The Reading Room
Borges' Library of Babel and Virtual Reality
In Borges' Library of Babel, the titular library contains every book from all possible universes, thoughts, and dreams, including both coherent and incoherent works. Everything that ever could be written is there, and so is every possible combination of the basic characters of human language.
Among the many marvels described are maps that were made so well that eventually they perfectly emulated the place they were supposed to represent. In just this way we continue forward with our endeavors into virtual reality, seeking ever more realistic simulacra. Particularly because of our capacity to continually improve our representations of the world--all the way from radio, through black and white television, to full scale, high-depth, dramatic storytelling on HBO, and now to virtual reality devices like Google’s Oculus Rift--our representations are getting closer and closer to the real thing in terms of appearance and feel.
But when virtual reality catches up, as it is getting closer and closer to doing, what ought this to teach us about human teleology? If we can create the exact same game we are already in, why would we not simply live better within this world instead of spending our time longing for a pretend world in which we act in essentially the same way we could act in this one?
Is the goal of living within this reality—the so-called real reality--to represent reality as best one can through images, sounds, and words and whatever other symbols one can come up with? If one were to simulate perfectly the reality in which one lives, what then would be the purpose of living within the simulated reality? Would one’s goal be to live a good life, or better life, in the simulated world than the life one lived in the real world? Would one’s goal be to represent perfectly the simulated reality in yet another simulation? If perfect representation were the point of one’s existence, then one would attempt to create a representation of the simulated reality within the simulated reality one had already created and so on ad infinitem.
But because of this infinite regress, one may observe that representing reality is not a final cause, but only a proximate one. No matter how many realities one constructs, and no matter how perfectly each simulated reality represents real reality, one will eventually have to live in one of them. This suggests that living well, rather than representing and escaping reality, is one’s final cause. Otherwise, one is simply attempting Zeno’s paradox of motion related to the archer whose arrow only ever covers half the prior distance it traveled and never makes it to the target.
This, like Achilles attempting to catch the tortoise, never results in contact because the motion is relative. If one’s arrow only ever covers half the distance between archer and target, or subject and object, the ratio between the arrow’s positions in time is always relative to the position before, and the arrow never reaches the target. Such is the problem with representations of reality. As they come from a subject existent within reality, the very relationship between the subject and the object will always be expressed in the subjective representation of the object, and therefore will always be subjective, or "not totally objective." This is also expressed quite poignantly by the basic tenet of Quantum Mechanics: by perceiving an event, one changes the event.
The point of life, then, would seem to be to live a good life based on the subjective representations one has viewed, and not to flee one’s own reality seeking a convenient substitute. In fact, even if one could, there would be no point, for the function of living within reality is to understand it, not to create one's own simulated and necessarily limited version of it. For in creating one's own reality, one would then have to live within it, like Milton's Satan, so keen to create his own Pandaemonium. Where do we end up? Is it better to serve in heaven or to rule in hell?