What is reality? What is illusion? Do we have free will, or is our life somehow preprogrammed? Such questions have vexed humanity from the beginning. Technology has added another wrinkle: virtual reality. Now that we can create reality, how do we know that what we consider reality is really real? Might we be in somebody elses virtual reality program?
Nobody remembers being born. By learning about ourselves, we learn things from our surroundings and people, and how to experience events on our own. If our senses function normally, we begin to wonder about our sense-related experiences and seek meaningfulness: Who am I? How were I and the world created? Why am I here?
Each normal person is aware of himself or herself and the external world. We learn how to distinguish colors and shapes through sight and touch. But how would blindness or an impaired sense of touch alter our perception and understanding? Perhaps we would ask: Is the red that I see, the roundness that I see and touch, inside or outside of me?
No one can explain what red is. Yet we know what it is because people tell us that a ripe tomato is red, or that beaming the 620 to 740 nanometers wavelength into our eyes lets us experience redness. In both cases, someone else causes us to see red. Redness is also in the mind, for we can see it behind closed eyes. This is true for the other senses as well.
Recent brain studies reveal that neither light nor sound reaches our brain. Rather, it receives electrical stimuli produced by our senses and then processes them into meaningful sense impressions.(1) As the brain cannot distinguish between a real and an artificial electrical stimulus, we can make it see and respond to imaginary pictures as if they were real. When we see a red apple, what do we really see? What does its reality mean? Is it outside of us, are our senses tricking us, or is the world presented to us in another way?
What Is Virtual Reality?
Scientists and philosophers traditionally considered space and time absolute, as defined by Aristotle and formulized by Newton.(2) In other words, the space we inhabit existed before us and will exist after us, and time flows over and through it at a uniform rate. Modern science, particularly Einsteins theory of relativity, undermines this assumption.(3) Time and space are not absolute; they exist with us, partly because we invest them with reality and meaning. If we define real by what we feel, smell, taste, hear, and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by our brain. The world may exist as part of a neural-interactive simulation, meaning that we might be living in a dream world.
Virtual reality is defined as a cartoon that we can enter; an interactive computer system so fast and intuitive that the computer disappears from our mind and leaves its generated environment as reality; and a computer-synthesized, 3-D environment in which more than one person can engage and manipulate simulated physical elements and interact with human representations or invented creatures.(4) Essentially, it is a hardware system that uses headgear, gloves, and other items to make us feel that we are in a computer program. Its core is a simulation system based on a programmed process that handles all interactions, scripted object actions, simulations of physical laws (real or imaginary), and determines the worlds status. This simulation is a discrete process that is iterated once for each time step or frame. Several systems can be coordinated to create a smooth virtual world.
Is Virtual Reality Possible?
As we are conscious beings, our senses gather data and transmit it to our brain for processing. But we cannot consider this data processing, which is a computers main task. We experience things; computers process data.
Virtual reality appears to go a step further because it creates a reality. Miniature screens in goggles, stereophonic sound in headphones, and a pressure-sensitive glove can create an illusory immersion in another 3-D space. But such informatic technologies still depend upon our sense organs to have any effect. Virtual-reality goggles display moving imagery to the retina, but that information must be transported along the optic nerve to the brains visual cortex. Only the brain can render this bio-information into conscious experience.
Theoretically, a computer can create a desired reality via an electrical stimulation of nerve fibers. The brain can be manipulated to see red by stimulating nerves in our retina, feel tension in our shoulders, and so on. Some say scientists can construct a virtual world that is just as real as the real world. Others disagree, citing two objections: the direct mind“body connection, and the necessity of simulating the entire universe.
The Direct Mind Body Connection: Pressing a finger causes a sensation in that fingera specific, visible location in 3-D spacenot in the brain or mind. But if we swing a numb leg, we feel a tingling sensation along it. This numbness and tingling is caused by a compressed nerve further up the leg, maybe in the knee, while the sensations paradoxically seem to be spread toward the foot. Apparently, the brain receives signals from a particular nerve fiber and imaginatively projects the resulting sensation back to the nerve ending. Since the brain receives only a bundle of nerve fibers bearing pulsed signals from the leg, and no information about where these signals originated, it assumes that they originated in the leg's nerve endings and projects the sensation to that site. As the mind can be fooled, we can say that it creates a complete, subjective body image and then assigns all bodily sensations to specific locations. Do we press our physical or body-image finger? We press our body-image finger, for this is the finger recognized by the brain. Some people say that such feelings as love and toge-therness cannot be simulated. But they can, for the world we experience exists inside the mind and is projected onto the physical world. Seeing love in a spouse's eyes is the result of light reflected from his or her eyes, focused onto our eyes' retinas, and coded electrical signals transmitted from the eyeballs to the brain. Thus the only connection is one mediated by electrical (albeit biological) signals. Whether we have bionic or normal eyes is irrelevant, for what matters is the person behind the eyes, not the eyes' mere visual apprehension. If a couple is immersed in virtual reality, they can still look into each others' eyes in exactly the same manner. The same is true for togetherness and other feelings, as well as what our five senses experience. Simulating the Universe: This argument overlooks two points: First, we focus on certain things, relegating everything else to the background. Our optic nerve can be stimulated to ignore what we consider un-important. Second, as our sight and hearing are limited to a narrow spectrum of light and sound, the computer only has to focus on that particular spectrum.
An Interesting Experiment
A Ph.D. project in Manchester involves communicating with a robot located 40 miles from the lab.(6) Sensors in its hand read temperature, pressure, and humidity. When wired to a fast communication net, it sends collected data to a glove worn by an operator in the lab so that he or she can feel what the robot feels. This two-way communication system enables the operator to command the robot to move its hand and touch nearby objects by moving the glove. In one test, the hand touched a hot object and the operator's hand felt the burn. The operator sees what the robot sees, thanks to two video cameras in the latter's eyes.
What Would Happen If ? (7)
We can simulate a world. A normal brain stores at least 1018 bits and processes information at about 1015 bits per second.(8) Thus we can make an hour seem like a year. The subject will see changing seasons, solar and lunar movements, and lengthening and shrinking shadows. We know that our program causes these effects, but he believes cause and effect to be operative: Have you not seen how your Lord spread the shadowif He willed He could have made it still thus We have made the sun its guide (25:45). This verse indicates that the sun rises toward noon, and that shadows shrink and then begin to lengthen as the sun declines. The subject is limited by the program. For example, he appears to throw a stone, but only if the computer generates the necessary images and sensations. His action is virtual, as in: You killed them not, but God killed them. You threw them not when you threw, but God threw, that He might test the believers by a fair trial from Him (8:17). Let's send in a virtual messenger to inform the subject of the programmer's rules. If he does not obey, he will be punished. For example, we could easily rewrite the program to exclude sunlight. After terminating the program, the programmer could explain and demonstrate the truth of the virtual messenger's words. The subject would have to accept the programmer's control of, and his lack of influence upon, his life. This is a lesson for those who struggle with their perception of the physical world and the reality of the unseen spiritual world. Two Qur'anic verses show that such speculations are not so different from the subject's virtual world: Say: Tell me, if God made night perpetual for you until the Day of Resurrection, who is a god beside God who could bring you light? Will you not then pay heed? (28:71), and: How can you reject faith in God? Seeing that you were without life and He gave you life; then He will cause you to die and will bring you again to life; and to Him you will return? (2:28)
For believers, such advances bring one question to mind: Are we living in a virtual world created by God? Most religions answer yes. Although their goals or understandings may differ, the main point is the same: Our life in this world is only a prelude of what is to come.
- The Brain Tumor Foundation of Canada. Online at: www.oncolink.upenn.edu.
- Online at: http://eserver.org/ philosophy and www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/history, respectively.
- The Virtual Reality Store. Online at: www.thevrstore.com.
- Christianity, Judaism, and Islam consider this world a testing ground for the eternal life. Buddhism and Hinduism consider it an illusion that must be penetrated to achieve enlightenment.
- Osman Kocak, Virtual Reality in Medicine (Ph.D. diss., Salford University [Manchester, UK], 1996).
- Adapted from H. Baki, Virtual Reality (Ph.D. diss., Newcastle University [Newcastle, UK], 1997).