Second Life Rendering of Flanagan’s Apple. May 2008
Seven years ago I had a very weird idea. I had recently joined the on-line community called Second Life. This was, and as far as I know, still is, a simulated world in which a person can create an avatar (well before the movie of the same name came out) and then have this avatar “exist” in the three dimensional planet created by the designers of Second Life. The “universe” of Second Life is fascinating in that you can have your avatar move around in any direction, indeed you can even fly. But what is particularly weird about Second Life is that you can interface with other web-users who have also created their own avatars. Indeed with a clever use of communications software like SKYPE you can actually talk in real time whilst interfacing on-screen. As the usual mode of communication on Second Life is keyboard driven the sensation that SKYPE brings about is a feeling of telepathic communication.
A friend of mine, Richard Fleming, who was a Second Life regular, told me that there was a virtual-reality section of Liverpool city centre that could be visited within the programme. He suggested that when I got back home that I should fire up my computer and give him a call on SKYPE, the popular web-based communication tool. I did so and, with his help, I set up my own avatar and launched my virtual-body into a three-dimensional world created out of binary code, a world that really is quite disorientating in that it gives the illusion of a totally three-dimensional place disturbingly similar to our everyday, sensual world.
But things then became really odd. Richard informed me that a group of programmers had created a “virtual” Matthew Street within the Second Life programme. Matthew Street is a location in the centre of Liverpool, our local city. Matthew Street had been chosen by the programmers because it is the street that contains the world-famous Cavern Club, the place the Beatles started their career. This is the place that most tourists to Liverpool gravitate. He showed me how to “teleport” myself to this location. I was amazed to find myself in a really accurate facsimile of a street I knew really well. Standing in front of me was Richard’s avatar and on SKYPE he suggested that we go into the pub across the road, another locally famous location known as Flanagan’s Apple. Much to my surprise I saw, on entering the bar, a poster of the cover of my first book, Is There Life After Death- The Extraordinary Science of What Happens When We Die on the back wall. It seems that somebody on Second Life really liked my work! At that moment another friend of mine, Ed Gilchrist rang me on my land line. He was already a member of SL so I suggested he to should join us in the virtual Flanagan’s Apple. Minutes later Ed’s avatar appeared. It was then I had my odd idea.
In my work I regularly write about the mysteries of human consciousness. More specifically how that consciousness interfaces with what is generally known as “consensual reality”. By this I mean the external world that we all share and believe to be THE reality. We consider our personal world of thoughts and dreams to somehow be a form of hallucination, something we alone experience. However this external world presented to us by our senses … the koinos kosmos as ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, called it … is “really real”. However here I was experiencing a form of shared-reality that did not exist in the phenomenal world. It was a creation of binary code, electrons and electromagnetic radiation. This is a world of facsimile and illusion, what Heraclitus called the koinos kosmos.
The idea then occurred to me was that this would be fascinating to arrange a meeting with my ever-growing, internationally located, readership. Myself and a handful of Liverpool-based friends would travel over to Liverpool and go into the koinos kosmos version of Flanagan’s Apple. We would then fire up our laptops, log on to the pub’s wi-fi system and load up the SL software. Once in SL we would all then locate ourselves in the virtual (koinos kosmos), Flanagan’s Apple. We would then be joined in the facsimile by associates from across the world. We would all then link up on a SKYPE conference call. What intrigued me about this scenario was what it told us about “reality”. On screen we could communicate and interface within an illusory three dimensional space made up of electron-stimulated pixels projecting electromagnetic radiation from our respective laptop screens into our eyes, retinas and visual cortexes. From here the signals, no longer the original photons that left the laptop screen, are somehow “perceived” by whatever it is that constitutes the “Ghost In The Machine” as Gilbert Ryle dismissively called the perceiver of sensory data – the being that calls itself “me” or “I”.
However, and this is a very intriguing point, this is exactly how we decide that “real” reality is real. (This cumbersome phrase is evidence of how difficult it is to use everyday language to explain such concepts. We simply do not have the language capabilities). I believe that the phenomenal world presented to me by my senses is real because other sentient beings share, and confirm, this reality as something external to me. It is a “consensual reality”. However I also share the “Second Life” experience with others. We “see” the virtual world of SL from our own unique viewpoints and when we change our location in virtual space our viewpoint changes. I perceive exactly the same visual stimuli as my fellow SL inhabitants. They see me in three-dimensional space and I see them. They see the results of my actions and can confirm that what they see is exactly the same as what I see.
Another tool that is used to confirm the “reality” of the phenomenal world is that, unlike dreams and hallucinations, it remains consistent when we are not observing it. When I go to sleep my bedroom does not change. On awakening I will find it to be, in essence, the same place as when I went to sleep. Dreams and hallucinations do not have this consistency. Not only do I not share them with others, but also a dream and a hallucination is a unique set of perceptions that disappear when I awake. When I go to sleep again the dream-world will have changed. It does not give the impression of an independent existence outside of my own subjective perceptions. I accept that sometimes we can awaken for a few minutes and go back to sleep to pick up the dream where it left off, but it can be argued that in these circumstances we have not become fully awake and that the dream is linked by a luminal semi-awake state known as hypnapompia.
But Second Life reflects the consistency of the phenomenal world. If I leave my avatar in a particular location in SL and log off (equivalent of going to sleep I suppose), when I log back on to the programme (wake up?) my avatar is in exactly the same location surrounded by the same (virtual) reality. Is this not exactly what I use to confirm the objective existence of consensual reality? So the first test of “proof” is passed. And, as we have already discovered, so is the second test, because I share the SL “reality” with other sentient beings who “confirm” the consensuality of the experience.
So what does this tell us about the phenomenal world confirmed, as it is, by the perceptions of others?
When we met up in the “consensual” Flanagan’s Apple my little group of cybernauts fired up their laptops and iPads, logged onto the internal Wi-Fi signal and loaded Second Life. Each individual had his or her on-screen avatar “teleport” to the virtual Matthew Street and enter the virtual Flanagan’s Apple. In the bar each of us “saw” each other’s avatars located around the pub. We were sharing two “consensual” realities, each with its own inner proof of consensuality. It certainly was a strange experience.
In his novel Snow Crash Neil Stephenson takes this idea to its logical conclusion. In this Stephenson visualises how the internet may evolve in such a way that with sufficient computing power a totally immersive programme, similar to Second Life, could be created. This is a virtual universe in which the game-player effectively becomes the avatar. The player enters a Matrix-like simulation that stimulates all the senses in such a way that it is, to all intents and purposes, an actual reality.
Of course, this is fiction, but recent developments in computer simulations suggest that such an idea is not as strange as it seems. A central tenet of modern quantum physics is something known as quantum chromodynamics. This describes the workings of one of the four fundamental forces of nature, the strong nuclear force. This is the force that binds quarks and gluons together to form protons and neutrons. We are now in the position to be able to programme computers to simulate how this force develops. Using the world’s most powerful supercomputers scientists have been able to simulate tiny corner of the cosmos that is a few femtometers across. A femtometer is 10-15 across. This may sound like a ridiculously small amount of area, (a quadrillionth of a metre or 0.000000000001 mm). But this is not what is intriguing about this development is that this small area of “reality” has been fully simulated in a computer programme. Indeed it is, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from the real thing. We are only restricted by computer power in this regard. Given a big enough computer containing tiny transistors it is only a matter of time before the region of a few micrometers will be reached. This is large enough to simulate a human cell.
However that is just the start. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that can be placed on a given area of an integrated circuit doubles every two years. This has recently been revised to every three years. As such there is an exponential increase every thirty six months. For example in April 2011 a research team at the University of Pittsburgh announced the development of a single-electron transistor. And in February 2012 a group at the University of New South Wales developed the first working transistor consisting of a single atom.
By my, very crude, calculation – and assuming the revised Moore’s Law of three years applies – then we will be able to simulate an area of space the size of a hydrogen atom by 2024 (twelve years),
If this is the case then it is not beyond comprehension that in a few hundred years we may have sufficient computing power to simulate a whole universe. Indeed with this possibility in mind, could it be possible that a hugely advanced civilisation has already simulated a universe – and that we exist within it?
Amazingly Silas Beane, a researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany, has suggested that there is evidence that we are, indeed, existing inside a simulation.
Of course there is evidence that we already have a processor that can create at least one virtual universe, the human brain. Every millisecond your brain takes the data sent to it by your various sensory processor-units and creates a model of external reality that it presents to your consciousness. Just like the simulations created by a computer, this inner model is a facsimile in exactly the same way that Second Life and Stephenson’s Metaverse are facsimiles. Indeed in his novel Stephenson has a new hallucinatory drug, the eponymous Snow Crash, that allows the Metaverse to leak through into everyday “reality” by manipulating the way in which the brain processes and models consensual reality. Of course this idea is far from original. The greatest proponent of such concepts was the American speculative fiction writer Philip K Dick, who, in novels such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, proposed that mind-altering substances could be used to create realities more real than reality.
In my opinion this is a parallel to my own Eidolon (avatar), Daemon (daemon) model. In the novel the internet has evolved to be something known as the Metaverse. This is a VR version of the internet which reminds me of Philip K Dick’s model of “Perky Pat” and ChewZ.
This is again intriguing. In my model of reality our “Daemons” do exactly this; they sit in the background guiding our lives in such a way that we, as an avatar/eidolon feel that we have a form of “free will”. However we can only do the things that the computer programme allows us to do. For example we can only experience circumstances or outcomes that have been programmed into the Bohmian IMAX (encoded within the Zero-Point Field).
Snow Crash is, in the novel, a new form of narcotic substance, the eponymous Snow Crash seems to allow the Metaverse to leek through into “the physical world”. A “snow crash” is, in fact, what we see on a computer screen when the system “crashes”. It transpires that the Sumerian language is the firmware programming language for the human brain. This is located in the brain stem.
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