Does human experience reveal reality or a shadow of reality?
Is virtual reality really an invention of the computer age? To think so would be like thinking that fusion did not exist before humans detonated a hydrogen bomb in 1952. Human consciousness has always existed within a virtual reality generated by human brains.
Virtual reality definitions:
A narrow definition - a computer simulation of reality.
A broad definition - any model of reality.
Some philosophers of long ago issued warnings about the unreliability of our brain-generated virtual realities. Are we trapped by our senses in some version of Plato's Cave? Many people have been very willing to accept our personal experience of the world as THE true depiction of reality. Other sages have advised us to escape from the world we know through our senses and to ignore our brain-generated ego and seek to become one with the universe. How can we ever be sure that we know the true or ultimate nature of reality?
Just how limited is the brain-generated virtual reality that we take for granted? In his allegory of the cave, Plato wrote about the Sun as being symbolic of the Ideal Forms that Plato imagined as being fundamental to the true reality of the world. But think about how little philosophers like Plato knew about the Sun. Aristotle wrote about a "fifth element", Aether as the material that constitutes celestial bodies such as the sun. Fire, Earth, Air, and Water were imagined to be the four elemental components of objects on Earth, but the stars were imagined to be eternal ("aether" is from the Greek word for eternity).
We now know that stars are born and die and that many of the atoms that are components of everything on Earth are "star dust". For 99.999% of human existence our understanding of the world was divorced from any true appreciation of the nature of physical reality because the atomic constituents are too tiny to be resolved by human senses like vision. It is now known that the iron that carries oxygen in our blood and the oxygen itself were generated by fusion reactions inside stars billions of years ago. Every second of every human life our bodies are streaming with solar neutrinos blasted from the sun's nuclear furnace. In fact, most of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy that our senses fail to register. The visible universe of burning stars is only a tiny fraction of our universe's reality.
I think Plato was correct to realize that our senses present us with a limited view of reality.....something a bit like shadows on a wall. But Plato did not know about evolution and the idea that our senses must have evolved to do a fairly good job of revealing reality to us or else we would not be able to survive. So it is not that the virtual reality produced by our brain is totally misleading. We simply must respect our own limitations and find ways to do better than what comes naturally to our limited bodies.
Now that scientific investigation has begun to provide a good understanding of the limitations imposed on us by our senses and our brains, we can ask if it is possible to use tools such as computers to help provide us with an improved version of reality. And I mean "version" not just "vision". We are in the business of creating the type of world we want to live in. Can we use computers as tools for both learning about the world and changing the world? For most people, understanding oxygen atoms and neutrinos is a matter of learning about them through the virtual reality of human language. Computers and computer-based tools like wiki are tools for amplifying the power of human language.
A major advance that computers provide over conventional books is the hypertext link. Pages of HTML on the internet are an educational resource that we are still learning how to fully make use of. Can we also harness such computer power for the construction of new reality?
Like any tool, computers can be used for both good and bad. Think of computer technology as being able to provide something analogous to a lens, a corrective appendage that can improve upon the limited capabilities of the human body. What is the basic nature of the defect that computers can correct?
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein worked in the tradition of skeptical philosophy, always looking for the ways that we "go off the rails" in our thinking about the world. Wittgenstein described the sort of philosophical therapy we need as being a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. And he meant both that language bewitches us and that we make use of language as a tool with which we go into battle against bewitchments.
I want to suggest that we make use of computers and hypertext and the cooperative nature of the wiki environment to do battle against all of the mistaken ideas that we have inherited as cultural baggage from the past. Can we make use of computer-generated virtual realities to battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence? Many online virtual realities are designed as escapist entertainment. I do not try to argue against such entertainments, but I do ask if we can make the magic of fiction work for us, if we can create fictional realities that open our minds to our unseen and unappreciated bewitchments.
The human brain is a device for receiving culture from the previous generation and using that programming to guide us through life. We imbibe the virtual reality of our culture and get on with life, accepting the unquestioned assumptions upon which our society functions, just as Plato and Aristotle accepted the assumption that celestial objects must be made of something fundamentally different than their own bodies. It takes creative genius to rip away the distortions imposed upon us by our learning and see reality in a clearer way than has been possible in the past. How do we make use of computers to aid us in this struggle to escape bewitchment and to promote the on-going quest to discover and re-create reality?
Play is important. The primate brain is designed to make use of juvenile play as an energizing system for learning about the world. We learn best when we are having fun and our defenses can be relaxed. So we need computer tools and computer environments where we can play at the important work of questioning our assumptions. We must play a game of "What If?" in which we are free to let loose of the ideas we normally assume to be true. We need new ways to explore what the world might look like if we were given a new set of assumptions.
Our species has a long history of trying to imagine a better way of life. Many of us wonder why the world is the way it is, but a few creative people imagine how the world might be and then actually MAKE IT SO. Can we use computer-generated virtual realities as tools to help us change the world? For example, if we could construct a new social system within a computerized virtual reality simulation, then would people in the real world be encouraged to try to make that simulated social system a part of their lives outside of the simulation? Can wiki communities be cultural incubators where new patterns of social interaction are discovered and tested?
Can play within a wiki environment (where all information is free and open) lead us to new ways of living that can be applied to the real world?