death in cyberspace

For God so loved the world...
     Any statement which proposes to interpret the whole of our experience in terms of realities which lie beyond or outside that experience—whether these realties be substances, spirits, or chunks of parental cyberspace—is a metaphysical statement. Unlike empirical statements, which are decidable on the basis of some test, experiment, or observation made within the realm of our experience, and which in that sense propose matters of fact, metaphysical statements set out to clarify the whole of things, and must be accepted or rejected in the light of other criteria, such as elegance, completeness, coherence, explanatory usefulness—even personal taste. 
     Most philosophical utterances over the centuries have been metaphysical in nature—even those comparatively recent metaphysical claims made by the Logical Positivists of this century,1 which warn us away from the contemplation of any statements in respect to whose truth or falsity a possible observation, or test, would not be relevant. For such perhaps excessively clear thinkers, these are "factually meaningless" statements—little swirls of metaphysical nonsense—and we stand to waste a lot of time puzzling over them. 
     Much of what we have had to say about Virtual Reality would be dismissed by the Positivists in this manner. Specifically, any debate thought to be carried on within the confines of a reality simulator which purported to identify the current environment as only a synthetic environment, and to identify the experiences had within that simulator as somehow less realthan those which might be imagined to occur outside it, would be rejected as a factually meaningless debate. There is no test that could possibly decide things one way or another. That this may not be the "Game of Life," but a Lifegame 3.xx instead, is not decidable from within the game, should this in fact be only a game. That this may only be a game is thus idle, metaphysical speculation. To the rubbish heap with puzzles like this. 
     Empirical thinking of this sort has its roots in the great work of Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, and has served to keep science "on the right track," and to keeps scientists in the labs where they belong, and out of the ivory tower, where it is expected and tolerated that time will be wasted in the contemplation of beginnings, endings, navels, the ultimate nature of all things, and other such mysteries.2
     Accordingly, it is particularly ironical that it has been empirical science—technological innovations which have allowed the construction of reality simulators—which has brought us to the point of contemplating alternative, machine-made sensorial spaces—synthetic environments, if you will—from within which it becomes a factually meaningless, merely metaphysical exercise to speculate as to the proximate origins of these sensations, even though the machine that made them, and is making them as we speak, may be in the room just across the hall. 
     Of course, what counts is what side of the machine wall you're on—whether you're inside the machine, or outside it. It turns out that what may be metaphysical nonsense inside a machine— within a daughter environment—may be an empirical matter of fact outside the machine—in the parent environment. 
     Outside the machine, we may know as a matter of historical fact that we built this particular machine, and then talked 10,000 or so players into getting inside it, for the purpose of animating characters in a Lifegamecreated by our computer programmers. We know that, for those inside the machine, it's all just a game, because we just made the game. Needless to say, the people inside the machine may not know that. 
     And, inside the machine, they don't, so busy are they playing the game. It never occurs to them that their world may be less real than another world which they can never know directly. That sort of thinking is useless metaphysical speculation for those inside the reality simulator. 
     Oh, it may be suggested from time to time, inside the machine, that "it's only a game, relax," but those chiding admonitions are quickly filed away together with the burning bushes, miracles, angels, saviors, and other singularities, or exceptions to the rule, as might suggest to a more alert population that the system is not altogether closed, and that there's someone "out there" trying to tell us something. 
     Like, for example, computer programmers who deliberately put a machine-driven angel into the mix every now then, as a singularity within the system, as a hint to us. Or a buggy algorithm which every so often creates event discontinuities inside the machine which are typically regarded from within the machine as miracles, or as acts of God. More hints. 
     Like, for example, saviors sent down to the world from a parent environment as "sons of God," also very much as exceptions to the rule, for the purpose of getting our attention, and then instructing us that the Father's house has many mansions, outstripping the apparent confines of this particular machine which we call the real world, and that belief in Him, temporarily here present, as the Son of God, holds the key to a wider view of things, and not incidentally, to everlasting life —not just in this place, but in others we may have left behind.3
     "You're in a machine, pal. God's the guy who owns the server. Wise up."
     We tend to ignore such voices crying in the wilderness, both inside and outside of reality chambers. Faith is hard, no matter what machine you're in. 
     Let's face it. If this is just a game, we'll only know that for sure when the game ends, and we are restored to a parent environment within which matters of current metaphysical speculation, and of religious faith, may be finally resolvable in factual terms. 
     That is death in cyberspace. 
     Cyberspatial death occurs when there are "no more moves allowed." That happens whenever the programmers want it to, either for the whole group of players, or for one particular player. For example, the "end of the game" of Monopoly occurs when one particular player goes bankrupt. That's the way the rules—the computer algorithms—are set up. You're bankrupt; you're out of the game. 
     It can also occur at the option of a player, along the lines of a suicide. For example, whenever a Poker player folds his hand of cards, or whenever a computer user logs off a "chat" session on a BBS, and finds himself back at the DOS prompt. 
     It can also occur to an entire group of players in a disastrous, holocaustic and sudden fashion; as for example if any of the machines involved are unplugged from the wall—either through inadvertence, or by design, or if one of the laboratory Wizards mistakenly does a Ctrl-Alt-Delete. 
     In the complicated Lifegames we have been considering, where real-world players are allowed to animate "virtual personalities" in cyberspace, death occurs whenever, in the context of the rules of the game, as determined beforehand by the computer programmers, there is sufficient reason to deny that player any additional moves—as would almost certainly occur, for example, if the personality in cyberspace gets in the way of a cyber-bullet, or a synthetic speeding train. At that point, the personality will be regarded as "dead" by the remaining players, and retired into local obscurity with, perhaps, the usual pomp and ceremony. 
     Not final obscurity, however, by any means. In cyberspatial death, players are always returned from a daughter to a parent environment. "Wake up, Silas, it was just a dream." Or, "Come with me sweetheart; you've been at that machine far too long. Come talk to the kids." Or, "Grandpa died, and he's now up in Heaven." 
     Daughter environments are recognizable as such from a parent environment, but the reverse, as we have seen, does not occur. Death in cyberspace thus takes the form of an ascendancy from a more limited to a less limited view of things. Cyberspatial death is always an awakening.4
     It's at this glorious juncture—when the scales fall away from your eyes, and you are reintroduced through the great white light to a parent environment—that you may remember having originally opted to play the game to begin with—to get inside the machine. To take another life on earth. 
     It's also at this point that you are able to conclude—now as a matter of empirical fact—that the game just terminated was "only a game," however seriously you may have taken it at the time. It was meaningless, or was at best an article of religious faith, to have held such a view while inside the chamber. Now it turns that this view had always been correct as a matter of fact —the only difference being which side of the machine wall you happened to be on. 
     This is true enlightenment. As do the eaters of L.S.D., you exclaim "I remember, I forgot!"5
     Joyously, you promise aloud to take things less seriously in the future—in the next game. However, you know in your heart that when the bright-red reality chamber hatch next clangs shut behind you, and the tally light goes on, and the music starts, even this most recent and fervent promise will be automatically obliterated, together with all other features of the parent environment, as a new and more innocent life begins. 
     Inevitably, this will be referred to as "Birth in the Machine." 

1Cf., Shahzi, Logical Positivism, a brief, comprehensive and entertaining essay. Also, Cf., Ayer, A.J., Language, Truth and Logic, for the best of all modern books dealing with this topic. 

2Cf., An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748, in which Hume convincingly pitches the role of eyes and ears in sorting out fact from double-talk. 

3Cf.,John 3:16, and other biblical passages suggestive of string-pulling from a parent environment. 

4Not so for the personalities which, within the game, we chose to regard as "angels." They don't get to die, having been just programming constructs—Bots—all along. Within the game, they simply disappear, mysteriously, as did Gabriel when his work on Earth was done.

5"Turn on, tune in, drop out!" is how Timothy Leary verbalized his appreciation of the ability of the central nervous system, pharmocologically hyped, to generate new and sometimes frightfully real virtual realities, and his advice as concerns what you should do, so informed. 



© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle. 

E-mail: philo@passports.com

 


 All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.