Tag Archives: solipsism

The Problem With Skepticism

Allow me to wax philosophical for a moment.  I just had a discussion with someone who subscribes to some very general solipsist beliefs, that we don’t really exist and reality is an illusion.  This is something I refer to as skepticism on overdrive, where they are so completely and totally skeptical of absolutely everything, to the point that they don’t actually accomplish anything.

Essentially, the argument is that because you can never be absolutely certain of your knowledge, because there is nothing that you can know with absolute, perfect certainty that it’s true, then all knowledge is flawed and thus, in the minds of these extreme skeptics, virtually anything is possible.

This kind of skepticism has been around forever and has been attacked by everyone from Descartes to Bertrand Russell to G.E. Moore with different levels of success.  I’ve actually used the argument when I’ve suggested that an incredibly complex super computer might be feeding you all of the things that you think you experience in reality as a response to Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” argument.  In fact, that was part of his response to the skepticism argument, that you can actually be certain that you’re real because you can think.  I think that’s been pretty much done away with.  His other argument is that there must be a God because in order for you to be able to conceive of a perfect being, such a being must actually exist.  This is complete bullshit, but I won’t go into that here.  Then we grew up and we got to Russell, who argued that while we can’t ever know for certain, it is simpler to rely on our personal experiences of reality than to conjure up super computers or mad geniuses to explain what can be more easily explained by reality as it actually seems to be.  I’m not quite on board with Russell necessarily, but he’s a lot closer.  And then you get Moore, who simply says “screw the skeptics” and puts it all in their lap to prove that any of the things they claim are actually so.  It doesn’t actually prove anything, but I give him an “A” for effort.

Personally, I go for a much more logical approach.  No, we cannot ever know anything for absolutely certain.  It is impossible. Expecting the impossible is idiotic.  Move on.  Therefore, acknowledging that, we have to operate in a manner that actually accomplishes something.  If we just give in to extreme skepticism, where we know nothing and doubt everything, we don’t actually bring about anything meaningful.  We just sit there noodling our imaginary navels until our imaginary bodies starve to imaginary death because we didn’t bother getting any imaginary food.  It is a totally useless perspective to take.  Therefore, regardless of our absolute knowledge about anything, we still have no choice but to act as if our knowledge is reasonable and reliable, at least until we have some reason to think otherwise.  We have to act as though reality is actually real because if we don’t, we seemingly die and the whole question is moot anyhow.  The ultimate reality really isn’t relevant to our apparent existence, period.  Philosophers get the hell over yourselves and move on.

This doesn’t impress the solipsist crowd though, who want to think they’ve figured it all out and don’t like it when I point out that, no matter what solution they want to come up with, they are defeated by their own philosophy that they can’t possibly actually know anything, including that they are a brain in a vat, in a dream, being programmed by a computer or aliens or whatever delusional nonsense they come up with this week.  They haven’t figured out anything except how to look like idiots.

The Lengths to Which Theists Will Go

JesusFacepalmI always find this funny, that theists, in a debate, will do almost anything to make their beliefs seem reasonable.  These theists will go to almost any length to suggest that either their beliefs are worthwhile or that everyone else operates on as much faith as they do.  Now usually, these people will get to a point where they just stop caring or stop responding, but occasionally you get those who just don’t know where to stop and just make their entire audience facepalm at their stupidity.  I’m sort of debating one of those right now.  I say “sort of” because I’m firmly in that facepalming mode right now, I have no idea where to go next and everyone else playing along is in the same position.

So we start talking about blind faith and how believing in something for which you can provide no objective evidence is foolish.  There had been a previous assertion that God was the only logical option for the beginning of the universe and I had pointed out that God wasn’t even an option because nobody had shown that God was actually real in the first place.  How can something that people just made up out of whole cloth be an option at all, much less the only logical option to explain an event?

So he comes back and says everyone lives by blind faith.  I asked for an example and he said that if someone in a crowded theater shouted FIRE!, you’d get up and leave the theater, whether you actually saw a fire or not.  You had faith, blind faith at that, that there actually was a fire, thus everyone lives by blind faith.  Well, no.  That’s not the way it works.  See, we all know that fire is real, we have personal experience with fire and the damage it can do.  We know that buildings, even theaters, can and do catch on fire and the most rational option, given even the possibility of a building you’re in being on fire, is to vacate the premises.  If the same guy stood up in the middle of the crowded theater and shouted TYRANNOSAURUS!, you wouldn’t move.  The possibility of a tryannosaurus rampaging through the theater is virtually nil (unless someone has developed time travel and we didn’t know it).  There’s no reason to run away, there simply isn’t an identifiable danger.

Then he tries to say that if  you were walking in the woods and you came face-to-face with Bigfoot, you would have no evidence that you had seen it, you couldn’t convince anyone else that it was actually real, but you would have plenty of evidence that would cause you to believe it happened. That failed too.  If you actually had a direct, physical encounter in the woods with Bigfoot, you could see it.  You could hear it.  You could smell it. You could potentially touch it.  If you tasted it, keep that to yourself.  You actually do have a way of subjectively measuring the experience. Granted, there are lots of  reasons why it may or may not be an encounter with an actual Bigfoot, but we’ll set those aside for the moment.  So let’s compare that experience to claimed theist experiences with a god.  First off, and I have debated literally thousands of theists over the years who have claimed to have had experiences with God, most of them actually haven’t.  They have had experiences and have attributed those experiences, without evidence, to something they label God.  There just is no direct causal link between any gods and the experience that they had.  At least with Bigfoot, even though you may not be able to tell the difference between what has been described as Bigfoot and a horribly mutated bear, at least it matches a specific description and you can attach a specific label to it, even if that label is found to be ultimately wrong in further examination.

But these God experiences, you can’t even point to a commonly held definition of what God is.  Different people have different ideas, different cultures believe in different gods and since you can’t even point to any absolute characteristics of God in these “experiences”, it’s just an assertion, nothing remotely like what we see in the Bigfoot example.  This can be clearly seen in the classical example, someone gets into a traffic accident and survives and claims that God saved them.  They completely ignore the actions of the ambulance drivers, the doctors, the nurses and the wealth of modern medical technology, they just assert that “God did it!”  They’ve just woven God into their explanation because it’s the answer that appeals to them emotionally the most.  If asked why it wasn’t Allah or Krishna or Santa Claus or a unicorn that saved them, they have no credible answers.  They don’t like those explanations so they reject them.  To this theist, just because these people think they had encounters with God means that they actually did have encounters with God.

Unfortunately for him, that’s too easy to take apart.  Drunks see the stereotypical pink elephants.  Just because they think they see these things, does that mean these things are actually real?  Of course not.  We know that excessive alcohol in the system can have detrimental effects on the brain and cause hallucinations and other similar experiences.  We also know that excessive emotions can cause a shift in brain chemistry and have similar effects.  These kind of religious hallucination are proven, without a doubt, to happen among the grossly faithful.  There are no supernatural explanations necessary.  So if a drunk can see a pink elephant that isn’t really there, why can’t a theist see a god that isn’t really there?

And that’s when he dove into the realm of the bat-shit insane.  He claimed that since we can’t prove that reality is, in fact, real, that everyone’s experiences are solely in their heads and therefore, everyone’s reality, no matter how different, are all real for them.  Of course, that really just shoots them in the head, it means that there’s no point in proselyting to anyone because while in your “reality” there might be a god, in my “reality” there might not be.  For Muslims, Allah is “real”.  For Hindus, Krishna is “real”.  For atheists, none of them are “real”.  What’s the point in trying to tell someone whose “reality” dictates that Zeus is the only god that actually, the Christian God is real?  It’s just not true!  This guy doesn’t care.  He’s whacked out of his skull and everyone on the place is pointing and laughing.  Of course this never dissuades the religious lunatics, it’s just one more reason why we, as rational people, should never take them seriously.

It’s amazing how far these people will go to protect their precious faith.

Philosophical Failings: The Brain and the Mind

brain_mindOn the 3/24 episode of The Atheist Experience, some guy named Johanan called in and wanted to argue philosophy.  Give it a listen, starting at about 36:39 and I think you’ll realize why I, like most people, consider pure philosophy little more than mental masturbation.  The guy just kept going on and on about the mind not being physical and no matter how many times Matt told him that the mind is a manifestation of the physical brain, he just wouldn’t listen.  It’s usually pretty easy to figure out where these guys are going wrong logically, but most of them just have no interest in correcting their errors, their whole point in using philosophy in the first place is it allows them to use wiggle words and fast-talk to get around actually having to demonstrate their arguments.

That’s why I really hate the pure-philosophy people, the ones who have no interest in how their arguments apply to the real world.  In fact, as soon as you bring up the real world, they simply lose interest in talking to you, they live their lives dealing with a hypothetical reality, not a demonstrable one.

He immediately starts talking about substance dualism, which is an absurd concept that most people don’t take seriously.  It essentially states that there are two fundamental types of existence, mental and material.  It was a position championed by Rene Descartes under the name Cartesian Dualism.  It argues that the mind is entirely separate from the physical and that they perform two different functions.  The material world forms all that we see, touch and experience and the mental world generates thought and identity.  Of course, this was long before we knew much about brain function and certainly long before we recognized that the mind is an emergent property of the physical brain, therefore most people have rejected substance dualism as a valid philosophical view.

Then he starts arguing that the mind is not reducible to non-mind.  Wait a minute, didn’t he just  agree with Matt that substance dualism was invalid?  In fact, *ALL* dualistic views are inherently faulty, including property dualism, which this falls under.  The mind is just not some magical, mystical thing, sorry.  I don’t care if you want to make it a different substance, or in this case, simply a substance with different emergent properties, it makes no damn sense.  This is exactly why I think noodling your navel and not having a solid grounding in the physical sciences makes people stupid.  I really wish Matt had headed him off at the pass and said that all forms of dualism are just complete and total bullshit, entirely unsupported by any evidence.  In fact, I’ll go one step further and say that I think anyone who is still arguing dualistic nonsense is doing so, not from a rational, intellectual, objective perspective, but from a wholly emotional one.  They want to feel special.  They want to think that the human mind is some magical, mystical thing that exists beyond the physical world.  They don’t want to think that man is just a highly evolved animal, but that man is wholly separate and special.  That kind of thinking is entirely bullshit.

Of course, the inevitable, he claims that it is impossible to attack hard solipsism, which is absolutely false.  There are many successful attacks on solipsism, I’ve talked about it before on this very blog.  What he asks for, however, is absolute proof that solipsism is false and that’s just not a rational standard.  There is nothing in science that is absolute.  It just doesn’t work that way.  We can only go where the evidence leads and the evidence all leads toward an objective universe where we are actual, physical people and our minds are a function of our physical brain.  We simply have no evidence otherwise.

The problem is, these people desperately want solipsism to be true.  They spend all their time living in their own heads where it’s more emotionally comfortable.  They can just pretend that the big, bad world out there is an illusion and they can remain safe inside their skulls.  Oh wait, they don’t think their bodies are real either, they’re a brain in a vat or mental energy floating around in the clouds without a care in the world.  They don’t want to be stuck in their pathetic dumpy little bodies.  In fact, I can use Johanan as an example of the absurdity of solipsism.  If  you honestly and truly believed that your mind was the only mind in existence, that all of the things you “see” and experience were just illusions caused by your mind, why would you call a public access call-in show in Austin, Texas to talk to people you don’t believe exist?  Why would solipsists do any of the things they do?  They go buy food for a body they don’t think is real, they refrain from running over “unreal” pedestrians on the highway, none of it makes any sense if solipsism is true.

Next he argues for modal logic, which is rejected by many philosophers for precisely the reason that Matt mentions.  It does, by necessity, argue using possibilities, not actualities.  It is concerned with things that might be, not things that actually are.  In fact, as Johanan kept saying, it’s worried about things that you can conceive, not things that you can observe.  Well news flash for you, just because you can conceive of something doesn’t mean it’s actually so.  In fact, this is the same downfall shared by the classic theist argument from degree.  Just because you can imagine something beyond which there is nothing better that you can conceive doesn’t mean that that better thing is actually real.  Take the classic argument of the flying car.  I can imagine a flying car quite easily, in fact, people have been imagining it for a long, long time.  So where is the flying car?  Anyone seen one?  Of course, this gives me a good excuse to include this funny piece of unrelated animation.

[youtuber youtube=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pL1RkfzFXPA’]

Seriously, the more I think about this and the more I look into the arguments I’m sure Johanan was talking about, the more stupid it all seems.  So let’s just look at what I am assuming he meant and leave it at that before my head explodes.

P1.) Minds COULD exist in purely solipsistic universes.
P2.) Solipsistic universes are purely mental and immaterial. (as everything material* is an illusion of the mind)
C1.) Minds can exist in immaterial universes. (from P1 and P2)
P3.) Nothing material can exist in an immaterial universe.
C2.) Minds can not be material in any possible world. (from C1 and P3)

P1 fails immediately because we’ve established that dualism is bunk, it is a product of primitive thinking before we discovered that the mind is simply an emergent property of the physical mind.  This is where 100% of the evidence lies.  Secondly, it asserts the  existence of a purely solipsistic universe, of which we have no examples.  As I said before, this line of philosophy relies heavily on “if you can imagine it, you can use it” irrational thinking.

P2 is simply an assertion for which there is no supporting evidence.  As I said, we have no examples of a solipsistic universe, therefore just assigning an arbitrary characteristic to a wholly hypothetical construct really gets you nowhere.  It’s exactly what is done by most theists with regard to their deities.  You can’t prove the deities are real, but they arbitrarily assign characteristics to the deities, which are conveniently the same kind of characteristics they desire their deities to have.

C1 fails, from the inherent failures of P1 and P2.

P3 is true, but only in a definitional sense, it really tells us nothing we don’t already know.  It’s like saying “no dead things are alive”.  It’s true, only because the terms used are defined as being contradictory.  You cannot be  both dead and alive at the same time, just like you cannot be material and immaterial at the same time.

C2 simply leaps a whole ocean full of sharks.  Even ignoring the inherent failures of the other propositions, it simply does not follow, but when you add in how absurd the whole argument is, it’s just laughable.  It really just is mental masturbation, it relies on the redefinition of terms, blind assertion and the assigning of undemonstrated characteristics.

In fact, it ends up looking a lot like religion, doesn’t it?

Philosophy ends up being pretty darned useless in the real world.  It tells us nothing about the actual reality that surrounds us and functions, most often, as a means to rationalize beliefs that the claimant already had.  I find virtually no constructive use in that at all.

It’s Axiomatic

Over on the Atheist Experience Blog, Russell is having a debate with Stephen Feinstein and just posted the latest response here.  He’s closed comments on the debate but I noticed something in that debate that I’ve faced in quite a few of my own that seems to run commonly through theist thought, especially presuppositionalist thought.

That has to do with axioms.  An axiom, to use the definition Russell gave, is “a self-evident truth that requires no proof; a universally accepted principle or rule.”  Russell lists one of his axioms as “reality exists” and one of Stephen’s as “God exists”.  The problem is, at least in the case of Stephen’s axiom, that it cannot be an axiom at all because it is not a universally accepted principle or rule.  Certainly, Russell doesn’t agree with it, thus it cannot stand as an uncontested, self-evident truth.  An axiom must be agreed upon by all involved parties in a debate.  You can’t declare an axiom to be “I win this debate”, I’m sure the other side is going to disagree.

So let’s look at Russell’s axiom for a moment.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Stephen disagrees with it.  Certainly, there are people out there who do disagree, I’ve debated a lot of them myself.  So we can pretend, again for the sake of argument, that Stephen is a solipsist, who thinks that everything he sees and experiences is an illusion generated by his own mind.  Thus, Russell’s axiom is no longer an axiom, it is a point of contention.  How would Russell argue that reality was actually real?

I can tell you how I’ve done it at least, although there are probably many other ways to go about it.  I argued that, while we cannot be positive with any degree of absolute certainty that reality, as we experience it through our senses, is 100% real, certainly we all operate as though it were real.  We don’t walk blindly across a busy street.  We don’t leap off the top of tall buildings.  We don’t repeatedly plunge sharp knives into our eyes.  We deal with the world that we see as though it is as we see it.  The most important thing to remember here is that even the solipsist does this.  Even though they claim to know that the cars whizzing by on the street aren’t real, they avoid them.  Even though they claim to know that there is no fall from the top of that non-existent building, they don’t take the leap.  Even though they say that the knife is an illusion and your eye isn’t real, they refrain from stabbing themselves.

Why do they do this?  Some I’ve debated claim that their “mind” will punish them for acting outside of the illusion, but that really makes no logical sense.  They already claim to be aware that it’s all an illusion.  Their brain is going to punish them for ignoring an illusion that they already know is an illusion?  We know that’s not how it works.  Let’s imagine there is a hologram of a fire, perfect in every way.  If you know it is a hologram, you can put your hand in it all day long and never get burned.  Your mind doesn’t punish you for knowing reality.  However, if you are hypnotized into believing it is a real fire and put your hand into it, you can feel heat that isn’t really there and perhaps even get a skin reaction.  The mind is a very powerful force, but it can’t punish you for things it knows aren’t real to begin with.

Now that we’ve established that we all act as though reality is real, how do we tell anything about reality?  Certainly, each of us can test reality on our own with our senses, but what if our senses are wrong?  We can compare our observations with others and if they are generally the same, we can be reasonably certain that our observations of reality are accurate.  But wait, says the solipsist, how can you be sure you’re actually talking to someone else, or that the information you’re trading is accurate?  Excuse me, Mr. Solipsist, but clearly you believe it or you wouldn’t bother having this conversation!  If you cannot confidently exchange data with another person, then what’s the point in talking to anyone at all?

The biggest problem with solipsism is that it’s adherents act entirely contrary to it’s claims, showing they don’t really buy into it either.

Once all of this is done, it’s quite easy to show that we have good reason to agree that reality is real, both sides of the debate have accepted it through their actions.  So can Feinstein do the same with God?  I think not.  I don’t think he’ll even try.  He’s too busy assuming his own victory to be bothered by the fact that his axioms cannot be considered axioms and he has nothing whatsoever to trot out that can demonstrate them reasonable, rational or objectively true.