A New York Times article reports on avatars in World of Warcraft finding love, which they then consummate through their players, who are real people. As one of my French friends says, it is a turvy topsy world. It reminds me of a Star Trek episode where two ethereal and compatico aliens made up of pure intelligence decide to inhabit the bodies of the Star Trek crew in order to experience the physical world. It doesn't work out well. The humans start to die, so, being of moral character, the aliens retreat into their disembodied state, but first have one last fling in order to consummate their love (with a kiss – it was 1960's television).
We, like WoW's Avatars and Star Trek's Sargon and Thalassa, are straddling the virtual and the physical. The trend is moving toward the former, but most of us still remain in the camp of preferring the latter. But if we do take the leap to living more in a set of virtual worlds, what is the problem with that? One reason, that I will discuss in this post, is that the virtual world is one of limited depth and created with compete intentionality and rationality, and thus strips away much of what makes us 'real'. This might be so obvious that it is not worth writing about. Obvious now, but I do not think it is only in science fictions and thought experiments that we will find games and virtual reality that blur the line beyond our ability to perceive the physical from the virtual.
We are Living in a Materialist World
“What is a person?” If I knew the answer to that, I might be able to program an artificial person in a computer. But I can’t. Being a person is not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith. – Jaron Lanier
Materialism is a thread of philosophy that views man as inhabiting a deterministic world driven only by the laws of nature. Given that our virtual worlds are driven by a set of (virtual rather than physical) laws laid down by their decidedly finite creators, are completely understandable and solvable, devoid of the spiritual and mystical which the materialist denies, the virtual worlds pose a materialism of a new sort. Consider the Turing Test, which I discussed in a previous post. If we end up being successful in developing a machine that can fool people into thinking it is a person, that can use algorithms to successfully feign personal experience and emotion, then we have gone far towards proving this materialist case.
Indeed, success with the Turing Test is a prerequisite for replacing the physical with the virtual, because people still want human interaction, or the appearance of such interaction, when they occupy their virtual worlds. So creating your own made-to-order world also will mean populating it with made-to-order people, friends created based on the sort of information used now in social networks and dating sites; great friends based on your background, the books you read, music you listen to, sites you visit, perhaps personality tests and the types of e-mail you write. Friends that are then updated and refined based on who you are clicking with. You end up in a virtual world that you prefer to any real world you could find, you end up with apparent humans that are more interesting and tuned into you than any real humans would be.
The virtual worlds we create and occasionally inhabit are materialist because in the virtual world everything comes with a purpose, everything – even randomness – has to be created by rational, conscious action. Everything is constructed with a defined cause and effect. As Lanier writes in You are Not a Gadget:
The definition of a digital object is based on assumptions of what aspects of it will turn out to be important. It will be a flat, mute nothing if you ask something of it that exceeds those expectations. If you didn’t specify the weight of a digital painting in the original definition, it isn’t just weightless, it is less than weightless. A physical object, on the other hand, will be fully rich and fully real whatever you do to it. It will respond to any experiment a scientist can conceive. What makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.
The virtual at once seems to be covering everything but at the same time seems to leave everything of substance out.
The Virtual, Worlds Gone Mad
You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves...
You cannot fancy a more skeptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world. – G.K. Chesterson
Materialism was the rage in early 20th century England, and the Catholic apologist G. K. Chesterson wrote Orthodoxy as a charge against its dogma. In Orthodoxy, Chesterson likens the world of the materialist to that of a madman. The real world, the world of the sane, is filled with mystery, with infinite depth that cannot be plumbed. In contrast, the world of the madman is limited in scale, rational in its construction, and self-contained.. We can say of the virtual what Chesterson says of the materialist:
His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea.
The complete intentionality of the virtual world, like that of the real world in the eyes of the materialist, can give the impression of humanity, but it is the humanity inhabited by the madman who can not see anything without it having set about with a cause. Chesterson wrote that, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason”.
The virtual world has nothing but reason; it is rational and consistent, because it is developed through the rules of logic and mathematics. Virtual materialism takes materialism to an extreme: In the virtual world there is not even a place for the material. It is a world where one has no self, a world in which there is no world.