Not long ago I was at one of my favorite bars here in Portland, reading a William Gibson novel in the twisting light that radiated from a nearby fire-pit. A stocky lad with a baby face stood nearby, warming his rain-drenched body in its warming rays.
“Whatchu reading?” he asked.
I showed him the book: Neuromancer. He asked what it was about, and I explained as best I could.
“So you’re into that kind of thing, huh?” A hint of judgement lingered in his tone. “Virtual reality and all that? Don’t you think it’d be better to just do things the real way?”
A dangerous question to ask me, I assure you, but one I was more than willing to engage with. Thus far I’d gathered he was the outdoorsy type, and from my past experiences in Portland I knew that meant my blasphemous love of technology and seemingly non-hippie hopes for humanity weren’t going to be easily accepted. So I edged the conversation towards something a bit more natural.
“Have you ever done psychedelics?” I asked.
His face tightened in surprise, obviously not expecting me to be a psychonaut. “Of course.”
“And you had experiences that transcended the physical, yes? I mean, you hallucinated and broke through the veil and glimpsed the otherside and felt immersed into a unity with something… beyond.”
He smiled, and a small laugh escaped his lips. “That’s one way to put it.”
“And did it feel real?”
“More real than anything else I’ve ever found,” he snapped with some pride.
‘Yet nothing happened to your body, did it? You never actually went anywhere, or experienced some alternate reality. It was all a hacking of your synapses and your neurotransmitters. When virtual reality hits its stride, it will be the same. You won’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s virtual.”
He looked smug. “But even if that’s the case, then why not just do the real thing? Why do we need to lie to ourselves with technology?”
“Because you’re limited here,” I replied, gesturing to the real world around us. “But in the virtual world you could be a god. You could have lunch on top of the alps, dinner in Bali, then fall asleep in London.”
His eyes lit up. “Ah, see. Now you’re talking about my speciality. I’m a climber. And I can’t imagine what the point would be of climbing to the top of the alps if you didn’t earn your way there.”
“The view, I imagine, would be well worth the point.”
“But it wouldn’t mean anything. Not if you didn’t struggle to get it. Not if you didn’t think you could die on the way up or were doing something no one else could do.”
And thus we reached the core of the “Virtual Reality vs Reality” argument—and also one of the biggest philosophical questions that has tormented the existentially-prone for millennia:
Can there be good without bad?
Is the greatest enrichment of our lives the fact that we know it’s not infinite, that we will, in fact, die?
William James once said: “Mankind’s common instinct for reality… has always held the world to be essentially a stage for heroism.”
Ernest Becker, who wrote a splendid book called Denial of Death, went on to explain that in order to feel heroic we must face our fear of death—an ever-present fear that is so inherently strong within us that we must constantly put effort towards repressing it in order to simply function in our day to day lives:
“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
But repression is always searching for an outlet. So is the overcoming of death what this stranger-at-the-bar is addicted to, the tapping into a shadow subconscious that yearns for liberation? Is he attempting to cultivate any activity that might provide a sense of heroism and allow him to tap into that primal fear that makes him feel fully alive?
If so, doesn’t it seem these heroics in the face of death might limit us to a sort of escapism that only weakens the enjoyment we might find from other aspects of our lives?
If we put aside our culturally-indoctrinated fear of death, could we find a new freedom that allows us to find that primal sense of joy in other ways? Where we can find bliss in the mundane, becoming inspired by the simple and peaceful moments rather than just from the uncomfortable and daunting ones. Is this building of an ecosystem of risk around ourselves so that we have an opportunity for heroics negatively affecting our personal lives? Or perhaps even all of society?
Sam Keen, who wrote the forward for Denial of Death and who is quite an authoritative figure on the subject himself, explains:
“The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and achieve a heroic self-image. Our desire for the best is the cause of the worst.”
Illustration By: Benedict Blyth
It seems to me that this desire of heroism is a form of inflated ego—that same seed from which spawns selfishness, greed, and xenophobia. It is what drives men to build statues of themselves so that they live on forever in myth, or birth only strong male progeny that will carry the family name on into infinity. And in these materialistic incarnations meant to ward off the fears of mortality, we steer ourselves farther and farther away from the one death that offers us the greatest chance at heroics and fulfillment in every moment: the ego-death.
Through the fear of judgement from others, heroic-craving men and women spend their time attempting to build immortal anchors of self in reality, not realizing they’re worsening the narcissism that makes them think they are somehow more important than others. Not realizing that what they’re really building is a reliance on other people, a weakness that makes them fear being alone and that forces their happiness to be dependent on receiving the constant validating praise of others.
And here we get to the crux of my argument, the true issue that I think deeply threatens our species with its reliance on the presence of the bad in order to feel good:
We’ve become so addicted to doing what we think we will be liked for that we blindly pass on doing the things that truly fulfill us.
To see what I mean, let’s jump back to the climber at the bar and his requisite need to face the looming specter of death to enjoy himself. Is climbing an activity he actually enjoys because it pushes him to hone his physical self, because it gains him views of vast vistas, and because he finds solace in the silence of being on a mountainside without the overstimulation of society?
Is he hoping that the story he’ll be able to tell afterwards will make him appear heroic? Does he yearn for the praise from those who don’t possess the skill of climbing or who are too afraid to do it? Is he hoping the tales of his bravery upon the mountainside might spread as timeless stories that provide him some sense of security against his looming mortality? Is he hoping his renown will garner him more friendships and sexual conquests? If not, then why not just engage in the virtual mountain climbing that provides the same experience?
Now I do not mean to imply judgement of this stranger; I only mean to explore with you the questions that fell through my mind when he told me it wouldn’t “mean” anything to climb a mountain in VR, even if he couldn’t tell a difference. When I heard that claim, my consciousness immediately dove through the aforementioned corridors of my mind and navigated down deeper to where eastern philosophy had set up shop with grandiose comfort. Once there I immediately started perusing the lessons of that mindful realm to find the answer to his question of meaning without struggle. What I found was a cornerstone in the very foundation of my psyche, and so I quickly replied: “What about living in the moment? Why can’t you simply love a moment for the connection to self and your surroundings that it provides without needing it to be the bookend of a struggle?”
“Because choosing to dedicate yourself to something in spite of the pain is what makes something valuable.”
“So you think the view from the top of Everest wouldn’t be beautiful to you if you were able to teleport to it?”
“Of course it’d be beautiful, but . . . “
His words lingered, so I picked up the trail. “But what? Why does there have to be more? Can’t you do something simply out of the love for it rather than for the fear it brings?”
The conversation only went a short while further before his friend joined and quickly diverted the conversation away from our “too-serious” topic, but obviously (since I’m writing this now) I wasn’t done considering the implications.
You choose the value of your experiences.
Just like how psychedelics and virtual reality provide a trip that takes us to another world of perception, I think travel similarly showcases our innate desire to enjoy a moment for its singularness rather than for its threats to us.
It seems to me our love of travel comes largely from the love of getting lost in the moment, away from the familiar schedules. That’s the gift of travel we all cling to: the timelessness. I don’t know anyone who says their favorite part of travel is the fear of dying to a foreign criminal or struggling to find a place to sleep; it’s the escape from the struggle we yearn for, the escape from the need to be heroic around people who can pass lasting judgement upon us. Without worrying about staying in a place where we might build a reputation, we’re free to be anyone we want, free to choose self over heroics.
Without worrying about staying in a place where we might build a reputation, we’re free to be anyone we want, free to choose self over heroics.
So it would seem to me that no moment—whether it be risk-free or not—is ever imbued with an inherent meaning that goes any deeper than that which we choose to give it. That’s why we all have different hobbies and passions, because we don’t all derive the same meaning from the same experiences; rather, it is up to each of us as individuals to decide how valuable an experience is to us, regardless of its threat to our well-being; ie: I don’t go swimming in rivers because I know I’ll die in 50 years, but because I enjoy the feeling of floating effortlessly with the sky above me and the sun radiating on my skin. At no point does the fear of drowning make it feel more worthwhile. Perhaps this is why Taoist often consider the Tao to be synonymous with a river: effortless bliss, rich with relaxation and free from a need to control(to be heroic) as you float along naturally.
If anything, the prospect of death—especially for those who believe in an afterlife—actually seems like more of a curse. It seems to provide us an excuse to avoid living fully, a justification that allows us to waste away in cubicles, cars, and on couches because we know that ol’ paradise lies at the end. Ironically, this paradise is a place where there is no struggle or pain or death, and therefore is exactly the representation of that which so many people feel an adverse reaction to when considering virtual reality and its lack of meaning. Therefore, immortality doesn’t seem to be what would make life’s moments meaningless, but rather it seems that it’s your own choices that do that, through you own hesitance to invest into the things that truly fulfill you rather than the things that make you feel heroic.