My master’s thesis is finally finished

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.

MA thesis plan, and beyond!

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:

  1. The benefits of a fictionalist surrender in epistemology: Disarmament of skepticism, arbitration between science and religion
  2. Virtualism: Universal fictionalism is confirmed by modern science

“We are dreaming machines by nature!”

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.

My thesis in one sentence

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.

Counter-confession: I’m a metaphysical monist :D

This isn’t easy. One the one hand, I’m a dualist. I believe there are two ontological realms. On the other hand, I have no problem entertaining two kinds of monism.

Solipsistic monism: The cicle titled “Reality” in the diagram in my previous post is strictly speaking just a postulation. It’s minimally speculative, but speculative nonetheless. All we strictly speaking have access to is experience, which, in the diagram, can be equated with the ontological realm titled “Virtuality”.

Speculative monism: It’s entirely reasonable to take the small step from solipsism to an acknowledgement of a true reality beyond our experience. We can hardly do without this minimal level of speculativity. But why not go further? I believe in the speculative postulate that all is one, that the dualist conception of two separate ontological domains is itself nothing but a useful fiction, and that in the most ultimate reality, virtuality and what I’m calling “reality” somehow shares the same ontological domain. After all, science gives a very compelling case for our minds being produced by our brains. How, then, is mind supposed to be ontologically separate from whatever reality is? In terms of the diagram, this super-reality can be represented by drawing a circle around both virtuality and reality. I don’t know what to call it. Super-reality sounds strange.

Conclusion from this: Virtualism easily contains a lot of other philosophical positions.

Confession: I’m a metaphysical dualist :’(

I have been in denial about this for quite some time, just like I was earlier about metaphysics in general. (I was convinced metaphysics was categorically despicable, having been misguided by some French charlatans.)

Damn it, I am a dualist! It feels like failure to admit it, but only because it raises the question of why I’ve waited this long. I guess the answer has to be conformist bias or something horribly shameful like that.

The version of dualism that I believe in is best explained in contrast to the Cartesian one of mind/body. Both sides of Cartesian dualism are included in one of the sides in my virtualist dualism, as shown in the diagram above. I’ll leave it at that for now, but this calls for careful elaboration some time in the future.

Fictionalist metaphysics as a response to general skepticism

If one accepts general skepticism, every proposition is false — at best merely useful fictions. In other words, skepticism is more than compatible with general fictionalism, it practically endorses it. And through fictionalism, a way can be provided to mitigate or even completely avoid what makes skepticism so problematic: Cognition isn’t dismissed as worthless just because it’s recognized as unable to produce truth, because this is countered by the recognition that thought structures of surprising accuracy can be built with the stuff of fiction. What is surprising is that reality is simple enough for us to capture so well with our entirely fictional models. Why this is, we cannot account for, except in fictional terms, with models produced by physics or metaphysics. 

Presumably, there is a real world. Strictly speaking, we can’t know for sure, and it’s important to keep this in mind, but the belief is practically indispensable, so we’ll make the short “skip of faith” and presume that it’s true. This real world is by definition outside or beyond our fictional bubble of experience, so we can postulate these as separate metaphysical domains. Transcendent reality on the one hand, fictionality on the other.

At this point, we can appeal to the computationalist theory of mind for support. Specifically, the domain of fictionality can be identified with the realm of possible experience as defined by the supposedly computational limitions of the brain. Following this analogy one step further, we can substitute the term “fictionality” with “virtuality”, which is better, because it is more neutral (and more gramatically versatile).

Our many different worldviews, from the scientific ones to the more directly experienced ones, can all be thought of as mentally constructed virtual worlds, with varying degrees of accuracy with regard to different aspects of reality. — But how can we justify saying that our entirely virtual models are accurate, in the context of a metaphysical picture where we’re confined to the domain of virtuality, unable to compare our models with reality? The solution must be to define accuracy without referring to the domain of reality. Then, we can proceed to investigate whether such a virtual basis justifies calling it accuracy, a word which inevitably conjures up the notion of correspondence between thought and reality, which we’ve just ruled out as impossible.

The natural ground for accuracy claims is sense data. Intuitively, using this as the basis is obviously referring to reality. But in the above outlined metaphysics, it has to be understood as internal to virtuality, simply because we’re able to access it at all. This might seem as an absurd statement, to which one might object that even if sense data itself isn’t placed in the domain of reality, at least it has reality as its original source. But this can be dismissed by an appeal to our current scientific understanding of the senses. For instance, what makes us see is signals from photoreceptor neurons in our eyes that triggers when light of a certain wavelength hits it. These neurons are the original source of sense data as data, not the light that triggers them. Light, sound, smells etc. are at best merely potential information.

Putting the above analysis aside, we do in fact trust our senses, and base our virtual construction work on the information we receive from them. Usually, we even believe that whatever is in accordance with sense data is in accordance with reality. Strictly speaking, this is a mistake, but it’s a very fruitful mistake, so in most circumstances we can allow ourselves to commit it. Especially as the more accurate alternatives typically are a lot more demanding. The same goes to some degree for even the most certain of our beliefs, like the belief in the existence of a real world, or the belief that our senses are caused to generate information by physical events in reality, and that we can build virtual constructions of varying degrees of correspondence with reality on the basis of this information.

We call our cognition accurate merely because we accept the belief in some kind of correspondence, but a very strict analysis of cognition (such as the one above) will not be able to substantiate this — or any other belief for that matter, if we put the bar high enough.

Accepting skepticism makes one give up the hope that a belief might be true, but this should not be taken as the end-all for belief. Radical fictionalism makes it possible to believe even in the harsh climate of general skepticism. When truth is understood to be impossible, it is a small step to recognize that “mere usefulness” is not such a weak principle of justification after all.

Certain beliefs helps us in our cognitive endeavors — and that includes any particular belief that our beliefs have to be justified in accordance with some principle. A belief of this kind can be conceived of as a “virtual frame” we can apply methodologically, to filter virtual content in ways that makes sense. The scientific method is a particularly fruitful example. But no frame is universally applicable (except perhaps the amorphous principle “usefulness”,  insofar as the question of in what regard usefulness is to be evaluated is left open). Philosophy should stop obsessing with this issue.

When our goals change, we should filter and organize virtuality accordingly. This plasticity is provided by fictionalist metaphysics. 

Fictionalist metaphysics can itself be seen as a frame, but it’s not one that excludes any virtual content, because the only thing it demands is a change in one’s stance toward what is thought/believed/experienced. Everything is to be seen as fiction, with no possibility of truthbearing, but every possibility of being useful to us in our various endeavors. Thus, fictionalist metaphysics includes all its competitors, as shown in the diagram below. What is portrayed on the left is scientific realism as a dogmatic metaphysical theory. And on the right, the same scientific realism as embedded within the frame of fictionalist metaphysics. I realize this raises a lot of questions, especially when you realize that the square representing fictionalist metaphysics itself is included within its own frame. But these issues are far too complicated to start investigating yet. The basic picture has to be settled first.


Correspondence theory of truth, but no correspondence

“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.

The Mandelbrot analogy

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.

Virtualist metaphysics: Explanations and other fictions

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:

My comment:

“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?”

Peter’s reply:

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Discussing Kant with Mike Earl

A couple of months ago, I wrote to Mike Earl, suggesting that his position is very close to Kant’s. He responded with this video (where he reads out loud what I wrote to him, making the video accessible for anyone):

I think it’s a great idea to make our discussion public. That’s why I’m posting this my (embarrasingly late) reply here:

Hey Mike. Thanks for giving my suggestion serious consideration. I’m sorry it has taken me this long to reply. I’ve tried several times to compose a text, but found it very hard to do properly. I now see that my attempts failed because I was trying to dig into too many issues at once. This time, I’ll try to keep the focus on the central issue you bring up, about compositeness.

The number analogy was a bit confusing at first, as mathematical and empirical objects are understood by both Kant and myself as belonging to completely separate realms (in Kant’s terminology, a priori and a posteriori). I think I understand what you’re saying though, at least when you relate the analogy to things (like the table). But you’re wrong about Kant’s position:

First of all, Kant didn’t see numbers as “out there” in the empirical world, whether composite or singular ones. He did view mathematics as objective, but not in the sense of being external, only in the sense that it is true regardless of which subject is engaged in mathematical thought.

Secondly, things-in-themselves are not viewed by Kant as having definite properties like for instance spatial extension or causal relations to other objects. Properties such as these are supplied not by objects but by our cognitive apparatus when we’re viewing objects. The particular ones I mentioned are “transcendental concepts”, the full set of which I think could be called “the necessary and constitutive optic of experience”, by which I mean that experience would be impossible (or at least unintelligible) if the transcendental concepts (extension, duration, causality etc) hadn’t been applied. The application of transcendental concepts is a minimal requirement for cognition, and are thus present in all functioning humans. This is the ground for Kant’s peculiar form of “physical objectivity”, where the objectivity in question is similar to mathematical objectivity in that it contains no claim about external reality.

Kant would probably sympathize strongly with the view you attribute to him, that things-in-themselves are composite entities, but his own system prohibits him from any positive claims about noumena at all. The concept of noumenal reality is in fact defined as radical negation, as a resounding “I don’t know” to the question of what is the source of empirical appearances. To Kant, the answer to this lies beyond our cognitive limits, and we have no choice but to be agnostic about it. The only thing we can obtain certain knowledge about is the rules of cognition (math and the transcendental concepts).

You claim that “independent of our experiences, there are only prime entities”. I sympathize with this view, but just like with Kant and his opposing (hypothetical) preferences above, I too have to suspend judgment, because the claim is a metaphysical one. Strictly speaking, agnosticism is the only viable position here. (But of course, there is no reason one has to be this strict all the time! I’ll come back to this important point and elaborate in a later post here on my blog.)

“Green and hairy” is to Kant not a priori categories. A green and hairy experience is to Kant just a confused one. If the confusion is overcome, the experience becomes clear and distinct, but not because one has connected somehow to the noumenal realm, not at all. Clarity or purity of thought is merely an internal matter of mental discipline, not about taking part in noumenal reality.

To your last point, the one with the painting analogy: I wholeheartedly agree, and I think this is a profound and very important issue. Not that I think it would change the course of scientific research a whole lot — because science needs communicable results to progress, and must therefore limit itself to what’s quantifiable (in other words, it is necessarily materialist, at least methodologically so) — but it certainly would be very valuable for scientists to frame the problem in the way you describe. I think their theoretical intuition would benefit. But the most important consequences of “physical subjectivism” is for philosophy. I see it as an intellectually fertile new “platform of the age”, much like how Kant’s system was in the 19th century, but in an improved, modern skin, complete with clear language and the possibility of direct connection to frontier sciences (in particular neuroscience and computer science). I think you’ve done a wonderful job explaining the basics of the theory, particularly in the first two videos of your Emergence series (for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, see my previous post). I’d love to see more videos from you on the subject. And I’d like to make a serious contribution of my own. This fall, I started on a master’s program in philosophy, and hope to be writing my master’s thesis on “virtualism” (as you know I prefer to call it). I won’t be starting on that until next fall, but it is, of course, constantly present in the back of my head. And any discussion that relates to it is much appreciated.

One last remark, about Kant: I’ve been having second thoughts about him lately, because of a class I’m taking where we’re reading the Critique of Judgment. I now think his whole “critical approach” is flawed, in that the posited transcendentals are given a status that is far too high. They should not be priviledged and set apart from other concepts (like table-ness or redness or personality etc). The so-called transcendentals are elevated above the rest of our perspectival capabilities only (it seems to me) in virtue of their quantifiability. And this is a rather arbitrary attribute, as can be demonstrated by how technology conquers new ground in what can be quantified, e.g. in neuroscience.

Instead, I now think Nietzsche is the closest to both our positions. I recently read an excellent unpublished essay by him called “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” that I think is very opportune for me to recommend in this context. It’s not very long, and can be found in its entirety online, here.

I’m curious of what you think of Nietzsche. How familiar are you with him, and how close do you think your position is to his?

Epistemological phenomenalism explained

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.


A great talk on memes by Susan Blackmore has just been posted on TED. You have my guarantee it is worth your time.

In addition to rejuvenating some old fears of mine, her talk made me realize how memetics is perfectly consistent with virtualism, even complementary! I need to read up on it, fast!

I’ve become some kind of a Platonist

Mind consists of Forms: The brain is a machine running a software programmed with the language of Forms, and the living mind is best conceived of as a virtual reality — a continuously updated model of external reality (among other things).

Another name for the Realm of Forms is “Ideality”. But I think “virtuality” is a lot more suitable. One, because this word makes evident the connection between Platonism and computationalism, and two, because the word evokes an immersed, subjective point of view (through association with computer simulation).

Virtuality, then, is understood to be the very substance of mind. This is opposed to external reality, which is transcendent, i.e. entirely incomprehensible unless translated into the language of the Forms. Reality can’t be accessed at all except as a virtual model, constructed as an interpretation of raw sense data. In other words, we never interact with our environment directly: All of what you take for granted as external reality is in fact more correctly viewed as an incredibly powerful “virtual space of orientation”, continuously updated to fit with incoming information.

This picture seems to present an answer to the question of why physics is unable to describe reality with perfect accuracy: Because our minds are restricted to the simplicity of Forms. Our virtual models are necessarily simplistic, because of their computational restraints (limited time, energy and hardware size). Because of this, we can only hope to approximate truth. There’ll always be aspects left out by our descriptions.

I think it’s useful to think of reality-modelling as something that can be approached in a spectrum of ways, from the mathematical and unambiguous to the mythical and ambiguous. Both of these extremes have serious weaknesses, but their strengths complement eachother: Mathematics offers precision, while Mythos offers meaning. Therefore, the two approaches need to be reconciled. This, I think, is one of the most important tasks of philosophy today. And I think virtualistic epistemology can accomplish it.

An exploration of physicalism

Physicalism is the philosophical position which holds that all of reality, including the mind, ultimately will be accounted for by physics. Seeing that our current physics is far from approaching this ultimate point, physicalism hinges on a guess. Absurdly, it seems physicalism in fact is a metaphysical position.

A metaphysical position which I happen to hold.

Now, what follows is a simplistic exploration of my metaphysical physicalism:

1. The Big Bang occurs; the universe is created. Complexity increases for a couple of millions of years, until the original plasma has coalesced into atoms and the atoms condensed into stars etc. The evolution of material complexity decelerates.

2. A limit is reached. All potential material complexity has been realized. But it doesn’t end there.

3. Complexity continues to increase, no longer in the material dimension but in the virtual. The evolution of virtuality is the evolution of life: The ability of virtuality is what sets the living apart from the dead. Humans call their experienced virtuality “mind”.

Admittedly, this drawing is a more than a little problematic, as the development graph has become crowded with conflicting significations. The reason I chose this flawed solution is that it shows 1) the reflexivity of virtuality, and 2) the continuity of material and virtual complexity. The drawing is problematic, but key, so I should explain it in some more detail:

  • A: This is some sort of measure of what we still don’t understand about reality. Things like quantum gravity, consciousness and what have you.
  • B: This is the part we do understand. We understand a lot.
  • C: This is the part of virtuality that has little or nothing to do with scientific understanding of reality. It deals with the imaginary. Dreams, music and philosophy. All the good stuff. Notice how the imaginary is pictured as a prerequisite of a grasp of reality.
  • Compare C with B: This hyperinflation of the imaginary is intended. A highly developed mind is playful.

4. At this hypothetical point in time, reality will be completely accounted for by virtuality. Absolute physical truth is attained.

Parenthetically: Since true physics/physical truth must be a description of reality, completely distinct from reality in itself, physicalism could be viewed as a rather unusual kind of idealism!…

Once again, the drawing is less than perfect: In order to show that reality is completely understood, the representation of virtuality would have to envelop not only the material reality, but also itself. — I really wish I had a clue of how to draw that!

5. Virtuality has moved on, reality is altogether left behind. What this future might hold is ridiculously far removed from my foresight.

But if the god-minds of post-ultimate understanding are anything like us, they will probably miss the old, dark and cold place we call the universe, and create new and slightly better ones to occupy themselves with.


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