Friday, October 10, 2008

Alternate Lives and Virtual Realities

Alternate lives within a life are no less real than anything else that occurs within them. To illustrate this point, I will put my thesis in contrast to this thesis eloquently stated by William S. Lind, the originator of the term, 4th Generation Warfare, which refers to war where some of the principles are non-state actors. 4G War is the natural state of an atomised culture, one where conflicting ontologies and epistemologies war with one another for supremacy in an abstract, virtual space. On occasion, these wars become phenomenological, they become real, and they wield real knives and fire real bullets. There are very few things that people tacitly agree upon more than the coherence of matter. Physical death is the final arbiter of ideological conflict. If those that believed in an idea are dead, then so is that idea.

The Discarded Image
The Discarded Image is the title of C.S. Lewis’s last book, and perhaps his best. On the surface, it is a discussion of medieval cosmology and the Ptolemaic universe. In reality it is about very much more, including the medieval refutation of the modern notion of “equality,” which decrees that people are interchangeable. That vast error lies at the heart of many of the ideologies which made the 20th century such a horror and which still gnaw at the vitals of Western civilization. Lewis recognized that on many matters, our medieval ancestors were wiser than ourselves.
This is the first place where I find myself in disagreement with Lind's thesis, and by extension Lewis's. Both of these men have had a profound impact on my worldview, and that I choose this essay is out of a great respect for what is being said, however, herein contained is the seed of Lind's virtual world. The basis for what he is saying is that in essence, the Medieval world is more real than the world in which we live today. That is not true. People who live in the real world do not drown women in order to determine whether or not they are a witch.

In the face of this possibility, or maybe probability, what indeed are individuals and families to do? I think the answer, if there is one, begins with my friend David Kline’s farm.

David Kline is an Amishman. He farms about 200 acres in Holmes County, Ohio, good land that supports a herd of forty to fifty dairy cows. He has some modern equipment, such as milking machines, but his life does not depend on any of it. In today’s world, his farm provides him a good living. In a Fourth Generation world, his farm would still provide well for him and his family.

I am not talking about “survivalism” here. The Kline farm represents much more than that. As I have said to David more than once, what he and other Amish are doing is preserving an understanding of how to live in reality for the time when all the virtual realities collapse.

Within his own wording, he gives the us the key to his virtual world. In this virtual world, the Kline farm is representative of something. It is an icon, an idol. Lind pines for a time where connection to the soil reminded us of the reality in which we live.

Virtual realities lie at the heart of Brave New World, aka the New World Order, “globalism,” “democratic capitalism” (as the neo-cons define it), etc. The bargain Brave New World offers is this: if you will only do as Marcuse advises and trade the Reality Principle for the Pleasure Principle, we will enmesh you in virtual realities that will make you happy. True, you will lose your free will, because our virtual realities will condition you to think as we want you to. But they will also give you anything and everything you want. So what if none of it is real? All that matters is that you feel happy, right now.

Here he has a point. We do trade the reality principle for the pleasure principle. Just not in the way he believes. Feeling is indicative of experience. Engineering one's feelings is the quickest path to self-delusion. The totalitarian pursuit of pleasure leads us to override the genuine experience that the feelings we are turning away from communicate to us. The feeling of experience is poignant in direct relation to it's truth. This is why pleasure seeking behavior diminishes. Wine is less sweet when gorged upon. Sex is less ecstatic when abused promiscuously. Drugs have a rate of diminishing returns, requiring a greater dosage for similar effect.

As our medieval forefathers would quickly recognize, this is Hell speaking. Hell has always loathed reality, because in reality, Christ is king. Wiser than we, the medievals were interested not in felicitas but in beautitudine – not in being happy but in being saved. Had they been given a television or a video game, they would have smelled brimstone.

William Lind's thesis is refuted by his own source material.
John 18:36
Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."
So where exactly is this 'reality' of which Lind speaks? What he is saying is true, to a point. There are truths higher and more noble than the pursuit of physical pleasure, which when broken down are merely the stimulation of neural pathways. The place where he makes a mistake and where the hedonist also makes an equal but opposite mistake is that happiness is an indicator of well-being, just as fear is an indicator of danger, and pain is an indicator of damage. Placing felicitas and beatitudine as opposites is a mistake. There is no reason why being saved should not make one happy.

So while Lind has a very important lesson for us, ultimately he is wrong. The process of modern life is intrinsically tied together by virtual worlds. No longer do we live with our physical neighbors. I spend more time with the members of my corporation in Eve Online than I do with the people whose doors are next to mine in the hall.

The implication of the bible passage that I quoted says to me, if anything, that Christ was here to save us from such virtual worlds. If William Lind is still here, then he is still living in a virtual world. We are participating in the grand atomised faction war, the 4G War where the state is no longer the primary social unifier. Our Asabiya is no longer primarily dominated by state or religious affiliation. Even within our allegiance to such grand and unifying ideas there is wide division.

The problem for Lind is the same as the problem for so many Conservatives, they see the certainty of the world they wish to cultivate slipping through their grasp, and they enshrine their own perspective as though it is the only valid and true perspective, as though they have a grasp on reality that others do not. When they get together in a group, they may not be able to agree upon a suitable description for reality, but they will circle the wagons to agree that the outsider's view most certainly is not it. It is a war of virtual worlds. Lind is right, those virtual worlds cannot and will not last, but so what? We are here now, we are where we are, and if we were created in God's image, then our ability to shape our reality in accordance with our will is a divinely attributed gift.

By denying the reality of the lives that people lead, Lind does damage to the meaning of the word reality. If you devote much of your time to a virtual reality, it is your reality. While you cannot buy a loaf of bread with Eve Online's ISK, the relationship between you and the people you interact with as mediated by that currency are very real and can impact your life outside of the game's context.

8 comments:

Pym said...

"The process of modern life is intrinsically tied together by virtual worlds. No longer do we live with our physical neighbors. I spend more time with the members of my corporation in Eve Online than I do with the people whose doors are next to mine in the hall."

Erek,

To what extent, and under what conditions, is this a welcome development?

What you call "virtual" community one might call "elective" or "freely chosen" community; what you call "real" community one might call "involuntary" or "given" community. Involuntary physical proximity traditionally defined community to a large extent. However, even traditionally, the contrast between the involuntary bonds of family, class and nation and the voluntary ties of friendship and (more recently) profession, has been much noted.

How much freedom to choose the bounds of one's community is desirable? How do we tend to use such freedom, and does the optimal amount of it depend on our use of it? By the operation of institutionalized free choice, my home and workplace are so located that I need never see a poor person. The poor are hidden way in ghettos, the old in nursing homes, the dying in hospitals and hospices, the deranged in asylums. My moving to Utah (Massachusetts), I could enjoy all this insulation and further insulate myself from ever seeing a Democrat (Republican)! By passing my leisure hours at Daily Kos or New Republic Online, I can replicate the same effect -- but it is the same effect, not a different effect for being achieved "virtually" rather than "physically." And is this wholly good?

Insofar as one is not free to choose the bounds of one's community, one must cooperate to solve communal problems. Insofar as one is free to choose one's community, exit substitutes for voice, and one can seek to insulate one's self from problems that do not afflict one directly. Insofar as community can be chosen, it tends to contract in ways that are convenient in the short run, but perilous in the long run.

In medieval Christendom, one's community was subject to hardly any individual choice: social and physical position were rigidly determined. Family, village, class, nation and faith were givens, not variables. However, ultimate loyalty was owed to a Church that was at least aspirationally, universal as the parable of the good Samaritan reminds us.

Greater individual freedom is good it itself. But greater community is also good in itself, and insofar as freedom undermines community, it can be perilous. Greater individual freedom derived from material technologies therefore may prove sustainable only if accompanied by greater community derived from culture and from social technologies (i.e., "institutions") that either limits or offsets its misuse.

Whether the culture of medieval Christendom was "more real" than ours seems an intractable question. However, it was arguably more realistic in its understanding that the bounds that individual liberty cannot sustainably overstep are determined by communal culture and institutions.

erek.tinker said...

All valid concerns. However, there is one aspect of it. The Freedom itself is involuntary. We HAVE to make a choice because the choice wasn't made for us by the circumstances of culture.

Something I have seen is that with this interconnection there is a greater level of community at least around me. I often feel remiss in my inattentiveness to the needs of people I know who are in dire situations because I do know about what is occurring with them.

A young friend of mine is recently battling with cancer, and an outpouring of support of people that we know from the underground party scene in New York has been going her way. She has received lots of cakes and other sweets by concerned friends trying to help her gain weight after the chemo.

I find myself generally emotionally distant even though I try not to be. Would that be any different if I were in an enforced community?

Community is good and I have a very broad community of people who I could seek help from and who if they sought help from me I'd help. The issue though is that there is an emotional distance that I am not sure is a function of the cultural medium in which I exist or not. I think it probably is an intrinsic function of the cultural medium, but also because of who I am.

Me+Circumstances = my life

That is true regardless of the way community coheres around me.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Erek-
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Said

Said openly said that the “deconsecration” and “demystication” of Europe was the desirable, prime goal of true subaltern studies (post-axiological, post-imperial anti-narrative). To do this, one had to potray the Raj as a force for evil in the world, not only in a hypothetically modern time, but even in its own. A subjective sense of oppression becomes the leading motif. This is the starting point, and the prior oppression under native rulers, or the existence of female mutilation or suttee (abolished under the white devil rule) is immaterial to the point of the new narrative, which is the achievement of power at the expense of the death of the resurrected hero-god which Europe dimly worshipped.

Modern theorists like to portray the decline of Christianity as inevitably part of a vast historical process (which they can adequately and truly discern, although they don’t believe in “knowledge”). In reality, it is the other way around - the rejection of Christianity is anterior to the historical process, which then “shades” towards secularism both as an outworking, and as a self-justification. There is no necessary reason why the application of technology could not be governed by different ideals and belief systems. The limiting factors are conditioning, concepts of justice, systems of governance, and free choice. To a great degree, it is a perfect illusion - “We have no choice but to abandon God and to construct a totally conditioned society.” This is the “progressive” ideal, which is now replacing the liberal one.

The postcolonial process is simply a reflection of this. Radical barbarians, such as Said, begin with the rejection of European Christianity (the liturgy and the dogmas), and end up in revolt against imperalistic premises. That the unfortunate over-expansion of Europe could generate a legitimate backlash does not explain the lengths which Said (and others far worse) go in order to perpetuate the idea that the Western canon is completely illusory. They are reasoning from an immanent historical process, with bias against the concrete (reflected in Gnostic underpinnings that go with global liberalism), and with the assumption that they can channel the Zeitgeist accurately. Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that they hold the reins of power now - there will be no Gandhi-like appeal to the bar of their conscience for relief from their consuming anti-narrative. It is now simply a matter of implementing their goals.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Erek-
Your me+circumstances= life is exactly the formula Ortega y Gasset proclaimed, literally (I forget how it reads in Spanish, a curse of older age). y Gasset addressed this in the "Revolt of the Masses".
Please forgive the long comment about Said - the point is that "what happens when a majority (51%) choose to live in enforced community"? And if our tools determine social paradigms of thought, couldn't it also limit the individual response which we both agree to call "soul" and think is valid?
Just trying to make sense out of the traditional/progressive divide. It still seems worthwhile.

erek.tinker said...

Actually I thought that your

erek.tinker said...

Actually I thought that your comments about Said were fabulous.

Where I think you and I differ the most is in how the turning point was achieved. Said, and his ilk were given power by people who sought to diminish the distinction between their own worldly ends and Christianity's spiritual ends.

In otherwords, 'The Church', became synonymous with 'The Faith'. During the Enlightenment people rebelled against 'The Church', and many of its core assumptions.

You say that people can use technology under different beliefs and ethics. While that is true hypothetically, it clearly is not true in how it played out. It was 'The Church' that played the antagonist to enlightenment values. As a natural consequent of believing the entirety of the old narrative to be the 'Christian' narrative, people had to rebel against the Christian narrative.

It has always been my contention that it is not Christ people are rebelling against but, 'The Church', which has struggled throughout history with it's localized European pagan accretions.

In the future Christ may be salvaged, but the cultural values that are being discarded, might not.

As you say, there is no reason why Christ cannot be relevant in a technological era, but even what you call the anti-narrative is encapsulated by a greater narrative of which your pro-narrative, and Said's anti-narrative play Protagonist/Antagonist.

Said does have a relevant and valid point. That a bunch of ignorant Europeans marched in and just ran roughshod over local cultures, not even bothering to seek what was valuable in those cultures beyond a materialist perspective.

A good book on the subject is "Missionary Conquest" by George Tinker (no relation)

Said is merely a backlash against the profound disrespect shown by Europeans for the cultures of the colonies. The colonies thus said, 'No our culture is valid, it does have something to offer.', and the presentation was that either they abandon their traditions in favor of Western tradition or they engage in a perpetual war. Progressive Multiculturalism has tried to reconcile differences, unity in plurality, to limited success.

The root of the problem comes in directly with the notion of the 'anti-narrative'. The very idea that there is a 'true' narrative and an 'anti-narrative' causes all sorts of problems. Everyone brings out their inner pagan and assumes that they and their culture have a better access to the true narrative. So instead of Gods today we have the battle of the truer narratives. My narrative is truthier than yours.

The reality of it is that the true narrative encompasses all possible narratives, the real and the fictional. The competing narratives you refer to are actually competing meta-narratives contained within the one true narrative. The narrative that if one is to accept that Jesus Christ is real and actually rules, then it is his narrative.

The problem is that Progressives are railing against a false Christ, and Conservatives are standing up for a myriad number of false Christs.

erek.tinker said...

As for the action of 'the soul'. The fact is that there is a real and true and objective reality. What the state is concerned with and has control over is how you acquire your food, how you organize with people around you. Your soul is free to act within any system. The outward system is merely a manifestation of the freedom of the soul. The system today is no more or less free than it has been in the past. Freedom is a buzzword devoid of any real meaning. Another bone for people to fight over. "I am the true champion of liberty!", "No, I am the true champion of liberty!"

It doesn't matter, eat your vegetables and try to talk some sense into the hotheaded youths. The world is as it is. God is not in danger and never was. Any narrative that opposes the ultimate truth will fall as fiction.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Erek-
The difficulty I have here, and continue to have, with your thinking is that all of this speculation, and abstract speculation at that. We absolutely can’t know very much about the. Ehrenfield has a really good book, called the Arrogance of Humanism, in which he points out that the big problem with the world of the mind (Humanism/Enlightenment) is that it moves faster than it can be tested. That is, results come in much later, and future generations have moved on – they no longer even understand what to be looking due to the lag time. http://www.amazon.com/Arrogance-Humanism-Galaxy-Books/dp/0195028902 Our gray cells actually change very slowly, but we have forced ourselves to compute complex, essential, life/death problems in split seconds. Is it any wonder we are going insane? Older forms of thought provide a way of dealing with this, which is what they were intended to do all along. As far as God’s attribute of dark wisdom is concerned, there is no reason He can’t accomplish good at the same time that evil occurs – this is what is astounding to the rational faculty, and dismaying to thought – the fact that He uses our sins doesn’t mean there wasn’t a better way to do it to begin with. God will never fall off His throne, but we can surely do things the hard way. So, we have to do what we know is right in our conscience, even if it is mistaken (Saint Paul talks about this). Jonathan’s Corner http://jonathanscorner.com/tms/ has experimented with the idea of difference within varieties of the Good, without the supposedly necessary presence of evil. Is there a way to come up with creative solutions to problems, on the political level, where everybody wins?