The world consists of imaginary people, claiming imaginary virtues and suffering from imaginary happiness. – Vernon Howard
Samsung released the Oculus Rift last September which is a wearable virtual reality (VR) headset that immerses the user in a world of simulated spatial awareness and sensory stimulation. Illusory worlds are explored and objectives are tackled in video games made specifically for the new system. With graphics and rendering time ever-improving, the virtual experience is becoming increasingly harder to distinguish from Reality.
Some VR systems are incorporating a full-body experience, rather than just a visual one. Although the first generation of the technology is perhaps slightly bulky, once Moore’s Law takes over, future models will grow exponentially smaller, faster, and more compelling.
Are We Already Living in the Matrix?
Gizmag.com has said that their “best description of the experience is ‘playing a role inside a 3D hologram.’” There is a growing belief among theoretical physicists, albeit still highly unpopular, that this collective experience we all refer to as ‘reality’ is in fact 3D hologram whether it is projected organically from our minds or if it is a computer simulation.
The idea was first proposed in 1997 by theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena who theorized that the universe was composed of infinitesimally small ‘strings’ that vibrate in 9 dimensions of space plus 1 dimension of time. Since then, many scientists have expanded on this theory and made some compelling arguments.
Maldacena’s idea thrilled physicists because it offered a way to put the popular but still unproven theory of strings on solid footing — and because it solved apparent inconsistencies between quantum physics and Einstein’s theory of gravity. It provided physicists with a mathematical Rosetta stone, a ‘duality’, that allowed them to translate back and forth between the two languages, and solve problems in one model that seemed intractable in the other and vice versa.
Could we be living in a computer program like the one depicted in The Matrix? Much more can be written on this subject, but we will leave this theory as brain food for now rather than trying to prove or disprove the case.
Designing an Alter Ego
An interesting aspect of VR escapism and video game addiction is the ability of the user to design an avatar and lead a double life. Whether you ask a sociologist or an avid player, they will tell you that users often design their avatar to embody traits that the user lacks or even an avatar that is completely antithetical to the user in real life. This drive to design the perfect avatar is a compensation for the user’s lack of self-esteem. It is born from the desire to be someone, something, some way, or some gender that the person wishes to be. Often times, there is a very real psychological schism that occurs when a user identifies his Self-hood more with the avatar he designed because he wishes to escape from aspects of his true Self.
Technology is Neutral; It Depends Who is Using it & Why
Luddites naturally fear VR and any technological advancement. However, some are more concerned with who uses advanced technologies and to what end. Philosopher and author Michael Tsarion has strong reservations about technology being employed by the wrong people with nefarious intentions. He writes,
In primitive cultures we hear of the voodoo doctor and his attendant zombie. Before he fell under the spell of his master, the zombie was a live, active, thinking person. His will was weakened because he was slowly and surreptitiously administered the juice of the Datura plant, which drugged him into a chronic state of mental and physical passivity. Each day, lest he revive, the zombie is forced against his will to ingest more of the potion. Today we see a similar process at work, only with greater frequency and over a larger demographic. In this case, the “Datura” is not organic but auditory, visual and digital. We are reigned over by technological witchdoctors and cyberspace sorcerers. Their particular concoction of spells are cast via techniques that go by names such as Tele-hypnosis, Metacontrast, Hemisync, Synaesthenia and Embedding. New techniques, yes, but with the same deadly effect as any past voodoo, sorcery or telepathy.
Technology is Born from Man’s Desire to Create Life like the Female
Tsarion postulates that man’s inherent envy of the mother’s ability to give birth to new life is what has fueled the technological innovation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be the consummation of his labor.
For those less in favor of this idea, here is an alternative hypothesis. VR is man’s attempt at playing God. In Nietzsche’s world, there is a job opening for Creator so man steps into the role of Grand Architect and begins to construct nascent worlds governed by his own laws that we call “virtual reality.” As a side note, it is also perhaps what drives man to genetically reengineer organisms. The ego lusts to be at the apex of hierarchy and falsely believes it can trump Nature.
‘Impossible Happiness’ & ‘Imperfect Happiness’
St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) philosophized about the source of happiness because he noticed that man is dissatisfied with life. Augustine more or less assumed happiness was disconnected from Nature and was only to be endowed by the Creator. He believed in impossible happiness and admonished man to escape Nature as best he can and to make peace with his place in the hierarchy of Creation. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states,
…he is less concerned with a neutral description of the structure of nature than with showing how the soul may find happiness by extricating itself from an overly immersed relation to nature.
Philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (AD 1224-1274) wrote prolifically, authoring over 40 books in two decades. He oft inquired what the essence of human happiness is and whether or not it can truly be attained in one’s lifetime. Aquinas concluded that perfect happiness, or beatitudo, is not something that can be experienced on Earth. He was operating from a creationist worldview and attributed perfection to an externalized God. Beatitudo was therefore only attainable in the afterlife where man could have a primary perception of God. Aquinas argued that imperfect happiness, or felicitas, is attainable on Earth and is achieved through the practice of Reason and the exercise of Virtue.
This search for Essence and the debate of whether or not Existence precedes Essence is truly the question of all time. This inquisition has trickled down into modern philosophy and is closely tied to the rationalism versus empiricism debate.
‘Being’ & ‘Authenticity’
Martin Heidegger, in his groundbreaking 1927 magnus opum Being and Time, stoked the rationalism/empiricism debate by discussing the concepts of Being and Authenticity. Being and Time is often considered one of the most complex and hence difficult to comprehend philosophical texts written. Heidegger challenged all philosophers from the time of Socrates onward who, in his opinion, were missing the point of philosophy altogether by presupposing that man has a rational handle on what it means to exist. To help illustrate his point, he coined the term Dasein, translated as ‘there-being,’ which refers to the mode of Being as realized by humans.
Being-in is not a ‘property’ which Dasein sometimes has and sometimes does not have, and without which it could just be just as well as it could be with it. It is not the case that man ‘is’ and then has, by way of an extra, a relationship-of-Being towards the ‘world’—a world with which he provides himself occasionally. Dasein is never ‘proximally’ an entity which is, so to speak, free from Being-in, but which sometimes has the inclination to take up a ‘relationship’ towards the world. Taking up relationships towards the world is possible only because Dasein, as Being-in-the-world, is as it is. This state of Being does not arise just because some entity is present-at-hand outside of Dasein and meets up with it. Such an entity can ‘meet up with’ Dasein only in so far as it can, of its own accord, show itself within a world. (Being and Time 12: 84)
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains Heidegger’s description of Authenticity.
This analysis opens up a path to Heidegger’s distinction between the authentic self and its inauthentic counterpart. At root, ‘authentic’ means ‘my own’. So the authentic self is the self that is mine (leading a life that, in a sense to be explained, is owned by me), whereas the inauthentic self is the fallen self, the self lost to the ‘they’. Hence we might call the authentic self the ‘mine-self’, and the inauthentic self the ‘they-self’, the latter term also serving to emphasize the point that fallen-ness is a mode of the self, not of others. Moreover, as a mode of the self, fallen-ness is not an accidental feature of Dasein, but rather part of Dasein’s existential constitution. It is a dimension of care, which is the Being of Dasein. So, in the specific sense that fallen-ness (the they-self) is an essential part of our Being, we are ultimately each to blame for our own inauthenticity (Sheehan 2002).
It seems that Heidegger would frown upon the technological escapism we are seeing today because it is an immersion in a collectivist contraption that strips man of Selfhood by disconnecting him from a genuine experience of Nature and Being.
Eternal Here and Now
Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) spoke using existentialist language although, unlike Heidegger, he relied on faith and did not expound on an epistemological proof. Yogananda recognized the truth in embracing Essence, and would probably argue that setting out to prove Essence philosophically would be time better spent being in the here and now. One can only speculate. He propounded the path of Self-Realization and the awareness of the Here and Now for the experience of happiness which he argued was transitory, not permanent. Here are a handful of Yogananda quotes on Being.
Forget the past, for it is gone from your domain! Forget the future, for it is beyond your reach! Control the present! Live supremely well now! This is the way of the wise.
The deeper the Self-realization of a man, the more he influences the whole universe by his subtle spiritual vibrations, and the less he himself is affected by the phenomenal flux.
The proximity of happiness is as close as one’s own Self; it isn’t even a matter of attaining, but only of lifting the soul-shrouding veil of ignorance. The very word “attaining” implies something one wants but does not have—a metaphysical error. Bliss is the irrevocable divine birthright of every soul. Tear away the intrusive veil, and at once there is contact with that happiness supreme. Spirit is happiness. Soul is the pure reflection of Spirit. Body-bound man fails to perceive this because his consciousness is distorted: The lake of his mind is constantly roiled by the incursion of thoughts and emotions.
Virtual Reality Will Not Allow Man to Escape His Unconscious
Existence is not limited to matter and energy; it includes forces and the effects thereof. An example is gravity. Gravity exists. We can measure it and record its effects on matter and energy. Therefore, it is part of Reality. Abstracts exist, and as intangible as they are, they hold vibratory frequencies that affect man. An idea, a dream, and an emotion are subtle forces that are all concomitants of Reality, meaning they exist in a lesser way in conjunction with a larger Truth. The same is true for virtual reality.
Perhaps VR is a necessary step for man to explore his unconscious. For, the construction of virtual realms may be designed by the conscious mind but it is influenced supremely by the unconscious. What will man find when he explores this virgin world? Will he find that which he sought to escape from, awaiting him in his hopeful refuge? Is man actually able to escape his demons forever, or does the day inevitably come where he must confront the consequence of a life avoided? Wherever man goes, he brings his mind along for the experience. Wherever he probes with the conscious mind, he projects the unconscious mind. If man is to arrive at contentment, it will only happen once he prioritizes the quest for Self Knowledge and accepts the possibility that he may never find it.