fredag, oktober 22, 2010

To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

[Announcement: I experimented with my blog settings some time ago and forgot to adjust them back, so I didn't realise that comments were forbidden until my friend kindly informed me of my mistake a while ago. I have adjusted my settings and now comments are allowed again. Sorry to those who wanted to comment but weren't able to.]

So the other day I was having lunch with Mr Vietnamese when our conversations, in between those leisurely sips and bites, casually drifted into the realms of philosophy. Mr Vietnamese revealed that he sometimes has Cartesian tendencies, questioning if the world in which we live is indeed objectively real. Having experienced similar bouts of existential panic before, I articulated my sincerest sympathy, at which point he earnestly asked me how one could reconcile the idea that one's life is not entirely meaningless with the notion that we could very well be living in computer simulation (or in a figment of hallucination).

I responded by bringing up two different points: 1) As argued in Descartes' meditations, even if the existence of our world can be called into doubt, at the very least we can still be certain of the presence of our consciousness, and that much seems indisputable. Insofar as our consciousness doubtlessly exists, I believe that we have free will, and our free will can be best expressed in our navigations of and reactions to the physical world, illusory as it may be. The chimerical nature of this universe in which we reside does not necessarily entail the loss of all meaning in our lives; after all, we continue to preserve our capacity for autonomy, and our agency can be exercised through our volitional responses to the circumstances fashioned by the computer which operates the simulated world in which we currently exist. Perhaps everything exists merely in our heads, but we must never forget that we exert power over our imaginations, and not vice versa - it is definitely quite plausible to presume that we have the ability to decide and influence the directions in which events should next proceed, even if these events are just products of our collective daydreaming. 2) While establishing my earlier point, I was tacitly assuming that the unreality of our physical world is a characteristic always concomitant with the notion that we live in a matrix, but now I wish to clarify that I do not really think that these two ideas are so inextricably intertwined. I actually follow Chalmers' lead in arguing that, even if it does turn out that we live in a matrix, we can still be assured of the tangibility of our corporeal world, because then what underlies the fabric of our world is not physical substances such as quarks, but computer bits upon which simulated universes are built, and these computer bits are certainly no less real than the physical entities which, according to scientists in our present age, constitute the foundation of our universe. I find Chalmers' argument particularly compelling, and one big advantage it offers is the avoidance of nihilism even if we simply turn out to be brains in vats.

Here I deem it important to elaborate what I mean exactly by the term "simulation". My Weltanschauung does not accommodate the concept of a moralistic, interventionist God ('God' here is loosely defined as any superior individual that has the power to control the unfolding of things around us - note that I do not invest any connotation of supernaturalness in this understanding of 'superiority'; the scientists who constructed our simulated world - if we do live in one - also qualify as superior beings, even though they are most certainly not supernatural figures), for I think no argument can achieve any success in demonstrating that such a God is compatible with the idea of free will, and I choose to reject a God of this nature in favour of free will. If it does turn out that we live in a simulation, I think the likeliest picture is that this invented world was set into motion and then left completely alone to run on its own. My agnosticism regarding this version of the Simulated World Hypothesis (hereafter abbreviated as SWH), which I shall name Version X, compels me to concede that deism is not a totally outlandish doctrine (insofar the definition of superiority does not necessarily involve supernaturalness), for they are one and the same. Compare:

Version X: We live in a world which was created and then left to run on its own without additional interruptions or interferences.
Deism: We live in a world which was created and then left to run on its own without additional interruptions or interferences.

Essentially, there is no difference between the two. Therefore, I am an atheist inasmuch as a moralistic, interventionist, personal, anthropomorphic God is concerned (in fact, if the Bible, the Koran as well as other religious texts are to be taken as faithful literal representations of God, then I can say with confidence that I know they are fallacious), but I am undecided on the issue of deism. I am still more inclined towards the stand that deism is misguided, but I cannot deny it with as much certainty. Anyway, it is surely possible that there is an innumerable series of simulations, one contained in another, and eventually we will return to the issue of creation and maintenance, this time of the world in which all the other simulated worlds are stored.

Anyway, to resume, Mr Vietnamese asked me to defend my commitment to the absence of a non-interventionist God by accounting for the phenomena of accurate divinations. I explained that it is merely a false belief that divinations have predictive power, and that this false impression is an outcome of our unintentional/irrational predisposition to transform supposedly prophetic words into self-fulfilling prophecies through our own actions. E.g., if your daily horoscope tells you that today your colleagues - even those from whom you are usually quite distant - will be exceptionally friendly towards you, this piece of nice news will very likely affect your mood in a positive way, and your sudden display of joviality will in turn subtly encourage the people around you to treat you in a more friendly manner. At the end of a reasonably enjoyable day at work, you go home marvelling merrily to yourself about how accurate your horoscope reading is.

To truly maximise our free will, we have to learn to break free from the fetters of these 'divinations' - they are detrimental to our lives for their suggestions are difficult to be completely eradicated from our minds, and it is likely that we will end up being puppets to their dictations. 'Divinations' are mostly phrased in very vague terms, often allowing their readers to form their own assumptions and interpretations of the contents, and the inception of these ideas will impact people to subconsciously lead their lives in a way that would bring about the fulfilment of these predictions. Humans are curious creatures capable of retrospective rationalisation, and the partial failure of these prophecies is very often ignored or conveniently explained away by re-construing their words in ways that suit the previously unexpected results. It is quite depressing that superstitious people are likelier to end up being even more superstitious, for they are the ones who would religiously peruse horoscope readings and visit fortune-tellers in the first place.

Skepticism does not necessitate an endorsement of nihilism. Divinations sell emotional comfort for the price of rational agency. At the risk of ending this entry on an annoyingly cheesy motivational note, all I wish to emphasise is that we must always remember that we can all be masters of our own lives, instead of finding excuses for laziness, intellectual or otherwise.

3 kommentarer:

The Philistine! sagde ...

Mr Vietnamese revealed that he sometimes has Cartesian tendencies, questioning if the world in which we live is indeed objectively real.

The next time he has an episode, remember to ask him for $.

Atta Rehman sagde ...

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