We are not few who would save a coin or two by being able to be our own psychologist. In a very concrete sense, this is the topic of today’s entry — how Virtual Reality (VR) can allow us another perspective on ourselves, and how this may better our mental health. At Matrise, we have previously discussed how VR can benefit anxiety sufferers through virtual reality exposure therapy. We have also discussed how the medium can facilitate Mindfulness meditation. In this entry, however, we will discuss a VR application that lets you have a conversation with Dr. Sigmund Freud. Oh, but there’s a twist!
In 2015, Sofia Adelaide Osimo, Rodrigo Pizarro, Bernhard Spanlag and Mel Slater published a paper called “Conversations between self and self as Sigmund Freud — A virtual body ownership paradigm for self-counseling“. The paper discusses an application where you sit in a chair facing Dr. Sigmund Freud. Upon entering the virtual environment, you do not float in empty space as one often does in VR — rather, you notice you have a virtual body that responds to your movements. This may lead you to identify the virtual body as your own, a magical feature commonly referred to as Virtual Embodiment. We have written extensively on this subject in a previous entry — but put shortly, the effect, apart from being very interesting in itself, has many practical applications. Self-identification with a virtual body can be exploited to, for instance, reduce implicit racial bias and make offenders of domestic violence get better in noticing the fear in victims.
Self as Other
When you sit in your new virtual body, facing Sigmund Freud, you are asked to tell him about a problem. Sometime after you have emptied your heart, the virtual environment fades to black, before you once again are placed in a body, but this on the other side of the room. You are now Dr. Sigmund Freud and your patient, who looks remarkably like you, starts talking. You hear a recording of what you just said minutes ago, but you get to view your statement in a ‘new dress’: a 3D model of yourself is saying it, while you are virtually embodied elsewhere.
As humans, we know ourselves inside-out (or at least we believe we do). This may lead us to be more critical towards ourselves than others, as we compare our worst to the others best, our shame to their facade. We know all our terrible, dirty secrets, and talking to ourselves we do not have to adhere to any sort of social norms or even any general courtesy for that matter. This may lead to our inner voice becoming quite … crude. If we could focus on our own problems, in the form of the problems of others, it may be easier to be more loving towards ourselves, by utilizing the love we usually give to others. The technology can have remarkable results in affecting our selves.
In their paper abstract, Osimo et. al. write:
“…this form of embodied perspective taking can lead to sufficient detachment from habitual ways of thinking about personal problems, so as to improve the outcome, and demonstrates the power of virtual body ownership to affect cognitive changes”
Internal as External
This detachment from the habitual may be very beneficial, perhaps especially in terms of Self and Identity. We have discussed this previously in our entry called “Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as Immersive Virtual Reality“. Apart from the philosophical buildup of the entry, the article discusses an application that, to a certain extent, allows you to view your inner states (measured through pulse and breath), as your encompassing external reality. In our entry on the use of VR in floatation tanks, we also discuss the extreme potential of this — the possibility to be stimulated by only sensory deprivation, of which can be based on your inner phenomena, thus resulting in an experience where there is no separation between the inner and the outer, thus refuting the subject-object dualism that affects our everyday living experience.
Do you have any ideas to this? Feel free to comment below.
On our ‘About’ page, we describe Matrise as a blog that focuses on the topics of VR and Consciousness, and the related Science & Philosophy. In this entry, we will discuss why we find both Science & Philosophy essential and how the disciplines compliment each other. The entry is apologetic of Philosophy as a discourse, and especially critiques the philosophy of Scientism and other extremes of logical positivism — of which the former can be understood as an ignorance of the role of philosophy in general. The discussion is highly relevant as this is a worldview increasingly adopted by young people and promoted by popular science figures. The danger is a spread of anti-intellectualism, which ironically is going on under the flag of science, and further even tries to adopt its authority.
It should be noted that although the entry critiques some ignorant science communicators, it is not the aim of this entry to argue philosophy in any way triumphant over science. The aim is rather to replace “versus” with “and”, and illustrate their mutual dependency. Like my philosopher friend and colleague Deborah G. Johnson once said of her technology criticism: “I prefer to think of my role as similar to that of an art critic” — an art critic loves art, and similarly, in this entry, my critique is out of love for the scientific discourse. It is, by far, not directed at the conceptual core of science, but rather towards the bad tendency that may be had towards it.
In my occupation as a Ph.D. fellow, I ought to, and do, value both science & philosophy, and the main argument of this entry will be the inseparability of the two disciplines and the beauty of their interplay.
Philosophy is Dead, Long Live Philosophy
It may benefit us to personify the attitude towards science and philosophy that we are criticizing with an example. In 2010, the late brilliant Professor Stephen Hawking declared that ‘Philosophy is Dead’, and that the torch guiding the quest for knowledge had been passed to scientists rather than the philosophers. The strong irony present is obviously how Hawking argues the death of philosophy in terms of philosophical arguments, thus illustrating the futility of his statement simultaneously. In his book, “The Grand Design”, Hawking writes that metaphysical questions such as the meaning of life and the nature of reality traditionally were questions for philosophers — but that now, alas, philosophy is dead. Luckily, however, Hawking himself comes to the rescue: further in the book he writes that the “purpose of this book is to give the answers that are suggested by recent discoveries and theoretical advances” — thus pronouncing ever more clearly that his book is one of philosophy rather than science — but which reasons on asserted scientific facts. Revolutionary, indeed. Why did not Philosophy think of just looking at the answers that were suggested by the facts? The whole field of Philosophy is dead, but Hawking has taken it up as a side project and written a philosophical book, so we need not worry.
A critical point that illustrates Hawking’s misunderstanding here, is how he announces that his book discusses “the answers that are suggested by science”. His attitude is therefore that the physics always imply its metaphysics; that descriptive facts of the world also tell of their own meaning, that the solution is always innate in the problem. The situation is that Hawking, of course, has a certain philosophy, he is simply not critical towards his acceptance of it. His assertion is easy to critique, however, by arguing that science does not suggest anything — Hawking, however, suggest several things, and these may be great things and great ideas! It is easy to agree with his philosophy as broad as it is: through observation, we agree on facts, and with logic, we reason on the meaning of these facts. Hawking is philosophizing on scientific discoveries and theories, and that would be a great thing had he only been aware that was his approach. There is not (necessarily) anything wrong with his philosophical stance, except in exactly how it claims to not be a philosophical stance. The saying “Philosophy is Dead” instantly revives Philosophy as the utterance itself is a philosophical statement. The sentence achieves the same futility as a person grabbing a megaphone to announce that megaphones don’t really work.
The Science Gang
Unfortunately, Hawking as a popular science communicator is not alone in his ignorance. For instance, both Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye (the Science guy), has also publicly addressed their concerns over Philosophy. Neil deGrasse Tyson has called Philosophy ‘useless‘, advising bright students to stay away from it, and stated that Philosophy is not “a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world”. He has also said that he is concerned that “philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature”, and described the venture of philosophy as being “distracted by questions”, and therefore not able to contribute anything to our understanding.
Our best example of the problem that lies at the core of these poor critiques, however, is given by Bill Nye in a YouTube video where he is faced with a question from a Philosophy major on what his take on Philosophy is. Nye addresses the topic of Philosophy by introducing several great philosophical problems such as the nature of consciousness and reality, only to dismiss them based on the argument, or, rather saying, that he is quite sure that reality is real. Deep dive. The best illustrative quote would perhaps be his rejection, and total misunderstanding, of Descartes’ famous argument ‘Cogito ergo sum — I think, therefore I am.’ Nye comments on this: «Well, what if you don’t think, do you not exist anymore? You probably still exist even if you don’t think about existence”. I hope I don’t have to explain why this is ridiculous.
At the end of the video, Nye goes further into depravity when he presents a thought experiment to validate his lack of philosophical skepticism. Nye simply asks the questioner to drop a hammer on his foot. This kind of argumentation is classic and has long before been termed ‘argument ad lapidem‘: a logical fallacy that consists of dismissing a statement as absurd without giving proof of its absurdity. What is even more unfortunate, however, is that this was a brilliant opportunity for Nye to illustrate how science actually benefit philosophy, as there is much evidence from scientific experiments that show we may not always be able to trust our senses, and even our own reasoning (read for instance about the fascinating split-brain experiments, or even here on Matrise on how we can fool our senses to achieve Virtual Embodiment or our entry on The World of Illusions). For those who can emotionally afford to experience a few cringy minutes, Bill Nye’s YouTube video can be watched here.
A Philosophical Argument
The problem with a defiant attitude towards Philosophy is that it promotes an ignorance of thorough, critical thinking. Our sciences are infused with philosophy and we need philosophy to reason on our discoveries and their meaning, and further to discuss what we want to research. The best way to understand this is that our scientific methods are an accomplishment of philosophy with the epistemology, methodology, and rationality underlying it: the validity of the scientific discourse is argued for in philosophical terms. Science is not given, it is a construct: our scientific methods have been developed, and are still being discussed and developed to this day. Science & Philosophy does not compete with each other; philosophers compete with philosophers; the logical positivists compete with the idealists, and the rationalists compete with the empiricists. Science is conceptually within Philosophy, and one of its greatest accomplishments. They do not exist separately.
The Uninvestigated Myth
What Philosophy can teach us, and which perhaps especially the field of Existentialism stresses, is to critically reinvestigate our beliefs. It stresses the possibility of each individual to realize their own potential, and also implicitly, the possibility of failing to do so. Heidegger, for instance, a philosopher which we have discussed in several entries earlier is concerned with authentic existence. Allowing an uninvestigated myth such as Scientism to guide one’s life could be a good illustration of Heidegger’s “Das man”; which could be said to be his impersonated term for the norms and culture we blindly accept. It is hard to translate “Das man”, but Heidegger defines it as a possible state of Dasein’s Being. A common way to explain or translate “Das Man” is to the “They” or the “One”, as in “One should always get up early”. Heidegger explains that “‘Das man’ prescribes one’s state-of-mind, and determines what and how one ‘sees'”. This can be read as that culture, or uninvestigated norms that provide a narrative to our existence determines how we fundamentally interpret reality. In the words of crazy Terence McKenna: «Culture is not your friend!» Rather than to accept the cultural and societal narratives, we should critically investigate them, and not let anyone dictate a narrative for us that we should just subscribe to. What narratives in our society do we subscribe to, in relation to who we are and what we want? What did we adopt from our parents and our society in relation to how we understand the basic principles of the world?
It is a very naïve view, indeed, to believe that the solutions to the problems of mankind may be solved if all the young, bright minds go into the natural sciences. We need not only to find out how nature works, but also how we ought to work with it and further with each other. Science alone does not tell us what we should do in our lives. No scientific fact can alone provide us meaning, or say what we should value and pursue. Dismissing philosophy is a dismissal of thorough criticism, it is being attached and dependent on one’s settled, foundational narrative of how the world works.
Concluding this entry is an accompanying text to one of the comics in this entry on Scientism by Corey Mohler. As this entry has not necessarily been very explicit on what Scientism is, it may be informative to read his very clear presentation on this.
“‘Scientism’ is the position that Science can solve all problems, or that all problems are empirical. Philosophically, it is mostly associated with the strongest statements made by the logical positivism movement, which mostly died out in the mid 20th century. Culturally, however, it is stronger than ever, and is closely tied to movements like the so-called “New Atheists”. These newer, more naive forms of Scientism, also have a strong tendency to call philosophy “a big waste of time”, “pointless arguing”, “nothing but semantics”, etc. Rhetorically, they tend to say that non-empirical ideas have no way to guarantee they are true, so are pointless to talk about. This is a rather ridiculous point to make, since their entire movement is based around spreading a certain set of non-empirical, philosophical norms, which they apparently don’t feel it necessary to open up to criticism. What they mostly seem to mean is, assuming everyone agrees with us on the important philosophic questions, such as atheism, utilitarianism, capitalism, eliminative materialism, etc., then we don’t need anything but science. Well, this is maybe true in a strange way, insofar that if everyone agreed on every philosophical position, i.e. if philosophy was solved, then we probably wouldn’t need philosophy. Philosophy, however, has not been solved. Furthermore, if it is going to be solved, it certainly won’t be solved by a bunch of people who don’t even read or engage in philosophy. The real goal is often just to draw a border around what we should or shouldn’t question, because they don’t want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change. And, well, people who don’t want society to change often also find themselves not wanting people to even think about changing society.” — Corey Mohler behind ExistentialComics.com
If we look to our glossary, we see Presence within Virtual Reality (VR) defined as the degree to which the subject feels present in the virtual world. What is interesting to note, is that this naturally has to be viewed relatively to the degree that the subject feels present in the physical world — as we usually receive information from both our physical and our virtual environments.
There can thus be two separated approaches to designing for presence in virtual reality environments: one is to provide sensory stimulus of the virtual environment, and the other is to block sensory stimulus from the physical environment. Both approaches work towards the same goal of immersion — the encapsulation of the user in the VE. Slater and Wilbur (1997) recognise this in their definition of Immersion, which is closely related to the notion of Presence. They define immersion in terms of four qualities the system can afford, the first one of which is called inclusiveness. Inclusiveness they define as the extent to which physical reality is shut out.
Obviously, the principle of adding and removing sensory experience go hand in hand; by equipping a Head-Mounted Display you are blocking the physical impressions and replacing them with virtual impressions, all the while shielding for incoming light from the surroundings. Blocking light, however, is not the only way to deprive the senses of information from the physical environment. In this entry, we will discuss how we can maximize the inclusiveness of the immersion by achieving sensory deprivation in floatation tanks. Floating in Virtual Reality!
Floatation chambers, or sensory deprivation tanks — are pools of water with copious amounts of epsom salt (≈600kg). The tanks are sealed for any incoming light and sound, and the air- and water temperature is equal to that of your body. When you lie down, you will feel how the salt makes you float even though the pool is very shallow. As you lie there, you notice how the ripples you created when lying down start to slowly subside as you sink down into weightlessness. After a while, because of the air- and water temperatures are the same as that of your body, you can no longer pinpoint where the water ends and the air around you begins. In fact, it gets hard to distinguish anything from anything else, including your body from the air and water. There is really nothing that is easy to grasp as isolated, save perhaps your breath. And as the minutes go, with total physical relaxation and lack of much sensory impression at all, things start to change.
The most significant, explicit change one may notice in the tank is that after a while your bodily self-consciousness is not what it used to be. Your mental model of where your body is in relation to the world around you starts to become blurred. Normally reinforced by tactile stimuli of air and water (of varying temperatures), and visual and auditive stimuli from the environment, your body model is now lacking information on which to create it. Your sense of spaciousness has also changed, that is the feeling of your position as defined relatively to say, the walls, mountains and sky has disappeared. You now really experience nothing around you, but neither any edges to this lack of information in your surroundings. You may get the feeling of floating in empty space — but where are you in all of this? What, in this stream of conscious experience is matter and what is mind?
Inner vs Outer
In our entry — ‘Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Reality‘ — we discussed the potential of using VR for meditation purposes in experimental ways. In the introduction to the entry, we discussed our feeling of Self as a duality of Inner and Outer, of which our everyday experiences usually comprise. We discussed how technology may have the power to transform our consciousness away from this traditional subject-object hierarchy and into a non-dual one, where the Inner is seen as the Outer, and the Outer as Inner. In this entry we are building further on these ideas. Similarly to visualising inner states in VR through biometrics, using VR in floatation tanks might provide illusory experiences where the conscious experience is significantly altered.
One other entry relevant to our experiments with VR in floatation tanks should be mentioned before we go on: the entry on Virtual Embodiment. In the entry, we discuss the great potential of VR to hack our consciousness; why it is possible, and what it can be used for. The research is highly relevant for floatation in VR, as both floatation tanks and VR alter our self-model, as both alter the sensory impressions necessary to maintain it.
Research on Virtual Embodiment in Floatation Tanks
Matrise partnered up with Bergen Flyt, a local company offering floatation therapy in the heart of Bergen city. We used a Samsung Gear VR with a Samsung S8 phone. We did not use a HTC Vive (Pro) as it would be more risky exposing the cable to water. Also, no room tracking or even much head orientation was needed, and in terms of resolution the HMD is quite high in ppi. We chose to first try out some abstract visualisations through the application “Fractal Lounge”, that shows varying psychedelic visuals and floating through space.
“After I had showered, I put on the GEAR VR headset, started the application, and slowly entered the floatation pool. I held my hands towards the wall, as I did not see anything else than the visuals in the headset. When I was inside, I closed the glass door, and slowly lowered myself into the water — back first. It took a few seconds before I dared to lower my head all the way down, but very soon I was totally relaxed. As expected, the electronics in the display was kept well above water, due to the intense amount of salt in the water …”
“The visualisation pulsated, floated, drifted along — and often totally changed in colours and shapes. It took probably about ten minutes before my feeling of body totally vanished, to the degree that it was a larger gap between wanting to move the body and actually being able to move it than usual. I felt like perceiving a great drama and scene, and I got engaged in the forms and ways of the visualisations, sometimes quite invested in it, as it felt close and reality-defining for me. After about twenty minutes in, I felt as if I was drifting along in space at high speed, because of the steady movement of stars away from me. At the same time, there was no sound, which made the quick travel feel peaceful and smooth. As with normal floating, about every ten minutes there is a sort of reality-check moment where you remember you are in the tank and contemplate how weird it is. This also happened in VR, and was … equally as weird”
Reflections and Future Work
My first experiment with floatation in VR lasted for about 45 minutes. Sometimes, unfortunately, the VR headset glided slightly off my face, and I had to reposition it with my wet, salty fingers. After this happened about three times, I had to leave the tank in order to save the equipment.
My first experience of floating in virtual reality was very promising. The largest surprise was the feeling of movement through space at high speed. The largest frustration was the lack of any sort of interaction with ones surroundings at all, except the possibility to open and close one’s eyes. A great experiment would be to use eye tracking technology as a way of navigation in the vast, abstract psychedelic spaces. If one travelled towards where one saw, one could even be interactive while lying still in the floatation tank. This could also possibly have curious effects on which parts (perhaps the eyes), we identify with our selves. Perhaps the placement of our self could be altered by changing the agency for transportation.
Matrise will continue the cooperation with Bergen Flyt, and both try and develop different applications. Our plan is to measure the feeling of presence and self-identification and consciousness while in the tank.
Mel Slater and Sylvia Wilbur. 1997. A Framework for Immersive Virtual 1140Environments (FIVE): Speculations on the Role of Presence in Virtual 1141Environments. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 6, 6 1142(12 1997), 603–616. https://doi.org/10.1162/pres.19220.127.116.113
Within Mysticism, the merging of Self and World — Inner and Outer — is seen as the utmost aim. Mysticism can be found within most of the world religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam — and its aim is often formulated as union with God. Depending on the religion, however, the degree to which Mysticism is the common way of practicing the religion varies. Although many religions have such contemplative practices, they are not always adopted by the religion’s followers at large.
When discussing «Union with God», it should be noted that the term «God» varies in its meaning between these religions. The contemplative practices often have significantly varying metaphysics, for instance Monotheistic (Christianity), Polytheistic (Hinduism), and relatively Atheistic or Agnostic (Buddhism). Be this as it may, their descriptions of the experience of this merging of Self and God is often strikingly similar. These states of enlightenment are often described as ecstatic, in which the conscious experience can not be placed within our normal frames of language or understanding.
What also unites the different traditions, is that such states of consciousness is usually worked towards through contemplative practice such as yoga, meditation or other disciplines of focus or conscious attention. Other techniques for achieving these ecstasies have have been ascetic ones, such as fasting, waking, isolation — or other ways of stirring the Self to war.
Non-duality: synchronization of Inner & Outer
The concept of merging Inner and Outer, or Self and God, can each be viewed either in very material or spiritual terms. Although materiality and spirituality do not have to differ metaphysically, separating these gives us some communicative benefits — and Mysticism may be explained and spoken of from both these perspectives. Discussing the Inner as Outer purely «scientifically», if you will, makes sense in that all our perceptions of the Outer world is indeed created Inner, and as such — Reality will always be a synergy of Inner and Outer. We know that we do not see, or have ever seen, anything which we ourselves do not actively generate. As neuroscientist and consciousness researcher Anil Seth put it, “our brains are actively hallunicating our conscious reality”.
States where a subject experiences the Inner and Outer as ‘one’, is often referred to as «non-dual». Often while speaking of Inner and Outer, we tend to implicitly reinforce the Self and the World as a duality (when pitching a solution we often have to pitch the problem first). By using the word «non-dual» instead of ‘one’, we may pinpoint the nuance that it is not a duality in separation, but neithercompletely “same-same”. Although it is non-dual, neither is it all same or flat — least of all static!
Although we classify and divide our reality, fundamentally what we perceive is a stream of experience, which in every sense is simply “reality” before divided, and, again, actively created by us. This is not to say that there are no external reality or world — but it definitely is to say that all which is external is perceived first and foremost, solely, internally. Experientially — externality has never been perceived, except as a subcomponent of internality.
Experiencing and Sensing the Non-Dual
This causal explanation, however, leaves out the experiential aspects of the non-duality. Although it may make sense on paper, it matters little to us as we absolutely perceive the world as dual — as subjects relating to a World. Within Philosophy, this traditional way of adhering to and speaking of the world, is referred to as the subject-object dichotomy. Although, between different cultures and continents, the degree to which we adhere to this way of thinking vary in its intensity, it is nevertheless definitely an essential part of the human experience which we share.
How the material explanation can be said to be different from the spiritual in this sense, is that the spiritual concern is to experience the Inner as Outer, not to understand it cognitively. As such, and towards that, meditation practices such as Mindfulness and Yoga have existed, to increase wellbeing by increasing the degree to which one feels in union with God, or for those who do not fancy the term; to the degree which one has peace with oneself and the world.
Contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation, has the last fifty years become more popular in western societies. Although they have been subject to a certain degree of metaphysical raffination the last years, these methods are nevertheless largely old and traditional. The most common of these contemplative practices we see today is adopted from the Vippassana practice, commonly known as Mindfulness. These methods are now commonly used in psychological treatment of anxiety and depression, and research has the latest years started to uncover the benefits of learning to be able to sit quietly with your mind and, well, deal with shit, or seeing it for what it is.
In the next section, we will discuss an approach utilizing Virtual Reality to aid in Mindfulness meditation — which can help to perceive the Inner as Outer.
The effects of Mindfulness meditation
The essence of Mindfulness or similar contemplative practices, lie in their manipulation of identity. We stated “the problem” of Mysticism as the gap between Self and Other — and for this separation to be there, we must necessarily have a relatively thoroughly defined sense of self. For most of us, this tend to be limited to the cognitive processes that constitute our mental narrative (the personalized voice in our heads, our formulated will, and how it appears to direct our actions and plans our lives). It is actually to a far lesser extent our bodies, although this also attributes to our self-consciousness.
Mindfulness is about being present attentively in each moment to one’s state of mind. When doing such focus excercises directed at the mind, and observing these mental processes closely, the idea or view of them as solid things starts to unravel. When rather seeing them as thoughts from a distance, they appear untangled to us, and we perceive our own existence as distinct from those thoughts.
Virtual Reality Biofeedback as Meditation aid
One of the great benefits of VR is its ability to project and represent data in the format of the reality encompassing us. Within the context of this entry, we could say therefore that VR can simulate what we perceive as the Outer. The question may then be asked: how can we project our Inner in to this medium of Outer?
Although I believe we will see more work on VR biofeedback within this domain in the future, in this entry we will focus only on one research paper in particular to examplify our case. At last years CHI conference, the world leading conference on Human Computer Interaction, Joan Sol Roo and his colleagues presented their work on Inner Garden: a mixed reality sandbox for mindfulness. The artifact is a physical sandbox, which the user can shape to a given terrain. The sandbox is given generally visually augmented by a projector with colors and shapes — and physical changes to the sandbox will also alter the output of the projector, which deliver terrain information such as sea levels and green growth.
The sandbox is just not physical, however; by placing a physical avatar in the physical sandbox, you can enter into the land you created in Immersive VR. A 3D-model of the land you created physically can be seen virtually, from the viewpoint of your placed avatar.
Attached, to measure your inner states, is both breathing- and heart rate sensors — which are coupled to provide visual and auditive feedback. In this way, you can synchronize your breath to control the environment and rythm and breaking of the waves. The Inner Garden represents your inner state, and. by practicising breathing techniques, the flora of your world will get greener and more animals will appear.
In this way, Inner Garden works as a great example of representing Inner phenomena as External Reality. Very conceptually interesting, and hopefully one day we will also see empirical studies on similar artifacts.
You can read more about Inner Garden, which received an honorable mention at CHI’17, here.
What do you think? Do you have any ideas for VR applications using biofeedback? Please comment below.
1. Seth, A. (2017). How your brain hallucinates your conscious reality. TED.Com.
2. Joan Sol Roo, Renaud Gervais, Jérémy Frey, Martin Hachet. Inner Garden: Connecting In- ner States to a Mixed Reality Sandbox for Mindfulness. CHI ’17 – International Conference of Human-Computer Interaction, May 2017, Denver, United States. ACM, CHI ’17, 2017, CHI ’17 <https://chi2017.acm.org/>. <10.1145/3025453.3025743>. <hal-01455174>
N.B: This post is the third and final post in a series that comments upon a metaphysical stand towards VR technology. The entries are based upon an essay that was written for a doctoral course on the philosophy and ethics of the social sciences. The two previous post that precedes this one, are linked here: 1) “On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency“, and 2) “Heidegger’s Virtual Reality“
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Now that we have arrived at the final post of the series, it is time to revisit our initial problem of Virtual Reality and Authenticity. Initially, we introduced our problem as the abstracting tendencies of Information Technology, and the unique position of VR technology in this case, as it abstracts all the while displaying a high degree of transparency and coherency with the real world – while simultaneously hiding the real world as much as possible. We wanted to ask whether this was indeed a real problem, and if the technology could in effect distance ourselves from the reality of the world, and thus distance ourself from truth, or an authentic living.
After reviewing Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology”, we noticed several questions that we could use in our existential approach to our technology critique. Following the lines of Heidegger, we could say that we could have a free relationship towards VR when we know what it is. We can for instance ask whether we can see any “Enframing” tendencies of VR technologies.
In Being and Time, Heidegger’s concern for authenticity is a concern for individuality: a concern for Dasein’s possible impossibility of leading its own life: the death of authenticity. In the they-self, no individual is thoroughly relating to its Being, and so the truths and the “goings-on” that is defined “culturally” in the they-self, are in a sense accepted blindly and left unexplored: they are abstractions as they are not defined relatively to each Dasein; they are not experiential, not resolutely made up. Effectively, we are not in control when we have given ourselves up to let the they-self decide the possibilities of what we can project upon.
Similarly, In Heidegger’s Questioning Concerning Technology, we introduced the term of Enframing. Enframing is dangerous because we create things that enframe us, we instantiate our enframing orientation in technology. If we do not relate to technology as exactly this which it is in its essence, Enframing, we do not relate to it as it is, and so it may hinder us to perceive the world as it is. Both by relating to the agenda set by the they-self, or the framework set by ourselves indirectly through our enframing technology, we do not relate to the world and our active projection upon it: we do not resolutely enact our nature of actualizing the possibilities that can lead us to our authentic self.
So how is this relevant for the technology of VR? Should we interpret it as that we are not in control over our possibilities, if they are presented to us through VR, rather than in real life? Can , in this respect, VR be seen as an instantiation of the they-self, as it similarly provides abstractions, terms and conventions? If we remember to follow Heidegger deeper than the image of the problem, we may see that it is not VR that we should be afraid of. VR, like other modern technology, carries the mark of its author: and similarly we can see the creation of VR as the ultimate dream of Man. We spoke earlier of the characters of challenging-forth as inspired by the view of modern physics as an exact science: we wanted to view the world as chopped up in parts and materials that we could understand, enframe, and use as means to ends. If the dream accompanying this Newtonian metaphysic ever was lost with the rise of quantum physics, VR can certainly become the free space where man’s illusive control over the world could be rekindled: finally we have a world, not of atoms, but of bits, that we can know totally through an actual access to its source code.
We can have a free relationship towards VR, when we understand what the essence of VR is. To what is the essence of VR, we will not answer “enframing”, but rather abstraction, and more specifically, abstraction in the mode of transparency. The tendencies of abstraction, was, as with Heidegger’s technology, perhaps not inherently something technological, but something human: only technology made it obvious and explicit enough for us to see clearly. VR may perhaps be an interesting way for us to look at the real problem figuratively; the technology stands in between (medium) you and your senses, in the same way that our mental terms and classifications obscure the otherwise non-reducable reality.
To create VR is a human activity, and in VR we find much of ourselves: similarly to technology in general, we see that VR is a means to an end, and that it is an instantiation of this purpose. Sometimes, this purpose is “re-presenting” an abstraction of reality, and so it is not the genuine authentic reality itself that we see. We can therefore say that it is a human activity to create representations as means to an end, and even further, we can say that it is human to abstract, it is human to deal in images, it is human to connote terms and concepts, similarly to “putting things to boxes” in the enframing attitude of mind. With VR, these boxes are presented to us as reality, or at least in the format of reality, and the result is a realm of abstraction, a realm of representation, that blocks naturally-occurring presentation. Similarly to how Heidegger’s technology illustrated our enframing tendencies, VR may show us our desire to create our own bubbles of reality to inhibit, our own terming and associations and concepts of the self. In this respect, the essence of VR may not even be anything new. In this sense, we have created “mental virtual realities” for a long time, and the technological, the “material” expression of this does not provide anything new.
If we can understand the essence of VR as abstraction in the mode of transparency, and, similarly to Heidegger’s technological essence, believe that this essence is inherited from our own tendencies of mind, we will view it as such that it is human to create transparent abstractions. Through our terms, conventions, and definitions, we abstract, and through relating to these abstractions, we perceive them as real. Our thoughts and defined concepts, and the conventions we adhere to, work as our transparent user interface’s which we use to navigate the world. Our initial fear was that IT, examplified in its extreme case of VR, would act as a wall between us and the world; inhibiting a true, authentic relationship towards it. This is, however, not fundamentally something that we find in especially in a certain technology – instead, we find that when we look at this technology we are instead looking at ourselves. The mediums and interfaces that classifies and simplifies is inspired by our minds that classify and simplify. Technology is not the separation between us and the world, at least not any less than the enframing and abstracting orientation of our minds to the world are: the one mirror the other. We have thus reached a new question to replace the first, one step further on the hermeunetical spiral, and that is whether our own abstracting tendencies of mind keep us from authenticity.
N.B: This post is the second out of three, in a series that comments upon a metaphysical stand towards VR technology. The entries are based upon an essay that was written for a doctoral course on the philosophy and ethics of the social sciences. The first post, preceding this one, is “On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency“, while the third and subsequent to this post, is “The Mind as Medium“.
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In the previous post, we argued why existentialism was fit to explore our problem of VR authenticity. Although the post quoted several existential philosophers, we will further only go in depth into the work by Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976). Heidegger was deeply concerned with authenticity, and also discussed the role of technology in our relation to the world. Although he never lived to see the true emergence of IT, Heidegger’s 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology”, discusses the essence of technology in general, and our relationship towards it.
Questioning concerning Technology
In his essay, Heidegger does not just analyse technology itself – as part of this, he writes about how the technology implicitly alters the metaphysics of our world; how technology may change ourselves and our relation to the world. In the essay, which title is “The Question Concerning Technology”, Heidegger discuss the essence of technology as it appears in our relationship towards it. The reason for his questioning concerning technology, is that he believes we can have a free relationship towards technology when we know what it is, that is, its essence. Throughout his essay, Heidegger draws a distinction between traditional technology, which is ‘bringing-forth’, and modern technology on the other hand, in which the technology is ‘challenging-forth’ in a more brutal and hacky way. It is this latter technology that Heidegger is critical towards and wishes to discuss, more “traditional” technology, such as for instance a bridge, is not an example of a technology that is challenging-forth. Heidegger for instance writes of windmills, that, though they draw energy from the wind, do not extract the energy for storage as we do with coal: the wind can still “do it’s thing”, being as-it-is, unlike coal, which for us no longer exist as-it-is; its only given meaning is being a means to our end. Through rigorous analysis, that is where Heidegger ends up: through such challenging-forth technology, our relationship towards nature is changed, as nature is interpreted only as a means towards our end, the world is no longer interpreted as it is, as it manifests.
To fully understand how Heidegger comes to this point, however, we must back up a bit. We will start “in media res” with a quote by Heidegger that is relatively concluding as to the main point of the essay, and then further navigate backwards to introduce the terms necessary to understand what he means.
The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.
We see then, that Heidegger’s main concern is that man may be separated from truth, a more “primal truth”, or a more “original revealing” of such. He does not say bluntly that technology threatens man with this possibility, but rather speaks of “the rule of enframing”, which will be an important term for us to understand Heidegger’s proper meaning. Throughout his essay, Heidegger builds his philosophical argument with his self-composed terms from the ground up before getting to the point, and so to understand “the rule of enframing”, we must therefore go back to thoroughly define Heidegger’s concepts of bringing-forth and challenging-forth. Both bringing-forth and challenging-forth are modes of revealing, although they differ in how and what they reveal. Heidegger’s “bringing-forth”comes from the Greek “poiesis”, which means to bring something out from concealment to unconcealment. Heidegger speaks of this revealing rather poetically, and asks the readers to imagine what is being brought forth as already “being on its way” to existence, from unconcealment to concealment; and so we can say that poeisis brings that which was not present into presence. This “revealing” or “unveiling” that happens with poeisis, Heidegger describes by the Greek word “aletheia”, literally meaning “revealing”, but which also is the Greek word for “truth”. In this way, according to Heidegger, technology can reveal truth through poeisis, although, as Heidegger points out, this is exactly what modern technology fails to do in its challenging-forth.
Bringing-forth vs. Challenging-forth
According to Heidegger, we find the difference between bringing-forth and challenging-forth in that challenging-forth treats “modern physics as an exact science”. This can be interpreted as such: modern science was on its arrival a dream come true for the human impulses to classify and understand the world: now we could understand the workings of the world according to our own scheme, and therefore also “own” them in the sense that they were perceived to be within our control. On the discovery of the atom, for instance, we finally had a graven image of the source code of reality, and we were closing in on a framework of the whole world (this was, of course, before quantum physics shattered our image of reality as something that could easily be pinned down). It is this “attitude”, according to Heidegger, which separates bringing-forth from challenging-forth: the implicit metaphysic we accepted along with the principles of Newtonian physics, that the world could be viewed as a clockwork of cause and effect, where the world is made up of manipulable materials that could serve as means to our ends.
Heidegger notes, however, that challenging-forth also reveals, but that it does not reveal truth in the same way that bringing-forth does. The point is to be found in that “the essence of [modern] technology, is not something technological”. By this, Heidegger means that technology bear a resemblance to its Maker; there is something in the essence of technology that it has inherited by us. Early in the essay, Heidegger notes that technology can be thought of both as a “means to an end”, and a “human activity”. We can therefore also say that it is a human activity to think in the context of means to ends, and it is this which technology represents to us, as in a mirror: our attitude towards the world, where everything is viewed and classified in terms of potential means to an end. Through the vision based on modern physics as an exact science, human beings view the natural world as materials for their endavours. It is a human tendency to look at the world and ask: “what is it good for?”; in the words of Albert Camus, “the world evades us when it becomes itself again”; we do not really relate to the world, but to our interpretation of it, which is an interpretation of utility or means to ends. Technology is in this respect mirroring ourselves as an expression and example of how we interpret things in light of our narrative, where things in the world fit in the degree to which they can be means to our ends. This is what Heidegger considers when he writes that the essence of technology is not anything technological, rather, its essence lies in how we approach and orient ourselves towards technology, and through technology, to the world.
With this, we are approaching the point of Heidegger’s criticism of technology: if we only interpret the world as potential means to an end of ours, we don’t really see the world as it is, or as it reveals itself. Heidegger uses the example of technology to pinpoint that it is the human aspect of technology that is dangerous about it: because we as humans are used to interpreting the world to concepts, terms and classifications, these now stand in the way as a medium or interface between us and the world. This is Heidegger’s definition of the essence of modern technology, and it is this that we shall mean by the term Enframing that we set out to define. Enframing comes from the German “Gestell”, and has associations to that of order, system or framework. It should be noted, however, that Heidegger uses it as an active verb, and so instead we talk of “ordering”, or “gathering together”, or an “enframing” of the world. Enframing is in this case a mode of human existence, it is how we navigate and present the world to ourselves, relative to ourselves.
We set out to answer what the challenging-forth reveals, as both bringing-forth and challenging-forth are modes of revealing. It is by its enframing that challenging-forth reveals, and the enframing categorizes human and machine alike, and what it reveals, it reveals as standing-reserve. The concept of standing-reserve is the utmost point of criticism for Heidegger, and is what will be discussed in the next section.
Heidegger’s critique then, is that the attitude of enframing is dangerous. Technology as examined here, have worked to reveal this dangerous tendency in humans. The humans themselves are not safe from their orientation of enframing: the enframing of the world also include the enframing of human beings, and humans are also in this system reduced to “human resources”; the degree to which they are beneficiary resources in this system of their own creation. Enframing is the consequence of what happens when this attitude of ours is enforced and instantiated through technology; “standing-reserve” is a role that the world and its inhabitants has been given in its enframing.
This category or classification of “standing reserve” is illustratively speaking exactly of this: technology, with its essence, does not, and can not, view anything in the world “as it is”, it is only judging in terms of utility and means to ends; it is seen not as good, but good for. This is being in the standing-reserve: an airplane has no meaning or value out of itself – it is purpose incarnate, and its value is therefore only in relation to human beings and a certain activity, and so it’s role is otherwise as standing reserve. For Heidegger, however, it does not end there, as humanity is also caught up in this system of technology: the system of the world is increasingly becoming a system in which technology is heavily incorporated. Within sociology, this kind of society with non-human agents as equal affectors, has seen new theories reflecting these relationships, for instance in Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory. The theory describes one system, where technology and humans are both treated as actors in the society. Similarly, according to Heidegger, humans are equally likely to be put into standing reserve to fit this system as any other: he describes the forester as put in standing- reserve by the paper industry: his role and worth is defined there only in so much as he produces for them; when he does not, his being is one of standing-reserve, not as-he-is.
At this part of the point, we should revisit Heidegger’s initial point of inquiry: that we inquire into technology in order to establish a free relationship to it. Heidegger is not just concerned with the existence of the technology, he is also definitely concerned with our orientation towards it, our standpoint towards it, and so our relationship with it. We initially set out to establish a free relationship towards technology, and now we see that it in fact is our relationship with the world, and the technology’s relationship to the world as well as to humans and other agents that is the issue at hand. This is a critical point, because it also means that this is not a problem that can be solved even in the extreme case choosing to discontinue technology as a whole; the essence we want to avoid comes from us. On this, Heidegger writes:
We shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.
We are limited then, in that we can not change technology in its essence. Heidegger does not want to create “better” technology: he wants to see technology for what it is, to prepare a relationship to it – and it is here that we find Heidegger’s curious path of “technological determinism”; a view that can be defined as the lack of control by humans over technology, that the development of technology is somewhat deterministic, instead of perhaps more commonly viewed as an expression of our needs through tools that we create (i.e. social constructivism). Therefore Heidegger does not want to change technology, but change our relationship towards it. The approach is almost stoic in its basic philosophy: it is only concerned with one’s own relationship to the situation, the situation itself is at any rate given. And again, the orientation which we normally have to both normal technology and to the natural world, is one of enframing. It is not just in technology, it is a human mode of being and connecting to the natural world in itself: enframing is the human tendency of categorizing the world, into objects, events, or other terms or conventions. We “frame” things in the sense that we “box” them, and this Heidegger considers to be a human activity in general, not a technological one in particular.
Heidegger does not offer a plan for humanity to solve this, but rather encourages us to stray from the enframing attitude of mind, to the more poetic: in poeisis, we can see the world as it reveals itself, not just as raw materials to be used by us. By adopting the vision of the artist, we can take part in the world instead of analysing and categorising it from the outside, indirectly alienating us from the world. Although not very specific in the approach, Heidegger is still clear on the role of action towards the problem, as he writes that “humanity is needed and used for the safekeeping of the essence of truth”.
N.B: This blog post is the first of three posts in a series that comments upon a metaphysical stand towards VR technology. The entries are based upon an essay that was written for a doctoral course on the philosophy and ethics of the social sciences, and was presented in a panel at Global Fusion 2018 at the University of Virginia. The posts following these as the second and third, are “Heidegger’s Virtual Reality” and “The Mind as Medium“.
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Technology, in all its facets, has increasingly changed our way of life. It changes how we approach life and tasks in that we distribute agency and commands to artifacts and computers. Coffee is made with a button, transport is performed by sitting. Our toil with the world is outsourced to technology, and so we are indebted to our dishwashers and robo-vacuums. What this essay will discuss, however, is whether it matters that technology in many ways is the mediator of our reality. The question is, broadly, if we lose something when we ourselves avoid getting our hands dirty by touching the unpractical reality ourselves. Can it be that technology is responsible for distancing ourselves from a more authentic way of living? Or more concretely – would that matter, and if so, why?
We now communicate with each other, and the world, through interfaces. For technology to be relevant for us, it naturally has to embrace and cooperate with the world. Therefore, when using technology, we are not separated from the content of the world: the technology is simply representing the world to us through different mediums. To “present” originally comes from the latin word “praesent”, meaning “being at hand”, and to re-present, then, is to present something as “being-at-hand”, where it perhaps did not naturally originate. To represent something, we need a medium; we need matter by which to re-create an ideal form or pattern, and so the data which express this pattern is presented through a medium of either e.g. text or images. We here see the concrete meaning of “medium”, which literally means “in the middle”; an appropriate term for the re-presenting technology, which is standing between ourselves and the world.
Technology is within the world, and as such a part of it, and so it can not represent the whole world without compressing it and leaving out details. Therefore, when representing the world, with each medium, there follows an abstraction. In the way the information is simplified and represented through abstractions, different mediums vary in their degree of transparency, or in other words, their conformity with the real world. Throughout this essay, we will keep this separation of abstraction and transparency, and we will define transparency within this essay as the degree to which the abstraction corresponds with reality; the more it corresponds, the more transparent the abstraction is. A photograph is far more transparent than a drawing, for instance, but both are abstract representations of the reality they represent. Examples of abstractions can be, as mentioned, when the complex coffee brewing process is reduced to, and represented by, a button with an icon; a minimalistic silhouette of a steaming cup of Joe. Similarly, in our communications, our emotions are also reductionally abstracted to emoticons, and we see our personal identity and self as abstracted and reduced to social media profiles, for easy export over the Web.
Physical vs. Virtual
Hiroshi Ishii criticizes the abstracting tendencies within Information Technology (IT) in his paper “Tangible Bits: Towards Seamless Interfaces between People, Bits and Atoms” from 1997. Critically discussing the abstraction of information in to the standard Graphical User Interfaces, Ishii proposes a new vision for the research field of Human Computer Interaction. By introducing the concept of “Tangible Interaction”, Ishii were to take back the physical, and in that, acknowledging our human history of some million years dealing of dealing with physical objects and artifacts. This, then, would provide us with a more “authentic” or “traditional” way of interacting with IT. According to his vision, bits and atoms would then live side by side in a glorious harmony. In this, we also see that Ishii’s motivation is touching on the question which our essay will discuss: there is a sort of gap between space and cyberspace. Where Ishii postulates his problem as that there is a gap between the virtual and the real, we shall rather investigate whether it can be that cyberspace is the gap between ourselves and the actual.
We will use the example by Ishii to illustrate our point a bit further. Ishii wanted to bridge the virtual and the physical, so that we could interact with computers in the same way that we interact with physical artifacts by employing tangible interaction. Rather ironically, however, the most realistic way of realizing Ishii’s vision of coupling bits with atoms, may be through the medium of VR. When immersed in a virtual environment through a head-mounted display, the whole world is made of bits: they work as the atoms comprising the world. In VR, our reality is mediated by a medium that can theoretically contain an abstract representation of the world in digital form, all the while the abstraction is presented to us in the same way that traditional reality is, avoiding the immediate feeling of the medium as separating. In this case, what we traditionally view as physical, then, is represented by bits, and the atoms are brought into the virtual, instead of the virtual being brought into the physical.
Ishii’s vision confronts the unnatural abstraction of information in that we view IT through various interfaces. VR escapes this degree of abstraction, and what separates VR as a mediator of our world from other digital representations such as social media, is exactly in its own relation between abstraction and transparency; it is at its point on the abstraction-transparency continuum that VR is unique. Placed on the utter end of the abstraction-transparency continuum, VR has the capability to be extremely transparent in its abstract simulation of the world. Often we turn to and equip the technology of VR because of its transparency: we do not feel that we interact with an abstraction of the world, but with a genuine representation of it. This does not mean that we are out of the abstraction altogether, however; a virtual world most certainly is a reduction in its representation – the interesting thing about VR thus is that it is an abstraction that presents itself as transparent, and at the same time is the first truly immersive, encompassing technology which hides you from the real world. We leave the world in absence, and are in return given an illusion of presence in an abstraction that claims its rightful transparency. To use the word “illusion” in this case, is not an overstatement: by facilitating for stereoscopic (three-dimensional) vision into the virtual reality, the brain is tricked to perceive the environment as an environment of depth, which combined with a 360° degree presentation of the environment, often leads to a feeling of presence to it. It’s illusory tendencies are caused by the fact that we see the virtual as we normally see the physical.
We have now articulated the problem issued by the unique technological medium of Virtual Reality. Abstracting in disguise, the medium is unique in its the relation of its approach to abstraction and transparency. In and out of itself, however, this does not mean anything. It is not as if we loose our access to oxygen in VR: the detachment is not physical, it is only our minds that are immersed and feel present. The question this essay will discuss is not whether it is the case that technology distances us from the world, as this technology per definition does; but whether this matters. Does it matter if sexual urges are satisfied through “VR Porn” in a 360° stereoscopic (3D) video, filmed from a first-person view? Does it matter that elderly with dementia are given VR experiences, because this is cheaper than arranging a visit outdoors? Put short: does it matter that our worldly needs are simulated rather than actualized? Does the concrete reality have a value in itself, or is its mirroring mediums capable of transferring the essentials? Does authenticity; whether what we adhere to is true, real, or genuine, matter?
To tackle this question, this essay will not feature empirical studies on the wellbeing of humans with virtual sexpartners, nor will we perform studies on the use of VR in nursing homes. We will discuss the concept of authenticity philosophically, and implicitly close in upon commenting on a metaphysic of technology in general, and VR in particular. To this purpose, we will discuss VR in terms of the philosophical tradition of inquiry called “Existentialism”, a field of philosophy that is especially concerned with the notion of authenticity or authentic living. In the coming section, we will define existentialism and present how it can help us to shed light on the human concern of authenticity in relation to technology. When we have defined the term, we will move on to present the two works of philosophy that we will use to comment on our problem, namely Heidegger’s essay: “The Question Concerning Technology”, and his book “Being and Time”.
In Existentialism, the human is viewed as the starting point of philosophical reasoning in general. Therefore, it also takes the human experience and concern for authentic living seriously. For instance, in discussing the concept of Being, Heidegger is quick to identify the process of inquiry into Being, as first and foremost a human activity, as humans are the only beings for whom Being is an issue. Of this reason, the human problem of suffering also comes quickly as an object of inspection, including the receding (or preceding) sense of absurdity. We are now approaching the concept of existential angst, which is terribly related to the sense of responsibility over ones own life. In respect to this, Søren Kierkegaard, often called the Father of Existentialism, spoke of anxiety (Angst), as “the dizziness of freedom”: and the concern for authenticity is also the concern over choices. The concern for authenticity, and in some cases as individuality, naturally only matter in the degree to which humans are free to affect their position towards it. It is in this case that Jean-Paul Sartre speak of “radical freedom”, like Kierkegaard he also emphasizes the responsibility of each individual for the choices that he or she makes. Existentialism may be useful to examine our relationship to technology, because of its genuine and felt concern for authenticity. In the sense that the field of inquiry is humanly oriented, existential philosophy at times comes close to the practical, as what it discusses at its core, is each person’s concern at its core. In this sense, to be an existentialist can necessarily not be just an outward doing: the problem it discusses has to be understood personally and experientally, because it is only where it exists. Because of existentialism’s genuine concern for authenticity, it may be able to shed light on how we should relate to technologies such as VR, and how this may impact our relationship between self and world, and this potential relationship’s corresponding state of authenticity or inauthenticity.
In a previous entry, we discussed the potential of using VR technologies for journalistic purposes. In this post, we will both examplify and abstract the underlying principles of this theme. We will start with a philosophical introduction to the concept of “The Experience Machine”, before presenting and discussing four new VR Journalism prototypes developed during a course at the University of Bergen, Norway.
The Evil Deceiver Since Rene Descartes published his Meditations in 1647, the West has been interested in what is real or authentic, and whether any knowledge of this is at all possible. In his text, Descartes outlines the idea of a potential “Evil Deceiver”; a demon that could alter his impressions of the external world. He writes that he can not know whether what he sees and perceives is real, or if it is a demon that is fooling him. Although Descartes later in his Meditations provides arguments for why this can not be the case, based on his provided “evidence of God”, this argument of his does not bring solace to most, and as such the skepticism he postulated have outlived him, and is just as relevant a theme today.
When this is discussed philosophically today, the imagery of an Evil Deceiver comes a bit short. Rather, it is discussed in more technological or “physical” terms – instead the demon, we think of the potential scenario of our brains encapsulated in a vat. We know (although it always feels unnatural to use the word “know” when discussing the grounds of epistemic reasoning), that our perception of reality is sensory impressions interpreted by the brain. We can then imagine the “Brain-In-A-Vat” as the philosopher Gilbert Harman describes it; a brain disconnected from its body, yet being fed electrical pulses that simulate sensory impressions. This has been the theme of several popular films, such as The Matrix series, in which AI has imprisoned humanity in a Virtual Reality. The first film brilliantly examplifies our philosophical points, as it depicts both an Evil Deceiver in the form of the AI, and the imprisonment of human brains in a vat. Conceptually, Harman’s reformulation does not bring anything new to this thought experiment, except a sort of updated imagery as a vessel on which to explain it. Of that reason, however, it is more relevant to our associations, as the “Brain-In-A-Vat” idea reminds us of the Immersive Virtual Reality technology that we see emerge today.
And this is the direction that we are heading in this entry – towards VR rather than epistemology. Instead of discussing whether knowledge about the external world can be had, we will investigate this theme further through a philosopher that take a different approach to the concept of artificial stimuli: he is not speaking of the impending doom of AI demonic domination, but rather uses these concepts in thought experiments, as a means to reason on what matters to us. What matters to us is deeply related to what we do, and what we do is deeply related to who we are. As such, these questions can be illuminating in exploring who we are, or want to be, as human beings.
The Experience Machine In 1974, Robert Nozick introduced the term “Experience Machine”, or “Pleasure Machine”, as a thought experiment. The experiment is a brilliant way to put the idea of Hedonism in individuals on trial. Now, hedonism is the view that happiness or pleasure is, the only thing that is in its essence good. Other things can be “instrumentally good”, as they may leadto happiness or pleasure, but they are only given their value then, by being the means to the end. The thought experiment is this: if you had a machine that could give you any experience that you ever wanted, including pleasure for the rest of your life, would you use it? Would you plug in?
We are here awfully close to the idea of the Brain-In-A-Vat, but yet the perspective is shifting: in this case we would not be trapped in a false reality against our will, but according to it. The value of the thought experiment is clear – in answering to it, we answer to whether we value truth as an “attribute” of sensory impressions in and out of itself; if authenticity and reality or whatever we want to call it has a value in itself, and is to be preferred despite its potential, say, gruesomeness. If one accepts Hedonism, the whole world is enframed as being a means to the end of pleasure, and as such, if such a Pleasure Machine presented itself, we could abandon the means in favor of the ends, going straight for the juice. Nozick’s idea is that if one does not want to plug into the machine, one effectively ‘proves’ that pleasure is not all Man wants or needs, and Hedonism can as such be refuted.
Some, however, feel that this formulation of the thought experiment is not sharp enough in its ability to try out the idea of Hedonism. The critique is that concern for authenticity or “realness” is not the only possible motive one may have to decline: many would prefer to not plug into the machine, not necessarily because they really care for truth, but because they are creatures of habit, and simply prefers the world they have accustomed themselves to. There is in other words other motivations for negating the question than the preference for truth. A better formulation that avoids this pitfall, is this: if you were told that your life up to now had been such an illusion, a pleasure machine, would you then like to wake up?
Hinduism These thoughts can be traced back to long before the rise of the particular Western philosophy as followed Descartes. According to Hindu cosmology, each of us lives in maya (illusion) as to what is the core reality of Self, or Atman. Life can be seen as a play, and Brahman is the actor that plays all the parts, totally immersed and engaged in them so it forgets its real self, and instead is amusing itself in its ignorance (for instance by passing time reading blogs online). Reality then, is a game of hide and seek, where you are both the hider and the seeker, playing for eternity. Similarly to the Experience Machine, the subject is ignorant to the true nature of reality, by choice.
Why, then, would God hide from himself? The idea is simple: being God gets boring after a while. Imagine that you are God, and could have any experience you ever wanted. You would perhaps start by throwing some crazy parties, creating some planets, etc., for a few million years. Eventually, you have kind of “been there, done that”. The curse of being all-knowing and omnipotent is, of course, despite the supreme bliss, that it’s hard to get a true kick out of it anymore. You lack the element of surprise. Surprise, as reaction, needs duality, but you are One. The idea strikes you: what if we were not One? You decide to go for it: split into multiples, and so each can surprise the other. Atman, becomes Brahman, the player of all the parts in the play of life. At times it gets terrifyingly real, after all you have to die to wake up. But this is what you came for, because no surprise is greater than to wake up, and to realize that you were Atman, the Permanent, all along.
Modern Day Experience Machines In 1974, for Nozick, the experience machine was a thought experiment far away from reality. Today, it is perhaps far too easy to see the potential of its realization. When VR applications are released today, they are often presented as “experiences”; not always games, not necessarily videos, but experiences. We have in a previous entry discussed Art in Virtual Reality, where the focus on “experience” is particularly present, and shows the potential of the medium for artistic expression. The same is the case with Immersive Journalism, where the first person perspective is especially exploited as a means to provide a user with a different experience than what otherwise is had in everyday life. Within VR Journalism, the discussion of experience machines has almost been had, as Milk in his 2016 Ted Talk described VR as the ultimate empathy machine. In Immersive Journalism, the 360° (sometimes 3D) camera work as the eyes of the observer, and lets one virtually step into someone elses shoes, or at least to put on their eyes.
In a course that we have ran at the University of Bergen this spring, we have taught Immersive Journalism within an Innovation Pedagogy regime. As the rules and practices within the new concept is not very well established, we do not teach the students exactly to solve their tasks, but rather how to experiment with the novelties of the medium and try to innovate and create new genres. The end result have been four prototypes, that was presented yesterday, at the Norwegian Centre of Excellence (NCE) Media’s media lab in Media City Bergen. All of these productions are well fit for the topic of “modern day experience machines”, and as such they will be presented here in this entry.
Drug addict The first of the VR experiences is called “Narkomani” which from Norwegian can roughly be translated to “Drug addict”. The aim of the production is to see the world from the point of view of a drug addict, perhaps living on the streets in Bergen. How is it to be frowned upon, walking around the streets, uneasy to get the next shot of dope? As my colleague Nyre stated in the introduction the projects, this VR project features “not a first person shooter from Los Angeles, but first person social realism from Bergen”.
Schizophrenia The second of the VR experiences, attempts to create understanding on how it is to live with schizophrenia. In the experience, the user perceives visual hallucinations, and audio of up to five different personalities. The concept is brilliantly illustrated by the poster, and the experience tries to portrait a subjective reality falling apart.
Plastic The third VR experience has children as its target group, and aims to introduce the world problem of plastic to them. In this case, the VR medium is being exploited for its capabilities for visualization. For children, numbers may be too abstract, and visual images may be more appealing to get the message across. The experience features combinations of 360° video footage with 3D objects.
Cryonics The final VR experience has the topic of cryonics, i.e., freezing oneself down immediately upon death. The production aims to educate on the topic with interviews from different philosophers, religious leaders, etc., which you hear and see while chilling in your freeze tank. When the production starts, you find yourself lying down on an operation table before insterted into the capsule and frozen.
Conclusion The relation between Self and Other, the Internal and the External, Inner and Outer, has always fascinated us. This dualism comes with problems, and we are skeptic to whether the seemingly similar values on both sides of the Self – Other equation, can be cancelled out and forgotten. These problems enter a new fascinating light when we encounter new technology that has the capability of actualizing them. All sorts of experience machines are being created today, although we still are quite far from escapism into VR as a societal issue.
The topic of authenticity in relation to VR, will be further discussed at Matrise in a three-entry series that steers towards a metaphysic of VR. The entries will discuss the topic in light of, particularly, Heidegger’s existentialism. The entries will be published next week.
3. Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York: Basic Books.
4. Milk, C. (2015). Chris Milk: How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chris_milk_how_virtual_reality_can_create_the_ultimate_empathy_machine