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.
Wait, let me first share something I wrote:
To reach the sought-for starting point, Neurath’s ship has to face its destiny in the storm of skepticism — its shipwrecked crew will drift ashore an unexpected land of fiction and speculation. Here they can regroup, build shipyards, and set up bases for new explorations, by land and by sea.
Ok, pardon that feeble attempt at being poetical. I’ll make up for it immediately by giving you this, the most satisfying passage I’ve read in a long time:
The Indians, in asserting the non-existence of every term in possible experience, not only free the spirit from idolatry, but free the realm of spirit (which is that of intuition) from limitation; because if nothing that appears exists, anything may appear without the labour and expense of existing; and fancy is invited to range innocently — fancies not murdering other fancies as an existence must murder other existences. While life lasts, the field is thus cleared for innocent poetry and infinite hypothesis, without suffering the judgement to be deceived nor the heart enslaved.
It is from George Santayana’s excellent book Scepticism and Animal Faith (p. 53).
Bonus quotes, added later:
[A] mind enlightened by scepticism and cured of noisy dogma, a mind discounting all reports, and free from all tormenting anxiety about its own fortunes or existence, finds in the wilderness of essence [-- equivalent to what I call "virtuality"] a very sweet and marvellous solitude. The ultimate reaches of doubt and renunciation open out for it, by an easy transition, into fields of endless variety and peace, as if through the gorges of death it had passed into a paradise where all things are crystallised into the image of themselves, and have lost their urgency and their venom. (p. 76)
All essences and combinations of essences are brother-shapes in an eternal landscape; and the more I range in that wilderness, the less reason I find for stopping at anything, or for following any particular path. Willingly or regretfully, if I wish to live, I must rouse myself from this open-eyed trance into which utter scepticism has thrown me. I must allow subterranean forces within me to burst forth and to shatter that vision. I must consent to be an animal or a child, and to chase the fragments as if they were things of moment. But which fragment, and rolling in what direction? I am resigned to being a dogmatist; but at what point shall my dogmatism begin, and by what first solicitation of nature? [...] (p. 111)
Imagine an ideal world. Or a personal dystopia of some kind. Or just some random imagined place or situation. You probably have no problem whatsoever conjuring up at least the vague beginnings of such worlds in your imagination, and given some time, you’ll probably be able to elaborate quite a lot on them, without any further guidelines. Now, here’s a question I’d like you to think about: What is the relation between your imagined worlds and the real world? It’s an awkward question, and I guess you are at a loss for how to deal with it properly. Perhaps your most immediate response would be to start looking for similarities and differences, something which would result in a list of realistic and unrealistic properties of the imagined worlds. But this isn’t the kind of relation I’d like to have established, as you probably suspect. The question is ontological. What I want to know, to be specific, is what kind of world the real world is, what kind of world an imagined one is, and whether or not the latter can be reduced to the former.
We could take a reductionist approach: What are the respective worlds made of?
Reality, at least as far as science have been able to discover so far, is made of leptons, quarks and bosons with completely incomprehensible properties. Space and time is somehow interconnected, and there might be quite a few additional dimensions to the four we actually (if indirectly) do perceive. It’s an exceedingly strange world, far bigger, older and more complicated than any pre-scientific thinkers dared to suggest.
I think imaginary worlds can be separated into components as well, but doing this requires some care to avoid having one’s imagination start detailing further as one investigates. Take an imagined tree for instance: One might not originally have given the color and texture of the tree beneath the bark any thought. Therefore, filling this in would be tampering with the subject matter under investigation. A better approach would be to label the insides of the tree as “undefined”. Only the appearance of the tree was originally rendered, and this “skin” we might do well to define as one of the separate components we were looking for. Other components might include individual leaves or branches, if the level of detail in the imagined scene is sufficiently high. If not, the tree crown might be found to be defined in imagination as a whole. As a general principle, the imagined world is optimized for fast rendering in the mind, not for accurate modelling of whatever elements of reality it happens to imitate.
In one sense, it does seem perfectly plausible that the latter kind of world is reducible to the real world, as the organs presumably responsible for creating mentality are made of real stuff, with no supernatural components. A perfect theory should be able to account not only for the normal stuff of physics like matter and electricity etc., but even the far more elusive nature of mind. Thus, it seems very plausible to declare that the ontological domain of reality includes that of imaginary worlds.
But in another sense, the only reality we have access to — the one described above — is but a set of accepted beliefs rendered in mind. True reality is not to be equated with what in fact is merely a set of beliefs, even when these beliefs are perfectly reasonable and confirmed by all currently available empirical evidence. If we truly believe that mind is created somehow by computational activity of leptons, quarks and bosons (or whatever), we have to admit that the reality we can perceive, think about and talk about must be on the same level of ontological status as completely fictional, imaginary worlds. That the latter is not encompassed by the former, but that they are both encompassed by the ontological domain of an unknown true reality beyond the reach of mind.
We mistake our beliefs for reality all the time. In fact, that is essential for how our minds work, because our brains have limited resources and have to optimize for the greatest possible efficiency in the tasks we set ourselves to. So the illusion is our friend, as it saves us a lot of headache in most practical areas. But in certain theoretical areas, philosophy prominently among them, it is an obstacle we have to be very aware of. Philosophers should strive to become thoroughly acquainted with the reality illusion, to master it in the sense of being able to brake or restore it at will, as per required by practical and theoretical circumstances encountered. And what’s more, they should come up with theoretical accounts of mind and reality that can make sense of this aspect of our human situation.
This, I think, is what should be the defining role of philosophy.
Why obsess about sentential logic and language in a time when visualization tools allow us to develop new and better ways to express thoughts? The visual language of infographics have the power to be clearer, broader and less ambiguous than sentential language, and it can offer a vision that can be shared more easily among minds, being far less dependent on interpretation.
I’m seriously wondering if studying infographics would be the best philosophical path for me right now — better than studying philosophy.
These days, I’m slowly but surely learning Illustrator, and I hope to expand to Flash and more in the future — because these tools, in this era of information, translate directly into power (in the sense of Nietzsche’s “will to power”).
I might even try to get work doing graphic design, to get paid while gaining the skillpoints I need to be able to create a philosophical work in the language of infographics. I already found a name for the sole proprietorship I’ll have to set up if I get work: “Platonic Infographics”. And in a moment of particular enthusiasm, I even bought a domain: infoplatonic.com.
The reason I’d like to associate myself with platonism, is that my own view of graphic design reminds me of Plato’s view of poetry: It is a very powerful tool that tend to be corrupting unless one actively ensures that it is wielded in the service of reason. I guess this is close to the principles of mainstream infographics as opposed to other kinds of graphic design, but I like to emphasize it anyway. And the connection to philosophy is nice as well.
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.
Watch these two brilliant videos:
This guy, Mike Earl, is the first living person I’ve found that agrees with me on this issue! And what’s more, his explanation is very valuable to me, in that it is far more comprehensible than my own attempts so far.
Phenomenalism is one of the two core components of virtualism, the other component being computationalism. Sadly, Mike is of a different opinion on that one.
Meaning is merely an aesthetic quality.