Solipsism is a philosophical belief that only one's mind is certain to exist.
You, reading this: think, right now. No, just think. By thinking, you have confirmed Rene Descartes' immortal postulate — "I think, therefore I am" — and proved that you exist. Now, can you prove that anything else around you exists?
Let's start with the digital screen upon which you are probably reading this treatise. Can you prove it exists? You might say, "I am seeing it, therefore it exists..." But what you are seeing is not necessarily what is actually there. There are other philosophies that talk about this. Direct realism is the belief that humans apprehend objects in the world as they actually exist... but we have no empirical proof that this is true. So: Indirect realism, the belief that the things we sense are 'processed' both through and by our senses. Your eyes perceive light and convert that perception into nerve impulses, which are then compiled by your brain into some sort of visual picture. With all these translations going on, are you sure that what your brain perceives is the same as what is actually there? It is very accurate to say that the computer screen is projecting something which your brain perceives to be text, but you cannot, with your eyes alone, prove that the computer screen is actually projecting text.
And here's the scary thing: neither can anybody else. Even if you were to ask your friend to come over and confirm the existence of the thing, the problem is that his or her eyes and nerves are just as fallible, just as untrustworthy, as yours. In other words, while the two of you can largely agree on the mass hallucination you call "a computer screen," it still is a mass hallucination. Maybe the computer screen is projecting something entirely different. Maybe what we call "blue" is actually orange. Maybe the computer screen isn't there. Something must be there, to create the physical phenomena we call "computer screen," but there is nothing to guarantee that said thing is anything like what we call a computer screen... or, indeed, is anything like anything at all. Heck, maybe it isn't there! We still can't verify the thing's qualities; how can we possibly verify its existence?? It may actually exist—it probably exists; otherwise the fact that we are seeing the contents of a TV Tropes Useful Notes page printed on thin air says something rather unflattering about our Sanity Meter—but we cannot prove it.
And let's take it a step farther: now that you've asked your friend to prove that the computer screen exists, can you prove that they exist? After all, your eyes and nerves are still just as fallible as they were when staring at that alleged computer screen...
Ladies and gentlemen, solipsism: the belief that the only thing you can safely assume to exist is your own mind.
Epistemology, Metaphysics and Methodology — or, "Huh??"
Philosophy is a complicated beast, involving multiple branches, disciplines and areas of study. They include "Epistemology," the nature of knowledge, and "Metaphysics," contemplation of the fundamental nature of the world and those things in it. Epistemology asks, roughly, "What can we know, and how can we know it," while Metaphysics asks, "What, in the end, actually exists?—and, now that it exists, what is it like?"
This is being brought up because solipsism has application to both branches. You've already seen how in the explanation above; now we'll elaborate a bit more.
Solipsism was first proposed by a Greek philosopher, Gorgias, some time during the 400s or 300s BC. He stated, very simply:
- Nothing exists.
- Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it.
- Even if something could be known about it, knowledge about it can't be communicated to others.
What Gorgias had to say concerned The Treachery of Images, writ large: we should be careful about what we (think we) see, and how much we trust our senses. The Other Wiki has a very useful illustration:
- If a person sets up a camera to photograph the moon when they are not looking at it, then at best they determine that there is an image of the moon in the camera when they eventually look at it. Logically, this does not assure that the moon itself (or even the camera) existed at the time the photograph is supposed to have been taken.
The end result is Epistomological Solipsism: the belief that the only thing whose existence you can be certain of is your own mind, and mostly because you are thinking with it. The rest of the world may exist, but it might not, and even if it did you couldn't prove it. Descending from this is the idea of Methodological Solipsism, the idea that, because you can only be certain of your own mind, that frame of reference needs to be the basis of all other conclusions.
The most extreme version of solipsism, Metaphysical solipsism goes on to assert that, because we can't prove anything else exists, they therefore do not. Each of us might well be a Brain in a Jar for all we can verify about the outside world. We are all living in a mass hallucination—or rather, I am living in one, since I can't verify your existence and therefore you don't. I am the last of my kind.
In addition to being a rather bleak prospect to contemplate, this philosophy lacks evangelical oomph: why, after all, would I try to convince you that you don't exist? In addition to being rather insulting to you, the simple fact is that you don't exist—you're a figment of the mass Imagine Spot I've dreamed up to distract myself from being a Brain in a Jar—and thus whether you believe in your own existence or not is just about the least relevant thing in the world. And even if I do succeed in converting you, you still don't exist, and my triumph cannot really be called meaningful.
Even worse, there are profound effects on one's view of morality. It doesn't change to Black And White, or even Blue And Orange: it ceases to exist. Murder, for instance, is typically described as the unlawful killing of another person— What other person? Surely it is not immoral to kill an Imaginary Friend, who does not exist (and indeed, never existed) in the first place. The solipsist cannot cross the Moral Event Horizon because there is no one to condemn him or her for doing so. The end result is Video Game Cruelty Potential played deadly straight.
Or perhaps not. After all, would you (who does exist) really want to treat an Imaginary Friend badly even if they don't? Without accepting some other kind of existence- or some standard that would judge the would-be solipsist- there is usually no distinctive answer, but many could be arrived at. Chief amongst them the idea that if these figments of your imagination make your existence more pleasant, why not let them keep existing?
After all, the alternative would be a lot of trouble for something that doesn't exist and just seems to be going along well...
These more benign interpretations don't usually pop up as much in fiction because they're less vile as villains and more metaphysically complex than the average storyteller can shove in to the average story. But examples like the Rifts and Baccano version below show some shades of this.
Usage in Fiction
- Claire Stanfield of Baccano! is a solipsist who claims that he can't die because everything is just a figment of his imagination and he can't imagine himself dying. Given that he's a both a friendly, likable, occasionally heroic guy and a brutal hitman who's tortured people and caused truly spectacular amounts of carnage, he's probably a prime example of the abovementioned effects that such a belief can have on your morality. He does have emotional attachments to other people but these seem to be somewhat akin to the attachments that people have to fictional characters, albeit somewhat stronger.
- In V for Vendetta, the dictator Adam Susan undergoes a Sanity Slippage that results in him coming to believe that that the only two entities that actually exists is himself and the FATE supercomputer which he uses to run his fascist society. His illusion is shattered when he discovers that V has been hacking into FATE for a long time, which causes him to undergo another Sanity Slippage.
- Interestingly similar to the above Adam Susan in her delusion that only two entities exist is the X-Men villain Cassandra Nova, the literal Evil Twin of Charles Xavier who fought him in the womb to be born and lost. Because he was such a powerful mutant, Nova was able to survive, and spent the next forty years as protoplasm on the wall of a sewer building herself a body. Because of this isolation (and her general insanity) Nova is convinced that she and Charles are the only beings in creation that actually exist, and that everything and everyone else are just creations of either him or her. And because her brother champions and protects Mutants, she decides to become an Omnicidal Maniac and kill off as many of them as she can just to spite him.
- In the French movie Seuls, when the main character Leïla discover that the reason she is all alone with four other kids in a deserted Paris is that she has been killed the same night as they were, which leads her to believe for a moment that she imagined all of her journey and that she is the only "real" one as she thinks she can't trust her mind anymore.
- In John Carpenter's Dark Star, one of the protagonists' planet destroying bombs becomes self-aware and refused to abort a denotation order given in error. Doolittle tries to convince the bomb not to explode, by explaining the concepts of solipsism to it, telling that its order to detonate might just be an illusion, and it the only thing it can be certain of is that its own mind exists. It works... briefly. The bomb, now convinced that its the only thing in existence, reasons that it must mean that it itself is, in fact, God, and it goes on to quote the first lines of Genesis, before detonating any way.
- The Party of Nineteen Eighty-Four drives metaphysical solipsism to a particularly terrifying logical conclusion. O'Brien boasts that since nothing exists outside the consciousness, and the Party controls all information everywhere, the Party is like a collective Reality Warper that can distort and rewrite the past and even material reality itself. Reality simply does not exist any more, the closest approximation is whatever the Party says is reality. And if you do not agree to their absurdity, they will use 2 + Torture = 5 and Mind Rape until you believe it. Why, you ask? Because the Party wants nothing but power, and there is no greater power than inflicting misery and humiliation on other human beings.
- There's a Ray Bradbury short story, No Particular Night or Morning, built around this concept. Joseph Hitchcock, an astronaut on a deep space mission becomes convinced that his past life on Earth was merely a dream or fantasy, including his past experiences with his wife and son. He takes it to the illogical conclusion, refusing to believe that anything not right in front of him exists, including moments, objects, persons and even his younger self. Despite Clemens, a friend, trying to keep him grounded, he ultimately Goes Mad From The Revelation and leaves the ship in a spacesuit, now wandering in space until his inevitable death.
- Richard Ames, the main character of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls decides one morning to follow solipsism, and refers to other people (including his wife) as a figment of his imagination. Not a wholly straight example, as he's just doing it for his own amusement.
- Patrick Hocksetter from It is convinced that he is the only real person in the universe, which leads him to become a complete Sociopath, even murdering his own baby brother because his parents were diverting attention away from him, thereby threatening his worldview of being the only real being. This worldview also means that he doesn't truly fear anything as he doesn't believe anything is real, effectively rendering him the perfect Fearless Fool. This causes the titular Shapeshifting Eldritch Abomination problems when it decides to kill and eat Patrick, as Beverly observes it struggling to choose a form that can effectively scare him as it confronts him. It eventually settles on transforming into a pack of flying leeches and literally suck Patrick out of existence, as the feeling of being gradually erased from existence was the only concept that could actually make Patrick uncomfortable.
- At the end of The Mysterious Stranger, the last words of Satan about existence tends to this concept:
Satan: Life itself is only a vision; A dream. Nothing exists, but an empty space and you. And you are but a thought.
- Philosopher Bertrand Russell once made the following quip regarding solipsism:
As against solipsism it is to be said, in the first place, that it is psychologically impossible to believe, and is rejected in fact even by those who mean to accept it. I once received a letter from an eminent logician, Mrs. Christine Ladd-Franklin, saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that there were no others. Coming from a logician and a solipsist, her surprise surprised me.
- Aten in Scion is thoroughly convinced that nothing else in reality exists but as a fragment of his consciousness. As he's the avatar of a Greater Titan, this means he is effectively indestructible unless convinced he's not. This extends to his goals — he wants everything that exists to worship him, and if that fails, he's willing to have his followers blow themselves up. He's also Akhenaten's only avatar, which helps to reinforce this view — he absorbed all of the others.
- There's also a Knack called Solipsistic Defense; once per scene, you can call on your Legend to render any one attack you didn't see coming harmless, simply by believing as hard as possible that it doesn't exist. As someone with the blood of a god, what you believe goes.
- A racial class in the Rifts Sourcebook D-Bees of North America has metaphysical solipsism as their hat. Strangely, this is presented more of a Role-Playing quirk than anything else, as their philosophy does not turn them into amoral monsters.
- In Fans!, a Mad Scientist's ray gun traps Marc in a dimension populated entirely by fractal copies of himself. Over the centuries that pass within "Marcworld", the occasional Marc-copy goes mad, believes he's the only one who really exists, and decides the only way to escape the Cuckoo Nest is to kill all the "fake" fractal Marcs. ("Hold still, runts! This won't hurt, 'cause you don't exist!") This happens often enough that one or more Marcs publish a pamphlet which refutes this metaphysical solipsism by pointing out that many others have come to the same conclusion, only to find that going on a "psycho rampage" doesn't, in fact, cause oneself to "wake up back in reality".