Thursday, August 15, 2019

Why I Write Weird Stuff, Like "Kant Meets Cyberpunk"

My paper "Kant Meets Cyberpunk" has finally appeared (published version, manuscript version). Yay!

I imagine someone asking, Eric, why do you write such weird stuff?

In "Kant Meets Cyberpunk", I entertain the possibility that we are artificial intelligences living inside a computer simulation. But unlike computer simulations as they are typically conceived, the computer that implements our reality is a non-physical thing, an immaterial spirit named Angel. Angel can implement any Turing-equivalent machine by sadly humming while shifting back and forth along an imagined musical score.

If that were the nature of our reality, transcendental idealism would be true. Spatiality would be a property not of things as they are in themselves, but rather the form of our empirical perceptions of things; and beneath the familiar world of empirical appearances would be a more fundamental reality that is unknowable to us. (This isn't full-blown Kantian transcendental idealism, but it knocks on Kant's door.)

Now, I suspect that you'll agree that this view is weird. I hope that is also fun, in a nerdy sort of way. Philosophers should celebrate weirdness and fun!

The weird and fun are intrinsically valuable. They are part of the richness and delightfulness of the world. But philosophical weirdness is especially useful, I think. Philosophical weirdness pushes against the boundaries of what we normally take for granted about the fundamental values and structures of the world.

The weird undercuts our expectations. And if it's also fun, it does it in a joyful, interesting way. This is true both in philosophy and in ordinary life. "She wore that to work? How weird and fun!"... and suddenly a new possibility is open. You could wear something weird too.

Philosophy has a wide range of possible functions. Different people might reasonably want different things from it. You might want the secure, sensible answer to an important question, for example. Or you might want to know what ideas were culturally influential in the past. Or you might want an ethical system that confirms your prejudices so that you can bludgeon your foes with formidable argumentation.

What I want most from philosophy, I find, is a sense of wonder. I want to challenge what I previously thought I knew. I want to feel awed by the strangeness, complexity, and incomprehensibility of the world. I want a philosophy that opens up new possibilities for me and induces interesting doubt, rather than one that primarily seeks to close possibilities by settling definitively on the right answer.

Right answers are great in a way, too, of course, and I wouldn't toss one away if I find it has landed in my hands. But I suspect we discover right answers much less in philosophy than we think we do, and thinking one has found the right answer typically incites a different mood than wonder -- a mood that is already abundant and doesn't need to be especially encouraged.

We are almost certainly not artificial intelligences living inside of a Turing-machine-equivalent angel sadly humming. But I think if we can insert that weird, fun idea into our possibility space, however tiny and remote the possibility, that opens up something philosophically valuable. The range of ways our (or at least someone's) world could be is wider and weirder than we might have previously assumed, and that's wonderful.

[image source]



On Trusting Your Sense of Fun (Jan 23, 2013)

Skepticism, Godzilla, and the Artificial Computerized Many-Branching You (Nov 15, 2013)

Common Sense, Science Fiction, and Weird, Uncharitable History of Philosophy (Apr 21, 2017)

How to Build an Immaterial Computer (Sep 25, 2017)


  1. An interesting paper Eric. In it, you note that if there is a reality behind the empirical reality that we can't access, then materialism is false. But I wonder if this is the right description. Maybe a better way is to say that materialism, or physicalism, is emergent from whatever that underlying reality is.

    On the post, I definitely agree that it's important to be able to put on a different view, to essentially try it on, to see things from that perspective, even if only temporarily. I'm personally not an idealist, but I find the most typical arguments against it inadequate. To me, a stronger argument is that a robust version of idealism looks very similar to physicalism, or perhaps a type of neutral or agnostic monism. This can get into what we actually mean by words like "physical" or "mental".

  2. Of course, Eric, you think the weird stuff before you write it and that’s probably where most of the fun, joy and interest is. I find this post interesting from a few perspectives, but I’ll start with your remark that a sense of wonder is what you most want from philosophy.

    I recently commented here of P. M. S. Hacker’s observation that Philosophy isn’t about resolving philosophical knowledge, which seems related to your suspicion that “... we discover right answers much less in philosophy than we think we do.” Given those observations, coupled with the dearth of gainful employments requiring philosophical expertise, I’m really quite curious about people’s motivations for formally pursuing Philosophy PhD’s and even undergraduate Philosophy degrees. As possibilities, you mention an interest in pursuing sensible answers to important questions, wishing to develop a historical perspective on culturally influential ideas, and a somewhat self-serving desire for intellectually-rooted ethical weaponry—an interesting range of motivations. In a followup to my Hacker comment, I mentioned my somewhat humorous (to me at least) view of philosophical writing as a genre of literature I called speculative non-fiction—SNF. Along that line, I wonder if some of the philosophically engaged simply enjoy sorting through the complexities of word-wrangling that’s a mainstay of philosophical written works. My own recent dabbling in philosophical topics, primarily the Philosophy of Time, has been motivated by my consideration of the implications of consciousness in the block universe and feels, most enjoyably, like intellectual weightlifting, part of my strategy for keeping my neurons buff and staving off the dementias all too common to the golden years. ... ;-)

    So I’d be very interested in a future post of yours summarizing a survey of philosophers and committed philosophy students about their motivations and satisfactions. Is such a survey possible, perhaps informally, without inordinate preparation?

    [More to come]


  3. [Continued]

    Related to this all, I recently read philosopher (at Brandeis University) Palle Yourgrau’s great book about Einstein and mathematician/philosopher Kurt Gödel (of Incompleteness Theory fame), A World Without Time. The book’s Chapter 9 contains a section called “The Philosopher on the Train,” the first paragraph of which is:

    “If you meet a philosopher on a train and ask him his profession, he is likely to lie. It is not that philosophers are especially prone to lying, but rather that philosophy is a peculiar profession. To tell your fellow passenger that you are a philosopher opens up an awkward line of questioning. To begin with, describing yourself as a philosopher is like calling yourself a sage, a seeker of wisdom. We all seek wisdom, after all, but that won’t feed the bulldog. A safer response is to account oneself a philosophy professor. This is fine, unless you happen to be an actual philosopher, in which case it is just another lie. As the philosopher Leo Strauss once said, you are as likely to find a real philosopher in a philosophy department as you are to discover a Picasso in the department of fine arts. (Wittgenstein, though he taught for years at Cambridge University, is correctly described as a philosopher, not a professor.) If you take the plunge, however, and accept the label of philosopher, you must be prepared for the disappointment when your listener hears that you don’t live in a hut on a mountaintop, haven’t uncovered the secret of life, and cannot explain why the world exists. If you are foolish enough to go further and attempt to describe your lifelong attempt to reconcile the epistemology of mathematics with its ontology, be prepared to encounter a look in which boredom and horror are blended equally. Best, therefore, to say simply that you are an architect, and leave it at that.”

    Hilariously insightful, that. I’ll very soon email you a PDF of the entire section and I hope to also contribute a comment with a few thoughts about our most familiar simulation—consciousness—which is, in my opinion a strikingly underappreciated viewpoint.

  4. I think that you may enjoy "The Thing Itself" by Adam Roberts.

  5. Coincidentally, just published a Kant and machine article, a thought experiment using circuits to get at Kant's intuition:

    I agree this part of the labour, concocting 'angles', 'percepts', insights upon the 'stuff' is what elicits the initial instinct or passion for philosophy. Ways of seeing.

  6. Eric, just from the material in your paper’s Introduction, Transcendental Idealism seems to be confused, or there’s confusion in the concepts as presented or, as is perhaps more likely, I’m confused.

    Whichever, though, I’m left with a few questions:

    If, as you present it, we “call the objects laid out around you in your immersive spatial environment empirical objects,” then what do we call the you that the objects are laid out around? An idea? If things appear to us to be laid out in space, what about the “us”? Are we “laid out in space”? As stated, the appearances apply to “external things” but are our own brains/minds experiencing the appearances “external things”? Or internal things-in-themselves that are lacking in spatial properties?

    If the fundamental nature of things is not in principle discoverable by the physical sciences because the physical sciences are limited by having to start from empirical (observed or experienced) evidence as it appears to our senses, then what about the fundamental nature of our experience itself? Does Kant conclude that it’s also impossible to discover? In what is the validity of experience grounded?

    As to virtual reality, we find in “3 Cyberpunk, virtual reality, and empirical objects”,:

    “Following Chalmers (2017b), but adding “spatial” for explicitness, an immersive spatial environment is an environment “that generates perceptual experience of the environment from a perspective within it, giving the user the sense of ‘being there’.”

    But an immersive spatial environment doesn’t generate perceptual experience—it generates sensory inputs! The brain/mind generates perceptual experience! The immersive spatial experience is fundamentally core/creature consciousness itself—the feeling of being embodied and centered in a world, per Damasio’s definition.

    A little help? Anyone?

  7. There's no need to get too excited Stephen. Schwitzgebel's entire essay is in jest and his personal interpretations of transcendental idealism do not reflect Immanuel Kant's ontology. In fact, it's a gross misrepresentation of transcendental idealism. But that is not uncommon, very few philosophologists understand Kant, and David Chalmers for one readily admits he knows very little about Kant's ontology.

    For the record: Kant's version of transcendental idealism is the only ontology which can avoid duality in all of its forms and has the explanatory power that neither materialism nor idealism possess. According to Kant, it is for this reason that transcendental idealism is considered the "ideal" model. (not ideal as in idealism where everything is mind)

  8. Thanks, Lee ... I think. I’m not really overly worked up over any of this, although the humor of it all escapes me, if, indeed, Eric’s paper is a philosophical jest. I especially didn’t realize that Eric was misrepresenting Kant’s thinking, considering the close alignment of Eric’s statements with what little I understand of it.

    I don’t see how duality is avoided in transcendental idealism, since other human beings, and ourselves by implication, belong to the set of things-in-themselves, but our/their perceptions—themselves a content of consciousness—cannot be taken as things-in-themselves but, instead, must be some sort of non-material soul-like thing. As I recall, Kant included a prohibition never to take appearances as things-in-themselves, which, from Kant’s standpoint, is like allowing yourself two queens at the start of a chess game. And I also sense a slippery slope in Kant’s idealism towards solipsism.

    Chalmers is a Professor of Philosophy and perhaps also a cognitive scientist. His Hard Problem of Consciousness is dualist, in that he doesn’t consider feelings to be physical productions of the brain. Quoting from the website, “Chalmers describes his position as a naturalistic dualism, also known as physicalism. He doubts that consciousness can be explained by physical theories, because consciousness is itself not physical.” Note that if consciousness is indeed physical, as many neuroscientists and a handful of philosophers believe, the Hard Problem doesn’t exist, except as a vehicle for increased recognition and income. It’s side-by-side with What-it’s-likeness.

    In my opinion, it’s a bit pejorative to include Eric in the set of philosophologists who, as Pirsig wrote, participate in “... a derivative, secondary field, a sometimes parasitic growth that likes to think it controls its host by analyzing and intellectualizing its host’s behavior. ... You just Xerox something some philosopher said and make the students discuss it, make them memorize it, and then flunk them at the end of the quarter if they forget it ...”. Or, perhaps, you’re now the one who’s jesting. ... ;-)

  9. "And I also sense a slippery slope in Kant’s idealism towards solipsism."

    That's a misunderstanding Stephen. Kant was not an idealist, he was a noumenalist. His second edition of Critique of Pure Reason was written primarily to dispute that false accusation made by his critics. Even to this day, Kant is misunderstood by most. Immanuel Kant goes on my short list of genius's along with Robert Pirsig.

    Another quote from Pirsig: "The Church of Reason, like all institutions of the System, is based not on individual strength but upon individual weakness. What's really demanded in the Church of Reason is not ability, but inability. Then you are considered teachable. A truly able person is always a threat."

  10. Thanks for all of the comments, folks!

    SelfAware -- Yes, this all depends on what "materialism" or "idealism" amounts to. Cases like this call the usual categories into question.

    Stephen -- Fun quote from philosopher on the train! You write "I wonder if some of the philosophically engaged simply enjoy sorting through the complexities of word-wrangling that’s a mainstay of philosophical written works". Yes, that seems likely.

    Lee & Stephen -- I think there are a wide range of feasible interpretations of Kant, as I argued in this post against the "one true Kant": I think the interpretation I give in the section of the paper on Kant or Kant* is within the range of reasonable interpretations. (Some Kant scholars have agreed with me about this; others seem to grow furious. Disputes about Kant interpretation sometimes turn fatal!) Furthermore, I acknowledge in this post the Kant-Meets-Cyberpunk possibility only knocks on Kant's door, partly because it still requires the concept of time. However, I do think it's reasonable to call the possibility a form of transcendental idealism.

  11. Eric, on the list of motivations to pursue philosophy degrees and philosophy as a profession, we so far have: a sense of wonder, challenges to one’s thinking, sensible answers to important questions, historical perspective, ethical weaponry, word wrangling, enjoyment of the weird and fun, John’s insights and ways of seeing, and encountering the rare and elusive right answer. But you didn’t respond to my interest in an informal survey that would enumerate and rank a more complete list, so I thought I’d ask again if, in your role at UCR, that might be possible? I think the results would make for a fascinating and interesting post.

    People have killed other people over differing Kant interpretations? Astonishing! Maybe pugnacious inspirations should be added to the list ... ;-)

  12. Say, Lee, as a noumenalist, was Kant a transcendental things-in-themselves-ist or some more noumenal kind? ... I kid, I kid! ... ;-)

    My own opinion of genius is that it’s largely genetic, rooted in the nature of one’s neuronal network and is no more praiseworthy than one’s eye color. It also seems to appear in all fields, including but not constrained to intellectual ones. Note that we currently have a very stable genius in the White House.

    I trust the occasional joke or two is allowed in these weighty discussions. ... ;-)

  13. Eric, as I indicated at the end of my initial comment, here are some thoughts about consciousness as a simulation and the wildly popular science-fictional simulations. The first paragraph is adapted from my “Einstein’s Breadcrumbs” paper about consciousness in our block universe which is, by the way, a genuine simulation.

    The world of our consciousness is dramatically different from the external world, which is composed of matter and energy in particles and fields, electromagnetism, photons, waves, vibrations, and so on. The world of experience, on the other hand, including vision and sound, colors, shapes, and bodily feelings (also sweetness), indeed all qualia (introspectively available mental phenomena such as the feeling of the color red) is composed of feelings that are the contents of consciousness. Take vision, for example. The external world contains an ocean of energetic photons, some of which enter our eyeballs and are absorbed by molecules which then change in shape and ultimately create signals transmitted to the brain by neurons. But we don’t see photons—photons don’t look like anything. Instead, the brain’s processing creates and “displays” the familiar visual world. Sound, too, doesn’t exist in the world. The external world contains waves of pressure propagating through gases, liquids and solids, some of which enter the ear, vibrating the eardrum and other structures that ultimately create neuron-transmitted signals sent to the brain. But, as with vision and photons, we don’t hear pressure waves. The external world, including that room you believe is pulsating with the sound of your favorite music, is completely silent. Once again, the brain’s processing creates and “displays” the sound of your favorite Vivaldi concerto. In philosophical terminology, the external world and our bodies as well possess “primary qualities” (or, more precisely, objects with primary qualities) like, for example, mean kinetic energy, and our experiences of the world are “secondary qualities,” in this case the corresponding feeling of heat. The totality of these secondary qualities comprise a model—a simulation—of our embodied selves centered in the world, in short, consciousness. We all live in this simulation created by our brains.

    The Matrix, in the movie The Matrix, is not a simulation at all! Instead, a vastly powerful computer processing system generates the artificial sensory inputs which are fed into the brains of the Duracell humans floating in their pods, relying on the operations of the brain to create consciousness-as-simulation precisely as it does from the usual sensory-driven inputs. Further, the bodies of the humans are completely immobilized, similar to a sleeping state, but more profoundly, since we do still move while asleep. The simulation—the consciousness—of the humans is, therefore, strictly limited to the sensory data delivered by the Matrix, meaning that there’s no possibility of gravity defying Kung Fu fighting or Superman flying or, indeed, any independent action at all. The rebellion is impossible since the data source available to Neo and his cohorts must be the data computed, or even pre-computed by the Matrix’s computer procesing.

    Stories like The Matrix are very enjoyable science fiction, but will remain fictional because they’re essentially impossible. I expect these considerations may apply to other fictional simulations as well.

  14. Eric, at last on-topic regarding your paper, here are some thoughts:

    Physics informs us that ours is a timeless and unchanging block universe where everything (all events) we consider past and future exists “all-at-once.” Timeless means lacking a Flowing Time, not the time that is the temporal dimension of spacetime. This “block-view” of reality is complemented by the flowing and changing “dynamic-view” of our experience. Kant, and many other philosophers concur with the view of physics that flowing time is not a feature of the world but is, in some sense, illusory, as Einstein wrote: “... the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

    I see no problem with material stuff being fundamental which, as you wrote, supports the view that everything that exists is material and “... the odds appear good that we are living in a large, stable, enduring universe with fixed laws that we can rely on.” That universe is the block universe, with the understanding that the “laws” are regularities seen from the dynamic-view and supported by empirical evidence.

    I'm in the materialist camp and the philosophical difficulties with materialism you cited don’t appear to be obstacles: what it is to be “material” or “physical” is to exist in the block universe; consciousness not being explainable by materialism is an evidence-free belief. Without specifics, however, I’m unable to comment on your “... unspecified highly bizarre consequences of one sort or another.”

    You write, “Although the best current scientific cosmology is a Big Bang cosmology, cosmological theory has proven unstable over the decades, offers no consensus explanation of the cause (if any) of our universe ...” Realizing that Big Bang cosmology, as with all of our science, is derived from an analysis of the coherent dynamic-view stories in the block universe, it’s apparent that cosmology cannot, and does not speak at all about the origin of the block universe. (I believe your phrasing “cause of the universe” assumes too much). It’s obvious that questioning the origin of the block universe is asking a question that has no answer, as indicated by the fact that the subject is never mentioned by physicists. But it seems to me that’s the space where we find philosophical propositions like transcendental idealism, as well as panpsychism and neutral monism, which is why they’re unverifiable from the get-go, and ultimately useless as explanations.

    [Continued ...]


  15. I’ve already mentioned my view that the block universe is a simulation, with consciousness as the animator of the dynamic-view, grounded in the realization that the so-called “perception” of flowing time is a misattribution of the stream of consciousness. Another paragraph from “Einstein’s Breadcrumbs” explains:

    “The architecture of the block universe with embedded consciousness is very similar to that of a computer created Artificial/Virtual Reality implementation in that the same pattern exists, consisting of a collection of fixed and unchanging data, the block universe itself, as the primary substrate input to the senses that is then processed into our brain's consciousness—the simulation of ourselves centered in the world. The significant architectural difference is that in the block universe the body and brain—the science-fictional hotsuit and headmount—are themselves part of The Data of the block universe, a strikingly efficient design, enabling every life to be repeatedly experienced as opposed to a single computed VR-like iteration that, once experienced, is lost forever.”

    You close your paper with “If ... fundamental reality is radically incomprehensible to us, then empirical reality might be subject to whims and chances far beyond our ken. The Divine might stumble over the power cord at any moment, ending us all.” Be assured that if, in the dynamic-view, the block universe itself were to come to an end at some distant “future” time coordinate, we wouldn’t be here. I suspect that’s the observation that led Einstein to conclude that our repeated experience of life can correctly be called “the eternity of life.”