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The Art of World-Making

Mikhail Epstein sees a bright future for metaphysics in the hi-tech age.

“Numerous universes might have been botched and bungled throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labor lost, many fruitless trials made, and a slow but continual improvement carried out during infinite ages in the art of world-making.”

David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)

Never before have industry and technology, or even business and advertising, been as loaded with metaphysics as they are today. While in New York City I noticed the following signs:

  • ‘Be the master of your destiny. Likewise, your bill payments.’
  • ‘Dreaming is good for the soul. Relax a little. Credit can help.’
  • (In the subway) ‘Dance through life. Walk through the station.’

Such ‘metaphysical’ advertisements do not so much appeal to practical qualities, as to abstract concepts such as ‘destiny,’ ‘dreaming,’ and ‘life’. That is to say, they appeal to the opportunities their products or services provide for individuals to change their lives and enter a different world.

More specifically, metaphysics can be defined as the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature and structure of the world as a whole. Of all the humanities, metaphysics appears to be the least practical discipline, since it addresses the broadest questions, regarding ‘being as such’ or ‘the first causes of things’. But in this way, metaphysics can serve as a testing ground for practical applications of the humanities generally: if metaphysics can be used as an engineering tool or a site for practical construction, then the humanities generally also have the potential to change that which they study.

As I’ve said, the basic object of metaphysical thinking is the world as a whole. This sets metaphysics apart from more specific disciplines, which discuss particular aspects of the world. To be practical, a discipline has to compare various manifestations of laws or properties: for example, various substances and elements (chemistry), organisms (biology), or languages (linguistics). Metaphysics, however, has had at its disposal only one object of study: the world in which we live. Metaphysicians down the ages have debated over what constitutes the beginning or first principles of this world: Is it composed of water or fire? (Thales, Heraclitus.) Which is preeminent – a universal (an idea) or an individual (thing)? (Realism or Nominalism.) Is the world ideal or material in its foundations? (Hegel or Marx.) These philosophies, however brilliantly espoused and internally coherent, all remain speculative in that they extracted various qualities from the same single world and blew them up into general principles. But now, with the discussion of parallel physical worlds (universes) and the proliferation of digital virtual worlds, we can look at the objects and the possible applications of metaphysics differently.

Virtual New Worlds

Here is one of many examples – an experiment in creating an augmented reality that goes some way in erasing the difference between the real and the virtual:

“Called a Virtual Cocoon, the round-room device provides a far more realistic delivery of virtual experiences via total sensory input. This device positions the occupant in a chair before a nearly 360 degree screen where s/he becomes completely immersed in not only a visual and audio presentation encompassing almost the full view, but also one where the occupant has skin sensations, smells and tastes…”

(R. Hodgin, 2009, ‘Virtual reality cocoon promises full sensory experience’, from tgdaily.com.)

The Virtual Cocoon offers our senses a new world, which can have its own metaphysics. In The Rough Guide To The Future, Jon Turney writes: “One ultimate vision of the IT future is access to virtual worlds which are as rich as, or richer than, the everyday world” (2010, p.305).The new metaphysical domain embraces the totality of all simulated and augmented realities. The metaphysics of these virtual worlds may be even more fascinating and sophisticated than that of the world in which we live. We can imagine the field of metaphysics expanding immensely to embrace these newly-created worlds, each endowed with its own laws.

Turney identifies three types of computerized worlds: 1) Mirror worlds that are ultra-detailed models of actual worlds, such as Google Earth; 2) Augmented realities where information comes to you through artificial devices, such as glasses or wired contact lenses; 3) Immersive virtual environments or fully realized virtual worlds, where you can send your computer-controlled avatar. In fact, each virtual world is a world unto itself, from the most primitive action game to Second Life, the design-your-own-avatar online world launched in 2003, populated by millions of people who can participate in individual or group activities, creating and trading items of virtual property. But we can imagine, and even construct, worlds vastly different from these, the Thalesean and Heraclitean worlds, or the Spinozian and Hegelian worlds. These watery, fiery, pantheist or panlogical worlds would each have their own metaphysical laws and set of universals.

The majority of the virtual worlds that we have been able to observe in various computer games until now have been metaphysically unspectacular in their dutiful imitation of the laws of the physical world. This is perhaps because technologies of virtual simulation are at a stage similar to that of cinema in the first years after its invention. Early films showed a running horse, a garden, a locomotive approaching a station, and other simple fragments of real life; similarly, current immersive virtual worlds are extensions of our everyday experiences of walking, buying and dating – everything in these worlds changes in accordance with the physical laws of our world.

But why not turn our thoughts to the next stage, when virtual technology will be able to produce something like Tlön – the world from Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (1940), which, with all its rich detail, exists only in a fictional encyclopedia discovered by Borges’ hero? To describe the thinking of this astonishing world, Borges has to resort to philosophical arguments, and refer to thinkers of the past:

“Hume noted for all time that Berkeley’s arguments did not admit the slightest refutation nor did they cause the slightest conviction. This dictum is entirely correct in its application to the Earth, but entirely false in Tlön. The nations of this planet are congenitally idealist. Their language and the derivations of their language – religion, letters, metaphysics – all presuppose idealism. The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts… the men of this planet conceive the universe as a series of mental processes which do not develop in space but successively in time. Spinoza ascribes to his inexhaustible divinity the attributes of extension and thought; no one in Tlön would understand [this] juxtaposition.”

We can see how useful the ideas of Hume, Berkeley and Spinoza are when considering what would make Tlön’s inhabitants different from Earthlings. The example also shows how certain metaphysical assumptions – in this case subjective idealism, or Berkeleianism – might be incorporated in the construction of possible worlds.

Inventors of computer games must first of all set the metaphysical parameters for the virtual world in which the action will take place. The following sorts of questions must be addressed: ‘How does cause and effect work?’, ‘What are the relationships between subject and object?’, ‘How are the conditions for each avatar’s death or disappearance from the game defined?’ and even ‘How many dimensions does the world contain?’ or ‘What is the nature of time and space in it, and do they constitute a continuum?’ This also shows how metaphysical assumptions may have an impact on the production of virtual worlds.

All this brings to light a new relationship between philosophy and advanced technologies. In the past, in taking care of concrete human needs such as food, shelter and transportation, technology was preoccupied with material particulars. Philosophy, in its turn, was preoccupied with big ideas, first principles, essences and universals. Technology used to be utilitarian, while philosophy was speculative. Today, by contrast, technology and philosophy are moving ever closer together: the power of technology is extending over the fundamental properties of the world as philosophy continues to define these properties. Virtual worlds become more and more intrinsically philosophical as information technologies become more advanced and broaden the scope of their application from material details to the nature of the world. Humans are becoming increasingly skillful and successful in the art of world-making; as a result, technology is now moving towards, not away from, metaphysics. The two are meeting at the very core of being, where the principles and universals traditionally considered the prerogative of philosophical study are found. We might call this new synthesis of philosophy and technology ‘technosophia’ – technically-armed philosophy, or philosophically-oriented technology. Technosophia establishes the first principles of alternative forms of matter, life and mind, in theoretical thought and in practical action.

I call advanced technologies ‘onto-technologies’ because they change the way in which we experience being and the structure of existence. Onto-technology has the power to create a new spatio-temporal continuum – a new sensory environment and modes of its perception (as in the Virtual Cocoon), or new kinds of organisms and new forms of intelligence. Nano-technologies may eventually even provide the means for the production of any object from the quantum foundations of matter. This allows us to foresee the emergence of quantum metaphysics to go alongside quantum physics.

Constructing Worlds

With the recent breakthroughs in physics, cosmology, genetics and computer technologies, the singular world that is the subject of traditional metaphysics is now expanded into a multiverse of multiple forms and branches. With the advent of this multiverse, metaphysics ceases to speculate about the foundations of only one world. Instead, it becomes a practical discipline for constructing worlds with various properties, laws and universal constants. In fact, in the construction of a virtual world, programmers and designers should all follow in the footsteps of the philosopher, who, like a demiurge, formulates its foundational laws. If philosophers withdraw from this foundational act of world-making, then software engineers or game designers will have to take upon the role of philosopher, because even within a primitive game a world cannot exist without a philosophy underpinning its system of laws. But of course, game designers are not generally philosophers, which is why the worlds produced in their workshops are metaphysically so plain. Those who are philosophers by vocation and education must fill the huge niche formed by the accelerated processes of world–making across so many occupations. Some university computing and IT departments have recently started collaborating with history departments in producing games with historical content, set in the Elizabethan era or World War II etc. One can foresee philosophy departments following this example, and engaging in strategic decisions in the making of virtual worlds.

In the past, the philosopher pronounced the last word about the world, consummating it in thought. That’s why Hegel compared philosophy to the owl of Minerva, who spread its wings only with the falling of the dusk. In the world of tomorrow, the philosopher will more closely resemble a lark or even a rooster, proclaiming the first word about something that has never existed before but which may come into existence. Philosophy, therefore, is no longer mere speculation about first principles, but an experiment in the production of multiple worlds, be it the creation of a computer game or a full-immersive virtual reality experience. Thus technological progress prepares a new role for the philosopher as a metaphysical engineer or a world designer. ‘Virtualism’, the theory and practice of constructing virtual worlds and beings, appears to be more congruous with today’s advanced technologies than any past philosophical ‘ism’. Another possible term for this new vocation of metaphysics would be ‘multiversal constructivism’.

Metaphysics of the Future

The twentieth century was an age of grandiose physical experiments. The twenty-first century might instead become an age of metaphysical experiments, related for instance to the problems of free will, the role of chance, and various identity paradoxes related to twins, doubles and clones. Michio Kaku, for example, sees the issue of our doubles (‘clones’) in parallel quantum worlds as of great ethical and metaphysical concern:

“Are we responsible for our clone’s actions? In a quantum universe, we would have an infinite number of quantum clones. Since some of our quantum clones might perform acts of evil, are we then responsible for them? Does our soul suffer for the transgressions of our quantum clones?” (Parallel Worlds: The science of alternative universes and our future in the cosmos, 2006, p.353.)

Similar problems may emerge concerning our digital avatars, biological clones, or as a result of brain-computer interfaces. For instance, am I responsible for the actions of an individual who is genetically identical to myself and who has been cloned at my command? Or, with the creation of wireless links between human brains and external electronics, how will my thoughts impact the surrounding world? If I’m enhanced by prostheses that transmit the intentions in my neural signals directly to mighty machines, this enormously increases my responsibility for the contents of my thinking, compared with when my thinking was locked in the cranium and impenetrably constrained by the powers of my less-than-mighty body.

Today the foundational principles of existence, formerly considered unchangeable, are being questioned and transformed into metaphysically-loaded models of realities. Not a single aspect of our philosophical heritage should be lost or neglected for this new technosophical field. All knowledge proceeding from past systems or schools of thought can be wisely employed in the conceptual design of alternative worlds. Metaphysics applied to the art of world-making is just one example of how the humanities can find new vocations in the age of advanced technologies.

© Dr Mikhail Epstein 2013

Mikhail Epstein is Professor of Russian and Cultural Theory at Durham University, UK. His new book, The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto, from which this article has been adapted, is out now from Bloomsbury Academic.

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