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.



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