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🪟 27 - Playtime with solipsism
Frame & Axiom #27 (Part 4): A short treatise on the subjective nature of reality.
Table of contents
PART 1: NATURE
PART 2: JUSTNESS
PART 3: MIRRORS
PART 4: IDEALS
Playtime with solipsism
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🪟 Playtime with solipsism
My fellow sufferer,
It is worth beginning by exploring why in the first place you must persist in asking such a difficult question — ‘who am I?’ … I think I know where your anxiety lies.
I have established a few frames: you are completed in another, your sanity is conferred through others, and so on. They are all rather easy to see. The thing is, they have the same precedent — that it was you in the first place who were needy for completion. But this is no fault of yours! It is how Nature has set it out. Even if a man and a woman were completed in each other, the man would still be to himself, and the woman to herself. Likewise, you are to yourself. My dear inquirer, if you could peer inwardly for a minute! Do you feel that piercing sensation of solitude? The peculiar space that consists only of your awareness… that terrifyingly constant and unrelenting awareness? Can you feel its weight? … No one else occupies your house of causes and effects. No one else is privy to your memories. No one else accesses your sphere of action and narration. No one else feels your existential dread. Your rage. Your grief. Your toothacheJust. You.
No one likes to say it, but you are well and truly alone in your experience. The weight of everything rests upon you. Life is like a question, and you are constantly asked it. That is the fate of a conscious being.
This is why I think it is rather valid to conceive reality as solipsistic. But inquirer, before you make a hasty judgement of me on this, let me make a defence for why this is not the voice of careless philosophising. If you were to reflect deeply on the nature of everything, I feel you may find it as difficult to see past it as I do. Now, you may be familiar with Descartes and the thought experiments he is rather infamous for. In short, he poses the question: do you know for a fact that you are not dreaming right now? Is it possible that there could be a demon who constantly deceives you about everything, preventing you from judging correctly? … There is no way to know for sure, he goes on. Putnam later innovates on this line of inquiry, asking: do you know for a fact that you are not a brain in a vat? … You guessed it, there is no way to know. Or, to be more precise, there is no way to make an infallible case against it.
Now, before I move on with this, I must clarify that I have a generally low opinion of these theoretical exercises, at least when viewed on their own. I see much of the common fascination around these investigations as ostentatious mental gymnastics, a vigorous stretching of the mind with no fruitful purpose other than to see how conceptually far it can peruse. It is a somewhat vile motivation, akin to a philosophical party trick to pull off, let alone that it is unedifying for the soul and spirit. My opinion is that penetrative inquiry should always be inclined toward the ideal, toward the derivation of truth or wisdom — profound answers to the ultimate questions.
Descartes’ zealous investigations, however, do indirectly serve my purpose for inquiry. He does so by shining a light on a particular order of reality, even if an overtly coarse one. Let us now visualise it in this manner. If for some sadistic reason, you wanted to shake up an innocent boy’s conception of reality at the core, you may want to introduce him to Descartes’ thought experiments. Let us imagine this innocent boy, and call him John. Now, let us burden him with doubt! Through its ruthlessly hyperbolic questioning, a universally-permeating doubt can be cast on his relation to the physical world, as he realises the weight of uncertainty that underpins everything. John already knows his conception of reality to be the meticulous product of his lifetime, and that he is entirely dependent on it. But if you see to it that he is convinced none of it was built upon robust grounding, he may be effectively shaken to no return. Preferably, do so with an air of existential resignation, and seduce him to nihilism. Say with nonchalance, things like: see! Nothing matters. Or as others say, everything is a simulation. Then, groan along with him. If he falls for it, a voice will begin to whisper in his thoughts: Nothing matters... Nothing really exists... There is nothing... But if he is able to see it for what it is and see past it, he might come to the framing that reality, all things considered, is not objective in nature, but interpretive in nature. Let us hope he is led down the latter path, if not another, as the former is a quick descent into madness.
By grace, the latter is where I have arrived and landed. I have seen the mayhem and I have seen past it. The shock value it had gained off me several years ago is now lost on me. I see now that “reality” is reality as it pertains to oneself. Indeed! This was Descartes’ equally infamous conclusion, which was not: “The world is, therefore I am.” Nor: “We love, therefore I am.” Nor: “Atoms and molecules combine, therefore I am.” It was: “I think, therefore I am”. This was my takeaway from it. Everything… everything… is predicated on the persistence of the subjective. The animation of Self; the ‘I’. Therefore, reality must be viewed in light of the subjective, and not the other way around. You may, like Descartes, conceptually remove yourself from the objective and retain some “reality”, but you cannot remove yourself from the subjective and retain any “reality”. Or to put into an analogy, you are allowed to doubt seriously whether or not it is a car you are driving, but you cannot deny that you are driving it.
To speak of “reality” is not so much speaking about everything that merely exists, but to speak of reality as it relates to the psyche; the subject. To juxtapose it, I do not take “reality” in the same way the modern scientific mind may be inclined to — as the sum of constants external to the subject: the amalgamation of time and space, subject and objects, matter and non-matter. Rather, I take “reality” as a relation between the objective (that which exists externally) and the subjective (the inner world of ‘I’), with the subject as the focal point. You can see how this relation does not run its course from some suspended plane, but from inside you. Thus, when I use the words “reality”, “life”, “all things”, and so on, I always write as it relates to the subject — the ‘I’. The psychical always precedes the physical. But now to avoid never-ending clarifications, I should perhaps make my language more precise. I shall invent a term for this conceptualisation of reality, and call it: ‘reality-as-experienced’.
Is this not a fairer way to conceptualise reality? The reality I derive is not any reality independent from the Self, but the reality dependent on it. The former is not worth concerning with, at least, not beyond the call of vocation and the tickling of curiosity. Whereas, the latter matters over everything else. Indeed, you can argue that it is this reality-as-experienced that produces or emanates everything else. Life is something you have in the same way you have everything else, except if you were to lose it, you would lose everything. Therefore, “reality” is reality as it relates uniquely to a living subject, that of one who lives to experience it. If I were writing about a reality independent of experience, perhaps because I was writing a letter to address a dead man, I would have to re-scaffold these concepts entirely. And certainly! What does a dead man have to make of this reality and its constituents? What does he have to think or feel for its happenings, its state of art and politics, or how its people are faring? What has he to love, care, and serve? He has no consciousness to grant him those things, unless he either awakens from his slumber or is given some mystical form of life, perhaps like the witch at Endor who called the spirit of the prophet Samuel at the behest of King Saul. Because when the dead man is entirely removed from this reality-as-experienced, all its patterns are lost to him, and become irrelevant. “Reality” would cease to be reality as we take it to be at this moment, but for him perhaps a fully abstract concept, something to be studied from far away — as we (the living) might fascinate ourselves with say, the experience of an atom. (But of course, the irony is that the act of studying something, or acting at all, is a pattern unique to the living. Dead things do not act.) I like to imagine that after one too many resurrections, the man in his state of comatose might even protest in his own indecipherable language: quit bothering me with matters of the living!
As long as a man is alive and conscious, he concerns himself with reality as experienced to himself. This is why and how one’s subjective experience is precedent, and why it is rather logical to conceive of reality in a solipsistic manner. The Self is the all-encompassing ocean from which every other stream originates. Everything rests on one’s here and now. At the end of the day, dear inquirer, you live for yourself.
However, there is a line I draw with solipsism. Though you live for yourself, life in all its richness has taught me that there are better and worse, richer and poorer, higher and lower ways. What do I mean by this? You know perfectly well that the physical universe is governed by laws of physics, and that it would do you no good to disregard it. The subjective (psychical) reality is governed in the same manner. I would not be so self-assured as to call them ‘laws’ in the same way, however, since the subjective universe is entirely immaterial and much more mythical in nature. I prefer to call them patterns. But they both govern with a gavel. As the laws of physics exert judgement on your actions, by agreeing or disagreeing with them, so will the patterns of the subjective. I have described this before: whether life is well lived or not is dependent on its agreement with the court of reality — and the court’s judgement is more rigid in the physical and more implied in the psychical.
Inquirer, that is why your question, who am I? is a rather just one to ask. You anxiously pose the question, an all-encompassing question, in order that you yourself might encounter the answer firsthand. A truth, no matter how divine, is true only when it becomes true for you.
Till next time,
My Ask: Help me grow as a writer by commenting your critiques and highlighting any parts you loved on this Google Doc.
A reference to Nietzsche’s description of the difference between the pain of one and the pity of a witness in Human, All Too Human: “… what difference remains between a toothache and the ache (pity) evoked by the sight of a toothache? …”
Descartes’ equally (in)famous conclusion, “cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), or the fuller version of his phrase, "dubito ergo cogito, cogito ergo sum" (I doubt therefore I think, I think therefore I exist).
1 Samuel 28:1-25
Inspired by Kierkegaard: “… the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me…” He also famously declared: "Truth is subjectivity”.