Clearing Common Misconceptions about Reality and Virtual Reality


Clearing Common Misconceptions about Reality and Virtual Reality

There are a lot of misconceptions about “reality” (and “virtual” reality).

What we think of as “reality” is not how it really is. In fact, we have no way of directly experiencing reality. Our brains sit inside a dark enclosure without any direct access to the outside world. It is our sense organs like eyes, ears, skin etc. that have access to the outside world. Our sense organs receive signals generated by reality and they come together in our brains. Our brains then hallucinate images of the real world based on these signals. We think that these hallucinations are reality.

And even our sense perception is extremely limited. For example, we see only about 0.0035% of the entire electromagnetic spectrum! And even that, we don’t actually see a seamless picture that we imagine we are seeing. Our eyes keep darting from place to place and taking snapshots. Not everything is in focus, but we think it is. The various signals take some some time to arrive at our brain, some of them may even be out of sequence. Our brain stitches all of that together into a single consistent image. All it cares about is that it be consistent and understandable based on everything else you may have understood before, and you can navigate yourself safely.

Don Hoffman has actually proposed that the image of reality we see inside our brains is akin to the desktop interface of a computer. The computer has electrons whizzing about through circuits and disk drives and so on, but we don’t see that. What we see are icons on a screen that we manipulate. Analogously, what we see is a picture consisting essentially of a bunch of icons, albeit far more complex icons than what we typically encounter in a computer interface, that represent aspects of reality. What they really look like or feel like or sound like is not accessible to us, and in fact, not necessary for our survival at all. In fact, trying to know them at that level of fidelity and detail would be a waste of precious brain resources, so we never evolved the ability to do that. According to Hoffman, his theory isn’t just a conjecture, but can be proven that evolution necessarily leads to it.

Also, when we dream, our brains basically create exactly the same type of hallucinations that we see during waking hours. The only way they differ from what we see while awake is that they are not confirmed by our sense perceptions. In virtual reality, we create the same type of dreams and add some of these sense perceptions back into the dreams.

So, in terms of actual experience in the brain, there is really no difference between reality and virtual reality. And once VR gets to a sufficiently high resolution, even the sense perceptions will catch up, and maybe even exceed the experience of real reality.

Thus, the only way that real reality has any privileged status is that it is the “substrate” on which everything exists, so if the substrate disappears, everything disappears.

But if you are willing to set that aside for a minute (suspension of disbelief), you can open a huge world of possibilities. The trade off is very compelling. It is like you are suddenly moving from a fixed 3D world that you can’t control much into a hyperdimensional world with unlimited degrees of freedom and control! It removes all the constraints of this “prison” called reality. For example, you can quickly visit lots of different places, have experiences that you don’t have the time or skills or freedom to enjoy, and experience things that can’t even exist because they break the laws of reality. You have only one life, but within that one life, you can essentially live multiple lives.

A long time ago, Buddha said that we should ignore our desires and accept reality as it is. Did that advice work for us? We paid a lot of lip service to it, but not much real change occurred on the ground. Instead, we’ve found more and more ways of bending reality to our desires. I believe that we will ever give up this desire to treat our imagination as superior to reality and never give up our need to make reality look like our imaginations. 

And it’s not just that. In the process, we are making our real environment unsustainable. Reality was willing to play along for a while, but now it is showing signs of strains. So, I believe that if we are never going to give up on our desires, it would actually be more sustainable for us to satisfy them in the virtual world. VR is actually the best long term solution to climate change / sustainability! (It is also a solution to many social issues, but that’s a different topic.)

And this doesn’t apply only to VR per se. Anything that creates an immersive imaginary experience, starting from books to videos to concerts to various ways of generating altered states of consciousness fall into this category. So what I am saying applies to any such technology.

There is one more dimension to this. There is this misunderstanding that before we created technology, people lived “more real” lives. This is not entirely true. Most people, most of the times, have lived in imaginary worlds that they created  for themselves inside their heads. This is why we have so many myths, ideologies, religions, customs and social roles we are required to play. People have always lived inside one such virtual world or another. Even when they were not under the influence of myths or stories created by society, they created those for themselves. They created ideas of who they are, what their life purpose is, and so on and lived within those constraints.

In fact, I would say that a person having a virtual experience inside a VR rig is having a more real experience than someone living in a cave in ancient times. At least in the VR case, some of what he is experiencing is being confirmed by actual signals from the VR apparatus. The man in the cave made even those up and in general lived inside a story that either he constructed for himself, or more likely, his culture imposed on him. 

So the point is that virtual reality is not all that different from or inferior to reality, and in fact has many benefits for human flourishing and sustainability. As these “immersive” technologies improve, this will become more and more obvious.

Here are some fairly well known scientists / authors talking about similar ideas:

1. The Case Against Reality (Donald Hoffman):

2. We exist inside the story that the brain tells itself (Joscha Bach):

3. Reality is Broken (Jane McGonigal):