Hinduism and Virtual Reality

The cosmology of the religion category “Hinduism”; the broad metaphysic of the East, is a very interesting one. Radically different from that of the West, it is a refreshing albeit heavy shower of new ideas. The best pitch to the worldview at large, I find is best put by “spiritual entertainer” Alan Watts, who put it something like this:

Imagine you are God. Or rather — imagine you could be anything you wanted. Your will is the law of the universe. What would you do if this was the state of affairs? Well, obviously, you would throw a few parties. Really stretch it out, go crazy and mess things up for the laughs of it. The universe is your experience machine; so you do whatever you like.

Digital illustration of Alan Watts by Jean-Francois Painchaud.

So you continue to throw these crazy parties and daring adventures for a couple hundred, or million, of years. Simply testing the limits, doing everything in your mind that can give you pleasure or kick. After a while, however, you find that you have gone out of things to do in «God mode». At least, you want something radically different. A surprise.

So you try and plan to surprise yourself. But as an omnipotent being, this is kind of hard. 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. Just as we can’t tickle ourselves, we can’t sneak up on yourself and say «Boo!». There is another option, however; the option of deliberate illusion as to your self. You can create the illusion of splitting — and create a seeming duality within the oneness that constitutes your being.

Through abstraction, you can form the opposite of the distinct quality of your being. From the absolute one, you can conceive of the relative two — by contrast of your endless revealing as God, you conceive of a finite concealment as Man. By hiding your true nature from yourself, its revealing would, in turn, be magnificent; you enter down low to later enjoy your own highness. Though with the potential of the gruesomeness that may result from this fall, you know in the decision, that you will always wake up again to eternal bliss. The ecstasy is inevitable.

Now — at first, you may only dare to go into the depths of time and space for a few hours. The experience is intense: the contrast of transitioning from mortality to godhood was quite ecstatic. Now — your courage grows stronger the more experienced you are, and your adventures go on to wilder and wilder dreams. You go on more and more adventures where you forget who you are, until you find yourself — right here and right now — as a human being reading blogs online.

Thus, according to Hindu cosmology each of us lives in illusion as to what is the core reality of our selves. Life can be seen as a play, and we are still playing — Brahman, 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. Reality, then, is a game of hide and seek, where you are both the hider and the seeker, playing for eternity.

The Parallels between Hinduism & VR

The parallels between this ancient creation myth and our dream of ultimate virtual reality may be almost too obvious: it is that of deliberate illusion. Naturally, human beings are not like to gods, but VR as a powerful illusion comes with the power to create and control worlds, to instantiate our thoughts, and actualize our designs. In our recent entry, «From Thought to Reality», we commented and discussed this technological tendency in humans in depth, in how technology in general, but VR in particular, represents «the dream of being able to define reality, to create a representation: the same dream that inspired cave paintings several ten thousands of years ago.» Essentially, VR is a product of the creative element in humans, for good and for worse. The dream of absolute control over matter, but also, the dream of a creative medium without limitations.

The word Avatar, frequently used in VR contexts, has its origin in the Sanskrit word «Avatāra», which means «to descend». It usually refers to when the Hindu gods to take an earthly incarnation.

So, while the Hindu myth had its aim to go from control to chaos and adventure: our dream with VR may be to go from chaos to control. We do not go from One to Dual, and although we may not yet be able to use it to get from Dual to One — it is worthwhile to consider its potential for art and change of our selves.

As Jaron Lanier put it in his book “The Dawn of the New Everything”, VR will, more than any other medium, show us who we are. It will quite simply be interesting to encounter our will and desires as expressed through the worlds we create. We have already begun this investigation and below we mention and interrelate what we have discussed here at Matrise in regards to VR’s potential for art and change of our selves.

Virtual Reality and the Self

The potential of VR for art, expression, and deep impression has been the topic in many of our entries:

In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves.

Last but not least, however, in our last few entries, we have looked to VR as a possible way to escape our enframing, classifying control over nature, as discussed in our three-series entry on Heidegger’s technology critique:

In Existentialist Design, we accommodate Heidegger and Kierkegaard’s concerns and try to imagine, perhaps once again, how we may surprise our selves. The danger of surrounding ourselves in our designs, and classifying the world and its materials as means to our ends, is perhaps that we may not meet anything new — our as put by Heidegger, that it may be denied to Man to enter into a more original revealing.

VR in floatation tanks is one idea meant to exemplify the idea of “Existentialist Design”, designing for a controlled accident in which the outcome is not known. Illustration by Jean-Francois Painchaud.

In the position paper the entry depicts, we imagine the use of VR in sensory deprivation tanks. The design is meant to be a facilitator for a controlled accident in which the medium itself is explored, and one’s self through the medium — where the overarching purpose is the exploration itself. This line of thinking is inspired by existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and its aim can be illustrated in how Kierkegaard discusses life not as a ‘problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.’ The hope is that the technology may be seen as a lens through which reality can be presented free from an otherwise culturally enframing narrative. The aim is, therefore, to design technology as a catalysator for a more original revealing of truth.

So then, perhaps the Hindu myth isn’t the worst parallel after all. The Sanskrit word «Maya», may mean illusion, but equally as much Art. And it is Art which may prove the saving power according to Heidegger, as it opens us up to new interpretations — and do not fix us and the world in a prison of our making. Perhaps in the tank, we can once again sneak up on ourselves and say: “Boo”!

The Experience Machine

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.

Descartes’ Illustration of Stereoscopic Vision

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.

Clockwork Eyes by Michael Ryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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, Unknown Illustrator.

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 lead to 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.

The Five Aspects of Shiva

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.

Images and more information about the event, can be seen at the websites of research project ViSmedia.

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.

Literature list

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