But don’t I act like what I’m doing in a dream has meaning, that my interactions in the dreamworld are just as real as my waking ones during the many instances I don’t realize that I’m asleep? Why should I act in such a manner in either the waking world or the dreamworld? Because the world appears as an extended set of objects to my senses – senses that oddly I use or seem to use in my dreams – despite the faultiness with which my senses may operate. So, isn’t the idea that there is an external world simpler than the idea that only my mind exists? It appears I am applying Occum’s Razor to my perceptions whether I am awake or asleep, assuming I’m ever asleep (or is it awake?). But, is it correct to apply Occum’s Razor?

Occum’s Razor is a philosophical tool that states when it comes to competing hypotheses, the one that is simplest in its explanation is the most probable explanation. When it comes to questioning reality, it appears that there is an external world because by comparison, my mind being the only reality doesn’t appear to make much sense. Why not? Because I can’t think of a reason why my mind would present the world to me in such a manner that it is easier for me to believe a world outside of my mind exists. Now, I can’t say such a reason doesn’t exist simply because I can’t think of it at the moment, but any explanation I could possibly think of would seem to require serious mental gymnastics. That is, I couldn’t see a simple explanation for my mind fooling me, an explanation that is simpler than the existence of an extended world of objects. (Even if I’m a brain in a jar somewhere, receiving data that is fooling me, there is still an external world of objects. In this case I am simply mistaken about which extended world of objects is real.)

While I can look at a given situation or the state of my life in a positive or negative manner depending upon a variety of factors, I am manipulating a mental reality that only goes as far as my mind does. That said, I can’t change the external world’s laws of physics, no matter how imaginary I think the external world is. It is at this point that the external world becomes unlike the dreamworld. In the dreamworld, when I realize I am dreaming, I can take control of what happens in the dream and do fantastic things, such as fly. While I’m awake, though, I can’t say to myself, “Wait, I’m actually dreaming right now,” and magically take to the skies. True, this inability to recognize an external reality as a dream may be due to the external world being so ingrained in my imagination that I cannot “snap out of it.” (This is paraphrasing something Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix.) But, the fact that I do not have an ability to “snap out of it” means my only alternative is to act like an external world actually exists, even if it doesn’t exist. Now I Now we can see that any explanation for our minds being all that exists gets even more convoluted, since now our minds will not allow us to snap out of the illusion of an external world. Now, any reason for our minds to fool us even when we do not want to be fooled gets less and less plausible the more we think about it. This doesn’t mean the possibility for our minds to fool us about reality isn’t there, but by comparing the hypotheses of an external world versus a world of pure imagination, applying Occum’s Razor appears all the more reasonable.

But there’s a problem with using Occum’s razor. Sometimes using it fails. If you’re at all familiar with Sherlock Holmes stories, imagine him using Occum’s Razor to try and solve all his cases. He’d be a pretty unremarkable – and often mistaken – detective.  Yet we apply Occum’s Razor to the question of an external world of objects for the sake of practicality, as we can’t unimagine the way the world is even if it is in our own minds. True, we can’t deny the possibility that the external world could be our imagination but it is our inability to unimagine the world the way it is that gives strength to the idea that an external world is actually there.

There’s one last cut Occum’s Razor can make upon Solipsism. If we actually consider that the external world is in fact not real, that our minds for some reason were fooling us, why would our minds allow us to contemplate the possibility that the world is not real? Again, the required explanation appears as though it would be convoluted compared against the simpler explanation that an external world of objects exists. In this case, an extended world of objects is required to consider that such a reality is actually not real. Why would our minds give us clues that the reality we sense is not actually reality?

At this point, Occum’s Razor wins via a technical knockout. He can’t quite kill Solipsism – I guess since Solipsism can’t bleed – but let’s face it, winning is all that matters. At least that what I…think.

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