Monday, March 6, 2006

Philosopher at the end of the universe

Just finished reading the book The Philosopher at the End of the Universe by Mark Rowlands. The feature of the book is that it uses many sci-fi movies to elaborate on the various theories of philosophy, making the dry subjects much more interesting to read. The author said that the book is equivalent to university year one course on philosophy. I did not study philosopher in college. So comments from those who know better are welcome. The theories discussed include the meaning of life, reality, identity, free will and morality. Each topic has one or two chapters and relates to a movie. I think I need to put down notes on them separately.

One of the topics I like is on reality. The author refers this to the movies Matrix trilogy where the perceived reality was actually a virtual world projected by a computer with intelligence to the minds of captive men. It is not simply a case of virtual reality. A normal human in the movie spent the entire life in the world falsely created for him and never knew anything else, so to him it was the real world. There was a paradox in that Keanu Reeves was Mr Anderson in the virtual world, but he was also Neo who fought kung fu in the virtual world. In the last episode, we saw Agent Smith transformed into a person in the "real" world. This called into question which is the real and which is the virtual world.

The concept was not created by the Wachowski brothers. I recall seeing several movies deploying the same concept. There is Existenze where players entered a virtual reality game. There is also the Thirteenth Floor where a laboratory resided there worked on virtual reality so real that a murder was committed inside the virtual world; it then turned out that the laboratory was actually a virtual reality created by another group of supreme scientists.

The concept of reality, or the lack of it, dated back to 300 BC from the Greek philosopher Pyrrho who said that it was impossible for human to know things in their own nature. We also know well the story of Chuang Tzu at about the same time (300 BC) on the dream of the butterfly (莊子齊物論:莊周夢蝶), where he questioned whether the butterfly was the dream of Chuang Tzu, or Chuang Tzu was the dream of the butterfly.

The thought was made famous by Rene Descartes of the seventeenth century (笛卡兒 1596-1650). He proposed that it is possible what we call the world does not really exist; that it is merely a dream. Descartes hypothesized that the world could be ruled by an evil demon who is very powerful and decides to deceive all mankind for fun. All we perceive through our senses are only what the evil demon makes us believe. In fact, nothing of what we believe is true. Indeed there is no world as such, as every feature of the world is supplied by the demon in trickery. Descartes was arguing for the theory of scepticism, which is a view that we cannot have any real knowledge. We may think there is a world around us, but we really don't know it at all; we merely believe it very strongly.

However, this is not the goal of Descartes' argument. Having proposed the possibility that we could be tricked in all our senses, he went on to state that there is only one thing we could be absolutely sure: our existence, so that we are able to be sceptical; thus the famous expression Cognito, ergo sum, or in English I think, therefore I am. The author specifically clarified that "it does not mean anything silly like we exist only as long as we think". The main point is: we can think of the possibility that the world is not real, but we cannot think that we do not exist, the reason being we must exist to do the thinking. Or, doubting our existence automatically guarantees our existence, because otherwise we could not be around to do the doubting. Not matter how much the evil demon tries to deceive us, unless we exist he cannot be deceiving us. The conclusion drawn by Descartes is one on dualism, that the body and the soul are two different entities.

But the dust has not settled and there are problems with the claim that I think, therefore I am. The nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (尼采 1844-1900) identified the problem. He proposed that the existence of self could just be a collection of thoughts, and some of the thoughts were thoughts to the effect that these thoughts belong to a certain person. But there need to be no person at all. All that is needed is the thoughts that all these thoughts belong to the same person. Nietzsche argued that all we can really be certain of is that there are thoughts, we cannot be certain of the existence of the person to whom the thoughts belongs. This point was made earlier by another philosopher David Hume (休謨 1711-1776) that when we look in on ourselves, all we find are various mental states, i.e. thoughts, beliefs, desires, feelings, emotions, but we do not come across any self or person who has these mental states. So there is still a possibility that ourself and the world we sense, do not really exist. We are just made believed by the evil demon of Descartes, or we are actually in the Matrix.

The author quoted a scene where Neo met the turbaned boy engaging in spoon-bending action. Boy: Try not to bend the spoon, for that is impossible. Instead, try to realize the truth. Neo: What is that? Boy: That there is no spoon. Then instead of bending the spoon, you see that what is really bending is yourself.

Spoon-bending with the mind is a phenomenon reported many times in our world. So are we living in a real world and can we realize the truth? Philosophers stop short of providing an answer.

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