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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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David 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 Projected Multiverse
Exploring Epistemological Boundaries in Virtual Reality
Dr. David Christopher Lane, Professor of Philosophy and Founder of the MSAC Philosophy Group at Mt. San Antonio College, was invited to be a plenary speaker on an international panel at the Dayalbagh Science of Consciousness Conference in Agra, India, that was held (via virtual video hookup, i.e., Zoom) on January 1, 2022. For the proceedings he wrote a little, illustrated book on the subject. The following is based upon that text.
VR simulates fantastic landscapes just as my brain does the same, even when deprived of incoming data streams as when I am fast asleep.
I experience multiple dreams every night, each overlaid with another and all occurring within a relatively tiny geometric space: my brain. Magically, whenever I am in the ocean in my dreams, I can see for miles to the distant islands or the setting sun. Sometimes I am in India and roaming through wide open fields filled with massive golden temples. Other times I am book hunting in large bookstores, searching for an obscure tome. No matter what I dream, however, all of it is bounded within a simulation of my own making, even as I am quite unaware of the mechanics behind how it is done. There is a famous (but inaccurate) snipe about Catholic theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus during the middle ages debating “how many angels can dance (or stand) on the top of a pin?” I remember Father Costello, my freshman religion teacher at Notre Dame High School, asking us the same rhetorical question and to which he immediately responded, “an infinite number, since angels are spirits and don't have bodies.”
While this is obviously silly metaphysics, it does provide me with a more revealing neurological correlate: how many dreams can be embedded within the same neuronal architecture? Or, more precisely, how is it that one small chunk of matter can produce an almost infinite array of dreams within itselfeach of which give the dreamer the illusion of almost limitless boundaries?
What deep meditation and virtual reality have in common is not that they elicit the same numinous encounters, per se, but that both provide such extraordinary experiences by literally going nowhere.
These and similar questions came to me the other day after I played a series of games in my Oculus 2 Virtual Reality Headsetswitching from Moss to Room VR to Walkabout Golf to Big Screen beta to Horizon to Waltz of the Wizard. All of these applications allowed me to enter into completely different worlds and with a whole new set of spatial parameters. It is no exaggeration to say that I felt transported to a realm that seemed just as real (and occasionally more) than my day to day existence
VR simulates fantastic landscapes just as my brain does the same, even when deprived of incoming data streams as when I am fast asleep. Important questions abound here, especially the one centering on the necessary interactions between hardware and software design and how such can trick our brains into believing it is somewhere else and not imprisoned within a glorified plastic helmet. That most sophisticated of all virtual reality headsetsour brainis a treasure trove of unexplored vistas.
Mystics have long argued that we have never tapped into the vast potentials that are embedded and locked within our own consciousness. This is undoubtedly true, even if we may still argue to and fro about what such alternative states imply.
What is most remarkable today with VR is that we now have a very apt technological analogy for how our brains can unleash a multiverse of possibilities within a tiny geometric space. As John Wheeler, the noted physicist argued near the end of his life, we live in a world of “it” from “bits,” where information is the underlying fundamental. As he explained, “It from Bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom at a very deep bottom, in most instances an immaterial source and explanation; 'We live on an island of knowledge surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As the island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.' That what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information- theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”
Take as illustrative (even if it is a limited) metaphorical example, the VR headset you turn on. At the user interface you see a menu of options providing you with a completely different experience and with their own set of input points. But all of the options are embedded right there and then. You choose one the applications, such as Myst, and off you go into a vast puzzle landscape of different islands. You can literally lose yourself in a maze of game play.
But at any moment you can click out and enjoy another application, such as Room VR, where you as a detective attempt to solve a murder which takes you eventually to Egypt. As this is happening, there are literally hundreds of other apps on your Oculus Quest 2 that remain potential options in just a few seconds. All of this, however, is embedded in your headset as informational bits, but when chosen reveal unimaginable depth of time and space. In other words, VR is a computational multiverse. And so, likewise, is your brain.
“What is it like to walk in someone else's shoes? Books allow us to imagine it, and movies allow us to see it, but VR is the first medium that actually allows us to experience it.”Nick Mokey
To explore the outer reaches of virtual reality is to go nowhere but where you are presently. The same, of course, is true within our own consciousness, since dreaming provides innumerable vistas which provide one with fields of incredible depth, but which are nowhere but right behind your eyes. To invoke a little Zen Koanic thinking here: In VR you go nowhere to be everywhere.
In consciousness the same holds true, except that we have been neurologically tricked to believe otherwise since unlike our virtual reality headsets (which we constructed from scratch and know how and why it works), we remain mostly unaware of how our neurons construct the cosmos we inhabit. The great illusion of consciousness is spatial. Our perception is always within the confines of our skull, even if our mathematics and sciences induce that galaxies exist thousands of light years away.
“We're all hallucinating all the time; when we agree about our hallucinations, we call it 'reality'.”
“Human consciousness is just a tiny region in a vast space of possible consciousnesses.” Anil Seth
What we know is quite literally “within” us, even as we use such knowledge to better understand the phenomena that surrounds us This is not to solidify a solipsism, but to acknowledge that everything we experience and know about the universe is conjectured within three pounds of glorious wonder tissue. What is outside of us is forever understood only within our cranial habiliments.
“To construct is the essence of vision. Dispense with construction and you dispense with vision. Everything you experience by sight is your construction.”
This is precisely why VR is such an instructive talisman since by its own hardware and software it provides us with the necessary tools to glimpse that the multiverse arises in “two inches,” even if it appears to be absolutely boundless.
All of this provides us with an insightful way (even if only deeply analogously) to better appreciate what Indian mystics from time immemorial have suggested about the efficacy of “going within.” What deep meditation and virtual reality have in common is not that they elicit the same numinous encounters, per se, but that both provide such extraordinary experiences by literally going nowhere.
Though to be sure, virtual reality necessitates a visual system of a few inches (in the future it will be much less), whereas in meditation we access an already preset systemnamely our brain's user interface directly. In meditation, we can see and hear things which to those not conversant with such practices would seem impossible, and all of it within our own neural operating system.
One cannot change, that is to say become a different person, while continuing to acquiesce to the feelings of the person one has ceased to be. Marcel Proust
While we can readily concede and acknowledge that it would be a mistake to conflate the internal quest with an Oculus Quest, the fact remains that each provide portals of extraordinary depth in terms of spatial presence and Avataric interaction.
The distinguished philosopher, David Chalmers from N.Y.U, has devoted much of his recent studies on the implications of virtual reality technology and what it tells us about consciousness and its emergence. His forthcoming book, Reality+ Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, coming in at 544 pages (W.W. Norton and Company, 2022) is an in-depth exploration of what VR technologies portend.
As the publisher's summation explains:
“Virtual reality is genuine reality; that's the central thesis of Reality+. In a highly original work of 'technophilosophy,' David J. Chalmers gives a compelling analysis of our technological future. He argues that virtual worlds are not second-class worlds, and that we can live a meaningful life in virtual reality. We may even be in a virtual world already. Along the way, Chalmers conducts a grand tour of big ideas in philosophy and science. He uses virtual reality technology to offer a new perspective on long-established philosophical questions. How do we know that there's an external world? Is there a god? What is the nature of reality? What's the relation between mind and body? How can we lead a good life? All of these questions are illuminated or transformed by Chalmers' mind-bending analysis.”
In previous talks on this subject, Chalmers has championed the persuasive thesis that by exploring VR we have a new and better set of technological tools by which to understand a number of age-old philosophical questions. Chalmers believes that “virtual reality is a sort of genuine reality, virtual objects are real objects, and what goes on in virtual reality is truly real.”
If we concede Chalmers' thesis, then by extension we should utilize what VR has to offer to provide us with a deeper insight into how our brains like an Oculus Quest headset is a rendering system, and as such constructs the reality we see. Both renditions, however, are dependent on preloaded or live streaming data bits. It is our innate or prefabricated software that then manufactures our relative state of reality, virtual or otherwise.
The linchpin in all of this, of course, is our conviction that what we perceive focuses our attention sufficiently enough to convince us to act upon it or behave accordingly. While Chalmers' idea that virtual reality is a sort of reality plus has been criticized as a version of digital factionalism, the fact remains that from a purely phenomenological perspective one can easily be duped into believing that a VR experience is just as tangibly real within certain contexts as any outer worldly encounter.
Indeed, I have had experiences in VR that border on the superluminal in that the overwhelming sense of presence was greater than most of my day to day concurrences. From a purely visual perspective, digital realism often doesn't appear illusory, and this, ironically, is why VR is such an enlightening tool for better grasping how our minds construct the reality we see and how easily we can be confused by visual and auditory illusions.
The real value of VR and AR in philosophy is that by its very construction allows a new and vivid portal by which to better reevaluate the deepest questions of epistemology, such as, how do we know that what we perceive is real? How can we be certain about the causation or origination of varying phenomena? Is the universe itself a simulation? And a whole host of related queries that touch upon the very foundations of our knowledge systems. How do we know that what we perceive is real?
Our evolution is predicated upon our ability to survive long enough to have viable offspring. Beyond that, our genetic trajectories invariably degenerate. Thus, our entire bodily systems are parameterized by our elemental need to adapt to varying particular eco-niches. Because of this, what we perceive to be “real” is directly correlated to what is necessary for us to live long enough to pass on our heritable DNA.
Hence, reality is itself a biological construct, even if we readily concede that it is not merely a solipsism of our own making. Clearly, there is something “out there” beyond our anatomies which our nervous systems must chemically interpret in order for us to accomplish the desired aim of sexual reproduction. But we are never perceiving “reality” as it is, since even that very phrase is a false start. No, what we see is what is sufficient for us to competitively navigate in a complex world of eat or be eaten.
In other words, we are epistemologically bounded creatures, whose innumerable blind-spots focus us to pay attention to what is necessary to keep our bodily apparatus intact for a couple of decades or more. Outside of that, we have to jerry-rig our preset neural limitations to access more information about the universe at largewhether by technological innovations (from microscopes to telescopes) or intellectual augmentations (ever sophisticated computational devices). We go “beyond” our limited selves because we can create tools.
It is these tools that have allowed us to create models which provide larger vistas with which to comprehend our place in the cosmos, as well as illuminate what prior we could not see, hear, touch, or feel. We are the one species that distinguishes itself from others by our fantastic ability to “augment” and/or supervene our limitations with innovations not accessible or even possible to those lacking our cranial dexterity. This is why virtual reality technologies are so important in understanding consciousness.
VR provides us with another pathway to realize that reality is never what it seems, but rather what it forces us to interact with. And as such, we are tethered to the user interface, the surface level, and that which underpins and drives the system is hidden from view. Just as when we use our smart phones, swiping and touching and clicking this way or that on the glass screen, we remain oblivious of the software programming that allowed such operations, much less the silicon chips that conduct the electronic operations.
While it may seem odd and inaccurate to compare a video game (whether virtual or on a PC) to real life, the fact remains that both are governed by a set of strictures that determine who wins and who loses. And, in this limited analogy, those very rules determine how one must function in order to succeed or fail. Yet, what they both have in common, and which too often gets overlooked, is that as participants we never get access to the underlying mechanics (quantum or classical) behind the proceedings. We are captives of all that remains superficial.
VR gives us a fully bodied answer to the age-old philosophical query about what we take to be reality. It is in essence an evolutionary game, replete with an a priori set of rules that cannot be ultimately violated, lest we get prematurely cancelled. Simply put, reality is always virtual and thus what we take to be real is the result of a naturally selected program that precedes and exceeds our arrival, even if that program is itself the result of unconscious processes.
Thus, VR instantiates almost instantly a multiplicity of experiences that before we could only conjure up by imagination. What this technology does is show us via its illusory conjuring of space and many worlds just how easily our brains are tricked into reacting and behaving when confronted by certain key triggering signalsbe they visual or auditory. Just as IOS is the operating system behind a series of Apple products (from the iPhone to the iPad), evolution by natural selection is nature's fundamental operating system.
What too often gets lost in this data haze is that the very questions we ask about consciousness are predicated upon a preexisting hardware and software program that has been in development (even if blindly) for eons, but for which we remain anatomically unaware. This is where VR opens up the Pandora's Box of epistemology, since it provides repeatable experiences to anyone within seconds of just how our brains operate when confronted with astonishing simulations that generate the uncanny feeling of real-life presence.
Reality is not about the ultimate truth of a situation, but rather about what it forces us to do in any given circumstance. This is why Philip Dick's famous quip, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away,” is such an insightful realization. Our belief systems can conjure up all sorts of nonsense, but that doesn't alter the Darwinian truth of survival of the sufficient (or fittest). I may believe that a train coming down the tracks won't hurt me, but that doesn't change the fact that I will be killed if I don't move.
Interestingly, the same holds true with VR gaming, since even though it is only a simulating matrix (we can always take off the headset) it nevertheless has instrumental consequences, such as having to restart the game because we failed to avoid key obstacles or didn't score enough points to move to the next level, etc. Yet, because VR feels so vivid, our biochemical reactions while donning a Meta Quest headset are remarkably similar to what happens to us in the real world.
Indeed, it is because VR can at times be so life-like that it serves as such a powerful tool to explore how and why consciousness works as it does. It is an almost perfect laboratory for running multifarious simulationssimulations that can be useful in understanding how the mind develops models within its own internal machinations when confronted with dangers to its own continuity.
Is the universe itself a simulation?
In terms of our own consciousness the answer is yes, since all that we have ever experienced about the cosmos is but a neural rendering given to us by our own brain. But this doesn't then mean, by extension, that the outer incoming data streams which we transfigure via our bounded physiques are themselves facsimiles.
Despite protestations by Elon Musk and other techno-futurists, we simply don't know if this universe of ours is a manufactured simulation or is an actual base reality. However, it is true that VR technologies now place the “Matrix” question into much sharper relief. Why? Because we are on the threshold of producing such realistic synthetic worlds that within a few decades it will be nearly impossible to distinguish reality from a replication of the same. Surprisingly, even now in some areas of VR it has already happened.
I know this from my own excursions in virtual reality. On occasion, I have found myself so immersed in a particular application (such as The Room VR: A Dark Matter) that I begin to think I really am in an ancient chamber in Egypt, such is the vividness of the experience. It is not a hyperbolic leap to imagine what VR will be like in 2030 or 2040. Go into the 22nd century and the possibilities are so mind-boggling that it is little wonder that Nick Bostrom's radical 3rd hypothesis about Superintelligence (as first articulated in a 2003 paper) starts to sound plausible.
“This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation. A number of other consequences of this result are also discussed.” -- [Published in Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255. (First version: 2001)]
Science and technology go hand in hand and VR technologies are merely the result of a centuries long pursuit of ever more powerful tools to better understand not only the world around us but the subjective realms we inhabit moment to moment. The fact remains that my consciousness is a virtual simulator and as such creates a panaroma of possibilities that I can play out within my own head before having to operationalize them outwardly in a Darwinian struggle for existence. That, of course, is the great advantage we have as human beings.
Unlike other species that lack our sophisticated neural theater (which can project outcomes before they transpire), we have the ability to conjure up all sorts of scenarios that may or may not happen in real time, but which give us advantageous rehearsals before coming out live and in potential danger. VR mimics the brain's innate ability to generate a multiplicity of scenarios and thus gives us a 360 model of how such a mechanism is an elemental feature of self-reflective awareness.
More precisely, VR is the best integrated tool that has ever been created to understand the many varied features of visual and auditory perceptions. We now have at our disposal the necessary hardware and software to mimic some of the core features of consciousness, and all of this without having to ingest mind-altering drugs or spend hours in sensory deprivation tanksas valuable as those options are. David Chalmers is right when he opines that VR is Reality Plus, and that “There's just no doubt that it will change the world.”
“Things in virtual realities, at least in principle, have all those properties. Say you're in a virtual world. There are objects there that you can perceive around you. In a virtual world a virtual tree can fall even if I'm not around. A virtual tree has causal powers. A virtual tree falling can cause people to have experiences. It can break something that it falls on in the virtual world, and it can be experienced. Virtual reality is just a different form of reality. But it's still perfectly real.” June 18, 2019 | New York Times
“If you have perfect virtual reality eventually, where you're be able to simulate everything that a human can experience or imagine experiencing, it's hard to imagine where you go from there.” --Palmer Luckey
“If you just look at the medium and what it's doing, we are basically broadcasting human senses to your conciseness. We are duplicating perception.” --Chris Milk, Founder of VRSE
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