A short discussion on Conscious Entities inspired me to compose a text too long and too off-topic to post as a comment there. So I’ll post it here, and link to it from there in case Peter or anyone else is interested. If not, at least I got a lot out of writing it myself. For context, here’s the two relevant comments from the comment thread:
“The physicalist account of qualia is that it is, in principle, reducible to the physics of brains. But here’s a question: What brains and what physics are we talking about? Is it brains and physics as experienced interpretatively by the physical brains of neuroscientists? Or is it the true or real brains and physics themselves, which, so far at least, are far outside the grasp of science?
Physicalist monism seems plausible to me, but very impractical as a frame of mind. I’m not suggesting that we take ontological dualism seriously, but I don’t think we can dispense with some kind of dualist conception, at least not just yet. What I propose is a dualism of true reality on the one hand and virtuality on the other, the latter here being understood as the experiential or phenomenal reality rendered somehow by real brains and real physics. Viewing experience as a virtual reality in this way allows one to identify more directly with one’s experience (as opposed to thinking that a more true approach would be to do like the Churchlands and try to translate experience into neuroscientific terms), because one is this virtuality. Trying to reduce it to physics is of course crucial for science, but it is derailing for the sense of self, and unnecessarily so. Subjectivity as we know it today is not something illusory that will be disposed of once we get our theories right, but the very stuff of our subjective being. Virtuality is a kind of fiction, to be sure, but not one you can dispel without at the same time dispelling subjectivity. I’m even inclined to use the word soul in connection with virtuality, devoid of the Christian connotations of course.
I think that even when (or if) we reach a physicalist explanation of subjectivity, a virtualist or fictionalist dualism of the kind I’ve tried to sketch out will continue to play an important role for us, for practical reasons. The same practical reasons that I think lead many to fight for ontological dualism today. A future theory of subjectivity will be too complicated for our modestly equipped brains to handle, at least for practical purposes. Like quantum physics, it will be so strange and difficult that it will be irrelevant for everyone except a few frontier theorists, for whom the relevance is almost entirely theoretical and detached from the rest of their lives.
I believe that to acknowledge the value of dualism in a virtual variety would be very good for the physicalist cause. What do you think?”
“In essence, I agree, Gorm. I don’t think many people, even materialist monists, would claim that a single account of the world can exhaust everything there is to be said about it. We certainly at least need to address the world on different levels of description – in fact, on more than just two. So in practice any sensible view of the world has at least two and usually many more aspects to it. It may well be that this is what impels people into dualism; but philosophically, dualism is one of those concepts (like omnipotence, perhaps) that is just drawn too strong to make sense, and needs dilution for safe use. So while I basically agree with your point, I wouldn’t call that dualism. It might be that the best thing would be for us all to stop worrying about whether a theory is ‘monist’ or ‘dualist’, and just discuss the theory itself.
What would be interesting would be a good attempt to explain why the world needs different levels of explanation, how many there are, how they relate, and which levels are fundamental in any particular sense (it looks as if the account given by physics is fundamental in some sense, for example). Alas, I don’t know of any good theorising along these lines that gets very far.”
And finally, my text, where start out trying to address the above problem from a virtualist point of view:
According to virtualism, there are no fundamental explanations about the world, because all explanations are in the end merely fictions that fit some relevant portion of the evidence we have available. Fittingness is not a fundamental quality of these fictions, because it is dependent on empirical investigation. The currently fitting fictions may suddenly become unfitting in light of new evidence.
Some distinctions: The kind of fictions that one tries to fit with reality should be distinguished from the kinds of fictions that are more or less indifferent to reality. A further narrowing of the former category would be those fictions that are trimmed by Occam’s razor and experimented with in accordance with the scientific method. Left out would be common sense, mysticism, religion etc, all of which are influenced by other aims than that of fitting with reality (e.g. the aim of making life more comfortable), at the same time as they are competing with science in trying to make sense of reality. (To some people, science is the obvious winner of this contest, because science is more sharply focused on the all-important fittingness issue — while to others, the unscientific theories are superior, because they allow for a more complete and habitable worldview, in that they satisfy more than just the fittingness requirement.)
To think of these different kinds of explanations in terms of degrees of truth or even degrees of fittingness, would make it into an empirical question, and like with all empirical questions, answers can only be provisional until all possible evidence has been gathered. Only then can one compare and make a final judgment about exactly how well and in what way the proposed explanatory fictions actually fit. This gathering is, of course, a task for science, not philosophy.
What philosophy should do instead is to look into the nature of fictions, stripped of their explanatory pretentions and independent of reality. The realm of philosophy, then, is virtuality, a term that includes everything – when disregarding any pretension of reflection of or correspondence with reality. That is to say, even frontier scientific theories are completely virtual, if you view them as models. The same goes for everything we can understand, even everything we can experience, because we can only understand or experience anything in terms of virtuality. This is of course a basic tenet of virtualism. (I’ll try to deal with the problem of justification near the end of this text.)
An example: Gravity. There are several theories of gravity in use in physics today, none of which are useful to our daily lives when dealing with the reality of gravity. In fact, most people live with the outdated Newtonian theory of gravity, or even the Aristotelian one. The truth of the matter is irrelevant to us in our limited circumstances. General rule: What we demand from models of reality in terms of fittingness is usually limited to what is useful in our circumstances. More information than this is cumbersome and distracting us from whatever it is that we’re doing (unless it’s theoretical physics, in which case it’s our job to find out about reality; or philosophy, in which case it’s our job to be encumbered and confused).
But circumstance-fittingness is not the only or most attractive quality in fictions. More important for us is whether or not the fiction in question allows immersion, whether it allows us to believe that it’s real. And in this, circumstance-fittingness is only one of several factors, three of the other being a) the dramaturgical quality of fictions, b) their aesthetic quality and c) our social context. All of these need a bit of explanation:
- What I mean by the dramaturgical quality of fictions is that fictions need to be engaging for us to be interested enough to immerse ourselves in them. Typically, a story-like fiction is what does the trick. We’d love to belive of the world that it is in fact story-like, where we play a well-defined part etc. For most of us, this is hard to take seriously, but in pre-scientific times, it was a very important factor of what fiction or set of fictions could survive.
- The aesthetic factor I would define as the balance of simplicity/elegance against complexity/elaborateness. Too simple is boring, too complex is overwhelming. A simple worldview needs to be stimulated by some kind of ornamentation. A difficult worldview needs to rest in minimalism.
- The social factor is simply that it is harder for us to really believe that our fiction is true and that we live in reality, when people around us voice conflicting beliefs. Relativism kills immersion. When our fictions and those of people around us are mutually exclusive, we have to find some resolution, in order to maintain the illusion of being in true reality. We might group up with those that agree with us, and try to battle off those who don’t. Or we can modify our beliefs to be more vague and compromising. Most often, this manouver weakens at least the dramaturgical factor and the fittingness factor, something which is felt as a severe loss — but the fiction on its own is practically worthless if we’re not able to immerse ourselves in it. So the price is paid, again and again.
This last factor is why, together with the gradual development of civilization from tribe to city state to empire etc, cultural development has become more and more vague, abstract, distant and impersonal.
The fact that fictions are shared is what makes possible things like sports, our money system, philosophy, physics etc. All cultural things has a virtual existence that is shared by a significant number of people (things that are not shared also have a virtual existence of course, but it’s not a cultural one until it lives beyond the individual). Fictions are like programs that run on brains. Our ability to synchronously run identical or very similar programs is the bedrock of culture.
In conclusion: Privileging science is advantageous for a lot of purposes, but this privilege shouldn’t degenerate into an ontological claim. Science is in the end merely a set of tested and useful fictions. Where it’s counterproductive to apply it (e.g. where it becomes way too complicated), we should be able to go with a more practical alternative, even though it’s false in the eyes of science. Fictions have strengths and weaknesses, and we shouldn’t artificially restrict usage of them. Believing that one branch of fictions (e.g. science) is true would be exactly such a restriction. Truth about the world is not accessible to us, because everything we can say must necessarily be said in the language of fictions. The best we can have is thus justification, on the basis of fittingness or otherwise.
Virtualism itself, as a metaphysical framework, should be judged in this same light. It should be justified in empirical terms. Just like with scientific theories, metaphysical theories should be judged as more or less plausible on the basis of certain results in neuroscience, physics, AI research etc.
Metaphysics is, according to virtualism at least, the field of metafictions — the fictions that are supposed to encompass all other fictions, as the operating system of life. It may resemble religion or mysticism in that it’s speculative, but I am quite confident that a satisfactory justification can be found. And if not, well, it’s simply indispensable, so I guess I’ll have to become religious.