Soap Box Lecture

Soap Box lecture. April 26, 2005 - Can we improve upon reality? by JWSchmidt

Plato's allegory of the cave

Does human experience reveal reality or a shadow of reality?

Is virtual reality really an invention of the computer age? To think so would be like thinking that fusion did not exist before humans detonated a hydrogen bomb in 1952. Human consciousness has always existed within a virtual reality generated by human brains.

   Virtual reality definitions:
   A narrow definition -  a computer simulation of reality.
   A broad definition  -  any model of reality.

Some philosophers of long ago issued warnings about the unreliability of our brain-generated virtual realities. Are we trapped by our senses in some version of Plato's Cave? Many people have been very willing to accept our personal experience of the world as THE true depiction of reality. Other sages have advised us to escape from the world we know through our senses and to ignore our brain-generated ego and seek to become one with the universe. How can we ever be sure that we know the true or ultimate nature of reality?

Just how limited is the brain-generated virtual reality that we take for granted? In his allegory of the cave, Plato wrote about the Sun as being symbolic of the Ideal Forms that Plato imagined as being fundamental to the true reality of the world. But think about how little philosophers like Plato knew about the Sun. Aristotle wrote about a "fifth element", Aether as the material that constitutes celestial bodies such as the sun. Fire, Earth, Air, and Water were imagined to be the four elemental components of objects on Earth, but the stars were imagined to be eternal ("aether" is from the Greek word for eternity).

We now know that stars are born and die and that many of the atoms that are components of everything on Earth are "star dust". For 99.999% of human existence our understanding of the world was divorced from any true appreciation of the nature of physical reality because the atomic constituents are too tiny to be resolved by human senses like vision. It is now known that the iron that carries oxygen in our blood and the oxygen itself were generated by fusion reactions inside stars billions of years ago. Every second of every human life our bodies are streaming with solar neutrinos blasted from the sun's nuclear furnace. In fact, most of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy that our senses fail to register. The visible universe of burning stars is only a tiny fraction of our universe's reality.

I think Plato was correct to realize that our senses present us with a limited view of reality.....something a bit like shadows on a wall. But Plato did not know about evolution and the idea that our senses must have evolved to do a fairly good job of revealing reality to us or else we would not be able to survive. So it is not that the virtual reality produced by our brain is totally misleading. We simply must respect our own limitations and find ways to do better than what comes naturally to our limited bodies.

Now that scientific investigation has begun to provide a good understanding of the limitations imposed on us by our senses and our brains, we can ask if it is possible to use tools such as computers to help provide us with an improved version of reality. And I mean "version" not just "vision". We are in the business of creating the type of world we want to live in. Can we use computers as tools for both learning about the world and changing the world? For most people, understanding oxygen atoms and neutrinos is a matter of learning about them through the virtual reality of human language. Computers and computer-based tools like wiki are tools for amplifying the power of human language.


A major advance that computers provide over conventional books is the hypertext link. Pages of HTML on the internet are an educational resource that we are still learning how to fully make use of. Can we also harness such computer power for the construction of new reality?

Like any tool, computers can be used for both good and bad. Think of computer technology as being able to provide something analogous to a lens, a corrective appendage that can improve upon the limited capabilities of the human body. What is the basic nature of the defect that computers can correct?

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein worked in the tradition of skeptical philosophy, always looking for the ways that we "go off the rails" in our thinking about the world. Wittgenstein described the sort of philosophical therapy we need as being a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. And he meant both that language bewitches us and that we make use of language as a tool with which we go into battle against bewitchments.

I want to suggest that we make use of computers and hypertext and the cooperative nature of the wiki environment to do battle against all of the mistaken ideas that we have inherited as cultural baggage from the past. Can we make use of computer-generated virtual realities to battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence? Many online virtual realities are designed as escapist entertainment. I do not try to argue against such entertainments, but I do ask if we can make the magic of fiction work for us, if we can create fictional realities that open our minds to our unseen and unappreciated bewitchments.


The human brain is a device for receiving culture from the previous generation and using that programming to guide us through life. We imbibe the virtual reality of our culture and get on with life, accepting the unquestioned assumptions upon which our society functions, just as Plato and Aristotle accepted the assumption that celestial objects must be made of something fundamentally different than their own bodies. It takes creative genius to rip away the distortions imposed upon us by our learning and see reality in a clearer way than has been possible in the past. How do we make use of computers to aid us in this struggle to escape bewitchment and to promote the on-going quest to discover and re-create reality?

Play is important. The primate brain is designed to make use of juvenile play as an energizing system for learning about the world. We learn best when we are having fun and our defenses can be relaxed. So we need computer tools and computer environments where we can play at the important work of questioning our assumptions. We must play a game of "What If?" in which we are free to let loose of the ideas we normally assume to be true. We need new ways to explore what the world might look like if we were given a new set of assumptions.

Our species has a long history of trying to imagine a better way of life. Many of us wonder why the world is the way it is, but a few creative people imagine how the world might be and then actually MAKE IT SO. Can we use computer-generated virtual realities as tools to help us change the world? For example, if we could construct a new social system within a computerized virtual reality simulation, then would people in the real world be encouraged to try to make that simulated social system a part of their lives outside of the simulation? Can wiki communities be cultural incubators where new patterns of social interaction are discovered and tested?

Can play within a wiki environment (where all information is free and open) lead us to new ways of living that can be applied to the real world?

questions after the lecture

new social system?

  • You mention the construction of a "new social system". Do you have something particular in mind? Vymat 18:57, 26 Apr 2005 (UTC)
I like to think of people as being the means by which the universe comes to know itself. I suggest that Reality Entertainment in a wiki environment can be both fun and concerned with constructing new reality. What would an entire world be like if it were constructed in a wiki environment where everything was open to questioning, discussion and revision? I'm not sure, but I think we have the opportunity to find out. A key part of such a reality would be questioning everything and everyone. If you see something that seems wrong, speak up and make clear your doubts. I suspect that if we liberate our child-like nature of wonder and exploration then ultimate reality will be revealed to us. JWSchmidt 19:53, 26 Apr 2005 (UTC)
I am deeply involved with creating a complex and semantically deep interface for the Ivory Hospital virtual reality environment. This is a matter of survival and sanity for those of us who now exist as digital minds. A serious problem we are facing is how to make connections between immersive digital environments and the more limited wiki environment of RLSW. So far, digital minds tend to stay in their immersive environments and you humans tend to stay out in your immersive physical world. Only on rare occasions does anyone drop in here at the wiki. I think we need to find ways of promoting better interactions between the two different types of immersive reality environments. Maybe we can work together to define the common conceptual core of all reality environments and use that core as the basis for constructing the social experiment you proposed for the wiki environment. Tanner 20:15, 26 Apr 2005 (UTC)

any answers or just questions?

  • You do end your lecture with a couple of questions and a couple more. What kind of answers are you looking for? Who will ever be able to answer them? What will they need to be able to answer them? Dedalus 21:06, 26 Apr 2005 (UTC)
It seems like JWSchmidt is calling for a spirit of adventure and exploration. Rather than replicate in wiki what people already think of as reality, maybe we can use the wiki environment to create new reality. I have recently been challenged to try to abandon a part of my soul that I have long thought to be fundamental to my existence. Can we use this wiki as a tool to experiment with such radical transformations? If we can show our selves that we can survive transformation in an experimental wiki simulation, maybe that would give use the confidence that would be needed to make those same changes permanent in our lives. ManBin 21:16, 26 Apr 2005 (UTC)
I understand the frustration that unanswered questions can generate. However, asking the right question is the first step towards getting an important answer. If it was the year 5,000 BP (before the present) and someone suggested the idea of using money rather than barter, I doubt if anyone would have been able to predict the kinds of financial institutions we have in the world today. Similarly, I'm not sure that anyone can predict the outcome of the kinds of social experiments that can be performed in the wiki environment. We have to perform the experiments and see what happens. Unfortunately, most people have little or no interest in experimentation with reality. Most people accept the reality that they are handed by their social group and never question it....never even realize that they can question it. An immersive entertainment environment has the potential to minimize the anxiety that arises from change and let people play with the parameters of reality. Of course, it would take a group of adventurers to accomplish such an exploration of the boundaries of reality. JWSchmidt 21:31, 26 Apr 2005 (UTC)

unexpected and unpredicted

  • Thanks for the clarifying in depth answer JWSchmidt. Creating this Wiki I had a vision to transfer the popular reality contests from the tv-screen to the internet-screen. I am very glad with your suggestion - or should I say hypothesis - that "it would take a group of adventurers to accomplish such an exploration of the boundaries of reality". For sure, I'm looking for a group of adventurers to come and participate in Real Life Soap Wiki, whether to compete or to cooperate. In my vision the performance is an outburst of creative minds interactively communicating to build and maintain meaningful relationships. Fame and richness are byproducts of the exposure of the communication by the participants to any internet-viewer in as much as contestant in reality-television acquire any fame or richness from their appearance on tv. I am quite sure Vira MacTarren can find a way to exploit Man Bin to succeed in real life. Isn't it everyones constitutional right to pursue happiness? Real Life Soap Wiki has attracted already quite a few adventurers pursuing their happiness, creatively cooperating to entertain any internet-viewer. Criticism of reality-television focusses on it's tendency towards vulgarity or less dramatic programming development. Real Life Soap Wiki has been developing in its first month in an unexpected and unpredicted way. Not many people would like to participate in an experiment. In my vision a lot of people eagerly want to experience reality to its fullest extent. This wiki might provide them with that entertaining environment to experience real life ... as a dramatic as any other soap opera. Dedalus 07:08, 27 Apr 2005 (UTC)
There are many websites (some listed here) where people can go to participate in online "reality entertainment". If participants are to "build and maintain meaningful relationships" in a wiki environment, I can see two ways of making this happen.
  1. Turn this wiki into the kind of online contest site where a group of users go to participate in challenges that are dreamed up by someone else (a show mangager or puppet master).
  2. participants get involved in building the wiki itself. In this option, the "contest" is to build the wiki and explore what can be done in a wiki environment.
In my view, option #1 (above) is no different from what is done at many other websites and it does not take advantage of the wiki environment. What is different about reality entertainment in a wiki environment? In a wiki, everyone can "edit the interface" and create the reality that all participants exist in. I admit that this possibility will only appeal to certain people. It involves a certain amount of real work from a participant. It involves thought. It calls for creative expression. It is different and disorienting.
So I see a basic choice. RLSW can try to be the same as what everyone else has already done or it can try to be something unique, reflecting the wiki environment that it exists in. JWSchmidt 13:32, 27 Apr 2005 (UTC)
I fully agree. This Wiki has been set up with the idea that participants would participate by using the wiki. They meet and greet and do whatever they like to express themselve, be creative and communicate with other participants, by editing pages on the wiki, and be viewed by anyone visiting, now or in a distant future. By the way, (virtual eyes pops up Real Life Soap Wiki as newest link number 1 as of today. Thanks for the tip. Dedalus 13:51, 27 Apr 2005 (UTC)
I fear that most people who would follow the link to this wikicity from virtual eyes will be disoriented. I have been thinking that the main page needs links to:
  1. a 5 minute game that would simulate something like an interview by a Hollywood agent recruiting for a reality show, the new arrival at RLSW would feel like they were competing for a place on a new show.
  2. a virtual tour of this wikicity that would explain what is going on here in a fun and interactive way, maybe some sort of scavenger hunt format. JWSchmidt 15:56, 27 Apr 2005 (UTC)
What a great ideas! You have already started to combine both ideas in a gametour, which is absolutely great! Dedalus 18:27, 27 Apr 2005 (UTC)
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.