Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Virtual reality and the noösphere: Vernadsky's futuristic vision

The following is a paper originally presented at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Philosophy of Religion Section, March 17-18, 2011, New Brunswick, NJ.

In 1924, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and Edouard Le Roy (1870-1954) met with Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) in Paris. The three men created the concept of the noösphere. The word traces its etymology from the Greek root noos, meaning mind or thought, and sphere, meaning world. Thus, the noösphere is the planetary area of human thought. Vernadsky called it "the last of many stages in the evolution of the biosphere in geological history."[1] In The Heart of the Matter, Teilhard refers to it as "the Earth's thinking envelope."[2]

In this paper, I will focus on Vernadsky's definition of the noösphere because its manifestation in virtual reality is an evolutionary step. Virtual reality is an epoch-reflecting development stemming from technological improvements and human imagination. During the Cold War, the military-industrial complex in both the Eastern and Western world sought technological improvements in order to achieve an advantage over one another. Technology progressed along these military lines, but naturally spilled into the private and public sector. At the end of the Cold War, improvements in computer technology began to dramatically increase graphic display capabilities. In the 1990s, the pace of new technologies provided a vehicle for displaying the inner workings of human imagination. If one could imagine it, a computer could graphically display it. Thus, virtual reality came into existence through evolution in technological development.

Likewise, the concept of the noösphere follows evolutionary science; it begins with the geosphere (inanimate matter) and then develops into the biosphere (biological life). Next, humankind evolved and is evolving into the noösphere, which, as stated above, is the sphere of thought. However, the concept of the noösphere has received few references in Western thought. One example comes from the book The Internet Imaginaire (MIT Press, 2007) by sociologist Patrice Flinchy. In it, she cites an article from Wired magazine and writes, "The emergence of an informational membrane enveloping our planet and unifying the human mind… was a perfect description of the internet.[3] Yet, Flinchy does not scratch beneath the surface to find out what the concept of the noösphere means.

There are few other references to the idea found in popular culture. Here are three examples: the novella Mortimer Gray's History of Death by Brian Stableford, the anime cartoon Neon Genesis Evangelion, and the first-person shooter video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. In Stableford's novella, humanity dreams of the noösphere. This understanding is inconsistent with Vernadsky's definition because it portrays the noösphere as analogous to heaven or something to be experienced. In the anime series, some of the characters wish to reach the goal of the noösphere, which makes the noösphere sound like an ontological level instead of a sphere of thought or the mind. In the video game, the noösphere is something to be manipulated. In each of these examples, one could argue for viewing the noösphere in a way that would allow for it to be used as the author has, but I believe that argument is difficult to make.

The problem with these pop-cultural uses is viewing the noösphere as something to be obtained or experienced. It would sound nonsensical to make one's goal to achieve the geosphere or biosphere. The noösphere is an evolutionary step, just after the biosphere. Just as the geosphere did not cease to exist when life began and the biosphere came into being, neither the biosphere nor the geosphere ceases to exist with the coming of the noösphere. There are still rocks in the garden outside my home (geosphere) as I munch a carrot and metabolize its vitamins (biosphere) and conceive of the words to type on my computer for this paper (noösphere). The noösphere exists. It is not a goal; it simply is.

Part 1--Defining the Noösphere
If the above examples from popular culture get the noösphere wrong, how do we define it correctly? For Vernadsky, "the noösphere is a new geological phenomenon on our planet."[4] He writes about the concept during the climax of World War II, and placing oneself within Vernadsky's milieu, he is a naturalist, not a theologian or a philosopher, and he views the cataclysmic events of the twentieth-century's two World Wars as "part of a single great terrestrial geological process, and not merely as a historical process."[5] Thus, the noösphere is a label for what is happening, not, as viewed in popular culture, something to be achieved. Vernadsky looked at world events and saw an epoch shift.

In an essay about the development of the concept of the noösphere, Vernadsky describes his position in Russia in the Academy of Sciences and the Council of the Productive Forces. He draws the connection between the goals of science in his positions and the need for science to support the military. The connection he makes between the military and growth in science during the two World Wars is parallel to the connection between the military and computer technology improvements during the Cold War.

In Vernadsky's work, he draws a distinction between life and living matter. He writes, "'Living matter' is the totality of living organisms. It is but a scientific empirical generalization of empirically indisputable facts known to all, observable easily and with precision. The concept of 'life' always steps outside the boundaries of the concept of 'living matter'; it enters the realm of philosophy, folklore, religion, and the arts."[6] This distinction between life and living matter is essential to understanding the noösphere. Life is a concept--e.g. to have a life, get a life, what is the meaning of life--whereas, living matter can be quantified. A life to me might not be a life to you. Progressing along the evolutionary trajectory, the geosphere precedes the biosphere but the biosphere does not abrogate the geosphere. Both coexist. With the entry of the noösphere, there is a new understanding, the sphere of human thought or the envelope of the mind.

As Vernadsky unpacks the meaning of the noösphere in his article, he finds that humankind "becomes a large-scale geological force… it can, and must, rebuild the province of its life by its work and thought, rebuild it radically in comparison with the past."[7] He sees an imperative need to continue the geological and biological evolution, and he does not necessarily think humankind has achieved the end result. In a moment of prophetic clarity, he writes, "It may be that the generation of our grandchildren will approach their blossoming."[8] The generation to which he refers does experience the embodiment of the noösphere in virtual reality.

When Vernadsky looks to the future and consider how the noösphere will play out, he asks, "How can thought change material processes?"[9] Of course, he acknowledges, "thought is not a form of energy," but referencing Goethe, Vernadsky sees a limitation of science in answering a question of "why".[10] In other words, science should be able to explain how something happens, even if it presently lacks the tools to do so, but science cannot explain why something happened. Regarding the noösphere, he cites native aluminum, a mineralogical rarity which never before existed on the planet but is now produced in whatever quantity humankind wishes to have it. Thus, he writes, "Chemically, the face of our planet, the biosphere, is being sharply changed by humankind, consciously, and even more so, unconsciously."[11]

Vernadsky's reference to "unconscious" implications of anthropogenic impact on the biosphere is a second prophetic allusion. When he wrote, people were unaware of the implications of human-impact on the biosphere on a macro-level. With humankind's increasing understanding of anthropogenic climate change, Vernadsky suddenly sounds seventy years ahead of his time. However, this is part of the noösphere. There is fluid movement between the mind envelope surrounding the planet and thinking that is limited to conventional wisdom, like assuming anthropogenic climate change is inconceivable.

One of the fundamental aspects of the noösphere for Vernadsky is human ability to create resources by the transmutation of elements. He views the noösphere as the experience of using thought to change material processes. By conceiving of a means by which ore can be refined to aluminum, the human experience is augmented by, according to Vernadsky, changing the elements. He sees the outcome on a macro-level as the profound impact the transmutation of elements will have on life on the planet. In other words, we have aluminum when we did not have it before, and we have it through a world in which the mind retrojects changes to the biosphere or geosphere. Therefore, the noösphere can have an impact on the biosphere or geosphere, just as the biosphere had an impact on the geosphere.

The ability of humankind to change the planet using the sphere of thought has played out with dire ecological consequence, but Vernadsky's view of this aspect of the noösphere is a negative consequence. It is also reflective of his milieu. Expecting Vernadsky to anticipate something like anthropogenic climate change is unrealistic. Therefore, we can take his thoughts about the evolutionary process of moving from the geosphere to the biosphere to the noösphere, and see how his theory has played out. We can do this without ascribing thoughts to Vernadsky that he did not have. We can also do this without indicting him for being overly-optimistic about the positive impact of the transmutation of elements.

Part 2--Virtual reality as an embodiment of the Noösphere
If Vernadsky is correct, and humankind has entered a new evolutionary epoch in which thought or the mind is the preeminent sphere of existence, what does it mean? Setting aside his idea of the transmutation of elements, let us consider what a sphere of thought looks like for humankind today. Perhaps Vernadsky's vision of a world of thought has played out, but instead of reaching its fruition with changing ore into aluminum (or any other example of large-scale industry), it reached its fruition with virtual reality, an entire world that exists solely in the human mind.

With texting, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media surpassing printed letters, landline-telephones, and email as primary modes of communication, human existence is moving from one in which people physically connect with one another to one in which connections are more often electronic (or connections exist in a person's mind). Instead of the tangible piece of paper of a printed letter or hearing another person's voice on the telephone, pixels display symbols that represent communication, including emotions and sensory interactions.

Vernadsky's description of a world of thought is eerily familiar when considered in light of virtual reality and cyberspace. Beyond the movement from interpersonal interaction to electronic interaction, virtual reality represents a complete embodiment of the noösphere. Virtual reality is a term to describe computer-simulated environments. They can simulate physical presence in the real world or in imaginary worlds. Although, virtual reality is currently primarily limited to visual and auditory experiences, technology continues evolving to allow for sensory experience in virtual reality. Like theologian Paul Tillich's use of cultural artifacts,[12] philosophy of religion and religious studies can engage with these virtual environments in order to better understand human interactions, and when considering the implications of the noösphere, virtual reality begs more questions about a future world of thought than it answers.

In online experiences like Second Life, individuals can create a physically nonexistent persona, a virtual self. This is a prime example of the noösphere because the persona created on Second Life only exists in virtual reality, or in people's minds. Yes, there is computer code, digitized signals of 1s and 0s, networked in a web of multi-user and web-server connectivity. And, there are physical machines running these programs, but the entire experience is virtual. Although elements from the geosphere are used (and transmuted) to build the computers, they are present on a micro level, and the elements from the geosphere (like silicone on a microchip) are not part of the experience. This is why virtual reality forms an embodiment of the noösphere, and Second Life is an excellent example of this embodiment.

Within the thought world of Second Life, within the noösphere, religious groups have begun meeting. For example, LifeChurch.tv has some virtual space in Second Life, and, according to their website, they list two reasons for entering virtual reality. First, they wish to proselytize people to Christianity.[13] Second, their website states, "We want to create an environment where … users and others who are a part of our online community can experience what we do in a more immersive environment than a web page."[14] The key to understanding the religious implications of the noösphere is LifeChurch.tv's "immersive environment." Instead of going to a traditional religious worship gathering, users can create and augment their experience. They are also less constrained by cultural norms than they would be worshiping in the geosphere/biosphere.

Christianity is not the only presence in the noösphere. There is also an Islamic presence in Second Life. Egyptian-owned Islam Online offers a virtual visit to Mecca. During the 2007 Hajj, they hosted 7000 virtual visitors.[15] In the 2010 Hajj, there were over 12,000 virtual visitors.[16] There are also areas for people of other beliefs: IR Shalom, a Jewish city named after the ancient precursor to Jerusalem, and The Buddha Center, a Buddhism meditation area.

In virtual reality, in the noösphere, worship is an immersive and highly customizable experience. To say it does not exist denies the existence of the noösphere. When thousands of people claim to have religious experiences in this virtual world, Vernadsky seems to be right. A sphere of human thought follows the geosphere and the biosphere. It is still too early to say exactly what the noösphere means for humankind. To say it is illegitimate does not take into consideration the number of people who find existential fulfillment through virtual reality. But, to the people who claim fulfillment in virtual reality, is their experience really fulfillment?

Vernadsky, along with Teilhard and Le Roy, had a bold vision for the sphere of human thought. Vernadsky understood it as having the ability to create resources. Another virtual space is the game Farmville in the social networking website Facebook. According to one videogame magazine, over 32 million people play Farmville every day.[17] They log-on, make transactions, grow crops, and tend their farms. Yet, to date, not one single person has eaten something grown in the virtual world of Farmville. Perhaps Vernadsky's bold vision for a noösphere with the ability to create resources still has some distance to go.

[1] Vladimir Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 21st Century, no. Spring (2005): 21.
[2] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of the Matter, trans. René Hague (New York: Harcourt, 1978), 31.
[3] Patrice Flichy, The Internet Imaginaire (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 111.
[4] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[5] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 16.
[6] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 17.
[7] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[8] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[9] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[10] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[11] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[12] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume 2: Existence and the Christ (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 13ff.
[15] http://news.sky.com/ "Second Life Visit to Mecca For the Hajj"

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