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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
  4. VR: A Metaphysical Testbed?
  5. Physics and Metaphysics
  6. The Mind-Body Relationship and VR
  7. Metaphysics and the Poetic Space
  8. Active Information, the Implicate Order, and Flow
  9. A Sense of Presence
  10. Conclusion
  11. References

If the medium is the message, what is the message of virtual reality (VR)? This article examines virtual reality communications media. Some forms of VR, for example immersive virtual reality, literally situate the user inside an informed computational space. The essence of VR is the inclusive relationship between the participant and the virtual environment. Communication takes place through direct experience in the immersive, digital environment. Thus, these environments may directly implicate what we can say about our very ability to know, that is, about consciousness itself. In this sense, VR brings metaphysical inquiry within the purview of an empirical testbed that conjoins human psychology, or the psychological “presence” of the knowing self, with configurable digital phenomena to define “there.” This essay argues that a fundamental message of VR may be to illumine timeless philosophical inquiries concerning the nature of knowing and being and thus direct our attention to what Aristotle called the eternal question: What is reality? VR directs our attention to the nature of reality by directing our attention to consciousness as the experience of being.


Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Virtual Reality

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
  4. VR: A Metaphysical Testbed?
  5. Physics and Metaphysics
  6. The Mind-Body Relationship and VR
  7. Metaphysics and the Poetic Space
  8. Active Information, the Implicate Order, and Flow
  9. A Sense of Presence
  10. Conclusion
  11. References

If the medium is the message, what is the message of virtual reality? This question is perhaps too simple a formulation of a very complex inquiry. Usually, decades elapse before we are able to gauge the pervasive impact of new technologies. However, extant communication, philosophical, psychological, and physical theory can be applied to this question in hopes of pointing to an answer.

In formulating his concept of medium as message, communication theorist Marshall McLuhan explained media as extensions of the human body, whether of the senses, of the organs, or of the limbs. This idea of “organ projection” perhaps goes back as far as Aristotle, but it was Ernst Kapp who in 1877 formulated this concept in his Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik, concurrently coining the phrase philosophy of technology [(Mitcham, 1994)]. Kapp wrote:

The intrinsic relationship that arises between tools and organs, and one that is to be revealed and emphasized – although it is more one of unconscious discovery than of conscious invention – is that in the tool the human continually produces itself. Since the organ whose utility and power is to be increased is the controlling factor, the appropriate form of a tool can be derived only from that organ [(Kapp quoted in Mitcham, 1994, p. 23)].

Thus, McLuhan described this interplay of relation between human body and mind, technology, and the physical environment, that which Kapp described as the “unconscious discovery … of conscious invention,” saying any new technology gradually creates a totally new environment. He called this environment a service environment, created as an effect of the technology. These service environments are active processes that affect the whole psychic and social complex [(McLuhan, 1988)]. Now consider the effect of virtual communication technologies.

Both physical and conceptual extensions of the human body and mind are technologies in terms of a McLuhanistic humanities-based approach, versus an engineering approach, to the philosophy of technology. In sum, the concrete activities and products of humanity are technologies and thus are considered by McLuhan as media. This view does not draw a sharp distinction between organism, environment, and artifact. Media are in interplay with the subjective and objective environments and a complex of effects, or messages, result. This is what is meant by the medium is the message. As one aspect of the whole changes, so do the others.

Although a medium's message, or its complex of effects, may have a basic configuration that can be recognized, particularly in retrospect, precise description of the message of any particular medium is incredibly elusive. Predicting such effects especially poses difficulties because service environments are active processes.

The service environments constructed as the effects of a medium are dynamic. Media, therefore, can be considered operators rather than objects, dynamically effecting an environment where stability is not absolute. “Virtual environments created through computer graphics are communications media” [(Ellis, 1991, p. 321)]. Virtual reality (VR) – immersive, manufactured, digital information environments created by communications media – is proving to be a most dynamic medium.

Virtual reality media consist of collections of different input and output technology objects like stereoscopic displays, spatial audio devices, and devices that simulate the sensations of force, touch, and motion. These immersive devices create a coordinated sensory experience when coupled to a user's motor and autonomic channels [(Biocca & Delaney, 1995, (Biocca, Lauria, & McCarthy, 1996)]. The user of virtual reality communications media becomes a participant inside an informed computational space, experiencing a sensory environment.

The essence of VR is the immersive, or inclusive, relationship between the participant and the virtual environment [(Bricken, 1990a)], where direct experience of the immersive environment constitutes communication. Thus these manufactured communications environments may directly implicate what we can say about our very ability to know, that is, about consciousness itself.

Carl Jung said that “the psyche is the only phenomenon that is given to us immediately and, therefore, is the sine qua non of all experience … only things we experience immediately are the contents of consciousness” [(Jung, 1969, p. 139)]. Consciousness is the experience of being. As Jung put it, the subject of consciousness “lies wholly within the bounds of experience” (p. 139). Thus, the study of consciousness is an empirical inquiry.

But questions of being are ontological inquiries by nature, that is, metaphysical questions. If consciousness is the experience of being, and a virtual environment is seen as a “theatre of human activity” where “the self is a distinct actor in the environment which provides a point of view from which the environment may be constructed” [(Ellis, 1991, p. 322)] then the question of the message of virtual reality becomes both an empirical and a metaphysical inquiry. From this perspective virtual reality might be seen as an empiricist's metaphysical testbed where what one can know about the nature of knowing and being becomes a central focus.

From this perspective, [Bricken (1990a)] says that “psychology is the physics of VR” (p. 7). Note however that although the modern Jung said the subject of psychology lay wholly within the bounds of experience, the ancient Greek understanding of psychology was essentially “being in transit,” which is the soul principle. Modern psychology is classed within the natural sciences – classed, that is, solely within world stuff. VR brings metaphysical inquiry within the world stuff of an empirical testbed where human psychology, or the psychological “presence” of the knowing self, conjoins with configurable digital phenomena to define “there” to compel questions of what and how we know.

Will “the physics of VR” illume again the classical understanding of psychology if the nature of mind and information in conjunction unfold as pliable and fluid, as flow? Would this thus compel other questions perhaps regarding the ontology underlying the causal structure of space-time itself? Such questions would be metaphysical questions about physics itself.

[Chalmers (1996)] works towards a nonreductive theory of consciousness, exploring these issues from an information perspective. He says that the really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. The “easy” problems of consciousness are those directly susceptible to the reductive methods of cognitive science, which aims to explain in terms of computational or neural mechanisms. Some of these easy problems of consciousness are the ability to discriminate, react to external stimuli, integrate information, categorize, focus attention, control behavior, report mental states, and other phenomena. The hard problems, he says, resist those methods.

Explaining the subjective aspect of experience, explaining why and how experience arises from a physical, cognitive basis, is the hard problem. All kinds of information-processing goes on when we think and perceive, but there is a subjective aspect to it. Subjective experience forms, or makes, what it is to be a conscious being. Felt qualities such as color, depth, shading, smell, sound, pain, emotion, thought, and others are subjective states of experience, states that have a common ground in that there is something it is like to be in them [(Chalmers, 1996)].

Thus Chalmers reserves the term consciousness for the phenomena of experience and uses the “less loaded” term awareness for the functions he calls the easy problems. He asserts that the central and unanswered question is, why is the performance of these cognitive functions accompanied by experience? Simply explaining these physical functions leaves an explanatory gap between functions and experience that must be bridged in order to explain subjective, inner feel [(Chalmers, 1996)].

For consideration, Chalmers suggests an informational framework for building a theory of consciousness. His theory embraces certain psychophysical principles that aim to supplement physical theory to explain how physical processes give rise to experience. His basic principle, the dual-aspect principle, leads to the hypothesis that information has two basic aspects: a physical aspect that is embodied in physical processing and a phenomenal (experiential) aspect. In this view information is the fundamental basis of experience.

Chalmers warns that this perspective may well fall within the realm of speculative metaphysics, but such speculation may be unavoidable when coming to terms with the ontology of consciousness. Although such a fundamental theory will always retain a bit of speculation absent in other scientific theories because intersubjective tests are not conclusive, Chalmers notes that furthering theoretic concepts in the science of mind is possible and must be pursued. VR could be a vital testbed for obtaining data that can be systematized, extended by analysis, and inferred towards constructing a theory of consciousness.

For example, questions can be posed like when an information space is phenomenally realized, why is it realized in one way rather than another? Is this realization arbitrary or are there perhaps arbitrary “constants”? Is the character of a phenomenal information space determined by the structure of the space? Beyond perceptual experiences, can the informational framework be extended to more subtle experiences like emotional experiences and that of occurent thought [(Chalmers, 1996)]? VR could be a testbed in which to embody such questions because in VR human psychology and manipulation of information create a virtual space informed with apparent physical phenomena.

This nexus between psychology and physics in a virtual environment might also be considered as psychophysical realism is added to a virtual world. To simulate physical reality, constraints are added that reduce possibilities in the virtual environment. Thus, “reality simulation is a subset of potential VR experiences” [(Bricken, 1990a, p. 11)].

From this perspective a fundamental message of VR may be that our knowledge and understanding of the nature of reality may be challenged when the relationship between consciousness and physics is manipulated in a VR setting where physical laws are transmutable. Such environmental manipulation, which the father of virtual reality Ivan Sutherland described in 1965 as the “ultimate display … within which the computer can control the existence of matter” would allow “a chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world … a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland” [(Sutherland, 1965, pp. 508, 506)].

Aside from a conceptual sense, such displays, such virtual realities could allow for the exploration of alternate realities in a psychological sense. The implications of this “reality crossing” between the real world and the virtual world are as yet unknown. But it would be safe to say that the comparison of realities, both from a conceptual as well as from a psychological perspective, has metaphysical implications. [Bricken (1990a)] notes that just as the “Copernican revolution introduced a physics that differed fundamentally from appearance,” virtual reality “introduces a metaphysics that differs fundamentally from the material” (p. 11).

Jung said that consciousness is “primarily an organ of orientation in a world of outer and inner facts” [(Jung, 1969, p.123)]. He also lamented that, tragically, “psychology has no self-consistent mathematics at its disposal, but only a calculus of subjective prejudices … there is no medium for psychology to reflect itself in: it can only portray itself in itself, and describe itself” (ibid., p. 216, 217). VR could prove to be such a reflective medium.

The “conscious” ability in VR to affect consciousness as an organ of orientation in a world of inner and outer facts may illumine timeless philosophical inquiries concerning the nature of knowing and being, that is, inquiries concerning metaphysics. VR may prove a potent empirical tool of metaphysics.

Such metaphysical inquiries in virtual reality could challenge our current conceptions of the nature of reality. If such questions serve to alter our conscious orientation in a world where, as Jung said, psychology holds a “unique place among all the sciences,” with the psyche being the “starting-point of all human experience, and all knowledge … the beginning and end of all cognition” [(Jung, 1969, p. 125)], then the potential of virtual reality media to alter our understanding of reality by allowing us to compare alternative realities, testing them against what we currently consider to be real, to be true, should not be underestimated.

For this reason, one prospective conclusion concerning the message of virtual reality seems safe. That conclusion is that whatever the ultimate “message” of the myriad effects of virtual reality, that message surely will embrace the profound tendency inherent in VR itself to direct attention to our ability to know and to alter, or affect our knowing. Fundamentally, VR would direct attention to the very conceptual frameworks that describe reality. Virtual reality, therefore, would direct our attention to what Aristotle called the eternal question: What is reality? [(Gutherie, 1975)].

Virtual reality could also direct our attention to the possible alteration of consciousness as an organ of orientation in a world of inner and outer facts and to the tremendous consequences of such an alteration of psyche. According to Jung, even the “smallest alteration in the psychic factor, if it be an alteration of principle, is of the utmost significance as regards our knowledge of the world and the picture we make of it” [(Jung, 1969, p. 217)]. Jung added that such psychic alteration needs urgent emphasis.

The integration of the unconscious with the conscious, according to Jung, is just such an alteration. He defines the unconscious as “the totality of all psychic phenomena that lack the quality of consciousness” (p. 133) [(see also Kihlstrom, 1987] for a modern perspective on the unconscious). Psychic alteration entails integrating the unknown of the active imagination with the known. Virtual reality media may open to this possibility because, according to [Bricken (personal communication, November 3, 1996)], VR is “designed specifically to confound ‘physical possibility’ and ‘imaginary possibility.’ With a programmable system, you can easily change the ratio of real and imaginary input, mixing and overlaying worlds freely.”

Such alteration could also be brought about by fusing the ideal with the real in a Kantian transcendental sense. Fundamentally, transcendental argument engages the complex tensions between knower and known. The transcendental method directs reflection to the conditions of one's experiential knowledge, intertwining concept and reality. The transcendental claim is, according to [Honner (1987)], “disclosed in the context of performance” (p. 22).

“Rather than accept the annihilation of epistemology … an effort is made to restate and clarify the conditions for knowledge. Whilst it forms part of the circularity in much of our conceptualization of reality, the transcendental path is not viciously circular. As we stalk the perimeter of our questions, so also do we mark the way more clearly for ourselves. ‘At any given time’, as Hesse put its, ‘some observation statements result from correctly applying observation terms to empirical situations' [(Honner, 1987, p. 22)].

According to [Allison (1983)], behind Kant's transcendental ideality is the principle that the representation or experience of something as objective, as real, “must reflect the cognitive structure of the mind (its manner of representing) rather than the nature of the object as it is in itself” (p. 27). The mind does not have access to objects through sensible or intellectual intuition independently of the very structure that conditions the possibility of experience [(Allison, 1983)].

A psychic alteration of principle, that is, with respect to fundamentals, is the business of metaphysics in the Kantian sense, where the a priori fuses with the synthetic to extend our a priori knowledge. When Kant was investigating the laws that govern thought, he found that thought structures within the confines of certain forms that he called categories. Kant describes twelve a priori categories of which time, space, and causality are three. They are judgments given prior to experience.

Prior to Kant, a priori knowledge was universally thought to come before experience, therefore, thought by many philosophers not to exist, not even analytically. Knowledge given through the Ideal Forms as theorized by Plato is an example of a priori knowledge.

Synthetic knowledge, on the other hand, is contingent upon or comes after experience. Therefore, before Kant, all synthetic knowledge, statements, and judgments were thought to be a posteriori in that synthetic reasoning relates or synthesizes a subject and a predicate that are not necessarily connected. Therefore they are theoretically only contingently true.

Kant's science of metaphysics is grounded on the proposition that metaphysics consists entirely of a priori synthetic propositions. It is the business of metaphysics to extend our knowledge beyond mere analysis of concepts we make a priori by adding to given concepts something that was not contained in them before [(Kant, 1987/1929)].

Kant cites physics as containing a priori synthetic judgments as principles. Physical laws like the law of gravity are discovered by observation and experiment. They are therefore synthetic by nature. Yet, they are postulated as universal, implicit laws regardless of and before experience. They are necessarily true, thus, a priori.

This fusion of the ideal and real, of a priori and synthetic to yield new knowledge is metaphysics in the Kantian sense. Such knowledge has one foot in experience while at the same time being beyond or above physics – beyond the bounds of experience: meta physics.

Such a fusion of thought could be viewed as boundary thinking. In fact, the term “break boundary” was coined by Kenneth Boulding to signify a reformulation of matrices, or physical climax. Boundary thinking then can be looked at as where thought fuses, where the tension between contradictions, between paradoxes is bridged, as in a metaphor, to produce an extension of knowledge, an extension of understanding, an insight. Insight: creative perception that brings together incompatible ideas to produce a new perspective – an alteration of psychic principle in the Jungian sense, metaphysics in the Kantian sense.

These alterations in thought, these break boundaries in the communications sense, occur at all levels of social manifestation. [Robinson and White (1986)] note that “pattern reversals and exponential changes are characteristic of these break boundaries, which are identified in communication, the sciences, law, and philosophy by paradigm shifts in patterns of basic assumptions and practices, as well as general perception and belief. The Law of Acceleration reminds us that resistance to change is not necessarily immunity from change” (p. 71).

Like other dynamic media before virtual reality, VR is available before being well understood. Although generally a lag exists between deployment of a technology and full understanding of its cultural implications, VR suggests a paradigm shift before its widescale use. As changes in perspective shift because of the inclusive nature of VR – a shift from picture to place, observation to experience, use to participation, interface to inhabit – [Bricken (1990a)] suggests that computers become not just symbol processors but “reality generators.”

[Biocca (1997)] concurs with this statement, saying that the development of advanced computer interfaces at the close of the century is characterized by what might be called “progressive embodiment.” The vision for such systems is for applications where the body is completely immersed in the interface, “and the mind is set floating in the telecommunication system – in cyberspace” rather than conducting a disembodied conversation between human and machine that results in “a sterile coupling of abstract symbol generators”.

However, a basic amplification-reduction structure in all technology-mediated relations exists. While embodiment technologies amplify certain features of the world, they also reduce our field of vision. “With every amplification, there is a simultaneous and necessary reduction. And … the amplification tends to stand out, to be dramatic, while the reduction tends to be overlooked” [(Ihde quoted in Mitcham, 1994, p. 77)]. Thus, just as a microscope may amplify certain features of the world by reducing the vision field, VR may reduce our perceptions by becoming our perceptions. We become “absorbed” in our work and in our play.

Thus, culturally, what would common, global use of virtual reality media mean with regards to these changes in perceptions? What cultural implications might emerge when what constitutes our daily experience takes place in environments where immersion in and interaction with a manufactured digital information space create a virtual reality?

McLuhan recognized that communications media affect the fabric of our being. Jung realized that fabric was deeply structured in the psyche. Kant found that thought is structured by a priori categories, or forms, that condition experience, that we are “hardwired” to perceive space and time. The digital reconfigurability of VR allows for the exploration of the foundations of these perspectives. Are Platonic Ideals, Jungian a priori archetypes, and Kantian a priori categories necessarily true in the digital aether? How much can we free the mind from the physical responses of the body?

To the extent that it proposes a paradigm shift, the inherent tendency of VR media is to raise a provocative argument. That argument wraps around inquiries concerning theories of knowledge and the knowing self. Will the arrival of advanced, highly immersive simulators like VR, which create a conflation between illusion and reality, between thought and action, trigger an epistemological debate? Are VR users led, if not forced, to consider such issues that have been the almost exclusive domain of philosophers and relegated to obscure treatises? How pliable, fluid, and contingent is our knowledge of reality?

If these questions have merit, the implication is that VR may be a testbed for experiential epistemology, where attention shifts not only to consciousness as the experience of being but also to questions regarding the nature of reality – to metaphysical questions. This then would be the message of the medium of VR.

VR: A Metaphysical Testbed?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
  4. VR: A Metaphysical Testbed?
  5. Physics and Metaphysics
  6. The Mind-Body Relationship and VR
  7. Metaphysics and the Poetic Space
  8. Active Information, the Implicate Order, and Flow
  9. A Sense of Presence
  10. Conclusion
  11. References

Metaphysics has been said to be comprised of the absolute nonempirical presuppositions or beliefs of a thinker or an age [(Hatfield, 1990)]. In the sense in which such presuppositions are nonempirical, metaphysics has been seen, particularly in the modern, scientific era, as nonscientific and nonphysical, therefore metaphysical. For this reason metaphysics, a preoccupation of thinkers, philosophers, and scientists from the Presocratics through Newton, Leibniz, and Kant, has not only fallen out of intellectual favor in late modern times, but has nearly disappeared from the mainstream of intellectual discourse, especially in the sciences. Another reason for this disfavor is that there never has been and still is not comprehensive agreement as to what metaphysics itself actually comprises.

Indeed, metaphysics has been called several things:

  • 1)
    to Aristotle metaphysics was the first philosophy;
  • 2)
    to Kant, it is the science of things above or beyond the physical, a meaning that derives from taking “meta” in the sense of “trans” [(Hatfield, 1990, p. 97)];
  • 3)
    alternatively, it is construed as a science of presuppositions, of first principles, whose aim is to portray fundamental, basic principles, and concepts about the nature of reality.

Philosopher of science John Honner in his Description of Nature cites a long history of metaphysical thought and its transformations through time. He notes that with the rise of classical science, metaphysics lost ground. The conversations of philosophers and theologians were upstaged by the successes of natural science with its mechanistic, empirical inquiries and solutions. [Honner (1987)] explains:

‘Metaphysics’… was the accidental title given to Aristotle's lectures on the ultimate principles and causes in human knowing. Quite fortuitously, the works that came after the Physics – ta meta ta physika– are concerned with questions which arise as implications of our ability to do physics. How are we able to know beyond ordinary experience? What can we possibly know beyond ordinary experience? How can we affirm a Many of particular things without acknowledging the being of an underlying One? If there is a One, how can there be Many? The battlefield of these endless controversies, as Kant put it at the beginning of the Critique of Pure Reason, is called metaphysics (p. 198).

In this century, metaphysics has come to be described as descriptive and revisionary metaphysics. Honner says [Strawson (1959)] fixed the term descriptive metaphysics into philosophy. “Descriptive metaphysics is content to describe the actual structure of our thought about the world, revisionary metaphysics is concerned to produce a better structure” (p. 9). Honner notes that while revisionary metaphysicians offer a new ontology of being, descriptive metaphysicians focus on our interaction with the world.

The controlling premises in revisionary metaphysics, Honner says, are more speculative than experiential, therefore always open to question, with the results suspect. Speculative, revisionist philosophers attempt to answer all questions about ultimate reality and truth abstractly by reducing metaphysics to a handful of premises and then deduce and reconstruct from them “an almost visionary account of the unity (or duality) of knowing and being” [(Honner, 1987, p. 196)].

Descriptive metaphysics, however, is usually described as “immanent,”“inductive,” and “descriptive.” Such a metaphysics has also been described as “transcendental” because “it seeks to articulate that which lies submerged in the actual structure of our participation in the world … it aims to lay bare the most general features of our conceptual structure” [(Honner, 1987, p. 196)]. In his descriptive metaphysical project, Strawson describes these general features as core features:

For there is a massive central core of human thinking which has no history – or none recorded in the histories of thought; there are categories and concepts which, in their most fundamental character, change not at all. Obviously these are not the specialties of the most refined thinking; and are yet the indispensable core of the conceptual equipment of the most sophisticated human beings. It is with these, their interconnections, and the structure that they form, that a descriptive metaphysics will be primarily concerned [(Strawson, 1959, p. 9)].

Within the framework of discussing the experience of consciousness and what science has shown about what we can know about reality, the fully manufactured and manipulatable, interactive, real-time, 3-D, immersive environment of virtual reality poses the issue that VR may be the first medium for psychology to reflect itself in, rather than simply to portray itself in.

Thus, VR becomes a metaphysical testbed with potentially great implications if what we believe to be true is challenged by the possibilities of manipulating the way we come to know. Timeless metaphysical contemplations regarding the nature of reality may be illumined by testing fundamental epistemological premises regarding the nature of our conceptual structure. Are there unchanging categories and concepts, a universal logic, what Jung called the archetypes of the unconscious that structure our experience of reality, arbitrary “constants” in Chalmers sense? What happens when the structural relations change, when the ratio of input variables that simulate physical reality suddenly change to input variables that simulate an imaginary state? What happens if they are overlapped? Will an hypothesized universal structure of thought hold up?

These are empirical questions posed through a philosophical-psychological framework. They may not even be the right questions. Yet, they point to the possibility that virtual reality may be an empirical tool that can be used to begin to explore such questions that bear upon age-old musings about the nature of reality. This paper does not propose to answer such questions, which have eluded us throughout time. Rather, this work seeks to show that they may be posed in novel ways in VR.

Physics and Metaphysics

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
  4. VR: A Metaphysical Testbed?
  5. Physics and Metaphysics
  6. The Mind-Body Relationship and VR
  7. Metaphysics and the Poetic Space
  8. Active Information, the Implicate Order, and Flow
  9. A Sense of Presence
  10. Conclusion
  11. References

With the rise of modern theoretical physics such as quantum theory, metaphysical speculation returned. In his discussion of the work of Copenhagen quantum theorist Niels Bohr and his principles of wholeness, nonlocality, and complementarity, [Honnor (1987)] noted that some questions cannot be answered by physics:

Questions of a metaphysical character nevertheless remained; science, after all, is not self-explanatory … Bohr's physics went far beyond experimental and mathematical analysis, although such activities were essential to science. His focus on the nature of our concepts may even have anticipated and shaped his physics” [(Honner, 1987, p. 198)].

That Bohr's physics went beyond experiment and mathematics to the nature of our thought has particular relevance when considering virtual reality. In Bohr's Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory, an absolute determination of what is real cannot be given. To Bohr, physics concerns only what we can say about reality. Bohr looked at the conceptual basis upon which reality is explained.

Virtual environments may assist us in similar considerations. By yielding as if real realities that can be manipulated to examine our subjective experience, VR may shift our focus to the very nature of thought as Bohr's physics shifted the focus from ontology and objective reality to epistemology and subjective experience, or consciousness.

Perhaps one of the most predominant features of Bohr's physics that concerns itself with what we can know about reality is characterized by what he called “complementarity.” He said complementarity is required by another feature found in the quantum observation. That feature is wholeness.

Complementarity in Bohr's quantum physics referred to the manifestation of energy as both wave and particle, the fact that an observation that revealed one such characteristic of matter always excluded the other. The two observable phenomena could not be observed simultaneously. Bohr's Copenhagen Interpretation referred to this not just in the quantum observation, but also with regards to the subject-object separation involved in observation. He often referred to the parallels of psychology and the physical, parallels that merge in the creation of virtual realities.

The impossibility of distinguishing in our customary way between physical phenomena and their observation places us, indeed, in a position quite similar to that which is so familiar in psychology where we are continually reminded of the difficulty of distinguishing between subject and object [italics added] [(Bohr, 1934, p. 15)].

In philosophical psychology the subject-object problem concerns the paradox of a person describing his or her own consciousness. Bohr saw the problem of the description of self-awareness not just as an illustration introduced by the quantum, but as an instance of the limitations of our experience. He felt that general limits to conceptualization existed that were closely connected with the “impossibility of strict separation” of the subject and the object and with our limited capacity to create concepts because paradoxically our concepts are founded on this separation [(Honner, 1987, p. 93)]. This problem of which Bohr often spoke may become very apparent in VR.

A close connection exists between the failure of our forms of perception, which is founded on the impossibility of a strict separation of phenomena and means of observation, and the general limits of man's capacity to create concepts, which have their roots in our differentiation between subject and object [(Bohr, 1934, p. 96)].

Bohr's focus rested not just on ontological questions about reality, which deal with the nature and relations of existence and are thus empirically concerned with issues of measurement and objectivity. His focus brought into the discussion questions concerning reality that were connected with how concepts are formed and the range of their applicability, questions of an epistemological nature. The significance of this latter focus points to theories of communication and metaphysics because concepts involving wholeness and individuality turn from the ontological significance of waves and particles to an inquiry into the applicability of the concepts wave and particle. “Bohr's focus finally came to rest on a consideration of the conditions involved in our formation of concepts and the nature of human consciousness” [(Honner, 1987, p. 95)].

Virtual reality immersion may also compel reflection upon concepts, shifting the focus from what we hold to be objectively true in an ontological sense to an epistemological consideration of the conceptual framework itself: the whole thinking system or foundation of logic and terms from which beliefs of truth and reality emerge.

Such inquiries have been brought to the forefront in VR, even in this very early stage of VR development. While VR is being developed for use in scientific visualization, molecular modeling, telepresence, flight simulation, remote manipulation, medical imaging, and surgical training, a good example of a different use, a therapeutic use of virtual reality that particularly centers upon perception and consciousness, is found in the experience of nature photographer Rita Addison.

Injured in a car accident, Addison experienced significant cognitive dysfunction that altered her perceptual and physical skills, the nature of which she had difficulty communicating to her diagnosticians, therapists, friends, and family. Her cognitive state not only affected her ability to continue her creative work, but her conscious state also isolated her both from optimum recovery and from community with significant others. She was fortunate, however, to have her differently-abled cognitive state accepted for modeling in the CAVE, a three-screen, fully immersive, room-size virtual environment at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She wanted to share with other people her now changed conscious experience. She wanted to share how she now perceived and thus experienced the world, making the invisible visible [(Addison, 1995)].

Using her descriptions of sound, color, light, and feelings of orientation and disorientation, engineering student Marcus Thièbaux applied artistic talent to design software to simulate Addison's perceptual anomalies. Born of both art and engineering, the VR program aimed to communicate Addison's cognitive state, simulating her perceptual experiences of disequilibrium and visual distortion. Dave Swoboda worked on audio. The team built the world that lived inside Addison's head. It became an exhibit called “brain deconstruction.”

A multi-dimensional matrix of effects and perceptions creates the total impact of an aesthetically intended work. In Rita Addison's example, the integrative feature of art conjoined the dualities of her inner and outer experience of the world to show the apparent capability of VR to transcend properties like locality, continuity, and causality through the creation of a multidimensional, dynamic, virtual space where all the elements function cooperatively to create meaning beyond their separate extensions in a local plane. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

Artistic, skilled VR design opens to shared experience and relationship like that of Addison. Other developing VR applications focus on molecular relationships, development of fractals, and perhaps even quantum theoretic concepts like complementarity and nonlocality. The potential capability of VR to extend or enhance the range of our experience has metaphysical implications.

Advances in instrumentation have time and again affected and stimulated changes in philosophical perspective. A good example is the telescope. Though Copernicus had properly theorized the configuration of the solar system and Earth's place in it, it was left to Galileo's invention of the telescope in 1610 to actually confirm Copernicus' insights. Astronomers were treated to a virtual tour of the solar system and the mountains of the moon, explorations that shook the foundations of cosmology and philosophy.

Language symbol systems have long been the only way to discuss metaphysical and epistemological issues. Bricken [(1990b)] sees symbolic realities like language as “low bandwidth externalized worlds structured by syntax and semantics” (p. 1) because “currently symbolic logic is split in half” [(1990, p. 10)]. Syntax is strictly formal and without basis in experience. Semantics is anchored in reality as meaning that derives when syntactic symbols are connected to the world.

Pictorial communication has also allowed for contemplation of fundamentals. [Ellis (1993)] defines a picture as “produced through establishment of a relation between one space and another so that some spatial properties of the first are preserved in the second, which is its image” (p. 23).

Technologies like the telescope or the microscope have allowed image observation of cosmic or microscopic realities, but they do not provide for a fully interactive, 3-D immersion within the experience of the reality. Thus, VR presents a way to place the user inside the image, which is assigned properties that make it act as if it were real.

[Bricken (1990a)] claims that VR redefines the relation between syntax and semantics by direct display of reality that is virtual reality, while syntax is hidden in the background guiding computation. The interpretation is that redefinition would rest in the mapping of syntax onto a virtual world rather than onto a real world to create meaning. This is the place where illusion and reality, where philosophical idealism and realism fuse, and experience of the simulated reality grounds VR as a metaphysical testbed for contemplation of the limits of knowledge in relation to the nature of reality. The metaphysics of virtual reality grounds in the fact that that VR is not real. Yet VR may assist or augment our knowledge concerning reality.

The view of VR as fertile ground for metaphysical study connects to this virtual approach to knowing. Epistemology seeks to answer questions related to the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially as to its limits and validity. Will a virtual reality tweak our current theories, our current understanding of what we know to be true and how we know it to be true? Can VR offer an epistemological testbed, using an as if real reality to test what we think we know to be true and how we arrive at such truth, a kind of real-time what if reality generator. And would such findings apply cross-culturally? Is there a universal structure and dynamic of consciousness with regards to Truth and how we come to it?

Such questions point to direct metaphysical investigations in light of the fact that truth and reality are closely connected. A virtual environment is completely manufactured. Yet, fully immersed in virtual media, we experience an as if real reality. The inquiry shifts then from what extent the simulation represents reality to whether the simulation, or more accurately, our experience of the simulation, i.e., our consciousness, allows us to advance our understanding of reality through the investigation of the epistemic conditions of knowledge and truth. These questions concern the foundations of knowledge.

Recall that with its concepts of complementarity and the indivisible quantum of action, Bohr's interpretation of the quantum theory presented metaphysical principles from an epistemological perspective. The indivisibility of the quantum refers to the wholeness of interaction. Bohr used the term indivisibility sometimes as wholeness, individuality, or unity to refer to the macroscopic measurement of quantum events, where two conceptual frameworks overlap into a wholeness. Subjectivity is the knower's contribution in connection with the individuality of quantum events at the time of the observation. Thus, the complementarity of the wave-particle expression and the subject/object distinction are tied to an indivisible wholeness of the total system [(Honner, 1987)].

Physicist and author F. David Peat writes for the layperson perhaps with hopes that in presenting the physics simply, the reader may discover why findings like the indivisible quantum of action have had such great impact on philosophy. In a personal communication, he explains in lay terms the complex concept of indivisibility.

The indivisibility of the quantum of action is all about the fact that for any measurement to be registered – for an observationto have taken place – some energy change must occur. But the quantum is indivisible so that in even the most gentle observation one cannot say if the energy came from the apparatus or the system. In other words, during the act of observation, the apparatus and system become an indivisible whole. That is the true importance Bohr realized [(Peat, personal communication, November 14, 1995)].

Besides complementarity, indivisibility, and wholeness, also central to the Copenhagen interpretation is the assumption that intrinsic to the quantum world is uncertainty that yields to ambiguity, which is only collapsed into a defining state of wave or particle by virtue of observation. This collapse of the wave function, inextricably tied to the observation, has resulted in much more than a technical clarification of the microcosm or a mediation of contending theories. It concerns a total view, or whole conception, of reality. In 1927 Bohr wrote to Einstein about this:

The uncertainty mentioned is not only connected to the presence of discontinuities but also to the very impossibility of a detached description” [(Honner, 1987, p. 77)].

Perhaps even more profound is consideration of a very subtle ontological point with regards to quantum theory and the uncertainty related to the participation of the observer in the measurement or collapse of the wave function. Whereas some physicists [(see Davies & Brown, 1986, p. 7)] use the term “fuzziness” to refer to the uncertainty at the level of the quantum, [Peat (personal communication)] refers to physicist David Bohm whose preference for the use of the term ambiguity suggests a deeper meaning.

If things are ‘fuzzy’ it almost hints that there ARE such things as position and momentum that are ‘possessed’ by the electron but which we cannot know precisely. In fact there are no such intrinsic properties, it's almost as if our disposition to observe forces nature to answer in a particular language. For that reason Bohm preferred the term ‘ambiguity’” [(October 27, 1995)].

In this world view a limit also is established to the applicability of causality at the point where no clear distinction can be made between observer and observed. Bohr [(1958)] found that “the viewpoint of ‘complementarity’… exceeds the limits to which the applicability of the concept of causality is naturally confined” (p. 19).

Amidst this uncertainty, Bohr felt a complementary situation exists where a natural choice distinguishes the outcome of how an electron will present: as a wave or as a particle. By peeking at these processes through the lens of a determined approach we identify and explicate nature's potentiality through the language of probability as a specific aspect of duality.

We have been forced step by step to forego a causal description of the behaviour of individual atoms in space and time, and to reckon with a free choice on the part of nature between various possibilities to which only probability considerations can be applied. The endeavours to formulate general laws for these possibilities and probabilities … have led … to the creation of a rational quantum mechanics by means of which we are able to describe a very wide range of experience …. In addition, we have gradually reached a complete understanding of the intimate connection between the renunciation of causality in the quantum-mechanical description and the limitation with regard to the possibility of distinguishing between phenomena and their observation, which is conditioned by the indivisibility of the quantum of action. The recognition of this situation implies an essential change in our attitude towards the principle of causality as well as towards the concept of observation” (p. 4).

Classical concepts of physical reality were challenged by Bohr's theory of complementarity, which at the experimental, microcosmic level, showed that an alteration of the observation occurs through the participation of the observer. Before the days of quantum mechanics, Western science assumed the world out there, what Einstein called “objective reality,” possessed a concrete, well-defined existence.

Bohr felt it meaningless to define a complete set of attributes at the atomic level before a measurement took place. The quantum system is coupled, interacting as an indivisible whole. Only when a measurement takes place does talking about the physical attributes of the quantum system become meaningful. A fundamental epistemological implication of this interpretation of the quantum theory is that physics cannot tell us what reality is, only what we can say to each other about our conception of the universe.

This knowledge gained from an interpretation of physics can be applied to the consideration of VR and its possible implications as a metaphysical testbed. The participant in a virtual reality can be viewed to be in full participation in an immersive, communication environment where informational ambiguity yields to subjective experience from the disposition or choices made by the participant in interaction with the system. Choice and responsibility become integrative factors in the design of the experience in a virtual world.

Just as Bohr showed that choice amidst uncertainty in a complementary situation distinguished how the electron would present, as a wave or as a particle, choice in the experience of consciousness must be fundamentally distinguished in virtual experiences as it is in nature itself. We are not meant to be passive receptors of information and communication media. We make deliberate choices to define our subjective experience.

When we extend our field of view onto a computational environment beyond about 60 degrees, a remarkable phenomenon occurs. We shift from a feeling of viewing a picture to a feeling of being in a place. This shift is accompanied by an emotional response. It seems as though the unification of our symbolic processes with our visual processes creates a feeling of wholeness, of empowerment. We shift from external users (exercising rights) to internal participants (exercising responsibilities), from being observers to having experiences, from interfacing with a display to inhabiting an environment” [(Bricken, 1990a, p. 2)].

The Mind-Body Relationship and VR

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
  4. VR: A Metaphysical Testbed?
  5. Physics and Metaphysics
  6. The Mind-Body Relationship and VR
  7. Metaphysics and the Poetic Space
  8. Active Information, the Implicate Order, and Flow
  9. A Sense of Presence
  10. Conclusion
  11. References

Like the view from Galileo's telescope, Bohr's quantum theory interpretation was a venture out beyond experience which, as an experimental confirmation of a metaphysical hypothesis, added to our given concepts by extending our a priori knowledge. As such it was revolutionary, and led to an evolution in our outlook.

More than a century earlier than Bohr's work, Kant made a similar argument related to the objective reality of a concept that could not in any way be known. [Kant (1787/1929)] said we cannot absolutely say that we know the thing in itself or the world's ultimate character. We can only talk about how it appears. In explaining his full theory of pure reason, Kant wove in the problematic concept of a noumenon, which he defined as “a thing which is not to be thought as object of the senses but as a thing in itself, solely through a pure understanding …” (B310). In elaborating how we can never fully know reality beyond the range of sensibility, how “knowledge cannot extend its domain over everything which the understanding thinks,” (A255) Kant noted that although the sphere beyond appearance is empty, lacking even concepts of possible intuitions, we still have an “understanding that problematically extends further” of some reality beyond. Kant uses the concept of noumena as a limiting concept whose function is to curb “the pretensions of sensibility” (B311).

As a negative extension, i.e., a limiting concept, the understanding not only limits sensibility by applying the concept noumena to “things in themselves,” but also limits itself by recognizing that it (the understanding) can't know these noumena through any of its categories. So our cognitive apparatus can think of them “only under the title of an unknown something” (B312).

Thus, the Kantian perspective that we can never know the thing in itself agrees with results from experimental physics that the ultimate nature of reality is unknowable. We can only say what the sensibility gives to us as appearance, as representation. Beyond what we consciously perceive, beyond the bounds of experience, we have no conceptual framework to know the thing in itself. Quantum physics bears out this knowledge that issues from the world of appearances. And recent findings in neurological science are confirming that what we can know is conditioned by our experience.

How the world is given to us is conditioned by the structural makeup of our organism. The way we see reality may be different from creatures that have a different makeup. We look through the eyes of our nature, so to speak, to tell about what we see.

Neurologist and neuropsychologist [Antonio Damasio (1994)] has spent years discovering how the brain/body system works to discover how we know and what we know to be reality. He says if our organisms were designed differently, “the constructions we make of the world around us would be different as well. We do not know, and it is improbable that we will ever know, what absolute reality is like (p. 97).

Damasio says the brain and the body are an indissociable organism. Descartes was in error. A comprehensive understanding of the human mind necessitates “an organismic perspective” where mind moves from “a nonphysical cogitum to the realm of biological tissue … related to a whole organism possessed of integrated body proper and brain and fully interactive with a physical and social environment” (p. 252). What we call mind is derived from “the structural and functional ensemble” rather than only from the brain [(see also Biocca, 1997)].

Damasio points out that “the mind exists in and for an integrated organism” (p. xvi). Our minds would be different if it were not for the interplay of body and brain during evolution and during individual development, even at the current moment.

Damasio sees the body as the theater for the emotions. The brain does not predict how all the neural and chemical commands will play out in the body. He says that what is played out in the body “is constructed anew, moment by moment, and is not an exact replica of anything that happened before” (p. 158).

The body is the seat of feeling. Feeling is the momentary view of a part of the body landscape, which consists of the state of the body and the neural systems that support it. The sense of the body landscape is “juxtaposed in time to the perception or recollection of something else that is not part of the body – a face, a melody, an aroma” (p. xv). Feelings are qualifiers of this something else.

Reason may not be as pure as most of us think it is or wish it were … emotions and feelings may not be intruders in the bastion of reason at all: they may be enmeshed in its networks, for worse and for better … feelings are the sensors for the match or lack thereof between nature and circumstance … Feelings, along with the emotions they come from, are not a luxury. They serve as internal guides, and … are neither intangible nor elusive. Contrary to traditional scientific opinion, feelings are just as cognitive as other percepts. They are the result of a most curious physiological arrangement that has turned the brain into the body's captive audience [(Damasio, 1994, pp. xii, xv)].

It is from this perspective that the implications of VR come even more closely into focus. Remembering that the whole organism is a structural and functional ensemble, an integration of body and brain that is in full interaction with the physical and social environment, can we, by extending the range of our experience in VR extend our understanding, perhaps even to novel levels of synthetic a priori propositions concerning reality? Will using VR for scientific visualization aid in augmenting our intelligence? [(See Biocca, 1995)] Can VR actually be viewed as an empiricist's metaphysical testbed?

In asking these questions, Kant's definition of metaphysics must be considered. [Kant (1787/1929)] said metaphysics is a science that ought to contain a priori synthetic knowledge. (See the Prolegomenon to this essay for a discussion of the terms and concepts a priori and synthetic.) He said it was the business of metaphysics not merely to analyze a priori concepts that we “make for ourselves,” but to extend our a priori knowledge. And for this purpose we have to use principles that “add to the given concept something that was not contained in it, and through a priori synthetic judgments venture out so far that experience is quite unable to follow us … Thus metaphysics consists, at least in intention, entirely of a priori synthetic propositions” (B18).

Metaphysics and the Poetic Space

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
  4. VR: A Metaphysical Testbed?
  5. Physics and Metaphysics
  6. The Mind-Body Relationship and VR
  7. Metaphysics and the Poetic Space
  8. Active Information, the Implicate Order, and Flow
  9. A Sense of Presence
  10. Conclusion
  11. References

When we extend our experience, we extend our knowledge and our understanding. And our understanding includes our metaphysical conceptions.

Physicist [Larry Crowell (1996)] noted the Kantian metaphysical dimension in Einstein's work. “He laid down new statements about the nature of reality that lay beyond the formalism that was found in books and papers of his day.” Ultimately Einstein's thoughts were confirmed by experiment to be a priori synthetic knowledge.

Einstein called his original relativity theories “thought experiments” and said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Imagination is foundational in VR. The technologically mediated experience of virtual environments is artificial experience, which ultimately must call upon the imagination in constructing the virtual space.

In a sense, a virtual space is built with various elements of configurative artistry – be it programming, graphic images, sound – all of which work together to create what could result in the poetic. A characteristic of poetry is that it is the most semantically rich form of language, the most condensed of all language information spaces. The effect is multidimensional as Schoenberg (1951) notes in his description that uses music to describe the poetic space.

The two-or-more dimensional space in which musical ideas are preserved is a unit. Though the elements of these ideas appear separate and independent to the eye and the ear, they reveal their true meaning only through their cooperation, even as no single word alone can express a thought without relation to other words. All that happens at any point of this musical space has more than a local effect. It functions not only in its own plane but also in all other directions and planes” [(Schoenberg, 1951, p. 109)].

It is just this conjunction of imagination with poetic information that creates the very unique experience we call beauty. What forms of beauty might we experience in VR? Is the grasping of beauty metaphysics itself? Does the grasp of beauty instantaneously extend our understanding through perhaps insight of the sublime, where sublime is considered of grand or lofty thought, expression, or manner? Is there a seduction factor to be considered here that could lead to an abuse of a deeper reality?

[Biocca, Kim, and Levy (1995)] suggest that there are two aspects of an ancient dream that drive the creation of VR media. They say the dream of the “ultimate display” described by Sutherland accompanies almost every iconic medium ever invented. Painting, photography, film, and TV are iconic media. Biocca et al. say one of the aspects driving VR's creation is the search for the essential copy: the ability to directly experience the essence of a feeling, of a place, or of a structure or process, whether macroscopic or microscopic.

This drive to create the essential copy in VR is the drive towards a subjective, artistic expression in a form and in a realm that can be shared: a copy of the essential self. For Rita Addison, virtual reality was the modality through which an essential copy of her cognitive state, of her consciousness, could be experienced by her diagnosticians and therapists, her friends, and family.

The other aspect of the ancient dream fueling the creation of VR is the transcendent experience. [Biocca et al. (1995)] say this means nothing less than freeing the mind from the “prison” of the body.

This essay has discussed the transcendent in terms of being disclosed within the context of performance, seeking to “articulate that which lies submerged in the actual structure of our participation in the world” [(Honner, 1987, p. 196)]. Reflecting on Pablo Picasso's statement that “art is a lie that enables us to realize the truth,” in VR will the definition of this drive for the transcendent as freeing the mind from the body be reconsidered in light of the active, participatory nature of the inclusive, epistemic environment?

Active Information, the Implicate Order, and Flow

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
  4. VR: A Metaphysical Testbed?
  5. Physics and Metaphysics
  6. The Mind-Body Relationship and VR
  7. Metaphysics and the Poetic Space
  8. Active Information, the Implicate Order, and Flow
  9. A Sense of Presence
  10. Conclusion
  11. References

Einstein characterized his imagination as generating from muscular sensations within his body. Physicist David Bohm also came to trust this body intuition, which appeared to lie much deeper than ordinary rational, discursive thought. In Bohm's biography, [Peat (1997)] says Bohm did not so much as visualize a physical system, but that he was able to sense its dynamics within his body. Bohm is quoted as saying, “I had the feeling that internally I could participate in some movement that was the analogy of the thing you were talking about” (p. 68).

Bohm was a quantum physicist and protege of Einstein. He is noted for having developed a new theory of the plasma state. He also developed an interpretation of quantum mechanics. But unlike Bohr's epistemological interpretation, Bohm's is an ontological interpretation. Bohmian mechanics speaks of a quantum potential in terms of an instantaneous field of active information.

To Bohm, active information is nonmaterial, yet it has a real, objective existence in the physical world rather than being merely a feature of the physicist's description of nature. Thus, Bohm suggests that information must occupy a central place in physics and be placed along with energy and matter as a factor underlying the processes of the cosmos [(Peat, 1997)]. Recall that Chalmers' (1996) suggestion of a scientific theory of consciousness also hypothesizes information as fundamental.

Cosmos, from the Greek, means order. [Peat (1997)] says that previously in physics, information had been used in ways that were not clear. He gives the example of entropy where an increase is associated with a diminution in the order of a system. But Peat then asks, “Is there a clear, objective way of defining such order? As with harmony in music, one person's notion of order may be another's disorder” (p. 297).

In Bohm's interpretation of quantum theory, a quantum potential exists. This potential, unlike an electric potential generated from an electric charge, has no source. The potential contains information about the whole experimental situation. [Peat (1997)] describes this field of potential and active information:

Before a quantum measurement is registered, there are vast possibilities for alternative outcomes, each of which is present within the field of information associated with the quantum potential – each of them is potentially “active.” But after the measurement has been registered, only one of the possibilities becomes an actuality. Information about alternative possibilities is still present within the quantum field, but it has ceased to be in an “active form” and cannot affect the future of the quantum system [(Peat, 1997, p. 297)].

Bohm's conception of information and its activity as objectively real grew to an understanding of a deeper order underlying the universe. Bohm's metaphysics describes this order as the implicate order.

The structure of the implicate order is unbroken wholeness. Existence, or being, is undivided, taking form as flowing movement. Wholeness permeates from the outset, and cosmos and consciousness are seen as a single, unbroken totality of movement. In essence, all of reality is seen like immersion, what Bohm calls enfoldment. [Bohm (1980)] describes the flowing movement of the implicate order:

In the implicate order the totality of existence is enfolded within each region of space (and time). So, whatever part, element, or aspect we may abstract in thought, this still enfolds the whole and is therefore intrinsically related to the totality from which it has been abstracted. Thus, wholeness permeates all that is being discussed, from the very outset [(Bohm, 1980, p. 172)].

[Bohm (1980)] suggests that the implicate order represents a new form of insight implicit in relativity and quantum theory. This idea “implies that flow is, in some sense, prior to that of the ‘things' that can be seen to form and dissolve in this flow” (p. 11). From this perspective, explicit or explicate things, physical objects both large and small, are seen merely as forms that manifest in the flux, “like ripples, waves, and vortices in a flowing stream” (p. 172).

Earlier in this essay consciousness was discussed in terms of possibly being distinguished in virtual reality as fluid and pliable, as flow. It was mentioned that such a distinction could illume once again the classical meaning of psychology that meant being in transit, i.e., the soul principle. Bohm's description of an implicate order, although unavoidably metaphysical speculation, suggests a possible physical substratum for such a flow of consciousness.

Bohm proposes that all matter is of this nature, and that mind and matter are not separate substances but are different aspects of one unbroken movement. Yet, this universal flux cannot be defined explicitly. It can only be known implicitly.

In Bohm's view, the implicate order is primary, not the explicate order. That which is “potential” is seen as a deeper reality than that which manifests as “actual.” The root of the word manifest comes from the Latin word “manus,” meaning hand. “Essentially, what is manifest is what can be held with the hand – something solid, tangible and visibly stable” [(Bohm, 1980, p. 185)].

Bohm sounded a caution against overemphasizing the implications of this metaphysical view of wholeness, implicate order, and field of potential. That caution came in the form of the effort in Bohm's work to keep the insight in perspective. At the heart of the new discoveries of the early twentieth century was the realization that the revolutionary significance of the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions of the earlier Enlightenment led to an overemphasis on mechanism and empiricism. A similar overemphasis on holism, which disregards our everyday context, is similarly uncalled for.

Virtual reality communication media also can be seen as an active information field of potential where imaginary and physical possibility are conflated. As the ratio of the imaginary and physical inputs of both worlds change, perspective also changes and can become confounded. Thus, perhaps the same caution that Bohm issued with regard to an overemphasis on holism can be applied to VR.

In VR a field of potential yields to an as if real reality born from the fusion of the imaginary and the real: a virtual reality. Insights gained from such perspectives should assist or augment our knowledge of our everyday context and grounding, not disregard it or replace it. This would be an abuse of a deeper reality, which cannot be known through the experiments that we design and carry out, but is only known implicitly.

However, through active participation on the transcendental path, VR could be viewed as an observational testbed in which we “stalk the perimeter of our questions” so as to “mark the way more clearly for ourselves” [(Honner, 1987, p. 22)]: a move towards correctly applying observation terms to empirical situations.

A Sense of Presence

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
  4. VR: A Metaphysical Testbed?
  5. Physics and Metaphysics
  6. The Mind-Body Relationship and VR
  7. Metaphysics and the Poetic Space
  8. Active Information, the Implicate Order, and Flow
  9. A Sense of Presence
  10. Conclusion
  11. References

Being; Knowing; Ontology; Epistemology; Mind; Matter; Ideal; Real; Illusion; Reality. From the earliest musings of primitive homo sapiens we must have wondered who and what we are and how we can know. Certainly these have been among the earliest and most central preoccupations of philosophy. Grasping a sense of presence in VR compels confronting these issues.

The famous Cartesian formulation of this sense of presence is deceptively simple. “I think, therefore I am.” Cogito ergo sum. Debate ensues whether this purely rationalist statement of presence, of consciousness, might not better be put sum ergo cogito. “I am, therefore I think.” The prevailing view has long been that this second formulation is illogical because all things “are,” while few of them “think” in the sense meant by Descartes.

This second formulation has also been criticized as being “mystical” in that inherent in its conception is a fundamental implication that innate, living consciousness infuses all that is, preceding therefore, and giving presence to our ability to even know anything at all. And yet, the trail of physical theory we have examined lends credence to the interplay of the two formulations, especially from the point of view of the wholeness of reality.

Bohr's work represented a fundamental breakthrough, one that cannot be looked at in isolation apart from the discoveries and challenges of Einstein and other contributors of the times, but one that nevertheless stands alone in one respect. Bohr introduced consciousness into the equation. His establishment of the fundamental role of the observer, of the observation, of the subject in the subject-object dilemma of the indeterminacy, potentiality, and indivisibility of the quantum of action directly interposes the consciousness of the observer, of the experimenter, as an integral and indivisible part of scientific experimentation and the description of knowing.

As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, professor of physics, chemistry, and geology, with a specialty in paleontology, succinctly pointed out, science has long used the excuse that the phenomenon of consciousness is either peculiar to theology and metaphysics or is an epiphenomenon restricted to the higher forms of life. Thus, consciousness was eliminated from models of the universe:

In the eyes of the physicist, nothing exists legitimately, at least up to now, except the without of things … [This] intellectual attitude … breaks down completely with man, in whom the existence of a within can no longer be evaded, because it is the object of a direct intuition and the substance of all knowledge … consciousness, in order to be integrated into a world-system, necessitates consideration of the existence of a new aspect or dimension in the stuff of the universe. We shrink from the attempt … namely, to discover the universal hidden beneath the exceptional [(Teilhard, 1959, p. 55)].

Sir Julian Huxley, in his introduction to Teilhard's The Phenomenon of Man, said Teilhard saw the whole of knowable reality as a process, not as a static mechanism. Implicit within this process is consciousness, fundamental and directive in nature. Consequently, Teilhard, with all the rigor befitting a professional scientist, called into question the mainstream approach to the “phenomenon” of consciousness:

A queer exception, an aberrant function, an epiphenomenon – thought was classed under one or other of these heads in order to get rid of it. But what would have happened to modern physics if radium had been classified as an ‘abnormal substance’ without further ado? [(Teilhard, 1959, p. 55)].

From a scientific perspective, Teilhard suggested that consciousness is like other unique phenomena that represent “an irregularity in nature [that] is only the sharp exacerbation, to the point of perceptible disclosure, of a property of things diffused throughout the universe, in a state which eludes our recognition of its presence” (p. 55). He noted further:

Properly observed, even if only in one spot, a phenomenon necessarily has an omnipresent value and roots by reason of the fundamental unity of the world. Whither does this rule lead us if we apply it to the instance of human ‘self-knowledge’?‘Consciousness is completely evident only in man’ we are tempted to say, ‘therefore it is an isolated instance of no interest to science.’‘Consciousness is evident in man,’ we must continue, correcting ourselves, therefore, half-seen in this one flash of light, it has a cosmic extension, and as such is surrounded by an aura of indefinite spatial and temporal extensions” [(Teilhard, 1959, p. 56)].

Consciousness: The perceptible disclosure of a property that permeates all the stuff of the universe, but which eludes our recognition of its presence. Jung's interpretation of the Kantian concept of the Ding an sich, translated as the thing in itself, was that which “includes everything that eludes our perception, everything of which we have no tangible mental image” [(Jung, 1983, p. 76)]. To Jung the Ding an sich is the transcendental domain, the realm of the unknown and intangible that Jung said Kant awakened “with a bold flourish”… from its deathlike slumber and introduced, dressed in new garb, to an awestruck world [(Jung, 1983, p. 76)].

Jung also noted that science diminishes this realm by either making positive discoveries or creating a so-called principle. He used the law of gravity to explain where our ability to grasp something comes to an end:

We posit the, in itself, incomprehensible principle of universal gravitation, i.e., we set up a transcendental postulate. Causality leads us to a Ding an sich for which we cannot account further …. In this sense the category of causality must be interpreted as a totally wondrous a priori reference to causes of a transcendental nature, i.e., to a world of the invisible and incomprehensible, a continuation of material nature into the incalculable, the immeasurable, and the inscrutable [(Jung, 1983, p. 72)].

Bohm also saw a connection of mind and matter with a higher-dimensional reality. This reality projects into the sensuous, explicate order of ordinary experience. Thus, to [Bohm (1980)], the within is an even “more inward actuality … neither mind nor body but rather a yet higher-dimensional actuality, which is their common ground and which is of a nature beyond both” (p. 209).

This cannot be a proposition that can be conclusively proven in science or in VR. But it is from this metaphysical and epistemological perspective that psychology is said to be the physics of VR. Psychology is the physics of VR in the sense that that the virtual environment is manufactured towards creating a cognitive state. The creation of the cognitive experience, of presence in VR, is necessary towards any end in VR, and ultimately becomes the experience of the user. VR is a reality generator rather than a symbol processor [(Bricken, 1990a)].

Psychology, presence, consciousness: these names have been used herein to describe aspects of a phenomenon that lies within the field of experience while also perhaps beyond. To Jung psychology as the study of the psyche lay wholly within experience. Yet, Jung also acknowledged the Ding an sich, to him a transcendental realm of the unknown and intangible, to Kant the thing in itself, which we can never really know. But Jung also felt that through positive discovery the unknown becomes knowable, albeit never fully as the chain of cause and effect is infinite. However, we could hope to magnify our senses through some means and thus make strides in acquiring knowledge of basic principles. By working with virtual as if real realities could we magnify our senses towards discovering the intangible Ding an sich? Does a problematic understanding of a domain of which we can never really know relate to “psychology as the physics of VR?”

[Teilhard (1959)] characterized his The Phenomenon of Man as an attempt to see and to make others see what happens to us, and what conclusions are forced upon us, when we are “placed fairly and squarely within the framework of phenomenon and appearance …. To see or to perish is the very condition laid upon everything that makes up the universe” (p. 31). To see, to know, to understand our position within the universe, who and what we are and how we know. And then what happens when we know we know. Seeing, Teilhard says, is the whole of life. It brings fuller being in closer union. But, “union increases only through an increase in consciousness, that is to say in vision” (p. 31).

But our vision is two-fold. Subjectively, we are the center of our own perspective, the center of our observation. “Object and subject marry and mutually transform each other in the act of knowledge” [(Teilhard, 1959, p. 32)]. This “form of bondage” relinquishes, however, to an advantage when man, who “willy-nilly finds his own image stamped on all he looks at” by chance converges at the boundaries of experience, at the intersection of the interstices of consciousness, where not “only his vision, but things themselves radiate” (p. 32)!

In that event the subjective viewpoint coincides with the way things are distributed objectively, and perception reaches its apogee. The landscape lights up and yields its secrets. He sees. That seems to be the privilege of man's knowledge (p. 32).

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
  4. VR: A Metaphysical Testbed?
  5. Physics and Metaphysics
  6. The Mind-Body Relationship and VR
  7. Metaphysics and the Poetic Space
  8. Active Information, the Implicate Order, and Flow
  9. A Sense of Presence
  10. Conclusion
  11. References

Presence: being at the center of perspective of the observation while at the same time at the center of its construction. We are at the center of our perspective of our universe while at the same time at the center of its construction.

These are the very points made concerning our experience in virtual reality. VR users construct their knowledge, then dwell within it, exploring their understanding. In this light, virtual reality can be considered a metaphysical testbed, where the conceptual world, or the understanding of the knowing subject, merge with the experience of the virtual world, to yield a unity in knowing through a conflation of illusion and reality.

This unity of knowing yields to what is called presence. Yet, this knowing requires that we be skilled navigators of the nexus between the ideal and real because this is where illusion and reality meet. Yes, the very ambiguity of this nexus has been validated by science. But Bohr noted there is “set a fundamental limit to the analysis of the phenomena of life in terms of physical concepts … and the domain of biology … is characterized by teleological arguments” [(Bohr, 1934, p. 23)].

So what is the purpose of virtual reality? What is the message of this medium? Our science verifies for us an elusive order at the elementary level of existence. Our science also has brought us to an enhanced virtual reality. We do not abandon this empirical technique. Through our continued investigations we increase the reliability and power of our action. And through the rigor of our empirical realism we navigate the cusp of illusion and reality, aiming to understand it.

The metaphysics of virtual reality suggests a physics of information, one with concomitant powerful implications. Bohm [(Peat, 1997)] suggested that information be viewed as truly objective, that it occupies a central place in physics. Bohm spoke of the quantum potential in terms of a field of active information where possibility becomes actuality after a measurement has been registered. Making the measurement, as shown by Bohr, requires active participation of the observer.

Jung, much like Bohm, sounded a caution that “science is not useful until it abandons its exalted status as a goal in itself and sinks to the level of industry” [(Jung, 1983, p. 61)] Keeping this in mind, virtual reality media can be viewed as an industry of science, and thus viewed from a position of limitation. Concurrently, VR can be seen as opening to an increase of our action and participation, and thus perhaps to an increase in our experience of being through the knowing self.

From this perspective, virtual reality unavoidably involves the ultimate aspiration of humanity for fusion of the ideal and the real. VR also implicates Jung's observation that “man desires the gratification of his need to perceive a purposeful relation between cause and effect” [(Jung, 1983, p. 75)]. He said this need was instinctive, an a priori reference to transcendental causes that constitutes religion, raising man to the plane of science and philosophy, “and thence carries him off into infinity” (p. 74).

In every healthy, reflective person the simple need to satisfy the principle of causality develops into a metaphysical longing, into religion. When the first man asked: Why? and tried to investigate the reason for some change, science was born. But science alone does not satisfy anyone. It must be expanded into what DeWitte calls a philosophy ‘full of faith and enthusiasm, which alone merits the exalted name of wisdom’…. Man wants to know why and what for, just as he wants his own actions and those of his fellow men to have a purpose …. He knows that there is a meaning in nature, that the world conceals a mystery which it is the purpose of his life to discover [(Jung, 1983 pp. 71, 75)].

From this perspective, metaphysics itself becomes the physics of VR. And virtual reality becomes the empiricist's unavoidable metaphysical testbed in which the why? is asked, expanding the VR medium into a meta-medium where philosophy itself might answer. This is the meaning of the message of VR.

Footnotes
  • [1]

    This article is based on Rita Lauria's dissertation, submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Journalism and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, under the direction of Frank Biocca. Support for this work was provided by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation's Helen Landers Endowment.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
  4. VR: A Metaphysical Testbed?
  5. Physics and Metaphysics
  6. The Mind-Body Relationship and VR
  7. Metaphysics and the Poetic Space
  8. Active Information, the Implicate Order, and Flow
  9. A Sense of Presence
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
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