Daily Archives: June 25, 2009

Two solipsisms

Though I’m generally leery of coopting the vocabulary of theism to refer to non-theistic philosophical ideas, I find it irresistably appropriate that the King James translators chose to represent the name of God, the ultimate mystery, with the words “I AM” — existence, first person, present tense — a trinity of incomprehensibles economically expressed in three letters. Setting the issue of existence aside for the moment, I find that the other two — the two solipsisms — can profitably be considered together, that thinking about the one sheds light on the other.

I know, in theory, that there are billions of conscious minds in this world, each with its own subjective experience, but one of them, the one known as Wm Jas Tychonievich, stands out from the others because I am Wm — and by that I don’t mean anything as simple as “Wm is Wm” or “Wm wrote this sentence.” What I mean is that Wm is in some sense the person; that his is the point of view; that qualia are experienced only when he sees or hears or feels something; that when he closes his eyes the world goes dark; that while others have subjective experience in theory, only he has subjective experience in fact. Others no doubt feel that the same is true of themselves, and to some extent I can grant that. From Joe Schmo’s point of view, Joe Schmo is the person; ditto for every other sentient animal in the universe. There’s nothing special about Wm. And yet, and yet — there undeniably is something special about Wm. “From Joe Schmo’s point of view” is a counterfactual. When I say, “What would it be like to be Joe Schmo?” (or a bat, or whatever), I’m imagining a possible world which is different from the real world — not different in any objective way that could be detectable by a third party, but different nonetheless.

The same goes for time. Time is a vast and perhaps infinite continuum, but one particular point on that continuum, the one called “the present,” is the time, more real than any other. While few people subscribe to literal solipsism with regard to persons, temporal solipsism is much more mainstream. Many people would be quite comfortable saying that the past and especially the future do not have actual existence, that only the present moment is real — an odd point of view, given that the present is infinitesimally small and impossible to pin down with any precision. And just as there is nothing objectively different about the person called Wm, there is nothing objectively different about any particular point on the timeline. Just as every person thinks he is the person, people have at every point in history thought that that point was the present — and are we going to say they were wrong? As I write this, I feel quite sure that the present is a point contained within the span of time referred to as the year 2009, but last year I felt just as sure about 2008. You can say, “In the past 2008 was the present year, but now it’s 2009,” but that doesn’t really mean anything. As used here, “in the past” and “was” are counterfactuals analogous to “from Joe Schmo’s point of view,” and the sentence means something like, “If the past were the present, then 2008 would be the present,” an uninteresting near-tautology. In fact 2008 “is” not the present (a fact which would be easier to express if English didn’t require every verb to have a tense).

If I say, “I wish it were tomorrow,” I’m wishing that something were different about the world — but, again, the difference is not anything objectively observable. If my wish came true, not a single objective fact about the history of the universe would be different. I’m not wishing that two days become one day or that the calendar skip a day; I don’t want to change the timeline of history at all. All I’m wishing is that a different point on the timeline be the time, the present, the only point in time which is really experienced (and only by the person). It’s a comprehensible wish, just as comprehensible as “I wish I were a bat,” but neither wish can mean anything at all unless you take for granted the quasi-solipsistic idea that there is one particular mind and one particular point in time which exist more directly — are more real — than any others. The wish is that a different mind, or a different time, be the special fully-existent one.

There are different ways to approach these two issues, varying degrees of actual solipsism. The most extreme solipsism, the kind we usually have in mind when we use the word, denies that anything or anyone other than “I” exists in any sense at all. The same extreme solipsism could be applied to time. An intro-to-philosophy staple is the speculation that perhaps the universe sprang into existence five minutes ago, complete with false signs of antiquity and false memories of a nonexistent past. We can whittle that five minutes down until we reach the logical limit: that perhaps the universe has no past at all, that perhaps the present moment is the only moment and all else is illusion.

A more moderate solipsism tries to have it both ways, usually with the help of possibly meaningless expressions like, “The past was once the present, and the future will be the present anon.” This takes advantage of the tense system of English to ascribe some sort of existence or reality (“was,” “will be”) to the whole continuum of time, while at the same time singling out the present moment as different, because it alone is the present. Various verbal tricks can be used to do the same thing with regard to persons, admitting the reality of other people and their subjective experience while still seeing oneself as somehow different and “What would it be like to be Bill Gates?” as a counterfactual. This kind of moderate solipsism seems to be what comes naturally to most people.

The final option is to reject solipsism completely, accepting that every person and every point in time is equally real and that the idea of one special person called “I” and one special time called “now” — the idea implied in the appropriately monotheistic words “I AM” — is an illusion. It’s probably a logically inevitable illusion — since, while my subjective experience and your subjective experience are both real and are both experienced, they cannot both be experienced by the same person — but an illusion nonetheless.

My natural tendency has always been to be more solipsistic about person than about time, and I think this is probably a near-universal proclivity for which there are good Darwinian reasons. A high degree of reality is ascribed to other points in time, particularly to the future, but not to other subjectivities — other points in time will be the present, but no other person will ever be “I.” This lopsided solipsism is where the fear of oblivion comes from: the horrifying realization that there will be “real” points in time at which the one “real” person no longer exists. That’s what we’re really afraid of when we fear death — not just that one particular person will cease to exist, but that, because that one person is “I,” the only “I,” subjective experience itself will cease with his death. When “I” dies, the whole universe might as well have come to an end. Philip Larkin expresses it well in “Aubade”:

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

But if we are but consistent in our solipsism, approaching time and person in the same way, this fear turns out to be unfounded. Under pure solipsism, there is only one real person — but there is also only one real point in time, so the imagined future in which that one real person no longer exists is an illusion; it will never come. Pure anti-solipsism acknowledges that the future is real — but also that other minds are real and that each is equally an “I”; subjective experience will continue for as long as sentient minds — any sentient minds — exist.

Actually, pure anti-solipsism goes further. Even if there comes a time, as there almost certainly will, when all intelligent life is snuffed out, there is no need to fear oblivion, because time does not actually pass. Past, present, and future are all equally real, just as all points in space are equally real. The fact that life exists during this time period and not during that one is no more significant than the fact that it exists on this planet and not that one.

Acknowledging the past as fully real is probably the hardest part of maintaining a consistently anti-solipsistic point of view, because (again, for good Darwinian reasons) we naturally focus on the present and future, considering something not to exist at all if it exists only in the past. But the whole continuum of time is equally real. It exists as a unity. Designating a particular point “the present” doesn’t make everything to the left of it disappear. To adapt a catchphrase from my Mormon upbringing, everything that exists, exists for a time and for all eternity. Good poets like Byron remind us of this:

I die — but first I have possesst,
And come what may, I have been blest;
(The Giaour, 1114-1115)

And so do bad poets like James Blunt:

And though time goes by, I will always be
In a club with you in 1973

Recently, in coming to terms with the death of someone who had been close to me, I found myself thinking in very Giaouresque terms: “She will always have existed.” Though it may sound like just so much grammatical prestidigitation, conjuring up an “always” where there is none, it was nevertheless only that — not turning to pipe-dreams of heaven or reincarnation, not settling for memory as a substitute for existence — that in the end had any real power to console. Eternity isn’t about things continuing for an infinite span of time; it’s about the recognition that all time is equally real.


Filed under Philosophy, Time

Reading: Charles Darwin

  • The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, edited with an introduction by J. W. Burrow (25 Jun 2009)

My family read this together when I was a kid and we were all creationists, and the only thing that stuck with me was the comical image of a bear swimming around with its mouth open catching insects. At that time I took the truth of Mormonism (as interpreted by my father, for whom creationism is something of a hobby) for granted and didn’t really give it a fair hearing. Actually, I didn’t give it any kind of hearing in the sense of engaging its ideas at any deeper level than, “Well, we all know that’s wrong.” I was unsympathetic without managing to be actually critical.

I’ve since come back to Darwin’s theory and found it compelling, but until now I had approached it only through modern popularizations, especially those of Richard Dawkins (an author who was recommended to me by my father, of all people). This is my first time rereading Darwin himself. Here are a few brief thoughts:

  • Darwin’s not a bad prose stylist. He overuses a few phrases (a lot of “light” is “thrown” on a lot of things by Darwin’s theory, and he always tells us so in those particular words), and the sometimes archaic technical terms call for frequent use of the glossary (apparently amphibians used to be called “batrachians”; who knew?), but overall the writing is clear and even elegant.
  • Given the way histories of evolution tend to focus on the contrast between the two men’s theories, Darwin turns out to have been much more of a Lamarckian than I would have expected. Many times throughout the book he grants the possibility of acquired characteristics being directly inherited, or learned behaviors being passed down as instincts. Of course he had the considerable handicap of not knowing anything at all about genes. Knowing about genes changes everything.
  • I like Darwin’s empirical spirit. Rather than just speculating, for example, that seeds might have been carried across the sea by birds, he carried out experiments to test the ability of various seeds to germinate after being immersed in salt water, ingested by a heron, etc. He didn’t take anything for granted. He also came up with some clever ways to test his theory which I wouldn’t have thought of myself, such as seeing whether species belonging to larger genera are more variable than those from smaller ones. This attention to detail and knack for making things testable — not the general idea of evolution by natural selection — is what set Darwin apart from all the evolutionary conjecturists who preceded him.
  • It’s true about the barnacles! They turn up again and again, though usually in disguise as “sessile cirripedes.” He knew an awful lot about the little beasties.

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Filed under Evolution