"My reality may not be reality, but in reality my reality is far better than yours, so I think I will continue to be Sir Doran the Trammeled, and you can continue to be Crow 'The Complacent' Bradshaw."
-Desolation's Reach, Book Two
Part Six: A Defense of Solipsism
In order to understand what purpose solipsism has in fiction as well as how it can serve us in the real world, we must first understand what solipsism is.
At its core, solipsism is almost exclusively a harmful and unwelcoming philosophy, or to be more frank, a clinical mental illness.
A solipsist is someone who genuinely, actually believes that they are literally the only real person in the world. This idea stems from the fact that, technically, we can't prove them wrong. In Vsauce's video on the subject, Michael brought up something called "Last Thursday-ism," which is the (mostly fictional) belief that the entire universe and all of planet Earth spontaneously came into existence last Thursday. And the thing that makes this theory annoying is that any arguments against it could be twisted to push its narrative.
One might say, "Well, what about history? What about history books, archeological discoveries, and memories of the past?" and each of these things could be used to argue that last-Thursday-ism is real.
Your memories of the past? All of them instantaneously came into your mind last Thursday.
History books? Also just spontaneously came into existence.
Old people who can tell you about what it was like in WWII? Their memories are all implanted in their heads as well, and they were already old when they popped into existence last Thursday.
However, in essence, nothing can truly be proven to be true or correct. I mean, it can, but not in a way that all would recognize as fact. This comes into play when we look at postulated arguments.
A man tells his friend that he's dead.
Friend: "You're not dead."
Man: "Yes I am."
Friend: "But you're breathing."
Man: "No I'm not. Dead people don't breathe."
The friend grabs a small mirror and places it under his nose to collect moisture.
Friend: *Gestures to mirror* "You were saying?"
Man: "Oh, looks like I was wrong."
Friend: "So you admit you're not dead?"
Man: "No, dead people do breathe."
The problem with "proving" anything is that it relies on the assumption that all other information is true. If you've ever done a sizable math equation only to get the wrong answer after comfortably believing that you've been doing it correct the entire time, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you're doing a large math problem, and you make one mistake in the beginning, it doesn't matter if you followed the rest of the steps correctly. Drawing the correct conclusion depends on all previous things being true.
This is no different when it comes to the exchange of information. In order to guarantee that something is correct and true, you must first prove that everything the information is based off of is also correct and true, and attempting to do this would be fruitless as it would devolve into a never-ending cycle.
So what does solipsism have to do with this?
Well, the thing is you can't reason with a solipsist. A solipsist believes that they are the only "real" person, and that everyone else is just a figment of their imagination.
We saw this with several court cases where the accused was determined "not guilty" by means of insanity after they claimed that they live in a simulation and don't have any consequences for their actions. This has since been dubbed The Matrix Defense.
|Ansley shot her landlady and was frustrated when no one believed she was living in a simulation.|
This is where the phaneron comes into play. Phaneron is the "reality filter," if you will. All information obtained about the world outside your brain is filtered by your senses--what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and feel. There are actually more than five senses (such as balance) but there is a limit to what can be observed by the fallible human body. Unfortunately for the human mind, there's really no way to be sure that anything you "see" or experience is actually what it seems.
And in many cases it often isn't.
Humans are so flawed that our own hubris gets in the way of our self-awareness. The average Joe tends to lean more towards their own experience than rationale or logic alone. We tend to rely more on our own anecdotal evidence than seek out alternate methods of observation.
For example, let's say a man works at an office where he sees one particular coworker for one minute every morning. Unbeknownst to the man, his coworker is actually a serial killer. However every time he runs into his coworker, he is nothing but pleasant, kind, and an all-around great guy.
Despite only interacting with this coworker for one minute a day, he would likely assume that his coworker was a great person.
And we do this all. The. Time.
If we happen to know a lot of redheads, and they all turn out to be mean, we might come to the conclusion that redheads are predisposed to being mean.
If we have a bad experience on our first trip to a new restaurant, we might never go there again, even if in reality they almost always have amazing food and service; all because we happened to be on the receiving end of the one exception.
This concept plays a vital role in social activity; it's well-known that a bad first impression is often irreversible.
And yet given the many faults of the human's phaneron and ability to reason with them, we don't have any other alternative. When the average Joe jumps to these often illogical conclusions rather than seeking proof first, he or she is only doing what makes the most sense. After all, given how impossible it is to really prove anything, can you blame them?
When it comes to phaneron, we have no choice but to trust them, because there is no other alternative. We don't have any way to actually know that what our eyes report to our brain are reliable, that what our noses and ears are true; however we do have a priori reasoning. A priori reasoning is when something can be known to be true without evidence, proof, or experience of any kind. Take the phrase, "All bachelors are unmarried." We don't need proof to know this sentence is correct; because a bachelor is literally defined as an unmarried person.
We don't have to interview every bachelor in the world and ask if they're married or not, because the sentence supports itself by its very definition.
So with a priori knowledge, we can deduce that the things outside of us are real in a variety of ways.
One method is using what's called occam's razor, which is a philosophical principal that states that in the pursuit of knowledge, we should always make as few assumptions as possible. If I can touch, taste, smell and feel an object, it takes more faith to believe each of those senses is systematically mistaken than to believe I can see and sense the object because it's actually there in front of me.
The same goes for humanity at large, which has so many moving parts that to assume it's all coincidentally false requires far more assumptions than believing your phaneron can communicate the existence of people outside your body because they are, in fact, there.
No, when I encourage people to have solipsistic qualities and write somewhat solipsistic characters, this is not what I'm talking about. Whereas solipsism itself is the delusional denial of the existence of other people, the solipsism I refer to is of the literary variety.
What I consider to be "literary solipsism," which is some jargon I just made up on the spot, is an amalgamation of the hero complex, the hero's dogma, the hero's journey, and unbridled confidence.
Now, I just threw a seemingly random assortment of words and phrases at you, but what do they actually mean?
Breaking them down, the hero complex and hero dogma are intrinsically negative on their own. By themselves, the hero complex and dogma are self-destructive and conceited. It's only when united with other, more redeeming qualities that either of these can be of any positive use.
The hero complex is a sort of narcissism. Fueled by an egocentric worldview, it refers to someone who is so dismissive of others that they develop a subconscious worldview in which they are the only person who matters because they're the only one that's "real" as far as their empathy is concerned. While they don't literally treat everyone like they actually don't exist, they're dismissive of them in such a way that they only seem to think they are the "real" one, in the sense that they are the main character of life so to speak and the world revolves around them.
The hero's journey is a method of laying out character development; it demonstrates the framework that almost all protagonists will follow over the course of a story, but it could also be used for someone to put themselves into a matter of greater perspective, i.e. a more in-depth understanding of where they are in their hero's journey, and how it affects others and can expand into developing empathy.
It's important that the hero complex be acquainted with the hero's journey, because in order to embark on a hero's journey, one must first believe they are capable of being the hero, and the humility accompanied by the hero's journey can keep the egotism of the hero complex in check.
But this raises the question, what about the hero's dogma? A dogma by definition is a set of rules regarding the finality of things, reality included, set in place and insisted upon by a single individual or group as being undeniably true.
Just like how the real-life solipsist is absolutely cock-sure that reality is an illusion, various characters in literature and--more amusingly--real life can set down their own rules for what is and isn't true.
To some extent every human being already does this; we decide for ourselves what food tastes best, what shoes are the most stylish or comfortable, etc. Be we also start to impede on other peoples' dogmas a bit--when people have a stark contrast of opinions and both insist that theirs is the only correct one, that's called being dogmatic. If Joe says that Reeses are the best chocolate retail candy and that anyone who disagrees is a leper, and Susan insists that Kit-Kats are the superior candy and anyone disagrees is a smelly uninformed Neanderthal, they've passed the line between "personal opinion" and bonafide dogma.
So when one makes entire sweeping declarations about the meaning of life and existence, and the resulting moral compass derived from whatever solitary ideology they profess, they've essentially encapsulated the hero complex, hero's dogma and hero's journey in one fell swoop.
But why is that a good thing? How on Earth could this mindset benefit anyone?
Do you see where I'm going with this? If your Spider Senses™ started tingling and alerted you that I was about to go on a long tangent about Don Quixote, then you sir are correct.
I think Frank Sinatra said it best in his best song, My Way. And if you dispute me when I say that My way is the best Frank Sinatra song, I'd project my dogma onto you and insist that it totally is and your opinion is wrong. You may challenge me a to duel to make an appeal.
The whole song could be generously summarized by the first and last verse, the first being,
My friend, I'll say it clear
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain
I've lived a life that's full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way
and the second being,
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way
The meaning that one could derive from this literary solipsism is to do things,
as they say,
This doesn't mean there's a lack of empathy, but a lack of fucks to give regarding dogmas that aren't yours.
You might have heard the phrase, "To each their own," but this phrase is incomplete, as the whole thing should actually read, "To each their own dogma."
One might want to be wary of the most dangerous pitfall regarding literary solipsism; and that's psychopathy. You see, psychopathy and solipsism have a lot of common ground. Both involve some sort of perceived reality, a lack of empathy for others, an egocentric world-view, a dismissive attitude of others, etc.
As I said before, literary solipsism doesn't actually equate to a lack of empathy, but at a surface-level glance it can easily seem that way.
I've always been morbidly fond of scary stories involving imaginary friends. It toys with the idea that what one person actually sees is not what others might, and this is a concept that I think has gravity in the real world. While I would like to think that everyone perceives things outside their phaneron the same way I do, that simply isn't true. What's green to me could be red to someone else--or to a blind person, just black (although recent reseaerch suggest that they literally see nothing, because there are some cases of blindness where the eyes report no information to the brain, so instead of seeing darkness all the time, they literally percieve nothing. It's hard to imagine but it's really interesting stuff).
While it's easy to assume that if someone claims to experience something drastically different from us that they must be crazy or insane, and sometimes that is the case, there are other instances where this might not be true.
I'm not saying to believe in ghosts or anything like that, I don't particularly believe in them, but I do believe that our own dogmas can vary so much to the point where different people can quite literally live in their own world. They may occupy the same space as us, but that doesn't mean they're seeing the same things we are. And does one person's reality trump another's? Who can say that their perceived reality is the correct one? Maybe the other person is actually right and you're the crazy one.
|Yeah mom, her name's Phillipa, what of it?|
But as we discussed, it's a necessity that each person has total and complete faith in their own dogma. When you start to doubt your own reality and believe in someone else's is when you start to lose a sense of identity, and it's also a symptom of gas-lighting, not to mention falling prey to victimizing tendencies such as Stockholm Syndrome. Because humans have the tendency to trust in the familiar and repetitive exposure, Stockholm Syndrome occurs when a victim has been repeatedly convinced that their captor is actually their guardian or protector, and that the outside world is dangerous and the possession of the captor is their own safe and familiar option. Like a type of gas-lighting, it means one person is projecting their dogma onto another--but it's not even that.
If the captor actually did convince themselves that they are the victim's guardian and protector, then perhaps that could be argued, but I'd be willing to bet that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the captors repeatedly force this crap onto their victims in the hopes that eventually, through attrition alone, the victim will eventually come to believe it. It can't be personal dogma if the person peddling it doesn't actually believe it themselves.
That's one of the reasons Scientology is bullshit--the cult leaders themselves don't believe in it, but are experienced enough to convince a small minority of people that they not only believe whole-heartedly that giving your bank account information and social security card to the "Church" of Scientology is a good idea, but that they even recommend it.
Yet, I still haven't fully touched on why literary solipsism should be used, and that's where reality comes in.
You know what solipsism is, but what about its opposite? What would the opposite of solipsism look like?
It just so happens, there's already a handy word for it. That word is sonder. Sonder is the sudden realization that every pair of headlights you see whizzing by on the freeway, every random pedestrian in the background, every crying baby on an airplane, every saint and sinner in the history of existence, has or has had a life as interesting, unique, and emotionally stimulating as your own, and this idea of sonder can be dangerous in that it's essentially a catastrophic supernova of empathy. While empathy cannot be inherently bad, the human mind has strict limitations on what it's capable of, and sonder is not one of them.
With more than seven-billion people on the planet, the human mind simply does not have enough space or processing power to register the incredibly complex thoughts, emotions, and passions of every single human being in existence. We can't afford to.
It's the difference between seeing a death on the news and losing a loved one. If we experienced incredible devastation every time the news reported the death of a stranger, we would be in a constant state of depressed misery. We can't afford to spend that much mental energy; to have complete and total empathy for every random passerby would be a futile and impossible task.
There are lots of good things too, sure, but because of negativity bias, we would always be in a constant state of misery. Think about how many bad things happen that don't affect us personally.
Every day, 150,000 people die. Most of the time we don't know any of these people, but what is just a statistic to us is a terrifying reality to someone else. At this very moment, someone just lost their mother. Another just lost their spouse. Statistically speaking, someone probably lost two different friends and relatives today.
To not be bothered by this statistic is not cold or heartless, rather it's the opposite; and for evidence of this, look no further than this painting.
If I asked you what this painting was about, what would be your answer? Perhaps the ship sailing off in the distance, or the the one that's just about to depart. Perhaps the painting is about the mule-driver plowing the field, or the shepherd looking at the sky just next to him. Maybe it's about that fisherman by the water.
But in reality, it's about Icarus.
Does that surprise you?
In the story of Icarus, he fixes wings to his back with wax, and when he's warned not to fly too close to the Sun, that's exactly what happens, and the wax melts, sending him crashing back down to Earth and drowning, and if you look closely in the bottom-right hand corner of the canvas, you will see that Icarus has just plunged into the water and is being crushed beneath the waves.
Yet, this painting doesn't seem overtly sad. In fact all seems all and well. This painting cleverly expresses the old Spanish proverb, "No plow stops for the dying man." And perhaps it's for the best that this is the case.
After seeing that this painting was actually a bleak look at how apathetic the world is to our problems, and that it's about a man drowning and everyone around him carrying on as if nothing happened, one might think this painting is a cynical look into how apathetic people are, yet it's actually for the best that the plow doesn't stop for the dying man so to speak.
If the world stopped every time someone died or experienced some tragedy, nothing would ever happen. Factories don't stop production if one of the thousands of employees working there gets hurt (unless there's a major lawsuit or something), Amazon doesn't stop all business when an employee passes away, McDonald's doesn't stop making burgers when a manager at one of the branches passes away.
The world lives on. In many ways it's actually a comforting message--a reminder that for every tragic accident, for every drowning man being swallowed by the sea, there's a hundred people around them who aren't experiencing any such tragedy. For every drowning Icarus there's a hundred people just going through the motions, business as usual.
Icarus may be drowning, but the fisherman is too busy fishing, the farmer is too busy driving the mule and the mule is too busy pulling the plow, the ships are too busy sailing, the shepherd is too busy gazing at the clouds and wondering about the weather. The birds are too busy flying, the sun is too busy shining, and the clouds are too busy drifting above. Life goes on and the world keeps turning.
It reminds us that we are and have to be selfish in order to exist. The world can't stop every time something happens to someone.
And when it comes to the definition of reality itself, and the hardships of living in it, there really is no other recourse than to decide for ourselves what the world is, what rules it has the we have to obey, and we justify it so that we can sleep at night.
One thing that's totally delusional but I tell myself anyway is that I'm not allowed to stop writing because I'm going to be famous someday. Am I actually? Probably not, but I tell myself that as an excuse to keep writing. When I started writing ASH and I was confronted by that big blank page, I had to put something there, and thought to myself, "I doubt anyone will ever read this, but it might be fun to write," and so I wrote that first page. Then I wrote the second, and the third, and so on and so forth until eventually a freaking book came out of nowhere. And of course that wasn't the end of it.
After the pages materialized, it became, "I doubt anyone will ever read this, but I should edit it anyway. Maybe I'll like the final product."
With regards to Desolation's Reach, which has over 260,000 words in its first draft, only one other person has actually read it (thank you, Chris Salch), yet whenever that dubious doubting voice creeps in and says, "I can't believe you wasted years of your life writing 700 pages of crap that no one will ever read," my dogma has to assert itself and insist that thousands of people are going to read it and that's why I have to finish.
I suppose this concept aligns with "fake it 'til you make it" mentality, but considering that everyone is an imposter (a phrase that I often like to say which means "everyone has imposter syndrome"), the only way to really get anything done is to justify the effort with your own dogma. So while insipid realists and pessimists alike might say that reality doesn't care for delusions and what happens happens regardless of what we tell ourselves, it's through our dogma that we're able to justify extraordinary effort. If some college kid with a knack for guitar drops out of college to start a band, he's called crazy by his family and friends, yet when we read about the stories of famous bands who did exactly this suddenly they're a hero.
It's a bold hypocrisy, and one that literary solipsism seeks to undermine at every opportunity. Literary solipsism takes a long, hard look at realists who proclaim that only independent reality is practical, and pessimists who assume the worst outcome, and it spits on them and says, "Fuck you, my reality is better than yours. I don't have to live by your rules."
It's the ultimate act of justifiable defiance--there's defiance just for the sake of defiance (looking at you rebellious teens) and then there's literary solipsism, defiance in the name of insanity. Yet it's an insanity that's practical--in Don Quixote, you can make all the arguments in the world that he wasn't a real knight, yet if he actually ended up saving people, does it matter? And when Sancho Panza spouts nonsense and blasphemies at every corner, and actually believes that Don Quixote is a famous knight who will give him a governorship or an island, we scoff and call him a loon; so what do we do then when his blind and delusional faith is rewarded and he actually does become a governor of a Spanish province thanks to Don Quixote's actions?
One could argue that how we allocate our values and delusions is what determines if our dogma is practical or not, and the stronger a dogma is, the more practical it can be. I guess all I'm saying is that someone who believes they're a fish and sleeps in a pond at night is better equipped to become a skilled swimmer than Jeff from accounting.
So if you sit there at your computer or laptop for hours agonizing about your writing because you're roleplaying as a troubled author, or if you sit there thinking about pastel paints for more minutes than you're proud of because you've convinced yourself that you're the reincarnation of Lucian Freud, or if you lift weights every morning and train rigorously in martial arts because you just know that your destiny is to revolutionize the teachings of Bruce Lee, or if you've dedicated yourself to the study of history, art, combat, strategy and martial arts, because you were born as the famous and peerless knight Don Quixote de la Mancha, you might be called a loon by the rest of the world, but you just might be on to something.
And as always,
may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,
and I'll see you in the next post.