Virtual Reality is in some ways a simple concept: it can be reduced to an act of representation, symbolism, or language. Through technological means – be it a pencil or a VR headset – we can represent the past as we remember it and the future as we imagine it. Through language and imagery, we can maintain the human culture of sharing information by exteriorizing what previously was only known to us internally – creating outside of ourselves what was previously only accessible in the language of our minds. So in conceptual terms, even the first cave painting was a kind of Virtual Reality. Through that painting, humans could represent their thoughts and designs as an external, objective reality, chalked to the wall of a cave. In some ways, though, language was the first kind of Virtual Reality. With language we could make what was previously only inside our minds exist as something between us – just as now, while you are reading this article, a world of meaning exists between us, mediated by the words on the paper or screen.
Although language and VR are similar in conceptual terms, there is a crucial difference between mere language and actual VR technologies. Through the technology of Virtual Reality we are able to project our thoughts and our designs not as abstract conventions but in terms of the lived reality we inhabit. We can externalize our ideas in the format of reality. Language has the capability of allowing us to tell stories, but in Virtual Reality we have the capability of living those stories, not through the mind’s eye or the imagination, but through our everyday means of navigating the world via our senses. VR can immerse subjects in lively, dynamic, virtual worlds.
The opportunities this technology gives us come with existential consequences. By immersing ourselves in any kind of world of our own design, there is a sense in which our response will say something about us. Due to this extraordinary new capability of creating worlds within worlds, humanity has essentially acquired the god-like power of being able to define the reality encompassing us. With steady progress towards the ultimate realization of VR technology, where the experience is indistinguishable in detail from our experience of reality, the question that faces us is: now that we can do anything, what should we do? This is the question we’ll consider in this article.
The Role of World Creation
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, referred to the process of creating worlds within worlds as ‘sub-creation’. In his poem defending the creation of myths, Mythopoeia (1931), Tolkien describes himself as ‘the little maker’, wielding his ‘own small golden sceptre’ which he will not cast down.
Tolkien created the great realm of Ëa, in which we find Middle Earth and a grand cosmology comprising gods, mortals and in-betweens. Tolkien was a great builder of worlds, and as any fan of fantasy knows, such myths that are created out of nothing may in turn be great revealers of truth or meaning for human beings.
How may this be? Why do the stories we create actually matter to us?
The role of stories, narratives, and myths in our lives aids in the construction of our identity. As Joseph Campbell illustrates in his exposition of the Hero’s Journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), humans are naturally attracted to stories involving the facing of hardship and its eventual conquest. Referred to as the monomyth in comparative mythology, the Hero’s Journey is a common theme that resonates with the heart of humanity. We adore the onset of adventure, the conquest of hardship, and the change of self that results from it. And so we raise the question of what kind of stories we want to live through in Virtual Reality. If stories are what situate us and give us our identity, what will we choose to tell ourselves in VR?
This question has seen many forms throughout the years. In 1973, for instance, Robert Nozick introduced the thought experiment of an ‘Experience Machine’ – a machine capable of providing any experience one could ever want, but which also makes you forget that there is a real world. The question Nozick asks is this. If you had this machine that could provide you any experience you ever wanted, including pleasure for the rest of your life, would you use it? Would you plug in and forget real life?
Nozick’s intention with the thought experiment was to query whether humans valued reality or authenticity as something intrinsically good apart from any considerations of pleasure. Is authenticity a good in itself? If we felt so strongly, we would choose not to plug in to the Experience Machine in order merely to simulate the stimuli of goodness. Therefore someone saying ‘Nay’ to the choice of plugging into the machine would prove that human nature cannot be reduced to mere hedonism, the philosophical standpoint that gaining pleasure and avoiding suffering is the only intrinsic good.
Some objections may be raised though. Perhaps there are other things that make us want to stay in the real world, apart from our valuing authenticity ? It may be that the reason we would prefer to avoid plugging in to the Machine is because this world, or this way of being, is the only one known to us. A way of getting around this is to flip the question Matrix wise: If you were told that your life up until now has been an illusion in a machine, would you then like to wake up?
Philosophising with VR
With VR, what we experience, and thus who we are, or choose to be, is up to us. The ultimate realization of VR will allow us to, at will, have any kind of conceivable experience. For this reason the technology of Virtual Reality could be a fruitful addition to the philosopher’s toolkit. It is the perfect aid to exploring hypothetical scenarios. VR acts as a catalyser for thought in many ways. It instantly re-forges and actualizes philosophical themes.
Some of the questions that the technology of VR poses to us can be deemed existential. The existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) famously described anxiety (ängst) as the dizziness of freedom, the result of constantly having to make choices and decisions. The technology of Virtual Reality poses an existential problem to us in exactly this way. VR extends the reach of our freedom, and therefore also our existential responsibility, and along with this, our anxiety.
Or consider for instance René Descartes’ Meditations (1641), in which he presents the idea of the Evil Deceiver – a demon that can alter his experiences at will. This has an obvious VR application, that has been well exploited in movies such as The Matrix and Existenz. Hilary Putnam’s idea in Reason, Truth and History (1981) of a ‘brain in a vat’ also illustrates the possibility that our entire universe is a simulation created by some powerful technological civilization. The idea is ever-extending, and we now have modern-day philosophers such as Nick Bostrom actively discussing the possibility that we are living in a simulation. As the prime example in which VR acts as a catalyst for thought, I will finish this article with this simulation hypothesis.
This idea is also quite simple. As Bostrom has argued, there are essentially three potential scenarios in relation to the simulation, the ultimate VR. The first is that humans and any other beings will never achieve the technological capabilities for full, convincing, immersive VR – for simulated worlds, such as simulating previous times and our own history, or alternative histories – ultimately, due to our extinction. The second possibility is that we or some other species do reach the technological maturity, but aren’t likely to run such simulations simply because of who we (or they) are as a species: for moral reasons, perhaps, or maybe just due to lack of interest. The third option is that we are almost certainly already living in a computer simulation.
How may that be? If it can happen with us in the future, it might have already happened in the past. If ultimate VR is possible, then our own world will mostly likely be just one amongst myriads created by technologically advanced species. Only one world is the biological, physical, originally one; but there will be an unfathomable number of simulations created by advanced species. The likelihood that we should in be the original one is very small, Bostrom argues. At that point we are no longer a species with a future and a past in our universe: we must instead consider ourselves as ever-duplicating in a myriad of possible simulated worlds.
Whether one thinks it likely that we are living in a simulation or not, the potential implications of VR technology are still looming over us. One of the most interesting food-for-thought experiment for us all, after all, is to ask ourselves: If we could do anything we wanted, what would we do?
This piece was first published in Philosophy Now, Issue 139, Future Shocks in August/September.