What’s So “Real” About Virtual Reality?

The Oxford Dictionary of English (3rd edition) primarily defines virtual as ‘almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition.’ The secondary definition under the concept of computing defines virtual as ‘not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so’. It then defines reality as ‘the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them’ and ‘the state or quality of having existence or substance’. The term virtual reality is traced back to the writer and researcher Jaron Lanier.

The tension between the supporters and detractors of virtual reality is between those who demand a literalist view of seeing the world ‘as it is’ versus those who view the world through metaphor and creative imagination. The debate goes as far back as Plato’s Republic where in Books 2, 3, and 10 Socrates makes the case that poets should be exiled/banished from the ideal city if they display contempt or disregard for the divine ‘reality.’ Creative people have as their ultimate responsibility to express their art in a truthful way and not exploit and manipulate audiences with false escapism, magical interventions from the Gods, or glorious heroes defying physical realities of time and space. That pretty much sums up our modern entertainment industry.

Although the main targets of neo-atheists such as Richard Dawkins (The Magic of Reality), Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, et al. are religious institutions and ‘other forms of superstition’, I think the essence of their complaint is exactly the same as Plato’s: discovering how the universe works and how humans live in that universe is its own reward. In that sense, Dawkins and company are the ultimate Platonists of the 21st century.

While there is a wide range of views within the supporters of virtual reality, they converge on the importance of ‘experiencing’ and ‘sensing’ the activity and less on its physical reality. The virtual experience is received in our minds and then experienced through our body. It could be argued that many cultural experiences are entered through our minds first rather than our bodies; an excellent overview of this is Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson’s Infinite Reality and Andrew Evans’ This Virtual Life.

For proponents of virtual reality, their primary concern is a deeper emotional truth or experience than what the Platonic literalists would allow. Virtual reality contains a visceral power for us, in many ways similar to the emotional power of the Mass as experienced by a Christian in the Middle Ages; there is an element of transcending your personal limits. An interesting take on this theme is J.C. Polkinghome’s Exploring Reality.

To all our experiences, real and virtual!

Phil D.



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