What is solipsism?
Question: "What is solipsism?"
Answer: Solipsism is the belief that anything other than one’s own mind is uncertain to exist. This can involve anything from skepticism about one’s senses and experiences, to belief that anything outside of the mind is non-existent. As with any abstract philosophical view, it has thousands of different varieties and applications. Assorted versions of solipsism have been applied to Christian, atheist, and pantheist worldviews, and to everything in between.
From a straightforward standpoint, the Bible doesn’t suggest anything like solipsism. God is said to have created (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1–3), and this creation is said to have changed (Genesis 1:2–3) and will be changed again (Revelation 21:1–2). This reality is described as having different, distinct parts (Genesis 1:4–7). Likewise, human beings are called on to respond to our experiences as a means to realize the will of God (Romans 1:20; Matthew 11:21–23). A person holding to solipsistic views has to interpret such ideas in a highly metaphorical way, which does not come naturally to the text. Nor is such a view of reality or of Scripture hinted at in the writings of the early Church Fathers.
Also, solipsism should be distinguished from general skepticism and fact-checking. The Bible encourages a cautious skepticism (Acts 17:11), especially with respect to spiritual ideas (1 John 4:1). Simple awareness that we’re fallible and that we need to double-check our experiences is not solipsism. True solipsism, in fact, cannot be connected to our experiences at all.
Solipsism corrodes any logic or evidence that would support the reality of experience. If our experiences are artificial, imaginary, or false, then any experience that might lead us to believe in solipsism could be part of the illusion and therefore unreliable. At the same time, any experience that might lead us to doubt solipsism could be dismissed for the same reason. As a result, solipsism is neither proved nor contradicted by any possible experience—which means that solipsism as a philosophy is practically meaningless. The idea is both un-falsifiable and un-verifiable. True or false, we can’t know it or disprove it, and so we can’t make any meaningful decisions about it.
This is one reason that solipsism, and arguments that imply it, are generally considered dead ends in philosophical discussions. That is, introducing solipsism makes the conversation pointless. As soon as one argues that our experiences—on a fundamental level—are unreliable, we’re left incapable of knowing anything. That’s not only contrary to how we experience life, it makes all reason and experience useless. Solipsism fits the category of ideas that are interesting but not worth bogging down in (Colossians 2:8; Titus 3:9).
Some people find solipsism troubling in that it’s a hard concept to shake off. If our own senses and experiences can’t be trusted, then what does that make of our relationships, our science, or our religion? The solution to this angst is realizing how impractical solipsism is. That is, belief in solipsism can’t really be lived out in any meaningful way. Nor can it be proved or disproved by any possible experiences or evidence. To break loose from a concern over solipsism, one has to realize that it’s a pure abstraction with no practical application.
A simple metaphor for being stuck in solipsistic thinking is the children’s tune “The Song That Never Ends,” which has these lyrics:
This is the song that never ends.
Yes, it goes on and on, my friends.
Some people started singing it not knowing what it was.
And they’ll continue singing it forever, just because . . .
(repeat from beginning ad nauseam)
If you accept the song’s claim (that you have to keep singing), you’re stuck in the loop forever, as the song says. But if someone asks why you’re constantly singing, the only reason you could give is, “because the song says so”! The solution is realizing that, other than the song itself, there is absolutely no reason why you have to keep singing. You weren’t compelled to start, and you’re not compelled to continue—unless you arbitrarily decide that you must obey the song for some reason.
Solipsism works much the same way in our minds. If we wanted to, we could chalk up everything we experience as a figment of our imagination, including all signs to the contrary. But we’d have to do the same with all signs pointing to solipsism in the first place. And we have no tangible reasons to think it’s true in any case. Like the children’s song, we might well get hung up on the idea, but there’s absolutely nothing suggesting we do so other than the idea itself.
Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland
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What is solipsism?