Archive for August, 2007

Just sent in an abstract to a VR conference. Pondering how complex the relationship between perception and reality is, especially in the psychedelic sphere. Degrees of reality come into play, where, in the altered state, perceptions can appear hyper-real, more real than real, and where the ontological status of baseline reality is thrown into question, in the same way the ontological status of the psychedelic state is questionable from baseline (just hallucinations, right?). The navigation of multiple realities and the management thereof in the conduct of life as a commute among multiple realities becomes a practical task, a game in which one makes up the rules as one goes along. The abstract, please.

VR and Hallucination

VR, especially in a technologically focused discourse, is defined by a class of hardware and software, among them head-mounted displays, navigation and pointing devices; stereoscopic imaging. This presentation examines an experiential aspect of VR. Putting “virtual” in front of “reality” modifies the ontological status of a class of experience—that of “reality.” Reality has also been modified as augmented, mixed, and enhanced. Modifications of reality are closely tied to modifications of perception. Early psychedelic researcher Roland Fisher in his 1971 article “A Cartography of the Ecstatic and Meditative States” drew a model of the “perception-hallucination continuum” in which “These states are marked by a gradual turning inward toward a mental dimension at the expense of the physical.”Fischer map-1971 He characterizes the hallucinatory state as “experiences of intense sensations that cannot be verified through voluntary motor activity.” New Media theorist Roy Ascott creates a model of three “VR’s”: Verifiable Reality, Virtual Reality, and Vegetal (entheogenically induced) Reality. Perception itself, according to the scientific description, can be viewed as a grand illusion where, through a unexplained and wholly mysterious (the binding problem) process at the heart of consciousness itself, sensation received by the eyes and multi-mediated through a series of electrical and chemical processes and pathways in the brain, is stitched together seamlessly by “the mind”, and experienced by “the self” as “out there”: a fully convincing wraparound reality which we experience as if we were looking out through the eyes which are actually receiving instruments. In this light, our experience of the world, all “reality,” is virtual in one sense and a hallucination in at least one other sense. The gold standard for the VR experience is—can we perform the same trick? And can we do it well enough to convince the experiencer that it is “real?” The ways in which we shift our perceptual assumptions, create and verify illusions, and enter “the willing suspension of disbelief” that allows us entry into imaginal worlds is central to the experience of VR worlds, whether those worlds are explicitly representational (robotic manipulations by VR) or explicitly imaginal (VR artistic creations). Is there such a thing as a virtual hallucination?

Well, that’s the abstract. Fischer revised his map in 1976, bringing the hemisphere into a sphere.Fisher map-1976


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The Ph.D. ritual concerns itself with the production (how 19th century) of new knowledge. “How will your research contribute to the field?” “What is the new knowledge you have unearthed?” The old saw about the Ph.D.—knowing more and more about less and less—is still enforced. “Narrow your focus!” How much can be read into how little? And lurking underneath this knowledge-quest are the assumptions about truth and truth-value, the desire for proofs (consistency, logic), certainty, closure, security (defensibility). Light, not darkness. Certainty, not doubt.

As David Malone points out in his New Scientist article 4 August 07, we are addicted to certainty, especially in science, despite the 20th century theories to the contrary. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; Godel’s incompleteness theorums; Turing’s uncomputabilty; non-linear maths; wave-particle co-existence; chaos theory; unpredictable emergence.

The epistemological paradigm that has the goal of truth and certainty has been shattered by the certainty of uncertainty, yet we continue scurrying on its path, like Roadrunner luring Coyote off the edge of the cliff. Don’t look down at the nothing beneath your feet and you’ll do fine–feet firmly planted in mid-air. Validate my illusions and I’ll do the same for yours.

Astrophysicist Roger Malina is fond of pointing out that with the postulation of dark energy and dark matter, complete unknowns and very possibly fictional) physics and cosmology, the stuff and layout of the universe, far from being almost cupped in the Holy Grail of a Theory of Everything, are now nearly 100% unknown: a matter of knowing less and less about more and more.

If we took uncertainty, incompleteness, and uncomputability as the building blocks of a new paradigm, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to revise the educational process to require a firm grasp on what you do not know, plus the ability to ask non-trivial and unanswerable questions as the result of an undergraduate education? With this grounding, one could move into Ph.D. methods involving the recovery of wonder, and a sort of epistemological karezza http://www.sex-lexis.com/Sex-Dictionary/carezza to avoid premature interpretation, followed by a post-doc in sheer dumbfoundedness. The Cloud of Unknowing and The Dark Night of the Soul, speak to this state of mind. But even these absorbed unknowings are instrumental unknowings in that they are way-stations to absolute certainty: the certainty of the Absolute.

I am skirting the fringes of a deep uncertainty about the whole knowledge business, of which the Ph.D. ritual seems a small and parochial example of a much larger process. This is not a comfortable place, and it runs the constant danger of shifting into meaninglessness, depression, long moments of staring into space.

What is it possible to know about the psychedelic experience?

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