Philosophy & Science

On our ‘About’ page, we describe Matrise as a blog that focuses on the topics of VR and Consciousness, and the related Science & Philosophy. In this entry, we will discuss why we find both Science & Philosophy essential and how the disciplines compliment each other. The entry is apologetic of Philosophy as a discourse, and especially critiques the philosophy of Scientism and other extremes of logical positivism — of which the former can be understood as an ignorance of the role of philosophy in general. The discussion is highly relevant as this is a worldview increasingly adopted by young people and promoted by popular science figures. The danger is a spread of anti-intellectualism, which ironically is going on under the flag of science, and further even tries to adopt its authority.

It should be noted that although the entry critiques some ignorant science communicators, it is not the aim of this entry to argue philosophy in any way triumphant over science.  The aim is rather to replace “versus” with “and”, and illustrate their mutual dependency. Like my philosopher friend and colleague Deborah G. Johnson once said of her technology criticism: “I prefer to think of my role as similar to that of an art critic” — an art critic loves art, and similarly, in this entry, my critique is out of love for the scientific discourse. It is, by far, not directed at the conceptual core of science, but rather towards the bad tendency that may be had towards it.

In my occupation as a Ph.D. fellow, I ought to, and do, value both science & philosophy, and the main argument of this entry will be the inseparability of the two disciplines and the beauty of their interplay.

Philosophy is Dead, Long Live Philosophy

Illustrating excerpt from “The Philosophy Force Five vs the Scientismists” by Existential Comics. The left guy seems to be Richard Dawkins. Original can be found here.

It may benefit us to personify the attitude towards science and philosophy that we are criticizing with an example. In 2010, the late brilliant Professor Stephen Hawking declared that ‘Philosophy is Dead’, and that the torch guiding the quest for knowledge had been passed to scientists rather than the philosophers. The strong irony present is obviously how Hawking argues the death of philosophy in terms of philosophical arguments, thus illustrating the futility of his statement simultaneously. In his book, “The Grand Design”, Hawking writes that metaphysical questions such as the meaning of life and the nature of reality traditionally were questions for philosophers — but that now, alas, philosophy is dead. Luckily, however, Hawking himself comes to the rescue: further in the book he writes that the “purpose of this book is to give the answers that are suggested by recent discoveries and theoretical advances” — thus pronouncing ever more clearly that his book is one of philosophy rather than science — but which reasons on asserted scientific facts. Revolutionary, indeed. Why did not Philosophy think of just looking at the answers that were suggested by the facts? The whole field of Philosophy is dead, but Hawking has taken it up as a side project and written a philosophical book, so we need not worry.

A critical point that illustrates Hawking’s misunderstanding here, is how he announces that his book discusses “the answers that are suggested by science”. His attitude is therefore that the physics always imply its metaphysics; that descriptive facts of the world also tell of their own meaning, that the solution is always innate in the problem. The situation is that Hawking, of course, has a certain philosophy, he is simply not critical towards his acceptance of it. His assertion is easy to critique, however,  by arguing that science does not suggest anything — Hawking, however, suggest several things, and these may be great things and great ideas! It is easy to agree with his philosophy as broad as it is: through observation, we agree on facts, and with logic, we reason on the meaning of these facts. Hawking is philosophizing on scientific discoveries and theories, and that would be a great thing had he only been aware that was his approach. There is not (necessarily) anything wrong with his philosophical stance, except in exactly how it claims to not be a philosophical stance. The saying “Philosophy is Dead” instantly revives Philosophy as the utterance itself is a philosophical statement. The sentence achieves the same futility as a person grabbing a megaphone to announce that megaphones don’t really work.

Illustrating excerpt from “The Philosophy Force Five vs the Scientismists” by Existential Comics. Original can be found here.

The Science Gang

Unfortunately, Hawking as a popular science communicator is not alone in his ignorance. For instance, both Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye (the Science guy), has also publicly addressed their concerns over Philosophy. Neil deGrasse Tyson has called Philosophy ‘useless‘, advising bright students to stay away from it, and stated that Philosophy is not “a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world”. He has also said that he is concerned that “philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature”, and described the venture of philosophy as being “distracted by questions”, and therefore not able to contribute anything to our understanding.

Our best example of the problem that lies at the core of these poor critiques, however,  is given by Bill Nye in a YouTube video where he is faced with a question from a Philosophy major on what his take on Philosophy is. Nye addresses the topic of Philosophy by introducing several great philosophical problems such as the nature of consciousness and reality, only to dismiss them based on the argument, or, rather saying, that he is quite sure that reality is real. Deep dive. The best illustrative quote would perhaps be his rejection, and total misunderstanding, of Descartes’ famous argument ‘Cogito ergo sum — I think, therefore I am.’ Nye comments on this: «Well, what if you don’t think, do you not exist anymore? You probably still exist even if you don’t think about existence”. I hope I don’t have to explain why this is ridiculous.

At the end of the video, Nye goes further into depravity when he presents a thought experiment to validate his lack of philosophical skepticism.  Nye simply asks the questioner to drop a hammer on his foot. This kind of argumentation is classic and has long before been termed ‘argument ad lapidem‘: a logical fallacy that consists of dismissing a statement as absurd without giving proof of its absurdity. What is even more unfortunate, however, is that this was a brilliant opportunity for Nye to illustrate how science actually benefit philosophy, as there is much evidence from scientific experiments that show we may not always be able to trust our senses, and even our own reasoning (read for instance about the fascinating split-brain experiments, or even here on Matrise on how we can fool our senses to achieve Virtual Embodiment or our entry on The World of Illusions). For those who can emotionally afford to experience a few cringy minutes, Bill Nye’s YouTube video can be watched here.

A Philosophical Argument

Illustration borrowed from Existential Comics’ “Philosophers And Physicists” available here.

The problem with a defiant attitude towards Philosophy is that it promotes an ignorance of thorough, critical thinking. Our sciences are infused with philosophy and we need philosophy to reason on our discoveries and their meaning, and further to discuss what we want to research. The best way to understand this is that our scientific methods are an accomplishment of philosophy with the epistemology, methodology, and rationality underlying it: the validity of the scientific discourse is argued for in philosophical terms. Science is not given, it is a construct: our scientific methods have been developed, and are still being discussed and developed to this day. Science & Philosophy does not compete with each other; philosophers compete with philosophers; the logical positivists compete with the idealists, and the rationalists compete with the empiricists. Science is conceptually within Philosophy, and one of its greatest accomplishments. They do not exist separately.

The Uninvestigated Myth

What Philosophy can teach us, and which perhaps especially the field of Existentialism stresses, is to critically reinvestigate our beliefs. It stresses the possibility of each individual to realize their own potential, and also implicitly, the possibility of failing to do so. Heidegger, for instance, a philosopher which we have discussed in several entries earlier is concerned with authentic existence. Allowing an uninvestigated myth such as Scientism to guide one’s life could be a good illustration of Heidegger’s “Das man”; which could be said to be his impersonated term for the norms and culture we blindly accept. It is hard to translate “Das man”, but Heidegger defines it as a possible state of Dasein’s Being. A common way to explain or translate “Das Man” is to the “They” or the “One”, as in “One should always get up early”. Heidegger explains that “‘Das man’ prescribes one’s state-of-mind, and determines what and how one ‘sees'”. This can be read as that culture, or uninvestigated norms that provide a narrative to our existence determines how we fundamentally interpret reality. In the words of crazy Terence McKenna: «Culture is not your friend!»  Rather than to accept the cultural and societal narratives, we should critically investigate them, and not let anyone dictate a narrative for us that we should just subscribe to. What narratives in our society do we subscribe to, in relation to who we are and what we want?  What did we adopt from our parents and our society in relation to how we understand the basic principles of the world?

Illustration borrowed from Existential Comics’ “Philosophy News Network: Philosophy Solved” available here.

 Conclusion

It is a very naïve view, indeed, to believe that the solutions to the problems of mankind may be solved if all the young, bright minds go into the natural sciences. We need not only to find out how nature works, but also how we ought to work with it and further with each other. Science alone does not tell us what we should do in our lives. No scientific fact can alone provide us meaning, or say what we should value and pursue. Dismissing philosophy is a dismissal of thorough criticism, it is being attached and dependent on one’s settled, foundational narrative of how the world works.

Concluding this entry is an accompanying text to one of the comics in this entry on Scientism by Corey Mohler. As this entry has not necessarily been very explicit on what Scientism is, it may be informative to read his very clear presentation on this.


“‘Scientism’ is the position that Science can solve all problems, or that all problems are empirical. Philosophically, it is mostly associated with the strongest statements made by the logical positivism movement, which mostly died out in the mid 20th century. Culturally, however, it is stronger than ever, and is closely tied to movements like the so-called “New Atheists”. These newer, more naive forms of Scientism, also have a strong tendency to call philosophy “a big waste of time”, “pointless arguing”, “nothing but semantics”, etc. Rhetorically, they tend to say that non-empirical ideas have no way to guarantee they are true, so are pointless to talk about. This is a rather ridiculous point to make, since their entire movement is based around spreading a certain set of non-empirical, philosophical norms, which they apparently don’t feel it necessary to open up to criticism. What they mostly seem to mean is, assuming everyone agrees with us on the important philosophic questions, such as atheism, utilitarianism, capitalism, eliminative materialism, etc., then we don’t need anything but science. Well, this is maybe true in a strange way, insofar that if everyone agreed on every philosophical position, i.e. if philosophy was solved, then we probably wouldn’t need philosophy. Philosophy, however, has not been solved. Furthermore, if it is going to be solved, it certainly won’t be solved by a bunch of people who don’t even read or engage in philosophy. The real goal is often just to draw a border around what we should or shouldn’t question, because they don’t want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change. And, well, people who don’t want society to change often also find themselves not wanting people to even think about changing society.” — Corey Mohler behind ExistentialComics.com

The Mind as Medium

N.B: This post is the third and final post in a series that comments upon a metaphysical stand towards VR technology. The entries are based upon an essay that was written for a doctoral course on the philosophy and ethics of the social sciences. The two previous post that precedes this one, are linked here:  1) “On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency“, and  2) “Heidegger’s Virtual Reality


3 / 3

Now that we have arrived at the final post of the series, it is time to revisit our initial problem of Virtual Reality and Authenticity. Initially, we introduced our problem as the abstracting tendencies of Information Technology, and the unique position of VR technology in this case, as it abstracts all the while displaying a high degree of transparency and coherency with the real world – while simultaneously hiding the real world as much as possible. We wanted to ask whether this was indeed a real problem, and if the technology could in effect distance ourselves from the reality of the world, and thus distance ourself from truth, or an authentic living.

An old illustration of a Stereoscope, the illusive technology responsible for 3D effects in our modern VR Head-Mounted Displays. The first stereoscope was created in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatstone.

Discussion

After reviewing Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology”, we noticed several questions that we could use in our existential approach to our technology critique. Following the lines of Heidegger, we could say that we could have a free relationship towards VR when we know what it is. We can for instance ask whether we can see any “Enframing” tendencies of VR technologies.

In Being and Time, Heidegger’s concern for authenticity is a concern for individuality: a concern for Dasein’s possible impossibility of leading its own life: the death of authenticity. In the they-self, no individual is thoroughly relating to its Being, and so the truths and the “goings-on” that is defined “culturally” in the they-self, are in a sense accepted blindly and left unexplored: they are abstractions as they are not defined relatively to each Dasein; they are not experiential, not resolutely made up. Effectively, we are not in control when we have given ourselves up to let the they-self decide the possibilities of what we can project upon.

“The Fairies Flew Away”, by Charles Henry Bennett.

Similarly, In Heidegger’s Questioning Concerning Technology, we introduced the term of Enframing. Enframing is dangerous because we create things that enframe us, we instantiate our enframing orientation in technology. If we do not relate to technology as exactly this which it is in its essence, Enframing, we do not relate to it as it is, and so it may hinder us to perceive the world as it is. Both by relating to the agenda set by the they-self, or the framework set by ourselves indirectly through our enframing technology, we do not relate to the world and our active projection upon it: we do not resolutely enact our nature of actualizing the possibilities that can lead us to our authentic self.

So how is this relevant for the technology of VR? Should we interpret it as that we are not in control over our possibilities, if they are presented to us through VR, rather than in real life? Can , in this respect, VR be seen as an instantiation of the they-self, as it similarly provides abstractions, terms and conventions? If we remember to follow Heidegger deeper than the image of the problem, we may see that it is not VR that we should be afraid of. VR, like other modern technology, carries the mark of its author: and similarly we can see the creation of VR as the ultimate dream of Man. We spoke earlier of the characters of challenging-forth as inspired by the view of modern physics as an exact science: we wanted to view the world as chopped up in parts and materials that we could understand, enframe, and use as means to ends. If the dream accompanying this Newtonian metaphysic ever was lost with the rise of quantum physics, VR can certainly become the free space where man’s illusive control over the world could be rekindled: finally we have a world, not of atoms, but of bits, that we can know totally through an actual access to its source code.

We can have a free relationship towards VR, when we understand what the essence of VR is. To what is the essence of VR, we will not answer “enframing”, but rather abstraction, and more specifically, abstraction in the mode of transparency. The tendencies of abstraction, was, as with Heidegger’s technology, perhaps not inherently something technological, but something human: only technology made it obvious and explicit enough for us to see clearly. VR may perhaps be an interesting way for us to look at the real problem figuratively; the technology stands in between (medium) you and your senses, in the same way that our mental terms and classifications obscure the otherwise non-reducable reality.

To create VR is a human activity, and in VR we find much of ourselves: similarly to technology in general, we see that VR is a means to an end, and that it is an instantiation of this purpose. Sometimes, this purpose is “re-presenting” an abstraction of reality, and so it is not the genuine authentic reality itself that we see. We can therefore say that it is a human activity to create representations as means to an end, and even further, we can say that it is human to abstract, it is human to deal in images, it is human to connote terms and concepts, similarly to “putting things to boxes” in the enframing attitude of mind. With VR, these boxes are presented to us as reality, or at least in the format of reality, and the result is a realm of abstraction, a realm of representation, that blocks naturally-occurring presentation. Similarly to how Heidegger’s technology illustrated our enframing tendencies, VR may show us our desire to create our own bubbles of reality to inhibit, our own terming and associations and concepts of the self. In this respect, the essence of VR may not even be anything new. In this sense, we have created “mental virtual realities” for a long time, and the technological, the “material” expression of this does not provide anything new.

Conclusion

If we can understand the essence of VR as abstraction in the mode of transparency, and, similarly to Heidegger’s technological essence, believe that this essence is inherited from our own tendencies of mind, we will view it as such that it is human to create transparent abstractions. Through our terms, conventions, and definitions, we abstract, and through relating to these abstractions, we perceive them as real. Our thoughts and defined concepts, and the conventions we adhere to, work as our transparent user interface’s which we use to navigate the world. Our initial fear was that IT, examplified in its extreme case of VR, would act as a wall between us and the world; inhibiting a true, authentic relationship towards it. This is, however, not fundamentally something that we find in especially in a certain technology – instead, we find that when we look at this technology we are instead looking at ourselves. The mediums and interfaces that classifies and simplifies is inspired by our minds that classify and simplify. Technology is not the separation between us and the world, at least not any less than the enframing and abstracting orientation of our minds to the world are: the one mirror the other. We have thus reached a new question to replace the first, one step further on the hermeunetical spiral, and that is whether our own abstracting tendencies of mind keep us from authenticity.

Literature list

The Experience Machine

In  a previous entry, we discussed the potential of using VR technologies for journalistic purposes. In this post, we will both examplify and abstract the underlying principles of this theme. We will start with a philosophical introduction to the concept of “The Experience Machine”, before presenting and discussing four new VR Journalism prototypes developed during a course at the University of Bergen, Norway.

The Evil Deceiver
Since Rene Descartes published his Meditations in 1647, the West has been interested in what is real or authentic, and whether any knowledge of this is at all possible. In his text, Descartes outlines the idea of a potential “Evil Deceiver”; a demon that could alter his impressions of the external world. He writes that he can not know whether what he sees and perceives is real, or if it is a demon that is fooling him.  Although Descartes later in his Meditations provides arguments for why this can not be the case, based on his provided “evidence of God”, this argument of his does not bring solace to most, and as such the skepticism he postulated have outlived him, and is just as relevant a theme today.

Descartes’ Illustration of Stereoscopic Vision

When this is discussed philosophically today, the imagery of an Evil Deceiver comes a bit short. Rather, it is discussed in more technological or “physical” terms – instead the demon, we think of the potential scenario of our brains encapsulated in a vat. We know (although it always feels unnatural to use the word “know” when discussing the grounds of epistemic reasoning),  that our perception of reality is sensory impressions interpreted by the brain. We can then imagine the “Brain-In-A-Vat” as the philosopher Gilbert Harman describes it; a brain disconnected from its body, yet being fed electrical pulses that simulate sensory impressions. This has been the theme of several popular films, such as The Matrix series, in which AI has imprisoned humanity in a Virtual Reality. The first film brilliantly examplifies our philosophical points, as it depicts both an Evil Deceiver in the form of the AI, and the imprisonment of human brains in a vat. Conceptually, Harman’s reformulation does not bring anything new to this thought experiment, except a sort of updated imagery as a vessel on which to explain it. Of that reason, however, it is more relevant to our associations, as the “Brain-In-A-Vat” idea reminds us of the Immersive Virtual Reality technology that we see emerge today.

Clockwork Eyes by Michael Ryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this is the direction that we are heading in this entry – towards VR rather than epistemology.  Instead of discussing whether knowledge about the external world can be had, we will investigate this theme further through a philosopher that take a different approach to the concept of artificial stimuli: he is not speaking of the impending doom of AI demonic domination, but rather uses these concepts in thought experiments, as a means to reason on what matters to us. What matters to us is deeply related to what we do, and what we do is deeply related to who we are. As such, these questions can be illuminating in exploring who we are, or  want to be, as human beings.

The Experience Machine, Unknown Illustrator.

The Experience Machine
In 1974, Robert Nozick introduced the term “Experience Machine”, or “Pleasure Machine”, as a thought experiment. The experiment is a brilliant way to put the idea of Hedonism in individuals on trial. Now, hedonism is the view that happiness or pleasure is, the only thing that is in its essence good. Other things can be “instrumentally good”, as they may lead to happiness or pleasure, but they are only given their value then, by being the means to the end. The thought experiment is this: if you had a machine that could give you any experience that you ever wanted, including pleasure for the rest of your life, would you use it? Would you plug in?

We are here awfully close to the idea of the Brain-In-A-Vat, but yet the perspective is shifting: in this case we would not be trapped in a false reality against our will, but according to it. The value of the thought experiment is clear – in answering to it, we answer to whether we value truth as an “attribute” of sensory impressions in and out of itself; if authenticity and reality or whatever we want to call it has a value in itself, and is to be preferred despite its potential, say, gruesomeness. If one accepts Hedonism, the whole world is enframed as being a means to the end of pleasure, and as such, if such a Pleasure Machine presented itself, we could abandon the means in favor of the ends, going straight for the juice. Nozick’s idea is that if one does not want to plug into the machine, one effectively ‘proves’ that pleasure is not all Man wants or needs, and Hedonism can as such be refuted.

Some, however, feel that this formulation of the thought experiment is not sharp enough in its ability to try out the idea of Hedonism. The critique is that concern for authenticity or “realness” is not the only possible motive one may have to decline: many would prefer to not plug into the machine, not necessarily because they really care for truth, but because they are creatures of habit, and simply prefers the world they have accustomed themselves to. There is in other words other motivations for negating the question than the preference for truth. A better formulation that avoids this pitfall, is this: if you were told that your life up to now had been such an illusion, a pleasure machine, would you then like to wake up? 

Hinduism
These thoughts can be traced back to long before the rise of the particular Western philosophy as followed Descartes. According to Hindu cosmology, each of us lives in maya (illusion) as to what is the core reality of Self, or Atman. Life can be seen as a play, and Brahman is the actor that plays all the parts, totally immersed and engaged in them so it forgets its real self, and instead is amusing itself in its ignorance (for instance by passing time reading blogs online). Reality then, is a game of hide and seek, where you are both the hider and the seeker, playing for eternity. Similarly to the Experience Machine, the subject is ignorant to the true nature of reality, by choice.

The Five Aspects of Shiva

Why, then, would God hide from himself? The idea is simple: being God gets boring after a while. Imagine that you are God, and could have any experience you ever wanted. You would perhaps start by throwing some crazy parties, creating some planets, etc., for a few million years. Eventually, you have kind of “been there, done that”. The curse of being all-knowing and omnipotent is, of course, despite the supreme bliss, that it’s hard to get a true kick out of it anymore. You lack the element of surprise. Surprise, as reaction, needs duality, but you are One. The idea strikes you: what if we were not One? You decide to go for it: split into multiples, and so each can surprise the other. Atman, becomes Brahman, the player of all the parts in the play of life. At times it gets terrifyingly real, after all you have to die to wake up.  But this is what you came for, because no surprise is greater than to wake up, and to realize that you were Atman, the Permanent, all along.

Modern Day Experience Machines
In 1974, for Nozick, the experience machine was a thought experiment far away from reality. Today, it is perhaps far too easy to see the potential of its realization. When VR applications are released today, they are often presented as “experiences”; not always games, not necessarily videos, but experiences. We have in a previous entry discussed Art in Virtual Reality, where the focus on “experience” is particularly present, and shows the potential of the medium for artistic expression. The same is the case with Immersive Journalism, where the first person perspective is especially exploited as a means to provide a user with a different experience than what otherwise is had in everyday life. Within VR Journalism, the discussion of experience machines has almost been had, as Milk in his 2016 Ted Talk described VR as the ultimate empathy machine. In Immersive Journalism, the 360° (sometimes 3D) camera work as the eyes of the observer, and lets one virtually step into someone elses shoes, or at least to put on their eyes.

In a course that we have ran at the University of Bergen this spring, we have taught Immersive Journalism within an Innovation Pedagogy regime. As the rules and practices within the new concept is not very well established, we do not teach the students exactly to solve their tasks, but rather how to experiment with the novelties of the medium and try to innovate and create new genres. The end result have been four prototypes, that was presented yesterday, at the Norwegian Centre of Excellence (NCE) Media’s media lab in Media City Bergen. All of these productions are well fit for the topic of “modern day experience machines”, and as such they will be presented here in this entry.

Drug addict
The first of the VR experiences is called “Narkomani” which from Norwegian can roughly be translated to “Drug addict”. The aim of the production is to see the world from the point of view of a drug addict, perhaps living on the streets in Bergen. How is it to be frowned upon, walking around the streets, uneasy to get the next shot of dope? As my colleague Nyre stated in the introduction the projects, this VR project features “not a first person shooter from Los Angeles, but first person social realism from Bergen”.

Schizophrenia
The second of the VR experiences, attempts to create understanding on how it is to live with schizophrenia. In the experience, the user perceives visual hallucinations, and audio of up to five different personalities. The concept is brilliantly illustrated by the poster, and the experience tries to portrait a subjective reality falling apart.

Plastic
The third VR experience has children as its target group, and aims to introduce the world problem of plastic to them. In this case, the VR medium is being exploited for its capabilities for visualization. For children, numbers may be too abstract, and visual images may be more appealing to get the message across.  The experience features combinations of 360° video footage with 3D objects.

Cryonics
The final VR experience has the topic of cryonics, i.e., freezing oneself down immediately upon death. The production aims to educate on the topic with interviews from different philosophers, religious leaders, etc., which you hear and see while chilling in your freeze tank. When the production starts, you find yourself lying down on an operation table before insterted into the capsule and frozen.

Images and more information about the event, can be seen at the websites of research project ViSmedia.

Conclusion
The relation between Self and Other, the Internal and the External, Inner and Outer, has always fascinated us. This dualism comes with problems, and we are skeptic to whether the seemingly similar values on both sides of the Self – Other equation, can be cancelled out and forgotten. These problems enter a new fascinating light when we encounter new technology that has the capability of actualizing them. All sorts of experience machines are being created today, although we still are quite far from escapism into VR as a societal issue.

The topic of authenticity in relation to VR, will be further discussed at Matrise in a three-entry series that steers towards a metaphysic of VR. The entries will discuss the topic in light of, particularly, Heidegger’s existentialism. The entries will be published next week.

Literature list

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