The pop version
I like pop-style writing much more than academic writing, which find stodgy.
Hence this “pop version” and this web site in general, which I hope will explain the issues in a way that any fairly smart person with an interest in the topic can understand. I’d be interested to hear any feedback you have; contact me on unmaterialism[put-the-relevant-symbol-here]gmail.com.
I personally came to support the idea of Unmaterialism 4.0 in a very roundabout way, via trying to provide a scientific account of consciousness. I want to provide a shorter way here. (I’ve also written a ten-pager on what my thesis was about which is similar – What the hell my thesis was about.)
Imagine a computer model of a room like the one shown below (no, it’s not a photo).
The computer model isn’t just a computer-generated image, it’s a whole, detailed model. You could choose to “view” the room from any viewpoint and the model contains enough info to generate the right image. You can see there’s a red chair, red cushions, dark wall, silvery lamps.
Now imagine that you add a simulated person into this computer model, like a character in the game The Sims. Okay, so this is a bit sci-fi, we don’t know how to create such a simulation yet, but according to widely-accepted principles of cognition and information processing, such a thing is theoretically possible. This person can walk around, sit on the chair, turn on the lamps, yawn, scratch themselves, talk, snore, laugh and read. In fact, they can do everything that a real person can do. You can even talk to them via a microphone on your computer and they can respond to you.
Perhaps she looks a bit like this:
Although, as this is a super-sophisticated simulation, perhaps she looks more like this:
But perhaps a bit more cheery.
Let’s call her Simone. Simone hangs out in her simulated room, watches telly, eats chips, picks her nose, reads the paper. You talk to her via your computer microphone which is hooked up to her phone. She talks about her feelings, tells jokes, complains about having sore feet – that is, she behaves in every way like a normal actual human person.
So the question is: what does it feel like to be Simone?
Well, we could go on about this for hours. Some people flat-out deny that it feels like anything at all. That is, the Simone program simply has no subjective experiences of its own. However, we have as much reason to believe that Simone is having her own feelings and experiences as any human person. She talks about her feelings, she responds to the same stimuli in the same way – what reason do you have to think she doesn’t have them?
So, let’s say that being Simone in her room feels very much like how it would feel to be you or me in a similar room. She has the same sorts of experiences: she sees the red chair and cushions, she feels pain when she stubs her toe, she experiences the flavour of cake and enjoys it.
What can we say about the reality of Simone’s world? She perceives the physical objects around her. But do they physically exist? From our perspective, we can see that they don’t, at least not in the form that she perceives them. If Simone wasn’t part of the program, and you switched off your monitor leaving the computer running, then the qualities of redness, solidness, spatial extension, etc all disappear. All that exists are the magnetic and electric pulses that encode the simulation on your hard drive and RAM chips. But when Simone is added in, then those aspects of the objects continue to exist, even when your monitor is off. But they only exist in Simone’s phenomenal experience. That is, it’s only in Simone’s conscious experience that they become “physical” objects with form, weight and colour.
Or to put it another way, it’s only when the section of computer code which represents Simone interacts with the sections of computer code that represent objects, that these objects take on aspects like redness, solidity, weight, and spatial extension. Until that point, these sections of code are just things with the potential to create perceptions in Simone. They are – to use the philosopher J.S. Mill’s phrase – “the permanent possibilities of sensation”.
Furthermore, it isn’t Simone’s brain that generates her conscious experiences. The brain which she can detect in her head (let’s say she has a medical brain-scanner in her room) isn’t what’s causing her phenomenal experiences to exist. It’s the computer which is running her program which gives rise to her consciousness. To ask how the “physical world” which she perceives gives rise to her consciousness is the wrong question. The right question is, how does the computer which underlies the existence of her whole world give rise to her consciousness?
Let’s say you accept all this. What’s it got to do with us?
Well, the obvious point is that your situation is the same as Simone’s. You perceive a physical world around you with objects, spatial extension and all that. But all these perceptions are just conscious, phenomenal experiences of yours. They are not necessarily perceptions of the world as it really is. In fact, the real world which gives rise to these experiences could be something wildly different. It might be that you, me and the universe we perceive are being generated on a complex computer of some kind. (Obviously I’m not the first person to think of this idea, loads of people have. For example, Professor Nick Bostrom, to name just one, has managed to turn it into an academic-ish argument.)
And what’s the nature of this computer? It could be made out of silicon chips and magnetic hard drives. Or it could be a huge construction made of ball-bearings and PVC pipes. It isn’t electricity that makes something a computer, it’s the fact that it can process information. Such a machine could be built out of anything. It could be a huge, well-organised system of beer cans. And that’s just the systems that we can imagine. It could potentially be some kind of system which we can’t visualise, such as something which exists in five or more dimensions. The possibilities are endless.
Sooooooo, given that the list of possible systems which couldbe generating the particular phenomenal experiences that you’re having is endless, what reason have you got to prefer one over the others? The fact is, we don’t know what the substratum of our perceptions is. (And no, it isn’t necessarily your brain. Remember the point about Simone’s brain?) What’s more, we have no known way of finding out. How could Simone find out anything about the computer which is generating her? Her entire world, the whole world with which she interacts, exists within the computer program. She can’t “step out” of the program to examine its functioning from the outside.
This, then, is Unmaterialism 4.0. It is the idea that all of our perceptions of the world – all the sights, sounds, space and objects we perceive – consist of phenomenal experience. And the real, external world which causes those experiences is not something we can claim to know anything about. (Not much anyway. We can and should claim that there is an “informational correspondence” between our experiences and the substratum which causes them. More on this later.)
The main reason for adopting this view over ordinary physicalism is that reason leads us this conclusion. Most physicalists simply accept the physicalist framework without much questioning. However, if we examine our epistemological situation carefully, we can see that to claim that our phenomenal experiences of the world accurately depict the world as it exists outside of those experiences, is to claim too much. We are not justified in making such a claim; the fact is we just don’t know that.
This general idea of unmaterialism is the basic point I’m trying to get across. Acknowledging it has consequences for recent areas of scientific enquiry such as the science of consciousness and some aspects of contemporary physics. Those topics are discussed in other sub-sections in this part of the site. It also links contemporary science and philosophy to certain streams of historical philosophy, discussed in the A brief history section.
Huzzah. Onward and upward.