Does Reality Matter (Or Does Fiction Suffice)?

Picture of By Cindy Zheng

By Cindy Zheng

Ready, set your VR headset, go!

In our current age, what once seemed like abstract, futuristic ideas are becoming clearer by the day. Some might say we are already living in a dystopia, spending more time in the digital than in the physical space. Virtual reality (VR) games are becoming commonplace, social media is replacing human connections, and the metaverse is also creeping up on us. But can those digital or virtual worlds ever truly compare to the real world? What do we even mean with the ‘real world’? Can we say intangible realities are less real, just because they are not out of physical matter?

When it comes to VR, most people will think about games, or other entertainment purposes. Video games might have been what initially pushed the VR market. But it was similar with the Internet; in the 1990s, five of six images that were shared online were pornographic. The demand for pornography accelerated innovation, online pornography providers were pioneers in web technologies and online business models. Those things are applied in almost every other area nowadays, while pornography now only occupies a small part of it.

So VR is likely not the future of gaming, but the future of much more. And to go a step further, the metaverse has an even greater ambition. Described as an infinitely large, persistent, digital and interactive information space, it’s something that has already existed with us for a long time, but was just never recognized as such.


Everything Is Possible

George Bloom already talked about the upcoming significance of the metaverse 7 years ago. VR is just a part of it, the concept is much grander: A digitized version of our world that makes our wildest dreams tangible. It’s supposed to be the universe, but better.

It doesn’t exist just yet. However, it is an accepted prognosis that the metaverse is going to be an all-encompassing phenomenon. Why else would Mark Zuckerberg decide on it to be the new direction for his company?

If the metaverse is going to be another reality for us, the ones to create it “will become more powerful than any government and be a god on Earth”, according to Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney. With such a world in our hands, anything is possible. There will certainly be no limit in an artificially created world.


The Dream Of Forever

Have you ever seen a movie, played a game, or read a book and wished to be part of that fictional world? The metaverse could be the key to achieving it.

One could finally study at Hogwarts, wander through Middle-Earth, or stay in our world but visit any country, and even different time periods.

Black Mirror already envisioned this possibility with San Junipero. It’s the one episode with a happy ending, allowing its characters to choose an eternity of youth and hedonistic pursuits by uploading their minds onto a virtual world, functionally gaining immortality.

Now, for many and myself included, it seems way too abstract and artificial to choose the fictional world over the natural one, living as an avatar. But a virtual reality might not even be that different from the reality we know.


Our Imagined Reality

In the newly released VR documentary Goliath, a schizophrenic person copes with his illness by playing video games, the only way for him to access a world of human interaction and friendship. VR games and films such as this have empirically shown to be able to improve medical conditions such as chronic pain.

In cases like these, the option of a virtual world seems much more acceptable. But a second reality is not just viable for those that cannot live to their full potential in their bodies. One could argue that we each already live in our own kind of reality.

The papers we read shape our priorities, the food we eat determines our wellbeing, and the music we listen to manages our moods. It determines our preferences, our fears, our guilty pleasures, our political standing.

It’s also true for society collectively: Brexit has shown how specifically digital lives impact our real lives already. In an interview with Sam Harris, historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari argues that society only works through imagined realities anyway. We found our interactions and beliefs on things that only exist in our imagination – such as our financial system, religions, corporations, nations and rights. Things that don’t have an inherent value. We put immense value in a piece of paper, which is not its actual value, but our collectively imagined value as a society.

Yuval states: “We humans do not live in the same objective reality as animals do, but [fictional ones], self-invented, only existing in our imagination. [Fictional reality] has become more powerful, more all-immersing, and we live inside these dreams. We have embraced them [and] are heavily dependent on things that do not exist, objectively.”


We See The World As We Need It To Be

So according to Yuval, humans have already been largely living in a kind of virtual reality, projecting mental ideas onto the physical world. In his opinion, living inside a computer simulation does not lessen the meaning of said life – we have been doing this for millennia anyway.

The argument for wanting to live in the real world loses even more foundation when understanding that we even view the world around us quite inaccurately. That reality is likely very different from our perception of it is not just an esoteric or philosophical belief, but a scientific understanding of our consciousness. Biologically, there is evidence that we are consciously just seeing a small sliver of reality.

About a third of the brain’s cortex is engaged in vision. But not all those neurons and synapses are needed if our vision was working like a camera. The eye does work similarly to a camera, but the rest of our neurons are doing something else: constructing everything that we see.

While we do not construct the whole world at once, we construct what we need to see at that moment. Think of optical illusions which show how our minds create movement and structures that do not exist outside of our minds – our brains reconstruct reality to make it more tangible. Evolution has not granted us with clairvoyance, but with something that Donald Hoffman compares to a “3D desktop, hiding the complexity of the real world, and guide adaptive behavior.” Space and time as we perceive it are our desktop, and physical objects are icons on that desktop.


It’s Pretty Meta Already

This pretty much means that we will never know if this world exists, if anything exists. And considering we only need our human consciousness to see reality as we do, this makes it easy to manipulate our sense of reality.

Frank Steinecke talks about studies that show how feasible it is to incite belief in users that they are in reality – walking in a circle in real life can feel like exploring a city in VR. Steinecke states that: “We can easily assume that within the next 5-10 years or so, we will not be able to distinguish visually computer-generated from real world content.”

That’s why Elon Musk even argues that our current reality only has a billionth chance of being a holistic reality, instead of a computer simulation. Since the only way we can perceive this world is through our brain, the limited perspectives of our minds are all we have, something called the egocentric predicament.

The idea of the own little world we have created and perceive as the external world is termed phaneron. The real world does not necessarily have much to do with it. Followers of solipsism go even further, believing only in one’s own mind and that anything else is fictional.

Even Galileo stated: “I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on […] reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be […] annihilated.”


The Line Between Real And Virtual

To sum it up, reality is a pretty incongruent and fuzzy idea. If we take it literally, we already live inside a virtual world, since the word “virtual” itself is ambiguous and has a lengthy history. If something is virtual, then it is very close, nearly completely, and effectively the same as the subject – but not essentially true.

What then, is the small thing that still divides our reality from an upcoming fictional one? Maybe instead of thinking what doors can be opened with VR, we should be asking which ones it will close.

Real side effects of experiencing life-simulations and VR have already been discovered: dissociation and derealization. Our virtual life is so hyper-real that back in the real world, we may feel detached and tired, losing our sense of being in this world. In short, a VR hangover.

Losing touch of reality makes sense – the metaverse transports you to another world, removing you from your current one. Now, people suffering from chronic pain can benefit from that, because it takes away their attention from their suffering – it distracts them.

But since not everyone is in chronic pain, this distraction will be used to escape from something else. It might be like the way we already binge TV shows or scroll on social media to escape the daily trot. But VR is different – it is way more immersive, way more enticing, way more believable.

If VR will be used to distract oneself from reality, to escape from life – if there is the option to enter a fictional dream world instead of facing hardships – is that a purely positive thing?

Yuval argues: “Certainly, suffering is real. […] I would say that if you really want to explore reality, the best place to start is with suffering, because it is the most real thing in the world. With happiness, it is very difficult to tell […], many times people [are] deluding themselves. That’s difficult. With suffering, it’s much easier to know […], it’s definitely real.”

In an artificial and utopian reality like the one the metaverse is promising to be, suffering and anything alike it would be eradicated. But reality contains pain and burdens. Suffering is possibly the most essential part of it. It’s not easy to determine what the concrete consequences of eradicating suffering would be, but it is a given that there will be some, if not many.


What Will We Lose?

While writing this article, I realized that my longtime favorite movie Inception is just about a guy deceiving another by putting him through a lengthy (and very advanced) VR experience. The entire goal of the operation is to not let him recognize that he is in a simulation, but in a dream.

I can still feel the uneasiness from the characters, about not knowing whether this is actual reality or just another dream. And maybe one day, we won’t care about it anymore, either.

The emergence of the internet and digital media have undeniably and irreversibly changed generations in a fundamental way. Law enforcement, legislation, and society as a whole have done anything but caught on. Adding the metaverse to this mess is going to complicate it further instead of solving the issues at hand.

Of course, no one was expecting it to have such a big impact on our world and lives. But we have definitely lost something due to the internet, and it is likely to be repeated with the metaverse.


You Decide Your Reality

While the realization of virtual reality or simulated realities relies on computing power and that technology develops further, it relies, arguably even more, on our values as a society, as humans.

Are we willing to go further, to let simulated realities become the definite reality for humanity? Are we willing to not differentiate between our reality and the virtual counterpart?

Well, it’s not here quite yet, so it’s hard to say. The metaverse may make you excited to bring your greatest fantasy worlds to life or horrified in a way that urges you to live as a hermit in a secluded forest away from any civilization. 

There is no absolute right or wrong way here. According to research, we don’t and will never know what true reality is like anyways. In the words of Alan Watts: “What is reality? Obviously, no one can say, because it isn’t words! It isn’t material; that’s just an idea. It isn’t spiritual; that’s also an idea, a symbol. Reality is… this!” 

It’s of little use to ruminate too long. Instead, let’s consciously live in the way we find best. Whatever reality might look or be like for you.


Cover: Cindy Zheng

Edited by: Laurent Hebette

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