The Tao of Virtual Reality

In Tao Te Ching, perhaps the most widely translated Eastern Philosophy texts of all time, we hear of the philosopher Chuang Tzu. One night, Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly. He dreamt that he was flying around from flower to flower and while he was dreaming he felt free, blown about by the breeze hither and thither. He was quite sure that he was a butterfly. But when he awoke he realised that he had just been dreaming, and that he was really Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly. But then Chuang Tzu asked himself the following question: was I Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly or am I now really a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang Tzu?

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Fractal butterfly. Unknown artist.

Eastern Philosophy and VR

How we identify, that is, how we define our selves—asking ourselves who we are—has been a central inquiry in Philosophy. It is usually this question that the world religions claim to answer. We seek an answer that may soothe us, or an answer that at any rate makes sense in relation to our general experience of being-in-the-world. This latter point is crucial: we desire meaning, wholeness.  We want our lives to be purposeful. There is supposed to be something to do here, an end to be achieved, and we feel that it should be of importance.

Self & Identity in Virtual Worlds

Now—who we are can be answered in two ways, and they are both principally the same, as either will have to imply the other. If we are to define who we are as humans, then we must, necessarily, define our selves in relation to the world we inhabit. Similarly, if we choose to define the world, the definition of our world would have to include our role towards it, as worlds can not be accessed except through experience.

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Fractal tree. Unknown artist.

Let us imagine a virtual world to exemplify this.  Imagine a virtual world,  covered in a vast forest. In this world, we situate a  subject in the avatar of a strong woodchopper. Now,  the concept of the woodchopper being strong is meaningless in itself, he can only be said to be strong in relation to a particular world where the trees are weaker than him. Similarly, if we create a virtual world with very hard trees, the notion of the trees being hard, is absolutely meaningless unless as understood in relation to a certain woodchopper, for whom the trees are hard. 

Now of course, this is just basic logic, but it is nevertheless very useful in ideation of our future virtual worlds. As we have been discussing throuh various entries, such as From thought to realityThe Existential Problem of VRand The Virtually Extended Mind, with the arrival of ultimate VR we will be able to design our selves; manifest our thoughts and desires; and in so doing, realizing our selves outside of ourselves. In doing so, to guide our perspective, we must know that we can not create worlds independent of our selves; what is objective is in relation to our subjectivity. A certain virtual world will have to imply a certain virtual self—the technological material of virtual reality that is shaped in to a certain world will also shape us in our existential relation to that world.

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Yin Yang Mandala.

In philosophy and design research, such a perspective on the mediating qualities of technology—that is, how technology co-constitutes perceived subjectivity and objectivity inour experience—is known as postphenomenology. Just like its phenomenological roots (for instance Heidegger), this Western philosophy is quite related to themes from Eastern philosophy, for instance as illustrated by the Yin/Yang. Just as a certain subjectivity implies an objectivity, and a certain objectivity implies another subjectivity—the traditional Eastern symbol of Yin/Yang similarly shows how Yin implies Yang and Yang implies Ying. But what may such Eastern Philosophy and VR have in common in this regard?

These perspectives can be particularly fruitful for researchers who are investigating the mediating qualities of interactive applications, like VR environments. For instance, if I am in a virtual simulation, controlling a supersonic spaceship, it is not only me—that is, my subjectivity—which is altered. As I become able to navigate, the world—that is, what I adhere to as objectivity—also changes to become more accessible to me. Thus, the technology of the spaceship mediates a certain way of relating to the world, constituting me as a certain subject, and simultaneously, the virtual environment as a certain virtual world.

At this point we have laid the philosophical groundwork making us ready to explore the question of this entry:

Who Are We In Virtual Reality?

Chuang Tzu’s dream and subsequent merry doubt is a simple story that illustrates the flexibility of human identity. Although we usually manage to keep a solid persona and perceive our egos as relatively fixed, it is curious how malleable they are. Consider for instance how, when you are with your parents or relatives, how you are someone completely different from when you’re with your friends—and an even more different character may emerge when alone with your significant other. Beyond simple social situations as mediators of personalities and experiences, phenomena like dreams, or psychedelic drugs, also show how the human mind has the capability of radically altering what it identifies with. And not least, meditation and other forms of contemplation, can radically change our outlook on life in terms of how we identify and approach our existence.

Most exciting of all, however, Virtual Reality can also change our selves.

In our piece on Virtual Embodiment, we explored the ways in which thorough, bodily identification with a virtual avatar, can have profound behavioral effects. It can help against racism, by embodying people in other skin colours; help against violence by placing offenders as victims; it can cause a rise in cognitive performance by being embodied as someone smart, and, last but not least, as we discuss in The Virtual Freud, it can be therapeutic in allowing us a more compassionate outlook on our selves. 

Who Do You Want To Be?

The point which we often come to at Matrise, albeit from various perspectives, is to ask our selves a question. Lying in between Philosophy and VR, the question it poses is: who do we want to be? What virtual worlds will we create in the future, and who will we be, as subjects, within those worlds?

For the interested reader, who wants to further pursue this question from various other perspectives, can go on to explore this through these other entries, many of which touch upon Western- and Eastern Philosophy and VR.

In The Existential Problem of Virtual Reality, we discussed how this question that VR poses us, of who we want to be, can be said to be existential and revelatory as to our core identity.

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

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

For more Eastern Philosophy and VR, check out our entry on Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Virtual Reality.

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

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