by Eliott Edge
It is worth pointing out that we have been making virtual realities for a very, very long time. That language, spoken language, is the original code for hacking virtual reality. When you sit the children down around the fire and begin to tell the old, old stories and pictures rise out of the flames—that is virtual reality
We live in a condensation of our imagination.”
An idea that tended to ride alongside this “VR is covertly equivalent to civilization” reading arrived through my years in psychedelic publishing and research. I picked up a line supposedly attributed to Timothy Leary, but popularized by Robert Anton Wilson—Reality Tunnels. A reality tunnel refers to the cultural virtual reality and the belief system that you acquire through socialization, conditioning, and exposure; the psychosocial orthodoxy that arrives thanks to everything from your local place of worship, to your language, to the shape of your home. You are what your neighborhoods make you. We become our scenery and our scenes. We become the local VR. Indeed, VR headset technology is designed to throw us into a reality tunnel in the exact same way that walking through a metropolitan street boggles our senses into a very particular worldview.
One of Wilson’s well-known remarks on the reality tunnel:
We’re all looking from the point of view of our own reality tunnels. And when we begin to realize that we’re all looking from the point of view of our own reality tunnels, we find that it is much easier to understand where other people are coming from. All the ones who don’t have the same reality tunnel as us do not seem ignorant, or deliberately perverse, or lying, or hypnotized by some mad ideology, they just have a different reality tunnel. And every reality tunnel might tell us something interesting about our world, if we’re willing to listen.
Wilson also observed: “‘reality’ is always plural and mutable.”
I think that culturally, once early humans started speaking and thinking in terms of an animal world and a spirit world, or distinguishing between a waking world and a dream world, we began to plant the seeds of the VR dialogue. VR then, is a way of discussing the multilayered shared fantasy called the human world.
Appreciating the worldview-generating effects of reality tunnels, civilization, language, culture, media, architecture, and seeing how they were all very much like VR, captured my imagination. Even the otherwise simple standing stones dotting the British countryside have VR-generating “magical” effects. They activate the imagination. It wasn’t long after that the observation came to mind: “There is likely no more singularly important consideration than the consideration of alternative worlds, illusory worlds, projected worlds, and manipulable worlds.” That is—there is likely no deeper issue, in philosophy or otherwise, than that of the possibility of more than one world or one worldview. For a worldview is merely a virtual reality. This is Plato and his Cave.
Yet another event that pushed me beyond the veil of hyperspace was the fateful arrival into my reality tunnel of Tom Campbell, a NASA, Department of Defense, Army Technical Intelligence nuclear physicist and consciousness researcher who I discovered around 2008. Campbell, who has a résumé longer than most people’s arm, published a model of the universe as a virtual reality simulation in 2007 called My Big TOE: A Trilogy Unifying Philosophy, Physics, and Metaphysics. In it he describes the universe as a simulation, and our consciousness as the nonphysical computer that “renders” the physical universe into existence via the act of what physicists call “measurement.” Campbell’s major follow up to his book was a paper published online in March 2017, in the International Journal of Quantum Foundations, called “On Testing the Simulation Hypothesis,” which also focused on the issue of measurement and “wave collapse.” After Campbell, I started reading other scientists who wrote about nature and computation, virtual reality worlds, simulated universes, digital mechanics, video game thought experiments, and observations in nature that we have historically branded with the moniker ‘spooky.’ I devoured Nick Bostrom, Edward Fredkin, Brian Whitworth, Seth Lloyd, David Chalmers, Sylvester James Gates, Roger Penrose, Paola Zizzi, Zohreh Davoudi, John A. Wheeler, and other mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers who were also absorbed in the issues of computation, simulation, and virtual worlds. Brian Whitworth may have summarized the longstanding problems in physics best when he wrote in his essay Simulating Space and Time:
VR theory is only on the table because objective reality theory doesn’t explain modern physics. In an objective reality time does not dilate, space doesn’t bend, objects don’t teleport and universes don’t pop into existence from nowhere. We would not doubt the world’s objective reality if only it behaved so physically, but it does not. Adjectives like “strange”, “spooky” and “weird” apply, and common sense concepts like object, location, existence, time and space simply don’t work. The world of modern physics doesn’t behave at all as an objective reality should.
It became clear that virtual reality was not just a philosophical or cultural issue; it was a deeply scientific one as well.
After all, a universe popping into existence seemingly out of nowhere for apparently no reason—completely with freakishly fine-tuned physical laws, as well as with all the matter and energy that will ever exist simultaneously—makes a hell of a lot more sense once you think of a computer hitting GO.
Let’s take a moment to look at three immediate zones of experience for every human being: the mind, the body, and the universe. Here’s an example of why the VR metaphor is so very robust.
If you asked the most orthodox diehard material reductionist neuroscientist how the brain, the nervous system, and all our bodily sense platforms manage to take in the universe and turn it into an invisible picture show, they would give you a VR metaphor. They would tell you human beings take in a certain, measurable fraction of the available sounds, sights, tastes, and smells and form that into a useable collage for the conscious and autonomic mind. They would say we cannot physically see the entire electromagnetic spectrum, nor do we have smell or sight as sensitive as a dog’s. We get a mind-bogglingly wee portion of what the universe has to offer. That sensory information is then translated into an experience that the conscious mind can use. That is a virtual reality. This would not necessarily impress your run-of-the-mill neuroscientist as being a breakthrough reading. However, it does set the stage—just beginning with how our senses take it and make a world, we find the specter of virtual reality. Naturally, it doesn’t end there.
Now that we have quickly conquered the body, next on tour is of course the mind. Thought is particularly interesting here. As I elaborate in an essay contained in this book, thought is on its surface a kind of virtual reality. If we can agree that the mind and thought work in reference to images, it is very easy to make the case from there that mind is like a VR. Starting with images; the mind uses images to comprehend and navigate through the world. But image implies something static, and the mind is anything but static. The mind is more of a collage of many moving images—animations. Push this analogy one step further and the mind is not just fooling around with animations, but is in fact producing simulations. If we accept that thoughts are simulations, we can easily say the mind works using invisible and yet profoundly experiential virtual realities. So not only is bodily sense experience a VR, but the mind is a VR as well.
Finally there is the universe and physics. Here we reach the modern arguments in math, science, and philosophy regarding the physical universe. If you stack the last 100 years of physical observation, it turns out that virtual reality, computer simulations, and information actually provide a powerful analogy to the oddities found throughout quantum mechanics. To this concept, there is a growing body of literature making this case. In fact it would be very difficult indeed to make a complete list of all the published material by scientists, mathematicians, critics, and philosophers on the topic. The reason being is that computation, information, simulation, and VRs provide an extremely formidable position from which to answer some of Nature’s most pressing mysteries.
Some scientists and philosophers may not like these digital metaphors, but the fact of the matter is the competition against them is slim and only getting slimmer. Many of the leading contenders for Theories of Everything rely on the assumptions of certain objects, or mechanics, or fields to exist which we have yet to observe. Some of these theoretical entities can probably never be observed due to the levels of energy that would be necessary to reach out and measure them. Cosmic strings for instance—things that have never been seen—are being assumed as the roots of reality. Scientifically, philosophically, and logically speaking, starting from such assumptions is a big problem.
In our most common everyday ideas of who, what, and where we are—the body, the mind, and the universe—within all three domains we find effortless compatibility to virtual reality. To wit, when it comes to virtual reality, there is apparently no escape.
David Chalmers put it quite simply, “No amount of reasoning or observation could ever completely rule out the hypothesis that I am in a Matrix right now.”
To overemphasize this point, I often flatly use the word fake when describing cultures in the VR context. This is particularly true of the essay featured in this collection, “How VR Gaming Will Wake Us Up to Our Fake Worlds.” I have sometimes received flak for using the word. But I like it and I like the pressure that fake creates. ‘Fake’ has the same kind of meaning as ‘virtual,’ ‘simulation,’ and so on. A fake means it is a show, a presentation, it is not entirely as it seems, or as we make it out to be. It is not “God’s glory”—that being natural phenomena. These are our own devices. We pretend that they are fundamentally sound, concrete. When in fact, they are our own construction and confabulation. They are our own stories that we tell each other and ourselves. We made it all up. That’s what I mean when I say fake. That’s what I mean when I flippantly remark, “Canada is fake.” Part joke, part truth; but all-in-all, Canada is a virtual reality scenario. We are trapped in these shows and contexts we have made for others and ourselves.
Capitalism, communism, and fascism are all as legitimate as any other VR scenario—that is to say, that deep down they aren’t legit at all. They are man-made rules, man-enforced perceptions, man-made opinions that are all built out of ephemera, agreement, and assumption. They are all games we simply invented; worlds we built brick-by-brick and thought-by-thought. They do not represent the emanations of God the Divine on Earth. They represent our failure to dream up and implement something more thoughtful and beautiful—something actually worth our time.
I believe we require a new meta-context to wake us up out of all the many contexts we have already made for ourselves. We need to see this. If not through the VR metaphor, then perhaps through some other kind of jarring awakening; some other deep radical re-contextualization that helps us release ourselves from the models and systems we believe we’re trapped in. Without a drastic new context we will likely continue our premature death march into the fossil record. For it is our imagined-up VR cultures that have brought us so horrifyingly close to total destruction.
To me, virtual reality is the meta-context necessary for our wake-up call.
I feel one of the strongest points to all of this is that virtual reality is a way of thinking that, when explored, becomes a powerful referent. Since VR can be used quite easily to think about thinking, it can be cast as a tool for meta-thinking. Indeed, thinking about VR is mentally simulating VR. We simulate a simulation when we think about VR. As I love to point out: try thinking of a thought that isn’t a simulation. The virtual reality helmet of late-20th century fame was a technology that gave us a disorienting new way to think about what we have been doing inside our own heads all along. The VR helmet is another head that we place over our own so we can think and experience in alien new ways. It shows us what we do when we adopt any belief system; we color the world with the belief.
It is worthwhile to linger here and compare the sensory inputs and outputs that cover the human head, and consider how virtual reality helmets are designed to work. So let’s think about heads. Appreciate the array of specialized organs found punctuating the heads of many different types of animals. Think about a human head. Now think about a spider’s head. Think about a dolphin’s head, then an anglerfish’s head, with that funky light dangling above it. Think about how an owl’s head experiences amplified sight and hearing. Think about an elephant, with that unique trunk—think about how that gargantuan hose helps experience the world in a very particular way. Now think about the unique eye control and whiplash tongue of the chameleon. Imagine a cat’s head, as opposed to a dog’s head. Each of these very different heads all bear modifications of the same kinds of organ arrays: eyes, tongues, ears, mouths, noses. All of them we could think of as different kinds of VR helmets. Each produce a different VR. Each sensor is tuned to detect different qualities at different volumes. Sense information is experienced and interpreted differently for each. If we were to design a VR helmet and program it to imitate a fox’s sensory experience as it arrives through its particularly tuned array of sensory organs, we would be treading very close indeed to wearing a fox’s head upon our own. Take this same line of reasoning and flip it around; if we were to take our human experience and put it into a VR helmet, and then place that helmet on another animal’s head, they would be treading very close indeed to the human ordeal. You could even provide the experience of not just standing upright, but of using hands, wearing clothing. In this example the VR helmet plays the role of a blank slate. It is an entirely programmable, modifiable sensory experience-producing array. It is a head by design. The important takeaway is this: the VR helmet is the customizable head. If you can make a VR helmet mime or approximate any animal’s sensory experience, how different is the VR helmet from any animal’s head? When all the world is information, all heads are VR helmets.
Our whole experience of life, from the mind, to the body, to the universe is a bunch of intersecting VRs, holodecks we cannot escape—thus, the best course of action is to become deeply aware of this. Or, as we would say in meditation and self-inquiry schools of thought, we would do well to become conscious of consciousness.
Get 3 Essays on Virtual Reality: Overlords, Civilization, and Escape by Elliot Edge
Eliott Edge is an international lecturer, multidisciplinary artist, education activist, and author of ‘3 Essays on Virtual Reality: Civilization, Overlords, and Escape.’ Edge’s work has appeared in the The University of Melbourne, The Museum of Computer Arts, Stevens Institute of Technology, Anthology Film Archives, and The C.G. Jung Center. He is on the advisory board of The Lifeboat Foundation, a member of Das Unbehagen, and the founder of EducatingEarth.
He is also a poet, blogger, and YouTuber.