Ignorance and Solipsism
Ignorance and Solipsism
Is it possible to refute solipsism-of-the-moment? Is it possible to show that there must be more to the world than oneself and one’s current state of consciousness? The standard approach has been to assert that certain propositions about the world beyond consciousness are indubitable—say, the proposition that I have two hands. The thought is that I can know with certainty that certain propositions about the external world are true, so I know that there is more to reality than my current state of consciousness. I want to suggest a different approach, namely that ignorance disproves solipsism: that is, I know with certainty that I am ignorant of certain things. Normally we take this for granted: we accept that there are all sorts of facts that we don’t know—because they are too far away, hidden behind things, too small to see, etc. We accept that the world is a big place and we have very limited knowledge of it. This assumes that the world extends beyond what is currently in one’s field of consciousness: if there is ignorance, then there must be something we are ignorant about. There must be more to reality than what is currently in one’s mind given that one is ignorant of certain things. For if that were all there is, then one would know everything about reality, there being nothing else. Solipsism is incompatible with ignorance; so if there is ignorance, solipsism must be false. The existence of ignorance refutes solipsism.
That seems hard to deny, but can it be maintained that it is logically possible that there is no ignorance? We think we are ignorant of many things, but the solipsist could try saying that we are not—we know everything about the world by knowing that we exist and that we have such and such states of consciousness. But that seems like an enormous stretch: surely there are things that we don’t know! Is the solipsist committed to omniscience, happily so? That was not part of the original package; we didn’t think solipsism entails godlike knowledge of the entire universe. I thought I was ignorant of the date of a certain battle, say, but in fact I’m not ignorant of this because there was no such battle—there is nothing like that to be ignorant about. There aren’t any battles or people to fight them or places to fight them in. The only facts that exist are facts about my introspectively available consciousness, and I know all those. But still, the solipsist might insist, perhaps it is really so—this is just an unexpected consequence of accepting solipsism. It cures all ignorance! However, things are not quite so simple, because questions can be raised about the solipsistic world that we might not be able to answer. For instance, where do I come from, and what is the cause of my states of consciousness? Do I perhaps come from nowhere at all? I might not be able to answer these questions, which means there are facts I don’t know: there are facts about the universe that go beyond what I can know by introspection. So my self and its subjective states don’t exhaust all the facts. If I sprung from a deity’s act of will, then clearly there is more to the universe than me and my states of consciousness; but even if I just spontaneously burst into existence, this is a fact that is not contained in my consciousness. I am ignorant on the question of my origins, which means that not all facts can be known to me by mere introspection. Maybe there are no objects apart from me, but not every fact is contained within my current consciousness. And if that is so, the solipsist cannot have a complete account of all the facts: being a fact is not identical to being a fact of consciousness. More intuitively, the solipsist cannot consistently accept that ignorance is a fact of life for any knowing consciousness. It is quite true that particular claims to knowledge can easily be mistaken, but claims to ignorance are far more robust—and their truth undermines solipsism. If there are things I don’t know, then there are things other than me—things outside my current state of consciousness. The world cannot be the totality of facts of consciousness.  It is my ignorance of reality that gives the lie to solipsism not my (purported) knowledge of it. Ignorance marks the place where reality diverges from consciousness of it.
 I of course mean here facts that are presented to introspective knowledge such as the fact that it now consciously seems to me that I am seeing something red, not facts about consciousness such as the fact that it was brought into existence by a deity or sprung from nowhere. The solipsist’s view is that there are no facts save those that populate the field of consciousness, and this is what is incompatible with the existence of ignorance.
Provocative. Solipsism terrifies me in a physical, emotional way…The reasoning reminded me of Borges’s Argumentum Ornithologicum:
“I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second or perhaps less; I don’t know how many birds I saw. Were they a definite or an indefinite number? This problem involves the question of the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because how many birds I saw is known to God. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because nobody was able to take count. In this case, I saw fewer than ten birds (let’s say) and more than one; but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, but not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That number, as a whole number, is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.”
The Ornithological Argument. Generally, of course, things are quite definite even though we are ignorant of them; they don’t become definite by being known (as in the Copenhagen Interpretion).
But according to the Copenhagen interpretation they do…although only in the world of subatomic particles. There are, however, alternative interpretations of quantum mechanics, such as Bohm’s. Bohm’s interpretation does not invoke the necessity of and observer’s induced collapsing of the wave function. But unfortunatelly )or fortunatelly) it invokes “hidden properties”.
Bohm is opposed to Bohr who accepted intrinsic indeterminacy.
Indeed. According to Bohm God does not play dice. However, most physicists despise. Bohm as superfluous. I personally like Bohm’s postulates, I think the Copenhagen interpretation “smells” of incompleteness…
Bohm has a strong following in some philosophers of physics such as Tim Maudlin.