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. 

A Virtual Masquerade

In 18th century Paris, for the Friday evening thrill, you could attend a Masquerade—a social event where guests wore masks to conceal their identity. The masquerades were socially perceived as liberating and stimulating, as you could leave your original identity behind—that old toil you have been dragging along for years and years! At a masquerade, you could enjoy the freedom of being anyone and mingle with anyone else, free to assume any identity you would.

It is towards such parties my mind wanders when I am socializing with strangers in Virtual Reality. Each clothed in an avatar, perhaps even of their own construction—often roleplaying bizarre personas—the experience is stimulating and sometimes… too much. In this piece, we will discuss some of the Philosophy behind Social VR.

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Cutout from The Naked Masquerade by Nancy Farmer.

The Social Web

The benefit that VR provides as a social medium, is its wholesome and rich expression. It is a medium with great possibilities of avoiding perceivable abstraction of the presented information. Essentially, this means that VR has the capability to mimic real life in ways other mediums can not; VR presents its information in the format of reality. Given this, it makes sense why the largest social network chose to buy the largest VR company in 2016. Not only was this seen as a proof of VR reaching maturity—it also speaks of the social ambitions for the medium. Eventually, VR may give way to solutions for social and affective communication that, in many ways, is the complete opposite of the way social networks work today (with textual profiles, smileys, emoticons, and other abstractions of emotions.) VR has the possibility of transferring, instead of classifying, all of our body language—and current work on recognition of facial expressions while in VR is really impressive.

In this entry, however, we will be discussing the current reality of social VR. We will start with the mad hatter in our VR universe; VRChat.

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Masquerades were popular parties in the 18th century. Illustration: ‘The World in Masquerade’, 1720, The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Virtual Masquerade

The ability to hide your identity, and simultaneously convene in a wholesome way, has many benefits. Thinking of this theme, I am first reminded of how Journalist Yusuf Omar used Snapchat AR filters to allow rape survivors in India to tell their stories anonymously. With the use of VR also, there are numerous of beautiful stories that illustrates the potential of this kind of anymous, yet wholesome, expression. For instance, YouTube channel Syrmor exclusively performs interviews through VR—where you can watch people telling personal stories through VRChat. Watch, for instance, how this kid opens up about getting bullied, or this video where a guy talks about getting taken away from his mom. The stories are beautiful and you feel an intimate connection to those who tell them. Another fantastic example of the expressiveness that follows VR communication which I always show in my lectures, is this video where a guy is suffering a seizure, and the group discusses how they can help him. This would not have played out the same way if conveyed through another medium.

The way I see it, the contrast of the absurd avatars and environment—combined with the deep, personal stories—create a remarkable fusion of meaning that challenges how we normally experience these emotions. The beautiful comes through the unexpected, which alters the experience.

It should be noted, however, that this is not necessarily a typical VRChat experience. This video is more illustrative of the chaos that these worlds also lay the grounds for.

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Vishnu is said to have ten “avatars”, the most known being Rama and Krishna.

Avatars as an Existential Problem

Now, what may Philosophy bring to the analysis of Social VR?  Discussions on the current, or future, nature of social relations through VR has some philosophical implications. In our entry on Hinduism and Virtual Reality, we discussed the etymology of the word “Avatar” from the Sanskrit “Avatāra,” meaning “to descend,” and thus referring to the Gods visiting mortals. Avatars in the context of social VR, is a necessity as we need a body to clothe and express our selves. People have always been especially fond of their characters in MMORPGs, which only goes to tell the potential future importance of ownership in worlds where we actually inhabit them. With the magical powers of Virtual Embodiment as well as the combination of the strong self-expression and self-identification that these avatars can facilitate for, the role of these kinds of representations can end up being very important and meaningful for our lives.

The Philosophy of Social VR

Now, a philosophical theme that is possible to consider in relation to this is how the question of who you want to be in VR—how you want to represent yourself—is essentially an existential question. In VR, we are given the freedom to express ourselves without any pre-given limitations. In this way, through the medium of VR, we may one day be able to express our selves as we want, in fundamental terms.

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Illustration of Terence McKenna, a thinker with unique perspectives on the potential of VR communication.

In trying to imagine how we may communicate in the social worlds of the future, we will quote a section from a previous entry at Matrise called A Psychedelic Virtual Reality where we discuss an idea by Terence McKenna, that details how VR may be used to convey visual languages:

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”. 

The question we are left with in considering this, then, is: Who do you really want to be? Or at least, how do you really want to be perceived?

And based on this, how will the social VR worlds of the future look like?


For the interested reader, Matrise has written entries that are similar in theme to this entry. Although not explicitly discussing the Philosophy of Social VR, these entries deal with how themes around how we identify and represent our selves in virtual worlds:

In The Existential Problem of VR, we discuss philosophically the themes that this entry has raised in a deeper manner.

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?

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The Virtually Extended Mind

In this entry on the VR mind, we will discuss some ideas of (living!) Philosopher David Chalmers in relation to Immersive Virtual Reality. We will discuss how we may virtually extend our minds, and what kind of VR Minds we would like to create.

Let us start off with a few words from the man himself:

Virtual Reality technology is wonderful for a philosopher because it brings alive some of the greatest philosophical questions — David Chalmers

In the installment from which the above quote was taken, the distinguished philosopher and consciousness researcher goes on to mention Descartes’ suspicion of the external world as an evil illusion—in addition to the more recent theories by Nick Bostrom that discusses the probability that our reality is illusory. Indeed, one of the benefits of the virtual is that it may provoke new ways of viewing the real. What Chalmers mention here is one of the reasons why VR is interesting for philosophers.

Matrise has for the last few years been discussing themes like these, for instance in our entry on The Experience Machine as well as in our three-series entry on Heidegger, both in which we discuss the notion of authenticity in relation to being in virtual reality. Beyond such «principal» themes, however, VR can offer way more for philosophers than just a stir in the age-old questions of philosophy. Today we will review some newer ideas and discuss their relevance for the technology of VR.

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David Chalmers. Photo by Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times—originally from this article. Further edited by Matrise.

Chalmers is very right, however, in that VR acts as a catalysator for thought. Why, it can even be said to pose an existential problem to us. As we recently covered in depth, technologies, in certain ways, are a way of human exteriorisation—a way for humans to realise themselves outside of themselves. As VR, at least in conceptual terms, is a technology capable of realising anything, we can perceive of it as an existential problem as this freedom forces us to reflect on what we value and want, and thus who we are—if we accept the premise that what we externalise can tell us who we are.

In this entry, we will take to imagining such future realities, and bring Chalmers ideas with us on the ride. Not his paralleling VR and Descartes’ evil demon, however, but by returning to some of Chalmers’ own ideas and hypotheses on the extended mind.

The Extended Mind

In 1998, together with Andy Clark, David Chalmers published a paper describing an idea under the name of “The Extended Mind.” The central question which they approach is where our minds stop and where the world begins. Where is the boundary, in other words, between the dualism of self and other, and to which degree is the brain the mind, or the mind the brain? The philosophers deal with this theme in arguing that the tools and technologies we use become part of our minds, and so we extend our selves into the world.

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Where do we end and the world begin? Artwork by M.C. Escher.

A brilliant introduction to this idea is Chalmers’ Ted Talk in which he presents the central thesis. In the talk, Chalmers parallels this view to the perhaps better known examples of bodily extensions or embodiments; for instance in how blind people’s canes work as an extension of their body. This is exactly the same principle as Merleau-Ponty’s  woman with a feathered hat which he presents in his Phenomenology of Perception; in which her bodily consciousness seem to float even out into the tip of the feather, and so she avoids breaking it.

Chalmers point is that we are outsourcing certain mind functions to machines—such as recalling phone numbers—to our phones. Similarly, spatial navigation and information is offloaded to Google Maps. Now, few would argue against the fact that technologies are performing important functions for us. Chalmers point, however, can not be reduced to understanding these technologies as tools, his argument is that they are literally becoming a part of our minds, although they are not wired directly to our brain.

The Mind / Body Problem

Now, as we said, this is touching upon the mind/brain problem: to which extent can the mind be reduced to, or traced back to, the brain? This question is not as easy as it may first seem. Obviously, if we cap someone on the head, they become unconscious and so, apparently, no mind. It may from this, naïvely, be deduced that thus the mind is the brain. When the mind is operating, however, it is harder to reduce it as it extends and uses what it perceives to operate its functions.

In addressing this problem, we can thus ask: what is so special about the inside of the brain, that only this part should have the special features constituting our mind? If something is going on outside it, as long as it is driving the processes in the brain in the same way, there is no principal difference lying in the skull separating it from the world. If the information structures you are using for your processing is stored in your local hard drive or in the cloud: does it matter? Are they not both a part of your computer, in principal terms?

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Artwork depicting a Memory or Mind Palace by Stuart Kolakovic.

The Virtually Extended Mind: A Palace?

Here we reach the point of our entry. If our minds can be extended into our physical world, how may we extend it into the virtual? In other words, a perspective that can be had in imagining the virtual worlds of the future, is to view them as extensions of our minds. What tools, then, should we use, develop and adopt during our thought processes? What would constitute our VR minds?

A good example of this that we have previously discussed at Matrise has been Memory Palacesarranging information visuo-spatially in order to better preserve it. Beyond this concrete utilisation, however, we can also imagine not memory palaces, but mind palaces. These can be personalised, meaningful places, from which we can gain sustenance, peace or productivity. They can be filled with various tools: for emotional healing, meditation, work, relaxation or entertainment. These rooms can be viewed as extensions of our minds and a way for us to immersive our selves and synchronise our selves to the various activities which we want to carry out.

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Mind Palace Illustration. Unknown artist.

The way this is related to VR as an existential problem, as we recently discussed, is that the concept of VR is asking our opinion in a different sense than normal technologies. It is not a question of whether we want A or B, but fundamentally, from the start, what would we like to see, or in other words, who do we want to be; or as Bruce Mau’s God-like question is formulated: now that we can do anything, what will we do?

What would you have in your Mind Palace, could you choose? What would constitute your VR mind?

Conclusion

I will conclude this entry with a quote from Hannibal by Thomas Harris:

Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr. Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s on harp.


The interested reader can go on to these entries which are similar in theme:

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

In A Psychedelic Virtual Reality we discussed how VR may take inspiration from psychedelic drugs and facilitate for non-dual states of consciousness through the merging of self and other.

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?

Hinduism and Virtual Reality

In this piece, we discuss the relationship between 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.

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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.

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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

So how is Hinduism related to Virtual Reality? 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.

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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.

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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. Hinduism and Virtual Reality have striking parallels in conceptual terms, and 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”!

From Thought to Reality

This particular entry discusses a perspective that can be had towards Virtual Reality technology, and in so describes a certain way of understanding or relating to it. The aim is to provide, if not a theory, at least a perspective that resonates with the experience of creating and experiencing a virtual world. The perspective tries to approach an understanding of what gives the virtual its magical qualities — and how this comes to be.

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The Hobgoblin, a powerful wizard that travels through realms on his black panther. Illustration by Tove Jansson.

The Experience of Virtual Reality

VR has the capability of enchanting us. It has the power to introduce us to virtual worlds — and represent our designs in ‘the format of reality’. The content appears non-mediated, something Metzinger relates to the «phenomenal transparency» of the mind — we see «through the medium» —  and so only the content of the representation is available for introspective access. As with our mind, the underlying processes are hidden to us, and to experience VR is to experience the content it presents, not what lies beneath it.

There is a certain kind of experience that is exclusive to VR.  Finding oneself in a virtual world — orienting, navigating and interacting with it — produces an experience of a certain distinct character.  There is something intriguing, stimulating and marvelously weird in experiencing virtual realities. The experiential quality is affected by the sheer virtuality, or unreality, of it — and this, in turn, may make the illusion unexpected and beautiful. The experience has a certain quality to it: the disassociation between its unreality on the one hand and feeling of reality on the other. We know that VR is a synthesized, not-naturally-occurring experience, and further that we react to these stimuli as if they were real. Due to its unique character of offering convincing illusions, and our unique quality of, on the one hand seeing through them, and on the other being totally helpless in responding to it as if it weren’t real — we get the weird, thrilling experience of VR. The clear illusion; the transparent veil — a weaving of smoke: beautiful, but not substantial.

How did this oxymoron of technology — VR — come to be? What does it represent in us as humans? And last but not least, how should we view, relate to, and approach the emerging virtual worlds that the technology will enable for us?

Origins of Virtual Reality

A central aspect we have to address as part of this investigation is the origins of VR. Why did it arise, and what does it mean to us? This will ultimately affect the way we relate to and understand the medium. To do this, we can look into what desire of ours that the technology has fulfilled. Although we have previously discussed the History of VR this does not really account for the underlying motivations or dreams, but rather their outward results in terms of the resulting technology. Thus, when we instead want to discuss the origins of the idea of VR, we are attempting to approach technology “in its essence” — through its origin. For some readers, this may not be unfamiliar, as we have discussed this somewhat lengthy and theoretically in our three-series entry on Heidegger and VR. Here we will limit his technology criticism to a brief summary of two sentences:  Heidegger’s definition of technology as “not in itself something technological” means that the origins of the technology we use, and what it is and means to us in its essence, leans more towards an underlying ideal and thought than what it does towards different physical artifacts. Technology is, essentially, a way of viewing the world.

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Fingolfin, Elf and High King of the Noldor, in a duel against Morgoth Bauglir, fallen Melkor of the Valar. Fingolfin and Morgoth can each represent different ways of embracing technology (read below)

Virtual Reality as Thought

If we shall try to understand the earliest origin of VR, it is appropriate to consider VR as an idea. Essentially a thought, or even a dream. The dream of being able to define reality, creating a re-presentation: the same dream that inspired cave paintings several ten thousands of years ago. 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.

Similarly to how Heidegger imagined art as the potential savior of the way technology enframes the world and ourselves, J.R.R Tolkien’s distinction of magic in the universe of The Lord of The Rings can serve as a metaphor. The Elves use their magic only for artistic purposes and are consciously aware of the difference between reality and deception — the enemy, however, uses it to deceive and control. Heidegger’s point of technology is similar — technology (techne) may separate us from a more original revealing of truth by enframing the world in a certain narrative or story, while art (poiesis) may open up reality towards new interpretations. In Tolkien’s magic for purposes of domination, there is a will that is opposed to nature and thus will have to veil nature in its bringing-forth of its ‘truth’ or end. Similarly, Heidegger’s technology, as a way of revealing-concealing, will, to achieve its success, have to enframe nature and man with it — it reduces us to mere means to ends, not ends in ourselves. Tolkien’s elves use their magic in harmony with the real world; and similarly, Heidegger’s more preferred technologies let nature be as it is, instead of enframing it as a means to an end.

How are we to think of VR according to these technology criticisms? Whether we view the potentiality of the virtual as the dream of absolute control or domination (as Morgoth would have), or rather its potential for creative revealing and enhancement of the world (Fingolfin) — we can view VR as a Technology according to Heidegger, or as Magic according to Tolkien. Readers who are interested in what or how a Heidegger or Tolkien-inspired VR-application could be can go on to read the authors position paper in one of our latest blog entries. There we discuss the concept of an existentialist design — a “controlled accident” —which does not seek to dominate the user experience, but rather open the world up to new interpretations.

Virtuality as Reality

The exploration of VR as thought, or essentially as an idea, have taken us thus far. This idea or thought of VR is, however, now more actualized than ever — and what was once primarily an idea, is now more than ever a reality that we can relate to. We are able to step in, and immerse ourselves, in worlds after our own design. We can actualize, externalize, and instantiate our designs.

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Memory Palaces are systems of thought that utilizes visual and spatial cues to aid memorization.

An example of this that can illuminate the perspective of VR as thought, is the Virtual Reality Memory Palace. This ancient mnemonic (it is mentioned by Cicero in De Oratore as early as 55 BC) is based on thought: we are to close our eyes and visualize what we want to recall in the memory palace.

The memory palace is then, as the origins of VR, an idea or thought. It is internal and subjective. VR, however, allows the externalization of thought. In the same way that the idea of VR is now actualized, it allows the externalization of other ideas. We can use technology to immerse ourselves in the instantiated ideas of our mind. Is then akin to the works of Morgoth Bauglir, or Fingolfin son of Fëanor? This will depend on which thoughts are actualized: it depends on which levels of our inner being we want to realize as our outer world.

Conclusion

This entry has discussed a perspective on VR that compares it to the magic: through VR, we can define our external reality based on our inner thought. VR can be perceived as the materializer of form; the instantiator of the abstract. We described Heidegger’s explicit technology criticism and paralleled it to Tolkien’s implicit one. We also linked this to the authors position paper on a Heidegger-inspired VR technology.

For those interested, Matrise has partnered with YouTube channel Disrupt, who made a beautiful video featuring this blog piece, it can be watched here:

This entry is at the core of Matrise’s interests, and if you want further reading, these previous entries are related:

1: Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Reality

2: Sensory Deprivation — Floating in Virtual Reality

3: On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency

4: Heidegger’s Virtual Reality

5: The Mind as Medium

Philosophy & Science

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

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Illustrating excerpt from “The Philosophy Force Five vs the Scientismists” by Existential Comics. The left guy seems to be Richard Dawkins. Original can be found here.

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.

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Illustrating excerpt from “The Philosophy Force Five vs the Scientismists” by Existential Comics. Original can be found here.

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

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Illustration borrowed from Existential Comics’ “Philosophers And Physicists” available here.

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?

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Illustration borrowed from Existential Comics’ “Philosophy News Network: Philosophy Solved” available here.

 Conclusion

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

The Mind as Medium

N.B: This post is the third and final post in a series on VR metaphysics; the entries comment 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“. 


3 / 3

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.

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An old illustration of a Stereoscope, the illusive technology responsible for 3D effects in our modern VR Head-Mounted Displays. The first stereoscope was created in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatstone.

Discussion

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.

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“The Fairies Flew Away”, by Charles Henry Bennett.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Literature list

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 we relate this to Virtual Reality.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

deity 1299533  340 1 - The Experience Machine
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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