I haven't been posting much lately, in part because I had computer problems that finally obliged me to get a new MacBook. But the other reason is that I find myself increasingly less interested in the endless back-and-forth of the survival debate. It seems that the same arguments are endlessly rehearsed, with Skeptics propounding some non-paranormal explanation for every NDE, OBE, apparition, past-life memory, and after-death communication ever reported, and treating each as if it were an isolated and rare event, while the pro-survival side comes up with more and more cases, only to be told that it's not enough (and even, according to some Skeptics, that none of it qualifies as evidence at all). Barring some breakthrough that will settle the matter once and for all, the debate, such as it is, appears likely to continue forever.
What does interest me these days is going beyond the empirical evidence, which has been aired pretty thoroughly on this blog and in countless books and on many other websites, and trying to formulate some kind of model that will make sense of things. Now, the first point to make about this is that it's an enterprise that cannot really succeed. What I mean is, no model is ever going to capture the full reality of what's going on. Any theoretical construct (much less a mere analogy or metaphor) will fail to encompass the complete range of the phenomena it's trying to cover. The menu is not the meal, the map is not the territory, etc. The value of a model is not that it is a complete or even an accurate representation, but that it can be useful. It is a way of organizing disparate observations into a more coherent whole. Its value is epistemological, not ontological; it can be an aid to thinking, even though it is by no means a perfect reflection of reality.
With that in mind, I'd say that the model that currently appeals most to me is the virtual reality model. I realize that this approach is open to the standard objection that we're just using the latest and most fashionable technology to conceptualize our world. As Newton's clockwork universe reflected the intricate clockwork mechanisms of his day, so we now turn to VR, the newest and coolest tech, to explain things in our time. This is true, but again, the goal is not to capture what is really going on, but to find a useful way of visualizing it. That being the case, it's not surprising that each new iteration of technology should provide us with new opportunities for metaphors and analogies. As long as we don't mistake the menu for the meal, we should be okay.
The virtual reality model is perhaps best summarized by words attributed to Roger Ebert shortly before his death: "It's all an elaborate hoax." Or perhaps by a well-known campfire song, which is more philosophically acute than most campers realize:
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream
Or by Prospero's soliloquy in The Tempest:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
It has much in common with Plato's theory of Forms or Ideas and with his allegory of the cave. It also has points in common with the broodings of mystics throughout the centuries, and with the insights of all those who are said to have experienced Cosmic Consciousness.
For me personally, it seems the richest and most satisfying model — though again, only a model, and not even a fully developed one, as yet — of reality. So what exactly is the virtual reality model?
Basically, it's the view that earthly life is a fully immersive role-playing game. This game is designed by our higher self, with which we are in only tenuous contact while embodied. The game is meant to be challenging and instructive. The stakes are, in one sense, real — we gain real wisdom and personal growth. In another sense, the stakes are illusory —Ebert's "elaborate hoax." Our physical gains and losses are of no real consequence, and even our joy and suffering are transient and ultimately trivial, no matter how powerfully they may affect us here and now. What matters is what we take away from our travails. As Kipling wrote in his most famous poem, If:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
The game is about winning and losing, but the real victories are those of the mind and spirit. Being embodied, we tend to forget this. And as might be expected, our immersion in the fully convincing virtual environment tends to become more complete over time, as we gradually forget whatever we knew of our origins. Children are known for not treating reality as fully real, blurring imagination and facts, and engaging in endless play. Adults usually grow out of all that. We settle in to our circumstances and become more firmly nested in the familiar "real world." Or as Wordsworth wrote in Intimations of Immortality:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Those who don't quite grow up, the mystics and dreamers, are derided by those practical types who, having more efficacy in the workaday world, tend to dominate the action here. But while these hardheaded realists are on top now, they often prove least insightful and least spiritually mature, and they are not learning the lessons that matter most. Ultimately, the last shall be first and the first shall be last; unless you become like a small child, you will not enter heaven's kingdom; the only treasure worth having is spiritual mastery, which is the pearl of great price.
Life on earth is hard and painful. There is no getting around this fact. Dr. Pangloss's encomia to "this best of all possible worlds" simply do not ring true for most of us. The "problem of pain" has vexed spiritual seekers of all descriptions. Why would a loving God or a beneficent universe allow so much pointless suffering? The usual explanation, that original sin and plain old human cussedness are responsible, doesn't account for such purely natural calamities as earthquakes, tidal waves, and malarial mosquitoes. And even human-caused catastrophes like war and tyranny plague those who are innocent of any wrongdoing. So what's it all about?
Well, just how interesting or instructive would any role-playing game be if there were no obstacles, hazards, and challenges? We seek conflict and drama in movies and novels — why not in the ultimate fictional story we've devised, the story of our own lives? An author does not shrink from making things difficult for his characters; he knows that the more they struggle, the better the narrative. Our higher self, with a kind of pitiless creativity, lays traps and snares for us as we navigate the virtual environment of our personal drama. To us, it may seem like sadism, just as an animal may perceive nothing but hostile intent in the jab of the veterinarian's needle. It takes a higher intelligence to know that the pain of the injection is the necessary price of avoiding rabies.
Moreover, while the game is planned in some respects, it is not planned out in detail. The players themselves can and will make pivotal decisions, writing their own script, which may deviate significantly from what the planners had in mind. Sometimes our higher self will nudge us back on track when we threaten to go too badly off course; others times, we are on our own. Like children learning to walk, we have to be allowed to fall.
But the real answer to the problem of pain is that the game, however real it seems to us while we are immersed in it, is only a game, and a brief one at that. It's a cliche that as people age, they look back on their lives and wonder where the time went. All those years look like only a moment — a lifetime seems like little more than a waking dream. I think this perception is correct. It is only a moment, only a dream. When viewed from the perspective of the higher self (a perspective as alien to us as the perspective of Spaceland is to a Flatlander), all this Sturm und Drang is only the passing agitation of troubled sleep.
Better be with the dead ...
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further.
Life's fitful fever is the restless excitement of the chase, the urgent pursuit of elusive goals, the playing of the game. Our seemingly real world — our virtual reality — affords us endless opportunities to strive and suffer. By playing the game, we learn and grow, or we fail to learn and repeat the same self-defeating mistakes. Either way, "it's all an elaborate hoax," and to the extent that we see through it, we become better players — more focused, more aware, less fearful.
And when we lose the need to win ... we've won.