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.
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.
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.
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.
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.