Wood Paths: Articles

Pathways to Philosophy


The (Partial) Vindication of Solipsism

by Geoffrey Klempner

Rabbi Bunam said that each person should have two pieces of paper, one in each pocket, which they can reach for as the need arises. On one piece of paper is to be written, 'For my sake was the world created.' On the other, 'I am dust and ashes.'

'I get scared, Frankie. It's like I'm the only person in the world trapped inside this body, bumping into other bodies, afraid of never making contact with the only person in the world inside them.'

FIRST, I should like to set the record straight. I am not, nor have I ever been, a solipsist. I fully agree that any philosophy lecturer found guilty of teaching solipsism should be immediately dismissed from their post, and preferably Sectioned under the Mental Health Act. So what do I mean by saying that solipsism is partially true? Well, I hope that by the end of this talk you will not consider me a candidate for a mental institution. If solipsism is partially true, then it is also partially false.

How can any philosophical theory be partially true? Generally, when we talk of the partial truth of a theory, we mean that there is some other theory — perhaps a theory we have not yet come up with — which is wholly true. Our theory gets some of it right, but it doesn't quite hit the mark. It's difficult to imagine how that could be the way things are with solipsism. Between saying that I am the only person in the world and saying that I am not the only person in the world, or between saying that the world is my world and saying that the world is not my world — or however you want to put it — there is no third alternative: at least, not one I can think of.

Let me tell you a dream. In my dream I died and went to heaven. I was surrounded by a soft, golden light. With a sense I could not explain, I knew I stood in the presence of God. 'Where are you?' was all I could think to ask. 'I am nowhere,' said God. Then God continued, 'I get quite a few philosophers up here. Isn't there any question that has always puzzled you? Anything at all?' My head spun as I considered the implications. I'd always thought that if I went to heaven, I could spend my time pondering the unsolved problems of philosophy. Now arose a spectre more terrible than I could ever have imagined. This required some thought. 'Take your time,' said God.

'All right, how about this. Since my teens, long before I ever got interested in philosophy, I've wondered about the fact that I am GK.' 'Aah.' 'Well, what about it? Why am I here? Why do I exist rather than not exist? You know what I mean when I ask that question, don't you?' 'It's been asked before.' 'Well, tell me the answer.' There was a long silence. Finally, God said, 'When I give my answer, you philosophers are never satisfied. You won't be any different.' 'Tell me anyway.' 'I'll do better than that. I'll show you.'

I found myself sitting in a cinema. The curtains parted. In front and above me, the vast screen was pitch black. Then my eyes were blinded by a cataclysmic explosion. The light broke into multi-coloured fragments, and the familiar shapes of galaxies began to form. The camera zoomed towards one of the whirling clouds of stars. Against the backdrop of the Milky Way, our own planet Earth came into view. 'In order to enable conscious life to evolve, I had to get the laws of physics exactly right. Believe me, it wasn't easy!' the commentary began. 'But having decided what the laws of physics were going to be, I still had to choose which of the nomologically possible worlds was going to exist. None was perfect. All contained some good and some evil. But all things considered, yours came out top.'

Now the scene switched to the dawn of human history. A caveman and woman were chewing scraps of meat in front of a fire. The man was crouched on his haunches, darting nervous glances to right and left. 'These are your ancestors. See that sabre toothed tiger hiding in the bushes? In a few seconds the tiger will spring, and the man will throw his spear. If he misses, you will never have existed.' I gripped my chair, willing the spear to find its target.

And so it went on. Watching the film, I realised that this was not the history of the world, this was my history. These were all the things that had to happen — the vast chain of coincidences — in order that I should have been born, as I was at Bushey General Hospital just outside London on the seventeenth of January 1951. The screen faded as the midwife offered the swaddled infant into the arms of its exhausted mother. 'The Beginning.'

The lights came up. 'It's the Intermission. Do you want to leave now or do you want to see more?' 'I've seen enough,' I said. 'You're going to tell me that the birth of that baby was one of the ways the world had to be in order to be the best of all possible worlds.' 'That's right.' 'You know what I'm going to ask now, don't you.' There was a sigh. 'You can't ask me to break the iron laws of logic. I can't make a stone so heavy that I cannot lift it, nor create a being greater than myself. And though I can read all your thoughts, and know just what it's like to be you, even if you were to give me all eternity I should never understand what you mean when you ask, "Why did I have to be that child?"'

The next morning, I was looking at my reflection in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. In a few minutes, I would be behind the wheel of my Ford Capri, racing down the dual carriageway, dodging cyclists and buses on the way to work. The memory of the dream came back to me. What if this were to be no more? — In my twenties, death meant little to me. Now, twenty years on, death has become something real, something I can believe in. The first death I witnessed was that of my mother, a few years ago from lung cancer. What if I were to die today? Even now, reason recoils at the illogicality of 'my death'. I can understand how it can happen to others but not to me.

As these fragmented thoughts passed through my mind, a grotesque scenario suggested itself. A thought experiment. I would be driving along, unaware that evil scientists aboard an alien spacecraft were taking a total scan of my body and brain. Then, in a flash, I would be transported up into the spacecraft and an indistinguishable copy substituted in my place. A doppelganger. The doppelganger would go back home to greet my wife, and go on to live exactly the same life I should have lived had this incident never taken place, while I languished in a human zoo back on Alpha Centauri, my agony made all the worse by regular news reports of how the doppelganger GK was faring back on planet Earth.

Well, that's one way of telling the story. Another way is this. One day two alien scientists beam down to my living room, and present me and my wife with compelling evidence that I am not GK but GK's doppelganger. As the videotapes clearly show, after a year behind bars GK is becoming increasingly unruly and disruptive, in fact, barely recognisable as GK at all. Now the aliens are anxious to reverse the swap. Would I mind coming along please?

What is I? I is neither a 'who' nor a 'what'. Philosophers who have sought to define the criteria for 'self identity' or 'personal identity' — in so doing thinking they were capturing hold of I — have wasted their time. For the I is not a self, nor a person, nor even a soul or atman or packet of soul stuff. In the first story, there is no question but that I am the one on Alpha Centauri. In the second story, there is no question but that I am the one back at home. If the I were an object, an entity with an identity, then we should have to make some hard decisions about where the I goes in such counterfactual cases. If two cases are one and the same, the I can't go one way or another depending upon how the case is described. The truth is that there is nothing to decide. The I is logically unruly and metaphysically ineffable...

© Geoffrey Klempner 1997

First part of a talk given to a graduate Philosophy seminar, University of Hull 28th October 1997