My friend Lance introduced a lot of topics in the comment stream under my article Debunking Myself: What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been so I moved it here to create a fresh thread. He introduced five topics which I will in answer in order of appearance:
I am quite interested in what you think we can know, if anything, about reality (whatever that is). Having studied physics you will have a better understanding than I do regarding our current theoretical understanding of the material universe. 1) It may be that we are all in a simulation created by a more technologically advanced “species” and that we don’t really exist in the way we feel we do. If we believe that then it’s sort of the end of the discussion as there really is no you and me in the way we ordinarily think about our existence.
The hypothesis that we are living in a simulation has gained a lot of attention recently. It’s been the focus of books, articles, Ted talks, podcasts, etc. I’ve always liked movies that question the nature of reality such as The Matrix and Vanilla Sky which are just technological variations on the ancient story of Chang Tzu who woke from dreaming he was a butterfly, only to wonder if he was actually a butterfly dreaming he was a man. No matter what the source of our apparent existence, I can think of no way to prove it is not a dream or a simulation. When I was a Christian, I always thought of reality as a “Dream in the Mind of God” and for most of my life have tended towards philosophical Idealism. It made more sense to me to see Consciousness as fundamental, since I could easily understand how object could arise from consciousness, but not the reverse.
But I’m evenly split on this question now, because I see how my mind is made of matter, and if I make a little change to that matter, such as ingesting a hundred millionths of a gram of LSD, my conscious radically changes. How can ingesting matter cause such a profound change if my consciousness is truly independent of my brain? And if my consciousness is a product of a physical thing like my brain, I see no reason it could not be the product of an artificial brain, a simulation.
With that introduction, maybe I can answer your point that “there really is no you and me” if we exist in a simulation. I don’t see how that follows. If Buddhists (and many neuroscientists like Sam Harris) are correct, there is no “real you and me” regardless of the nature of the reality we perceive. It sounds like you are importing the concept of an “immortal soul” – a spiritual entity that continues to exist after the death of the body. That would be a great topic of conversation, but I think it’s entirely separate from whether or not we are living in a dream, simulation, or ontologically fundamental “real world.” And this leads to another rabbit hole. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s book The Great Divide in which heaven was the REALITY and this world a mere shadow. So much to discuss! So my final answer to your first point is: Even if we live in a simulation, it’s no dead end! We could easily spend the rest of our lives discussing the ramifications, how it would relate to ultimate reality, God, the existence of selves and souls, etc., etc., etc. And most significantly, we could explore the possibility of escaping the Matrix and becoming REAL like the Velveteen Rabbit or Pinocchio. So now we are back to children’s tales. Maybe we do live in a simulation and it is a nursery for the creation new souls! There never will be an end to Fantasia, so long as we we know how to stop the Nothing.
2) The postmodern “idea” that everything is narrative and that there is no objective “truth” or “reality” that can be known is, again, a dead end. If we believe there is no reality outside of ourselves that can be objectively known (to some degree of accuracy or predictability) then what more is there to say. Personally, I find the whole postmodern, deconstructionist “philosophy” repugnant and deeply anti-human. Of course subjectivity, belief systems etc. act as lenses through which we “know” and “think” – but to deny that one cannot know some things objectively (to some or other degree of accuracy) is self-refuting.
I agree that postmodernism has taken a “repugnant and anti-human” turn. But that’s not how it started. It contains a lot of useful insights that are worthy of study. It is a correction to the over-confidence created by “grand narratives” that trapped people in an ideology. But now it has morphed into it’s opposite and is itself an anti-intellectual ideology used by authoritarian leftists to dominate and shut-down open discourse which I find altogether repulsive, destructive, and dangerous. If anything contains the “seeds of it’s own destruction” it is Postmodern Philosophy!
I agree that it is absurd to deny the ability to “know” anything, but on the other hand, there is almost nothing that we know in an “absolute” sense. And everyone seems terribly confused about the meaning of “Objectivity.” This is particularly obvious when it comes to Christian theologians who argue for “objective morality” and then fail to define what they mean. I talk about this in my old article The Logic of Love: A Natural Theory of Morality (and many other articles).
3) My “belief” is that there is something really real that can be observed or theorised about and which has an objective reality independent of our thoughts and theories. If every human dies this instant the Universe would not cease to exist.
I agree there is something really real, but what that is remains a mystery. It could be the world in which I’m a butterfly dreaming I’m a man. It could be the world in which the simulation is being run. It could be the “Mind of God.” It could be One Universal Consciousness that is “dreaming the world.” It could be an ever-expanding multiverse of elementary particles blindly evolving according to fundamental laws.
4) Our current theories about the physical nature of the Universe allow us, in many cases, to make stunningly accurate predictions about how that Universe operates. However, we cannot say that they are a complete or even accurate description of the Universe. We don’t really know how this Universe came to be; our theories break down at the very beginning, we have theories about quantum fluctuations in a vacuum (ie “nothing” but not really nothing), we don’t really have a theory of quantum gravity, we aren’t really sure what dark energy and matter is (and if it even exists) etc. etc. What I am saying is that, despite the incredible advances we have made in understanding the Universe and despite the stunning accuracy of our theories, they are incomplete and it’s epistemic arrogance to say that we “know” how this Universe came to be, operates and will end. I am not making an argument for a “God of the gaps”. Many scientists don’t like admitting the limitations of their knowledge as they fear it will give ammunition to, for example, creationists. What I am saying is that the material Universe is probably still a lot stranger (and more wonderful) than we currently understand.
I doubt many, if any, scientists would have trouble agreeing with your assessment of the limitations of our knowledge. It’s also unlikely that they would fear giving “ammunition” to creationists since they probably don’t even cross their mind. Of course, “creationist” is too broad a term, since there are a great variety spanning everything from serious scientists to cranks and cons. There are Young Earth Creationists, Flat Earth Creationists, Old Earth Creationists, Evolutionary Creationists, etc., etc., etc. (Gotta love the King and I!)
I agree that the
material Universe is probably “a lot stranger (and more wonderful) than we currently understand. But I strike the word “material” because I doubt “matter” is the fundamental reality. Einstein taught us that matter and energy are really the same thing (E = mc2 ) and we don’t know what either “really” are and if everything really is just an “object of consciousness (Idealism) then there is no “matter” at all. I tend towards philosophic monism (ultimate reality is one kind of thing) so there’s no “natural” vs. “supernatural. I just call myself a “naturalist.”
5) In summary, my first presupposition is that we are, if nothing else, real “beings” in a real Universe about which we can, through reasoning, obtain knowledge that exits independently of us and our thoughts. I am not, at this stage anyway, making any argument for some kind of non-energy/matter reality at this stage (ie no spiritual/supernatural realm). What do you believe with regard to the reality of the Universe and what we can and do know about it? I am genuinely interested.
I agree that we are “real” even if we don’t exist as a “self” (in which case “I” is just a handy way to refer to the entity others recognize when they look at my body). And we are “real” even if the apparent reality we find ourselves in is not the “ultimate” reality. It doesn’t matter if it is a simulation, a dream, an ex-nihilo creation by a God, or whatever. But I am very excited to explore these possiblities with you, and any friends who’d like to join in.
Great questions Lance! Really glad you took the time to discuss them with me.