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.
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
In skimming through Rodolfo Llinás’ neuroscience book I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self, I’ve come upon some remarkable statements. First, what he says in foreshadowing some of his conclusions, like that the waking state of mind is separated from dreaming merely by the former being “modulated by our senses” (p. 2). Except for this, the two states are indistinguishable. “When dreaming, as we are released from the tyranny of our sensory input, the system generates intrinsic storms that create “possible” worlds —perhaps — very much as we do when we think” (p. 2).
Much later, after several very technical and difficult chapters that I skipped, he arrives at some surprisingly juicy speculation. First of all, he asserts that human society is comparable to the brain in a non-trivial way, in particular after the emergence of the Web:
Is it reasonable to consider the world order as being at all like that of the brain? Yes. What we observe is a similarity of order expressed at different levels, at all levels from cells to animals and from animals to societies. One wonders if this is perhaps a universal law. The way the system organizes itself may reflect, for example, its solution to the tyranny of the second law of thermodynamics, “order will decrease with time.” There may be a deeper message here. One of the few ways in which local order can increase is through the generation of such things as a nervous system that employs modularization of function. If modularization is indeed a universal to combat disorder, such a geometric and architectural solution may have happened at other levels as well. (p. 258)
This is a new idea to me, and I think it is a very profound one. Reading on, Llinás almost immediately tops himself (in my view, anyway):
The spawn of the technology behind the Web presents an ominous event if not properly modulated. If allowed to expand out of all control, it could become a danger, perhaps the most serious threat that society has ever encountered, eclipsing that of war, disease, famine, or drug problems. The event we should fear most is the possibility that as we develop better forms of communication with one another, we may cease to desire interaction with the external world. If one considers the problems for society of mind-altering drugs, then imagine if people could realize their dreams, any dreams, by means of virtual communication with other real or imaginary human beings. And not just via the visual system, but through all sensory systems. Keep in mind that the only reality that exists for us is already a virtual one — we are dreaming machines by nature! And so virtual reality can only feed on itself, with the risk that we can very easily bring about our own destruction.
[...] Here is the possibility of creating a totally hedonistic state, a decadent sybaritic society rushing headlong into self-destruction and oblivion. (p. 259)
This is pretty much exactly what I have been saying for years! Complete with a clear formulation of the basic virtualistic assumption! I am perhaps less unequivocally pessimistic in my divination, but the normative judgment is nonessential here — he is echoing core tenets of my world view, ones I thought I was pretty much alone in holding, at least in this form. Oh, happy day.
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.