“What we think, we become.”
Two-world mythology is not new to philosophy. Plato codified the world of the forms millennia ago. Religions, too, assume a two-worldview: heaven and hell. Even modern media has its version: the Matrix and the “real world.” This bifurcation of what is and what could be seems foundational to any mindset. However, I fear that its most recent iteration has blurred the lines between Reality and the strictly illusory—virtual reality.
Traditional two-world mythologies contrast what is and what could be in the future. Aristotle’s anagoge, Yahweh’s covenant, and Kant’s categorical imperative, among myriad others, all envision a self and a world that is better. The individual or group’s function is then to orient toward and ascend to a higher state/world. Contemporary two-world mythology, on the other hand, contrasts the real world with perspectival interpretations of the present.
There is no shortage of articles or opinion pieces detailing the shortcomings and dangers of anonymous message board activity and social media echo chambers online. It is not my intention to rehash those here. What I want to focus on is how those online spaces affect our consciousness.
First, what is the immediate effect of online spaces? Deconstructed to its most basic consequences, online content commands attention. When we are participating in an online space, whether commenting, posting, or validating via social media, we are thinking and engaging, quite often emotionally, with curated information on a screen. It is important to note that this is not the same quality of attention one would give to traditionally digital content (i.e., movies, video games, etc.). Where one might watch a movie or play a video game and realize that the content is a work of fantasy and therefore not salient for consideration in the decisions of everyday life, virtual reality content—again, I have here in mind digital news sites/blogosphere, messages boards, and social media—is broadly considered an experience of reality in the virtual space. In other words, while traditional digital content isn’t mistaken for what’s real, virtual reality content is mapped in the brain as Reality (what is). The consequence of this realization cannot be understated. It means that information received through virtual forums is assimilated into memory and consciousness as if it were received through experiential contact with Reality. The problem is that virtual reality is not Reality.
Information received through online platforms, with the exception of math in the case of the abstract and tutorials in the case of the practical, is produced from a particular perspective. Perspectives, by definition, do not and cannot constitute Reality. Reality, great philosophers like Thales, Lao Tzu, or Spinoza would argue, is One. In other words, all of reality is Reality. Fragmented attention points of Reality are therefore incomplete. Consequently, if one comes into contact with partial information disconnected from the whole, they are encountering incomplete representations of Reality that originated out of someone’s limited perspective.
Quickly, a word on existential nihilism and worldview interpretation: Society as it exists at the time of this writing, in the infant stages of virtual reality, has largely abandoned its meaning-anchors. Religions and institutions that once provided grounding, purpose, and a foundation from which to interpret external stimuli—contact with unknown aspects of Reality—have been abandoned for a postmodernism that flirts with cultural hegemony. Participatory attempts at Truth that once grounded Being has been replaced with a personal cynical skepticism (nihilism) that poses as an interpretational framework. This framework is then practiced as a power game between groups due to the loss of the Grand Narrative of history that postmodernism disavows. In short, instead of referencing a framework that has evolved from a particular culture as a sense-making apparatus, the postmodern existential nihilist creates their own sense-making paradigm by piecing together personal experience and fragmented pieces of information.
Imagine flipping through a dictionary, picking out words at random, and then assembling them into a sentence. Could the sentence be grammatically correct? In theory it could be. Would it be coherent? Most certainly not. Likewise, assembling a worldview from fragmentary pieces of someone else’s experience, assuming their knowledge came through contact with Reality (which is no safe assumption), is by definition not coming into contact with the totality of potential information with that which is being referred. Instead, it is assimilating and assembling fragmented information piecemeal into a novel worldview.
Constructing a worldview from fragmentary perspectives is a volatile and unstable proposition. Patterns are how the brain makes sense. When it is lacking a unifying cognitive foundation it will correlate potentially unrelated information. This explains the rise and prevalence of conspiracy theories. New paradigms, for the conspiracy theorist, are forged in randomness and become foundational for personal interpretation and are used to make sense of one’s context, even going so far as to distort new and contradictory information in order to maintain the integrity of the system. This is important because how one interprets their context provides motivation for action.
While engaged in virtual reality, the mind is free of its immediate physical context. Online, communities of recluses are free of the stresses of experiencing Reality. Their attention is captured not by the Totality of what is, but by what could be in the present. Fragments of plausible, from their distorted point of view, information blend together to form a picture of their (disillusioned)self-in-(disoriented)context. When insulated from contradictory information—a defining characteristic of social media and online forums—individuals can fall down a proverbial rabbit hole of their given obsession and begin to see evidence of their convictions everywhere. When dwelling in the isolated world of jigsaw virtual perspective, the same mechanisms that activate our imaginations when engaged with fantasy media are substituted for contact with Reality.
The conspiracy theorist and those obsessively engaged in online echo chambers generally are often purposely not encountering Reality in order to bypass its more challenging components. They are constructing a worldview in order to justify their angst with Reality instead of struggling to free themselves of those feelings. In other words, unlike traditional two-world mythologies, they are not encountering what is, since it is problematic or triggering, in the interest of transcending to what could be, but are distorting what (they have crafted) is from what Is. The virtual world they create from the shadowy fragments of incomplete perspectives is conflated with actual Reality. Put simply, they are creating another world…virtually. This new worldview then becomes the foundation for choices in their lives.
This second virtual world, unlike heavenly forms or philosophically normative ethics, is not transcendent, but simply a distorted representation of what could be—in other words, how the world could be operating at this present moment—from a disengaged, distorted, and anxiety-ridden perspective. The eschatological then is replaced with the skeptical.
This distinction is so important because psychological maturity must develop experientially alongside the confines of propositional content. Somatic experience is a priori to abstract formulations. Experience must precede responsible formulation of ideas. One does not need to be convinced to avoid putting their hand in a fire. A history of tactile feedback of heat and combustion is enough to train the self to avoid that particular aspect of their context. Likewise, rational consideration of how to live is contingent upon being in touch (pun intended) with Reality. Traditional two-world mythology offered a framework of an abstract vision of a future state of affairs and personal conduct from which individuals could choose to act. Those mythologies were often based upon considerations of what was lacking in their current context. If theft was rampant, then heaven must involve a cessation of thievery. Same goes for all immorality. In this way, morality and ethics developed and evolved over time as cultures considered what could be better in the future. They could not have done this had they not had experience with theft, slavery, sexual immorality, etc. They didn’t consider abstract notions of these improprieties; they lived them and organized systematic solutions to rid themselves of them. As a result, individuals hoped for that world of something better. They envisioned a world that could be and developed moral codes to foster their visions into Reality. Were they perfect? No. But through constant engagement and refinement through trial-and-error, these codes by and large produced successful life programs.
Engagement with virtual reality cannot accomplish these goals because users are limited to fragmented propositional representations of Reality. Digital content is, be definition, created before it is posted to be consumed, and therefore cannot contain the richness, nuance, or contextual constraints of the totality of Reality. Without an accurate picture (no pun intended) of what is, individuals and groups cannot develop an accurate picture of what could be in the future. They are limited to the fallible logical extensions of the worldview they constructed from other fragmented perspectives. It is no wonder that radical utopianisms of all kinds have sprung up online. Because they are not based on experience with Reality, but in a digital conversation space where necessarily incomplete social engineering concepts are up regulated by rhetoric, not experience. After all, in cyberspace anything is possible. Why not in Reality? Because of the very real constraints of environmental feedback that simply do not exist in virtual reality. One cannot come to even conceptualize of these constraints without experiencing them.
It should be noted here that there is nothing inherently wrong with virtual reality. As a forum for fiction, fantasy, and even education, it is simply the latest iteration of the human imagination expressing itself in modern media (i.e. books, newspapers, TV, video games, etc.). Where our current culture runs into trouble is confusing the capacity of virtual reality to accurately represent the real world. We have replaced contact with Reality as a sense-making apparatus in order to construct an infantile and mad collective intelligence. Unfortunately, our postmodern two-world mythology assumes the validity of virtual reality as a substitute for engaging with Reality. The danger of this mistake cannot be understated. Siddhartha Gautama famously proclaimed, “What we think we become.” If one’s attention is limited to fractured representations found in tightly controlled echo chambers, then they will inevitably jumble those representations into a seemingly coherent worldview. As we have seen above, this process is more similar to concocting conspiracy theories than making sense of the world.
Conspiracy theories and cults are what happen when worldviews or paradigms are constructed ex nihilo. Modern thought was dependent on the bedrock of the Grand Narrative of history. Individuals and groups since the dawn of civilization have operated on the understanding that each of our contacts with Reality corresponds to each other’s (theory of mind). Therefore, we are capable of evaluating, learning from, and incorporating knowledge of the same events, even from different perspectives, into a cohesive and mutually accessible narrative. After all, we are all experiencing Reality. As a result, as history progressed differing views of how it could progress developed. These views competed in the marketplace of ideas from time immemorial and evolved over time. Through noble and evil means, traditions developed to help group members make sense of their world. These views continue to evolve through contact with Reality. If practices of a particular do not contribute to the long-term health, stability, and prospects of the group over time (i.e., child sacrifice, slavery, holy war, etc.), they inevitably will be reformed out to make a more sustainable and productive version of the worldview (see: Darwin and Hegel), or the group’s viability will suffer and perhaps even collapse. This process takes time and experience. It cannot be done logically through abstract propositions.
Postmodernism, on the other hand, posits that the Grand Narrative of history is simply a version of history and therefore inherently flawed. The resulting nausea from this cosmic realization can be debilitating (see: Sartre), but it can also be empowering, to the existentialist nihilist, because it allows individuals and groups to create their own worldview. The main problem with this theory, among many others, is that these views still must compete in the marketplace of ideas, yet have not had the benefit of engagement of the refining Process of time and experience in Reality. Consequently, these new postmodern worldviews are, by necessity, incomplete and naive because they are based on fallible logic and fragmented limited experience. What’s worse, the postmodern prophets of revolution (i.e. Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, etc.) did not usually engage in the suffering and death that usually accompanies worldview attunement, but simply pontificated over brandy and cigarettes in Parisian cafes. They were not in contact with Reality. They were engaging in a virtual reality of their own making without the bearing responsibility of testing their hypotheses in Reality.
21st century social media is the 20th century Parisian café. Twitter and Facebook are the brandy and cigarettes of would-be philosophers. 1s and 0s are flashing in LED prophecies based on nothing more than fragmented representations of fallible logic. Meanwhile, this marketplace of shadows is becoming increasingly toxic because of its lack of contact with Reality.
We have seen that two-world mythology is not a novel idea. Priests, prophets, kings, and philosophers have been appealing to an alternative version of Reality as long as societies have existed. Pre-modern and modern societies looked from what is to a blueprint of what could be in the future. As a result, through laws, rituals, and, ultimately, trial-and-error, worldviews and paradigms were developed through which individuals and groups could make sense of, act responsibly in, and change the world. However, the current popular postmodern nihilist condition has created an environment that shuns the hard won developments of our forebears in favor of skepticism and fallible logic that ultimately creates chaos and conflict, not stability and progress. Their “other world” is a place of shadow, meaninglessness, and conflict. It is a blueprint for destruction of civic society (see: 20th century history of Socialism). The marketplace of shadows finds its traders primarily in the realm of anonymous digital forums that lend themselves to the reckless proliferation and promotion of overripe skepticism, anxiety, and lack of self-control.
As long as what could be in our culture is defined by worldviews based on fragments and representations of reality, we will continue to fall headlong into the abyss of meaninglessness, fragmentation, and conflict. However, hope is not lost. Should we courageously emerge from the cave of shadows into the brilliant light of Reality, we may yet reestablish contact with the work of ages. It will most certainly not be easy, but at least it will be Real.
1. The toxicity of engagement in virtual reality deserves an essay all its own due to postmodernism’s contemporary love affair with neo-Marxism. I hope to write said essay soon.