Virtual Reality technology is wonderful for a philosopher because it brings alive some of the greatest philosophical questions — David Chalmers
In the installment from which the above quote was taken, the distinguished philosopher and consciousness researcher goes on to mention Descartes’ suspicion of the external world as an evil illusion—in addition to the more recent theories by Nick Bostrom that discusses the probability that our reality is illusory. Indeed, one of the benefits of the virtual is that it may provoke new ways of viewing the real. What Chalmers mention here is one of the reasons why VR is interesting for philosophers.
Matrise has for the last few years been discussing themes like these, for instance in our entry on The Experience Machine as well as in our three-series entry on Heidegger, both in which we discuss the notion of authenticity in relation to being in virtual reality. Beyond such «principal» themes, however, VR can offer way more for philosophers than just a stir in the age-old questions of philosophy. Today we will review some newer ideas and discuss their relevance for the technology of VR.
Chalmers is very right, however, in that VR acts as a catalysator for thought. Why, it can even be said to pose an existential problem to us. As we recently covered in depth, technologies, in certain ways, are a way of human exteriorisation—a way for humans to realise themselves outside of themselves. As VR, at least in conceptual terms, is a technology capable of realising anything, we can perceive of it as an existential problem as this freedom forces us to reflect on what we value and want, and thus who we are—if we accept the premise that what we externalise can tell us who we are.
In this entry, we will take to imagining such future realities, and bring Chalmers ideas with us on the ride. Not his paralleling VR and Descartes’ evil demon, however, but by returning to some of Chalmers’ own ideas and hypotheses on the extended mind.
The Extended Mind
In 1998, together with Andy Clark, David Chalmers published a paper describing an idea under the name of “The Extended Mind.” The central question which they approach is where our minds stop and where the world begins. Where is the boundary, in other words, between the dualism of self and other, and to which degree is the brain the mind, or the mind the brain? The philosophers deal with this theme in arguing that the tools and technologies we use become part of our minds, and so we extend our selves into the world.
A brilliant introduction to this idea is Chalmers’ Ted Talk in which he presents the central thesis. In the talk, Chalmers parallels this view to the perhaps better known examples of bodily extensions or embodiments; for instance in how blind people’s canes work as an extension of their body. This is exactly the same principle as Merleau-Ponty’s woman with a feathered hat which he presents in his Phenomenology of Perception; in which her bodily consciousness seem to float even out into the tip of the feather, and so she avoids breaking it.
Chalmers point is that we are outsourcing certain mind functions to machines—such as recalling phone numbers—to our phones. Similarly, spatial navigation and information is offloaded to Google Maps. Now, few would argue against the fact that technologies are performing important functions for us. Chalmers point, however, can not be reduced to understanding these technologies as tools, his argument is that they are literally becoming a part of our minds, although they are not wired directly to our brain.
The Mind / Body Problem
Now, as we said, this is touching upon the mind/brain problem: to which extent can the mind be reduced to, or traced back to, the brain? This question is not as easy as it may first seem. Obviously, if we cap someone on the head, they become unconscious and so, apparently, no mind. It may from this, naïvely, be deduced that thus the mind is the brain. When the mind is operating, however, it is harder to reduce it as it extends and uses what it perceives to operate its functions.
In addressing this problem, we can thus ask: what is so special about the inside of the brain, that only this part should have the special features constituting our mind? If something is going on outside it, as long as it is driving the processes in the brain in the same way, there is no principal difference lying in the skull separating it from the world. If the information structures you are using for your processing is stored in your local hard drive or in the cloud: does it matter? Are they not both a part of your computer, in principal terms?
The Virtually Extended Mind: A Palace?
Here we reach the point of our entry. If our minds can be extended into our physical world, how may we extend it into the virtual? In other words, a perspective that can be had in imagining the virtual worlds of the future, is to view them as extensions of our minds. What tools, then, should we use, develop and adopt during our thought processes? What would constitute our VR minds?
A good example of this that we have previously discussed at Matrise has been Memory Palaces; arranging information visuo-spatially in order to better preserve it. Beyond this concrete utilisation, however, we can also imagine not memory palaces, but mind palaces. These can be personalised, meaningful places, from which we can gain sustenance, peace or productivity. They can be filled with various tools: for emotional healing, meditation, work, relaxation or entertainment. These rooms can be viewed as extensions of our minds and a way for us to immersive our selves and synchronise our selves to the various activities which we want to carry out.
The way this is related to VR as an existential problem, as we recently discussed, is that the concept of VR is asking our opinion in a different sense than normal technologies. It is not a question of whether we want A or B, but fundamentally, from the start, what would we like to see, or in other words, who do we want to be; or as Bruce Mau’s God-like question is formulated: now that we can do anything, what will we do?
What would you have in your Mind Palace, could you choose? What would constitute your VR mind?
I will conclude this entry with a quote from Hannibal by Thomas Harris:
Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr. Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s on harp.
The interested reader can go on to these entries which are similar in theme:
In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves.
In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars and so help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.
In A Psychedelic Virtual Reality we discussed how VR may take inspiration from psychedelic drugs and facilitate for non-dual states of consciousness through the merging of self and other.
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Top, featured image: Artwork by M.C. Escher.