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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The Virtual Reality of Consciousness

A Gnostic Insight

David Lane

Put in simpler terms, consciousness is a virtual simulator par excellence and as such allows humans to have a rolodex of potential strategies.

This past week Matt Pagano, a bright student I first met at Mt. San Antonio College a couple of years back, asked me to give a presentation to the Philosophy Club at the University of California, Irvine, in the latter part of May. I readily accepted since it would give me the opportunity of putting the final touches on a paper that has been bubbling forth in my brain for the past few months. It concerns the idea that the advent of virtual and augmented reality in the past four decades can serve as useful model and tool to better understand why human consciousness first evolved. Following the pioneering work of Gerald Edelman, Francis Crick, V.S. Ramachandran, Cristof Koch, Giulio Tononi, and others, the thesis is a simple one, though with profound implications, one: any organism that can develop an in-sourcing mechanism that allows it to virtually simulate varying options before outsourcing them has a distinct advantage over those creatures which are limited in their responses because of instinctual parameters.

Put in simpler terms, consciousness is a virtual simulator par excellence and as such allows humans to have a rolodex of potential strategies when navigating in a world with ever-changing competitive concerns and environmental niches.

The Virtual Reality of Consciousness, A Gnostic Insight, David Lane

The essential key here is to examine our own self-awareness and witness what it actually does moment to moment and then see how it relates to our Darwinian struggle of existence. Taking this approach, it becomes fairly obvious what is happening and why.

Even as you read through this article (whether reading it closely and skimming through it), you will notice that your mind wanders. The question to ask is this: where does it wander to?

Longtime meditators have called our wavering attention a “monkey” mind, swinging from one thought to another. But if you watch closely, you will start to see some fundamental patterns, even if what you are thinking about varies. We oscillate from past concerns to future plans to present activities, but all the while we are (mostly unconsciously) creating scenarios about what to do or what to avoid or what we wish. In so doing, we are developing temporary narratives in which to plan our days, ruminate about previous mistakes, or envelop ourselves in imaginary fantasies which intertwine what has happened (or could happen) with a series of desired outcomes. All the while, we are (to invoke Gerald Edelman's terminology) “dissociating” from the present moment and what it has on offer and becoming absorbed in our “second” nature.

Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Center, articulates the “virtual simulation” hypothesis of consciousness very clearly in his book, The Future of the Mind and in an interview for Popular Mechanics conducted by Alyson Sheppard:

“Well, I have a new theory of consciousness, and that is: Consciousness is all the feedback loops necessary to create a model of yourself in space, in relationship to others, and in time, especially forward in time. This means that animals are conscious, and we can even rank them numerically by counting the number of feedback loops involved in each of these behaviors. So a thermostat would have one unit of consciousness that measures temperature. A flower would have maybe 10 units of consciousness because it measure temperature, sunlight, gravity, moisture, things like that. A reptile would have even more, maybe several hundred, because it locates its position in space. Then monkeys are even higher than that because they have to locate their ranking in society via emotions. We're at the highest level because we daydream. We see the future, we predict the future, and animals do not. Animals, to the best of our [knowledge], have no concept of our tomorrow. We are obsessed with planning, strategizing, and tomorrow. And that, I think, typifies human consciousness.”

Kaku's theory, contrary to his claim that it is a new one, dovetails in several ways with other theorists in the field who are agreement that having the ability to “simulate” all sorts of end game scenarios gives human beings an advantage over other creatures who lack such.

I often give three examples in my philosophy courses to illustrate this:

1. Imagine we are on a 747-jet flying from Los Angeles to New York when we learn that all of the pilots have inexplicably passed out. The steward goes up and down the aisle to find anyone who has even the modicum of training to see if they can somehow take over and land the plane. There are several volunteers but they have no experience flying. However, there is a 14 old boy who has been playing a VR flight simulator game obsessively for the past two years, and is conversant with some of the controls on large jets.

Given this scary scenario, who would you choose--the kid who has flight simulator experience or an older adult?

I suspect most of us would pick the 14-year-old and for good reason.

The second example I give is a bit cruder and is probably more relatable to our own life experiences. There are two different men (Tom and Bob) and each of them want to ask a woman out that they saw in the Whole Foods market. Tom is impulsive and instinctive and tends never to think before acting. Bob, on the other hand, is a planner and is a great visualizer. Before asking out the woman he imagines different stylistic approaches and after weighing them out chooses one that he believes is the best way to introduce himself. Tom, though, is the complete opposite and simply walks up to the woman and says what he really wants from her without any editing.

While we cannot be sure how the particular woman in question will respond, Bob would (statistically speaking?) seem to have the better odds in succeeding in his quest than Tom.

Interestingly, popular culture even has a term for Bob's potential successes: he has “game,” which in this context means he has a better array of simulations from which to draw.

The third example is one that has been employed by a number of evolutionary psychologists and is perhaps the most illustrative. In our ancestral past, those individuals who could better predict the behavior of a predator would (on average) have more opportunities to pass on their genetic code. Thus, any creature (and it doesn't have to merely default to Homo sapiens) which can concoct multiple reactions and strategies within itself before acting on them has leverage over those who have a limited repertoire.

Yet, there is a downside in possessing a higher form of consciousness since it allows its owner to ponder all sorts of improbable events that will never actually happen. We too often can get ensnared with our ideas, our fantasies, our projections and begin believing all sorts of nonsense. For a robust virtual simulator to work it must conjure up a plethora of scenarios that mix and match incongruent narratives. In other words, for imagination to work it must be massively elastic. The glitch is that sometimes our simulations over take us and we get entrapped within their corridors. To the degree that we can test our imaginings in the empirical world and acknowledge their successes and failures we are regarded as somewhat sane; to the degree that we cannot we may be viewed as somewhat insane. It is a thin line indeed that separates the two.

In trying to understand consciousness differing models have been proposed over the years by scientists and philosophers, ranging from variations of Cartesian dualism (mind is primary, body is merely a vehicle) to neural correlate theory (mind is the brain and arises due to complex interactions).

Realizing that all models, no matter how sophisticated, will fall short to some measure, the key is to utilize ones that provide us with new found insights and hitherto unknown predictive powers.

The advent of virtual and augmented reality may serve as a useful pathway to better understand why consciousness evolved the way it did, primarily because the brain itself operates as a VR system, albeit a much more sophisticated one than Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

Everything we have ever experienced is modified by our central nervous system. Our brain refashions the world we see, hear, touch, and smell by transfiguring incoming data points (light, sound, etc.) into chemical-electrical signals that are reconstructed--via our elaborate neural net—into the world we apprehend around us.

We never experience the exterior cosmos “as it is” but only as our own biologically evolved VR headsets reconceive it.

Whenever I use an Oculus related device (from Rift to Go to the Quest), I am always amazed by how such a headgear with 6 degrees of freedom and a 1,440 × 1,600 per-eye resolution makes me feel as if I have entered into a new world, and all of this with a device that weighs less than a pound. VR is a trickster, since by its software and hardware design one responds as if the images that arise have a sort of independent reality apart from its technology. Yet, it is that very technology which is creating the illusion that what I perceive is trans-machine like.

Immanuel Kant and others following his lead turned philosophy on its head by redirecting our focus back to the limits of our cranial capacity and how such a limitation, in turn, invariably confuses the questions we ask about the universe at large. In the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein refined this even more by showing how language itself is a culprit in our pursuit of philosophical inquiries, since the words we use are contextual and do not lend themselves to atomic purity. To his great credit, Wittgenstein realized the error of his ways years later after gallantly attempting to first clear out the cobwebs of faulty language usage in his groundbreaking book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Language is a game and how we play it depends on a number of contingent factors, not the least of which is on our prior agreed upon assumptions.

Today, with the ever-growing successes in neuroscience, we have entered a new world of understanding how the brain works and how it evolved not so much to understand the world at large (in some ultimate, ontological sense) but rather how best to survive within it.

Virtual Reality provides us with an instructive portal by which to better grasp how the brain develops elaborate simulations that help us better navigate future possibilities.

Even popular science shows, such as David Eagleman's The Brain on PBS, provides a radical summation of how reality is virtually constructed,

“Dr. Eagleman takes viewers on an extraordinary journey that explores how the brain, locked in silence and darkness without direct access to the world, conjures up the rich and beautiful world we all take for granted. 'What is Reality?' begins with the astonishing fact that this technicolor multi-sensory experience we are having is a convincing illusion conjured up for us by our brains. In the outside world there is no color, no sound, no smell. These are all constructions of the brain. Instead, there is electromagnetic radiation, air compression waves, and aromatic molecules all of which are interpreted by the brain as color, sound and smell. Cutting edge graphics show that data from the outside are rendered into electrochemical signals inside the brain, which map meaningfully onto physical reality. Our experience of reality is an electrochemical rendition of the world outside. It is not a faithful rendition. Visual illusions are reminders that what's important to the brain is not being faithful to 'reality' but being able to perceive just enough so that we can navigate successfully through it. The brain leaves a lot out of its beautiful rendition of the physical world, a fact that Dr Eagleman reveals using experiments, and street demonstrations. We meet the men and women whose experiences of reality reveal important clues about how the brain constructs our own reality, including the Alcatraz prisoner who was locked in the notorious 'Dark Hole' for 29 days, and yet experienced richly colorful moments of reality. His experience, along with those who have experienced total sensory deprivation show us that even when sensory input to the brain stops, the show still goes on. Why? Because, amazingly, our senses–eyes, ears, skin, nose - only modulate an internally generated simulation of what the brain expects is out there. This so-called 'internal model of reality' allows us to move through the world, recognizing it rather than constructing it anew, moment by moment. We meet a man who is blind despite the fact that he has eyes that can see. His story reveals that it's the brain that sees, not our eyes. A woman with schizophrenia, whose psychotic episodes were her reality, emphasizes the fact that whatever our brains tell us is out there, we believe it. We have no way to get beyond what our brains allow us to perceive. Like the rest of the animal kingdom, we inhabit a miniscule slice of reality, and yet we believe it to be the whole picture. Eagleman also explores time, and takes a look at how–and why - the brain alters its perception of time, depending on the situation we find ourselves in. Time, it turns out, is not an absolute to the brain. Each one of our brains is different, and so is he reality it produces. What is reality? It's whatever your brain tells you it is.

Perhaps what is most intriguing is what virtual reality holds for us in he future, particularly when VR and AI are intertwined.

The disruptive nature of both will undoubtedly completely transform how we live. We have already witnessed the worldwide acceptance of smart phones (which lest we forget are powerful computers connected to the cloud) and how they can moment to moment augment our navigating intelligence in ways unimaginable decades prior.

The Physics of the Astral Plane

It is rich with irony that our consciousness which evolved as a virtual simulator would over time, and with the advent of sophisticated technology, develop virtual reality headsets that enable us to live in ultra-realistic worlds that before were merely figments of our imagination.

As I wrote in the book, The Avatar Project,

“I have no doubt that with VR we will soon be witnessing an informational tsunami, the likes of which will swamp everything—from how we educate to how we doctor to how we entertain. If consciousness evolved as a virtual simulator to help us better insource varying survival strategies before outsourcing them, we can readily see that humans have now progressed to the point where we can actualize our imaginings in a real world. Simply put, our technology has finally caught up with our dreams so that we can consciously inhabit what we could only before imagine. Aldous Huxley was correct when he predicted that we would enter a Brave New World, but it is a different kind of Soma we will daily ingest than the one he anticipated. The drug of the future is virtual and it is information without boundaries.”

We are now at the threshold of being able to spend most of our time living in artificial environments of our own choosing simply by a wave of hand or a click of a button. Already it is estimated that young adults spend nearly ten hours a day or more in front of a screen—from computers to phones to gaming devices. The immersive quality of VR and AR will be the next step in our digital universe, where we continually forego our earlier naturalistic habits and adopt ones that we can radically transform in a moment's notice.

Earlier religious traditions, as found in Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, and Christian Gnosticism, argued that we live in an illusion which betrays its real origin. Just as the user interface on our smart phones hides the inner workings of computer programing and electron circuit design, the world of appearances masks the underlying physics and chemistry which gives rise to it.

Herein lies the secret of consciousness, according to Donald Hoffman, Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine, who believes that a radical new approach is needed to understand the emergence of self-awareness. Writes Hoffman,

“Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don't need to know. And that's pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be.”

Hoffman believes that with the desktop interface we have for the first time the appropriate metaphor to understand how something that looks real on the surface is anything but. Elucidates Hoffman,

“Snakes and trains, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The snake I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions. Evolution shapes acceptable solutions, not optimal ones. A snake is an acceptable solution to the problem of telling me how to act in a situation. My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations.”

While I agree with much of what Hoffman suggests (except that I find his concept of “conscious agents” confusing at best), I think Virtual Reality is a far more powerful metaphor for explaining how and why consciousness works, since it is a totally encompassing environment similar in so many ways to how we currently experience the world both within and without via our own subjective awareness. Yet, the VR headset is a mind manipulator par excellence, just as our own consciousness is an informational playground. Of course, the fundamental difference is that with VR we can inhabit instantly what before we could only dimly imagine.

But in both VR (virtual reality) and SA (self-awareness) we are as Donald Hoffman explains “not seeing the innards of reality.”

As he elaborates,

“Suppose there's a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer's desktop—does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not. But those are the only things that can be asserted about anything on the desktop—it has color, position and shape. Those are the only categories available to you, and yet none of them are true about the file itself or anything in the computer. They couldn't possibly be true. That's an interesting thing. You could not form a true description of the innards of the computer if your entire view of reality was confined to the desktop. And yet the desktop is useful. That blue rectangular icon guides my behavior, and it hides a complex reality that I don't need to know. That's the key idea. Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don't need to know. And that's pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you.”
Like our VR counterpart, consciousness hides the very machinations which create it.

In the Oculus Go game “Virtual Virtual Reality,” one is trained to put on a variety of goggles in order to experience different realities, each of which have certain tasks to accomplish. In each situation, though, one has the overwhelming feeling of being somewhere else, far away from the previous visited land. Yet, no one goes anywhere, since the entire panorama is being orchestrated within a lens diameter of 60 centimeters.

The worlds we inhabit in VR, especially as other avatars appear from different states and countries, give us a tremendous sense of presence, even though they are digital reconstructions. When fully immersed in VR we are completely unaware of the hardware and software that manipulates our experiences. We are surface surfers oblivious of the underlying physical reality that creates the information waves we ride.

We may be likened to Neo in the film, The Matrix, where “a programmer is brought back to reason and reality when learning he was living in a program created by gigantic machines.” The nuts and bolts of what generates our VR experiences is hidden from view. Below are the specifications for the popular and portable Oculus Go:

Display: Fast-switch WQHD LCD Resolution: 2560 x 1440 Refresh Rate: 60Hz or 72Hz FOV (Field of View): 100° Lens Type: High-quality Fresnel Lenses Focal Length: 5cm (2?) IPD (Interpupillary Distance): Lens Diameter: 60cm (2.4?) Supported Controllers: Oculus Go Motion Controller, Bluetooth Gamepads Built-in Sensors: proximity sensor Movement Type: 3DoF Built-in Mic: Yes Built-in Audio: Yes Materials: Fabric, Plastic Choice of Colours: Cream Only Operation System: Android 7.1.2 Nougat CPU (Central processing unit): Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 Grapics Ram: 3GB GPU (Graphics processing unit): Adreno 530 Storage: 32GB or 64 GB Wifi: 802.11b/g/n/ac Bluetooth: 802.11b/g/n/ac GPS: A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS Ports: Micro-USB, 3.5mm headphone jack Battery: 2600 mAh (2-3 life) Box Measuments: 21 cm (8.3?) X 21 cm (8.3?) X 12 cm (4.8?) Box Weight: 32 GB–2lb 12oz(1.262KG), 64 GB–2lb 12.1/4oz(1.262KG) Headset Weight (with headstrap): 32 GB–1lb 0.1/2oz(469g), 64 GB–1lb 0.5/8oz (471g) Headset Size (32 & 64 are the same size): 18 cm(7.1?) X 13 cm(5.1?)X 9.1 cm (3.5?)

Like our VR counterpart, consciousness hides the very machinations which create it.

But despite are fundamental ignorance of physics (and how it relates to what we experience), Hoffman argues for the reality of “conscious agents.”

Explains Hoffman,

“The formal theory of conscious agents I've been developing is computationally universal—in that sense, it's a machine theory. And it's because the theory is computationally universal that I can get all of cognitive science and neural networks back out of it. Nevertheless, for now I don't think we are machines—in part because I distinguish between the mathematical representation and the thing being represented. As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. I'm claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.”

Not surprisingly, Hoffman's radical theory has been met with deep skepticism from various quarters, especially from the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who finds the concept of conscious agents confused. It would appear that Hoffman is to some measure aligned with the “consciousness first” school of thought, which places our own awareness as the elemental building block to the universe, since that is the beginning and end of all that we experience. This sets him at odds with those with a more physicalist view of awareness.

Jerry Coyne, the acerbic Biology Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, heavily doubts Hoffman's agenda,

“First of all, just because a subatomic particle doesn't have an intrinsic property until we measure it, and that property is dependent on how we measure it, doesn't mean that macro objects don't have properties or, as Hoffman implies, don't exist. You can, after all, measure the momentum of a car, or of a stationary chair, with great accuracy. It seems to me that Hoffman is using a form of Chopra-ist woo here: claiming not only that certain claims about quantum mechanics extend all the way up to macro objects (yes, they do, but classical mechanics is adequate for macro phenomena, and that includes existence claims), but also that those objects don't exist outside of consciousness. In fact, Hoffman claims, like Chopra, that the only real thing that exists is consciousness.”

I think the more constructive way around this is to start with what we know and then proceed. This is precisely why I think new models of consciousness can be very helpful, even if they remain imperfect templates.

Thus, even if Hoffman's ultimate conclusions are premature or unwarranted, there is much merit in his desktop interface metaphor since it clearly illustrates that what we perceive doesn't necessarily reveal what mechanics are operative below the surface. VR is Hoffman's metaphor pushed to the next level, and as such provides us with a deeper glimpse into the Matrix-like quality of our own self-awareness.

I don't think it is a stretch to imagine that in the not so distant future, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality will be so far advanced that we will be so mesmerized by what we see, hear, and even touch that it will be nearly impossible to distinguish artificially generated worlds from the so-called “real” ones that we were brought up in.

The implications, of course, are telling since it suggests that not only are we already living in a virtual world (with the best VR headset yet known—our brain), but we will be living in increasingly virtual virtual worlds and may be so locked in not to know or even care about the differences. This reminds one of the famous movie Inception, where the main character, Dom Cobb, has the ability to go into deeper and deeper lucid dream states, which become encompassing “realities” with their own time duration. As Christopher Nolan, the director and author of the screenplay, elucidated on the power of waking up in dreams with other partipicants, “Once you remove the privacy, you've created an infinite number of alternative universes in which people can meaningfully interact, with validity, with weight, with dramatic consequences.”

Nolan's description of awakened dreams is precisely what is now happening in VR where one can share the experiences with others from around the world. You can even create homes and invite friends (in avataric forms) to share in a host of activities—from playing chess to watching Netflix on a massive screen, all the while chatting and sharing ideas. Inception, like the Matrix, is prescient in unlocking the deep attraction we have to all things virtual.

It would seem as if human consciousness is a bridge to a new form of multi-sensory awareness where what we desire is immediately accessible and where we can teleport instantly to any vista. What was merely imaginary now becomes instantiated.

Couple A.I. with VR/AR/MR and it is no exaggeration to agree with Ray Kurzweil that we step beyond into a Singularity of unimaginable possibilities.

Elon Musk's rudimentary idea of a neural lace, where were we blend our physical brain with an exponentially improving A.I intelligence, though sounding like something out of a 1950s science fiction horror flick, is already being implemented, though in unexpected ways—from Bose's AR sunglasses replete with intelligent audio guidance to Microsoft HoloLens where visual displays serve as 24/7 tutorial gurus.

All of this will, without question, will change the subjective universe that we are so familiar with. Perhaps the secret of consciousness is not buried in our past but what the future brings forward, particularly if we discover that self-reflective awareness is substrate independent and can be replicated in a non-biological medium.

Then we may realize that consciousness is a certain complex form of information processing which leads to a hierarchy of interior states depending on the organism and the environment in which it lives. In other words, consciousness is not a mystery as such, but the natural result of what theorists have come to label as a “Phi metric” or more simply as Integrated Information Theory (ITT). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains it thusly,

“In short, according to IIT, consciousness requires a grouping of elements within a system that have physical cause-effect power upon one another. This in turn implies that only reentrant architecture consisting of feedback loops, whether neural or computational, will realize consciousness. Such groupings make a difference to themselves, not just to outside observers. This constitutes integrated information. Of the various groupings within a system that possess such causal power, one will do so maximally. This local maximum of integrated information is identical to consciousness. IIT claims that these predictions square with observations of the brain's physical realization of consciousness, and that, where the brain does not instantiate the necessary attributes, it does not generate consciousness. Bolstered by these apparent predictive successes, IIT generalizes its claims beyond human consciousness to animal and artificial consciousness. Because IIT identifies the subjective experience of consciousness with objectively measurable dynamics of a system, the degree of consciousness of a system is measurable in principle; IIT proposes the phi metric to quantify consciousness.”

The Gnostics intuited (with much religious allegory) that reality is multi-layered and what we experience here is a but a beguiling illusion that at each turn betrays its real origination and thus dupes us into falling prey to a lower “demiurge.” Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave is perhaps the most illustrative example of how we as slaves, chained to walls, mistake puppet shadows for real objects, never seeing the light as such which is removed from our direct sight. Virtual Reality is a more precise technological update of an ancient and brilliant philosophical insight. VR is Plato's Cave illuminated and like all good models in science allows us to better understand the plasticity of consciousness.

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