Universes Hidden In Broad Daylight

The growing popularity of virtual reality, and the metaverse in particular, invites us to critically rethink the vague contours of what we call reality.

Muhlenberg. The puppet play, 1949

Muhlenberg. The puppet play, 1949 | New York Public Library Archives | Public domain

The recent entry of Meta onto the oligopolistic digital tech scene has reignited the debate about the uncertain implications of virtual reality on the political, social, economic and cultural dynamics of today’s society. Beyond this observable and manageable dimension of what the self-proclaimed experts call the metaverse (in other words, a virtual, or digital, universe that exists simultaneously alongside the physical one), the narrative about the possibility of multiple co-existing realities generates an ontological discussion about the diffuse and heterogeneous boundaries of concrete experience.

While contemporary society tends to carelessly link the theoretical framework of the multiverse to the scientific tradition developed on the old continent, history shows that, for centuries, other societies far removed from Eurocentric frameworks of thought have developed complex cosmological projections that question the unicity of the known universe. In a recent two-volume work, the collective Black Quantum Futurism, promoted among others by the African-American artist Rasheedah Phillips, elucidates the way in which sub-Saharan spiritual systems rooted in peoples such as the Yoruba have imagined realities that distort the concepts of space and time as defined by classical science, in other words, as linear and progressive. For example, through the projection of spirits such as the Lwa or the Orishas, this group that lives mainly on the West African coast manifests different orders of reality. Accompanied by music and sonorous liturgies, they evoke a cosmology in which the rhythms of nature, events and time merge together. As Phillips herself says, the ethos of her collective, which draws on the black aesthetic tradition, lies in experiencing and experimenting with reality through the manipulation of space-time to envision possible futures and/or the space-time collapse of a vision of the future in order to materialise it.

Similarly, despite technical differences, the Western tradition of thought, particularly in theoretical physics, has also carried out a thorough exploration of the possibility of multiple realities or universes. Researchers including Gabriele Veneziano in the 1970s and, more recently, Katrin Becker have popularised string theory, an exercise in speculative knowledge from the field of particle physics in which particles, which are the fundamental building blocks of matter, are theoretically replaced by one-dimensional strings. Like particles, the different vibrational states of these strings would contain the different properties of matter, such as mass, electric charge and gravitational force. To put it in a clumsily simplified way, the different variants of string theory, as well as M-theory, the theoretical framework that unifies them, suggest the simultaneous existence of up to eleven space-time dimensions, thus opening up the possibility of the existence of branes (from ‘membranes’) that could host other universes.

Science and science fiction collide in these attractive intellectual constructs that are considered by many physicists to fall outside the realm of science, since their mathematical theories offer no experimentally testable hypotheses. Having seduced both a rich reservoir of young talent and the collective imagination, the “theories of everything” (which are, by the way, oxymorons) are still detached from “flesh and blood” reality, sheltering on the whiteboards of the offices of so many prodigious minds. Beyond these anthropogenic speculative adventures on the ontological multiplicity of the cosmos, a prior question arises about the hypothetical access of the human subject to reality – whether material (planet Earth) or digital (the metaverse), universal (Newton’s universe) or multiversal (the realities of the Yoruba). Especially since the quantum revolution, reality in its fullness has been considered ungraspable by the human mind. Principles such as wave-particle duality, by which matter is able to instantiate the fascinating and enigmatic principle of complementarity (the potential of being both wave and particle), or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (by which it is impossible to precisely measure both position and velocity simultaneously), made clear decades ago the limits of the human enterprise to intellectually conquest reality.

Over the last two decades, movements of thought such as speculative realism have amplified this philosophical premise, demystifying the deterministic relationship between the existence of the thinking subject and the existence of reality. Ian Bogost, a well-known American author who is notably influenced by speculative realism, reduces reality to the limits of phenomenology, in other words, all phenomena that can be perceived by human beings. In a more humorous and often controversial tone, in a recent interview the popular thinker Slavoj Žižek compared reality to a 90’s video game, specifically at the moment when the protagonist comes to the edge of the digital landscape and the screen goes blurry. For the Slovenian philosopher, this blurred area of the screen represents the nature of reality: “we know it exists, but we are so incapable of recognising it that God didn’t even bother to materialise it”.

In days of old, when, at Galileo’s invitation, the human eye overcame the invisibility of the fixed stars, it still had to be decided whether that celestial apparatus was a microscope or a telescope, i.e. whether the optical data could be explained by the fact that the stars were too small to be seen at first sight or, on the contrary, were gigantic but inconceivably far away. The French historian of science Alexandre Koyre remarks in his book From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe that, given the empirical data, both interpretations of the discovery were viable to the people of the time; the decision to opt for the latter explanation was based more on philosophical preferences than on scientific knowledge. It is therefore a matter of rethinking, inspired by Jorge Carrión in his brilliant non-fiction work Bookshops, about “that representation of the world – of the many worlds we call the world – which is so like a map”.

As the English thinker Tim Ingold points out, the central question is why people perceive their surroundings differently. Neither can ethologists and neurobiologists, despite their increasingly sophisticated tools, escape the question of which worlds their lab animals inhabit. The notion of Umwelt, masterfully introduced by the Baltic zoologist Jakob von Uexküll, reminds us that all living organisms share a world, but that we do not all have a world in common: a tree is a tree, but a tree is not the same for a squirrel as it is for a carpenter. In this view, things are not of themselves or in themselves, but rather they become “affordances”, or opportunities for action, so that our perception is intimately and inextricably intertwined with everything around us. In other words, existence in general does not exist. Whether through ecological psychology, bio-semiotics or even continental phenomenology, we are invited to explore a new way of studying worlds so that, as Ingold suggests, we seek a participatory dialogue where the nature of relationships is not “between” and not even “within” their constituent elements, but “through” them. Correspondence is the mother of the new science.

Thus, immersed in the current zeitgeist dominated by multiverses (conjectural, but also tangible) and metaverses (neither conjectural nor tangible), it is increasingly difficult to know what is really real. And stories no longer count; only the accounts of science count, and they count as if they were not a story. Imagination is not devoid of reality. Nevertheless, images are unreliable. The Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte captured this brilliantly in his work Ceci n’est pas une pipe – if he had written that it was a pipe, he would have been lying. Thus, if they convince us (we convince ourselves!) that the re-presentation of worlds is equal to (or even greater than) the simple act of witnessing them, we will be cheating ourselves at solitaire. To invoke the magnificent metaphor of the English thinker Owen Barfield, it would be like believing that drowning is one of the different ways of swimming. The copy is not the original. Imitation games – almost necessary, and perniciously omnipresent since the world wars – do not, by themselves, transmute “being like” into simply “being”. Reality unfolds, true, but the oracle and their prophecy meet again at the moment of the final decision of the free being. In times of pandemic post-truth, experts are exhorted to separate fact from fiction. As a corollary, imagination seems to have no place in real life. The wound between real worlds and imagined worlds must be stitched.

We co-create worlds of all kinds probably for the same reason that, throughout history, sailors have invented islands: to navigate the uncertainty of the world, and to dare to sail through that which, while unknown, may be familiar to us. Perhaps we need to dream lucidly, instead of consuming artificial virtual worlds inoculated by large corporations. Perhaps we need to stay awake, to keep our eyes open and enjoy, if only for a few long moments, the branches of a tree swaying in an autumn breeze. The old question about the existence of the tree that falls when no one is watching becomes beautiful when we discover that it is we who cease to exist when we surrender our perception to machines or abstractions. Embracing the concreteness of the rose that is wilting for lack of water or the boy who cries when his sister takes the ball from him reveals to us all these worlds hidden in broad daylight. In the end, as the artist Antònia Folguera reminded us in a recent poem published on this same platform, perhaps “the metaverse was an escape from reality.”

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Universes Hidden In Broad Daylight