Remember that moment in ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’, when the bears are heading for home while Goldilocks is sleeping in baby bear’s bed? Small children find her behaviour rather strange, and an experiment involving a tube of sweets can help explain why. In this experiment, a child is offered a tube of sweets, only to find it actually contains something else. Plastic counters, perhaps. Next, the child is told that someone (who has not seen the tube before) is about to enter the room. The child is asked: What will the person expect to find in the tube of sweets? Small children say ‘plastic’, because they have not yet learned that other people’s knowledge of the world may be different to their own. This is also the reason why small children playing hide-and-seek sometimes stand in full view with their eyes closed. In their minds, they cannot see anything, so nobody else can see anything either! As for Goldilocks, the child knows that the three bears will soon enter the house, and they assume the little girl in the story must know this as well. So, why does she remain sound asleep, instead of running for her life?
In the previous essay, we saw how philosophy embarked on a failed quest to find the core self. Something else that has occupied philosophers’ minds through the ages is the nature of reality. What is it, in and of itself? Are we in a position to know? In concepts and thought experiments like ‘the veil of Maya’, ‘Plato’s Cave’, ‘Descartes’ evil deceiver’ and ‘Nozik’s Experience Machine’, we are invited to consider the possibility that reality as perceived by the mind is an illusion, or if not an illusion then a mere shadow of a far larger reality.
KANT SEE REAL LIFE?
Immanuel Kant gave much credence to the latter possibility. He was convinced that there had to be something ‘out there’ which ultimately caused conscious experiences and sense impressions, but he argued that we knew little of what this ultimate reality was like. This was because we did not perceive a pre-given world; the structures of the mind brought forth phenomena created as much by the mind as by whatever it is that is ‘out there’.
Scientific investigations into the human body and brain seem to validate Kant’s conclusion. Consider the structure of the retina. Neurons that are sensitive to colour are found only in the middle of the retina. Beyond the middle there are neurons that can only detect light and shade. What we see, then, is a world where everything on the periphery of vision is blurry and devoid of colour, with only those objects in the centre of vision showing full colour and sharp detail. But if you study your surroundings, you will notice that this is not how you perceive the world. So, the brain must perform ‘post-processing’ in order for you to see the world as it aught to look, rather than how it does look when captured by the retina.
Another fascinating discovery is just how little information from our sense organs actually reaches the brain’s internal processing areas. Something like ten billion bits of information is picked up by the retina every second. But, there are only about a million output connections in the optic nerve, which restricts the number of bits that can leave the retina to six million. Furthermore, by the time the information is fed into the visual cortex, various bottlenecks will have reduced the number to 1000 bits, and there is still more processing to be done before the visual information gets fed into the brain regions responsible for conscious perception. How much information from the outside world constitutes conscious perception? Less than 100 bits per second.
That is far too thin a stream of data to account for the richness of conscious perception. Early brain imaging technology like PET and fMRI gave us a picture of the brain in which most neurons lay quiet until needed for some activity. Recent advances in neuroimaging, however, show that the brain is always highly active. Some 60 to 80% of all energy used by the brain occurs in circuits unrelated to any external event. This discovery, plus the fact that in the visual cortex only 10% of synapses present are devoted to incoming visual information, leads to the conclusion that there is more than a grain of truth to what Kant believed: The mind creates the world as much as it simply perceives a pre-given reality.
The view from cognitive sciences suggests that what we perceive is a fantasy that coincides with reality — at least most of the time. However, the mind can be tricked into generating perceptions of ‘impossible’ realities, and some of these illusions seem to be useful to the world of avatars and alts. Read More
TWO: THE BIRTH OF THE SOUL AND THE DEATH OF THE SELF.
In philosophy, investigations into the nature of self-consciousness can be divided into two main theories. ‘Theories of self’ attempt to determine what kind of thing the self is, or attempt to show that it is not a ‘thing’ at all. ‘Theories of personal identity’ are primarily concerned with personal identity over time. In other words, they set out to explain why a person at one time is (or is not) the same self as someone at different times. Both theories are thought to be expressions of the concern that the self will endure. This suggests that, where there is evidence of a belief in an afterlife, one will find people who thought about the nature of the self.
That being the case, theories of self are very old indeed, with origins going back further than human history. Paleontologists have discovered Neanderthal graves in which the dead are buried along with carefully arranged stones. Anthropologists interpret such activity as signifying a belief in an afterlife. They look to traditional cultures in order to try and understand what kind of rituals and behaviours early hominids might have exhibited. In traditional cultures, deceased ancestors are considered to part of society, and people routinely communicate with them. One major way in which afterlife beliefs in these cultures differs from, say, Christianity, lies in the notion that becoming an ancestor is neither a reward for worthy living in this life, nor a punishment one must work to avoid. It is, instead, simply a part of life, like the transition from child to adult.
ONE: DOLLS AND ACTIVES.
In ‘Virals And Definitives In SL’ and other essays, I discussed the concept of the ‘Pairson’: A character in an online world that is controlled by two or more people in RL. This lead to various questions, not least of which was ‘to what extent does the character remain the same, if the person behind it has changed’?
A more common challenge to personal identity is to do things that other way around. That is, two or more avatars that are controlled by one RL individual. ‘Alts’, as they are commonly known. Broadly speaking, alts fall into two categories which I shall label ‘Actives’ and ‘Dolls’. Those who have watched Joss Whedon’s TV series ‘Dollhouse’ will recall that an ‘active’ is a person imprinted with a personality that is not their own. An ‘active’ alt, then, is one used for identity exploration. The type of roleplay that gets discussed the most seems to be gender-based: swapping between male and female avatars. But one can also explore alternate political outlooks, social classes, religious beliefs…anything society uses to categories a person as ‘this’ rather than ‘that’.
When they were not actives, the characters in ‘Dollhouse’ were kept in a ‘doll’ state. In this state they had virtually no personality or sense of individuality to speak of. In SL there are many reasons to use alts that do not necessarily involve identity exploration. With more than one avatar at your disposal, you can attend several events going on simultaneously across the grid. Another reason to have a doll alt is privacy. Some residents are very well-known and can be overloaded with IMs from friends, associates, clients etc. Such people sometimes create an alternate identity, tell nobody else who is behind it, and enjoy the peace and quiet anonymity can bring. Scarp Godenot pointed out yet another reason to use a doll alt:
“An alt is a good way to go to a live review of your art and hear the truth”.
‘I’m the urban spaceman baby, here comes the twist: I don’t exist’ – Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band.
On the 23rd June 2009 at 3:23 pm (pst), Gwyn said something rather strange. It probably did not strike her as such, and is not likely to seem odd to you either. That is because we are not evolved to understand death. But, we are jumping ahead of ourselves. First, I should reveal just what it was that Gwyn said. Here it is:
“Ooh, you were talking about Extie… Her laptop completely broke down, but she’s well and healthy – just SL®-less until she gets a new one!”
So what is so strange about that? It is the fact that Gwyn acted as if I still existed, even though a crucial part of the system that allows me to be in SL had broken down. Since I am a digital person (a character that exists exclusively online, puppeteered by someone else in RL) how can I be ‘well and healthy’ if my primary cannot login to SL? Surely I no longer exist?
‘Pierre goes cross-eyed, trying to understand the implications of the slug’s cosmology’
In the discussion concerning science fiction, we saw how such stories can occasionally predict the future. However, like most forecasts they are rarely completely accurate. Jules Verne anticipated submarine warfare- but against wooden vessels rather than armoured battle fleets. The 1950s visions of space exploration missed out the role that digital computers would play in such scenarios, instead deffering the task of mapping out the details of missions to human navigators armed with slide rules. As for science fiction tales like ‘Neuromancer’ and ‘The Matrix’, our actual VR worlds fail to match up to these visions in a couple of ways. Firstly, you do not, generally speaking, connect to such worlds by plugging a cable into your brain or by wearing glasses that beams the world onto your retina. The latter technology is used to a very limited extent, but is certainly nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in ‘Neuromancer’.