Last night I reread Brian Whitworth's article "The Physical World As a Virtual Reality," which I mentioned in a previous post. Whitworth argues that the physical universe is a virtual reality (VR) environment. Although I lack the specialized knowledge necessary to evaluate his more technical arguments, I do find this viewpoint extremely provocative.
Whitworth's perspective on certain problems in physics is certainly worth considering. For instance, it has often been noted that subatomic particles seem to have some sort of rudimentary intelligence or awareness that affects the way they behave, yet it seems impossible that such entities could think for themselves. But as Whitworth points out, if the particles are the result of calculations carried out by an information processor, "this problem disappears."
The VR model may also be useful in explaining the "fixed maximum" of the speed of light: "That there is an absolute maximum speed could reflect a maximum information processing rate." Bizarre relativity effects may be a consequence of "processing load" -- "a high matter concentration may constitute a high processing demand, so a massive body could slow down the information processing of space-time, causing space to 'curve' and time to slow. Likewise, if faster movement requires more processing, speeds near light speed could affect space/time, causing time to 'dilate' and space to extend."
Many scientists have been intrigued by the uncanny simplicity of the mathematical laws of our universe. But as Whitworth observes, "In VR theory physical laws are simple because they must actually be calculated."
Nonlocal effects have been proven to take place at the quantum level (and, more recently, even at the macro level). Whitworth writes, "The processing that creates a virtual world is not limited by the space of that world, e.g. a CPU drawing a screen is no 'further' from any one part of the screen than any other. All screen points are equidistant with respect to the CPU, so VR processor effects can ignore screen distance, i.e. be nonlocal."
Perhaps the knottiest problem in quantum physics involves the apparent fact that particles exist only as probability waves until they are observed or measured; at the moment of observation, the wave function seemingly collapses to a single point. Whitworth: "Virtual reality 'screens' are typically only calculated when they are viewed, i.e. when an interaction occurs.... [VR theory could] solve the quantum measurement problem, as, if our reality is in effect a processing interface, an observer viewing an object could indeed create it. Similarly in an online virtual world the entire world is not calculated onscreen at once. The computer, for practical reasons, only calculates what the viewer chooses to view after they choose to view it, i.e. screen calculations are as required. If what we call reality is a multi-dimensional space-time interface, it would likewise be expected to be calculated only on demand."
All this is admittedly speculative, but highly intriguing. Naturally, the questions that occurred to me involve the issues usually discussed on this blog: consciousness and life after death. Whitworth apparently believes that his VR beings somehow develop their own consciousness spontaneously, as an emergent property. From my point of view, however, I would assume that consciousness precedes the development of the virtual world -- that, in fact, a world constructed of digital information manipulated by complex calculations logically presupposes an intelligence, and therefore a consciousness, capable of putting it all together in the first place.
For this reason, I think Whitworth is mistaken when he says that VR theory would necessarily humble us by showing that we are "less than we imagine." What would be "less than we imagine" is the physical world, including our own bodies, but not the consciousness that created this world and now interacts with it, which of course includes our own minds. At least in my interpretation, consciousness would be rather more than we typically imagine it to be, since it would be more real than the physical world, and, in fact, would be the source of the physical world.
As I see it, if we accept the VR model, we have to assume that consciousness, rather than emerging from the VR universe, is instead projected into the VR avatars by the same Consciousness (or a fragment thereof) that created this virtual world to begin with. I can't help but think of the upcoming James Cameron science-fiction movie Avatar, in which a wheelchair-bound man projects his psyche into an artificially created living organism that can survive on a hostile planet. (Incidentally, this scenario bears remarkable similarities to the 1957 Poul Anderson novella Call Me Joe, summarized here, but as far as I know, Anderson is uncredited in the movie.)
We might speculate, then, that the subjective consciousness of sentient beings operates through the VR brains of the avatars in order to interact in the physical (VR) world. However, this consciousness, having originated outside the VR environment, is not limited to the avatars' brains, and in some cases can transcend the virtual world and see the whole VR game as an illusion or as a vast interconnected structure with meaning and purpose built into it at a deep level. This would be the nature of transcendent mystical experiences, including some near-death experiences.
Upon death, consciousness no longer operates through the earthly brain at all, but that doesn't mean it becomes a disembodied essence. It continues to operate through a brain, only now it is the brain of the so-called "etheric double," an entity which apparently serves as an interface between consciousness and the VR physical body during life. (Discussion of the etheric double is found here and here.)
The etheric double does not have a counterpart in VR technology. The avatars in VR games aren't conscious, so the issue doesn't come up.
According to this view of the world, the only real things are consciousness and information. As Whitworth emphasizes, in a VR world, objects are independent of the observer but still not objective in the sense of existing on their own. They have no ultimate existence in and of themselves because they are generated by VR information processing. Also, as we have seen, physical objects manifest themselves only when we turn their attention on them; the directed focus of our consciousness is what causes the wave function to collapse, or, in VR terms, what causes the information processor to carry out the necessary calculations.
The whole physical world thus reduces to information with which we interact by focusing our attention selectively on different aspects of it. Transcendence involves becoming aware of the ultimate unreality of the virtual world -- like William Abbott's character A. Square rising out of Flatland. To repeat, the possibility of such transcendence is what we would expect if our consciousness does not originate in the virtual world and therefore is not limited to the virtual world.
The etheric double is usually described (by mediums, mystics, and clairvoyants) as "physical." This suggests that it, too, is a VR simulation like the rest of the physical world. Moreover, it would suggest that at least the lower planes of the spiritual world, including "Paradise" or Summerland, are also VR simulations, no less than our present earthly world. Note that the purported spirit of F.W.H. Myers, channeled by Geraldine Cummins in her books The Road to Immortality and Beyond Human Personality, repeatedly refers to Summerland as the Plane of Illusion or Illusion-land.
Ben Iscatus, who alerted me to Brian Whitworth's article in the first place, wrote an interesting review of Tom Campbell's trilogy My Big TOE in which he discusses the idea of different levels of reality. I haven't read the books, but what follows is Ben's summary of this part of Campbell's theory. For clarity, I have replaced the many acronyms with what I hope are the correct, or nearly correct, equivalents:
[Universal Oneness] discovers that changing its state regularly has value. The reality cells [which comprise Universal Oneness] can oscillate and their binary beat becomes organised Time. ... Time separates a ‘before state’ from an ‘after state’; time is a by-product created by the notion of change in consciousness....
[Oneness then ramifies into more and more "reality cells." They are] separated from each other in frequency (time)-separated mental spaces (dimensions), and each has its own evolving rules....
But how is Time used to separate realities? ... Time is said to be discrete, not continuous, with fundamental Planck-like scale units. The speed of light, c, evolved in our [physical universe] to be 3 x 108 m/s "conceptually defines the virtual size or conceptual spatial extent of a space-time reality cell". The smallest quantum unit of time in our [physical universe] might be the distance that c travels in that unit of time, say 10-44 seconds. In other words, the constant c is derived from time (frequency) and it takes 10-44 seconds for one of our ... spacetime reality cells to change its state from non-distorted to distorted.
But in [the nonphysical reality associated with our physical world], the smallest fundamental Time unit might be 10-62 seconds. In other words, [these reality] cells oscillate much faster. So for every 1018 ticks of [nonphysical reality] time, 1 unit of our time passes. Information travels much faster in [nonphysical reality]. This gives plenty of time for [the information processor] to do everything required to predict and back up [physical reality] events in its databases (the Akashic records)....
Beyond [the nonphysical reality dimension associated with our physical universe, the universal mind's] fundamental quantum of time might be (say) 10-80 seconds. So [the universal mind] has plenty of time to review all the various thought-experiments taking place in all its myriad VRs. To [the universal mind] we are stepped-down, and slowed down; very sluggish indeed.
In my opinion, this explanation of Time and Frequency is Tom Campbell’s most original contribution. It updates Spiritualist and Theosophical notions of concentric spheres separated by "vibrational" differences. Far from Time being meaningless in the hereafter, [Campbell's theory] suggests that [it] is actually very meaningful. Time is what separates realities and allows [Universal Oneness] to multi-task by way of [information processing].
Campbell developed his ideas, in part, on the basis of a number of out-of-body experiences which he can apparently bring about at will. For a time, he worked with the well-known OBEr Robert Monroe. I'm a little skeptical of some of Monroe's accounts, as I've discussed elsewhere. Still, the idea that reality has a number of different levels, planes, or dimensions is one that is found in virtually all mystical and spiritualist literature, and as Ben notes, these levels of existence are usually said to be separated by differences in "vibration."
I don't know much about VR or gaming - the only video game I've ever played was "Tomb Raider," years ago - but I do know that such games almost invariably have different levels, and the player has to move from one level to the next in order to attain the ultimate prize. There are shortcuts known to the cognoscenti which allow the player to skip ahead to a higher level at will. But if you don't know any shortcuts, and you fail to transcend a given level, you have to repeat your play on that level before you can advance. Many mystical traditions -- such as those recorded in the Tibetan Book of the Dead -- hold that at the moment of death, you can sometimes transcend the physical world altogether. If you fail in this attempt, you will remain trapped in the world of illusion, either living a new life on Earth (reincarnation) or continuing to live an embodied life on another illusory plane.
Possibly the people who design these games are re-creating, on an unconscious, archetypal level, the multi-level structure of reality itself.
Suppose that one's consciousness has been freed from one level of VR (Earth) and has not yet attained the next level (Summerland). For that intermediate period, it would have the opportunity (in some cases) to transcend and see all levels of the virtual world as an elaborate, but interconnected simulation. But most consciousnesses don't succeed in achieving (or maintaining) this level of insight, and so they go to the next level. The "tunnel" through which many NDErs pass may be a representation of moving from one VR level to the next -- a sort of temporary blackout of one's environment. With no information processing available between levels, consciousness is on its own.
Again, according to this view, all there is is consciousness or information. So either you are pure consciousness, or you are consciousness interacting with information in a virtual environment. (Or you are nothing at all, i.e. you cease to exist; but if consciousness is what's really fundamental, this may not be an option -- though the form of your consciousness could change so radically that you would not recognize yourself anymore.)
I realize I have gone rather far afield from Brian Whitworth's paper, and taken his arguments in a direction he would probably find unappealing, to put it mildly. But we each have to interpret these things in our own way. From my perspective, the VR theory, in combination with the spiritual traditions passed down over the millennia, may be a useful way of modeling our world.