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.
“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.
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!