I shall die once again as a man
to rise an angel perfect from head to foot[i]
One way to comprehend the Metaverse and the world of virtual reality is to understand “reality” and the right approach to public conception of it. Reality, both overtly and covertly, has always been and will continue to be a major concern for thinkers and philosophers across history, and perhaps in a sense, “contemplating on reality and the relating philosophy” has been the foundation of any school of thought. In his famous speech, Zhuang Zhou addressed the philosophy of reality with a fundamental question after dreaming of a beautiful butterfly:
Now I do not know whether it was then I dreamt I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.
Around the same era, Plato, in his masterpiece Republic, demonstrates his worldview through an allegory. He speaks of a cave where everyone sees only shadows of what is real on the wall. They take it as reality until one succeeds in liberating oneself and realizes the real world is far different from what they imagined.
In my opinion, the most compelling saying around the subject is what René Descartes framed in the experiment Evil Demon:
Perhaps an evil demon of utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds, and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment.
Today, the concern for understanding the reality of the world is more crucial than we think. In the last 60-70 years, with the development of computation capabilities, a futuristic idea emerged regarding the vision of this novel phenomenon: to create simulated worlds – slightly different from what is promised in Metaverse. Generally, virtual reality was a less known term until the 90s and it was probably after the science-fiction book Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson that attention was drawn to this notion.
It should be noted that simulated reality differs from virtual reality. Considering these differences some possible dimensions of the Metaverse will reach a new formation.
Let’s look at the issue of reality from another perspective, the cinema!
Fortunately, or unfortunately, a significant part of the public perception of the philosophical concept of reality has emerged from outstanding cinematic production, the most significant of which have been mostly bestsellers. Even some, such as the Matrix, have deconstructivity affected people’s fundamental beliefs. Naming a few of the most notable productions of the recent 30 years, I can shortlist the Matrix series (1999-2021), the Thirteenth Floor (1999), Inception (2010), Ready Player One (2018), and the recently released Free Guy (2021).
Of course, other productions deserve to be included in a longer list, but the shared view in most of the mentioned movies is the dystopian vision they demonstrate. Unfortunately to sell more, cinema needs to suspend and stimulate one of the feelings of pain (fear) or pleasure; it usually chooses the first thought. This has expectedly led people to think and share ideas on the Metaverse and virtual world through a pessimistic mindset. Whether the cinema as a medium can be a proper platform for outreaching philosophy or not, part of the philosophical mentality of the world on the subject of reality has been composed specifically by the Matrix series – I believe the fourth was the best outcome. It is more of a simulated world than a world based on virtual reality. Let me add another seemingly irrelevant movie to the list: The Truman Show (1998).
The Truman Show is the closest description to Descartes’ experiment with the Evil Demon. If we take these films as reality, humans at the moment of enlightenment would say a never-changing sentence:
“How horrifying! Nothing in my life has been real! My life is meaningless!”
A major difference between the Matrix and the Truman Show is that the Matrix represents a simulated world in which machines have control over humans to some extent – however, they have more powerful control over the environment, and their interventions occur only when conditions turn unbalanced – and the Truman Show is more of a virtual reality designed by deceitful agents, constantly manipulating its conditions. Not one occasion in both scenarios is genuine and “real”, but in the Truman Show, interventions and conductions repeatedly occur, and if you make a poll on which scenario is more upsetting – and disgusting – the Truman Show will probably win the majority of the votes. Ironically, we watch Cypher in the first Matrix, expressing that although he knows the Matrix is a fabricated world, he yearns to return to it even at the expense of betraying his companions. He prefers virtual fame and fortune to the other world. But it is unlikely that anyone would accept a similar offer in a scenario such as in The Truman Show. The divergence partially stems from the potential of authority and control in the Matrix, whereas in the Truman Show we are constantly deprived.
Now let’s look at the concept of reality from another perspective:
Reality is, in a sense, a description of our surrounding phenomena reflecting on our consciousness.
Although it is a bit of a subjective definition, many consider it valid. Patricia Churchland in her book, Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain (1986), suggests that if we desire to have more insight into the brain (as well as consciousness), we need to propose philosophical questions employing neuroscience, and in return acquire answers to the philosophical questions, utilizing neuroscience. In the 80s, she argued that through neuroscience perhaps we could obtain a higher knowledge regarding consciousness and consequently, reality. Following are Churchland’s fundamental questions:
What are mind and consciousness and what is their relation to the body? And how does the mind shape consciousness?
David Chalmers, the most famous philosopher in the field of philosophy of mind, confirms this approach in his book Constructing the World (2012), emphasizing that virtual worlds are the most important platform to reach a better understanding of consciousness. In his new methodology called Techno-Philosophy, he declared that philosophy is a platform for shedding light on technological issues and concerns as well as their socioethical effects, and technology is a platform for shedding light on traditional philosophical questions. In his new book, Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (2022) he adds that virtual reality helps with providing new answers to a few fundamental questions: What is reality? How do we get to know it? What is a good life (happiness) in reality?
To understand the complexity of reality perception, it is necessary to mention a couple of points. Scientists state that somewhere between 5K and 6K resolution, the human eye can no longer distinguish reality from virtuality. Similarly, the human ear, thanks to the assistance of advanced headphones, has not been able to distinguish between real and man-made sounds for decades. A heap of haptic technological tools can create a real sense of movement, pressure, and temperature. Let’s look at it from a different angle. Right now, when you capture an image of a scene or a person with your mobile phone, you consider it recording the reality of that event, but more than 70% of what your phone displays are unreal and forged by powerful chips and sophisticated algorithms. And it may come as a surprise to you, but even the image in the mirror is not an exact mapping of external reality. The line between mental reality and fabricated reality is blurring every day. So perhaps we’ve been living inside the Metaverse without knowing it, and a share of our real world has been created within it.
Another fascinating question to add to Chalmers’s statements and questions is, “Which reality is genuine?” Isn’t it true that the brain (consciousness) is the reference for deciding whether a phenomenon is real? Who is to say with certainty which is the reality? Perhaps this digital (virtual) reality is our principal reality. Perhaps the more accurate question is: “Which one is the most real world?”
Many later philosophers, including Chalmers and Nick Bostrom, and scientists such as George Fitzgerald Smoot II, have been proponents of the simulation hypothesis, saying there is a chance that we all live in a simulation. Yet it is a question that to what extent this hypothesis is provable, but more importantly, we are not equipped enough to reject it, and this point will apply to all identities within Metaverse.
Descartes has a well-known saying: “I think, therefore I am.” which Georg Lichtenberg opposed as the more accurate proposition may have been, “I think, therefore there is thinking,” as there is no reason for thinking to require a thinker. How can it be proven that he (Descartes) is not a mindless automatic being, if he is at least certain about thinking, he should not be sure of himself. Assigning originality to the concept of thinking (and perhaps in a sense consciousness) and not the owner of the thought might be an appropriate formulation imagined for the Metaverse worlds.
In my opinion, in a near future, when there is no distinction between the worlds, a question will arise among people immersed in Metaverse and people who consciously and voluntarily move between non-Metaverse and Metaverse worlds, as well as people who will never set foot in Metaverse:
“In which world is my freedom, respect, authority, and rights regarded the most? Which one incorporates the set of rules that is more compatible with my value system? And of course, which reality do I deserve?”
Whatever the answers to these questions are, it seems to be the original reality. Anyone who can find an accurate answer to these questions will step out of Plato’s cave and defeat Descartes’ demon conspiracy, and they will eventually know whether they are Zhuang Zhou or the butterfly.
In a scene of Free Guy, enlightened Buddy, an NPC (non-playable character), addresses Guy (another NPC):
“Hey, I’m here with my best friend, trying to help him through a tough time. If that ain’t real, I don’t know what is.”
Although it seems a simple phrase, it indicates that Metaverse and the virtual world, with all their ethical and social complexities and upcoming unknowns, might be an opportunity for human beings to construct (choose) their authentic reality and redefine and experience the good life (happiness).
 Chinese philosopher and one of the founders of Taoism, living 350 BC.
 This movie was released almost at the same time as The Matrix. That’s why it did not catch much attention.
 The movie is based on a novel under a similar name, written by Ernest Cline. The story illustrates James Halliday as the richest person on earth, who bequeathed that whoever finds his easter egg in a game or in a virtual world, will take his entire leftover money.
 A bank teller who suffers from job routines suddenly realizes that he is a non-player character in action and an open-world video game.
 The movie illustrates the life of a man whose life has been streaming 24/7 through international TV channels for millions of people without letting him know.
 In simple words, 5K means there are 5000 pixels on the horizontal edge. So having around 15 million pixels, the resolution of a 5k screen is almost seven times more than common full-HD TVs that are out there today on the market.
 Laureate of the Nobel prize in physics, 2006.
 German philosopher in the 18th.
[i] The title is part of a famous poem by Rumi:
I died as inanimate matter and arose a plant,
I died as a plant and rose again an animal.
I died as an animal and arose a man.
Why then should I fear to become less by dying?
I shall die once again as a man
To rise an angel perfect from head to foot!
Again when I suffer dissolution as an angel,
I shall become what passes the conception of man!
Let me then become non-existent, for non-existence
Sings to me in organ tones, ‘To him shall we return