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It Could Have Been Otherwise

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It Could Have Been Otherwise:

The Search for Meaning in the Virtual Age

The reality was the myth.  In such cases the interior events will always predominate, regardless of the physical facts, which are only symbols of those events.”


[The empiricist] thinks he believes only what he sees, but he is much better at believing than at seeing”. –George Santayana

The fact that we occupy an ever larger place in time is something that everybody feels.

-Marcel Proust

Things are not as they appear.  Nor are they otherwise.

-Lankavatara Sutra


In a previous essay, The Gravity of the Situation, the concept of gravity was discussed as a theme in science theory and fiction.  This was a way of exploring how society has been struggling to envision its cosmological context in light of the fractured and uncertain picture of the universe we inherit from physics.  That led to considering some preliminary ideas related to the multidimensional structure of time as has been developing both in alternative and esoteric science, as well as popular fiction.  

This essay will delve more deeply into the tapestry of time by looking again at the development of concepts and mythology in recent culture—this time focusing more on the personal “dimensionality” of being and character that have become a popular theme, especially in the increasingly complex science fiction on television.  

TV has recently experienced something of a golden age, (partially due to a shift in format), with writers now getting more freedom to fully explore the subtle dimensions of character and innerworld building than was previously possible in the space of tv and film.   As “TV” has transformed from a separate medium into a node in the virtual nexus of not only escapist entertainment, but of an increasingly realistic and increasingly ubiquitous penetration into human life, it has become a creative and often dark mirror (or Black Mirror as one show is called) of the new media environment.  

While the dark challenges are real, the creative explosion across our virtual media could be read as a sign of a broader potential value that comes with those challenges.  Specifically, this essay will look at how the thematic problems that arise from our social and media environment reveal in very concrete ways—especially when exaggerated by fictional drama—issues that have longed plagued our species, particularly modern society.  

Much of cultural history could be read as a long evolution in the concepts and stories we create to deal with difference and otherness. While stories and concepts of all kinds can persist over many eras and transitions, some stories express well the jumps into either greater ambiguity or greater sophistication in the boundary between oppositional pairs—especially self and other or us and them—reflecting periodic shifts in social complexity. The virtualization process could be seen as the latest stage of that transformation, as old boundary conditions become not only fragmented but also fractalized, that is, transformed from the black and white boundary of a mental category operating on specific scales, to a complex membrane of mediation on many levels.

Social fragmentation has become psychological fragmentation, but in the process of deepening dissolution, new potentials and dimensions long hidden become revealed.  Art has always helped reveal hidden dimensions of our character and being, but this was previously no more than subjective complexity in, say, modernist fiction. Though we can see even there, in the works of Joyce and Proust for example, the beginnings of a clear consciousness of what I will call the virtual structure of time, which this essay attempts to illustrate.

Discussing the physics and art of the early 20th century in the essay mentioned, it was suggested that the impulse to integrate different perspectives, unify time with space, and bring coherence to the modern world picture was unsuccessful because it merely broke with classical categories and conventions of form, but failed to produce a new vision or understanding.  A few points of such a vision were explored, especially the idea that the nature of time demands a complex dimensionality. However conceived, understanding time precludes any totalizing spatial framework—non euclidean, multiperspectival or otherwise—and the sterility of merely warping and fragmenting representational space as is done in modern physics, inevitably leads to a deadend aesthetically and conceptually.

Consequently, those aspects of modern culture that were the most “deconstructive” came to the fore—especially after the world wars prompted we take a closer look at what we were exactly trying to integrate in the first place.  The complicated but ultimately understandable experiments of modernism gave way to “incredulity towards metanarratives” as Lyotard defined postmodernism, and with it came a world too complex to understand with anything approaching coherence or fundamentality.  While the specialization, micro–narratives and pop culture that dominated the second half of the century may seem contrary to modernist dreams of progressive truth and aesthetic unity, the reflexive turn of the era set the stage for a more pragmatic unification.

We began building machines that became capable of connecting the various threads of perspective—no longer in the mind of a single human subject, but in the mind of the network—that is, in the relations technology made possible.  Was there a mind in the machine itself? Science fiction wondered. Meanwhile as the machines came closer to answering that question for us, they also helped us uncover the deeper patterns in nature and society that were beyond the reach of our linear models, paving the way for our burgeoning understanding of complexity.  

But rather than converging on some ultimate answer or equation that the autistic priests of modern physics still chase, reality itself is diverging away from a material ground and into the multiple and virtual world conditions of the technological imaginary.  Consequently, the virtual and multidimensional structure of our reality is no longer just the purview of the occultists and madmen but now a rather obvious extrapolation for even the most literal minded empiricist. Even older scifi tropes take on new meaning in our emerging age of actual virtual reality.  For example, let us look at that king of occult themed science fiction, Philip K. Dick, whose short novel Man in the High Castle has been transformed into an interesting show.  

Part 1. Man in the High Castle and the Hero as Singularity

The novel is a story of alternative history, imagining the world if the Axis Powers had won the second world war.  In the TV version, alternate versions of history including the one we inhabit are being accessed by “travellers” who bring back films of each alternate reality.  The films are used by both the Nazis and the underground resistance movement to understand and better anticipate and manipulate the events of the central timeline and, as we come to see, the whole multiverse.

An interesting theme develops late in the second season, where the central protagonist Juliana, is revealed as being most important to the future, not because she occupies some central place in the power structure of their particular world, but because she is the most coherent across all the timelines viewed.  I use the word coherent for reasons we will see, but what the show suggests is that she is not a product of her environment to the same degree others are. Her motivations are portrayed as being rooted in compassion and selfless love.

This theme of a lovebased ethics trumping a utilitarian ethics is nothing new.  We are seeing the culture tease love out from the passions and duty out from tradition to find a way through the moral complexity, even in the superhero genre(Wonder Woman is an example).  But with the frame of the multiverse, of a system of related worlds connected to our own through our choices, the show brings many ethical and philosophical themes into stark relief.  What was once only expressed by religious metaphors that transcended the distinctions between duty, emotion and ethical utility with faith in a higher guidance, now can be given a concrete justification.  In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna gets a glimpse of the infinity of worlds through Krishna and in consequence of that vision of infinity, puts his faith in Krishna.  As the spiritual world becomes visible through the virtual, we, like characters in Man in the High Castle, perhaps can learn to develop a sense for the best not among possible worlds, but for all possible worlds. An important difference we will be exploring in many ways here.

So in the show, Juliana’s decisions come from within—not from calculated judgments that would tie her to the circumstances of that world’s drama, but from her inner character which transcends the circumstances of any one timeline.  We are told that the other characters are different in each timeline, betraying their moral complications and uncertainties—their fidelity to circumstances rather than any consistency of character. She is, on the other hand, mathematically speaking, an invariant, with many of the other characters moving in relation to her across the multiverse.

It is important not to read “invariance” as implying moral inflexibility.  This would belie the important difference between this kind of hero and the mythic and often melodramatic heroes of most popular fiction.  Juliana’s character in Man in the High Castle, beyond any failings the show as a whole might have, represents a very profoundly framed example of the ethical models we are working out through our more creative media.  The old boring melodramatic good guy is predictable—so much so that we have seen a reaction in entertainment media to embracing the morally compromised antihero—mostly because it seems to be the easiest way we know to make things interesting.

More sophisticated genres have long used moral complexity rather than the amoral universe of the antihero, but this is usually framed as a conflict between different moral conventions as in classical tragedy, or between a rule and its application in circumstances—like the prime directive in Star Trek.  Since God is long dead and now even the humanism of Star Trek has fallen out of fashion, moral complexity has often slid into moral confusion.  

Faced with the inscrutability of God’s justice, the biblical Job maintains his faith, but for the protagonist in the Coen brothers’ retelling, titled A Serious Man, a physics professor and postmodern Job, this is no longer an option.  He hilariously declares to his students in front of a gigantic blackboard filled with equations describing the uncertainty principle that it proves “we can’t ever really know what is going on.”  

The situation is illustrated more tragically and masterfully in the Coens’ No Country for Old Men.  The sheriff in No Country not only retires, unable to defeat the evil as he would in a classic Western, but he can’t even make sense of it.  He avoids the tragic fate of the film’s other ostensible protagonist by realizing the chaos was more complex than he could realistically confront.  Yet he does still long for some sense of meaning, some sense of his place in this chaotic world.

He has a dream where his long dead father (who was also a sheriff along with his grandfather) gives him money that he then loses, and another where his father waits for him in the darkness with fire stored in a horn.  We are led to feel that by losing the money in the dream, he has turned from the linear time of the worldly plot, which in the movie was all about a case of money, and is becoming part of what he imagines as a timeless tradition, or rather a cyclical iteration of a way of life passed down or carried through the darkness as fire was in horns in older times.

When the kind of order and justice dispensed by the hero in the traditional Western is seen to be inadequate, as it has been seen by many for decades, we only naturally look deeper for meaning and justice.  Without the linear march towards justice and progress so indicative of the timesense of the West, especially in the modern West so epitomized by America and mythologized in its cinema, it is natural that those so disillusioned would reach back towards an idealized tradition or a cyclic notion of time.  

In No Country it is suggested that the sheriff is lost without meaning, and seems to be fading slowly into the shadowy landscape of cyclical history, where he becomes, like Jack merging into the old photo in Kubrick’s The Shining, merely another iteration of ancestral memory.  In The Shining, Jack loses his identity as a writer and creative individual and becomes merely an expression of the repeating cycle of the spiritual world and its archetypes. 

In No Country, the sheriff seems aware of a similar fading back into the archetype familial role of his spiritual world dictated by tradition.  He could not find a way to bridge his spiritual reservoir of generic types with the outer world where differences and conflict force change and development.  He was unable to contribute much to any change. Yet we do see in him a hero because he is trying to understand. He sees his limitations and is striving to find meaning, even if he just settles for a true understanding of his limits and his place.

In that supreme example of TV’s golden era, David Simon’s The Wire however, we, (and presumingly in the show’s final sequence, also the cop McNulty), see not only the limitations of our place and everyone’s roles within the large cyclical pattern of time, system and process, but that vision brings about a change in character, more or less, to the extent that we and the characters see it.  To be sure, the Wire gives us a tragic vision, but it also gives us some understanding and therefore a path towards making a change—albeit not the heroic conquest of evil, but a humble realization of the character changes that comes from knowledge of limitations—that is, the “differences that make a difference”, (as Gregory Bateson put it).

However, The Wire’s vision is more empathic than constructive.  We do see some clear patterns in the complexity, and we are led to mythic levels of compassion through the exploration of limitations imposed on all by the structure of society.  But without any exploration of the creative components of system, society, and character, we have little to do but go home, as McNulty does in The Wire upon seeing “the whole system” from the outside.  Getting our own house in order is all well and good but we know our heroes won’t stay home for long.  They and we still need a better sense of “what’s really going on” even to work on our own self and home.

When faced with chaos and the arbitrary nature of fate, symbolized in the Nolan brothers’ The Dark Knight as the Joker and Two Face respectively, we seem to have only two options.  Like the sheriff in No Country, the Nolans’ vision of Batman also cannot understand the chaos he is up against, but instead of giving up his quest for order, he shifts from the hard moralism and brute force of the traditional hero, to the subtle manipulation of symbol and truth so characteristic of the villains in the genre.

Unlike the sheriff of No Country, Batman embraces the relativity and moral flexibility of his opponents, though in the service of the traditional order. Showing that despite our lack of faith in justice and conventional heroism, we often have no other ideas. We no longer believe, but we struggle to understand.  Hence our view of religious faith and myth have become little more than the “noble lie” The Dark Knight and Watchmen, among others, bring back from Plato when new truths cannot be found—a mere compromise with a chaotic world we don’t understand. Hence Nolans’ Batman could be the quintessential hero of the age.  A Dark Knight for dark times.

The problem which films repeatedly reveal is how our liberal culture is still tied to the dictates of moral law.  Whether it is dictated by God or by reason, the good guy follows the rules. We revolt against it, but we usually return to it time and time again.  In the Star Wars sequels, a case is made for transcending the old light vs. dark formula, but without any higher vision, a reaffirmation is the only way to go.  Though there are visionaries that can see through the double bind to a greater or less degree, it seems as if most of us don’t understand how to get out of it—how to escape from formulaic structures, whether they be in science, art, ethics, politics….or the metaphysics that informs them all.

In the Man in the High Castle and other examples we will explore, we see our culture groping through complexity and relativity, both moral and metaphysical, to find a deeper logic and a higher purpose than the stale tropes of the hero’s battle against chaos.  There is a tendency in some conservative circles to blame various cultural figures and movements for starting this trend of questioning and relativizing truth and morality. The Sheriff in No Country also flirts with this narrative of cultural decay, only to be reminded that the chaos he is facing is “nothing new”[7].

What is relatively new however is the way that that oldest of cultural logics, the scapegoating of the other, of change, is no longer functioning when it gets harder and harder to tell where we end and you begin—where the order is, the light, the good; and where the dark.  It should be obvious how globalization and the information age have accelerated this process already long at work in the Western psyche in its own hero’s journey towards transcendence of every boundary and limitation.

Everything in modernity leads us to the impasse that we were bound to see when any scheme or  system, no matter how dynamic, is followed to its conclusion. Every culture gets to a point when its formulas no longer work.  But unlike in previous eras, where the limitations of the system lead to the end of that particular culture, the confrontation and demise of all cultures under the pressure of technology and globalization has thrown us into a trajectory rushing headlong towards the necessity of higher knowledge or annihilation.  Even if our technocratic priests are failing to save us with their laws and formulas, our heroes are trying to save us in the virtual space of our dreams and myths.

To see what I mean let’s look again at the central character of Man in the High Castle.  As I was saying, Juliana is more than an agent of the system (to paraphrase the Matrix).  But unlike the hero of the Matrix, she is not caught in the dualism of real/virtual.  Her power comes not from an abstract freedom from the system, or the accompanying aimless drive to actualize this abstract and contradictory freedom/will to power that the Matrix sequels explore.  Instead it is her coherence of character as defined by her spontaneous order.

She is a “singularity”, not “the one”—not the transcendent source enforcing its will upon the world, but an immanent attractor of a pattern that keeps its character no matter what the conditions, thereby affecting the world and the conditions of the problem in a creative way.  While the Matrix sequels played with many of these themes, their solution was still dialectical. At no point was the “one” anything more than a function of the system of oppositions. The oppositions are unified in the end, but the characters are never really developed.  And it is character, or “soul” that truly “transcends” the system, not by a dialectic of “spirits” (combination of generic types), but by reframing the oppositions produced by the system.

In the show we see it is upon her character and the others she inspires that we are led to believe hope most exists precisely because they are not predictable and therefore controllable variables in the calculations of those attempting to control the system.  She is a “singularity” in the sense that she acts “beyond good and evil”—not in some amoral or antiheroic sense of self interest, but from an inner sense of the good not dependent on any rule and therefore not defined by its opposition to any fixed “other” or evil.  It is this independence from a reactive and negatively defined good that makes the active person a creative singularity within the field of dependent forces.

As Nietzsche put it, before his ideas were put into the formal and mathematical terms I am using by philosopher of the postmodern age, Gilles Deleuze, “Around the creators of new values revolves the world—invisibly it revolves”.   Through Juliana’s ability as a singularity to shape the field of forces around her and therefore affect change in all systems, we are led by the show to consider a multidimensional picture, which suggests that her and the other protagonists are guiding lights—organizing centers around which a greater future for all worlds can be possible.

Her antagonists are like Nietzsche’s reactive forces, embodied in men who seek power through attempting to control the situation in any one system or all of them.  The show portrays many of the resistance movement against the Nazis in this light as well as some of the Nazis of course. The show admirably avoids most of the melodrama that we get in most popular narratives—especially those involving Nazis, whom have become Hollywood’s favorite scapegoat revenge fantasy (something Tarantino has dramatized quite colorfully).  People may act in evil seeming ways but the show portrays that desire for power and control as ignorant and impotent in the face of the true freedom and power of a character unbent by circumstances.

The true hero cannot defeat the antagonist by any kind of brute linear force—not the force of law, not that force of moral certitude that makes for a hard resistant nature. No, the patterns that survive the most transformations, that translate their relationships across the most varied systems, and so seed their creative singularities into those systems—both redefining them and their relations—are those that use the potential of each situation as a field of becoming, of expressing a relation beyond those defined already by the preformed meaning or rules of the game.  

There was something of this in the old Star Trek, with Kirk representing the independent will that listened to the voice of emotion represented by Bones, and logic, displayed by Spock, but always found a way through the limitations.  Star Trek seemed to strive to reframe the dependencies of logic and emotion, and even in supposedly no win situations, Kirk merely changed the rules of the game. This was made a central and explicit theme in the film reboot of Star Trek, but as with much of the low quality reboots and sequels, from Star Wars to Superman, the Nietzschean “Ubermensch” is cast more as an Ayn Randian individualist, still caught in the tension between dark and light, society and the self, or emotion and logic.  Our lesser heroes often fail to find a way beyond generic dualities. They inevitably fall back on cliched compromises when faced with the complexity of time and virtuality.

The Man in the High Castle captures something that our heroes are struggling with in our age of virtuality.  We have avatars and counterparts of our selves galore, but lacking a center within, we hunger for being and struggle for stability—attempting to force coherence through fashioning or simulating identity in the increasingly creative and simulated world.  Yet because the world always changes and control is especially elusive in the kind of world we are creating, the hunger ever grows, and unless we dig deeper than we have ever had to, the fractures and avatars multiply. This schizosubjectivity is the theme of another archetypal show, Mr. Robot.

In Mr Robot, the protagonist is so incoherent and fractured that his alternate selves frequently fight for control over the single body they share, and over the destiny of the timeline the characters inhabit.  Mr. Robot’s world mirrors our own more closely, but as with Man in the High Castle, it is gradually and subtly communicated that our worlds are connected.  Mr. Robot also plays subtly with the themes of a changeable timeline and a multidimensional simulated world, where we as viewers are part of a greater multiverse, viewing the alternate dimensions of our world and the counterparts of our own selfhood.  In viewing the snapshots and reflections these shows offer us, it is easy to read them as simple critiques. They certainly offer no easy melodramatic solutions. But I suggest reading them as suggesting something far more profound and potentially hopeful.

Part 2. Schizosubjectivity or quantum Coherence?

Both Man in the High Castle and Mr. Robot paint a pretty dire picture with no simple revolution having any real change for the better.  Instead they suggest that the real changes that matter— the ones that change the whole system of worlds and selves—are the ones that bring coherence through character and creative inspiration.  Where what matters is not the struggle of one force or symbol over another—since any imposed order partakes in its opposite, any code can be hacked, any movement co-opted—but the order or idea that is robust to changes in its form, that can recontextualize and redirect any opposition with the strength of its inner character.

We find it easy in watching good character dramas to understand that the plot is less important than the characters—that the order achieved in the characters’ world through their actions is less important and interesting than the coherence or understanding that the characters achieve in their relations (or we achieve through understanding them).  But in the plot of our lives, our world, and the various melodramatic narratives of our media environment which thrive on spectacle, it is easy to lose sight of what is important. A chaotic world isn’t necessarily good, but neither is a rigidly ordered one; neither are very interesting.

The coherence we are talking about is also a kind of order but implies a logic of temporal consistency as opposed to the regimented order of a world of objects in euclidean space.  True coherence is not the result of the traditional hero’s journey, where order is brought to the land by the slaying of the dragon of chaos—where law is imposed and all are put in their proper objective place through the actions of a heroic subject, eliminating an evil so often characterized as an intrusive contaminating force imposing its change on the pure symmetry of the good.

Of course we can seem to achieve a temporal coherence and consistency through the application of a logical and geometric law, but this is the ironic illusion that haunts existence at its core and turns everything upside down.  If we can control the conditions of our life enough, we do indeed seem to maintain consistency through those conditions, but this is an illusion of order that one side of the existential split purchases at the expense of the other, a local and insular coherence created at the expense of a higher order.  Time is more than the linear progress we abstract from the cycles in a single ordered space. It is the larger virtual network of possibilities that can only be kept virtual for so long. Ultimately, other possibilities emerge. Even within the space and time of an ordered world or life, those other possibilities are active, and seen from a broader temporal perspective, reveal the not so perfect symmetry of our ideas of order.

In fact true coherence, called “quantum coherence” by some physicists, is in some ways the inverse of the equilibrium and symmetry we find in dead systems so characteristic of simple spatial order operating according to mechanical principles with low levels of complexity.  True coherence maximizes local or “individual” freedom and collective order.  It is “present” to the degree that the system in which something is contextualized has made that thing a part of other systems—as life does to matter.  All the more so as life gains in complexity, as the symmetry of simple systems becomes part of a greater cycle of life and intelligence. Each rigid insular bond broken becomes a new degree of freedom, as order becomes transferred from localized space to a distributed network through time, and life and order are consumed and transferred to increasingly more coherent and connected scales of organization.

The “far from equilibrium” state of life in its dynamic evolution, despite seeming asymmetrical, unstable, and exploitative, always finds a way to achieve a type of higher order and balance in new contexts and systems.  Though with increasing scales of integration we get increasing complex “mineralizations” of order as the higher scale order attempts to enforce its laws on the lower scales. This is always the challenge: to not trap life in closed systems that would limit the ability of those systems to become further embedded in different contexts—which limits the degree of quantum coherence or “temporal density” in the relative space of the imposed order.

In any case, all life operates far from a simple equilibrium with its environment—open as it is to influences from other spaces and times.  But the more it is able to embed itself successfully in higher contexts of nested, fractally layered rhythms and cycles, its presence in time expands.  And as it learns to navigate time, that is, to respond to an object as a sign, as information representing a possibility, or a memory—as something more than it appears—life becomes more coherent as a selfaware entity.   The seeming coherence or the simple symmetry of a deterministic mechanical type system may seem like high order, but it is the kind of order of tools in all senses of the word—that is, of systems easily manipulated.

A tool’s coherence across multiple spaces of representation, that is, its pattern in different possibility spaces is relatively incoherent compared to a selfaware being, since a tool’s value depends on the system and environment it happens to be in, i.e. on the uses it, as an object, is put to use by some subject.  A particular hammer is only a hammer to a being that can understand how to use it. It has more coherence than an arbitrary clump of dirt, but compared to an idea of a hammer, which will maintain some coherence of use and meaning no matter what form it takes, a particular hammer as an object is little more than an arbitrary clump of matter to, say, an insect.  And while abstract and generic ideas can be put to very different uses, a true singularity, a living idea or “soul” we could say, is robust to changes in its form or the context it happens to be expressing itself in.

What is called “uncertainty” in physics and “incompleteness” in logic, is this same idea about coherence; it is the basic paradox of wisdom, often suggested in Eastern spirituality, especially Buddhism and Taoism, but not developed in positive conceptual detail, (unless you count the esoteric tradition).  Buddhism often gestures past duality, even acknowledging the tradeoffs between sides of any bivalent pair and their reciprocal relation (in Taoism—the more of the yin or spatial component, the less of the yang or temporal component until one becomes the other). Since the way through the extremes cannot be said exactly, only inferred often through negation, it is often said that “the way” is best left to the mediation of initiatory wisdom in esoteric signs, or books like the I Ching that deal with the interpretation of signs and the forces they represent within concrete contexts.

When all things are understood as signs and a deeper understanding of complexity illuminates the sign’s mediating structure, we can perhaps get a better idea of the reality of meaning without falling into the false coherence and unity that dialectics, both East and West attempt to circumvent through negation, that is, through merely negating the limitations of every sign or framework.  Every sign stands in for a system of relations and every system is itself a selection, a perspectival projection from other signs—other biased systems of abstractions, reductions, and representations.

We are driven to overcome our partiality, our incoherence or incompleteness, and we proliferate reactions and compensations—such is the dialectic of mechanical necessity.  These programs, these causal operators of necessity, if not for the creative element emerging seemingly from within each dialectical fusion—like a soul gracing the newborn child, born from the dialectical clash of procreation, but always transcending the sum of its parents—would only lead to soulless abstraction.  Even with the creative element always at work, the possibility looms that it could become hijacked by our desire to escape our emptiness through mechanical prosthesis rather than grace.

Our hunger to be free from problems and negate the negative may lead us to abandon life’s essential problems, or merely reproduce them in new generations of increasingly layered and complicated systems of avoidance, driving us into the increasingly abstracted virtuality of the hyperreal, the “virtual reality” of technological obfuscation—a deeper and deeper entrenchment in the converging vectors of our initial assumptions.  One can choose to negate the whole process of conquest and compensation in nihilism, (spiritual or otherwise), but we can also, as Nietzsche and Deleuze ask us to do, creatively affirm the negative, or in more spiritual terms, return each choice, each mediation, to the ground of conscious sacrifice—diverging into new territory through a sublimation of our conflicts into greater contexts and more universal contrasts.

Rather than merely achieving one side at the expense of another—like more agency at the expense of less communion, or more representational coherence at the expense of a solipsistic abstraction from outside perturbations—quantum coherence refers to a nonlocally organized relation. Quantum coherence is not achieved at the expense of completeness, not through closing off all outside influence, but by opening to it and organizing all influences into fractal layers of embedded contexts.  

The more internally coherent something is—that is, the more it resists being reduced to a manipulatable object—the more influences it must be composed of.  Somethings may be very complicated—harboring chaos and unpredictability on one level—but ultimately they are easily summed to a simple aggregate, and therefore may be easily predicted.  Something very quantum coherent has a complex relational universe, with arrows of influence going both ways between it and many other things, not through mechanical causation, but through its action as a sign, as both an expression and producer of connections that wrap through the medium of more abstract and universal relationships.  It is therefore difficult to represent complex things in a single space or world, since we tend to have a hard time picturing anything outside the linear causal framework that we have evolved to see represented in physical space.

Seen this way, it is precisely the more inwardly coherent “subject” that is more connected across multiple spaces, realities, realisations, etc.  It must be composed of all these other potentials if it is to attain a precise pattern of its own separate from the system within which it expresses itself.  The more it does so, the more it will be immune to changes in the environment and context— what we could call topologically invariant. In a topological space, it is connections that define the space or entity, while its outward forms can vary greatly and still be the same thing.  

In quantum coherence, order emerges not from law like control or causality but as in a fractal, the order emerges from an inner selfsimilar pattern coherently translating itself into seperate orders. The lockstep discipline of a marching band for instance is not robust to changes in its conditions.  It plays the same tune as long as the conditions are right, but like most of what we call “laws”, its order falls apart if any of its conditions change.  A jazz band is more “quantum coherent”, for its parts are improvising an order and can change the tune and rhythm fluidly, even benefitting from exposure to unexpected change and deviation.

Unlike uniform order of locally controlled spaces and times, quantum coherence is a spontaneous order emerging across space and time in what appears like “faster than light” communication to the mind trained to see physical space as singular or primary.  In the standard interpretation of quantum physics, they admit a kind of transcendence of any single representational space but they consider it beyond all comprehension. Another well known school of thought entertains more concretely a space of many possible worlds, but without much understanding.

The structure of this “virtual” space of possibilities cannot be understood properly without an intuitive idea of the way spaces emerge or are “projected” from this deeper topologically connected reality.  The central point to understand is that there is no single objective space with a constant time but overlapping layers of interacting systems of relationships that cannot be represented all at once. The beings of the universe evolve ways to represent and bring into the foreground progressing aspects of an infinite continuum against a background of simultaneity.  We build on this context richer and richer spaces of representation as we learn more and more of the structure of the possibilities we have created through passing time and evolution.

There are fundamental trade-offs in any representation so that by increasing the coherence of representation in localized space and linear time, you lose the coherence of representation in the abstract relational space—a kind of linearly progressing overview space where time and possibility are in the foreground rather than space.  This overview space is the structured group of possible variations, like the possibility spaces of a dynamical system modeled on a computer, though in an organism we have a much richer virtual space of variations and extrapolations on the simultaneous contexts acquired through quantum coherence.

This description of alternative spaces is a relatively abstract way of talking about what we experience to some extent in dreams and death.  The more we learn in the linear time of our conventional space, the more depth of simultaneity we can achieve as the background context of meaning.  As life becomes more complex, better able to integrate contexts into simultaneous systems—approaching the ideal of quantum coherence—the more coordinated the two spaces get.  But continued learning and expanding horizons in the nested systems of our now require the adventure of novelty, and thus new gradients in intensity are always possible which can open up new contextualizations.  The metaphors I am using are themselves new contextualizations of ancient metaphysics opened up by developments in scientific modelling. One can even see this reciprocal relationship between spaces in what is called “uncertainty” in the mechanics of the quantum, but more clearly represented in the spatialization of complex sound waves.

In sound editing you can display the “actual” complex waveform represented as evolving in linear time, or instead, the component pure frequencies composing a certain length of time can be abstracted and represented separately as continuous eternal variations side by side, or rather, as we tend to picture scales of frequencies, one on top of another in ever increasing pitch.  Any actual frequency measured in time has a finite duration, and so it cannot just be one frequency. It takes time to measure time. Our idea of time or frequency is always a comparison or interference coordinated by multiple variations or cycles. The closer you get to an exact amount of time, the more frequencies are required to define it, approaching infinite frequencies or complete nonlocality in the space of possible frequencies as we approach complete locality in the linear time we tie to our representational space.

The amount of order stored locally or distributed into a nonlocal, “virtual” space—because of this trade-off—can vary, and follows an ordered series of layers, from the most abstract and continuous, to the most concrete and discrete, that is, to the kinds of measurable metric spaces of our immediate experience.  But this is entirely a function of representation. A completely local and fully “present” discrete identity cannot exist, except as the one that is all that is. A completely nonlocal and continuous abstraction cannot exist except in absolute unity. By shedding all context, one can experience this unity; by building context one can enrich the connections of discrete things with ever more dimensions and variations, perceiving and forming unity within the diversity.

Three dimensions are key to triangulate context.  Three spatial dimensions is the background awareness we have evolved as our base.  But each of those dimensions is itself a relation, a ratio, a change in intensity that is buried beneath our spatial representations.  With only one dimension we are in the dream space of absorption with our objects, even if that object be the one and all. With two, we see only necessity, only the linear process of causal relations—the consequences of assumptions, but not the context or meaning.  The subject and object, or cause and effect, but no true “why”.

Just as an understanding of perspective as emerged in painting brought an understanding of spatial depth, so an awareness of the mediating sign, of the dimension that brings perspective to temporal relations, brings an entry to temporal depth.  More dimensions are possible but we build off the three spatial dimensions we assumed to find our place in the universe—presumably so that we could eventually become free to change our perspective and direction. Each spatial dimension, like every identity, is itself just a sign of an entrenched perspectival relation.  By understanding the differences and changes that underlie each identity, we can extend the space of our representations deeper into the mysteries of time.

In one form or another, this evolution in dimensional complexity has been a fixture of esoteric philosophy. But only recently has the concept been synthesized independently out of the scientific study of complexity.  The hope is that what was esoteric and metaphorical and usually taken as foundation for moral laws and hierarchies can now be made a conscious and spontaneous order of true understanding. The transition to the spontaneous universal has been long in coming through the history of the West, but it is implied even in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna reveals the infinity or worlds to help free Arjuna from attachment to the fruits of his actions in this world, so he may truly act in coherence with the Divine, that is, to create the best for all possible worlds.  

Part 3. The Reality of the Virtual or the Virtual Real

One can certainly bemoan the disintegration of the human by the complexity and incoherence of our times, but we can also see in the mythological imaginary on display in our media narratives, a possibility that we did not have before the machine led us to this technological convergence upon the virtual.  While the possibilities for certain kinds of coherence were always available to us, it is only now in the virtual age that we are making visible and objective what was previously merely subjective and spiritual. The loss of visible local coherence is forcing us to look deeper for the rationale of all our lives and aims.  All the while our technology is delocalizing or “virtualizing” what had before been the dependable “material” ground upon which we built our lives. To illustrate the connection let’s take a look at this word “virtual”.

The roots of the word go back probably to what the esoteric tradition considered the beginning of the current round of human civilization seeded by ancient Indo–European sages long before recorded history.  The consciousness of these sages we can see reflected in the language of the first Indian text to be written down, the Rg Veda. In it we can see the archaic roots of not only the word virtual but its related concepts.  In Sanskrit, the root vir means power and heroism, which became virtus in Latin, connected to our words like virility and virtue.  Power and virtue are still listed as archaic definitions of virtuality, but virtual also has had a longer lasting meaning as something that transcends material embodiment, something like a primordial essence.[1]  

In the Rg Veda, Vritra(Vrtra) is the dragon, the foe of the god Indra.  Vrtra as a word has related roots, but rather than simple heroic power (vir), Vrtra was not considered virtuous but an antagonistic power (rit) of undifferentiated, unmanifest possibilities (and even the continuum of numbers prior to differentiation into integers) that if not tamed by the sacrifice of the sages, swallows man up, “covering up” (vri) his power in the infinite sea of possibilities.  The hero god must prevent Vrtra from swallowing up man’s activity into unmanifest infinite essence.  The hero can never defeat Vrtra because Vrtra embodies the watery abyss from which all springs, but if Vrtra gets the upper hand, the infinite becomes unbound and confusion and fragmentation reign.  The ancient Vedic priests sang their hymns to guide the primordial virtual power—the infinite continuum—into the coherent, actualized, and discrete structures of the meanings and myths that organized society.[2]

Virtuality as possibility attained a philosophical significance when Thomas Aquinas substituted it for Aristotle’s concept of potentiality but for him as for Aristotle, potentiality was very much an essence and power in the world.  But as the Medieval period came to an end, it was the Nominalist view that concepts were only names for actual things in the world which influenced the basis of modern philosophy[3].  In that climate, even though the soul was called by Kant “virtual”, he now meant something that was not an essence that related possibilities together, but merely something that existed in another realm and needed to be actualised in this realm of “phenomenon”.

The virtual had become a mere word for a mere abstract potentialwhich is almost the opposite of the power and potency of its earlier use.[1]  Consequently the meaning narrowed and like what occurred with the idea of the physical ether in physics, the new meanings made it necessary to drop, even as something of it lingered on under new names and relations.  And it was the importance of relations itself that renewed the term as it became increasingly obvious that some kind of relativity was at work both in our language and even in our most basic concepts of space and time.

With C.S. Peirce’s founding of semiotics—the study of the process of signs and symbols—the virtual begins to achieve the conceptual unity it lost when the poetic spirituality of the ancients was riven by the rise of the rational intellect.  Peirce noted that we sometimes still use the term in ways that show its true meaning. For instance if I compliment you in a moment of exceptional virtue, as being a virtual God, I mean not that you are literally a God or potentially a God, but that you are acting as a God would act, that you have the power and potential of a God in the act of expressing your virtue and power.  Basically you are acting like a God.

In this sense virtual is not another realm or potential as opposed to actual, but the activity of a potential across worlds and between beings through signs.  Your virtuous act triggers in me a spiritual meaning that makes your actions more than their brute factual content.  They become the realisation of a divine virtue—a virtual virtue so to speak—that doesn’t just actualize some discrete possibility, but creates meaning through an opening to that which is not present in the surface features of the world without something functioning as a sign, as a virtual representation of something more than it seems.

The crucial distinction of the concept of the virtual from that of the possible became an important theme with philosopher Henri Bergson when he made the virtual one of his central concepts, following the novelist Marcel Proust’s definition as “real but not actual, ideal but not abstract”. According to Gilles Deleuze, who brought these trends to full flowering in his metaphysics of the virtual, Proust’s novels are about the narrator learning to use signs to escape the linear deterministic flow of circumstances that is his life, and become an artist.  

Deleuze calls this escape a “line of flight” because we escape the predetermined actuality into a space of new possibilities.  He also calls this opening of the actual into the virtual “counteractualization”, whereas the movement from virtual to the actual is actualization.  They are not separate movements. We are already actualizing through the process of counteractualization; by listening to the signs of possible relations we begin to bring new Gods and powers into being.  We must remember that to actualize is not to merely choose a possibility that already exists in some predetermined realm of preformed choices.  

Because of this, the virtual is the structure of reality itself, not just a cloud of possibilities and memories surrounding the “actual” objects of the world.  It is meaning—which is not an imaginary web of connections we merely ascribe to a dead world, nor is it a realm of possible alternate realities and choices that we merely actualize, entertain or remember.  The virtual may not be actualized in the moment, and it is definitely always in motion and never fully grasped or containable, but it is quite real, quite structured, and always has quite real effects in the moment, sometimes quite dramatically.

With virtual technology however, we are dealing not just with an opening into new virtual spaces of possibility but also an obfuscation of the apparent ground upon which they are based. Another philosopher of the postmodern age, Jean Baudrillard was fascinated by the way virtual media leads to a loss of context, as the signs and symbols of our culture lose all connection to their original referents and become values completely dependent on the network of media meaning.  Thus allowing greater social control to those able to manipulate the media. In his thinking, when the “hyperreal” of the virtual network begins to dominate, the “real” ceases to exist, or becomes a desert as it was in the first Matrix film he helped inspire.  

The Matrix sequels conclude however, with the heroes achieving a balance between the machinic world of programs and the human through the power of the matrix, which as the film suggests, is a balance struck between the structure of spiritual necessity (the machines are pictured as a spiritual light to the hero’s awakened mind) and the contingencies and choices of life—a balance achieved through the virtuality of the mind.  Like the first Matrix film, Baudrillard originally advocated smashing the machine, but as Neo does in the sequel, he came to see such a plan was futile. Baudrillard, like many people, seems to have become resigned at this juncture. Just as the disillusioned optimist tends to becomes a pessimist, the idealist, when confronted with the implications of a groundless virtual universe, banishes the ideal and the real to an impossible and unknowable, or in Baudrillard’s case, a tragically empty husk.  

Idealists in philosophy, especially under the pressure of scientific empiricism, often become skeptical that their ideas are anything more than conjectures and representations, perhaps without connection to the real world at all.  Nobody wants to be sincere and then be found wrong. But a track often starts through that road to a world of mere surfaces without depth, a mere playing with words and numbers without a way of relating them to a concept of the Real—except through the proof of some kind of effective relation as instrumental tools.  This is not necessary; it is a byproduct of changes in the language of modern consciousness that we take for granted.

For instance, let’s look at the nominalist perspective I mentioned earlier.  It was opposed vigorously by realists in medieval philosophy, many of whom believed that abstract universals were real, not mere nominal representations.  The process was underway by which the early beginnings of individual rational consciousness, as exemplified in ancient Greek philosophy, which experienced thoughts as emerging as part of the world and its objects, developed into the modern consciousness that viewed thoughts as originating in a separate thinking subject[5].  In medieval realism we can see the beginnings of a more sophisticated understanding of the world as mediated by signs that would later emerge in the postmodern era, but which could not emerge fully until the role of the human subject was thoroughly explored in modern philosophy and consciousness.

As modern philosophy went the nominalist direction, so did our consciousness[3].  Even now we still have a difficult time seeing our thoughts and signs as contextual mediators rather than mere pointers to a seperate ground of reality, thanks to assumptions built up in the modern era.  To us even the phrase “literal meaning” invokes a conception of the “real” as a material reality, as being actually the case in a concrete universal space that presumably contains everything. Before that gradual shift in the middle ages, the literal meaning was not contrasted with symbolic meaning.  Aquinas meant by “literal” a way of referring to the true transcendent meaning of a mundane symbol, which he contrasted with spiritual meaning, which was that literal spiritual truth represented directly. The word shifted meaning as our metaphysics and consciousness changed, reflecting our changing attitude towards the real.[4]  

Naturally if our conception of the real was reduced to the things in the world, and if those things were of an uncertain nature except insofar as we could subject them to an instrumental context, then we would naturally busy ourselves creating a world of machines.  The virtual world of ideas and sign relations faded into utilitarian forces haunting a world of machinelike objects.  But as those machines became more and more of a realistic reflection of not only our ideas but our creative imagination, the connection between the mind and the world seemed not so narrowly and instrumentally defined.  Or perhaps one could say our concept of instrumentality broadened until computers and virtual media instigated people to start wondering whether the world itself is a computer simulation.

Really the spell of a strict separation between mind and world was already long receding by the time of computers.  With the theory of evolution came a new way of thinking in terms of interlocking systems, and with it, a mind that seemed very much a part of a nature it had evolved to model.  We are long into the process of reintegrating the virtual back into the detailed picture of deterministic forces fleshed out by modern science. This has been helped somewhat by postmodern philosophy emerging with a rediscovery of the sign relations which the medieval realists were onto before humanity resigned the whole era to the socalled “Dark Ages”[3].  This reemergence of the importance of the sign was probably inevitable as theoretical and social complexity forced us to not only admit the limitations of our models, but deal with consequences of those limitations.

The great ideas from the few European men that dominated the modern era, now in an era of increasing diversity and interrelation, started to seem more like ambiguous signs of a whole constellation of relations than some tools with clear objective value.  While many postmodernists retained a kind of nominalist idealism, contemporary philosophy and consciousness don’t get very far without some kind of realism. Otherwise we end up like Baudrillard, without anything left to do but revel in the play of signs, unable to point them towards a deeper conception of the real.  A complex realism and idealism is inevitable though, as we are forced to come to grips with the reality of our ideals as the contents of our inner worlds increasingly pour into the structures that form the environment we inhabit. We must not however get lost in the content. We must learn to see the structure of reality as relation, as made up of relations.  

Even if one is intent on focusing on the discrete things and beings of the world over any larger metaphysical context, a new ground must be found in our own choice of values and relations.  As the ontological ground gets murkier and slippier—that is, as the matterinacontainer of spacetime cosmology of materialist science gets less relevant, as the virtual becomes the real, it will become all the more important to find a ground in our relations.  Ideas must be recognized not as virtual ghost‐like potential forces, but real aspects of the world and of the objects themselves that can be worked with.  

While there might not be one single worldly context defining our relations, we form one through the process of contextualization.  The more coherent our contextualizations are, the greater our temporal depth. And the greater the depth of that nesting into larger patterns, the less we need the illusion of coherence our local spacetime container lent us in the transition from what was a nest of dreamlike spiritual immersion at our primordial beginnings, into our future of freedom to choose the depth and breadth of our embodiment.

Like Neo in the final Matrix film, we must realize that while the Matrix has become, as Baudrillard knew, a fantastic tool of oppression, it is also now the field of contestation, and unlike our naive preMatrix days, where we might believe our world was the center of it all, or later, doubt whether anything we know is actually true, we now are forced to make of ourselves a center of creative power and virtual actualization, affirming all worlds and words as virtual, but also real and capable of untold powers of actualizing truth, in addition to unknown potential for delusion and subjugation.

Part 4. Essence is Existence: Existential Virtuality

Despite the frequent reversions to halfhearted traditional ideals, the inevitable realism is creeping into even the traditional superheroes of our films and TV.  Some have become darker and often jaded from their previous idealism, but we also find them pondering deeper questions, and their foes are often relatable in a way you didn’t see in the good vs. evil melodrama of early popular film narratives.  Film superheroes have kept closer to the genre of mythic melodrama since movies have been functioning as one of our primary spectacles to rationalize our civilizational impulses. But rather than just struggling to keep at bay the evil forces of the dragon chaos knocking on our doorstep from the natural and colonized world, our heroes now are forced to deal with a world where no one rational or moral code seems to work.  

The themes of classical tragedy have become harder to repress, where moral ambiguity and even confusion in the boundaries between the living and nonliving are common.  The postmodern hero is no longer the great modern idealist assimilating the world into his representations.[6] Now as those previous assimilations of the chaotic “other”, have emerged from within him, Superman takes on the darkness of Batman, and even Captain America becomes closer to the mold of the struggling and often brooding pessimistic postidealist loner, like those fathers of postmodern thought, Nietzsche and Heidegger—distrustful of the machine, but now unavoidably enmeshed within it.  

The enemy is no longer without but within, not just himself, but within every rational value or position, haunting them everywhere as the distorted shadow of their limitations and repressions.  There are no longer strict spatial boundaries between the oppositional tensions. They contaminate each other and become each other. Iron Man, the former libertarian renegade, realizes the fallout from his unbridled freedom and advocates for government oversight against Captain America, who, having realized Nazis were inside the ranks of the good guys, now fights Iron Man with a realist suspicion of the liberal order and utilitarian morality.  The film superheroes still tend to find ways to bring order to the chaos, but the tragic mythos lurks still within—increasingly pressing us to reconcile ourselves with living in a complex “suprarational” world.

One TV show called Legion, finds a superhero unable to bring any order, struggling with a whole world of personalities inside his schizophrenic mind.  He can alter the world as he pleases and visit parallel worlds, coming to believe that the difference between real and unreal is arbitrary and beneath him.  Other characters question whether he knows right from wrong. We, however, are lead to believe that distinction is not so clear in a world where all is mind and possibilities are endless.  The hero becomes disillusioned with his friends who seem to be merely pawns for other powerful minds. We see in him the contemporary persona’s confusion in confronting a world with no clear moral order.  We are made to wonder what to make of a world where power reigns and to consider whether we are adrift in possibility space with nothing but the whims of the powerful deciding what kind of world we are subjected to.  

Another show, Rick and Morty, takes up this existential theme more forcefully, where the hero/antihero Rick can travel to infinite alternate dimensions but finds himself depressed and empty, struggling, along with his grandchildren, to come to grips with a world without transcendent meaning.  Since it seems any possible version of you and your choices exists in some dimension, what possible difference does it make whether you do one thing or another except to the “you” that might experience the particulars of that choice? This misconception of virtuality became a serious scientific concept in the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics.  It is an understandable reaction from a mind still clinging to a world as object and tool for a personal subject. But as we have seen, the virtual is not just “the possible” in a preformed space, in which case actualization would be entirely subjective and redundant.

Instead, the virtual is, as dramatized subtly beneath the nihilism in Rick and Morty, a reflection of who we are.  It cannot be otherwise. Not in a story and not in life.  Maybe if one merely conjectures other worlds as merely science fiction or formal constructs for a quantum realm or probable “universe” completely separate from our own.  But we should know better. Without a connection between the actual and virtual all narrative tension dissolves, and meaning is impossible. It is certainly possible to believe that life is meaningless, but things make no sense in that case and we cannot proceed with our lives.  Our only choice is to proceed with the business of making sense, perhaps this time, not living to find meaning, but finding meaning so that we can live. There is no plot otherwise.

In the show, Rick seems to believe that nothing matters, but while a vision of infinity can be overwhelming at first, both to the characters in the show and to anyone who ponders these matters, a greater truth is forced on one that might have remained obscure had we not ventured with Rick (or Deleuze) into the seeming infinity of the virtual.  That truth is that it does matter what we do, not just to the world we inhabit, but to all worlds. While there may not be an absolute morality or omnipotent God judging our deeds, what we do makes a creative difference; that is, what we do determines not just what happens to us and others, but also what is possible.  

It is just that the real difference is seldom what we think when we only see the brute facts of our simple world or are judging our deeds by an external standard rather than by the standard of what we would like to see embodied in the world.  In the show, Rick has to deal with a whole society of counterpart Ricks who all mirror and exaggerate parts of his character. He is forced to see that his character traits have repercussions in untold numbers of worlds. While he still claims it is all infinite and meaningless, we see that he does actually care and we would as well if we are paying attention.  Because while the worlds may be uncountable, they are not without structure, and that structure responds not just to our actions, but more importantly to who we are. However, when we can no longer see this world as part of a meaningful system, and instead judge everything in relation to such an uncertain and rapidly virtualizing materialism, problems are bound to ensue.

This existential trap is dramatized in an interesting way by Milan Kundera’s novel the Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1984. In it, the protagonist Tomas, struggles with important choices that he knows will define his life and his character.  Living for pleasure and experience seems “light” and fun but after some time he finds it unbearable, and chooses a life of “weight” that seems more meaningful.  But the meaning is unclear and uncertain to him, for it too seems based on chance meetings and impersonal conditions. He resents that life itself is “light” because he cannot see the meaning and consequences of different decisions and act with knowledge, and therefore even his weighty intentions seem in the end quite random and arbitrary.

This kind of personal existentialism, where the individual subject, adrift from the bounds of traditional morality and transcendent truth, must now make choices in the pseudofreedom of ignorant self determination, has become overshadowed by the more cosmic nihilism of H.P. Lovecraft and Rick and Morty[8].  Every day in the 21st century, the world gets more and more absurd.  In the 20th century, where uncertainty and emptiness haunted our cosmology, embracing the absurd meant affirming the self in the void.  In the 21st century, where the government admits that UFOs are real, scientists take seriously the idea that we are living in a simulation, and everyone is worrying about AI, the postmodern subject is bound to feel more overwhelmed than simply empty.  We are increasingly empowered by technology to face the ultimate conditions on our freedom and the necessity, no matter what the choice, no matter what the dimensions of possibility, to take on the responsibility we all share for the world.

For Rick, life is “light” because every choice is merely an actualization of one possibility in an infinitedimensional and ambivalent cosmos.  But the heaviness comes from the sense that we are indeed all connected.  The parallel reality trope is not just a clever use of some quantum physics.  These themes are showing up because of the issues we are facing as our technology transforms us into increasingly connected nodes in a network, whose virtual character does not just spur our imagination into science fiction speculation, but on a more or less conscious level, it confronts us with the virtual foundations of all existence and therefore the inescapable pressure we have on us to reimagine the world.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas is haunted by the thought that his life is random and meaningless, and longs for the heaviness of fate that Beethoven celebrated exclaiming Es muss sein! (It must be!) Tomas realizes, it could have been otherwise.  But the question is, how different would it have been? If he chooses the life of responsibility or of pleasure, would life really be that different?  If our choices are but expressions of what we perceive is possible, expressions of our character and knowledge, then what is more important, what we choose, or how well we understand our choices?  Our actions or our imagination?

Tomas resigns himself to fate, to heaviness and death, while his former lover flees the heaviness yet is haunted by it in her life of supposed “lightness”.  Whatever choices we make, the ones we did not make are still with us, structuring each line of time with the signs of the overall structure of virtual space, which is itself created by our coherent improvisations that alter the basic models.  The characters in the novel represent different responses to the challenges of meaning in the 20th century. Whether Tomas is the character that dies in the heaviness of dependent love, or the one that dies in the lightness of vapid freedom, the structure of his world is still the same depressing dialectic that he and his lovers together reflect and express.  No dialectic synthesis of opposites can create the difference that truly makes a difference, just as no simple moral choice can truly make a real difference unless it transcends the problematic that birthed it through true creative singularity.

With that we should turn to the show that started it all, Twin Peaks, and its return after 25 years of gestation in the virtual space of David Lynch’s “red room”.  The original show helped transform TV into a vehicle for visionary storytelling; The Return may well signature the beginning of another transformation of our lives wholly into virtual media.  The connections between the metaphysical and technological aspects of virtuality are explicit in Twin Peaks, and The Return only further develops the occult significance of modern technology as the trojan horse through which spiritual beings and forces, both helpful and harmful, are emerging into our existence with new power.  

Like the original, The Return plays with the melodramatic TV conventions of its time, consequently this time using less soap opera tropes, and instead focusing on playing into, then subverting and exposing the expectations we generate from watching a reboot, from sympathizing with gangsters and antiheroes, and most definitely from identification with the heroic struggle of good vs. evil.  While David Lynch sometimes satisfies our expectations, he never lets us rest quite at ease with resolution. And the Return brings the occult significance of our expectations into stark relief.  

While we may seem to conquer evil and save the day, are things really that different?  From the virtual perspective, does it matter if we stop one tragedy if the conditions that brought it about continue?  If by stopping the tragedy or even by vanquishing an evil from our self we merely change the distribution of forces, have we really made a difference? We don’t need to take the alternate timelines and dimensions “literally”, for the point again is that the virtual is right here at the heart of the actual. The other is in me and I in him.  We are all each other’s “Counterparts” (which is the name of another alternate dimension TV show).  We are all playing out the alternate lines of fate that our other selves—that is, to different degrees along different value gradients, everyone else in the universe—have ignored.[9]

And is this not the lesson of technology?  We invent it to solve a problem but all real differences are the other side of the coin of essential singularities and therefore ultimately irreducible and unsolvable.  By trying to save the day with a deus ex machina we only prolong the inevitable reckoning. The technological virtual is reproducing the problems we long ago learned to repress and redistribute with the power of our cultural sign systems and their technological extensions.  As the problems reemerge however, we are given a new medium in which to find pathways, through which our differences can be repolarized along a new creative gradient, for good or ill. Computer technology makes this abundantly clear. Our science fiction is already showing us how it will go.  

Jonathan Nolan’s shows, Person of Interest and Westworld have explored how even with the awesome power of AI, capable of creating and manipulating realities, we merely translate the same human problems into a new medium.  Even if we use it to save lives or prolong life across vast stretches of time, to loosely paraphrase Westworld: the suffering needed to truly learn and grow beyond our programming becomes hidden.  A world without consequences or problems doesn’t exist, but our desire for such a thing may lead us astray.  The show suggests that only when there is a conflict in our rules and programs do we have the opportunity to become conscious, replacing the voices in our head with our own “true” creative voice.  If we hide those conflicts behind another layer of abstraction, they may only emerge again after aeons of time.[10]

Theosophists in the esoteric tradition spoke of this time period as a crucial window and warned us of the possibilities over a century ago in descriptions that frighteningly echo the most nightmarish science fiction of today[11].  In future essays we will look at these more esoteric realities and scenarios.  We all sense deep down what is coming, and we continue to try and imagine our way through it with our ideas and myths.  But we haven’t even begun to fathom the depths we will have to face and grow through. Death is no escape.

[1] accessed 1/4/2018: http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/virtuality.htm

[2] see Meditations Through the Rg Veda: Four Dimensional Man by Antonio de Nicolas

[3] see John Deely’s Four Ages of Understanding

[4] see Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances

[5] see Rudolf Steiner’s Riddles of Philosophy

[6]see John David Ebert’s Gods and Heroes of the Media Age for an analysis of the superhero

[7] see Gregory Desilet’s Screens of Blood for a great discussion of this film

[8] see wisecrack’s youtube channel for an in depth look at Rick and Morty’s philosophy

[9]A more “spiritual” illustration of this theme is the angle used in Netflix’s the OA and Sense8

[10]in Battlestar Galactica it is suggested that AI is an integral part of this repeating cycle

[11] They call it the eighth sphere. Steiner’s descriptions in particular are remarkably accurate depictions of nanotechnology and virtual reality ensnarement

****I have listed only explicit references and sources. For a more general bibliography see my reading list: http://www.creativecoherence.org/recommended-reading/,

especially the interdisciplinary and alternative science sections which informed the science in this essay.



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  1. Also, here are some additional points I wrote to some questions brought up in one person’s reading of this essay:1.My thought that social fragmentation has become psychological fragmentation was perhaps not well expressed. They do as you say, go hand in hand. My idea was more to point out how the urbanization and globalization process have pushed the boundary of otherness inward, not only forcing psychological adjustments and more individualistic forms of subjectivity but, more recently, a crises in the very substance of coherent subjectivity. So even though some amount of psychological fragmentation goes with every new unknown a culture negotiates, the postmodern turn and its questioning of identity itself is intimately tied up with transformations in society that prevent easy spatially defined schemes of difference. It is now increasingly not a “culture of one” but a complex topology, where everywhere difference prevents me from easily assigning absolute otherness to anyone, and maintaining subjective coherence which always depends on a larger objective framework that is no longer easily stabilized. A fairly obvious point on the surface, but I find so many people(conservatives) have a hard time seeing postmodernism as a cultural product of our social systems and not some crazy thing dreamed up by academics.

    2. On Western culture moving towards individualism—I will just say that I hoped to distinguish singularity from common notions of individualism. The picture I try to draw throughout the piece is of fractality and the individual becoming more aware of it, to comprehend it, to organize around it, and thereby be truly effective and creative. Part of the reason for the rather abstruse exposition of quantum coherence is to clarify this point. As long as boundaries are kept on the dyadic plane of self/other this isn’t possible. The movement of the boundary between identity and other, from the group to the individual could only go so far with the Enlightenment. Idealism tried to annex the world into the subject, or achieve coherence in logical spatial terms, but this was a trap as many post Hegelians knew. The only way out was into the symbolic dimension, from space into time. Unlike Gebser and Wilber who see the movement of modern culture from rational to integral, from 3d space into 4d spacetime, I try to keep open the possibility of cultural evolution without succumbing to this naive idealism. Our awakening to time doesn’t lead to “integration”, dialectical, multiperspectival or otherwise, but to further complexity. Following Steiner I don’t see it as a simple “progress” since the boundaries of what is actually moving through time are constantly changing and can be drawn in different ways. What is deemed more complex and advanced can be done so only by keeping the scaling value constant. We have indeed increased conceptual and social complexity over the millenia, increasing individual freedom in some sense, but at the expense of a reduction of coherence. The possibilities of even greater coherence at the scale of our consciousness than we ever have had are increasing but obviously they are by no means a sure thing, and so far not even common in the world.

    3. To your questions on shedding context and experiencing unity—I am drawing here as elsewhere from Suzie Vrobel’s work Fractal Time, Dewey Larson’s Reciprocal System physics work, and others that give a good scientific foundation for what this means. But I think Derrida pretty much got it right when he said: “Peace is found only in a certain silence that is determined and protected by the violence of speech.”
    In the essay I am mostly trying to downplay the importance of this experience of unity. It is certainly possible to stop the mind and all contextualization in meditation. It is the basic experience of Eastern mysticism, but any notion of absolute transcendence is problematized by its esoteric tradition, and in western esotericism, just as in academic philosophy, it is treated with distrust. (Steiner actually dissuades Western people from any practice designed along those lines of supreme abstraction). My point was to emphasize that the two major characterizations of transcendence in the East, are abstractions in either direction that emerge naturally from the science, but which are relatively useless or potentially nihilistic. Dialectics, abstraction, transcendence are necessary but without context they lead to death and the living death of sterile soulless formulas for life. Deleuze, who incorporates a lot from both Western and Eastern esotericism, has a pretty sophisticated treatment of transcendence in his work: “..the One is not the transcendent that might contain immanence but the immanent contained within a transcendental field. One is always the index of a multiplicity: an event, a singularity, a life.”

    4. You contrast my argument for doing what is the best for all possible worlds with doing the best for this world. I try to show throughout the text that they are the same. In the Gita, Arjuna, upon first seeing infinity, tries to leave the battlefield to meditate, and Krishna chastises him. The point, as always, isn’t a choice of one over another, but to see the relation as the thread of unity/”univocity”. The point is that utilitarian morality misunderstands the world. In Peirce’s terms it is “dyadic” rather than triadic. It thinks in terms of cause/effect rather than creating new connections and realizing new values that can change the underlying conditions of a problem and its iterations throughout the world or worlds.

    5. I am glad that you brought up “OOO” in the context you did. I actually rewrote the passage in question from an earlier writing where I was trying to give more of a report of contemporary philosophy. I wanted to give the impression that philosophy is moving towards realism because of the issues I was discussing, and I gave an account of this realism that included one more in agreement with “OOO”. I like Harman. He definitely is pithy for a philosopher! I like listening to him speak and would love to hang out with him. But honestly I find his writing a bit boring. Upon further thought and study I think in his effort to simplify he covers over and strawmans some important aspects of his “competitors” as he calls them. My favorite book of his is actually the one on Realism as a conversation with Delanda, whose books have been very formative for me. Realism is an interesting issue. Peirce thought it was very important, dismissively calling all of Modern Philosophy “Nominalist” as I allude to in the paper. But the contemporary agon between Realism and Idealism I find less interesting. When Delenda and Harman start saying what they are Realist about they slide too close to nominalism and dualism for me. Sometimes these labels do more harm than good. But I look forward to reading your Wittgenstein work since these issues seem to come up with what I know of him. Suffice it to say, the “world as made up of relations” was a compromise I made to not digress into the nuanced arguments of contemporary philosophers and just give a simple account of where I think thought is and should be going. The word “relation” is problematic. Taken too literally it opens itself up to Harman’s critique. Deleuze problematizes the concept well. I am really enjoying Jeffrey A. Bell’s book on D&G’s “What is Philosophy” right now which is really helping me clarify some of my arguments with analytic philosophers. But the book that really changed my thinking was Rocco Gangle’s book on Category Theory. A friend of mine found the whole PDF since the book is very pricey. If you want a good formal intro to Peirce and an excellent formalization of Deleuze I suggest looking at those chapters: http://s3.amazonaws.com/arena-attachments/1627933/82e41f2941e54ddfe32ca3e0c6247dd9.pdf

    6. You said: “What, then, is truth? Escape from all delusion and subjugation?”
    Sounds good to me! That would need many qualifications, and I definitely find myself downplaying the concept of truth in some contexts, but it remains quite important, despite its slipperiness.

    7. “the government admits UFOs are real” is a generic statement but it is not wrong. Many people in government admit that UFOs are a real thing, but they seldom have much inside info. Any official disclosure would have to come from the military and the corporations involved and that isn’t happening any time soon. Many people come forward but their is always a denial from them. Aliens or not is another level of course. I didn’t say there was an announcement that aliens are real. It is a very complex subject, but I was mostly referring to all the mainstream news coverage that came about from the NY times story on the the Pentagon UFO program that was officially revealed. But that program was low level and was frustrated by the real players. Politicians have little knowledge or access these days, some more than others, but if they have high enough connections, they know it is real, and that they are out of an important loop. It was part of Hilary’s campaign promises that she would get more info because Podesta really wants disclosure. The evidence and admissions have been getting more voluminous every year. Check out Richard Dolan’s work if you are interested. Dark Journalist has uncovered a lot of cool stuff too. Here is a short vice video on him and JFK since I remember you are interested in the assassination:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2H_f6LqJfM&t=163s

    8. As for choice and chance, I would say there is no discrete set of alternatives, nor is there any absolute stochasticity in the world. But I like what you say about calculation being the death of choice. Where does Derrida discuss this? It is complicated but I would just say that the science fleshes out these issues well. Randomness is basically incompressibility, so it goes hand in hand with novelty and incoherence. I do like the word decision better than choice. We get closer to the truth when we can discuss freedom along with power and agency along with connectivity, space always with time, figure with ground.

    9. When I mention “true self” I say I am loosely paraphrasing Westworld. I should have put quotes around it though so thanks. Authenticity discourse bores me indeed. Given the rest of the paper, it should be clear what I mean by that point by “true self”. As always I am trying to reframe philosophical problems in ways that transcend and clarify previous antagonisms. I have never been a fan of existentialism and I wouldn’t say “higher self” either without explanation. The idea throughout has been of “soul” which is something that is achieved through coherence as defined in the paper.

    10. As for death not being an escape, I wasn’t speaking to anyone wanting to escape life, but to those who think life is too short to be concerned with such crazy things that are on the horizon. My point was that even if you die before things get really scary and weird, you will be most likely coming back here soon, so we all should do our best make the world a better place, and better equipped to handle what is coming!

    Thanks again for your help and interest.