Thoughts Without A Face

I watched A Glitch In The Matrix. I’ve always thought the Matrix films were total dogshit, fortunately they only play a slight role in this documentary.

The film explores the influence of notions of simulated reality, which were popularized by the Matrix but were already in circulation from other science-fiction sources. The most influential is of course Philip K.Dick, and we saw excerpts of PKD at a convention in France in 1977, discussing the possibility that alternative worlds could be co-present with the officially-recognised one.

Although the film mentioned the saga of Dick’s visionary experiences in the early 70s that led to Valis and related works, it rather blurred over the specific point of his idea (which really appears on the post-apocalyptic novel Deus Irae, co-written with Roger Zelazny) that in the fact the “real world” is still the 1st century AD and that it is the 1900 years of supposed later history that is illusory. This is of course to resolve the puzzle of Christ’s words to the apostles in Matthew 24:33-35, and Mark 13:29-31, and Luke 21:32-33, which seem to imply that the final end of the world will occur in their lifetimes. This interpretation would also be supported if we suppose that Luke 21:20 is referring the events of AD70, which is why Matthew and Mark enjoin the reader to take special note (Mark 13:14, Matthew 24:15). However, any professional theologian should have some alternative approach to interpreting those passages, and this shows us the limitations of the amateur version that also relies too easily on generalisations about “Gnosticism” and related phenomena that are rather more complex.

Dick’s amateur excursions in theology and philosophy were at least sincere and he was a friend of Bishop James Pike, who was the basis of the fictional churchman in The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer. I was one of many teenagers who first heard of notions such as Descartes’s Demon, and the Ontological Argument for the Existence Of God, and Plato’s Theory of Forms, from seeing them mentioned in Dick’s books. In those pre-internet days I could only get access to old interviews and reviews of the man and his works from writing to newspaper archive services and hoping they could help out. That’s how I got a copy of the 1974 interview with Philip Purser in the Sunday Telegraph in which he talked about his breakdown a few years earlier, and his new work Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. The incidents that inspired the later Valis novels were not mentioned, although Philip Purser appears in a phone call in the first of those books, and he points out to the narrator Horselover Fat that he is in fact a cipher for Philip K.Dick.

The presentation of Dick and his work in this film is reliant on film adaptations. This is rather unsatisfactory as most of these are short stories inflated to action-blockbuster length; we don’t get enough of the truly disordered 60s novels, or the quirkier shorts like “Prominent Author” or “Holy Quarrel”. The world of Blade Runner is not really any world PKD invented; he set his original story in a post-nuclear Earth rapidly emptying, not an overcrowded one drowning in excess production. However this is enough to get in to the 3 main themes of this film.

The first element are the lives and minds of the tech-boys (and a few girls) whose personalities have been incubated in a world of electronic entertainment and whose education is wholly oriented around electrical and software engineering and its usage. They appear in modified images, concealed in pseudo-bodies faintly similar to the flickering suit that Bob Arctor used in A Scanner Darkly. They live in a world in which the only materials are already virtualised; there is no sign they could even appreciate the physical sciences, never mind history or literature, since that would require more engagement with the world than they start from. They already have a lack of attachment to objects as well as people. Of course these man-children do not know what they do not know. With some of them there is also the common New Atheist origin story of reacting against the dreariest varieties of American religious experience, and the “absolutist mindsets” encouraged by it.

We see that great modern thinker Elon Musk pondering the possibility that the world could be a simulation and it just shows that boys who work in tech have no exceptional skills at logic or science and are just as prone to naïve or fallacious reasoning about probability as anyone else.

Nick Bostrom puts in an appearance punting his ideas about computational advancement and the likelihood that societies would cease to advance or do something strange or clever. I find that kind of speculation just as pointless as the various “arguments” for and against the possibility of alien civilisations and their chances of encountering us. None of those thoughts are any more compelling than the question “Why didn’t the Romans colonise America?”, which they might well have been capable of if they’d had the idea.

I’m not interested in modern gaming, and what I’ve seen of the pixel-worlds doesn’t seem anything like lived experience, even with a headset attached. I think the classic video games of Space Invaders, PacMan and Asteroids are far better because they entirely succeed at creating the visuals required: a simulation of a computerised control centre from a 1970s sci-fi film. That’s what the schematic, 2-D styling is aiming for, and it achieves it. The 21st century games aspire to cinematic realism, and merely draw attention to how far they fail to achieve it. They do not look like the real world, they do not even look like the world of films, not even films made by computers.

This film quickly passes by topics such as “the Mandela Effect” and “synchronicity”, and one chap mentions that he noticed “lots of low probability outcomes happen again and again and again” – so why doesn’t he just revise his estimate of the probabilities? There is no clue about whether he may simply be stuck in a pattern of behaviour likely to increase the chances of observing these unspecified outcomes. These puzzles are simply tasters for the big meal of The Problem Of The External World, and we get another nod that this is a very old topic with a large and venerable literature.

Since scepticism has been around for so long we might wonder what progress has been achieved on it. Let’s raise the tone and get away from the gamer boys by talking about books that aren’t well-known or well-read. I only know a little of the near-recent writing in Anglophone tradition, and a declining recollection of the historical sources. As I remember it, there was a long run in the 20th century for the view that scepticism relied on implicit appeal to philosophical presuppositions that were resistible and can be rejected. But then there was a riposte to this by some writers such as Barry Stroud, who argued that scepticism could be reconstructed using no special materials or principles that could themselves be put in equal doubt. For an example of anti-scepticism, Michael Williams’s Unnatural Doubts fought on many fronts. For an example of a response to that view, John Greco’s Putting Skeptics In Their Place. The latter also has an extended discussion of the value of reviewing scepticism if the presumption is that it must be incorrect; this could also serve as a wider justification for analysing unacceptable views, to find out what exactly we are implicitly accepting when we presume they must be wrong. Greco shows how a position of sceptical doubt can be arrived at after starting and proceeding from more innocent paths than Williams holds the sceptic to.

But scepticism is always more fun if we approach it through sci-fi examples. The most memorable moment in Descartes’ Meditations is when he wonders if the pedestrians in the street outside are simply automata in human dress… anyway, that’s the only part I can remember right now. The canonical modern example of this in philosophy is of course the “Brain In A Vat”, not least because there is a literature around an argument purporting to show it is incoherent. It first appeared in Reason, Truth And History by Hilary Putnam in 1981. I don’t have a copy of that ready to hand, but that’s ok because I do have The Limits Of Realism by Tim Button right here, which is largely about Putnam and his various arguments against what is characterised as “External Realism”.

As Button reconstructs it (p.117):

The BIV scenario. All sentient creatures, including me, are eternally envatted brains. That is, for the entire duration of their lives, they were, are, and always will be brains in vats. However, everyone is wired into an infernal machine, which subjects us all to electronic neural stimulations, so that everything appears normal.

To which Putnam delivers his celebrated counter-argument, reconstructed thus on the next page:

(1) A BIV’s word ‘brain’ does not refer to brains.

(2) My word ‘brain’ refers to brains.

(3) So: I am not a BIV.

I have found this argument compelling in the past, although reading Button’s review of it set amongst his analysis of Putnam’s other ideas is making me wonder if it might be too strong, and rule out ideas that are not obviously absurd or objectionable.  A parallel version could hold that observable material objects can’t be composed of unobservable material parts because that’s not what “material object” refers to, and we can only broaden that category by magically assuming what cannot be demonstrated. There is an extended discussion of theories of perception and whether any particular one could be of help to the External Realist, who wants to maintain we could be radically mistaken even in our best possible theories of the world. If the External Realist is illegitimately assuming magical referential connections, what I am not sure about is whether that makes every day microcompositional theories also problematic at least without breaking with conclusions reached earlier in the book. But this is a hard set of topics and I only wanted to raise the tone of a bland blog post about some films and their fans that I don’t really care for, except for the thematic connections with other texts.

Whether Putnam-style arguments can be decisive against specified scenarios does not help against what Button characterises as “the dead-sober sceptic” who tries to convey a “visceral feeling of anxiety” with generic statements “such as ‘maybe we are ineffably but nightmarishly deluded’” (p 139)

My tentative prescription for the dead-sober sceptic [is]… [w]henever feelings of Cartesian angst occur, you should remind yourself that they are pathological… You should remind yourself that there is no content to your worries, beyond the mere fact that you are worried.

A sense of existential flatness, that the world lacks depth, is also being reported by the Matrix fanboys, and the view of the world as a video game is simply a way of parsing a sense that other figures in the landscape lack character or proper articulation. This was the experience indicated by a different kind of philosophical fiction, Sartre’s Nausea, but I prefer the earlier, shorter version in Nabokov’s tale “Terror”:

I understood the horror of a human face. Anatomy, sexual distinctions, the notion of ‘legs,’ ‘arms,’ ‘clothes’ – all that was abolished, and there remained in front of me a mere something – not even a creature, for that too is a human concept, but merely something moving past.


I was tortured by my efforts to recognise what ‘dog’ might mean, and because I had been staring at it hard, it crept up to me trustingly, and I felt so nauseated that I got up from the bench and walked away.

VN hated J-PS and was very happy to mention the similarities between “Terror” and Nausea, and that his work was published earlier.

In the end we can only reach a point of taking some beliefs for granted and that the absurd alternatives are simply absurd and ignorable. At least, that’s what humans really do, and they can’t help it. Actual existing sceptical problems, that could undermine an entire view of the world, are relegated to the status of curiosities because they must be wrong somehow. Otherwise you have to think we’re still living in AD75, and that’s just ridiculous. We must be at least up to AD93, despite whatever Phil reckoned.

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