In Buddhism, the notion of suññatā, or, Emptiness, is seen as describing the fundamental reality of the world. It teaches that the world is anitya; impermanent, and simultaneously anatman: that there is no self. In other words, it teaches that there is nothing to grasp, and even if it were, there would be no one who could grasp it! The permanence of our selves and our worlds is illusory, hinting towards Buddhism’s Hinduistic metaphysical backdrop of the world as Maya; illusory.
Further, Buddhism teaches that Dukkha, our human suffering, is a result of Trishna: our thirst or desire causing our imaginary self to grasp for these unreal apparitions around us. So, then, it teaches: try, if you can, not to desire. Not to grasp. But does not this involve grasping the idea of non-grasping, clinging to the fact that reality can not be clung to? “Desiring to not desire?” And so, drifting between the poles of attachment and non-attachment, the Buddhist pays attention to this process, and walks the middle-wayed way.
Virtuality as Emptiness
This metaphysical view of reality as fundamentally empty is a particularly interesting philosophical standpoint for the philosophy of virtuality. Whatever one’s standpoint to the truth of the philosophy regarding our fundamental existence, it is strikingly accurate in describing the phenomenology of our virtual worlds.
In his rich paper “Why VR is Interesting for Philosophers,” Thomas Metzinger discusses the Buddhist notion of Emptiness in relation to Virtuality. In Buddhism, the notion of Emptiness—put in Western terms—is an anti-substantialist, anti-essentialist metaphysics. It views the world as illusory in the sense that entities in the world are not as they appear: they are as Metzinger describes it “devoid of inherent existence and as lacking any form of ‘true inner nature’”. It is precisely this point that brings the interesting parallel between reality and virtuality: virtual objects or worlds, likened to reality as perceived by Buddhists, are equally not “ontologically self-subsistent,” they have no “self-sustaining, enduring, or essential inner nature beyond the present moment.” Metzinger’s takeaway point here is that the Buddhist perspective of emptiness—that of the experience being neither real nor unreal—is a descriptive perspective of the virtual experience. Moreover, this experience may cause us to reflect on how we evaluate our own existence outside of the virtual environments. Virtual Reality may reframe the way in which we relate to reality.
Nothingness as a logical necessity
«You can’t have something without nothing.» So said Alan Watts, an English philosopher responsible for popularizing and interpreting Eastern philosophies for the Western mind. This saying can be interpreted in two ways, both of which are valuable. Firstly, we can think of nothing as pure negativity. Not understood as something “bad”, but as a negation. In computer code: false; in binary language: 0; among human beings, death.
But why is it necessary to have nothing in order to have something, when nothingness and thingness are completely opposite from one another? In the case of your own life, for your life to be something, it needs to be defined in relation to the background of nothingness. If there was only life, why make up a word for it? Words and terms are only for distinction. In mathematical equations, we remove what is redundant on each side of the equation; a term, by indicating an inclusion criterion, necessarily, by its very logical nature, also indicates an exclusion criterion. Likewise, a definition of what your life is must include what it is not: your death, your non-being.
In the existentialist thinking of Heidegger, this is made very clear: “Death opens up the question of Being.” And so, we are being-towards-death: our living must adhere to the possibility of our own impossibility. Death constitutes the backdrop against which we define our selves as human beings, and in this manner, the negative gives rise to the positive.
Emptiness as The Start of Creativity
It is also possible to conceive of Alan Watts’ saying in another way altogether. Not as «nothing» as we traditionally conceive of it—as a mere void— but rather as a “no-thingness.” And this can be particularly fruitful for ideation. What it means is that, to quote Watts from one of his talks, “there are no such things as things.” Rather, the world is comprised of events. Things or objects are illusory, nothing is set in stone, not even stones! And neither is your life nor your identity. Existence is a living and changing process that is continually unfolding and thereby in a process of becoming.
The point we are aiming at is the mutual necessity of positivity and negativity, foreground and background, in constructing anything sensible. From this Nothingness, ideation can take place. Virtual Reality is of itself empty: it contains no things, however, vast spaces yet unshaped are lurking in the nothingness waiting to be revealed. VR may be empty, but it is spacious. And this spaciousness—the material of Virtual Reality—can be brought into many forms.
The Bringing-forth of
In his extraordinary essay The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger describes technology as a process of bringing-forth. He asks us to imagine a chalice that is “on its way” to existence; where the four “ways of being responsible” helps the chalice “arrive” there. Revealing, which we do through our technologies, “brings out of concealment into unconcealment.”
This raises the question: What will we reveal? What will we bring forth from the concealment in the dark depths of the interplay between Virtual Reality and our Minds, into unconcealment?
VR is a grand nothingness, dark and impenetrable, for the very reason that it can it be shaped to anything. From its wells, many ideas that have hitherto been inconceivable, and still are, will be revealed, and surprise us.
There is something intriguing, stimulating and marvellously weird in experiencing virtual realities. The experiential quality is affected by the sheer virtuality, or unreality, of it—and this, in turn, may make the illusion unexpected and beautiful. The experience has a certain quality to it: the disassociation between its unreality on the one hand and feeling of reality on the other. We know that VR is a synthesized, not-naturally-occurring experience, and further that we react to these stimuli as if they were real. Due to its unique character of offering convincing illusions, and our unique quality of, on the one hand seeing through them, and on the other being totally helpless in responding to it as if it weren’t real — we get the weird, thrilling experience of VR. The clear illusion; the transparent veil — a weaving of smoke: beautiful, but somehow not substantial – From Thought to Reality.
There is a sense in which thingness, which is a mental construct we project upon the world; we “thingify,” or “bit” the world, as Watts would’ve said. This creates conventions, terms and ideas, which themselves are empty, only symbolism that has meaning through referral to non-reducible phenomena. Objects and worlds in VR are similarly based on ideas and imagery and thus designed, creating conventions in the format of reality. In this way, virtual worlds are also empty, being instantiated conventions, but nevertheless present as lived experience.
The interested reader can go on to these entries discussing ideation of Virtual Reality:
In Meaning and Virtuality we discuss the following 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?
In The Virtually Extended Mind, we discuss how we may virtually extend our minds, and what kind of VR Minds we would like to create.
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.