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VR, Cognition and the Illusion of Self

Jul 6, 2018

Listen to Episode 10: History, and a Little Jazz

One of the most compelling subjects I want to tackle on this show is virtual reality. Because VR goggles have been around for decades now, we can see what’s going on behind them as an ongoing fad – we’re told, again and again, that the change will be overwhelming. But a brave new world of augmented reality never quite materializes.

However, there are discoveries and advances taking place right now which have major implications for our economy, our politics, our understanding of self and reality – indeed, for the very idea of consciousness. Virtual reality, or augmented reality, whatever we want to call it – the subject doesn’t just touch on the hard problem of consciousness in science and philosophy, but on the very meaning and value of the world we think we are living in. Elon Musk has suggested that the likelihood we are living in so-called “base reality” (in other words, the likelihood that this reality, in which I am speaking into a microphone and you are listening to my voice, the likelihood that this reality is real and not a simulation) is something like one in a billion. Why? Because it seems like our civilization is on a path whereby pretty soon we will be able to create virtual reality (say, in the form of a high-definition and extremely responsive video game) that is indistinguishable from the reality that we know. It could have all the sights, smells, tastes, sounds and feelings that we are used to, and therefore we could be in that simulation right now. It’s not far off from The Matrix.

If this path is possible, then in a universe of endless possibility, it will almost certainly happen. And if it will happen, what’s to say it hasn’t already happened? Maybe we are in a simulation of a simulation of a simulation, and so forth? For another film reference, there’s the dream within a dream within a dream of Inception, from 2010. The reason why this is ripe for conversation, maybe moreso than when The Matrix was released in 1999, is that we are getting closer to building virtual reality that is in fact inseparable from base reality. For your third film reference, there’s Ready Player One from this year, based on the book from 2011 by Ernest Cline. In it, our overpopulated civilization is in obvious decline, but everybody is linked up on the Oasis, a massive global VR network where they can can play out their fantasies and ignore what’s really happening. Unfortunately, the film is little more than an action-packed blast of pop culture references and nerd pornography, which fails to ask the much more juicy questions of virtual reality and what the future looks like. In any case, all of this does beg our question, what on earth is going on?

I want to talk about an article I read in the New Yorker from April 2nd, written by Joshua Rothman, called “As Real as it Gets”. The piece starts off in the philosophy of consciousness and the study of out-of-body experiences. Rothman, the writer, goes to a well-regarded VR lab in Barcelona. He is plugged into various experimental machines. He has out-of-body experiences, he steps into the shoes of other people in a virtual reality, and he feels a “phantom touch” when his virtual limbs interact with virtual objects and his real limbs experience real feelings. One of the most profound moments in Rothman’s article is when he has a conversation between himself and Sigmund Freud, the 19th century Austrian psychologist – in which he acts and speaks as himself and then he acts and speaks as Freud. Using virtual reality goggles he sees a computer-generated version of himself (which the Lab made from a scan of his body) sitting across from a similarly-generated version of Freud. At the press of a button, he rotates between the two bodies, and has a 20-minute conversation. Through Freud, he says things to himself about his real problems that he never would have said otherwise; indeed, it was as if he really was two different people having a real dialogue. 

If we trust that this is possible – and remember that Rothman is hardly the first or last person to have such an experience – then we can obviously ask what doors this opens for a virtual future. Not just psychology, but medicine; not just gaming, but how we live life; and not just experience, but consciousness. What does it mean to be you? Rene Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am”. But just because I think and therefore am, does not mean that there are dimensions of reality that I am not seeing – it does not mean that you are not being deceived by what you think is real.

18th-century philosopher George Berkeley argued that all reality was purely in our minds. But this is not just speculation or hokey philosophy. As is becoming apparent in labs like the one Rothman visited in Barcelona, our conception of ourselves and our reality is crucial for understanding mental illness as well as mental fitness. Maybe consciousness is a byproduct of my reality, which makes sense if we realize that our brains make decisions milliseconds before they have time to process the information into conscious thought. In other words, the thought of a decision comes after the brain takes action. It’s a reversal of the cause-and-effect relationship we intuitively assume.

Consciousness is arguably just our brain’s attempt to explain itself to itself. This notion is given some impetus from experiments on people who have had their right and left brains severed from one another, in order to prevent seizures. Because language is almost exclusively the domain of the left side of the brain, if the right side perceives something, it not only can’t describe it, but it is not even really conscious of it. And yet if the perception causes action – say, the words “step forward” causes the person to step forward – then the left brain, disconnected from the perception of the right, will come up with an explanation for the step forward. After the fact. Such as, I’m thirsty. Totally false, but the person is totally convinced.

As we go deeper and deeper into virtual reality, and step further and further away from the only selves we humans have ever known, what questions and answers will we uncover? What other paradoxes are we yet to encounter?

One last point about this, is story. I often use the word story on this program, whether in my attempt to get to the bottom of what on earth is going on, or in the principal query: what are the events, characters, forces and ideas that shape the human story today? It’s important, because I think we conceive of the world through story. It seems to be that it is a fundamental aspect of who we are, something that goes beyond nurture and might even be encoded in our DNA. Why else are there Seven Basic Plots or two kinds of stories or one general arc of a narrative? Why is it that we remember and tell stories about everything – we package information in story, whether two thousand years ago in Greek tragedy or today in a Facebook post. And at the root of all this is the story, the fiction, that we tell ourselves to get by from day to day. I am me. I sit here. I speak into this microphone. Well, what will it mean when I can watch myself doing this at a distance, and become someone or something else entirely? What happens when I forget that I can take the goggles off?