Virtual reality has the potential catalyze a paradigm shift around our concepts about the nature of reality, and one of the most influential philosophers on my thinking has been Alfred North Whitehead. His Process Philosophy emphases unfolding processes and relationships as the core metaphysical grounding rather than static, concrete objects. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry contrasts some of the fundamental differences to Western philosophy:
Process philosophy is based on the premise that being is dynamic and that the dynamic nature of being should be the primary focus of any comprehensive philosophical account of reality and our place within it. Even though we experience our world and ourselves as continuously changing, Western metaphysics has long been obsessed with describing reality as an assembly of static individuals whose dynamic features are either taken to be mere appearances or ontologically secondary and derivative…
If we admit that the basic entities of our world are processes, we can generate better philosophical descriptions of all the kinds of entities and relationships we are committed to when we reason about our world in common sense and in science: from quantum entanglement to consciousness, from computation to feelings, from things to institutions, from organisms to societies, from traffic jams to climate change, from spacetime to beauty.
Virtual reality is all about experiences that unfold over time, and the medium is asking to interrogate the differences between how we experience the virtual and the real. A slight shift of our metaphysical assumptions from substance metaphysics to process-relational metaphysics allows us to compare and contrast the physical to the experiential dimensions of our experiences. Process philosophy opens up new conceptual frameworks to look the world through the lens of dynamic flux, becoming, and experience as core fundamental aspects of reality, rather than treating these processes as derivative properties of static objects.
I think process philosophy makes a lot more sense when thinking about the process of experiential design. Human beings are not mathematical formulas, which means you have no idea who other people will experience your immersive piece until you play test it. There’s an inherent agile and iterative nature of game design, software design, and experiential design, where you have to test it lots of time with lots of people. This is different than the linear, waterfall approaches of building physical buildings or producing films where there’s clearly demarcated phases of pre-production, production, and post-production. For Whitehead, these iterative processes aren’t just metaphoric at the human scale, but he’s suggesting that these processes reveal deep insights about the fundamental nature of reality itself as having a dynamic and participatory aspect of navigating non-deterministic potentials that’s really “experience all the way down.”
The thing that I love about Whitehead is that he was a brilliant mathematician that turned to philosophy later in his life, and so has an amazing ability to make generalizations that deconstruct the linear and hierarchical aspects of language and make more sophisticated models of reality. He replaces physics as the fundamental science with biological organisms, or more abstractly as an unfolding processes that are in relationship to each other. This creates a scale-free, fractal geometrical way of understanding reality at the full range of microscopic and macroscopic scales.
Whitehead’s thinking has also impacted a wide range of areas including ecology, theology, education, physics, biology, economics, and psychology. Some specific examples include work in quantum mechanics, new foundations for the philosophy of biology, the psychedelic musings of Terence McKenna, and has opened up new pathways to be able to integrate insights from Eastern Philosophies, like Chinese Philosophy.
On October 31st, I attended The Cobb Institute’s 2-hour program on Process Thought at a New Threshold, which brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars, researchers, and practitioners where summarizing how Whitehead’s Process Philosophy was transforming their specific domains. One of the presenters was philosopher Matthew D Segall, who is one of my favorite Whitehead scholars who writes and shares videos on his YouTube channel.
I wanted to get a full primer of Whitehead, his journey into philosophy, as well as how his thinking could facilitate a fundamental paradigm shift that the world needs right now. My experience is that VR and AR can provide an experiential shift in how we relate to ourselves and others, but the Process Philosophy brings a whole other conceptual level that has the potential to unlock a lot more radical shifts in all sorts of ways. I also think that the spatial nature of VR and AR is particularly suited in order to produce embodied experiences of process-relational thinking, but also help artists and creators have a cosmological grounding that helps them connect more deeply to their own creative process of unlocking flow states and using the medium to communicate about their experiences in new ways.
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