Realizing the Matrix—On the Possibility and Desirability of “Uploading” Insight

There is a special class of knowledge or wisdom that we might call insight or realization. This comes in a variety of forms and degrees. For example, someone tells you how scary it is to be in the water when someone spots a shark. You’ve been afraid before, you’ve been in the ocean before, so you think you have a pretty good idea of what that must be like. But you don’t really realize what it’s like until you’ve been swimming on the North Shore of Oahu and someone yells, “Shark!” At which point you panic like never before, swim like never before. Or you have a conversation with a friend and they tell you something that sounds plausible and halfway interesting, but it doesn’t really connect with anything else you’ve been thinking about or that is meaningful to you. But some years later, after reading different things, thinking things through, you suddenly have an insight, you suddenly have this realization. You then happen to excitedly tell your friend about it, and their reaction is, “That’s what I told you two years ago!”

What is importantly common to the shark and friend examples is that they both involve a kind of “seeing” for oneself. The shark example is different in the speed at which the realization happens. It is a purer form of realizing what it is like to experience or do something. The example with the friend is less of a realizing what it is like and more a realizing the significance of something. This realizing the significance often means seeing connections, how an idea, for example, connects up with other important ideas, one’s other beliefs and values, etc. Such realizations are markedly different from simple cases of knowing how to do something like ride a bike and knowing what we might call “trivia” or pieces of information. For example, one might readily learn and know that in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is an important philosopher, is convicted and sentenced to death, eventually dying by drinking hemlock. So much is relatively easy to understand/know. But it takes years of studying philosophy and reading Plato, etc., to realize the full significance of those bits of knowledge, their value/significance, how they connect up with other issues, both in philosophy and one’s life.

I said in the last paragraph that realizations of significance are different from simple cases of knowing how to do something. The caveat is because a part of realization that I’m concerned with can well involve knowing how to do certain things, whether how to think about something in the right way (a multiply realizable thing in itself) or knowing how to do certain things with one’s body and person. For example, I take it that enlightenment in Buddhism is what we might call a radical form of realization that involves a variety of cognitive, affective, dispositional, and behavior realizations.

Interestingly, in his latest book, The Language Animal, Charles Taylor argues that certain meanings, certain insights, can only be had in the context of a narrative. As Frege locates word meaning in the context of the proposition, Taylor locates certain meanings/insights in the context of narrative. And they are necessarily a part of the narrative because as soon as one tries to distill them into a concise “moral,” the meaning/insight is lost. I like this way of thinking about it because it nicely emphasizes the way in which realization/insight is part of a longer, lived engagement with life. Referring back to my earlier example with the friend sharing something that takes you years to realize on your own, I had said that it was “some years later, after reading different things, thinking things through,” that you have the realization. All importantly, that reading and thinking occurred in the midst of a life lived, and absent its events, good, bad, and otherwise, the realization is unlikely to have occurred. Put succinctly, insight and realization occurs in the context of a whole life, i.e., one’s narrative.

Much more could be said about the nature and variety of what I’ve been calling insight or realization. I hope though that what has been said is sufficient for conveying their basic characteristics and for the questions I now want to raise.

Recently a number of places reported with misleading headlines about a recent attempt to stimulate/accelerate learning by stimulating the brain. The exact details are not important, but If I recall correctly, the electrical signals/brain activity of expert pilots were recorded while they were flying. These patterns of brain activity were “played back” “into” the brains of people learning to fly a simulator. There was purportedly something like a 30% improvement in the learning time of those so stimulated. This is fascinating in its own right, even if the study has problems; but the real excitement came with comparisons to the movie the Matrix where Neo has a variety of skills and knowledge directly “uploaded” to his brain/mind. From one moment to the next he knows things, both information and skills, such as martial arts.

Let us imagine that the Matrix technology of uploading things so directly to the brain/mind is a reality. In the context of thinking about insight/realization, two questions arise: 1) Would insight/realization be uploadable? 2) Would one want to do so?

Regarding the possibility, it seems to me that the relevant question is this: Are the lived experiences, the things read, thought, done, suffered, etc., merely means to the realization or are they a part of its content? From the brief synopsis of Taylor’s situation of insight in narrative, it is not clear what the answer is even if we think the narrative idea is a good way to approach the nature of insight. For the narrative could be either a necessary means or a part of the content. The point being that if the narrative is merely a means to a particular realization, and the realization’s content can be cashed out in terms of pieces of knowing that and knowing how, then if pieces of knowledge that and knowhow were merely particular arrangements of the nervous system, then assuming the uploading is “merely” a matter of shaping the nervous system into the relevant arrangement, then insight/realization could conceivable be uploaded.

However, if the lived experiences are a part of the content of the insight/realization, then even if that reduces to a particular arrangement of the nervous system, then if that were uploaded, one would be uploading a life lived into another person’s brain/mind. Would they then be the same person?—I’m not sure.

Connecting the content of a realization to a life lived makes realization rather holistic. The one “bit,” the “moral” cannot be separated from the rest or its loses its meaning. Against such meaning holism, Jerry Fodor argues that if the meaning of something depends on the rest of a person’s belief system, for example, then no two people are going to ever mean the same thing by what they say or think (see his, “Having Concepts: a Brief Refutation of the Twentieth Century“). If that objection is on the mark, it would seem to imply that if realization is holistic in the way described, then no two people could have the same insight. What are we to say here?

Let’s turn to the second issue of whether we’d want to upload a realization if it were possible. Presumably it would depend on the realization in question. However, here is a general, though defeasible, argument against uploading realizations. The realizations that I’ve been talking about have been ones that are deeply personal in that they result from protracted study, reflection, thinking, reading, conversing, experiencing—in sum, living. And the more interesting realizations are not necessarily things that are common knowledge, or if they are, perhaps they have become trite sayings that folks repeat but don’t often really understand. But in the case of those insights that are what we might call “controversial” in some interesting way, there arises this issue: Prior to having the insight/realization for oneself, how is one to know whether it would be worth having? This is made more pressing if it turns out that the content of a realization is holistic and carries with it the lived experiences that lead to it. Consider examples of realizations that one might have, such as that death is nothing to be feared since we cease to exist, that nihilism is the “right” view of life and value, that Jesus is indeed the son of God and our Lord and Savior, etc. From these examples, one can see that realizations and insights do not require truth or being right. This leads to a further question regarding the place and degree of justification for them. But my main question, the main reason against the desirability of uploading certain realizations is simply that we are not in an epistemic position to realize the value of an realization until we have it.

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