Contribution to the VR contest by Alice Ripoll

The Metaphysics of VR

Why the virtual reality affects the nature of our actual reality.


    If reality changes, its metaphysics changes with it. That is, if reality becomes virtual, so does our experience of time, embodiment, space, and interpersonal relationships. Each is altered in unique ways, and each alteration reflects the interworkings of our experience of reality.

    ---------------- VIRTUAL REALITY AND TIME

    Our world is built on two fundamental notions - space, and time. Space shapes our reality, and time shapes our experience of it. In other words, time defines the limits of our experience of reality. On the most primitive level, time defines our limits through the phenomenon of mortality; we can only experience reality for however long our mortality allows us. When creating a virtual replica of our world, time is therefore an essential element. Nonetheless, almost no VR projects have replicated time truthfully. For instance, VR games allow the player to speed up, slow down and stop time. Of course, we can only attain such an ability in VR, but what does the inclusion of this feature in games say about our relationship with time?

    To answer this question, we ought to remember that the very nature of time is defined by the fact that it is beyond human control. Humans are entirely subordinate to time, especially its passing consequences. Allowing players to control time underlines human frustration with this subordination. Considering the close tie between time and mortality, a redefinition of our relation to time implies a different relation to death as well. Indeed, VR gives us an escape from the reality of time’s fatal passing. 78-year-old Josiane Sprimont, in an ARTE interview, explained that playing the Sims 4, a life-simulating video game, gave her an escape from the reality of ageing. She claims in the Sims, “the Grim Reaper is a character that arrives gently (...) for us there is illness, for them there is not”. In other words, this virtual depiction of death helps Josiane cope with her mortality. She can also see the children of her initial Sims grow up and, therefore, understand the place of death in a wider set of time. Sims die, but the following generations persist, and time keeps going. Allowing players to manipulate time gives them a better understanding of the role that time plays in human existence. It is both a daunting reality, a grim reminder of our mortality, and a symbol of hope that our limited time on Earth is part of a greater phenomenon of human generations’ existence as a whole.

    Another way time is altered by virtual reality is through the medium of social media. Social media is a very unique instance of Virtual Reality in the sense that it relies on individuals’ experiences. A VR video game is created by a designer unknown to the players, whereas a social media profile is curated by the individual themself. This means individuals can ‘store’ their experience of their personal reality virtually. The past is now recorded, saved, and shared on social media platforms. The first consequence of this is the loss of the present’s rarity. Indeed, we are less likely to notice the ephemerality of the present if we can simply record it and relive it virtually. From an existential perspective, this is a big deal. Let us consider, for instance, Heidegger’s notion of the Dasein. The ‘Dasein’, meaning the ‘being there’, refers to the human experience of being and its connection to mortality. According to Heidegger, in order to exist as authentically as possible, we ought to be constantly aware of our mortality. Why? Well, because by being always confronted with the reality of how fleeting our existence is, we are confronted with the possibilities of our existence - what should I make of the little time I have? We then find ourselves seeing these possibilities in every moment. In other words, every second has the capacity of being shaped to create the existence we want. However, social media distracts us from our mortality because time doesn’t feel as fleeting as it used to. This way, something as trivial as the the creation of a social media profile and the design of the virtual reality that comes with it have existential repercussions.

    ---------------- VIRTUAL REALITY AND SPACE

    The other fundamental notion when discussing reality is space. When we think of space, we tend to think of the ‘external world’ around us. The creation of a virtual reality is intimately tied to our perception of space, because since servers are limited in storage, we cannot include every detail of space. Therefore, we must select the features we deem most important, which creates an environment built entirely according to human perception. For this reason, we can analyse humans’ perception of reality through an analysis of space’s features in VR.

    The main way VR changes the notion of space is by amplifying our tendency to over-rationalise nature. Let us consider Husserl’s distinction between substruction, substitution and inversion. In ‘The Crisis of European Sciences’, Husserl discusses our perception of nature as a series of stages. The first stage, substruction, occurs when we try to decrypt nature via rational frameworks. For example, by describing a tree through its height, mass, the physical laws of its growth, its biodiversity, etc. The second stage, substitution, takes place as we study the rational frameworks independently of the nature they were meant to decrypt. For instance, by studying physics, mathematics, etc. The final stage, inversion, sees us mistaking nature for the rational frameworks. Indeed, when thinking about nature and reality, words such as ‘gravity, physics, biology’ often come to mind, although they are only the frameworks through which we initially tried to describe this reality, not reality itself. Attempting to digitalise reality would only amplify this over-rationalisation, because we would aim to measure and calculate reality in order to better replicate it, resulting in a vision of reality through algorithms and mathematical frameworks. We would neglect the subjective notion of reality and the fact that it is a plurality of different perceptions rather than a series of binary codes.


    Time and space offer the framework within which humans experience reality; the body, on the other hand, represents the means through which humans interact with this reality. The human body is an ‘identity card’ for social recognition and interaction. So what happens when we start creating a virtual human body and interacting through it?
    The first change occurs as soon as we begin designing our virtual body: Man becomes his own creator. The idea of being able to select our features, illustrates another surpassing of human nature through VR. Our inability to ‘self-create’ imposes limits on our existence - for example, mortality, physical and mental weaknesses. This completely changes the dynamic between humans and their body, leading to the second change: idealisation.

    When creating our alter-body, we would want to select the best features available. This leads to a process of idealisation in the sense that we will select our alter-ego’s characteristics and ultimately create what we would consider to be the ‘perfect’ body. The stage of idealisation modifies the intrinsic nature of the human body. Indeed, one of the most important elements of our experience of embodiment is accepting that the human body is limited and imperfect. For example, witnessing the ageing process allows us to gain awareness of our mortality - an awareness we saw earlier is a major existential phenomenon.

    The third change lies in the dynamic between the body and the external world. Usually, the human body ‘feels’ the world around it - namely through the senses. With virtual reality, the body ‘is felt’ but does not ‘feel’. For instance, VR games estimate our location, movements, etc. and that way, ‘feel’ our body to create an illusory reality that matches these patterns. The human body is then ‘felt’ by machines but does not genuinely ‘feel’ anything real itself.

    The final change regards the subjective nature of the body. Indeed, the human body is unique for each individual because our subjective experience of reality is embedded within it. For example, you may have a scar on a part of your body that reminds you of a nasty fall when you were a child, turning your body into a patchwork of lived experiences. Can a VR body capture this equally? There are two risks to this instance. First, if the body captures our experience of reality, and virtual reality is illusory, the body would be capturing an illusion, and our relationship to our body would become illusory. The second risk is that when coming out of a VR experience, we feel alienated by our real body, leading to a split of the self. Indeed, our experiences through our VR body are not the same as with our real ones because the VR one is idealised, and the real one is not. We may then tend to prefer our idealised one and come to dislike and ultimately reject our real body. Our sense of self would then be torn between who we really are and who we wish we could be, resulting in a form of alienation.


    Now that we understand the dynamics of VR from external (space and time) and internal (embodiment) standpoints, we can discuss the interpersonal dynamics of VR. Humans are social animals, and for this reason, the effect of VR on social relationships could question the very core of human nature. Social relationships occur mainly through the medium of language. Yet virtual reality aims to digitalise human communication, whether that be through chatbots or a concept as trivial as emojis or ‘texting’. This virtualisation of communication heavily alters social relationships for the simple reason that if these relationships are built via communication, digitalising the way individuals communicate is bound to modify the relationships that come out of it.

    The main change is the stereotypicalisation of human emotion. Indeed, emojis and avatars create a stereotypical vision of what human emotion looks like. To express love, we now send a heart emoji; to express happiness, we send a smiley face. Although this seems harmless, it actually leads to a loss of the plurality of emotional expression. Emojis have become a ‘shortcut’ to expressing ourselves - why write a detailed message about how we feel when a heart emoji could work just as well? This has strong repercussions on an individual level as well. According to Wittgenstein, in his ‘Tractatus logigo-philosophicus’, the limits of my language mean the limits of my world. In other words, the extent to which we can describe reality defines our understanding of it. For example, having an extensive vocabulary allows us to communicate a greater scope of nuances that occur in the world. A heart emoji can never express as much as an entire language. By relying on such shortcuts, we, therefore, narrow our ability to describe the world, translate it linguistically, and share it verbally with others. Our social relationships are, therefore, impoverished because our ability to communicate is impoverished.

    Online dating platforms are another way social relationships are altered by VR. Online dating apps create an alternative environment for love - a virtual reality of love. The centrepiece of this environment is the creation of an alter ego. When designing our profile, we fine-tune and carefully select the features of our self we think will be most desirable and create a perfected alter-ego (an ‘other-self’). This selective process leads to a productisation of ourselves for others, considering we put forward our most desirable characteristics from a romantic standpoint. The other result of this environment is creating a form of love relying on algorithmic compatibility; that is, profiles will be proposed if the elements in our profiles ‘match’. Love then occurs on the basis of similarity rather than difference, and we begin to see others as valuable if they resemble us. The danger in this is that love becomes egocentric as we begin to look for ourselves in others and value what we see of ourselves in the ones we love. In other words, we love what is ‘us’ in others rather than what is ‘them’. VR partners, such as RomanticAI, take this to the extreme. The description of RomanticAI that figures on the website claims to help “create the perfect girlfriend with whom you share interests and views”. The ‘girlfriend’ is only valuable and desirable because her interests and views resemble ours. Would we then love her for her traits or ours?

    --------------- CLOSING WORDS

    It is not a surprising conclusion that virtual reality affects the nature of our actual reality. Nor is it surprising to notice that the metaphysics of a virtual world will differ from those of a non-virtual realm. It is surprising to notice the areas in which they differ and why. Indeed, from trying to escape mortality to the standardisation of human emotion and the alienation of the human body, virtual reality’s creation reveals more than we think about human nature. Paradoxically, it is when we create an alternative world that we begin to understand our own.