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.
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.
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
Skepticism is not a dead end but a portal that opens only to those who have laid down their hopes for truth, and picked up the hope for fiction.
(This is a 4000 word exam paper I wrote a couple of weeks ago.)
A common view is that we should take Plato’s ideas as very serious theoretical arguments, to be held up to scientific standards, and, when found wanting, excused on the ground of being ancient and charming. With this strategy of interpretation, most of Plato’s work has to be rejected. The only idea to withstand at least the bulk of such scrutiny, and which for that reason is framed as the great theoretical achievement entitling Plato to his traditionally very high position in the hall of philosophical fame, is his so-called Theory of Forms. This kind of interpretation was introduced as early as with Aristotle, who saw in elenchus something like a rudimentary scientific method, aiming narrowly at logical definitions. The modern heir is the tradition of linguistic philosophy, where prominent philosophers such as Frege and Russell self-identified as “platonists”, referring by that term to a philosophical realism of universals and abstract objects. But this tradition has long since outgrown the connection to its inspirational root, and is generally no longer invested in the issue of how we should interpret Plato.
In this essay, I’ll propose a “fictionalist” strategy of interpretation to challenge the one sketched above, which I’ll call “theoreticalist”. The term fictionalism is primarily meant to suggest that the best measure against which to judge Plato’s work is something else than truth (at least in the conventional sense). My ambition is to persuade the reader that this is a much more profound perspective than one might at first suspect.
I do not pretend to do theoreticalism justice. In fact, I am using it as a straw man position, to lever against in launching the fictionalist interpretation. The point of this essay is not to compare and evaluate the possible ways to interpret Plato, merely to propose and elaborate the fictionalist one.
The original intentions of the historical Plato is not the issue at stake here; for the purposes of this essay, the measure of an interpretation’s merit is simply how much it allows us to take out of Plato’s work – the width and depth opened to us by it. The interpretation is thus given a long leash: It shouldn’t stray too far off course, transforming Plato into something else entirely, but, on the other hand, there is no aspiration to actually capture the real Plato.
I will start out by reminding the reader of how Plato makes Socrates go about presenting his conception of the tripartite soul, as a representative example of Plato’s constructive thought. Then, I’ll point out the difficulties a theoreticalist interpretation of it faces, and go on to introduce the alternative, fictionalist approach, not just to the tripartite soul, but to Plato in general.
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An artist cannot endure reality, he looks away from it, back: he seriously believes that the value of a thing resides in that shadowy residue one derives from colors, form, sound, ideas, he believes that the more subtilized, attenuated, transient a thing or a man is, the more valuable he becomes; the less real, the more valuable. This is Platonism, which, however, involved yet another bold reversal: Plato measured the degree of reality by the degree of value and said: The more “Idea”, the more being. He reversed the concept “reality” and said: “What you take for real is an error, and the nearer we approach the ‘Idea’, the nearer we approach ‘truth’.” — Is this understood? It was the greatest of rebaptisms; and because it has been adopted by Christianity we do not recognize how astonishing it is. Fundamentally, Plato, as the artist he was, preferred appearance to being! lie and invention to truth! the unreal to the actual! But he was so convinced of the value of appearance that he gave it the attributes “being”, “causality” and “goodness”, and “truth”, in short everything men value.
The concept of value itself considered as a cause: first insight.
The ideal granted all honorific attributes: second insight.
This commentary is absolutely brilliant, even though the involved interpretation of Plato is unfair. It seems to me that Nietzsche simply attempted to set fire to the degenerated intellectual culture in effigie, with Plato as the straw man casualty.
A better or more useful interpretation of Plato is, in my view, one supposing that he was a special kind of mythologian, one working with logical form as well as the usual tools of the trade (drama, symbolism etc). At least in this fictionalist light he becomes palatable. Whether or not it is more historically accurate is, I think, irrelevant, as all I’m interested in here is how to gain access to as much of the wisdom contained in his work as possible. Fictionalism is perfectly suited for this.
I think Plato’s idea of a tripartite soul (the three parts being reason, spirit and appetite), should be supplemented with inspiration as a fourth part.
If this soul where to be “writ large” by being remapped to a fictional city state, inspiration wouldn’t be mortal citizens like the other parts of the soul, they’d be more like gods or muses that only come to visit the city from time to time. The rest of the citizenry are unable to predict when they come or understand why exactly, but — at least in a city governed by inspiration, a “musocracy” — they’re always prepared to be summoned to celestial speeches or be drafted to holy wars or work projects. A city of this kind would have to have two modes, depending on whether the angelic muses are present or absent. When present, all forces volunteer to work together in the service of inspiration. This mode is easy, because true inspiration is a powerful motivator, and things tend work themselves out without the need of a formal constitution. But when they leave, disorder has to be kept at bay by some means or others, and considering the situation, religious practices seem like the obvious solution. This, then, is the lifeblood of the second mode. The rational class function as priests, reminding the populace of the absent rulers, holding back the forces of disorder by reflecting the inspiration from the muses, like the moon holds back the darkness of night by reflecting the light of the sun. At first, a constitution such as this — founded not on inspiration itself, but on preparation for and anticipation of it — is certainly unstable. But trust build up step by step every time the promises of the priests are confirmed by the muses actually revisiting. And so over time, the priests are able to subdue the appetitive majority, by referring them to the higher and superior pleasures to be found in inspiration (in particular on the side of production, but also on that of consumption).
The main concern for the city besides maintaining order, is to make sure the muses are attracted to visit more often, and stay for longer at a time. All kinds of ritualized habits and mythical frameworks can be tried out to find out what works by way of experiment, but some basics are practically guaranteed to be a necessary part of every city’s life: Crops must be harvested, streets must be cleaned, buildings maintained and so on, because heavenly visitors are of course reluctant to descend into a city that is filthy or crumbling, or whose citizens are sluggish or unhealthy. Also, hard priestly work is required: Scribes should be ready at all times to write down what the muses say and do in case of a suprise visit, so that nothing important is forgotten. Their claims, artifacts and gestures should be memorized, studied and interpreted, to get the most out of every drop of inspiration. Priests should lead the populace in daily practices of meditation and reflection, to make the city fertile ground for seeds of inspiration.
The heart and central tenet of the popular religion is its concept of the city’s purpose, and that is, in short, “doing the good work”, i.e. the command of the muses. This is what’s meaningful. And living meaningfully, in turn, makes the life of all in the city better: more pleasurable for the appetitive class, more honorable for the spirited class and truly good for the priests. Merely consuming the tasteful or inspirational is good as well, but not intrinsically meaningful. At best, it amplifies meaning from other sources; it is not itself an original source. It is like having clever friends, which, unless you have common interests, is meaningless, in the sense of being only superficially and transiently pleasant. The only activity that is intrinsically meaningful is inspired production. And it doesn’t have to be anything grandiose or important, it just has to originate from the muses. The city that follows their plans and builds according to their designs is a city in the light of heaven. Even in the face of ridicule or discredit from neighboring cities. The approval of mortals means litte compared to that of gods and muses.
“The objection that may well have been the most effective in causing discontent with the correspondence theory is based on an epistemological concern. In a nutshell, the objection is that a correspondence theory of truth must inevitably lead into skepticism about the external world because the required correspondence between our thoughts and reality is not ascertainable. Ever since Berkeley’s attack on the representational theory of the mind, objections of this sort have enjoyed considerable popularity. It is typically pointed out that we cannot step outside our own minds to compare our thoughts with mind-independent reality. Yet—so the objection continues—on the correspondence theory of truth, this is precisely what we would have to do to gain knowledge. We would have to access reality as it is in itself, independently of our cognition of it, and determine whether our thoughts correspond to it. Since this is impossible, since all our access to the world is mediated by our cognition, the correspondence theory makes knowledge impossible (cf. Kant 1800, intro vii). Assuming that the resulting skepticism is unacceptable, the correspondence theory has to be rejected.” [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Correspondence Theory of Truth]
I adhere to correspondence theory, and I accept the ensuing skepticism. As I’ve explained before, skepticism is not nihilistic, just agnostic. The above argument is absolutely brilliant, but not in the way intended (as a refutation of correspondence theory). Instead, it should be used in favor of the fictionalist response to skepticism.
In case anyone recalls the contradicting things I’ve said about correspondence theory in the past, I have a confession to make: I discovered only this past autumn that I’ve held an embarrasingly misunderstood version of it ever since I first learned about it. I thought it always implied the positive assertion that reality in fact does correspond to (some of) our thoughts in some sense. But of course, it doesn’t. One can adhere to correspondence theory and deny the possibility of actually achieving correspondence. This is my position. It’s good that I finally got this cleared up, because relating to correspondence theory makes my position a lot easier to communicate.
Skepticism does not lead to nihilism. It leads to agnosticism. This realization makes evident the fictionalist solution to the problem of skepticism: To evade the void of absolute agnosia by means of a certain leap of faith (or even just a short skip of faith).
It’s not inconsistent to be radically agnostic on an absolutely strict level while retaining a more useful outlook (such as standard materialism) on a slightly less scrupulous level, because these “levels” are parallel to each other: They do not meet, and cannot contradict each other. One mind can (and, I will argue, should) entertain a whole range of worldviews on different “levels of faith”.
I like to think about this as analogical to how fractals develop through iterations of its equation: Think of the range of worldviews as developing from completely faithless agnosticism through gradual iterations of faith. If absolute certainty is all you’ll accept, you’ll be left in absolute darkness. With a cautious number of faith iterations, the moderately admissive materialist outlook produces an image far more complex and informative than the simple “I don’t know” of radical agnosticism. At the aft end of the range, magical thinking, with its very lenient attitude with regard to faith, is capable of producing the most beautiful, intricate and exciting sorts of fiction, with the cost of sacrificing accuracy in how reality is interpreted (in fact, the interpretative pretension can be dropped altogether).
Here’s a demonstration of how a Mandelbrot fractal develops (I think it goes up to about 200 iterations in the end):
Both extremes (of doubt and faith) are far less useful than the moderate position (at least when it comes to science and most practical purposes), but they both have significant strengths as well: Radical agnosticism is philosophically interesting (in much the same way a black hole is interesting to a physicist, even though he/she has no wish to live anywhere near one), and the latter is psychedelically interesting (in the literal sense of revealing the soul). Here’s a demonstration of how incredibly deep and rich the Mandelbrot fractal can be with a whole lot of iterations (watch in high quality):
The analogy fails to capture one important factor, namely the strong correlation between faith-satiated worldviews and psychosis. Hopefully, virtualism can, if not vaccinate against it, at least build resistance to this tendency. Because faith-satiation is key to a lot of good things as well.
Here’s an explicit list of levels that I alternate between, from the strictest to the most lenient:
- Black hole agnosticism: I’m completely and utterly agnostic about absolutely everything. I can’t say if the sun will rise tomorrow, if there’s a hippapotamus in my room, not even if 2+2 equals 4. I acknowledge no truth, not even logic. This extreme level of agnosticism would, if lived, render a person completely dysfunctional. (In a schizofrenic way, I guess.)
- Philosophical agnosticism: Hume’s fork appears. I still don’t believe that any statement about reality is true, but math, logic and the entire virtual realm is trusted to be stable and safe. This is where I try to be when doing philosophy.
- The rational level: I accept a lot of science as true. I’m a materialist, and try my best to disregard speculative nonsense surfacing from my subconscious. What I’m interested in is communicable general statements that are very precise in prediction.
- The irrational level (or range of levels): The scientific method is disregarded. I’m free to immerse myself in naive realism, practice some mental dancing, or believe in free will. As a formula: I’m a character in a play or a game where I also have producer powers (as opposed to how it is at the rational level, where I’m trying to be objective). My fictional world has to be internally consistent to some degree, but there is very lax requirements with regard to reality-fittingness. In fact, I’m almost indifferent to reality. All that matters are my circumstances, both external and internal.
- The magical level (or range of levels): Even contradictory things can be believed. Dreams typically dive into this level. It can be very enjoyable, but the experience is usually too fragmented and confused to be of any value beside relaxation.
This picture of a range of parallel levels can make it a lot easier to avoid some of the classic mistakes, like hypostatizing ideas or allowing faith-based thinking to interfere with strict philosophy. Even the most threatening of all, that of becoming coerced by skepticism into an impoverished and bloodless worldview.