Reputedly the French avant-garde playwright Antonin Artaud took the view that illusion was not distinct from reality, advocating that spectators at a play should suspend disbelief and regard the drama on stage as reality. We do, in fact do this all the time.
From the slightly different perspective as spectators we watch our films and our soaps and our nature programs and we enter the reality shown on the screen while ignoring , to a large extent, what is going on around us. We even turn down the lights so that the brighter reality on the screen dominates. We cry for the characters, we laugh for and at them, we cheer their successes even though, at some level we realise that they are not “real”.
When we go to the cinema, we get the same thing only stronger, bigger and brighter. The theatre sound system knocks dust from the pelmets and detaches spider from the roof. The screen is so wide and we are so close that we are thrust deep into the action. The 5 metre high image of a face 15 metres away makes the same angle in the eye as a 200mm high face at arms length.
But we don’t need technology to enter a different reality. In a book we read of heroes and heroines, ogres and business men, of warfare and love making, of atoms and galaxies, of amoeba and star clouds. We use our imagination to enter their worlds and we get lost in them. We may beg, buy, borrow or steal a “page turner”, a book that we have to read through to the end, to find out the fate of the characters in it. We may purchase a travel book and visit in the imagination lands that we will never physically visit.
Photographs draw us in, religious books promise us heaven or hell, text books inform us and guide us, map books (or GPS) show us the way from A to B. Our games enter us into a different reality, sometimes one where it is kill or be killed, or where we get lost in a maze, or where we simply have to solve a puzzle. Games introduce us to a multilevel reality – we first enter the reality of the computer or PlayStation or XBox, or Nintendo, then we enter the reality of the game within the device.
Of course we may prefer old style board games like chess. Imagine a world that consists of 32 black and 32 white squares and black and white player pieces, which, quantum like, can only exist in one square at a time and when captured, cease to exist, so far as the reality of the chessboard is concerned. Players enter this reality in their minds and navigate their pieces in a war of black versus white, which starts with a given configuration and ends when the contest is decided, then returns like a cyclic Big Bang to the original configuration.
The fact that we can embed one reality (the fictional) inside another (the real) leads to the idea of an infinite regression of realities. In “The Matrix“, which I have never seen(!), Neo’s supposed reality turns out to be a simulation, and the real world is much more unpleasant than the supposed reality (not that unpleasant things don’t happen to Neo and others in the supposed reality).
The mathematician, the logician, the philosopher says “Only two?” If there are two realities, could it be possible that there are more? Maybe the real world of the Matrix is itself a simulation. Maybe that simulation is a simulation.
So we end up with the possibility of an infinite series of nested realities. There is one thing about the realities that I’ve been talking about though and that is that they are in our minds. If that pattern were to apply, every one of the nested realities would be in a mind. In the case of the Matrix Neo’s reality was imposed on his mind from outside, as it was for every other human in the Matrix.
The really clever thing about the Matrix was not that it was imposed on every human’s mind, but that it integrated all inputs from all the human minds into a consistent whole. For instance, if Neo sees a door and opens it, this information has to update the Matrix, and get downloaded into the minds of all the others in the Matrix, such as Trinity, who is waiting on the other side of the door.
That’s an impressive feat! The updating of the Matrix by all the human minds and the broadcasting of it back to all human minds is a much more impressive task than creating the Matrix in the first place. It is several orders of magnitude harder.
For instance, consider the immersive and interactive virtual realities which we have built and which generally involve the wearing of special gear such as VR helmets and VR gloves and connection to a fast computer which holds the information about the VR “world”.
If there are two individuals using the VR “world” at the same time, when Player One raises his hand, the information is fed to the computer and updates the VR “world”. Player Two’s view of the world has to be updated to show the avatar of Player One with his hand raised. If there are even more players all moving around the problem becomes much worse. Each player’s updates need to be fed to all other players (or all the “close” players to each player). The traffic rises exponentially.
But most of the time we don’t need fully immersive virtual reality to achieve a virtual reality. A simple book can do it. A movie can do it, probably even better. A play will do it too. All it requires is the suspension of disbelief, and the ability of the mind to draw pictures and fill in the gaps. It may be apparent to a person who walks in on the performance that Inspector Goole is only an actor, as are the member of the cast. The set is not really the sitting room of the Birlings, but a roughly painted lath and hardboard approximation.
But in the minds of the audience, for the duration of the play, J. B Priestly gives them a view into a different reality. One that is not fully immersive, but which uses the power of the human mind.