The Existential Problem of VR

Søren Kierkegaard, the father of Existentialism, famously described anxiety, or angst, as the dizziness of freedom. Hardly a cheerful fellow—though his brilliant, satirical wit often forces one to smile—Kierkegaard clearly was no stranger to this “dizziness” he so often spoke of:

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations—one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it. You will regret both.

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Søren Kierkegaard by Michael Newton.

Oh dear. Despite the gloom, however, these small drops of the Danish philosopher serve to illustrate his role as a great inspiration for the existential movement within Philosophy. Existentialism is existential in the sense that it is not concerned with the thinking cogito as the starting point of human reasoning. Rather, existential philosophy could be said to be more wholesome in that it is concerned with its taking seriously the human condition of alienation—our tendency towards existential dread. The critique that existentialism holds against traditional philosophy is that it has been too locked up in cognitive schemes, thoughts and abstractions, and in so doing distanced itself from the lived experience of being human, with all that this entails, not adhering to the givens of existence.

Existentialism vs Nihilism & Pessimism

Just to be clear, however, existentialism is not the same thing as advocating a kind of nihilism or a philosophical pessimism, as warned by the existentialist Friedrich Nietzche and held by Arthur Schopenhauer and Peter Wessel Zapffe, the latter holding that to bear children into this world is like bringing wood to a burning fire. No, in addition to the gloomy writings of Kierkegaard expressing the problem to be dealt with, he is also concerned with a solution, however hopeless. Though holding that life does not come with a manual, existentialists are nevertheless concerned with authenticity, or meaning—just understood and found in a different way. Even Albert Camus, whose famous essay on The Myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus is condemned to roll a stone up a mountain only to watch it roll down again ad infinitum holds that, though this is absurd in the literal sense, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This always reminds me of a Zen story;

When Mu-chou was asked, “We dress and eat every day, and how do we escape from having to put on clothes and eat food?” Mu-chou answered, “We dress; we eat.”

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Jean-Paul Sartre, another existential thinker. Painting by Patrick Rork

So. The giveaway point of this brief introduction is that existentialism starts from existence. It it is not concerned with any philosophical beliefs or notions prior to this point, in other words, humans and their essential role are not pre-given. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, which further has been descriptive of the existential movement as a whole: existence precedes essence; we exist before we define ourselves, and moreover, this decision is one that necessarily must be taken alone, without hiding behind any authority in order to outsource our freedom.

It is exactly this—how we define our selves—which will be the topic of this entry: how technologies, and especially the technology of VR, may play a part in the shaping of our identity. We will discuss the relation between Existentialism and VR in howVR may pose an existential problem to us as individuals and together as a society,

The Existential Problem of Virtual Reality

So what may Existentialism say about VR? The existentialists highlight the freedom of the individual subject in altering, or at any rate defining, his or her interpretation of reality, or even ‘rendering’ or ‘creation’ of it. But how may it be that VR can be connected to this? To make our point, we will look to the phenomenological technology criticism movement that followed Heidegger’s exposition of technology.

In his book series Technics and Time, Bernhard Stiegler argues that technology show us who we are. Stiegler discusses technologies as a way of human externalisation in which we are realising our selves outside of ourselves. Moreover, for Stiegler, this also works the other way around: having externalised our self through technology, we also internalise it yet again, adopting it as parts of our identity. Effectively, therefore, VR can be said to be an expression of our selves in fundamental terms—and this expression we later use as imagery for our selves. 

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Bernhard Stiegler.

Now, what does this mean to us? The point which we wish to argue here, is that in being presented with a medium that is, conceptually at any rate, infinite in terms of what it can do, and further who we can become within it, we are faced with an existential problem.

The existential problem that we are faced with, and will be faced with ever more so when the technologies get more sophisticated, can be framed as follows: Now that we can do anything; what will we do? If we consider the point of Stiegler, that technology show us who we are, when we now have the technology to create anything in terms of our experience, VR is essentially asking us who we are, or at any rate, who we want to become. We are being given the question of who we want to become through what we want to do, by the technology allowing this freedom.

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Jaron Lanier, depicted in this painting by Darwin Price, has been a giant influence to VR technology. Not just in terms of his contributions to the commercialisation of the technology, but also experimentation and philosophy.

Conclusion: Existentialism and VR

In this piece, we discussed VR and Existentialism, in how VR asks us an existential question. Naturally, to answer this question is as a thought experiment an individual concern. But in terms of our shared reality, it will be a collective future in how it is conducted and externalised. Jaron Lanier in his book The Dawn of the New Everythin,  similarly to Stiegler wrote how VR more than any other technology, will show us who we are. The technology of VR is asking us to choose, not in an either/or situation—not a question of yes and no—but asking us to define everything by will.

The question for us is who we want to be and further what worlds we would like to dwell in; an even more radical freedom than our current situation of free choice given the circumstances. With future technology perhaps, or today through enacting it as a thought experiment, entertaining the notion may be an interesting way to ponder on who we are through what we want to do.

For the interested reader, Matrise has written entries that are similar in theme to this entry, that of VR and Existentialism. For instance:

In The Experience Machine, we discussed how Nozick’s thought experiment of the potential Experience Machine, a thought experiment aimed to test Hedonism, is related to VR.

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. This may be regarded as a partial answer to the thought experiment that this entry has discussed: what would we like to do presented the opportunity?

Similarly, 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 Hinduism and Virtual Reality we paralleled  the broad metaphysics of the East with the potentiality of VR tech. The religious-philosophical system similarly concerns the dilemma of omnipotence: what would you do if you were God?

A Psychedelic Virtual Reality

In his book «Dawn of the New Everything» Jaron Lanier, often called the father of VR, wrote that the question he was most asked in the 1980s was to which degree VR was similar to LSD. Not a psychonaut himself, however, Lanier was not necessarily one to compare the two — he writes how he never even smoked cannabis, which was even more common in the tech circles at the time. Nevertheless, the parallel between the two, VR and Psychedelics, is still an interesting one, as both have the power to present us to other worlds, and change our self-consciousness. So much so, that Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist who quit his job to become one of the most prominent leading figures of the hippie movement, would call VR «digital LSD».

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Jaron Lanier, portrait by Maciej Mackiewicz. Lanier started VPL Research, the first commercial company to produce and sell immersive VR systems. His story can be read in his biography “Dawn of the New Everything”.

VR as a digital psychedelic

In his book, Lanier describes how he tried to talk Leary out of constantly presenting VR as a digital psychedelic to the press when it had its first popular wave in the 80s.  We are probably better off for it; neither Leary nor psychedelics have had the best associations over the years. The hippie counterculture didn’t really change the world much for the better and the rather irresponsible movement, in turn, became ridiculed. Now that VR is a known thing in its own right, however, there is perhaps room to compare them once more, without the risk of staining the technology as just another way to “drop out”. Psychedelics are also starting to get a somewhat better image, with more research highlighting good effects in the treatment of various disorders — just as is currently happing with VR tech.

With psychedelics, we refer to drugs such as LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT. These are powerful drugs that give visual and auditory hallucinations — that alters the subjective perception of time and identity, and further the relationship of one’s self to the world. Psychedelics are very weird stuff — we do not know much about them. The war on drugs and the hippie movement made proper research on the substances quite unfashionable — there was almost a forty year gap in which no research, whatsoever, was done. This ban on psychedelic research is starting to lift, however, and we now see more research investigating its effects on disorders such as depression, anxiety, alcoholism, etc (for those interested in proper research on these drugs, a group to follow is the Psychedelic Research Unit at John Hopkins University).

In this entry, however, we will focus on the parallel between Immersive Virtual Reality and VR, rather than discussing the newest research on psychedelics. To start off, we will turn to an author who has had few things to say on the subject when VR was still more of a concept than a full-blown reality. We will discuss the utterings of Terence McKenna.

Terence McKenna

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Terence McKenna: Author on psychedelic drugs, and theoretical (far-out and quite crazy) speculator.

Having read several books of Terence McKenna, including Food of the Gods, True Hallucinations, The Invisible Landscape, and for this entry The Archaic Revival — it is very obvious that McKenna was quite mad in his own way. Having taken that much, well, drugs, it may not come as a surprise, but at least he is leaving us with plenty of material to discuss the subject matter. No one can blame him for not having taken enough psychedelics, and he actually also immersed himself in the topic of VR — being one of the few lucky who got to try the technology at that time, though it yet was in its infancy.

VR as the Crucible of Self and Other

Terence McKenna’s book The Archaic Revival comprises several interviews and essays. One of the essays presented there was first published in Magical Blend in the winter of 1990, and was according to McKenna himself one of the very first pieces to examine potential future implications of VR technology. In the piece, McKenna imagines how VR can dissolve the boundaries of Self and Other. In referencing Lanier’s interesting embodiment experiences, where he turned himself into a lobster, McKenna imagines how humans can choose to be like octopi — in how octopi communicate ‘telepathically’ by wearing their inner life on their outer manifestation, so dissolving the boundaries between people. He writes:

“in the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand, [the octopus] does not transmit its linguistic intent, it becomes its linguistic intent.”

In other words, McKenna envisions how VR can allow us to quite literally wear our hearts on our sleeves, and approach a unity between appearance and being. McKenna calls this “visible languages”, and imagines how these may make it possible to “overcome the subject/object dualism as well as the self/other dualism”. This vision, hope or potential for the technology was in McKenna’s case inspired from psychedelic visions taking psilocybin-containing mushrooms and a brew traditionally concocted in the Amazon basin, called Ayahuasca, which contains an orally active version of the highly psychedelic drug DMT.

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Artwork by Alex Grey, representing the visuals one may encounter on DMT.

Common for psychedelic experiences, at least in high doses, is some of the effects that McKenna here envisions that VR can provide for us. Under the influence of these drugs, people can experience a unification of themselves and the world. If the effects of this unity is somewhat mild, it may help to combat a general anxiety and alienation. If the effect is very strong, however, it may obliterate all sense of “self” or “subject” in the experience, an experience that is commonly referred to as “ego death”. This aspect of experience has strong parallels within the mystics of the world religions, where the ultimate aim of the asceticism and meditation is union with God.

The question then arises, how on earth could such a vision be fulfilled through information technology such as VR? Can VR allow new languages and aid in the experiential break away from Cartesian dualism?

A Controlled Accident

“In the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand”. This sentence hints at a one-ness between symbol and meaning — in that we do not see the communication of the octopus first, and then interpret it later. There is, in other words, no “inner” of the octopus that needs to be abstracted or reduced before it can manifest as “outer”. There is no octopus first, and then communication later. This can perhaps be understood, but how can VR aid in something as radically weird as this?

We have previously at Matrise, discussed something very relevant to this. By using VR in sensory deprivation tanks — essentially all you see and feel is virtual, and this can be a first step in making your inner life reflected in your outer reality. If what you sense in the virtual world is a visualisation based on heart rhythm, brain sensors, etc., you may, over time, get a different relationship to the outer world. This neurofeedback can provide interesting loops, where a corresponding change in your psyche has an immediate representation in the outer world, and this in turn changes your psyche and so ad infinitum, hypothetically inducing a sense of harmony between inner and outer.

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Screenshot from “Deep Reality” by Amores et al. The application features an underwater environment in which fluorescent beings are procedurally generated based on your physiological state.

Lately, there has been more and more interesting work in this direction. At this years SIGGRAPH, Judith Amores presented a VR experience that aims to use unconscious biofeedback to induce relaxation via subtle visual & audio changes that are in sync with your heart and brain. At this year’s CHI, also, we saw “Inter-Dream“, a neurofeedback VR visualisation to promote calm/rest/sleep. At the same conference, I partook in a philosophy workshop, where I briefly presented a position paper describing such designs, as “existentialist” — in how they have an aim in opening us to experience, enhancing meaningful perceptions. In the abstract, it is described like this:

The aim of the existentialist designer is to not dominate the user experience, but rather to design 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 such an approach towards technology escapes the somewhat limited view of technology as simply a tool to get from A to B, and that 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.

This is what I believe has to be the trick for VR. It has to have the ability to surprise us, to let us explore — not just virtual environments, but through them gain access to parts of ourselves we did not know existed. We need to be experimental, play with the boundaries of our identities, avatars and worlds. VR is a question of what we want to become. It has the possibility to, in the words of McKenna, “release humanity into the imagination”.

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Screenshot from Kevin Mack’s newest VR experience, “Anandala“.

Conclusion: VR & Psychedelics

To conclude this entry, I want to bring the focus towards artist Kevin Mack. I heard of him through the Voices of VR podcast (episode #798). Mack creates VR experiences that attempts to give just what we have discussed in this entry: a surprise. In “Blortasia”, which is the only one of his I’ve tried, you fly around in this surreal, psychedelic landscape of “blorts”. Some of these blorts, however, behave based on you — and has an artificial intelligent element to them. Many report interesting experiences in relating to these blorts. I can’t help thinking of McKenna’s “self-transforming machine elves”, that he allegedly encountered on his various DMT trips. You can check out Blortasia on our YouTube channel AltVR:

These applications are a progress and I believe we should continue to aim for magical virtual realities, when we have under our creative control a medium of very few constraints. Like Slater and Sanchez-Vives wrote in their state-of-the-art paper “Enhancing Our Lives With Immersive Virtual Reality“: “[…] the real power of VR is not necessarily to produce a faithful reproduction of ‘reality’ but rather that it offers the possibility to step outside of the normal bounds of reality and realize goals in a totally new and unexpected way.” In light of this, we may ask ourselves how VR can take inspiration from psychedelics in their design. What are the transformative features particular to psychedelics that may be adapted to VR?

If anyone knows of similar work or ideas, please don’t hesitate to comment below or write to Matrise.

This entry is at the core of Matrise’s interests. If you found this entry on VR and Psychedelics interesting, you may also enjoy some of our other entries or YouTube videos.

As for videos, check out this simulation of an Ayahuasca Seremony:

Regarding blog pieces:

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

In Virtual Embodiment we discuss 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 Hinduism and Virtual Reality we paralleled  the broad metaphysics of the East with the potentiality of VR tech.

In From Thought To Reality  we discussed VR as the materialiser of form, or the instantiator of the abstract. We discuss this with imagery from Tolkien and Heidegger’s philosophy.