How VR Gaming will wake us up to our fake worlds

Eliott Edge
35 min readSep 9, 2023

“It has no relationship whatsoever to anything anchored in some kind of metaphysical superspace. It’s just your cultural point of view […] Travel shows you the relativity of culture.” Terence McKenna, Taxonomy of Illusion¹

Human civilization has always been a virtual reality. At the onset of culture, which was propagated through the proto-media of cave painting, the talking drum, music, fetish art making, oral tradition and the like, Homo sapiens began a march into cultural virtual realities, a march that would span the entirety of the human enterprise. We don’t often think of cultures as virtual realities, but there is no more apt descriptor for our widely diverse sociological organizations and interpretations than the metaphor of the “virtual reality.” Indeed, the virtual reality metaphor encompasses the complete human project.

Virtual reality researchers, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson, write in their book Infinite Reality “[Cave art] is likely the first animation technology,” where it provided an early means of what they refer to as “virtual travel.”² You are in the cave, but the media in that cave, the dynamically drawn, fire-illuminated art, represents the plains and animals outside — a completely different environment; one facing entirely the opposite direction, beyond the mouth of the cave. When surrounded by cave art, alive with movement from flickering torches, you are at once inside the cave itself whilst the media experience surrounding you encourages you to indulge in fantasy, and to mentally simulate an entirely different environment.³ Blascovich and Bailenson suggest that in terms of the evolution of media technology, this was the very first immersive VR. Both the room and helmet-sized VRs used in the present day are but a sophistication of this original form of media VR tech.

Today, philosophers and critics have pointed out that businesses such as McDonald’s and Starbucks are like virtual realities in and of them-selves. They have a specific and immersive decorum as well as sanctioned behaviors, symbols, and even philosophies. When you enter Starbucks, you enter Starbucks World. In contemporary jargon, these are called hyperrealities — they are microcosms with their own purposes and messages.⁴ Disneyland and Times Square are the epitome of consumerist hyperrealities in the United States. These hyperrealities are cloned (copied and pasted) and hold a global footprint in an ever-homogenized worldwide monoculture. They are a touchstone of the global capitalist project; many stores in many locations that are nearly exactly the same. (Similarly, even restaurants that aren’t franchise mega-chains offer differing atmospheres; competing little worlds to wine and dine in.) Where did the hyperrealities that typify contemporary life get their start? What happened between the cave paintings and these franchises that nearly everyone on the planet today knows intimately well? I’d like to suggest they got their start with the codification of certain places of worship and the belief systems that joined them.

In the Beginning…

A simple illustration of the origin of our more complex cultural virtual realities is found in the temple or the church, which acted as the centerpiece of many cultures as they began their voyage into modernity. When we strip the church of the concepts and objects about it, what are we left with? Unoccupied, we are left with a mere building. Yet as we add the corresponding accouterments into and around this building, its virtual reality generating effects amplify and multiply. A church has its altar, its sacred texts, costumes, rituals, sermons, perspectives, symbols, architecture, and so on. All of them are meaningful. The religion is built from this assemblage. Outside, the church is just a building. Inside, the church is a virtual reality — the nodal point of a given religion and a given people. They all work together to reinforce a very specific perception of the world.

Indeed, no one ever actually “enters a church.” One in fact stumbles headlong into the idea of a church — a hyperreal onslaught that the very constitution of the church building is purposefully designed to generate. Entering a church is really entering a church-shaped thought. The church building was an early virtual reality headset. From within the church building one looks outward from it and magically the world becomes that religion. The primordial incarnation of this building-sized headset was none other than the very same image-laden, torch-lit caves of our pre-architectural ancestors.

Figure 1 — VR Head Church Man

We see this virtual reality-ness in all the objects around and inside a given church or temple, but one very blatant example can be seen in the Christian handiwork of stained glass art. We have here a nigh on literal representation of key features of contemporary virtual reality technology: filtering and projection. The stained glass is a projective filter that works in both directions simultaneously: light coming into the building is transformed to bring the cultural program of meaningful images into the interiors of the sanctuary, where they are contemplated and dogmatized; and back out of the building, where the observers inside look outward to a terra firma that is now obfuscated or filtered by the media-messages embedded in the stained glass. The stained glass itself is an evolution of the cave painting. Stained glass would go on to evolve into the pixel. Indeed, stained glass was really a stop between the cave painting and the pixel.

Language, Culture, and Religion are all Virtual Realities

Take another criterion of human civilization and culture in terms of the virtual reality metaphor: language. Regarding text, Kevin Kelly has stated:

The human mind is actually, has a propensity, a natural gift to move into other realities. When you are reading a book, a novel, when you’re totally engrossed in a story, particularly one that’s not visual, that you’re imagining in your own mind, you’re creating a kind of version, a kind of virtual reality.⁵

When we read we decode the text. That translation directs the theater of our minds to run or play out a given simulation (“See Spot run! Run Spot run!”). This whole phenomenon of reading and imagining takes place in the invisible holodeck of our minds (more on the term ‘holodeck’ later). Taking this analogy and bringing it back to the ‘inner’ virtual reality of the ‘voice in our heads,’ one reads a religious text that is then projected outward, creating a now religiousized ‘external’ reality. This is how the vision of a Christian world or a Hindu world is actualized: by deeply absorbing and projecting text-induced mental simulations like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” Once I have faith and believe this to actually be true, I am then living in a Christian virtual reality. I have imagined this particular program into being. I have assimilated x-religion’s VR and now live and think in it.

Undoubtedly, not all religions can be said to be ‘true.’ All these different religions are supposedly interpretations of reality or the human condition. The mathematical likelihood of all religions being entirely true is zero, for, despite overlap, they contain different codes, perspectives, accounts, conclusions and so on. They represent humanity’s endless struggle with the pressing matter of our shared circumstance — that circumstance being: existing, living, and dying in a vast, mysterious universe. What all these religious interpretations do share however is that they are not at all dissimilar to virtual realities. They are all self-contained little worlds. However, the virtual reality metaphor doesn’t stop at religion. Similarly, different cultures and civilizations are no more ‘true’ than any other. They too are self-contained little worlds. The virtual reality metaphor includes cultures, ideologies, and all other kinds of frameworks and belief systems. Communism, atheism, scientism, Freudianism are as much cultural virtual realities as the perspectives of the world that come from totalitarian North Korea, or American fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. They have different rules, but they are all bubble-like points of view that change what would otherwise be the raw experience of the world into their own code, their own vision of how things are or ought to be.

Take the concept of a nation. A nation is really just a set of notions; their only extra active value is that the notions of a given nation are mandated (forced). Laws and legislation, orders, decrees, calendars, cycles, and taboos are each VR nation’s programming — their cultural code of conduct. They represent what is permissible and accepted in this world or that. A flag is a VR designating icon, a technology, that whips and colors our minds as much as it does the wind, the sky, and the otherwise uninterrupted terra firma.⁶ Our navigational and national lines that crisscross the face of the earth are invisible, imaginary, virtual lines. Where one nation begins and another ends marks the boundaries between separate sets of notions, separate virtual realities. Kings, politicians, lawyers, judges, soldiers, police, executioners, and other “officials” represent an entire class of enforcers of the notions of a nation. These are the rules and rulers of any given cultural VR world. Guns, badges, robes, gavels, jumpsuits, chains, and legalese have VR-generating effects that make the processes of ‘officialdom’ appear as if they are legitimate, objective, incorruptible, and deep.

Since, like religions, societies seemingly can-not approach a more ‘true’ incarnation, or state of being; all that might be said about x-culture versus y-culture in terms of which is ‘better’ might be argued in terms of how well each nurtures the health, wellbeing, and freedom for all the people, animals, plants, and other environmental factors in each. So other than considering an across the board prosocial and ethical gauge, they are all nonetheless always already entirely self-contained relative virtual worlds — none more ‘true’ than any another.

You are Virtual Reality

The robustness of the virtual reality metaphor spans not just religions, cultures, nations, ideologies, and other belief systems, but continues right down to the individual. The individual perpetuates their own personal virtual reality — their reality tunnel as described by Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson states:

Once you look down at your reality tunnel, whether your reality tunnel is Ohio Methodist or, New York Jewish or, Morin County hippie or, Tokyo capitalist Zen Buddhist or, Iranian Muslim fundamentalist, once you get to the level when you’re outside of your reality tunnel looking down at it you can compare reality tunnels and then you’re at a higher level of intelligence already because you are no longer a conditioned mechanism just following the reality tunnel that was accidentally imprinted or conditioned and you can start choosing between reality tunnels.⁷

Reality tunnel may be a new term for some, but its simplicity in conveying the altogether all too well-known immediate experience in the differences between say “being American” as opposed to be “being Vietnamese” is unmatched. Even phrases like “to have blinders on” or “tunnel vision” mean the inability to access or appreciate another point of view other than one’s own preferred cultural virtual reality, or VR programming. One can’t look beyond it. One can’t deeply consider other points of view as they are more or less glued into their favorite virtual reality; that being their culture, their belief system, its agenda, its definitions of classes, self, others, and so on. Christians and capitalists alike read their given reinforcing texts, and critique the texts of those they deem outsiders or even enemies. They then spam the world and their peers with the would-be revelations of their world, their reality tunnel. And, appropriately enough, a reality tunnel is very much what is induced when you strap yourself into a VR headset. As one might imagine, all this talk of reality tunnels puts the focus on the ego.

The ego is the first and final enforcer of a given cultural virtual reality, a given reality tunnel. Part of the process of ego generation and calcification within a certain cultural virtual reality gestates in private experience, with the phenomena of conscious and unconscious self-talk. First, one is both physically and psychically immersed in a given cultural VR. Then our minds chatter away, finding concepts, words, ideas, images, symbols, slogans, behaviors, rituals, billboards, logics, (dis)beliefs, fears, frameworks, memes, heroes, villains, and interpretations — all to either dismiss or indulge within that cultural VR. The ones we’re most attracted to we cling onto, even if they are sadomasochistic or result in neuroses or pathologies; cognitive dissonance, unhappiness, violence — it doesn’t matter. People are hard pressed to relinquish their reality tunnels and all the easy or favorite answers that they offer. What human beings have proved over the centuries is that they can believe or disbelieve almost anything — reason is frequently moot. This chatter, dismissal, comparison, and indulgence builds up the levels and dimensions of the waking ego. Our thoughts grow our sense of self in this way. Our conscious personality (and often what we ‘claim to be’ in terms of ideology, religion, philosophy, class, career, and so on) is what living in human-made virtual reality cultures and frameworks ultimately and inevitably creates. We accept our roles, becoming projectors, filters, propagators, true believers, subscription customers, evangelists, defenders, critics, missionaries, ‘Romans,’ and so on. We are active players in our favorite cultural virtual reality super-drama and it is our playing, our indulging, that keeps it all afloat.

In considering what we supposedly are and what we are not, it is interesting to mention that in gender and queer theory we find concepts that sexual identity is just as much a virtual reality as anything else we’ve been discussing. Gender, in these interpretations, can be as non-fundamental and virtual as any religion is. Judith Butler has explored a key concept here with Performativity: gender is intimately tied with the performance of gender, which is irrelevant to biological sex.⁸ “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls,” as The Kinks aptly observed. Furthermore, the human body is (supposedly) the first filter of the ‘external’ information that we call ‘the world.’ If this is true, then the world can only ever reflect our own bodily senses. So even the body itself could be viewed as a virtual reality bubble as well. The body is the first filter taking in the input of the cosmos and all its manifestation. On a physical level the funnel of our bodily organs receiving information from the universe always distorts the universe into the shape of our own senses. This is why we can only physically see a few bands of colored light. We are only directly privy to 0.0035% of the total electromagnetic spectrum. In a human body you can’t see the whole spectrum⁹; you can’t see all of reality as it truly is. You only have access to a human-centric version (a sliver) of reality. A version that amounts to a simulation of reality provided by the human body and mind. In science and philosophy this has been called naïve realism¹⁰ — human bodily senses are deeply limited in their ability to accurately perceive the world as it truly is. Anaïs Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”¹¹

All Thought is Virtual Reality

Finally, there is the entire faculty of thought itself, and with it, imagining. Recall Kevin Kelly’s comments on reading at the beginning of this paper: “[When reading a book] you’re imagining in your own mind, you’re creating a kind of version, a kind of virtual reality.” In a similar line of reasoning, Blascovich and Bailenson write:

‘Virtual reality’ typically conjures up futuristic images […] But we believe that virtual reality really begins in the mind and requires no equipment whatsoever. Have you ever spoken face-to-face with someone whose mind wandered off? […] Hungry people imagine what they’ll eat.¹²

Imagining, and indeed thought itself, is the first, most immediate form of virtual reality (alongside bodily sense data). Similarly, the mind has often been referred to in both Eastern and Western literature as working from ‘images.’ Yet ‘images’ today implies something static, and thought is anything but static. Our mental images move about chaotically, giving the impression of an animation. Take this analogy one step further and we can easily substitute ‘animations’ with ‘simulations.’ Even ‘reasoning’ is very much the same as simulating. And simulation, or simulating, quickly becomes analogous to virtual reality. In the language of popular culture, thought and the mind is very much like the aforementioned holodeck from Star Trek.

Like the holodeck, the mind is like a room that will become anything you or others tell it to become. Almost anything you tell it (program it) to become, the mind will oblige. This can be achieved through words, grunts, language, and text but also through any and all forms of comprehensible media or gesture. You, the reader, have been playing out simulations in your own mental holodeck as you’ve read this paper. This is how we manage to both imagine and participate in such a diverse ecosystem of vastly differing nations, religions, cultures, ideologies, opinions, scenarios, reality tunnels and so on. Virtual reality is how we’ve made our human world.

Approaching our Fake Worlds

As we have seen, the virtual reality metaphor relates to many domains of human experience; from how our bodies take in information, to how our minds work, to the impact that cultures, nationalities, and religions make on our point of view. This is the utter strength of the metaphor of virtual reality and why it is foundational to some philosophies and religions, though frequently presented using other language (māyā, skepticism). There is likely no more singularly important consideration than the consideration of alternative worlds, illusory worlds, projected worlds, and manipulable worlds. In the contemporary cinematic “jazz mythology” of The Matrix (as Peter B. Lloyd describes it)¹³, Neo’s awakening to the presence of the Matrix is not so much a cyberpunk fantasia as much as it is a 58 commentary on human civilization, culture, and consciousness as a whole. This contemporary allegory retrieves sentiments found in Plato’s Cave, Shakespeare’s musing that “All the world’s a stage,” and much of the philosophical and spiritual thought throughout the world.

Figure 2 — Everything human is approximately equal to Virtual Reality

Cornel West brings our attention to the dramatic nature of actually taking on whole and fully confronting this paramount philosophical consideration. West states on the Philosopher’s Commentary track on The Matrix, “What’s very interesting is the relation between awakening and danger. Once you begin to question you begin to constitute a threat to whatever authority is keeping track of you.”

And then:

Socratic energy has to do with contesting authority, being deeply suspicious of authority, trying to undermine the assumptions and presuppositions upon which authority is predicated. And this process, which is an endless process, it’s an incessant process, but it goes step-by-step and stage-by-stage. And at the very beginning now we get the staging of what happens when one initiates a process of awakening in which you render various authorities relative. You begin to contest and call into question those various authorities.”¹⁴

This point of “render[ing] various authorities relative” is going to be more central as we move forward.

Our situation becomes more interesting when we consider the growing popularity of virtual reality headsets. Given the growing availability of VR gaming headsets to consumers, it’s natural to begin conjuring with the psychological, sociological, and ontological auxiliary effects that they may end up engendering. After all, they will be changing previous contexts even as they create new contexts. It seems certain that the proliferation of virtual reality and augmented reality entertainment technology will have psychological effects that bleed out far beyond their intended use and into the thoughts of our daily lives, long after we’ve put our VR gear down. When they do, they might inadvertently start rendering more and more aspects of authority outside them utterly relative and non-fundamental. A VR gaming induced pan-queerification, if you will. Sentiments may arise like: “This game outside is as virtual as that game inside.” The VR headset could underscore an awakening to our already well in place, indeed pervasive, projected human virtual realities (our cultures, etc.) as they exist today. Maybe we’ll bump into the joke (or conundrum) that when we take off our VR video gaming visor we aren’t really re-entering the “real world” at all. We are only ever re-entering the local fantasia, our own personal fantasia, and our responses to the fantasias of others — a place as constructed and limited by human ideas as the one we just left. The ultimate irony then becomes this: the apex in spectacle entertainment, the immersive VR, may end up being the final panacea against all forms of ideological fundamentalism, extremism, and dogma — be they Western colonialism or North Korean totalitarian necrocracy. That might be wishful thinking indeed but once you can fit a civilization into a VR, then we’ll quickly see that any civilization is a VR already.

After all, does it not seem predictable that we are going to test-run different worlds and social orders in VR games? Naturally some gamers will be so moved by their experiences there that they may even return to waking IRL culture and attempt to mold it in similar ways. Does it not seem inevitable that we will also test out new forms of conditioning, indoctrination, brainwashing, and propaganda using VR? What about when political parties begin having their national events in VR spaces? Can’t you see the VR megachurch coming? Do you think that once we’re in that VR megachurch we will realize that the churches were all already VRs to begin with? That all that we can declare to be the ‘human world’ was always just one human-centric VR or another?

The VR metaphor reminds us that all of our institutions are fundamentally projections. We give these projections (and the virtual worlds they create), power by participating, and most importantly, by indulging them as legitimate. All cultures and civilizations are relative. So much so, we might well remind ourselves through reaffirming this VR metaphor, if we are to remain steadfast in seeking whatever can be found and developed far beyond their assumed thresholds and limits of vision. Perhaps the cultural apocalypse (‘apocalypse’ as in ‘unveiling’) we require in order to free ourselves from the bondage of our current ecocidal project can also be found with this metaphor. Maybe VR will give us the psychic breathing room necessary to reexamine what are fundamentally our creations — currency for instance. Breathing room for a new vision and a new culture to develop that doesn’t so breezily permit catastrophe upon catastrophe. Indeed, culture wouldn’t be a problem if our current attempts at culture didn’t create so many problems (externalities, classism, ecocide, etc.)

Ultimately, the speed, variety, liquidity, and accessibility of VR games will begin to challenge the ways of life outside them. After all, if life is different or even better in an entertainment-based game VR, why shouldn’t our cultural virtual realities mutate to be equally as pleasant, if not better?

Almost too simple to possibly be true, Jiddu Krishnamurti often repeated; “Thought is responsible for all of this.”¹⁵

Indeed: Thought is responsible for all of this. It’s a comment that demands consideration, especially because we rarely think about what thought is (‘simulations’), let alone what thought has unleashed upon the world. We have projected this nightmare scenario and followed it through mercilessly and diligently. It did not arrive in a vacuum. We built this place and fostered these conditions. We imagined it and made it, ad infinitum. Every man-made disaster, intentional or otherwise, is largely thanks to one virtual reality or another. Even industrial accidents that occur under the watch of multibillion-dollar corporations often occur because of a fixed perspective on profit, and a lax perspective on what seems to be almost anything else. We caused these problems, or excused them, or permitted them, thanks to each cultural VR’s framework, that being their rules and values.

Maybe VR will remind us that all of this is so. We are living within cultures for sure, but really these cultures are made of thought, and both thought and culture are analogous to virtual reality. They are projected simulated worlds and scenarios. Such a universally relative perspective is really a radical embrace of Subjectivity as being an obvious fundamental player in the human enterprise. There is no objectivity in this regard. There is no objectively ‘true’ civilization, nor a ‘true’ religion. Any civilization is built and maintained by projected thoughts, associations, actions, images, behaviors, rules, and so on.

Admissions such as these frequently generate vertigo. People generally don’t like the arguments for near total subjectivity — because they often give off an air that there is, as the saying goes, “Nothing to hang your hat on.” Indeed, the rendering of major icons of reality and authority as being relative is almost always characterized by an experience of extreme disorientation. This is why Neo vomits at the feet of the revelation that the world he’s been living in is a total illusion. (He repeats, “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!”) Our ever-diverse human worlds were always ever just our own minds creating virtual realities to evolve, exchange, and play in. Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche captured it well with the comment; “The bad news is you are falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there is no ground.”¹⁶

Consciousness and the thresholds of VR

If all we’ve made, and all we think, are deeply analogous to VR, the question should come: What exists that is not a VR, or even like a VR? What isn’t our human-made VR masquerading as the real? What is fundamental? It may be better to suggest an approach, rather than claim any particular fundamental reality (although, I will do this later anyway).

Terrence McKenna suggested one such approach. He advocated for; “[A] philosophy not made around the campfire. But philosophy based on the acquisition of extreme experience. That’s how you figure out what the world is. Not by bicycling around in the ‘burbs but by forcing extreme experience.”¹⁷ McKenna’s suggested approach is through the well-known cultural vaporizing effects of psychedelic experiences. Peter Sjöstedt-H has given presentations on the historic use of consciousness-altering compounds by philosophers from the Ancient Greeks to Aldous Huxley in the pursuit of knowledge gained from beyond one’s culture.18, 19 He even argues that Plato’s Cave is a perfect allegory for the benefits of the psychedelic experience. Pioneers in the computer revolution like Steve Jobs, Douglas Engelbart, Kevin Herbert, as well as the founders of Google are known to have had important encounters with psychedelics.²⁰ Dr. Kary Banks Mullis won the Nobel Prize for his LSD-fueled DNA research leading to the invention of PCR.²¹ Carl Sagan and John C. Lilly were also well-known fans of psychedelics.²²-²³ Artists of all stripes swear by the value of visionary intoxicants in their role of inspiring some of the most beloved masterpieces of all time. Literature suggests that there is a deep value in the compounds, plants, substances, and practices that help us human beings “break on through to the other side” — that “other side” being the domain beyond our familiar and pervasive human VRs and frameworks.

It is interesting to note that VR headsets and visors actually mirror the psychedelic experience in many ways. They mirror it in that when you don the headset you enter a new world. You put on the new head. And when you do, you see another possible vision of how reality could be. When you are done and take off the headset, you are hit with a second insight: the relativity of this world, this cultural virtual reality, or universe, to the headset-VR world you just exited. Returning from your trip is as valuable as going on the trip in the first place, because now you have a more robust mechanism by which to compare worlds. Suddenly they are both non-fundamental. Suddenly they are relative. If you’ve never left Sri Lanka or the Amish way of life for example, then that’s your threshold of knowledge and the height of your interpretive powers. What we are left with after these encounters with cultural relativity (regardless of the means by which it is achieved) is that, to quote McKenna; “Most of reality is illusory. It’s just we do each other the courtesy of not pointing this out.”²⁴ However it should be deeply appreciated that the VR headset experience at this time cannot rival the awesome panoply of titanic revelation that digesting certain plants and compounds can offer. VR offers a parallel to psychedelics (some, McKenna included, have argued that VR is the technological shadow of the psychedelic experience), but it is not at all the psychedelic experience proper, in all its quaking, annihilating, and mind-expanding glory.

Beyond doing whatever you can to temporarily escape your local VR programming, an admission would be that consciousness itself is fundamental to all our virtual realities. Consciousness is the media through which all our cultures, religions, civilizations, thoughts, and reality tunnels play out. So although what we have created can be regarded as virtual realities, consciousness itself doesn’t necessarily fit the criteria. Consciousness is real, ‘Canada’ and ‘Canadian’ is imaginary, is virtual. Consciousness plays within the framework of ‘Canada’ and ‘Canadian’ but it isn’t those constructs on a fundamental level. Consciousness is not virtual reality, though it uses virtual realities to operate in. What are we without our virtual realities? We are alive and indeed life itself. We are the end result of billions of years of cosmological evolution. And we are consciousness. One of the all-time best comments for underscoring the insidious depth of this virtual reality projecting faculty of the mind is found in a saying: “At the end of the day, a real Buddhist realizes that there is no such thing as a real Buddhist.” It is all the mind.

It is not as Morpheus says; “As long as the Matrix exists the human race will never be free.”²⁵ We will always be building a Matrix to see, move, and operate through. Instead, as long as the Matrix exists and remains deeply unacknowledged as a Matrix and ever-indulged as “true,” the human race will never be free. Consequently, nor will the global ecosystem likely survive; for as long as it remains a mere supporting character — or worse, has no role whatsoever — in our reality tunnels, the prominence it deserves in our decisions cannot be realized.

Let us not be like innocent, forgiving, or unassuming children in the face of our entirely relative, projected, cultural virtual realities. For they more or less entirely dominate our thoughts and lives. Nonconformity is frequently met with alienation at the very least. At this point our virtual realities also make up a likely cause of death for the planetary ecosystem. The capitalist VR is one such obvious culprit in terms of large-scale environmental and species devastation. At one point in the past these forms of engagement seemed to have risen up organically alongside the evolution of our meaning-making neocortex. Today however it would be naïve to assume that they are harmless — especially considering the expansion and proliferation of various forms of power centralization, and the violence that typifies them. Our cultural virtual realities have values and institutions that clearly exist to keep the power status quo well maintained and far removed from the majority. They also devastate every corner of the planet that is within reach, frequently in the pursuit of transforming it into altogether virtual “profit.” McKenna pointed out:

Someone rather intelligent once said, ‘Language was invented so that people could lie.’ In other words, it gives you that fudge factor of obfuscation where someone says, you know, “Why did you do that?” Well the best approach is, ‘’I didn’t do that!’ You know, ‘You thought I did that. What you thought you saw you didn’t see!’ In other words, I suppose that lawyers are probably the people who have done the finest work with language and behind them politicians. And the true potential for language to elevate and unite the community was early on betrayed into the production of illusory and ideological goods which could then be marketed among the people and to spread confusion.²⁶

Culture is great for lying. This is as unsentimental, unflattering, and indeed honest as it gets. The leaders, profiteers, true believers, indeed the leading-edge of the lie, are more than likely in on the con — for they execute undying efforts, regardless of how absurd or atrocious, to keep it all maintained. McKenna once again; “It’s not like there is [a situation] where greybeards in white coats tend the sacred vestal fires of reality. There is no reality. There are only people who know this and people who don’t know this and are therefore being manipulated by the people who do know it.”²⁷

So, what’s the valuable or worthwhile course of action considering all we’ve covered? Wilson suggested; “On a planet that increasingly resembles one huge Maximum Security prison, the only intelligent choice is to plan a jail break.”²⁸

Never forget: we made it all up

The only way out of any cultural VR is to first accept that you are more than likely always already on the user-end of one or another. The first thing a fish must do if it is to escape the water is to identify that it is in fact water to begin with. That there exists both water and not-water. After making that discovery, it can then begin the slow climb of exploring the hitherto before unknown environments and dimensions, as well as the accompanying new states of being necessary to participate in them — that is: legs, lungs, wings, and the like. Step one is seeing your culture for the virtual reality that it is. This is the essence of “awakening” as the colloquialism goes. It is also the essence of becoming “hip.” Simple enough: If you were born in another country and grew up in another culture, another VR, you’d like have a different opinion on a myriad of subjects. But, like the fish before it discovered the land, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine prior to experience. Culture is a virtual reality with which we see and move through the world — and cultures are entirely of our own making. As we have seen, these VRs exist in myriad domains and forms of human experience and behavior. Why is it so important to realize everything we’ve gone through is a virtual reality? So that you, dear reader, feel empowered to change it, to overcome it, to not accept it as “business as usual” or “the way things are.” “Business as usual at this point is a death sentence on the human race,” McKenna claimed.²⁹ These are all virtual realities. None of them are anchored to any transcendental wisdom or truth. How these VRs have informed us isn’t fundamentally true. Largely, they are arbitrary. They amount to convenient contrivances. Our game is just a game. The rules are our own. We made all this up. There is no need to indulge any culture or framework as being the final word on reality or social organization. Indeed, we are the elephant in the room. When we discover that we are all responsible for the shadows dancing on the wall, we will realize that we are both the cause and the solution to all of our problems. From here new frontiers shall open. It is the goal of any system of intelligence to transcend itself. This is paramount in assessing the world we have created and the world we are leaving behind, not just for our future ancestors, but for all lifeforms on this planet. Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with the remark, “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.” If we bear in mind pollution, warfare, national or cultural tensions, and the unbridled excesses of capitalism, then Emerson’s comment on civilization is far from obscure. Similarly, McKenna stressed: It makes no sense whatsoever to speak of a human future. There is no human future. It’s inconceivable, given where we are today, that to speak of the human world a thousand years from now or five hundred years from now, it is literally, it either doesn’t exist, or it’s beyond our power of imagining.30 Our world today has a few perilous demands: drop the old games (our projective filters and madeup rules), see through them, outgrow them entirely if necessary, and begin to imagine and participate in better ones. As Mark Booth closed his seminal and endlessly peculiar, 2010 book The Secret History of the World, “Imagination is the key.”³¹ Just imagine cultural virtual realities that are more meaningful, beautiful, ecumenical, compassionate, sustainable, efficient, and indeed more loving to play in. In a word: wiser. The call upon the present generation is to radically shift gears and awaken to what we are really doing. We will accept our responsibility for this crisis or we will go down in the history of the universe as another menagerie of pseudo-intelligent space bumpkins at the far end of the galactic arm who collapsed into dust under the weight of their own illusions. This is the warning shot echoing through modernity fired by none other than Mary Shelley in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. We will end at the hands of none other than both our own psychic and physical creations — our virtual reality worlds — unless we evolve them. Rendering these cultural VRs relative is an essential part of the process in transcending and evolving them. Again, why do they demand to be transcended and transformed? Because they simply aren’t up to snuff; they do not match the moral and ethical reasoning that is necessary to handle the pan-destructive forces that our fathers and grandfathers have already unleashed upon the surface of the earth. It’s really that simple. Our most powerful and influential cultures are far from benign. Culture eats nature; our worst VRs eat the world. The challenge and the gift that we have given ourselves is a whole planet on the brink — the ultimate narrative, the life or death game par excellence. The creator’s creation now threatens the continuity of life itself, when its hope was supposedly always to uplift. All in all, it’s a very exciting time to be alive. You won’t get a better opening act to the primate’s next stage of awakening than the one where it has fallen into its own otherwise brilliant, multi-millennia in the making death trap. The question bubbling up as the Information Age gives birth to the Virtual Age is; “What will end up being born out of our totally humanized enclosure when we push hard enough against the thresholds of our collective fantasy worlds?” You will know where you really stand by comparing the writing on the wall against the acidity index of the world’s oceans.

Originally published in the IEET 2016. Republished in Three Essays on Virtual Reality, Overlords, Civilization, and Escape.

FOOTNOTES

1. The Taxonomy of Illusion. Sound Photosynthesis,
1993. Performance by Terence McKenna.
Videocassette. The first category or grand family
of illusions which we would put into our
taxonomic key would be social illusions, and
when I, and — you know, later we can argue this,
but at this point in the discussion, illusion is slash
delusion, so the great social illusions/delusions
are sexism, racism, xenophobia, egoism, so far,
classism. The world is riddled and ruled by these
social illusions and no one is free of them, and so
they constitute one broad category.

2. Blascovich, Jim, and Jeremy Bailenson. Infinite
Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the
Dawn of the Virtual Revolution.
William Morrow,
2012. [F]or ancestral humans, words were not
enough — so graphics were invented. The room is
a large cave. At the entry, a sign informs you that
the cave is a replica of one in Lascaux, France,
where cave paintings date back at least thirty
thousand years. The cave walls are covered with
several primitive drawings, some of large animals
in motion, some of hunters, and some of
curvaceous women […] The fire casts his shadow
on the cave ceiling. He entertains everyone with a
series of hand and finger motions creating a
panoply of moving shadow animals. You realize
that this is likely the first animation technology.

3. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Directed by Werner
Herzog, IFC Films, 2010. For these Paleolithic
painters, the play of light and shadows from their
torches could possibly have looked something
like this. For them, the animals perhaps appeared
moving, living. We should note that the artists
painted this bison with eight legs, suggesting
movement, almost a form of proto-cinema. The
walls themselves are not flat but have their own
three-dimensional dynamic, their own
movement, which was utilized by the artists. In
the upper left corner, another multi-legged
animal. And the rhino to the right seems also to
have the illusion of movement, like frames in an
animated film.

4. Kellner, Douglas. “Jean Baudrillard.” Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University,
22 Apr. 2005, substantially revised 7 Mar. 2007,
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard/.
Accessed 02 July 2017. [Baudrillard’s]
postmodern universe is one of hyperreality in
which entertainment, information, and
communication technologies provide experiences
more intense and involving than the scenes of
banal everyday life, as well as the codes and
models that structure everyday life. The realm of
the hyperreal (e.g., media simulations of reality,
Disneyland and amusement parks, malls and
consumer fantasylands, TV sports, and other
excursions into ideal worlds) is more real than
real, whereby the models, images, and codes of
the hyperreal come to control thought and
behavior. Yet determination itself is aleatory in a
non-linear world where it is impossible to chart
causal mechanisms in a situation in which
individuals are confronted with an overwhelming
flux of images, codes, and models, any of which
may shape an individual’s thought or behavior.

5. The Hard Problem: The Science Behind the
Fiction.”
Roots of The Matrix. Directed by Josh
Oreck. Ultimate Edition DVD, Warner Bros., 2004.

6. Huineng, and Hsüan Hua. The Sixth Patriarch’s
Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra: With the
Commentary of Tripitaka Master Hua.
Buddhist
Text Translation Society, 2002. At the monastery
the Master met the two monks arguing over the
topic of the wind and a flag. One said the wind
moved, the other said the flag moved, and he told
them, ‘You are both wrong. Neither the wind nor
the flag is moving. Your minds are moving. If your
minds were not moving, then neither the wind
nor the flag would move.

7. Wilson, Robert Anton. The Acceleration of
Knowledge: The Jumping Jesus Phenomenon.

Sounds True, 1991. Audio cassette. Recorded 29
February 1986, in Denver, Colorado. Most
futurists don’t make predictions that outrageous,
because most futurists are trying to be
respectable. Those of you who heard me in
Boulder last night know that I have no desire to
become respectable. I am in a much more
dangerous business than that. I am trying to
provoke new thoughts.

8. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the
Subversion of Identity.
Routledge, 1990. Gender is
not a noun, but neither is it a set of free floating
attributes, for we have seen that the substantive
effect of gender is performatively produced and
compelled by the regulatory practices of gender
coherence. Hence, within the inherited discourse
of the metaphysics of substance, gender proves to
be performative — that is, constituting the
identity is purported to be. In this sense, gender
is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject
who might be said to pre-exist the deed.

9. Gendler, Robert, and R. Jay
GaBany. Breakthrough!: 100 Astronomical Images
that Changed the World.
Springer, 2015. The
unaided eye and brain are equipped to
distinguish only a small fraction of the full
spectrum of light produced by the universe. On a
logarithmic scale of frequency, visible light
represents only 2.3% of the entire
electromagnetic spectrum, and if the scale is
linear it is reduced to a mere 0.0035%.

10. Heflick, Nathan. “Why We (Often) Believe Fake
News.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 31
Mar. 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/
the-big-questions/201703/why-we-often-believe-
fake-news. Accessed 02 July 2017. One line of
work consistent with Naive Realism is the ‘bias
blind spot.’ This work has asked people, for
instance, how susceptible they are to a wide
range of psychological biases. So, a study might
explain hindsight bias (the tendency for people to
think they knew it all along when they didn’t),
and then ask people how much they themselves
are susceptible to this, and how much they think
others are. People will almost always say that
they are less susceptible. This work further
shows that even when people admit to using
biased sources, they still think they reach
unbiased, objective conclusions.

11. O’ Toole, Garson. “We Don’t See Things As They
Are, We See Them As We Are.” Quote Investigator,
9 Mar. 2014, quoteinvestigator.com/2014/03/09/as-we-are/.
When Nin wrote the adage she did not take credit
for the notion. Instead, she pointed to a major
religious text: Lillian was reminded of the
talmudic words: “We do not see things as they
are, we see them as we are.” In 2005 an article in
Newsweek magazine contained an epigraph that
matched the adage under investigation. The
statement was identified as an English
translation of a comment from a section within
the Talmud: “We do not see things as they are.
We see things as we are.” — Rabbi Shemuel ben
Nachmani, as quoted in the Talmudic tractate
Berakhot.

12. Blascovich and Bailenson. Infinite Reality.

13. Return to Source: Philosophy & ‘The Matrix’.
Roots of The Matrix.
Directed by Josh Oreck.
Ultimate Edition DVD. Warner Bros., 2004.

14. The Matrix. “Philosopher’s Commentary”
Narrated by Cornel West and Ken Wilber,
directed by the Wachowskis, 1999. Ultimate
Edition DVD. Warner Bros., 2004.

15. “Jiddu Krishnamurti: Learning That Transforms
Consciousness.” YouTube, uploaded by
KrishnamurtiArchive, 7 Mar 2011,
https://youtu.be/y4jsj4ZukXs. “My
consciousness and yours, if we have been
brought up, programmed, conditioned to be
individual, then my consciousness is all this
activity of thought — fear is thought, we will go
into that presently. Pursuit of pleasure is the
movement of thought. And the suffering, the
anxiety, the uncertainty, the deep regrets,
wounds, the burden of centuries of sorrow, is
part of thought. Thought is responsible for all
this.” — 2nd Public Talk, Saanen, Switzerland, 14
July, 1981.

16. “50 Best Quotes, Photos: Chögyam Trungpa,
Buddhist meditation teacher.” Elephant Journal, 9
Oct. 2010, https://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/10/50-
best-quotes-photos-chogyam-trungpa-buddhist-
meditation-teacher/. Accessed 05 July 2017. In
the garden of gentle sanity, May you be
bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness.

17. A Few Conclusions on Life. Performance by
Terence McKenna. Audio. –
https://archive.org/details/PsychedelicSalon136
-mckennalessonsaboutlife

18. “The Psychedelic Influence on Philosophy.”
YouTube, uploaded by Ontologistics, 19 Mar.
2016, https://youtu.be/X2eY4n37FC0. Lecture
given at the University of Exeter (10 March
2016). A description of which Western
philosophers have been influenced by
psychoactive substances; and suggestions
towards a future philosophy of psychedelics.

19. Sjöstedt-H, Peter. “The Hidden Psychedelic
History of Philosophy: Plato, Nietzsche, and 11
Other Philosophers Who Used Mind-Altering
Drugs.” High Existence, 27 Sept. 2016,
highexistence.com/hidden-psychedelic-
influence-philosophy-plato-nietzsche-
psychonauts-thoughts/. Accessed 03 July
2017. Philosophy itself often arrives as a mind-
altering experience, a new mode of perception
unto our cosmos, at times so radical as to be
hazardous. Thus can philosophy be seen as a
psychoactive substance — yet the place of
psychoactive substances in philosophy is not
apparent. In this mildly chronological overview
we shall shed light upon the history of the
notable Western philosophers who took
psychedelic chemicals and how this may have
influenced their thought — how psychedelics
influenced philosophy.

20. Grim, Ryan. “Read the Never-Before-Published
Letter From LSD-Inventor Albert Hofmann to
Apple CEO Steve Jobs.” The Huffington Post, 08
July 2009, www.huffingtonpost.com/ryan-
grim/read-the-never-before-pub_b_227887.html.
Accessed 05 July 2017. Psychedelic drugs,
Markoff argues, pushed the computer and
Internet revolutions forward by showing folks
that reality can be profoundly altered through
unconventional, highly intuitive thinking.
Douglas Engelbart is one example of a
psychonaut who did just that: he helped invent
the mouse. Apple’s Jobs has said that Microsoft’s
Bill Gates, would “be a broader guy if he had
dropped acid once.” In a 1994 interview with
Playboy, however, Gates coyly didn’t deny having
dosed as a young man. Thinking differently — or
learning to Think Different, as a Jobs slogan has
it — is a hallmark of the acid experience.

21. D’autres Mondes. Directed by Jan Kounen, A.J.O.Z.
Films, Tawak Pictures, 2004. “What if I had not
taken LSD ever; would I have still invented PCR? I
don’t know. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.”
Nobel Laureate Dr. Kary Mullis.

22. Davidson, Keay. “Carl Sagan and Pot.” High Times,
May 2016, hightimes.com/news/carl-sagan-
and-pot/. Accessed 05 July 2017. Astronomer
Carl Sagan had been a regular marijuana user
from the early 1960s on. He believes the drug
enhanced his creativity and insights. His closest
friend of three decades, Harvard psychiatry
professor Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a leading
advocate of the decriminalization of marijuana,
recalls an incident in the 1980s when one of his
California admirers mailed him, unsolicited, some
unusually high-quality pot. Grinspoon shared the
joints with Sagan and his wife, Annie. Afterwards,
Grinspoon recalls, Sagan asked if he could have
the last joint because he had so much work to do
the next day and that it would really help.

23. Riley, Christopher. “The Dolphin who Loved me:
The NASA-funded Project that Went Wrong.” The
Guardian, 08 June 2014,
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/20
14/jun/08/the-dolphin-who-loved-me. Accessed
05 July 2017. For the actor Jeff Bridges, who was
introduced to Lilly by his father Lloyd, Lilly’s self-
experimentation with LSD was just part of who
he was. “John Lilly was above all an explorer of
the brain and the mind, and all those drugs that
expand our consciousness,” reflects Bridges.
“There weren’t too many people with his
expertise and his scientific background doing
that kind of work.”

24. McKenna. Taxonomy.

25. The Matrix. Directed by the Wachowskis. Warner
Bros., 1999.

26. McKenna. Taxonomy.

27. McKenna. Taxonomy.

28. Wilson, Robert Anton. Cosmic Trigger II: Down to
Earth
. New Falcon Publications, 1991. That year
[1900] Max Planck published his first paper on
quantum mechanics, beginning the process by
which science in this century would gradually
abandon Aristotelian logic and evolve in a non-
Aristotelian, almost Buddhist direction. We were
learning that the “one” “objective” Aristotelian
“real world” previously posited by all Western
thought existed only as a concept in our linguistic
structures: that the only worlds we knew were
plural and created by our senses and scientific
instruments, all of them uncertain to some
degree and all of them given structure by the
inbuilt hardware and software of our senses and
instruments.

29. McKenna. Taxonomy.

30. The World and Its Double. Performance by
Terence McKenna, Sound Photosynthesis, 1993.
Videocassette. [T]he basic message of
materialism is that the world is what it appears
to be: a thing composed of matter and pretty
much confined to its surface. The world is what it
appears to be. Now, this, on the face of it, is a
tremendously naïve position, because what it
says is the animal body that you inhabit, the eyes
you look through, the fingers you feel through,
are somehow the ultimate instruments of
metaphysical conjecture, which is highly
improbable. It seems to me, metaphysical
conjecture begins with the logic of the situation,
and then proceeds in whatever direction that
logic will carry you. Well, if logic is true to
experience then we have to make room in any
theory for invisible connectedness between
people; anticipation of a future that has not yet
occurred; shared dreaming; all kinds of
possibilities that materialism has denied. For
approximately 500 years, the great era of the
triumph of modern science, materialism has had
the field all to itself; and its argument for its
preeminence was the beautiful toys that it could
create. Aircraft, railroads, global economies,
television, spacecraft. But that isn’t — that is a
fool’s argument for truth! I mean, that’s after all
how a medicine show operates, you know? The
juggler is so good, the medicine must be even
better!

31. Booth, Mark. The Secret History of the World.
Overlook Press, 2010. The truth is that we must
use our imagination. When we travel any
distance in either direction, when we leave the
confines of this little island of matter, we cannot
but enter the realms of imagination. Of course
materialists tend to distrust the imagination,
associating it with fantasy and illusion. But the
secret societies hold an especially exalted view of
the imagination. Each individual mind is a
protrusion into the material world of one vast
cosmic mind, and we must use the imagination to
reach back into it and to engage with it. It was
using the imagination in this way that made
Leonardo, Shakespeare and Mozart god-like.
Imagination is the key.

--

--

Eliott Edge

Author of '3 Essays on Virtual Reality', global speaker, artist, humorist, futurist, netizen, critic & psychonaut Patreon.com/OddEdges EliottEdge.com IEET.org