"Virtual" Reality's Threat to Culture of Life Issues

William E. May
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

Recently my colleague E. Christian Brugger called attention to the threats to the Culture of Life posed by "Transhumanism." After I read his thoughtful and thought-provoking article, I was reminded of the threats to "culture of life" issues and to the Christian faith by "Virtual Reality."

Michael Heim, a "virtual reality" expert, defines it as "an event or entity that is real in effect but not in fact" in his book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (Oxford, 1993). Sister Mary Timothy Prokes, FSE, offers an analysis of virtual reality, which she regards as a "sign of our times," and of the profound implications it has for properly honoring the great good of human bodily life and existence in her book At the Interface: Theology and Virtual Reality (Fenestra Books, 2004).

Her concern is not to question "the virtual" as a basic human experience, insofar as "virtual reality" (hereafter VR) is natural for human persons whose imaginations put them into contact with it. But she is concerned with applications of VR that "distort or replace the human." She examines in depth and with profundity of thought how contemporary applications of VR relate to our understanding of the real body person, real presence, real food vs. virtual nourishment, freedom, truth, sexuality, and the supernatural. To illustrate her insightful analyses I will present Prokes' examination of VR with respect to the following: the gift of imagination, the reality of the body, the meaning of "presence," and the meaning of the supernatural.

1.The gift of imagination. Prokes thinks that this gift, which she calls "the encounter point between the real and the virtual," is being subverted in a way people do not commonly perceive. She emphasizes that from childhood on "viewers of electronic media are induced…to consider the living body in its reality as a liability, [in need of] a multitude of enhancements through products…available for the right price" (pp. 23-24). This is crucially important for culture of life issues and faith because understanding the lived body as integral to the being of a human person touches practically all culture of life issues and a faith-based life.

2. The reality of the body. In the post-human world of VR the body is regarded merely as a biological substrate for the consciousness that is the basis of human identity. Indeed, for many today the living human body is merely "the original prosthesis that we all learn to manipulate" (pp. 45-46). Indeed, the world of VR presents us with an anthropology or understanding of human beings that sharply distinguishes between the "person," understood as an experiencing subject, and his or her own body, which is regarded as part of the subpersonal world over which the conscious subject has dominion. Prokes likens this anthropology to the "Docetism" of those who after the resurrection of Christ claimed that he was not really a human being but simply "appeared" (from the Greek word dokein, meaning "to appear) as a bodily human being. This, as many Culture-of-Life.org briefs over the past few years have made clear, is the dualistic anthropology at the heart of the "culture of death" insofar as it regards unborn babies, severely mentally handicapped babies of senior citizens, and other human beings unable to reason or make choices as non-persons who have no right to life.

3. The meaning of "presence." For Catholic theology "presence" has a meaning that "involves an actual, personal, relational being-there that has a positive or negative effect" (p. 58). Thus the Catholic faith holds that we live in the "presence" of God, and "the words Real Presence succinctly express Catholic belief in the true, living, presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist," which in turn depends on the Real Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity (pp. 67-68). And faith in the reality of the Incarnation is common to all Christians. But in VR "presence" has no real significance inasmuch as one's "subjectivity," as a practitioner of VR puts it, "is dispersed throughout the cybernetic circuit" (p. 59). But real human persons, as Prokes reminds us, are unitary beings composed of body and soul, and spiritual realities are perceived through physical signs and symbols and their presence.

4. The meaning of the supernatural. Prokes notes that leading practitioners of VR such as Frank Tipler, Ray Kurzwell, and others specifically relate developments in the cyber-world of VR to theological matters, opening up issues for dialogue (p. 146). They deny that there is any supernatural so that "the very existence of the supernatural…is at issue in the current interplay between the real and the virtual" (p. 148). Prokes then notes the vast difference between a divine gift and human acquisition. The first is gratuitously and freely given, bestowed person to person, cannot be demanded or earned, and expresses love and friendship, whereas the latter requires human effort and planning, can be earned and demanded, and usually lacks the element of surprise (p. 150).

Prokes goes on to write brilliantly about gift as the first category of being. The one true God is a communion of three Persons whose "identity is that of relation, of Person-Gift poured out to each of the other Divine Persons and totally receptive of them. All created reality has vestiges of the Trinity in some way, but human persons bear the Trinitarian image and likeness as their fundamental identity." She then adds: "That is why, when there is only a simulation of gift, it is destructive of persons and relationships" (155). But this is precisely what happens in the world of VR.

I have merely given a few examples of the significance and depth of Prokes' work. It is a magnificent defense of the reality of the human person as a bodily being, of the sacramental principle of Catholic faith, and the gratuitousness of God's gift of himself to us. It is likewise a wonderful indictment of the docetic dualism so characteristic of our culture and so central to the world of VR. When God created man, he did not make a "consciousness" to which he then added a body as a privileged kind of instrument; rather when he created man, "male and female he created him," a being of flesh and blood and sexually differentiated. Moreover, when the Eternal Word became man, the Incarnate Word, he became living flesh (ho logos sarx egeneto). For the metaphysicians of VR the human person is not a bodily being but a consciousness using a body as a prosthesis.


I hope that here I have noted, with the help of Sister Prokes' work, the serious threat that the notion and metaphysics of "Virtual Reality" pose for culture of life issues and Christian faith.