For my current job and career development plans we moved to a small town in rural South Africa, where one feels a million miles away from the big capitals of the world and science and society, and where each morning from the home where we live we look over miles of farm and bush land and feel like we are in a timeless place. This week on Twitter there was a lively and fun debate over some altmetrics – the metrics of one’s public interactions and engagement such as the number of Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and LinkedIn contacts, for example – and whether the higher number of these meant you were a ‘top’ scientist or not, and I guess also whether one’s work and it’s impact had relevance and meaning to, and in, the wider world. I also had a recent Facebook discussion with Andy Schulze, one of my closest friends from the halcyon days of our youth as students at the University of Cape Town, where we all debated life and it’s meaning on a daily basis, and this conversation with him reminded me of a book that had a great effect on me at that time (and still does), but which provided Andy with much mirth when he read it – Samuel Beckett’s ‘Ill seen Ill said’. All of these got me thinking of the concept of solipsism, and whether the connections one has both with the physical world and with family, social, work or broader public life makes a greater difference / one’s life more relevant than if they did not exist.
Solipsism is the theory that the ‘self’, or one’s mind, is all that one can be sure exists or can be known – in other words that nothing exists outside of what is occurring in one’s mind and thoughts. Furthermore, solipsism posits that knowledge of anything outside or beyond one’s mind is uncertain, and the external world, other people and what goes on in the minds of others cannot be known and does not exist outside of one’s own mind. The word is derived from the Latin words ‘solus’, which means ‘alone’, and ‘ipse, which means ‘self’. There are different types of solipsism which have been suggested to occur over the years. For example, metaphysical solipsism is the ‘strongest’ version, and suggests that the ‘self’ is the only existing reality, and that all other existing realities, including the world and other persons in it, are representations of one’s own self, and have no independent existence beyond one’s capacity to think of them and thereby acknowledge their existence for the time period that one thinks of them. Epistemological solipsism is less ‘extreme’, and suggest that only the directly accessible and current contents of one’s thoughts can be known, and that the existence of an external world is, with the knowledge we have, not possible to verify (rather than not existing at all), as one is required to ‘rely’ on second-hand / indirect ‘knowledge’ of the external world which is only perceived through, and is knowledge generated by sensory structures which transmit images, sounds, smells or vibrations from the external world, which are integrated as a unified but ‘second-hand’ version of reality in one’s own mind. Therefore, given the ‘second-hand’ nature of this mentally created version of reality, one can never be sure if this reality is real or a ‘figment’ of one’s imagination or the sensory structures that create them. A further version of solipsism is methodological solipsism, which suggests that no knowledge of an external world, or indeed any knowledge, can be absolutely certain, given that even that which we perceive as the brain is actually part of the external world, as it is only through our sensors of the external world that we can ‘see’ or ‘feel’ the brain and think on it, and therefore the existence of thoughts rather than the brain per se is all that we can be certain of.
All of these concepts go back to Rene Descartes (and others) idea of ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ – I think, therefore I exist – and therefore, if one does not think, or if one has no thoughts, one does not exist, nor does the external world. This will obviously be a troubling concept for most folk, to whom the external world and people in it surely ‘feels’ real and surely are ‘real’. But, an interesting theoretical example, known as the ‘brain in a vat’ experimental scenario, perhaps shows best how tricky it is to absolutely refute solipsism as a concept. In this hypothetical scenario, the brain of a brave volunteer is removed from their body by a pioneering scientist and suspended in a vat of life-sustaining fluid, while all the brain’s outgoing and incoming neurons are connected by wires to a computer, which provides it with electrical impulses identical to that which the brain would normally receive if it was still in a body. By simulating actions such as walking along with all the sensations and actions associated with walking, as would all the sensors in the body which send information of the external world to the brain, the ‘disembodied’ brain would continue to have normal conscious experiences without these being related to objects or events in the external ‘real’ world. Therefore, one cannot ever be completely sure that the reality we ‘feel’ and ‘observe’, and life as we know it is, is real, or whether it is a created artificial reality, and we can also never be completely sure whether our brains are indeed in our bodies rather than in a vat of self-sustaining fluid and being manipulated in an artificial way. Another example used to explain solipsism is that of dreams, which often feel ‘real’ – how sure can we ever be that what we are doing at a certain point in time is certainly reality, rather than being part of an elaborate dream, or vice versa.
These concepts are explored in Samuel Beckett’s book, Ill Seen Ill said (though there are a number of interpretations of what the book was really about, and Beckett was never clear about the meaning of his book), which for its full length (59 pages) was written in a streams of consciousness manner about an old woman sitting at a window in a room, at the end of her life, where nothing actually happens to her, and she never does anything, for the entire content of the book. Furthermore, the book was written from an observer perspective where the observer who ‘wrote’ the book was never sure anything she did was real or had meaning, or if she even existed. If that sounds crazy, you will understand why my good friend Andy scoffed at its contents (and I had to read it about ten or twenty times before I finally ‘got it’, or at least got what I thought it was about, which was eventually ‘enough’ for the book to make a big impact on my life and way of thinking). The point of the book, or at least what I got out of it, was that one can never be sure if one’s existence is real, and that the line between reality and illusion is not clear. Furthermore, the book suggested that at the end of our lives, we can never be completely sure that all of the things we ‘did’, all of the things we ‘saw’, and all of the things that ‘happened’ during our lives, which are at the end of our lives just memories residing in our brains and minds, are ‘real’, and how much are ‘dreams’ or just fiction our minds have created. As the pivotal paragraph of his book (at least to me) so eloquently puts it: ‘Incontinent the void. The zenith. Evening again. When not night it will be evening. Death again of deathless day. On one hand embers. On the other ashes. Day without end won and lost. Unseen.’ The idea of Beckett’s is that for the old woman living alone in her house, with no-one to validate her life, there is no way to be sure that she exists, and she passes through her life ‘unseen’, even if she does indeed exist. Similarly, we ‘feel’ at a certain point in time when we see or smell or hear some activity around us that this activity we perceive is real as it happens, but in effect this perception of activities and occurrences are only thoughts, and like Beckett’s woman, we have no possible ‘certainty’ about what is occurring around us beyond these thoughts we have about them. We experience these thoughts ourselves, and our own thoughts exist only in our own minds and for our own reflection alone, in the best solipsistic sense. We are like Beckett’s woman, condemned to be sure of our existence and that of the world around us only in an abstract and intangible way, as a collection of thoughts occurring at a certain point in time in our own unique brain.
So how does all of this link to the idea of altmetrics and Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and the like which are surely concrete ‘evidence’ that we do exist, that we have connections with the external world, and that we have a record of our past musings and thoughts recorded as our old posts and tweets (and indeed blogs, books and scientific papers we write). To me the interesting thing of all of these altmetric related ‘records’ of our existence and ‘connectivity’ to others, from a solipsistic perspective (rather than as a record of our relative success or failure as a scientist or person, if they can be taken as such, which is a different story), is that as much as they create a record of ‘us’, we can never be sure if they actually are related to the person that writes them. For example, those that know me may think and be fairly sure that I am indeed the person who wrote this article. But, can you be absolutely sure that the articles I write, or the tweets I send, or the pictures I put up on Facebook are really mine, and not generated by either someone else using my name, or by a random computer generating device. This will likely sound absurd to some of you folk, but it goes to the ‘nub’ of the concept of solipsism, and the issues and problems solipsism raises about ‘absolute’ awareness, knowledge and truth. The whole internet experience has also raised other interesting questions and dilemmas in this regard. As we no longer have to ‘connect’ with the ‘external’ world in a physical sense, but rather can do it via the electronic / computer channels which we currently use, and which are becoming increasingly both more complex / real-time ‘lifelike’ and ubiquitous, we can ask ourselves whether Twitter and Facebook interactions are really ‘real’ life and indicative of contact with the external world, or in contrast are potentially attenuating our links with the ‘real’ world and replacing them with links that are more ephemeral, and dare I say it, more solipsistic.
When I sit and drink my tea each morning before work while looking out at an endless vista of bush and farmland, it is easy to wonder if the world beyond the horizon really exists. While working on my computer, responding to emails, sending out tweets, or posting Facebook pictures and text, I wonder if the person or people ‘out there’ they are ‘dispatched to’ really exist. I go back inside and look at my wonderful children and family, and wonder whether like Beckett’s old woman they really exist. Then I realize that my vat of self-sustaining liquid is running short of a few essential nutrients, and I indicate to the scientist conducting the experiment I am part of, from my fluid filled vat, that I need a few energy fuels added to the broth to keep the solipsistic thoughts and doubts at bay. When he/she has done so, I rise from my chair on the balcony in front of the bush and farm land that stretches to the horizon, and go back to that reality which is my daily life, which feels so real and so good, and wonder where on earth such crazy thoughts came from. Ill seen, ill said!