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Updated: Jan 8, 2023

People often speak of the “real world” and “virtual worlds” as if there were a clear dividing line between them, but is it that cut and dried, that black and white?

Hindu philosophy describes the world as “lila” or Gods’ “play,” in which we become so involved that we mistake it for reality. The world is a “maya” (illusion) that our limited senses perceive as real, “Indra’s net of jewels,” God’s dream, to which we reincarnate in different avatars to play out our karma. Buddhist writings speak of the illusory nature of the “real” world as “a mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition, without essence, but with qualities that can be seen” in which “nothing is as it appears.”

Plato also compared the contingent world to shadows cast on a wall by a real or ideal world that lies beyond our sensorial grasp—a difference between form and essence. Some Christians also believe in an “intelligent design” by which the Creator can be compared to a programmer, the initial “Logos” (Word) to the operating system or program, the “book of life” or “scroll of deeds” to our chat transcripts, where everything we do is recorded, in which Jesus also appeared as an avatar, “became flesh and dwelt among us.”

According to the Baha’i worldview, what we perceive as the “real” world is just outer pictures of the REAL real world, like a swelling wave, a distorted image on the desert, drifting shadows, a phantom of reality, a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing. The world looks like reality but is actually a mere illusion, like “images reflected in the water, seeming as pictures to the eye.” Since reality and the mere semblance of reality can never be one, the “divine Kingdom” is the REAL world, and what we call the real world is only its shadow stretching out, has no life of its own, is only a fantasy.

"Winter Riders" by Morgan Talbot

Some modern-day thinkers, such as Nick Bostrom with his “Simulation Argument,” even speculate that we could actually be living in a virtual world created by some outside intelligence. This is only posited as a thought experiment, but it does reflect those earlier philosophies and religious traditions in some ways. It suggests that the contradictions found in physics, such as general relativity, quantum mechanics, entangled entities, quantum tunneling, curved space, dilating time, dark matter/energy, anti-matter, and so on, could be due to us trying to perceive the physical world as real and not as a simulation.

To see why, try and imagine the basic laws of nature as the operating system, subatomic particles as bits, atomic elements as variables in an equation, and molecules as bytes. Even cells have been compared to batteries: the human body has fifty trillion cells, each of which has a negative charge on the inside and a positive charge on the outside, making each cell a 1.4-volt battery, for a total of 700 trillion volts of electricity in our bodies.

Continuing up the pyramid of life, genes are basically the codes that design every living thing. Brains are like holographic computers: our senses only capture a small fraction of all stimuli, which our brains interpret to build ‘images’ of reality, running at about 100 million billion (1020) operations per second. Even society and culture can be seen as programmed and, hence, virtual. Michel Foucault says that “discourse” is the social “program” modeling our thought and perception of the world. This idea is where the word “memes” came from, as the sociocultural equivalent to “genes”. Those who have assimilated other cultures realize there is more than one way to perceive life and the world; more than one possible program.

If all this is true, then experiencing a virtual world through an avatar could be a fitting analogy for our actual relationship to the “real” world. It might be a good way to train our minds to think of the physical world in this way. Does this mean we shouldn’t take the “real world” seriously? I think not. As Lawrence LeShan says in Alternate Realities, “A reality is real to you when you act in terms of it… It’s a valid reality when, using it, you can accomplish the goals acceptable to it.”

This kind of thinking seems almost common sense among many of us who have spent some time in virtual worlds. I often read people’s profiles, and some have said things like:

  • <My avatar> is what I’d be without the constraints of the real world. It’s the real me, my soul.

  • Avatars are the real people; we are just the meat and bones that allow them to exist.

  • <My avatar> is the me that’s more ‘me’ than I can be, myself, in real life.

  • The body is different, but the mind is the same.

  • In SL, I both lose and find myself.

  • I’m not ‘playing’ Second Life; I’m IN it.

  • I enjoy the infinitely precious gift of meeting someone’s mind as represented by their avatar.

  • First Life compels my second, and Second Life compels my first. The looking glass between the two is crystalline, absorbs the light and darkness…

So, is the ‘real’ world really real, and are virtual worlds unreal? Maybe the answer is that both are only as real as they feel to you. Maybe it’s not that black-and-white, but rather many shades of gray. And maybe the question of reality isn’t even as important as we first thought. Maybe a better question would be how we relate to those worlds and how they facilitate our relationships with each other, our individual and collective growth, the development of our true potential. Food for thought.


What did you think? Do you disagree with anything or have something to add? An example from your own experience, maybe? Please leave a comment below to make this a conversation. Thanks!

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