Here she is, my firstborn child, finally fully developed after years of metaphorical pregnancy. Title and abstract:
Skepticism, epistemological fictionalism and the metaphysical claim that the brain is a virtual reality engine
The primary aim of this essay is to present and defend “virtualism” – essentially, the claim that the brain is a virtual reality engine, meaning that the world of experience is, literally, a virtual reality somehow computationally generated by the brain. The most challenging objection to this theory is that it undermines itself by having to admit its own virtuality, i.e., untruth. In preparing my defence against this, I introduce “epistemological fictionalism” as an attempt at establishing a first philosophy based on global skepticism, inspired in particular by the ancient skeptics and George Santayana. The entire first part of the essay’s two parts deals with epistemological fictionalism, the problem of justifying belief in general, and my reply to the objection that virtualism is self-undermining. In the second part, virtualism is finally expounded, and a wide range of philosophical consequences are explored. In most of what I discuss here, I rely heavily on Antti Revonsuo and Thomas Metzinger.
I think most of you will find part two a lot more interesting than part one. Please tell me what you think, even if you haven’t read the entire thesis, or very closely.
I’m reading Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel, and found a great idea by someone else, quoted by Metzinger in a footnote. The context is a discussion about the flexibility of the body image, the way we can extend our sense of body ownership to tools, e.g. the way proficient drivers “feels” the boundaries of their cars.
If external objects can be reconceived as belonging to the body, it may be inevitable that the converse reconceptualization, i.e., the subject can now objectify its body parts as equivalent to external tools, becomes likewise apparent. Thus, tool use may lead to the ability to disembody the sense of the literal flesh-and-blood boundaries of one’s skin. As such, it might be precursorial to the capacity to objectify the self. In other words, tool use might prepare the mind for the emergence of the concept of the meta-self, which is another defining feature of human intelligence. (footnote at p. 80)
A very exciting new perspective on these issues. And Metzinger takes it further:
It now looks as if even the evolution of language, culture, and abstract thought might have been a process of “exaptation,” of using our body maps for new challenges and purposes [...] (p. 81)
This line of thought continues later in the book. Looking forward to getting there.
There is a human need to understand our lives along strong and clear narrative lines. Two ways to acquire such a narrative:
- Live an interesting, outgoing life where you collect personal experiences that can be told to others. By telling stories from your life, you simultaneously gain a narrative of it for yourself. Without reflection, you become the author and protagonist of your own life story.
- Invent a narrative, or accept one presented to you by another, and believe in it. Become a believer. This option is traditionally associated with religion.
I wonder if there is a statistical correlation between being an atheist or materialist and living an interesting life. Personally, I do think the fact that my life is uninteresting to the people I know and talk to, significantly contributes to my fascination – dare I say, attraction – to religious belief.
Added: I guess a third option is to write a particular kind of diary.
Only the fewest of us will manage to go through life without losing our minds – if not to psychedelic drugs or radical philosophy, then to ambition or the rhythm of habit. Or to each other.
In 1997 the IBM computer Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in chess. In a few years, we might have enough computing power to challenge humans players in other games and sports. Like football: On the one side, Team Human, made up of the best players in the world for each position; on the other, 11 soft but clever Japanese robots.
This might have a uniting effect on us.
“Every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his own mind and cannot be proved to have any other existence.”
Erwin Schrödinger wrote these insightful words in his 1958 book Mind and Matter. Here is another quote from the same book, in my opinion outright amazing:
“The reason why our sentient, percipient and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as part of it.”
Found this cool drawing (here). Makes me think of the narrative self and how we all keep track of the myriad characters we encounter, both in our real lives and in the fiction we consume.
As a radical constructivist, an obvious but interesting point to make here is that the only thing that distinguishes the former category from the latter is an attitude of belief – we believe that a certain section of our character gallery (which includes our image of ourself) truly represents real people, even though the rest of the gallery has been constructed using exactly the same conceptual material. Making them real is just the flick of a mental switch. The border line between what we call reality and what we call fiction is extremely thin and uncertain, as we can all witness every night, in dreaming (and as anti-realists can witness every day as well, in our infinitely many habitual everyday superstitions).
It is incredible to me that our minds do not break down more often than they do. The mechanism is so fragile. Even prolonged thinking along these lines – reflecting on the apparently miraculous toughness of one’s sanity – threatens to cause the mechanism to malfunction!
This guy is not seeing a real pipe, nor a painting of one. What he sees is at most two images of perception (one for each eye); perhaps only an image of mental representation. The physical painting, as well as the rest of reality external to mind, can never truly be seen, by him or by us.
The only reason we read is that we have yet to find a better way to consume composed thought. Text-to-speech-technology is still uselessly poor. But how will it be when we finally get there? What will we use our eyes for? Will we move about in the world? Speaking for myself, I don’t think so. But I would like to find something useful to do for my eyes. Maybe I can look at some kind of visual material relevant to what I’m being read?
The best possible solution would be to have a virtual world at one’s disposal, to explore a simulation of reality, full of images and organized information on almost everything. And there should be available a tool for quickly and intuitively taking visual notes (using maps, graphs, diagrams etc. – as close as possible to the language of one’s thought). I think it is realistic enough to hope for this. The way from thought to product will in any case be extremely shortened – a tendency that I think will asymptotically continue, with the limit point being a situation where thought and manifest expression (in virtual reality) are completely unified.
Discovered Ernst von Glasersfeld and his radical constructivism a few days ago. I don’t think I agree this much with anyone, living or dead. The discovery came almost too late. I will have to thoroughly rework my thesis plan.
Also found a good way to visualize the position, be it called radical constructivism or empirical fictionalism:
This is obviously paradoxical, but is not meant to be purely provocative. It very accurately depicts what I believe, and leads attention directly to the heart of the matter I need to resolve for whoever I want to thoroughly convince.
Maybe I can put a prettied-up version of it in a prominent place in the thesis, like in the introduction. Use it to introduce the problems I’ll be devoting half the essay to resolving.
Here is a new and improved version of my life map. Not that anything at all interesting has happened in my life. The reason I’m making these maps is that they help me get the right perspective on time, so that I will realize how old I am and how important days and years really are.
The map below divides my life into 64 years simply because I like the octal numeral system so much. But writing numbers like years or my age in proper octal would be very confusing for just about everyone, including myself. So that will have to wait until after the revolution.
Science has outgrown us; the best empirically based conceptual constructs available are either intellectually out of our reach, or too practically irrelevant for us to reach for. Universal empiricism has become impossible, and yet – some kind of empiricism is a necessity of human life! Do we have to resign to some sort of personal, idiosyncratic empiricism? That would be awful. I would seriously consider giving up on empiricism altogether, thereby abandoning reality.
A somewhat appropriate, if a bit over-the-top Nietzsche quote: “One question there is that seems to lie like lead upon our tongues and yet never becomes articulate: the question whether we can consciously remain in falsehood and, if we must, whether death would not be preferable?” (Human, All Too Human, don’t know exactly where).
I am confounded with that forlorn solitude, in which I am placed in my philosophy. – I have exposed myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians. – I have declared my disapprobations of their systems. – When I turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance. All the world conspires to oppose and contradict me; though such is my weakness, that I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves, when unsupported by the approbation of others. – Can I be sure, that, in leaving all established opinions, I am following truth? And by what criterion shall I distinguish her, even if Fortune should at last guide me on her footsteps? After the most accurate and exact of my reasonings, I can give no reason why I should assent to it, and feel nothing but a strong propensity to consider objects strongly in that view under which they appear to me. – The memory, senses, and understanding, are all of them founded on the imagination. – No wonder a principle so inconstant and fallacious should lead us into errors, when implicitly followed (as it must be) in all its variations. – I have already shown, that the understanding, when it acts alone, and according to its most general principles, entirely subverts itself, and leaves not the lowest degree of evidence in any proposition either in philosophy or common life. – We have no choice left, but betwixt a false reason and none at all. – Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? On whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty. – If I must be a fool, as all those who reason or believe any thing certainly are, my follies shall at least be natural and agreeable. – In all the incidents of life, we ought still to preserve our scepticism: If we believe that fire warms, or water refreshes, ’tis only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise; nay, if we are philosophers, it ought only to be on sceptical principles. – I cannot forebear having a curiosity to be acquainted with the principles of moral good and evil, etc. I am concerned for the condition of the learned world, which lies under such a deplorable ignorance in all these particulars. I feel an ambition arise in me of contributing to the instruction of mankind, and of acquiring a name by my inventions and discoveries. – Should I endeavour to banish these sentiments, I feel I should be a loser in point of pleasure; and this is the origin of my philosophy.
I can relate :)
Denne teksten vil publiseres i spalten «Utdrag fra den leksikryptiske encyklopedi» i neste nummer av Filosofisk supplement, #2/2010 – «Gud».
Omega-punktet, universets fullendelse og finale årsak, ifølge Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, en fransk jesuittisk prest, paleontolog og geolog (1881-1955).
Teilhard fremla en teori om at universets utvikling, fra begynnelse til slutt, er en historie om stadig forøkt kompleksitet, forening og bevissthet. Det er den samme tendensen som gjorde at elementærpartikler ble forent til atomer i universets barndom som til sist vil føre til en universell forening i et punkt av absolutt kompleksitet og bevissthet – Omega-punktet, et punkt hvor universets tilstand ligner, og av Teilhard ble identifisert med, den kristne Gud. Som han skriver i den posthumt publiserte Le Phénomène Humain (Fenomenet menneske): «I denne visjon kulminerer det kristne dogme».
Teilhard følger Vladimir Vernadsky i å dele inn jordens utvikling i tre nivådelte, overlappende epoker: Geosfærens, biosfærens og noosfærens (av gr. nous, «sinn», «ånd»). Mennesket er den eneste arten som har hevet seg opp til noosfærens nivå, og vår rolle i jordens utvikling er således å betrakte som dens «akse og spiss» – etter Teilhards mening en langt vakrere forestilling enn den tradisjonelle kristne om mennesket som plassert i verdens sentrum.
Men Omega-punktet er ikke bare retningen universets utvikling peker mot: Teilhard tenker det som en transcendent, i en forstand allerede eksisterende tilstand som teleologisk trekker utviklingen til seg. Og at utviklingen faktisk vil nå Omega-punktet er ifølge Teilhard et nødvendig og ufravikelig faktum. På denne måten er han talsmann for en sterk form for ortogenese.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin er ikke den eneste som bruker seg av Omega-punktet i en samtidig vitenskapelig, teologisk og filosofisk forstand. Fysikeren og matematikeren Frank Tipler er en annen fremtredende tilhenger, som riktignok gir teorien en svært særegen vri: Med utgangspunkt i antagelsene a) at universet kommer til å ende i gravitasjonell kollaps, og b) at intelligent liv innen den tid kommer til å ta over hele universet og kontrollere dets krefter, postulerer Tipler at universets kapasitet for informasjonsprosessering (da intelligent liv vil ha ordnet universets materie til en stor datamaskin) vil, når vi nærmer oss kollaps, akselerere eksponentielt raskere enn tiden løper ut for oss, noe som vil gjøre det mulig for oss å kjøre en simulasjon som, sett innenfra, vil vare evig. Dette innebærer i prinsippet muligheten for et evig etterliv: Vi kan gjenreises fra de døde som simulasjoner av de vi var som levende – perfekte simulasjoner, ned til de minste detaljer (som hjernens kvantefysiske bølgefunksjon) – oss selv, frie og udødelige i en virtuell virkelighet hvor vi kan gjøre hva enn vi skulle ønske. Tipler argumenterer i boken The Physics of Christianity for at denne teorien er konsistent med ortodoks kristendom. Gud identifiseres da, som hos Teilhard, med Omega-punktet – singulariteten den eksponentielle økningen i datakraft tilnærmer seg asymptotisk.
Anmeldelse av Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos H. Papadimitriou (2009), 352 sider. Publisert i Filosofisk supplement #1/2010 – Žižek.
Logicomix er noe så uvanlig som et psykologisk drama om logikk – i tegneserieform. Bertrand Russell har hovedrollen, men boken handler like mye om den spesielt hendelsesrike perioden i moderne logikks historie som sammenfaller med Russells liv: fra logikken han vokste opp med, som knapt var vesentlig utviklet siden Aristoteles, via Freges og Cantors utvikling av mengdelæren, til denne tidlige formen for moderne logikk ble konfrontert med Wittgensteins og Gödels nesten umulige utfordringer.
Nesten alle aktørene som opptrer introduseres gjennom Russells studier av dem eller hans personlige møter med dem. Frege, Cantor, Hilbert og flere andre får vi se bli oppsøkt av Russell som ung mann, enten dette faktisk skjedde eller det kun skjedde i ren intellektuell forstand, altså at han «var der i ånden». Whitehead blir vi selvfølgelig kjent med i forbindelse med Russells mangeårige samarbeid med ham om Principia Mathematica. Wittgenstein og Gödel vises som sterkt inspirerte av Russell, spesielt av det nevnte storverket. Men på tross av alt dette er boken ikke ment som verken en innføringsbok i logikk eller en biografi i noen streng forstand. Dette gjør hovedforfatteren, Apostolos Doxiadis, helt klart i begynnelsen av boken, hvor han selv fremtrer i tegnet form. Denne boken er bare en fortelling, forklarer han. En heltefortelling. Bertrand Russell er, med sine vanvittige ambisjoner og anstrengelser, en slags intellektuell tegneseriehelt. Mediet hevdes altså å være helt naturlig for fortellingen, noe jeg ikke bare kan si meg enig i, men finner bent frem engasjerende: Jeg kan komme på mye mer fra filosofi- og vitenskapshistorien som jeg veldig gjerne vil se adaptert til tegneseriemediet, eksempelvis hentet fra den kartesianske eller førsokratiske delen av filosofihistorien, eller også historien som fortsetter der Logicomix runder av, med Turing og utviklingen av datateknologi.
Som nevnt fremstilles forfatteren selv inne i boken. Men også tegneren, koloristen og et par av de andre som står bak boken er til stede. Jevnlig avbrytes fortellingen om Russell av at vi skal gis innblikk i hvordan de sammen arbeider med fortellingen i et studio i Athen. Vi får høre hva de synes om karakterene som har blitt introdusert og det som har hendt så langt, og får spionere på tankeprosessen bak hvilke vendinger de beslutter at fortellingen skal ta videre. Dette er ment hovedsakelig som en fortellerteknikk, selv om det også brukes til å eksemplifisere selv-referanse, noe som tas opp i forbindelse med Russells – etter eget utsagn – største bidrag til logikkens historie, det som har fått navnet Russells paradoks. Men eksemplifiseringen er unødvendig, og fortellerteknikken fungerer like dårlig her som den generelt gjør. Dessuten står det konversasjonelle og ofte trivielle med disse meta-episodene etter min smak i grell kontrast til den dype og mektige stemningen selve fortellingen til tider klarer å fremkalle. Boken lider en del på grunn av dette.
Sett for seg selv er tragedien om Russell og hans voldsomt store, men etter hvert hardt testede tro på logikk veldig interessant. Dessverre er behandlingen av den altfor overfladisk til at boken kan anbefales som en filosofisk bok. Likevel må det sies at selv om den ikke er direkte lærerik, kan man kanskje trekke en mer indirekte fordel av å lese Logicomix, en man for øvrig også kan trekke fra mange andre slags historiske dramatiseringer: De forenklede og lett karikerte ansiktene som blir satt på en rekke historiske navn gjør nytte for seg som snarveier for hukommelsen, knagger som gjør det lett for mer substansiell kunnskap å feste seg. På denne måten kan boken være mer enn bare ren underholdning, i hvert fall for dem som ikke i utgangspunktet er så godt kjent med historien.
Rent litterært har den dog svakheter. Stedvis får man innlevelsen punktert av en ganske usannsynlig språkbruk og oppførsel, og poenger det snakkes om eksemplifiseres med handling på en måte som virkelig ikke fungerer. Tegneseriemediet kunne dessuten blitt brukt bedre, for eksempel ved å benytte diagrammer til å forklare tekniske poenger. Men alt dette forandrer ikke det faktum at det er en god historie i bunn. Dessuten er tegnestilen meget behagelig, i hvert fall for mine øyne. Så alt i alt må det sies at selv om boken ikke er et must, har det blitt gjort en god nok jobb til at den kan være verd å få tak i, i hvert fall dersom man interesserer seg for moderne logikks historie og de skjøre og eksentriske personlighetene bak denne veldig viktige perioden med plutselig og voldsom utvikling.
Anything imaginable can be endowed with religious belief, but not everything can be religiously significant. Sorting out what to view as sacred from what is best to leave profane is a task for religious taste, a facility bound and guided by factors like one’s goals, one’s situation, one’s personality and capacity – it is thus narrower than (or a specialization of) aesthetic taste, which is bound and guided primarily by personality and capacity only.
What is it that separates religion from mere instrumental use of products and practices of the imagination? Perhaps nothing. But contrary to a common intuition, religious seriousness does not belong exclusively to the superstitious. What sets fictionalist religion apart from superstition is not the quality or intensity of feeling, but the object of this reverence. For the superstitious, the fiction itself is the object, while for the fictionalist on the other hand, fictions are merely tools to be believed in only in so far as they are expedient in life and help keep the important or beautiful things in focus. They are spectacles to view the world or one’s own life in a flattering hue; new clothes, and skin, and self-image; heroes and mentor characters, exemplars of excellence; but really, they are just cardboard scenery to help set the stage of one’s life or work or situation. The real object of reverence is the reality beyond all cardboard cutouts, beyond even thought and perception.
Of course, it is not a given that one can stomach fantastical uses of fiction at all, at least not such as is involved in religious practice. Some people seem to manage very well without it, utilizing scientifically justified models as exclusively as possible. Personally, I not only stomach it but need and relish uses of fiction on the fantastical end of the spectrum. I have to admit that I find it hard to endow my fictions with belief of religious quality and intensity, but some sort of immersion in speculative or fictional worlds is absolutely vital for me. And I call this need religious, although it is certainly religion in a weak sense.
To inappropriately segway into a movie recommendation; I think my religious alignment is close to that of doctor Parnassus in the very good movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Are there tasks we would benefit from resolving that are out of our scales as mere individual human beings? Obviously, there are tasks that simply go beyond any limited capacity, like reaching mathematical infinity, but are there tasks that are resolvable at least in principle but yet out of bounds because beyond the scale of what is fitting for us as humans? The kind of tasks I’m thinking about is the kind a benevolent god of finite capacity would set himself in order to change the world for the better. Are tasks of this kind out of our scale? Is it hubris to take upon oneself the tasks of such a god, imaginary though he may be?
I don’t think it is. On the contrary, I think this is exactly the kind of tasks we should set ourselves. To spend our time grappling with the biggest, most important issues, those on the scale of the world, in particular if the alternative is to invest our intellectual powers to merely promote our individual place in this huge social and economic game that civilization seems to have degenerated into. I guess we can’t escape having ourselves defined as characters in some game or other, but in addition to being players, playing along in society as we must, we should be game creators and tweakers as well – (game) world tinkerers – or else we shall have lost the very heart of human dignity.
I think it is a good idea to identify oneself with a god, to the extent that a god is nothing but the embodiment of a full and comprehensive perspective and concern. The effect of immersion in this perspective is similar to that of immersion in scientific objectivity, insofar as one’s perspective and concern shifts from individual to universal. But it differs in that science has an exclusively empiricist focus. The imagined god-perspective I wish to define here is wider: Culture as a whole is the realm of tasks for this god of all the world within human reach – culture in a wide sense, including empirical science, but also religion, mathematics, the language of intuition, all beliefs shared or private – in fact, the entire virtual realm of possible thought and experience.
Is our culture sick? Well of course it is, nothing this explosively and elaborately developed can be healthy. But there are no gods to fix it but us. – So why don’t you get started? Trace out a problem, work hard on imagining what the ideal solution would be, and if you are confident enough in your solution, find out what practical obstacles there are to have your bugfix implemented in society at large, and… go campaign on Facebook or something.
Of course, there is not one huge problem with culture, but many large ones and countless smaller. Take for instance our flawed number system and time keeping systems (the clock and the calendar). The currently dominant solutions are terrible, finding better solutions to these are perfect examples of fitting tasks for culture gods like us.
– Please don’t let the silliness of the terms I prefer cloud the message. I am entirely serious. I would like to live this way, with a mind set on bugfixing or even recreating the world, taking on the biggest and most important tasks I can find, without letting practical concerns get in my way. Practical unrealizability is not an argument against theoretical action. Society is arbitrary and fleeting; the future is mental. Everything that can be envisioned can, in time, be realized.
My MA thesis plan just exploded. Originally, I wanted to write first one part about universal fictionalism, and then, in part two of the same essay, about virtualism. But I would have had to spend quite some time justifying the kind of speculative philosophy which the latter is an example of – the thesis would have had to be compact to the point of being cramped. The new plan is to focus on universal fictionalism for now, and introduce the virtualism bit later, whether I find myself in or out of school at that point. Here are the preposterous tentative titles I’ve given the two essays, for your mocking pleasure:
- The benefits of a fictionalist surrender in epistemology: Disarmament of skepticism, arbitration between science and religion
- Virtualism: Universal fictionalism is confirmed by modern science
Philosophy should not be about any and all kinds of knowledge minutiae; its defining mark should be the desire to understand everything all at once.