A philosophical look into Virtual Reality.

In 1993, during a trip to New York City, I was lucky enough to try a Virtual Reality Game (see photo below)…

Although the video game of this vintage system was a bit disappointing, I felt a futuristic experience that really left an indelible mark on my subconscious since over the years I have once again felt attracted to the different waves in which VR has enjoyed a boom.

Due to the exact difficulty of formulating an historical definition for the concept of an alternative existence theorigins of Virtual Reality are disputed but the early development of perspective in Renaissance Europe created convincing depictions of spaces that did not exist, in what was referred by art historian Jurgis Baltrušaitis in his book “Anamorphic art” (1977) as the “multiplying of artificial worlds”. In 1938, french avant-garde playwright Antonin Artaud described the illusory nature of characters and objects in the theatre as “la réalité virtuelle” in a collection of essays by the title of “Le Théâtre et son double” in which he took the view that illusion was not distinct from reality, advocating that spectators at a play should suspend disbelief and regard the drama on stage as reality. Anyhow the first references to the more modern concept of virtual reality came from science fiction.

The inner gaze, consciousness, and immersion techniques of Virtual Reality were all techniques established in the early and classical periods of cinema that have also become the foundation of VR. But as film critic Jim McClellan writes the crucial part of the VR fantasy as articulated by the media is the dream of being able to interact with simulated realities that seem as “real” as the real world which was criticized by André Bazin in his text “The Myth of Total Cinema” (1946) where he observed that early cinema was also dominated by a desire for “a total and complete representation of reality… [for] the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, colour and relief“. In 1968, filmmaker Carolee Schneemann outlined a new kind of cinema in which stories are not passively told, but an experience is created instead which is aligned with the concept of “Expanded Cinema” created by critic Gene Youngblood in 1970 in a book by the same title which laid out his vision for a new kind of cinema that creates an entirely orchestrated, harmonic and unique experience.

The same way that photography became a disruptive innovation that threatened the realists painter, Virtual Reality can become a laboratory for philosophers to test different hypothesis and slowly and firmly start parting ways with those “mental experiments” that from a scientific point of view sometimes seem absurd. It’s also interesting to note what neuroscientist Eric Kandel writes in his book “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures” (2016) where he tells how those painters who had developed extraordinary techniques to evoke three-dimensional landscape or portrait images on a two-dimensional canvas, were suddenly confronted with the need to create new languages and creative ways of expression in order to revitalize painting as an artistic discipline which departed unexpectedly from the representational to venture into abstraction.

According to Virtual Reality pioneer Jaron Lanier “VR is ultimately more about you, it’s more about the human body, human identity, human interaction”, that’s why we can find it really interesting for research in disciplines like philosophy  cognitive neuroscience or experimental psychology. As german philosopher Thomas K. Metzinger writes, empirically informed philosophy of mind is the area that can most directly profit from recent results in VR research. Since Virtual Reality is the representation of possible worlds and possible selves, it can help us understand the conscious experience produced by biological nervous systems, which has been described by some philosophers that is a virtual model of the world and a dynamic internal simulation. So according to this point of view VR only becomes philosophically interesting when causally coupled to the pre-existing conscious model of reality running in a user’s biological brain.

Australian superstar philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers also thinks that VR is reframing some of philosophy’s most enduring questions about cognition, epistemology and the nature of reality. From his digitalist view virtual objects really exist as digital objects and experiences in a simulated world which involves a non-illusory perception of a digital world that can be about as valuable as non-virtual experiences. This is aligned with professor Philip Brey’s thinking which states that certain types of virtual objects, actions and events qualify as real, in the sense that they do not just simulate but ontologically reproduce the entity that they are an imitation of.

According to Chalmers finally this raises the question -in clear reference to philosopher Nick Bostrom– that it might be possible that we are living in a virtual reality. In 2003 Bostrom, a researcher from the University of Oxford, published a paper that proposed that all of reality, including the Earth and the universe, is in fact like a computer generated artificial simulation. Although there is a long philosophical and scientific history to this underlying thesis that reality is an illusion (Plato’s cave, the “Butterfly Dream” of Zhuangzi, the Indian philosophy of Maya, or René Descartes dream argument) lately this hypothesis has gained adherents like the entrepreneurial and billionaire Elon Musk who said that “there are many, many simulations, (…) you might as well call them reality, or you could call them multiverse”. So from a physical cosmology point of view this makes the answer to this dilema more harder, since if we accept the multiverse thesis a hypothetical group of multiple universes also exist. This might sound crazy but researcher Silas R. Beane, Zohreh Davoudi and Martin J. Savage have argued that although there is no indication that our universe is a numerical simulation, or is fundamentally digital, physics should explore signatures that could be imprinted on our universe by such a scenario.

As a final reflection, although Virtual Reality is still a fledgling industry and it’s slowly showing that can be developed as an interesting research field for scientific inquiry, in 2014 Facebook announced the acquisition VR company Oculus for 2.000 million US$ which could led us to think that it’s a burgeoning field both for industry related development and more experimental research. As we can see in the following infographic medicine, culture, education and architecture are some of the areas that have already taken advantage of this technology. We are probably seeing the start of a technology that will not only help us re-question different aspects of our representations of the world, but will push us once again to reconfigure the validity of our assumptions about our place and knowledge of the universe as sentient living things…

*(Pictures: pexels.com, me with a VR headset in 1993 & VR infographic by Iberdrola).

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