Imagine that you had to develop a working toy model of reality that captured not the entire facts of the matter as they are in our world but instead was required to model solely the epistemological part. You might imagine the world as a boundless two-dimensional spatial plane, something like Flatland perhaps. Let us call this toy model Epistemic Flatland. I am not suggesting an infinite plane, perhaps the plane wraps around on itself like the surface of a sphere, in such a way that it is finite but with no edges. On the plane “live” two-dimensional beings that have two sense organs, one for input, one for output, and a rudimentary “brain” with the faculty of language.
What internal machinery would these toy beings need to perform basic cognition and recognition. What internal machinery would these micro-inforgs require to “speak”, make simple judgements and perform elementary logical operations, perceive and make sense of their world? Would these beings exhibit emotion and display affect as they each internally simulate their own little world and have their expectations met and thwarted? Each being or system would have a permeable boundary that encloses its internal structures and separates the system from its environment but allows data and information to pass through. It seems like an impossibly complex micro-world to construct; it seems like a thought experiment whose realization in the actual world is an impossible task. Nonetheless it is a thought experiment that I have found illuminating and instructive to play with.
In software engineering confounded programmers routinely ask for help with non-working code on web forums. A common request by the peers of the perplexed is for a minimal working example. That is to say a snippet of the entire whole is requested that demonstrates the piece of non-working code or markup is requested. All other non-impinging details are stripped away to reveal the essential workings of the problem. What I am suggesting is that the grand project of epistemology is nothing else but to construct Epistemic Flatland. How much of this world (our universe) can we strip away and yet retain beings with the features of basic learning, basic cognition, basic pattern-matching and semiosis? The beings would not have to be recognisably human in any way but they would have to exhibit the recognisably epistemic features of human beings: language, subjectivity, and so on. How much “cheating” would be allowable, how atomic would this micro-world have to get in other words.
I believe that there could be value in creating a global challenge with a substantial monetary reward the better to spur research (something akin to the Millennium Prize Problems) with Epistemic Flatland as the goal.
Imagine if this universe we find ourselves in is just that minimal working example, perfectly coincided with it! And imagine further if we could prove that situation to be the case.
obligatory wikipedia links :)