Relativity, skepticism, and virtual worlds

Yesterday on Twitter I posted:

Has anyone applied Einstein’s theory of relativity to radical skepticism? i.e. spaces of reference in knowledge relative to each other.

Twitter is great for tossing out a quick idea, but on reflection, this one probably needs more explanation. To give credit where credit is due, the idea occurred to me while I was watching a Coursera lecture on Epistemology by Duncan Pritchard (University of Edinburgh) for an evening’s entertainment (what can I say, it’s more fun than most things on television). Though, ultimately, the idea is a distillation of several lines of thought that have been knocking around in my head for years now. (If you really, really want to get at the roots, it all goes back to Richard Jozsa, who was my professor in Quantum Computation at the University of Bristol before he moved on to Cambridge, and who set me on a whole new path of thinking.)

First, a bit of lightweight background, so everyone can follow along. In very rough terms, radical skepticism is a perspective on the fundamental nature of human knowledge, specifically that knowledge is impossible. Pritchard used the classic “brain in a vat” or “Matrix” illustration, which might be simply stated: If I were a brain in a vat, being fed fake experiences by a computer (far more advanced than any we currently have, but still, play along for the sake of argument), then everything I think I know about the universe would actually be fake. I wouldn’t really “know” anything. And the kicker is, there really isn’t any way to prove I’m not a brain in a vat, and therefore, at a very basic level there isn’t any way to prove that anything I know is true. (Apologies to academic philosophers who might happen to read this, I’m keeping the explanation as simple as possible.)

Now, relativity in physics (again, very much simplified) is a theory that examines motion within frames of reference. For an intuitive sense of what this means, go outside and throw a ball to a friend so they can catch it. Now, go ride on a train with the friend and throw a ball there (try not to hit the other passengers). The two situations have radically different external contexts, one is stationary on the sidewalk, the other is hurtling along the tracks. And yet, for you, the friend, and the ball, the motion is the same: if you throw the same way and catch the same way, the arc of the ball relative to the two of you would be the same. The train car forms a frame of reference, and you can meaningfully examine the laws of physics within that frame, while completely ignoring the motion outside the frame. And, of course, remember that even the “stationary” case is actually on a planet that’s spinning and hurtling through space around the sun, in a universe that’s also in constant motion.

(Digression: Years ago, I set out on a lark to memorise the entirety of an English translation of Einstein’s “Spezielle Relativitätstheorie” i.e. “The Theory of Special Relativity” (Doc. 71, Princeton Lectures). I still can’t recite the whole thing verbatim, but a funny thing happened along the way (as I took classes in quantum mechanics and astrophysics): at one point a lightbulb went off and I suddenly realized I wasn’t just memorizing anymore, I was beginning to understand what Einstein was talking about on a deep level.)

Okay, bringing it back around, the problem with radical skepticism is that if you declare that it’s impossible to know anything, then any study of the fundamental nature of human knowledge, philosophy, or ultimately our entire existence, is really rather meaningless. Simply saying “it doesn’t really matter if I’m a brain in a vat” is a shatteringly weak argument in the face of “everything you think you know is wrong”. And yet, the recorded history of humanity demonstrates that it’s possible to construct internally consistent systems of knowledge, and value in exploring the nature of that knowledge. What if, instead of trying to wave away radical skepticism in a puff of smoke, we instead accepted it as a fundamental truth, at the same time as systematizing a study of knowledge within frames of reference, analogous to Cartesian frames of geometry or relativity frames of motion. So, whether I am a brain in a vat, or a living, breathing physical organism experiencing a physical environment, I exist within a “frame of reference” (a computer-constructed or physical world). Within that frame it’s meaningful to study the system of knowledge, while abstracting away from details outside the frame. It’s even meaningful to study the nature of knowledge across different frames of reference, for example as either a brain in a vat or a physical organism I might “know” that I have two hands, that one of them is grasping a cup of coffee, etc, etc. In either frame, I have a true belief, reached through the reasonable application of my cognitive abilities. My knowledge of my hand and my knowledge of the coffee cup are the same relative to each other, within both frames of reference. In a sense, we can say that the “laws of knowledge” are consistent across frames of reference.

Let’s take it one step further. When I inhabit a virtual world, whether it’s as vast and mutable as Minecraft, or as carefully controlled as a game in the Zelda series, I enter into a frame of reference of knowledge. I become a “brain in a vat” to that virtual world, because my dual existence as a physical organism in a physical world isn’t relevant within that frame. This is only becoming more true as technologies like Emotiv’s EPOC controller begin to make the brain-to-world connection more direct, and technologies like Oculus Rift begin to make the world-to-brain connection more direct. Within the frame of reference of a virtual world, I may have genuine knowledge that I have two hands, and that one of them is holding an object. As a slightly more abstract but still narrow example, I may have knowledge of completely different physical laws in two frames of reference (one may not have gravity, or may permit me to fall from 1,000 feet without injury), and yet both have an internally consistent set of physical laws, and my knowledge of those physical laws is absolutely essential to my ability to function as an entity within that frame of reference. And, I can meaningfully compare the nature of my knowledge of physical laws across the two frames of reference, even though the physical laws themselves are different. So frames of reference in knowledge aren’t merely an academic abstraction for the sake of reconciling two apparently conflicting approaches to philosophy. They’re also potentially a valuable tool in the study of the fundamental nature of human knowledge, in much the same way that relativity was to physics.

BTW, if anyone knows of research or published articles heading in this general direction of thought, I’d be very interested to hear/read more about it.

7 thoughts on “Relativity, skepticism, and virtual worlds

  1. I still think special relativity is the wrong analogy. Special Relativity postulates fundamental constants, which then imply a lot of other things are relative to the reference frame. The fundamental truth of the speed of light in a vacuum is there and unavoidable in all reference frames. Everyone moving at a constant relative velocity to each other can agree on its value.

    I think what you really want to use as a basis of abstraction is actually Gödel’s Incompleteness theorom concerning mathematical logic.

    Take your different virtual worlds or world views or whatever as different axiomatic systems instead of reference frames hurdling past each other with a relative velocity. These axiomatic systems express a highly complex and infinite mathematical system with an infinite number of derivable true mathematical statements that rely solely on the truth of the base axioms. The set of unprovably true axioms is necessarily infinite. Moreover, you can’t fully translate axiomatic truths in one system into derivablable truths in the other, nor can you fully demonstrate that either is self-consistently true and fully expressed set of infinite axioms.

    Did I just bake your noodle?


    • Lovely thought! And also not necessarily a contradiction.

      Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are primarily a statement that it’s impossible to find a system of axioms capable of proving all truths (about natural numbers). You could draw an analogy within epistemology and say that it’s impossible to find a system of knowledge capable of proving all truths within that system, or across systems. There’s even a touch of similarity to radical skepticism here, in the inability to prove universal “truths”.

      But, making the claim that there are meaningful comparisons to be made across internally consistent systems of knowledge (frames of reference), isn’t the same as claiming that all truths within that system or across systems can be proven. One of the interesting ideas of relativity is that your choice of frames of reference is entirely arbitrary, they could be a train car, a station platform, a planet, a solar system, a galaxy, etc… None of them is any more valid or valuable than the other. And yet, the abstraction of frames of reference yeilds insights into the laws of physics that were impossible when examining all motion against the same “stationary” backdrop. In one sense, it’s explictly taking a step away from seeking absolute, universal truth, in favor of seeking insight from comparison.

      On the basis of two days of thought, I can’t say if there would be any analogy for a fundamental constant such as the speed of light in epistemology. It might be an interesting line of research. Are there fundamental properties of knowledge, mental states, or brain states that hold no matter whether we’re talking about a physical world, a virtual world, or a constructed world served up to a brain in a vat? It’s not an entirely preposterous concept, since one element that *is* constant across all those scenarios is a human brain.

      • Are there fundamental properties of knowledge, mental states, or brain states that hold no matter whether we’re talking about a physical world, a virtual world, or a constructed world served up to a brain in a vat?

        That is Descartes’ “cogito, ergo sum”, no? Granted: unlike the speed of light, this is a limiting universality… in any case, the very question that led Descartes to his insight is precisely the one you are asking: “if I could be sure of nothing my senses tell me (or even, that they tell me nothing but lies), nor that I have a body (or even senses), nor anything else, is there anything I can yet be sure of?” Well, yes: if I am aware of my existence, I must necessarily exist (whatever “I” is, which is ultimately unknowable). It’s just a pity that the chasm from there to anything else is so absolute…

  2. Are you familiar with Karl Popper, critical rationalism, and falsifiability? It should be the starting point. He’s considered the scientists’ philosopher for very good reason.

  3. answer to decentralist.

    We should ask TimToady, but as far as Perl is involved, his philosophy seems pragmatic, more in the line of Feyerabend : Anything goes as far as it floats our collective boat. For lack of a consistent global frame, we constanty invent new ones that work well enough locally and are congruent enough with people that surround us at a given time. This anarchist way of thinking would be an anathema to a True Pythonista. Certainly there are physical and social rules that constrains us, but as persons and as groups, we can act as little demiurges with the good mix of hubris and humility.

    I don’t know how it meshes with TimToady’s faith in God. Personnally, I have become ignostic (sic) and sceptic of any faith, especially atheism.

  4. Forgive me, I’m fairly new to deep subjects in epistemology – in fact I’m taking the Intro to Philosophy course on Coursera that you mentioned right now and am in my second week. But I like this topic a lot, and I like your argument.

    Let me see if I understand what you’re proposing. If I understand correctly, you are saying that it’s not necessarily true that even if we are a brain in a vat and so everything we “know” isn’t real anyway and therefore we it would seem to follow that we don’t really know anything. And the reason for that is that because we could simply define knowledge as being dependent on the frame of reference. So any knowledge that we had in our virtual world would still be virtual knowledge – but still knowledge nonetheless.

    So if we consider Neo from the Matrix for instance, we could see that he actually experienced two separate frames of reference concerning what reality was – the virtual world (the Matrix), and the real world (where he realized he was a body in a vat basically). His knowledge in the virtual world was still a set of true beliefs based on the rules of the matrix. And his knowledge of the real world, was also a set of true beliefs based on the rules of the real world (the laws of physics for example).

    Both were knowledge in their own frames of reference, but not necessarily in the other. Is that what you’re saying?

    It’s also interesting to think about how once he was awakened to the real world and fully realized that what he thought was the real world was in fact a virtual reality, he started to be able to change the rules of that reality and do seemingly impossible things. Those things were impossible previously only because he believed they were impossible, because he believed he was living in the real world and the laws of physics applied to him because of that. But those things weren’t really impossible in the virtual world once he realized that it was a virtual world, precisely because it wasn’t real anyway.

    Is that the same thing that people who are trying to reach a so called state of enlightenment are trying to prove? Do they think that this isn’t the real world and so they’re trying to get to the point where they can believe that it isn’t and be freed from this reality? I don’t know… It’s just thought that occurred to me that’s kinda fun to ponder. 🙂

    • Yes, that’s exactly it. Neo had two frames of reference for reality, and each is worthy of study. The fact that he had more than one doesn’t make them both worthless (as radical skepticism would claim), or even make just the virtual one worthless.

      I absolutely agree the script authors of the Matrix were using the idea of enlightenment in Neo’s “transformation”. Teaching about meditation often focuses on letting go of/stepping away from what your brain thinks reality should be. In a practical sense, when you briefly let go of the little tensions, you have more freedom to see what mattered and what didn’t, and what you can do about it. (“Oh, that argument over printer paper in the office today didn’t really matter. I should take Marie out for coffee, and ask about her kids, instead of bickering over silly things.”) So, by stepping outside your frame of reference for knowledge, you gain the power to change it.

      More extreme ideas of enlightenment also play around with this idea of stepping outside a frame of reference for knowledge to change it: levitation is a good example or Douglas Adams’ concept of flying by forgetting to fall. Your frame of reference for knowledge is what makes you believe a thing is impossible, and identifying that frame of reference as only one of many is what allows you to conceive other realities as possible. Of course, the whole thing falls down because we genuinely are constrained by the laws of physics in this reality. But, it says something about the power of the human brain that we were able to imagine an existence where humans could fly, a very long time before we created virtual worlds.

      To push it a bit farther, every time we learn something, we change our frame of reference for knowledge. And, being the kind of person who is willing to step outside what you “know is true” and broaden your horizons, is what makes you a great lifelong learner. Enjoy the Coursera class!

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