The Problem of Solipsism: Self and Other (Pieces of Mind 0.3)

Today I’m going to be discussing something I’ve touched on briefly before- solipsism. Now, in the past, I’ve looked at a more metaphysical/epistemological sort of solipsism, the kind you get in a lot of religions and bad philosophy. In this case, however, we’re going to be taking a fundamentally different approach to solipsism- what it looks like in practice.

Let’s begin by defining the term. Solipsism, as per the OED, is defined as:

“The view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.”

This draws from the Latin words solus, meaning ‘alone,’ ipse, meaning ‘self.’ Now, as I’ve touched on in my Existence Exists article, the fact that traffic lights work is proof enough that. What I didn’t realize, however, was the simple fact that no one realizes they’re being solipsistic.

This seems really, really simple, and it is, but it’s because of the extreme simplicity of this that I missed it. The idea I’m going to be hashing out here may be a bit sloppy and ill-formed, but if you’re a returning reader, you’ll know that this blog is ultimately my attempt at continually refining these concepts. If you’re not, bear with me. (It will be assumed you’ve read both Pieces of Mind 0.1 and 0.2 for this next part, if you haven’t, do so now.) If we’re going to understand this solipsism problem, we have to add the third dimension to the model of the Self I’ve begun in the first two chapters of this series.

Ages ago, I remember reading about this bizarre character by the name of Edgar Cayce (pronounced Cay-see). He was known as the “Sleeping Prophet” because of his practice of going into trance states and saying all sorts of crazy shit about Atlantis and other nonsense. He’s considered to be one of the larger sources of many modern “new age” beliefs, so we can definitely fault him for that hippie bullshit. However, in my experience, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Cayce had two specific ideas that really impacted my thinking. The first was his exegesis of the Book of Revelation. (Worth the read, but it’s very convoluted, be warned.) He suggested that the strange symbolism and imagery represented the internal process of self-realization, as opposed to an external apocalypse. This notion that religious texts have hidden meanings that can be tied back to the subjective, personal experience is the basis of a huge amount of my thinking- my series Myth and Meaning is built largely on that premise.

The second bit comes from within his exegesis of Revelation. He conceptualized the repeated use of the number seven (churches, seals, and golden lamp-stands, to name a few) as a reference to the eastern traditions’ idea of the seven chakras. Now, this is where this strange detour I’ve taken us on becomes relevant, but first, it will get even stranger.

chakra system solipsism self and other

This is the standard model of the chakras.

In the eastern traditions, a chakra is a focal point of the “subtle body,” something like a spiritual energy center. An interesting theory that I just learned about while writing that last sentence proposes that the chakras correspond to the glands of the endocrine system, which is probably notable in some way. Another theory suggests that the location of these chakras represent nerve plexuses up the length of the spinal cord.

The chakras are all assigned to different functions of increasing complexity. They start at the Root, representing excretion and basic bodily functions, and rise up the spine to the Third Eye and Crown, representing insight and the connection to the ultimate spiritual reality. In the standard traditions, the chakras form a straight line going up from Root to Crown. Cayce, however, proposes that the position of the Third Eye and Crown should be switched, which would form a shape approximating the Shepherd’s Crook.

chakra shepherd's crook solipsisms self and other

Ignore the stuff on the left, this is just the only picture I could find that sort of worked.

You’re probably wondering why this is significant.

First, from an esoteric perspective, this would shift the focus of the kundalini process from a transcendence of the flesh into the realm of spirit to an ascent into the realm of spirit and then a return to the world (possible parallel here to the Hero’s Journey/Monomyth). In less obscure terms, this would mean that instead of trying to escape life and the world, it would focus on bringing the idealized state into being here- a shift from life denial into life affirmation. This is hugely significant.

Now, let’s take that Shepherd’s Crook idea and try and tie it into the evolution of the Self.

Consider the structure of the earliest forms of life. Single celled organisms gave way to multicellular organisms, which eventually developed digestive systems. My theory is that the root chakra would represent the digestive system, and as we ascend the spine, the progressively newer systems each have their own corresponding chakras. That would allow us to explain the mystical elements attached to the chakras as a ritualization of these natural systems of life. It also ties in with the endocrine and nerve plexus theories, which adds some credence in my book.

This is where the curve of the crook comes into play. When I originally conceived of this article, I was going to attempt to define the Z axis of the Self as a parallel to the (somewhat outdated but still very useful) Triune Brain theory.

The Triune Brain theory was originally conceived of by a neuroscientist by the name of Paul D. MacLean in the 60s. The basic premise (as far as we’re concerned, at least,) is that there are three components of the brain- reptilian, paleomammalian, and neomammalian. These would correspond to the basal ganglia, the limbic system, and the cerebral neocortex, respectively. (An interesting parallel could be drawn to Freud’s id, ego, and superego here.)

In the Triune Brain theory, the reptilian brain evolved first, and is responsible for aggression, territorial disputes, and ritual displays. Next comes, the paleomammalian is responsible for motivation and emotion in feeding, reproduction, and parenting. Finally, we have the neomammalian neocortex, which covers the fundamentally human functions like abstract thought, planning, and language use.

This model isn’t totally accurate, but I’m not a neuroscientist and it gets the point across. Deal with it. What I’ll argue is that the chakras here correspond to significant stages in the evolution of the human animal. If we make the Third Eye the final chakra, it lines up nicely with the Triune Brain model. (It would also explain why the Third Eye is supposed to be between the eyes rather than in the location of the Pineal Gland- because of the prefrontal cortex. I’m anticipating some rage for this bit- “what about muh calcification?”) If you’ve read Triple Meta or any of the Memetics series, you may be anticipating where I’m going with this. If not, buckle up, because we’re about to take it up a notch.

I propose that we could add on to the Triune Brain the emergent phenomenon @GRITCULT called the exocortex, which is the physical basis of what I called the Metamind in Triple Meta. (We will not be calling this the Quadrune Brain, however, both because that’s very close to a racial slur and also because the evolution of the mind has now outstripped the physical evolution of the brain.)

The exocortex consists of the physical hardware that comprises the world’s internet. This is all of the cables, computers, servers, and whatever else exists that supports our global information network. The exocortex supports the noosphere, the realm of ideas that now exists beyond any one person. Think of it like this- the brain is to the mind as exocortex is to the noosphere. The noosphere is where memes are transmitted from mind to mind, as well as the place where we meet other people.

This brings us, at long last, back to the problem of solipsism.

The nature of the mind is such that we can never know for certain the true thoughts of others. Even if another person tells you explicitly what they think, there is still a great deal of room for error- perhaps they’re lying, or maybe their use of language is different from yours. Transmission entropy is a serious threat. (I touch on this a bit more in my article on the Universal Language.)

Let’s imagine you’re attempting to learn what another person thinks about you. Because of the subjective nature of consciousness, you have your self-concept as an internalized entity. This is, of course, going to be different from the reality of who you are, simply due to subjectivity. Next, you have an outside observer (who you have a flawed concept of). They observe you, and generate a (flawed) concept of your, which you will attempt to discern information about from their words and behaviors.

What you end up doing is thinking about what someone else thinks about your thoughts. This extremely recursive action is inevitably very flawed, and as a result, no one will ever really understand anyone in the way they want to be understood. This is a great reason why you should care significantly less for what other people think about you, because they’re probably wrong and you’re certainly going to overestimate the degree to which they actually give a shit. Sad and liberating, all at once.

On a more serious note, we have to understand that all of our mental model-systems constructed by the Order mind are going to be fundamentally flawed because of this limitation. It is absolutely critical to note here that simply because these systems are flawed does not mean they aren’t valuable, useful, or worthwhile. What it does mean is that there is a fundamental weakness inherent that must be accounted for.

What we cannot ever understand is the actual nature of the Other.

The Other, here, is anyone that isn’t us. This Other-ness is one of the core sources of terror in the human experience, because we will never truly understand the other. That’s the simple fact of subjectivity- even if we have all the psychology in the world, the other is irrevocably foreign to us. Psychology, especially, but also economics, anthropology, sociology, politics, much of philosophy, and many other fields are all different variations of this fundamental mechanism by which we attempt to understand, relate to, or deal with this core fact of otherness.

We meet the Other in the noosphere- between each other, we send and receive sensory input, and from that we attempt to construct a concept of what the other is. This is the horror and the beauty of the process of communication, the reality of what we received with the creation of language.

There’s a very important distinction that comes with this understanding- we can form something that approaches reality by directly interacting and communicating with the Other. What does not work, however, is simply theorizing about the nature of the Other. This brings us to the very large problem that led me to begin this article- the extreme, unconscious solipsism that our culture has inflicted upon us.

We can again return to the mind-body dichotomy as the origin of this solipsism- our academic culture’s continual movement away from the tangible world and the actions required to live within it have created this problem. It is unfortunate that we seem to think that we can learn about the world simply by reading books, listening to lectures, and studying it from afar. It’s over-intellectualization, the Apollonian curse wrought by the hyper-masculinizing effects that come from an extreme attachment to the Order mind. As a result of our continuing attempts to recede out of the wild and into the library, we’re stuck as wallflowers at a distance, trying to understand the party without participating in it.

It’s the desire to be completely objective, the wish to eat one’s cake simply by having it. We want to stay clean from the filth of being, to transcend the mess of reality without getting our hands dirty. What this comes from is simply an attempt to cling to our childish innocence, but we do not live in Eden. Here, none are innocent.

It seems that all religions and most philosophies attempt to avoid or explain away the central fact- life is not fair. Suffering exists, people are not all good, some people are cruel and malicious, and there are people in this world that will seek to do you harm. In our ivory-tower-seclusion from the real, we entertain all sorts of naive ideas about how other people are. What we fail to realize is something I touched on in one of the very first articles I wrote for this site, which I’ll adapt to the concepts in this article:

We can only ever understand the Other to the extent and in the same manner that we understand our Self.

If we do not know our Self, we have no hope of understanding the Other. If we deny our own capacity to hurt and do evil, we will never be able to see those who would hurt or do evil unto us. If we do not understand our own limitations in understanding, we will never become able to communicate with others properly.

What we are called upon is to acknowledge that we can only come to know the Other by interacting with it. We must not bicker like the blind men groping blindly at the elephant- we have to communicate with one another from a place of self-knowledge. Together, we can manage to build a picture of the Truth, but first we must seek the Truth within our Self.

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