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CGI, Movies and Truth…

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After watching Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I liked, though not nearly as much as the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI), it got me thinking more about something I hadn’t thought about since the most recent presidential election.  As I watched Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia, both characters made possible in large part thanks to CGI (as well as the help of actors Ingvild Deila and Guy Henry), I realized that although this is still a long way away, it is inevitable that (barring a nuclear world war or some other catastrophe that kills us all or sets us back to a pre-industrialized age) the pace of this technology will eventually lead to CGI products that are completely indistinguishable from reality.
This means that eventually, the “fake news” issue that many have been making a lot of noise about as of late, will one day take a new and ugly turn for the worse.  Not only is video and graphic technology accelerating at a fairly rapid pace to exacerbate this problem, but similar concerns are also arising as a result of voice editing software.  By simply gathering several seconds of sample audio from a person of interest, various forms of software are getting better and better at synthesizing their speech in order to mimic them — putting whatever words into “their” mouths that one so desires.
The irony here is that this means that despite the fact that we are going to continue becoming more and more globally interconnected, technologically advanced, and gain more global knowledge, it seems that we will eventually reach a point where each individual becomes less and less able to know what is true and what isn’t in all the places that you are electronically connected to.  One reason for this is that, as per the opening reference to Rogue One, it will become increasingly difficult to judge the veracity of videos that go viral on the internet and/or through news outlets.  We can imagine seeing a video (or many series of videos) released on the news and throughout the internet containing shocking events with real world leaders or other famous people, places, and so forth, events that could possibly start a civil or world war, alter one’s vote, or otherwise — but with the caveat that these events are entirely manufactured by some Machiavellian warmonger or power seeking elite.
Pragmatically speaking, we must still live our lives trusting what we see in proportion to the evidence we have, thus believing ordinary claims with a higher degree of confidence than extraordinary ones.  We will still need to hold to the general rule of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence in order to meet their burden of proof.  But it will become more difficult to trust certain forms of evidence (including in a court of law), so we’ll have to take that into consideration so that actions that result in more catastrophic consequences (if your assumptions/information turn out to be based on false evidence) require a higher burden of proof — once we are able to successfully pass some kind of graphics Touring Test.
This is by no means an endorsement for conspiracy theories generally nor any other anti-intellectual or dogmatic non-sense. We don’t want people to start doubting everything they see nor to start doubting everything they don’t WANT to see (which would be a proverbial buffet for our cognitive biases and the conspiracy theorists that make use of these epistemological flaws regularly), we still need to take this dynamic technological factor into account to maintain a world view based on proper Bayesian reasoning.
On the brighter side of things, we are going to get to enjoy much of what the new CGI capabilities will bring to us, because movies and all visual entertainment are going to be revolutionarily changed forever in many ways that will be worth celebrating, including our use of virtual reality generally (many various forms that we do and will continue to consciously and rationally desire). We just need to pay attention and exercise some careful moral deliberation as we develop these technologies. Our brains simply didn’t evolve to easily avoid being duped by artificial realities like the ones we’re developing (we already get duped far too often within our actual reality), so we need to engineer our path forward in a way that will better safeguard us from our own cognitive biases so we can maximize our well being once this genie is out of the bottle.

Virtual Reality & Its Moral Implications

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There’s a lot to be said about virtual reality (VR) in terms of our current technological capabilities, our likely prospects for future advancements, and the vast amount of utility that we gain from it.  But, as it is with all other innovations, with great power comes great responsibility.

While there are several types of VR interfaces on the market, used for video gaming or various forms of life simulation, they do have at least one commonality, namely the explicit goal of attempting to convince the user that what they are experiencing is in fact real in at least some sense.  This raises a number of ethical concerns.  While we can’t deny the fact that even reading books and watching movies influences our behavior to some degree, VR is bound to influence our behavior much more readily because of the sheer richness of the qualia and the brain’s inability to distinguish significant differences between a virtual reality and our natural one.  Since the behavioral conditioning schema that our brain employs has evolved to be well adapted to our natural reality, any virtual variety that increasingly approximates it is bound to increasingly affect our behavior.  So we need to be concerned with VR in terms of how it can affect our beliefs, our biases, and our moral inclinations and other behaviors.

One concern with VR is the desensitization to, or normalization of, violence and other undesirable or immoral behaviors.  Many video games have been criticized over the years for this very reason, with the claim that they promote similar behaviors in the users of those games (most especially younger users with more impressionable minds).  These claims have been significantly validated by the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, where they have both taken firm stances against children and teens playing violent video games, as a result of the accumulated research and meta studies showing a strong link between violent video gaming and increased aggression, anti-social behavior, and sharp decreases in moral engagement and empathy.

Thus, the increasingly realistic nature of VR and the ever-consistent increase in the capacities one has at their disposal within such a virtual space, is bound to exacerbate these types of problems.  If people are able to simulate rape or pedophilia among other morally reprehensible actions and social taboos, will they too become more susceptible to actually engaging in these behaviors once they leave the virtual space and re-enter the real world?  Even if they don’t increase their susceptibility to perform those behaviors, what does such a virtual escapade do to that person’s moral character?  Are they more likely to condone those behaviors (even if they don’t participate in them directly), or to condone other behaviors that have some kind of moral relevance or cognitive overlap with one another?

On the flip side, what if it was possible to use VR as a therapeutic tool to help cure pedophilia or other behavioral problems?  What if one was able to simulate rape, pedophilia or otherwise to reduce their chances of performing those acts in the real world?  Hardly anyone would argue that a virtual rape or molestation is anywhere near as abhorrent or consequential as real instances of such crimes would be, horrific crimes made against real human beings.  While this may only apply to a small number of people, it is at least plausible that such a therapeutic utility would make the world a better place if it prevented an actual rape or other crime from taking place.  If certain people have hard-wired impulses that would normally ruin their lives or the lives of others if left unchecked, then it would be prudent if not morally obligatory to do what we can to prevent such harms from taking place.  So even though this technology could make the otherwise healthy user begin to engage in bad behaviors, it could also be used as an outlet of expression for those already afflicted with similar impulses.  Just as they’ve used VR to help cure anxiety disorders, phobias, PTSD, and other pathologies, by exposing people to various stimuli that help them to overcome their ills, so too may VR possibly provide a cure for other types of mental illnesses and aggressive predispositions such as those related to murder, sexual assault, etc.

Whether VR is used as an outlet for certain behaviors to prevent them from actually happening in the real world, or as a means of curing a person from those immoral inclinations (where the long term goal is to eventually no longer need any VR treatment at all), there are a few paths that could show some promising results to decrease crime and so forth.  But, beyond therapeutic uses, we need to be careful about how these technologies are used generally and how that usage will increasingly affect our moral inclinations.

If society chose to implement some kind of prohibition to limit the types of things people could do in these virtual spaces, that may be of some use, but beyond the fact that this kind of prohibition would likely be difficult to enforce, it would also be a form of selective prohibition that may not be justified to implement.  If one chose to prohibit simulated rape and pedophilia (for example), but not prohibit murder or other forms of assault and violence, then what would justify such a selective prohibition?  We can’t simply rely on an intuition that the former simulated behaviors are somehow more repugnant than the latter (and besides, many would say that murder is just as bad if not worse anyway).  It seems that instead we need to better assess the consequences of each type of simulated behavior on our behavioral conditioning to see if at least some simulated activities should be prohibited while allowing others to persist unregulated.  On the other hand, if prohibiting this kind of activity is not practical or if it can only be implemented by infringing on certain liberties that we have good reasons to protect, then we need to think about some counter-strategies to either better inform people about these kinds of dangers and/or to make other VR products that help to encourage the right kinds of behaviors.

I can’t think of a more valuable use for VR than to help us cultivate moral virtues and other behaviors that are conducive to our well-being and to our living a more fulfilled life.  Anything from reducing our prejudices and biases through exposure to various simulated “out-groups” (for example), to modifying our moral character in more profound ways through artificial realities that can encourage the user to help others in need and to develop habits and inclinations that are morally praiseworthy.  We can even use this technology (and have already to some degree) to work out various moral dilemmas and our psychological response to them without anybody actually dying or getting physically hurt.  Overall, VR certainly holds a lot of promise, but it also poses a lot of psychological danger, thus making it incumbent upon us to talk more about these technologies as they continue to develop.

Knowledge: An Expansion of the Platonic Definition

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In the first post I ever wrote on this blog, titled: Knowledge and the “Brain in a Vat” scenario, I discussed some elements concerning the Platonic definition of knowledge, that is, that knowledge is ultimately defined as “justified true belief”.  I further refined the Platonic definition (in order to account for the well-known Gettier Problem) such that knowledge could be better described as “justified non-coincidentally-true belief”.  Beyond that, I also discussed how one’s conception of knowledge (or how it should be defined) should consider the possibility that our reality may be nothing more than the product of a mad scientist feeding us illusory sensations/perceptions with our brain in a vat, and thus, that how we define things and adhere to those definitions plays a crucial role in our conception and mutual understanding of any kind of knowledge.  My concluding remarks in that post were:

“While I’m aware that anything discussed about the metaphysical is seen by some philosophers to be completely and utterly pointless, my goal in making the definition of knowledge compatible with the BIV scenario is merely to illustrate that if knowledge exists in both “worlds” (and our world is nothing but a simulation), then the only knowledge we can prove has to be based on definitions — which is a human construct based on hierarchical patterns observed in our reality.”

While my views on what knowledge is or how it should be defined have changed somewhat in the past three years or so since I wrote that first blog post, in this post, I’d like to elaborate on this key sentence, specifically with regard to how knowledge is ultimately dependent on the recall and use of previously observed patterns in our reality as I believe that this is the most important aspect regarding how to define knowledge.  After making a few related comments on another blog (https://nwrickert.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/knowledge-vs-belief/), I decided to elaborate on some of those comments accordingly.

I’ve elsewhere mentioned how there is a plethora of evidence that suggests that intelligence is ultimately a product of pattern recognition (1, 2, 3).  That is, if we recognize patterns in nature and then commit them to memory, we can later use those remembered patterns to our advantage in order to accomplish goals effectively.  The more patterns that we can recognize and remember, specifically those that do in fact correlate with reality (as opposed to erroneously “recognized” patterns that are actually non-existent), the better our chances of predicting the consequences of our actions accurately, and thus the better chances we have at obtaining our goals.  In short, the more patterns that we can recognize and remember, the greater our intelligence.  It is therefore no coincidence that intelligence tests are primarily based on gauging one’s ability to recognize patterns (e.g. solving Raven’s Progressive Matrices, puzzles, etc.).

To emphasize the role of pattern recognition as it applies to knowledge, if we use my previously modified Platonic definition of knowledge, that is,  that knowledge is defined as “justified, non-coincidentally-true belief”, then I must break down the individual terms of this definition as follows, starting with “belief”:

  • Belief = Recognized patterns of causality that are stored into memory for later recall and use.
  • Non-Coincidentally-True = The belief positively and consistently correlates with reality, and thus not just through luck or chance.
  • Justified = Empirical evidence exists to support said belief.

So in summary, I have defined knowledge (more specifically) as:

“Recognized patterns of causality that are stored into memory for later recall and use, that positively and consistently correlate with reality, and for which that correlation has been validated by empirical evidence (e.g. successful predictions made and/or goals accomplished through the use of said recalled patterns)”.

This means that if we believe something to be true that is unfalsifiable (such as religious beliefs that rely on faith), since it has not met the justification criteria, it fails to be considered knowledge (even if it is still considered a “belief”).  Also, if we are able to make a successful prediction with the patterns we’ve recognized, yet are only able to do so once, due to the lack of consistency, we likely just got lucky and didn’t actually correctly identify a pattern that correlates with reality, and thus this would fail to count as knowledge.  Finally, one should also note that the patterns that are recognized were not specifically defined as “consciously” recognized/remembered, nor was it specified that the patterns couldn’t be innately acquired/stored into memory (through DNA coded or other pre-sensory neural developmental mechanisms).  Thus, even procedural knowledge like learning to ride a bike or other forms of “muscle memory” used to complete a task, or any innate form of knowledge (acquired before/without sensory input) would be an example of unconscious or implicit knowledge that still fulfills this definition I’ve given above.  In the case of unconscious/implicit knowledge, we would have to accept that “beliefs” can also be unconscious/implicit (in order to remain consistent with the definition I’ve chosen), and I don’t see this as being a problem at all.  One just has to keep in mind that when people use the term “belief”, they are likely going to be referring to only those that are in our consciousness, a subset of all beliefs that exist, and thus still correct and adherent to the definition laid out here.

This is how I prefer to define “knowledge”, and I think it is a robust definition that successfully solves many (though certainly not all) of the philosophical problems that one tends to encounter in epistemology.

Knowledge and the “Brain in a Vat” scenario

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Many philosophers have stumbled across the possibility of the BIV scenario — that is, that our experience of reality could be a result of our brains being in a vat, connected to electrodes which are controlled by some mad scientist, thus creating the illusion of a physical body, universe, etc.  Many variations of this idea have been presented which appear to be similar to or based off of the “Evil Demon” proposed by Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy back in 1641.

There is no way to prove or disprove this notion because all of our “knowledge” (if any exists at all depending on how we define it) would be limited to the mad scientist’s program of sensory inputs, etc.  What exactly is “knowledge” ?  If we can decide on what qualifies as “knowledge”, then another question I’ve wondered about is:

How do we modify or shape the definition of “knowledge” to make it compatible in the BIV scenario? 

Many might say that we have to have an agreed upon definition of “knowledge” in the first place before we modify it for some crazy hypothetical scenario.  I understand that there is disagreement in the philosophical/epistemological community regarding how we define “knowledge”.  To simplify matters, let’s start with Plato’s well known (albeit controversial) definition which basically says:

Knowledge = Justified True Belief

It would help if Plato had spelled out an agreed upon convention for what is considered “justified”, “true”, and “belief”.  It seems reasonable that we can assume that “belief” is any proposition or premise an individual holds to be true.  We can also assume that “true” implies that the belief is factual — that is, that the “belief” has been confirmed to correspond with “reality”.  The term “justified” is a bit trickier and concepts such as “externalism vs. internalism”, probability, evidentialism, etc., indeed arise when theories of justification are discussed.  It is the “true” and “justified” concepts that I think are of primary importance (as I think most people if not everyone can agree on what a “belief” is) — and how they relate to the BIV scenario (or any similar variation of this scenario) in our quest for properly defining “knowledge”.

Is this definition creation/modification even something that can be accomplished?  Or will any modification necessary to make it compatible in the BIV scenario completely strip the word “knowledge” of all practical meaning?  If the modification does strip the word of most of its meaning, then does that say anything profound about what “knowledge” really is?  I think that, if anything, it may allow us to step back and look at the concept of “knowledge” in a different way.  My contention is that it will demonstrate that knowledge is really just another subjective concept which we can claim to possess based on nothing more than an understanding of and adherence to definitions, and the definitions are based on hierarchical patterns observed in nature.  This is in contrast to the current assumption that knowledge is some form of objective truth that we strive to obtain with a deeper meaning that may in fact (but not necessarily) be metaphysical in some way.

How does the concept of “true” differ in the “real world” vs. the BIV’s “virtual world”?

Can any beliefs acquired within the BIV scenario be considered “true”?  If not, then we would have to consider the possibility that nothing “true” exists.  This isn’t necessarily the end of the world, although for most people it may be a pill that is a bit too hard to swallow.  Likewise, if we consider the possibility that at least one belief in our reality is true (I’m betting that most people believe this to be the case), then we must accept that “true beliefs” may exist within the BIV scenario.  The bottom line is that we can never know if we are BIVs or not.  So this means that if we believe that true beliefs exist, we should modify the definition to apply within the BIV scenario.  Perhaps we can say that something is “true” only insofar as it corresponds to “our reality”.  If there are multiple levels of reality (e.g. our reality as well as that of the mad scientist who is simulating our reality), then perhaps there are multiple levels of truth.  If this is the case then either some levels of truth are more or less “true” than others, or they all contain an equally valid truth.  This latter possibility seems most reasonable as the former seems to negate the strict meaning of “true”, since it seems that something is either true, false, or neither (if a third option exists).   There is no state that lies in between that of “true” and “false”.  By this rationale, our concept of what is true and what isn’t is as valid as the mad scientists.  Perhaps the mad scientist would disagree with this, but based on how we define true and false, our claim of “equally valid truth” seems to be reasonable.  This may illustrate (to some) that our idea of “true beliefs” does not hold any fundamentally significant value as they are only “true beliefs” based on our definitions of particular words and concepts (again, ultimately based on hierarchical patterns observed in nature).  If I define something to be “true”, then it is true.  If I point to what looks like a tree (even if it’s a hologram and I don’t know this) and say “I’m defining that to be a “tree”, then it is in fact a tree and I can refer to it as such.  Likewise, if I define it’s location to be called “there”, then it is in fact there.  Based on these definitions (among others) I think it would be a completely true statement (and thus a true belief) to say “I KNOW that there is a tree over there”.  However if I failed to define (in detail) what a “tree” was, or if my definition of “tree” somehow excluded “a hologram of a tree” (because the definition was too specific), then I could easily make errors in terms of what I inferred to know or not know.  This may seem obvious, but I believe it is extremely important to establish these foundations before making any claims about knowledge.

Turning our attention to the concept of “justified”, one could argue that in this case I wouldn’t need any justification for the aforementioned belief to be true as my belief is true by definition (i.e. there isn’t anything that could make this particular belief false other than changing the definitions of “there”, “tree”, etc.).  Or we could say that the justification is the fact that I’ve defined the terms such that I am correct.  In my opinion this would imply that I would have 100% justification (for this belief) which I don’t think can be accomplished in any way other than through this definitive method.  In every other case of justification we will be less than 100% justified, and there will only be an arbitrary way of grading or quantifying that justification (100% is not arbitrary at all, but to say that we are “50% justified” or “23% justified” or any other value other than that 100% would be arbitrary and thus meaningless).  However, I will add that it is possible to have a belief that is MORE or LESS justified than another, but we could never quantify how much MORE or LESS justified it may be, nor will we ALWAYS be able to say that one belief is more or less justified than another.  Perhaps most importantly regarding the importance of “justification” with regard to knowledge, we must realize that our most common means of justification is through empiricism, the scientific method, etc.  That is, our justification seems to be based inductively on the hierarchical patterns which we observe in nature.  If certain patterns are observed and are repeatable, then the beliefs ascertained from them will not only be pragmatically useful, but they will be most justified.

When we undergo the task of defining knowledge or more specifically the task of analyzing Plato’s definition, I believe that it is useful for us to play the devil’s advocate and recognize that scenarios can be devised whereby the requirements of “justified”, “true”, and “belief” have been met and yet no “true knowledge” exists.  These hypothetical scenarios can be represented by the well known “Gettier Problem”.  Without going into too much detail, let’s examine a possible scenario to see where the problem arises.

Let’s imagine that I am in my living room and I see my wife sitting on the couch, but it just so happens that what I’m looking at is actually nothing more than a perfect hologram of my wife.  However my wife IS actually in the room (she’s hiding behind the couch even though I can’t see her hiding).  Now if I were to say “My wife is in the living room”, technically my belief would be “justified” to some degree (I do see her on the couch after all and I don’t know that what I’m looking at is actually a hologram).  My belief would also be “true” because she is actually in the living room (she’s hiding behind the couch).  This could be inferred as fulfilling Plato’s requirements for knowledge: truth and justification.  However most people would argue that I don’t actually possess any knowledge in this particular example because it is a COINCIDENCE that my belief is true, or to be more specific, it’s “true-ness” is not related to my justification (i.e. that I see her on the couch).  It’s “true-ness” is based on the coincidence of her actual presence behind the couch and thus meeting the requirements of “being in the living room” (albeit without me knowing it).

How do we get around this dilemma, and can we do so such that we at least  partially (if not completely) preserve Plato’s requirements?  One way to solve this dilemma would be to remove the element of COINCIDENCE entirely.  If we change our definition to:

Knowledge = Justified Non-Coincidentally True Belief

then we have solved the problem presented by Gettier.  Removing this element of coincidence in order to properly define knowledge (or at least in order to define it more appropriately) has been accomplished in one way or another by various responses to the “Gettier Problem” including that of Goldman’s “causal theory”, Lehrer-Paxson’s “defeasibility condition“, and many others which I won’t discuss in detail at this time, but the links provided will show a basic summary of some of those responses.  Overall, I think it’s an important distinction and a necessary one to make (i.e. non-coincidence) in order to properly define knowledge.

Alternatively, another response to the “Gettier Problem” is to say that while it appears that I didn’t actually possess true knowledge in the example illustrated above (because of the coincidence), it could be due to the fact that I never actually had sufficient justification to begin with as I failed to consider the possibility that I was being deceived on a number of possible levels with varying significance (e.g. hologram, brain in a vat, etc.).  This lack of justification would mean that I’ve failed to satisfy the Platonic definition of knowledge and thus no “Gettier Problem” would exist in that case.  However, I think it’s more pragmatic to trust our senses on a basic level and say that “seeing my wife in the living room” (regardless of whether or not it may have actually been a hologram I was seeing and thus wasn’t “real”) warrants a high level of justification for all practical purposes.  After all, Plato never seemed to have specified how “justified” something needs to be before it meets the requirement necessary to call it knowledge.  Had Plato considered the possibility of the “Brain in a vat” scenario (or a related scenario more befitting to the century he lived in), would he have said that no justification exists and thus no knowledge exists?  I highly doubt it, since it seems like an exercise of futility to define “knowledge” at all if it was assumed to be something non-existent or unattainable.  Lastly, if one’s belief justification is in fact based on hierarchical patterns observed in nature, then the more detailed or thoroughly defined those patterns are (i.e. the more scientific/empirical data, models, and explanatory power that are available from them), the more justified my beliefs will be and the more useful that knowledge will be.

In summary, I think that knowledge is nothing more than an attribute that we possess solely based on an understanding of and adherence to definitions and thus is entirely compatible with the BIV scenario.  Definitions do not require a metaphysical explanation nor do they need to apply in any way to anything outside of our reality (i.e. metaphysically).  They are nothing more than human constructs.  As long as we are careful in how we define terms, adhere to those definitions without contradiction and understand those definitions that we create (through the use of hierarchical patterns observed in nature), then we have the ability to possess knowledge — regardless of if we are nothing more than BIVs.  The only knowledge that we can claim to know must be “justified non-coincidentally true belief” (to use my modified version of the Platonic definition, thus accounting for the “Gettier Problem”).  The most significant realization here is that the only knowledge that we can PROVE to know is based on and limited by the definitions we create and our use of them within our claims of knowledge.  This proven knowledge would include but NOT be limited to Descartes’ famous claim “cogito ergo sum” (i.e. “I think therefore I am”), which in much of Western Philosophy is believed to be the foundation for all knowledge.  I disagree that this is the foundation for all knowledge, as I believe the foundation to be based on the understanding and proper use of definitions and nothing more.  For Descartes, he had to define (or use a commonly accepted definition of) every word in that claim including what “I” is, what “think” is, what “am” is, etc.  Did his definition of “I” include the unconscious portion of his self or only the conscious portion?  I’m aware that Freudian theory didn’t exist at the time but my question still stands.  Personally I would define “I” as the culmination of both our conscious and unconscious minds.  Yet, the only “thinking” that we’re aware of is conscious (which I would call the “me”), so based on my definitions of “I” and “think”, I would disagree with his claim, because my unconscious mind doesn’t “think” at all (and even if it did, the conscious mind doesn’t perceive it so I wouldn’t say “I think” when referring to my unconscious mind).  When I am thinking, I am conscious of those thoughts.  So there are potential problems that exist with Descartes’ assertion depending on definitions he chooses for the words used in that assertion.  This further illustrates the importance of definitions on a foundational level, and the hierarchical patterns observed in nature that led to those definitions.

My views of knowledge may seem to be unacceptable or incomplete, but these are the conclusions I’ve arrived at in order to avoid the “Gettier Problem” as well as to remain compatible with the BIV scenario or any other metaphysical possibilities that we have no way of falsifying.  While I’m aware that anything discussed about the metaphysical is seen by some philosophers to be completely and utterly pointless, my goal in making the definition of knowledge compatible with the BIV scenario is merely to illustrate that if knowledge exists in both “worlds” (and our world is nothing but a simulation), then the only knowledge we can prove has to be based on definitions — which is a human construct based on hierarchical patterns observed in our reality.

Written by Lage

June 10, 2012 at 5:42 am