"is it real, or is it Memorex?"
That was a line from an Eighties ad for recording tape. But in its own way, it has relevance today, as scientists, philosophers and academics hotly debate the age-old question, "What is reality?"
Fueled by movies like "The Matrix" and an explosion of interest in virtual reality (VR), coupled with new technologies that probe ever deeper into the fabric of space, time and the quantum bits that form the basis for everything, we are attacking that vexing question on all fronts.
My own interest in the subject was peaked when Pam gifted me a copy of David Ewalt's book, "Defying Reality -- The Inside Story of the Virtual Reality Revolution." Its focus is mostly on the consumer electronics side, tracing the development of Oculus and other players in the space.
As a latecomer to the VR scene (I jettisoned my early adopter status long ago), I got the Sony Playstation 4/VR console, mostly for our granddaughter's visits. Having said that, I quickly got pulled into the magic of moving in a 360-degree virtual environment -- piloting a spaceship from planet to planet, shooting down zombies on a fun house rollercoaster or barely surviving a shark attack on an ocean descent.
It really is amazing to think you can put on a headset and be transported to worlds where anything is possible. Suddenly, science fiction concepts like the Star Trek Holodeck seem tantilizingly close at hand. And after saving the world from the zombie apocalypse, we can turn off the headset and return to reality. Or did we ever leave?
A new book by philosopher David Chalmers, "Reality+," argues virtual reality is as real as "real" reality -- the ultimate affirmation that perception is reality. I'm only on chapter two, but if you want to really go down the rabbit hole, Chalmers takes a swing at ALL the BIG questions around reality, God and is what we call reality just a computer simulation?
Is your head hurting yet?
It's only human to wonder about these things. Plato went there in his cave allegory, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, "Is all that we see or seem, But a dream within a dream?" Even Shakespeare weighed in: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
No one would doubt the pace of technology will make our virtual future more and more real. Facebook is betting the farm that we'll want to move into their Metaverse. Some predict we'll ditch clunky headsets for computer implants that will allow us to engage all our senses in the experience. With newfound power to inhabit any world or become any avatar we can imagine, will we reach a point of never wanting to leave? Maybe we'll see virtual reality as a Godsend if it helps us cope with a future climate- or war-ravaged world.
Central to all of this is that three-pound lump of gray matter called the brain, which gives rise to the mind, consciousness and our sense of self. And that opens up a whole new can of philosophical worms. Quoting from the 1956 movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers":
"The mind is a strange and wonderful thing. I'm not sure it will ever be able to figure itself out. Everything else maybe, from the atom to the universe. Everything except itself."
To further cloud the water, I just read where researchers have determined what we experience is actually on a 15-second delay as our brain "mashes up" the millions of sensory inputs it receives every second and does its best to approximate the results to protect us from being overwhelmed.
But does all of this really matter if we are just part of some computer game played by our descendants in a far-flung future or alien whiz kids looking for a diversion? The answer is, we just don't know, and probably can never know. The fact is, we just can't know any of the Big Question answers with any certainty.
Of course, that doesn't keep us from trying, and wondering, and questioning our existence or place in the cosmos. Knowledge is both a blessing and a curse, depending on what we find in those rabbit holes. But that won't stop us from chasing those rabbits, virtual or otherwise.
Yes, I know it's spelled like "Jerry." No, I don't know why it's pronounced "Gary."