When I was in college, I had a cockatiel named Charlie.
Charlie Bird joined me in my first apartment home at the end of my freshman year. I moved into that studio in May of 1984, and it was a special place, vintage 1970’s style, with Kermit-green shag carpet, and mod silver, blue and green foil wallpaper in the kitchen.
I love Shakespeare, and I thought it would be great fun to have a bird that could quote Hamlet. So I toiled, recording a half-hour cassette, repeating, “To be or not to be? That is the question,” over and over until my eyes crossed. Whenever I left the apartment, I would hit the play button. Two weeks later, Charlie had, “To be or not to be” under his belt. He never managed, “that is the question.”
With my Shakespearian cockatiel, I thought — what next? Oh, Descartes, of course. So another laboriously prepared cassette, a thirty minute recitation of “I think, therefore I am.”
Charlie’s rendition became, “I think the I am.”
He could also say his own name, my name, and Jenny Cat (obviously my cat), although it came out as Yenny Cat. Also, he could call the cat, “Here, kitty, kitty kitty.” And so we would be treated with combinations of his vocabulary strung into sentences, such as, “to be or not be, Yenny Cat? I think the I am.” Charlie and Jenny and I had many adventures, including a cross-country trip from New Orleans to Seattle and back, camping in places like Arches National Park. But those are stories for another time.
When we talk about virtual reality, it is natural to come to the discussion of the nature of reality. What is real?
Cartesian metaphysics are problematic, but still a regular part of a philosophical discussion of the nature of reality. Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) was one of “the first to abandon scholastic Aristotelianism, because he formulated the first modern version of mind-body dualism from which stems the mind-body problem, and because he promoted the development of a new science grounded in observation and experiment, he has been called the father of modern philosophy.” The concept of mind-body dualism has been challenged effectively — the idea of the soul/mind existing separately from the physical body is criticized as the problem of the “ghost in the machine.” While Descartes’ concepts have been widely refuted in the 20th century (Consciousness Explained), they continue to be engaging — and part of the discussion.
Another possible mark of reality we could focus on is the resistance it puts up: as the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick put it, reality is that which, if you stop believing in it, does not go away. Things we just make up yield to our wishes and desires, but reality is stubborn. Just because I believe there is a jam doughnut in front of me doesn’t mean there really is one. But again, this definition is problematic. Things that we do not want to regard as real can be stubborn too, as anyone who has ever been trapped in a nightmare knows. And some things that are real, such as stock markets, are not covered by this definition because if everyone stopped believing in them, they would cease to exist.
There are two definitions of reality that are much more successful. The first equates reality with a world without us, a world untouched by human desires and intentions. By this definition, a lot of things we usually regard as real – languages, wars, the financial crisis – are nothing of the sort. Still, it is the most solid one so far because it removes human subjectivity from the picture.
The second equates reality with the most fundamental things that everything else depends on. In the material world, molecules depend on their constituent atoms, atoms on electrons and a nucleus, which in turn depends on protons and neutrons, and so on. In this hierarchy, every level depends on the one below it, so we might define reality as made up of whatever entities stand at the bottom of the chain of dependence, and thus depend on nothing else.
This definition is even more restrictive than “the world without us” since things like Mount Everest would not count as part of reality; reality is confined to the unknown foundation on which the entire world depends. Even so, when we investigate whether something is real or not, these final two definitions are what we should have in mind.
Then there is a very interesting article from Nick Bostrom: Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? So many things — we shall have to continue the discussion over many posts.
From my viewpoint, I think, therefore I exist. I have a corporeal life and I have a digital life. My digital life is divided into the two dimensional realm, such as this blog, Facebook, email correspondence, shopping, and information gathering activities. And then there is my 3D world in Second Life where I exist as Francesca. She is part of me. I am part of her. Her blue skin and white hair represent how I feel following losing my dear husband after a long cancer battle, and then my own fight with cancer. I finished chemo in March.
As a resident of a virtual world, I’ve been treated to my share of semi-insulting comments. There is a tendency for people to denigrate what they do not understand. Jo Yardley gives the two common statements that I’ve heard: “I don’t need a Second Life because I have a real life” and “People in Second Life don’t have a first life.” Her response is, “One life may be enough for you, but I want more.”
I have been to the valley of the shadow, and returned to the land of the living, but altered. I realized how much I missed my virtual world, and I’m so happy to be back. Second Life is real. It is simply another form of whatever reality really is. On Sunday, I sat with a group of nine avatars from different countries who volunteer at New Residents Island to assist people new to the world. We discussed various things, including how to help newbies with lag problems. Later, I met a dear friend and we took a balloon ride as we talked about everything — solved the world’s problems (I’m sure you woke up Monday morning feeling relieved — problems all sorted 🙂).
And for those of you wondering what kind of corporeal life I have – it’s busy and full. Life with my teenage daughter is a joy and a challenge. I manage an academic department at the college level, meet friends out for dinner and, have started dating. And I’m traveling again; I returned to Italy in June with a good friend who helped me through chemo. Did I mention I love to cook? Perhaps I should add a side category – Francesca’s Kitchen. I would say, I feel with great certainty, augmented reality and virtual reality will be as natural a part of your lives as your current morning commute.
I have been excited about what virtual worlds can add to our lives, ever since I entered Second Life in 2007. My understanding of this brave new world has evolved as I have lived here and experienced it. Real? It is as real as my corporeal life. Meaningful? The beauty of the world itself is eclipsed by the friendships I have made and continue to make here.
This morning, I danced in a space created by an artist, my blue body given the gift of a professional dancer’s skill. I moved in space to the rich sound of strings, cello dominant.
I think the I AM.
Thank you, Charlie Bird. Your affirmation still cheers me, and brings to mind Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:
I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me;
It flings my likeness after the rest, and true as any, on the shadow’d wilds;
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun;
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.
Images from iStockPhoto and my own in-world work.