Illustration: Shattered Illusions by Shelli Fitzpatrick

Meaning & Virtual Reality

Virtuality seems for us humans to have a kind of fleeting and ephemeral degree of reality. A plain rock, on the other hand, has a more brute, explicit existence. It is solid, hard, and easily graspable—both in physical and conceptual terms. It seems the virtual doesn’t “matter” to the precise degree that it is not “material.” As Michael Heim defined it in his Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, “the virtual is not real in fact, but in effect.” And so we have the technological oxymoron of which its name, Virtual Reality, is so representative. A reality that is actually not so real; abstract ideas, presented to us not as such, but rather in mimesis of reality.

Proceeding from this insight into the technology of Virtual Reality, we can ask many interesting questions:

Will the fundamentally immaterial, virtual nature of VR impact the kind of relationships that we can develop to it? What will “meaning” look like in the virtual worlds of the future? Can we care about something that is not “real,” or rather; to what degree can we get used to a new kind of reality? What is it that makes our experiences meaningful, and how dependent is this feeling of meaning on attributes often ascribed to the “higher” degrees of reality, such as tactility, materiality—aspects that contribute to what we see as objectivity?

Intentionality and Virtuality:
A Phenomenological Perspective

In a paper published in 2016, the philosopher Michael Madary takes up the question of the ontological status of virtual objects, but from a particular phenomenological perspective: that of intentionality. Phenomenological thought holds that our consciousness has a certain directedness or intentionality to it: all consciousness is consciousness of something. Further, consciousness is selective: we choose to reveal certain aspects of the world while concealing others; projecting ourselves—and so defining ourselves—as a part of our intentional relationship with the world, which is fundamentally imbued with involvement and care. In short, the world matters to us, it has, and is continuously reforged with, meaning.

But what about the virtual, what does phenomenological thought have to say about virtuality? Can we say that this phenomenological view of our being-in-the-world is applicable to virtual objects, virtual worlds and identities as well? Let us look at the thought of Madary.

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Michael Madary has published on VR & Philosophy, perhaps best known from his collboration with Thomas Metzinger on the paper “Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR

The Case of
Qiu Chengwei’s Dragon Sabre

To investigate into the nature of intentionality and virtuality, Madary uses a particularly extreme case as a guiding example: the case of Qiu Chengwei, whose virtual Dragon Sabre was stolen, resulting in the murder of the thief by his victim. Here, clearly, the virtual object had meaning and was valuable for Qiu Chengwei—so much so that it was a leading factor in a human tragedy. But what, then, is the underlying processes that define or take part in shaping something as meaningful in the virtual? And was the Dragon Sabre «real?»

In his exposition of the paper, Madary discusses virtual objects in light of Husserl’s philosophy of intentionality, where things that exist as well as things that do not exist have the same reality status through our intentionality. He quotes Husserl: “If, however, the intended objects exist, nothing becomes phenomenologically different. It makes no essential difference to an object presented and given to consciousness whether it exists, or is fictitious, or is perhaps completely absurd.” (Husserl, quoted in Madary, p. 220). Thus, what makes objects present and available to us, phenomenologically, is not necessarily objective traits or characteristics. Unicorns can exist as objects in our intentionality, although, of course, due to their non-existence, their function and meaning may be limited. They also may not be. Take for instance Tolkien’s story of the events and happenings in the realm of Ëa in Silmarillion, and the subsequent perfect drama in the Lord of the Rings. These are not objectively real worlds, but yet, they may deeply move us and change our lives.

Virtuality as Ideal Thought:
The Benefits of Representation

None of us deny that we can have ideas, and therefore also experiences, of non-existing objects. What is more interesting, perhaps, is what role, meaning or function, that can be given to objects with a more fleeting degree of reality. In the paper, Madary goes on to discuss the nature of reality that is particular for the virtual, comparing virtual objects with other “unrealities”; conventions such as laws, norms and contracts; which are important but which are more intersubjectively defined as conventions rather than having a palpable material existence. Beyond this, even, according to Madary, virtual objects have a more direct reality than conventions, since we can relate to them from different points of view and interact with them. He quotes Philip Brey (2003: 276) who argues that virtual entities “often have rich perceptual features and, more importantly, they are interactive: they can be manipulated, they respond to our actions, and may stand in a causal relationship to other entities.”

The core claim that Madary makes is that “the way in which we experience virtual objects shares a structural similarity with the way in which we experience physical objects. Both virtual objects are accessible through action and are intersubjectively available.” In the case of Immersive VR, this is even more so the case: in approaching isomorphism in interaction and representation, the virtual is given as real, and when successful, responds to our treating it as reality. This is VR, or, virtuality-as-reality.

The Matrix of Significance

Virtuality thus have some shared structural features with reality. The virtual is interactable, intersubjective, and when immersive, we even experience the world as if it was not mediated. The virtual may, as reality, have an «integrated ontology» as Metzinger calls it, or wholeness—worldhood—to it (more on this in From Thought to Reality). But is this enough for us to develop meaningful relationships to it? What, in fact, is it that makes any experience meaningful?

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Illustration: Theologue by Alex Grey.

In their paper, Dwelling in Second Life? A phenomenological evaluation of online virtual worlds, Houliez & Gamble (2013) also approach the notion of meaning in VR. They write how, in the existential-phenomenological philosophy of Martin Heidegger, things have meaning if they are interrelated in our matrix of significance: “…objects only have a meaning in virtue of their being set in a “referential whole,” that is, a matrix of inter-referring equipments determined by the concern over the world.” It is this that makes things meaningful. They write how “For the phenomenologist, it is precisely because an object presents itself to a range of possible views that it is an object (Merleau-Ponty, 1945). Likewise, while in a virtual world, users will encounter objects whose partial aspect they will unconsciously complete by referring to an already-known offline network of meaningful relations (i.e., Heidegger’s referential whole.)” Whether there is a “referential whole” for a person that can include virtual objects, then, is what will determine whether the virtual can be meaningful.

In the case of Qui Chengwei, his dragon sabre was rare. It was objective in the sense that its worth was defined intersubjectively: because of its rarity and unique qualities, it was desired by other people, and so the worth was defined between the people wanting it. Chengwei, wielding the dragon sabre, could perhaps win friends and become invited to in-world parties and raids. The pixels and few kilobytes of the dragon sabre could give status and friends. Its “virtual emptiness”, that could allow infinite copying and duplication within the virtual world, was constrained by the game itself, so the object was indeed rare. Perhaps you would have to use many months sitting in front of your computer, chopping trees in-world, to attain enough virtual currency to purchase it. The worth, then, is to avoid doing this again. In fact, Chengwei’s eventual victim of murder had sold the sabre for almost $1000! But offering the money back was apparently not enough, and Chengwei was given a life sentence for avenging his stolen, virtual object.

What Will Be Our Virtual Worlds of the Future?

The insights into the nature of virtuality, and to the human projection of meaning, can be very informing for the design of the virtual worlds of the future. We should ask: how can we design virtual worlds that have room for, or interacts with, what is important for people and thus involved in their matrix of significance? Hopefully, this need not be to transfer material value over to the virtual, and necessarily create exclusive monetary value within the virtual worlds, although this to some extent also will be inevitable and desirable (purchasing customised avatars, for instance, provides expressive potential in the same manner as clothes, and it is beneficial to have those good at 3D modelling and rigging to do this, and pay them.) We do, however, also have the possibility of designing for personal value. I may have an object that is meaningful to me, whereas if you stole it from me, you would gain little and I would lose much. This is perhaps the ultimate good for VR: how can we make our worlds personally meaningful? Ironically enough, this is a step away from objectivity; however, by taking this approach, the worlds may become much more real for us.

How can we create spaces for ideation, dwelling, creativity, relaxation and productivity, that invigorates us, picks us up, and lays us down? What do we want, and who do we want to become, through our designing of virtual worlds and our identities within them? This can be a valuable thought exercise for any philosopher or product designer in the VR space. For those interested in our thoughts on the subject, we often write on the intersections of meaning and VR:

In The Virtually Extended Mind, we discussed how we can extend our mind functions into the virtual, and so entertained the question of how we could design our new minds

In A Virtual Masquerade, we discussed the peculiar nature of social VR, and how embodying avatars can provide new benefits and creative expression in communication.

In Virtual Reality Memory Palaces, we discuss how we can constitute virtual spaces filled with associations to things we want to recall, or to structure our ways of thinking.

And finally, in A Psychedelic Virtual Reality, we discuss the possibility of visual languages which defies the subject/object dualism. 

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2 thoughts on “Meaning & Virtual Reality

  1. The Who’s song Pictures of Lily makes a substantial point regarding the following quote, in that, being conceived amidst the relatively rudimentary technologies of the 1960’s, its story still recognizes our ability to substantiate and be impacted by objects that do not exist except as virtual representations.

    “None of us deny that we can have ideas, and therefore also experiences, of non-existing objects. What is more interesting, perhaps, is what role, meaning or function, that can be given to objects with a more fleeting degree of reality.”

    A teenage boy falls in love, experiencing a resultant change in self, with a woman based on the virtual representation of her in a picture, only later to find out she has been long dead.

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