IEET > Vision > Virtuality > Fellows > William Sims Bainbridge > Sociology > Philosophy
A New Mode of Philosophizing

Academic philosophy has been too timid, merely urging its students to read the works of long-dead philosophers.  Rather, each student should temporarily but intensely adopt the personality as well as intellect of a specific bygone intellectual, and live in a challenging virtual environment with that identity.  For my new book Virtual Sociocultural Convergence, just published by Springer, I did that for these social theorists of the past: Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), Edward Jarvis (1803-1884), William James (1842-1910), Robert Michels (1876–1936), Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), William F. Ogburn (1886-1959), Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968), Jacob Moreno (1889-1974), George C. Homans (1910-1989), Angus McIntosh (1914-2005), Ernest Edward Kovacs (1919-1962), Daniel Bell (1919-2011), and Seymour Martin Lipset (1922-2006).  You could do the same!

Jacob Moreno provided some of the role-playing theory that allowed me to become him, because he was not only the most important innovator in social network research back in the 1930s, but in the 1940s created Psychodrama, an alternative to Psychoanalysis which he despised.  In group therapy sessions, a student would act out being a parent or other important influence from real life, developing person-centered insights about the meaning of their relationship, but not, as in Psychoanalysis, being indoctrinated with any particular pseudoscientific dogma.  So I took one of my Second Life avatars, changed its display name to Jacob Moreno, and explored various psychology groups and virtual universities for a few days, contemplating what it meant to be Moreno and seeing the world through his electronic eyes.

A much more complex example was exploration of Fallen Earth, one of the best if least popular virtual gameworlds.  Russian players especially love this game, because it depicts the United States of America after its civilization has fallen.  I entered it at the end of 2011, intending to explore the mentality of my grandfather, William Seaman Bainbridge, an adventuresome surgeon with vast publications and a circle of friends that included Thomas Alva Edison, Benito Mussolini, and Helen Keller.  In 2008 I had published a short story about him in the computer magazine Communications of the ACM, where I imagined using information technology to resurrect him on the basis of the vast published data, and noted that his email address in the early 1920s had been bridgebain.nyk.  What?  You don’t think there was email back in the Roaring Twenties?  Of course there was, for technologically advanced people, and they called it a telegram cable address.  So I called the avatar Bridgebain.

As I started working on Virtual Sociocultural Convergence, I returned to Fallen Earth, reconceptualized Bridgebain as Edward Gibbon, and then created two more characters, Sorokin and Spengler.  Figure 1 shows them on the log-in screen of Fallen Earth, where the user selects which avatar to use for the session.  The circle around Bridgebain’s feet indicates that he is selected at the moment, and clicking PLAY would enter Fallen Earth as him.  Clicking DELETE would activate a decision box asking if I wanted to destroy all his data.  Clicking CREATE would allow me to create a fourth avatar.  I have avoided the temptation to create an avatar based on a living person.  The obvious case for experimentation in that direction would be an avatar of the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who has analyzed the possibility that we already live inside a computer simulation that we falsely believe to be real.  I will leave that challenging experiment to readers of this article, and look forward to learning the implications of a world in which there are scores of Bostroms, rather than just one.

Figure 1: Avatars of Three Theorists of the Fall of Civilization, in Fallen Earth

Fallen Earth depicts the area of a thousand square miles around the Grand Canyon after global civilization had fallen.  Six factions of player avatars and many non-player factions inhabit this wild land, competing with each other for limited natural resources, and often battling directly.  Many of the groups have well-defined ideologies.  For example, the Techs are "scientists and engineers who hope to tinker the world back together, considering technology to be the fundamental basis of civilization," while the Children of the Apocalypse are "anarchists who seek to prevent the re-establishment of stable government, because they believe it would lead to another catastrophe."  The fundamental theory behind the majority of them is this: Humans are doomed to battle each other to the death.  The only question is which other humans will become allies, and which, enemies.  Morality may consist only of loyalty to members of one’s own group, and appeasement of members of neutral groups.  Morality has no relevance for dealings with members of hostile groups, or for neutrals that are of no value for one’s own group.  At least not in Fallen Earth.

Edward Gibbon was the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who believed that Rome had overextended itself and was doomed, the only question being how quickly it would die.  Oswald Spengler applied similar concepts to our own civilization in The Decline of the West.  Pitirim Sorokin, founder of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University, was more moderate, believing that vital civilizations go through repeated thousand-year cycles of rise, fall, and revival, outlined in Social and Cultural Dynamics.  All three would predict that another Dark Age looms on the horizon today, and they would debate whether or not to expect a Renaissance in a few hundred years.  I used the Bridgebain avatar to explore Fallen Earth thoroughly in the role of Gibbon.  Spengler theorized he could succeed simply by killing enemies and ignoring economic productivity altogether.  Sorokin theorized he could succeed through exclusive economic manufacturing of products, killing some beasts for their meat and hides, but no humanoid enemies.  Both theories were proven correct.

Virtual Sociocultural Convergence visits many other virtual worlds, from a range of philosophical perspectives, but the best example for comparison here is Lord of the Rings Online, explored by a team of avatars led by one based on Angus McIntosh, after whom the Angus McIntosh Centre for Historical Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland is named.  He had been a student and life-long friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, creator of the Lord of the Rings mythos, but also had served during the Second World War at Bletchley Park, the British cryptography center that cracked the German Enigma code.  The English Ring novels by Tolkien are a reflection of the German Ring operas by Richard Wagner, and implicitly but powerfully sought to reconcile these opposed cultures.  Figure 2 shows a musical band of ten Lord of the Rings Online players, at nighttime on the rehearsal stage near their home.

Figure 2: An International Orchestra Rehearsing in Lord of the Rings Online

McIntosh’s avatar was a Hobbit, and the professor was actually rumored to be the original model for this quaint species. In Lord of the Rings Online, his team of students included the other three races: Elf, Dwarf, and Human.  There can be violent conflict in this online world, but ideally the four races collaborate in an alliance against demons and Orcs. This is the opposite situation from that in Fallen Earth, because together the Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and Humans possess a diverse civilization, which will endure forever, if they combine in friendship to defend it.

The orchestra on the stage in Figure 2 represents ten players, most in Europe but two or three in North America, performing a realistic simulation of musical collaboration.  A sophisticated music scripting program is embedded in Lord of the Rings Online, containing musical scores written by the players themselves.  Despite the Internet latency delays, each of the ten players, and any audience that happens to be virtually nearby, will hear the multi-instrument music in a properly coordinated fashion, simulated on their own machines.  There could hardly be a better metaphor for technology-supported global civilization!

So, what philosopher will you emulate, in which virtual world?  If abstract logic is your creed, then Harvard University’s Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000) would be a good choice, but to challenge his way of thought you could create his avatar in The Secret World, set in a modern version of New England beset by supernatural monsters, and have him teach Occult Studies at Innsmouth Academy.  Zen Buddhists like Alan Watts (1915-1973) or D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966) would feel quite at home among the Jedi in Star Wars: The Old Republic. I won’t say why I selected World of Warcraft as the setting to resurrect Ernest Edward Kovacs (1919-1962), but if the reason is not immediately obvious, you could look him up in Wikipedia.

Seriously, in addition to reading the publications of a selected philosopher, poet, scholar, or scientist, emulating that person inside a somewhat realistic but symbolically rich computer simulated environment can be a good twenty-first-century method for stimulating your own mind.

William Sims Bainbridge Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.

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