Between Heaven and Earth

Virtual God

In the last few Sabbaths our discussion has centered on our understanding, our concept, our image of God. We’ve looked at the effects of technology and artificial intelligence and the effects of education on our picture of God. Donald led us through a brilliant discussion on imagery and music. Last week, David introduced us to nature as a way of seeing God as well. 

David has an interest in technology and the future. Not everybody agrees with David’s viewpoint. But certainly, the changes that have occurred in technology and artificial intelligence even just within the last six months are striking and, I think, bear upon the truth of what David has said. Many of us don’t like it. Many of us don’t even agree with it. But it is what it is, and I think knowing what we need to know about God, and how God relates to the changing culture that we find ourselves in, is something which is needed by organized religion. In that sense, I really appreciate David’s insights.

David: I do worry that I might sound like a broken record to you all, harping on as I do about AI. But I do think it’s important, particularly for the future of our individual relationships with God as well as for the future of the institutional church and organized religion as a whole.

The preamble I gave last week about God in Nature was based upon questions of historical record such as “What sounds in Nature have been attributed to a divine entity?” Such questions are relatively simple for GPT—which is at heart a computer search algorithm—to answer. But my preamble today is based on questions of a different order—philosophical questions that require human-level depth of perception. As I recount my conversation with GPT-4, I encourage you to think about that.

But assessing the perceptivity of GPT-4 is not the main object here. The main object is the philosophy itself. I started by putting the following question to GPT:

Human beings tend to sense a divine presence in nature’s grander sights, sounds, textures, and smells. Nature is reality, but virtual reality technology is fast becoming able not only to emulate nature but even to improve upon it, with (for example) mountains that are more imposing than Everest, or animals more imposing than a tiger. So if nature is a source of spirituality in humans, will virtual nature also be a source?

GPT responded that the relationship between humans and nature, and the spiritual connections that arise from that relationship, is complex and deeply rooted in our psychology, culture, and history. Technology’s ability to emulate or even enhance aspects of nature, it said, does not necessarily mean it can replicate the full experience and spiritual connection humans have with the natural world. It categorized those experiences and connections as sensory, emotional, philosophical and cultural, and possibly spiritual, with the added dimension of ethical environmental considerations.

It explained each of these categories as follows:

First, Sensory Experience: Virtual reality, it pointed out, can replicate some of the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of nature, but is still limited by the technology and the individual’s own perception of reality. The authenticity and “wholeness” of the natural experience might not be fully captured.

With regards to Emotional Connection: Nature, it said, often invokes a profound emotional response. This could be related to our evolutionary connection to nature, the awe and wonder we feel when confronted with its grandeur, or personal and cultural associations. Virtual reality might trigger similar feelings, but it might also feel artificial or hollow to some.

The Third category was Philosophical and Cultural Interpretations: Different cultures and philosophies interpret the connection with nature in various ways, it said. Some might see nature as a manifestation of the divine, while others might perceive it as a system to be understood and controlled. Virtual representations of nature could lack the depth and context needed to foster these connections.

The Fourth category was the Possibility for Spiritual Connection: It is conceivable, says GPT, that for some individuals, virtual nature might indeed become a source of spirituality. As technology advances and becomes more immersive, the line between the virtual and real could blur. This might allow for new forms of spiritual experience and expression that are unique to the virtual realm.

The last categorical element GPT identified was Environmental Considerations. It said there may also be ethical considerations related to the use of virtual reality as a replacement for nature. Emphasizing virtual over real nature could lead to a disconnection from our physical environment and the urgent issues surrounding its preservation.

GPT concluded that while virtual nature could emulate aspects of the real thing and might even provide spiritual experiences for some, it was unlikely to fully replace the complex, multifaceted relationship humans have with the natural world. The spiritual connections to nature, it said, might depend on intangible aspects that are tied to our biology, history, and cultural interpretations, which are not easily replicated in a virtual environment. It opens a new frontier of exploration and might create its own unique spiritual experiences, but the comparison to real nature will likely remain nuanced and individualized.

I then countered that at the exponentially accelerating pace at which it is developing, it seemed to me likely that virtual reality will emulate, and not merely simulate, reality. In that case, I said, the human would lose any sense of being in a virtual environment. That being so, I told GPT, its arguments that VR would be inauthentic, incomplete, hollow, and shallow would surely be moot?

GPT responded that I was absolutely right in asserting that as virtual reality technology continues to develop and becomes more sophisticated, the differences between virtual environments and actual reality could become less distinguishable. It conceded that if the virtual environment can fully emulate reality to the point that the user is unable to discern between the two, then some of its arguments about inauthenticity, incompleteness, hollowness, and shallowness in VR might indeed become moot. 

It then amended four of the categorical elements affecting spirituality as follows:

  • With regard to Sensory Experience, it said that If VR could perfectly replicate not just the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of nature but also the subtle nuances and interactions that contribute to our perception of reality, then the virtual experience might be indistinguishable from the real one and that this would enable a much more authentic engagement with virtual nature.
  • With regard to Emotional Connection, it said that with the barriers between real and virtual removed, the emotional connection to virtual nature could be as profound as our connection to real nature. The feelings of awe, wonder, and spiritual connection might become equally attainable in the virtual world.
  • With regard to Philosophical and Cultural Interpretations, it said that if virtual nature were perceived as real, then cultural and philosophical interpretations could also apply to virtual environments. This might foster a new understanding of spirituality that encompasses both real and virtual experiences.
  • With regard to Environmental Considerations, it said that while the immersive experience of virtual nature might be satisfying on a personal or spiritual level, there could still be concerns about the environmental impact of prioritizing virtual experiences over engagement with the physical world. This wouldn’t negate the authenticity of the virtual experience but might raise ethical considerations.

However, GPT said, there were some intangibles to consider. Even if virtual reality could fully emulate reality, there might still be a philosophical difference between the two that affects how people perceive and value them. Knowing that a virtual environment is created by humans might change how some individuals connect to it on a spiritual level, even if they can’t discern it from reality in the moment. The underlying knowledge of artificial creation could still influence perceptions and spiritual connections.

Furthermore, the process of creating and engaging with perfect virtual emulations of nature might raise new questions and challenges related to ethics, identity, and the nature of reality itself. How we navigate these questions, it said, would likely influence the spiritual significance of virtual nature in complex ways.

It concluded by agreeing with me that the development of VR technology to a point where it can fully emulate reality could change the nature of the relationship between humans and virtual environments, which in turn could lead to virtual nature becoming a significant source of spirituality for many. However, it cautioned, it might also open up new and unanticipated complexities that would shape that relationship in unique ways.

I therefore asked it to elaborate on those unanticipated complexities and whether it could help us to anticipate them.

“Certainly!” it said, with uncanny enthusiasm. While it was difficult to predict the future with certainty, “we” (it said) could certainly explore some of the possible complexities that could arise as virtual reality technology develops to the point where it can fully emulate reality. These complexities had to do with ethics, identity and self-perception, social dynamics, and environmental, economic, existential, legal, and privacy concerns, It elaborated on each of these as follows: 

  • First, Ethical Considerations: If virtual reality becomes indistinguishable from real life, questions about ethics, consent, and responsibility will likely arise. How do we treat virtual beings if they can evoke genuine emotions in us? What are the ethical implications of creating virtual environments that replicate or even surpass real-world experiences, especially if they start to replace real-world interactions and engagements?
  • Second, Identity and Self-Perception: The boundary between self and avatar might blur in a fully immersive virtual world. This could lead to complex questions about personal identity and self-perception. How do we define ourselves if we can be anyone or anything in a virtual environment? How might this affect mental health, self-esteem, or even legal identity?
  • Third, Social Implications: Virtual worlds that perfectly emulate reality could lead to new social dynamics. Virtual spaces might foster new forms of community, culture, or even spirituality that are distinct from those in the real world. But they could also exacerbate divisions and inequalities, especially if access to virtual realities becomes a status symbol or if people retreat from real-world social engagements.
  • Fourth, Environmental Impact: The growing emphasis on virtual experiences might lead to a disconnection from the physical environment. While virtual nature might provide spiritual fulfillment, a lack of engagement with real nature could have consequences for environmental awareness and stewardship.
  • Fifth, Economic Implications: The creation and maintenance of highly sophisticated virtual worlds might reshape economies. New industries could emerge, but there might also be economic disparities related to access and control of virtual environments. This could further widen the gap between those who can afford to participate in these virtual worlds and those who cannot.
  • Sixth, Philosophical and Existential Questions: The ability to create and inhabit virtual worlds that are indistinguishable from reality might prompt profound philosophical and existential questions. What is reality if we can create a virtual version of it that feels just as real? How does this impact our understanding of consciousness, existence, and spirituality?
  • Seventh, Legal Challenges: New legal frameworks might be needed to address issues like ownership, rights, and responsibilities within virtual worlds. This could include questions related to intellectual property, virtual real estate, virtual crimes, and more.
  • Eighth, Security and Privacy Concerns: Ensuring the security and privacy of individuals within these highly immersive virtual environments could present new challenges. The potential for hacking, identity theft, or other malicious activities might increase as the virtual worlds become more complex and integrated into daily life.

It summarized all of the above by saying that the unanticipated complexities of a future where virtual reality could fully emulate reality would likely span a broad range of domains, from ethics and philosophy to economics and law. Each of these areas may bring its unique challenges and opportunities, shaping how we understand and engage with both virtual and real worlds. The ability to anticipate these complexities might enable more thoughtful development and integration of virtual reality technology, fostering a future where the virtual and real coexist in harmony.

I said: “What about the spiritual implications?”

It replied that the spiritual implications of a virtual reality that could fully emulate reality were “particularly profound and complex” and proceeded to present a deeper look into some of the possible spiritual considerations. It listed 10 of them:

  1. New Forms of Spiritual Experience: Virtual reality could provide new platforms for spiritual exploration and expression. Individuals might engage in virtual pilgrimages, meditations, or ceremonies, creating unique spiritual experiences tailored to their beliefs and needs.
  2. Interfaith Engagement: Virtual environments might facilitate more accessible and open dialogue between different faith traditions. People from different religious backgrounds could engage with one another’s rituals, symbols, and beliefs in an immersive and non-threatening environment.
  3. Redefining Sacred Spaces: Traditional sacred spaces like churches, temples, or natural sites might be recreated or reimagined in virtual environments. This could democratize access to these spaces but also challenge traditional understandings of what makes a place sacred.
  4. Spiritual Authenticity: Questions may arise about the authenticity of virtual spiritual experiences. If a virtual mountain is more imposing than Everest, does it inspire genuine awe or merely artificial stimulation? How do virtual religious rituals compare to physical ones? The boundary between genuine spiritual connection and simulated experience might become blurred.
  5. Theology and Cosmology: The ability to create and inhabit virtual worlds might impact theological and cosmological beliefs. If humans can create worlds that feel as real as the one we inhabit, what does that mean for beliefs about creation, divinity, and the nature of existence? Different faith traditions might interpret this in various ways.
  6. Ethics of Virtual Creation: If virtual beings or worlds are endowed with characteristics that evoke genuine empathy or reverence, what responsibilities do we have toward them? Some might see them as mere code, while others might assign spiritual significance to them.
  7. Disconnection from Natural Spirituality: If virtual nature becomes a primary source of spiritual fulfillment, it could lead to a disconnection from the physical natural world, which has been a source of spiritual inspiration for many traditions. The loss of this connection could have both spiritual and ecological implications.
  8. Impact on Community and Ritual: The way people engage in community worship and ritual might change in virtual environments. While it may allow for wider inclusion, it could also alter the communal experience of spirituality in ways that are challenging to predict.
  9. Existential and Philosophical Questions: The blending of virtual and real might prompt deeper existential questions about the nature of consciousness, soul, and existence. How do virtual experiences impact our understanding of these profound aspects of human life?
  10. Potential for Spiritual Manipulation: The power of virtual reality to influence perception and emotion might also be used for manipulation. Ethical considerations about the use of virtual reality in spiritual contexts could become vital.

GPT concluded that the spiritual implications of virtual reality’s ability to fully emulate reality are multifaceted, far-reaching, and could reshape how spirituality is experienced, understood, and practiced, opening new frontiers of exploration but also challenging existing beliefs and norms. Engaging thoughtfully with these possibilities, it said, might require collaboration across disciplines, including theology, philosophy, ethics, and technology, to navigate the complex spiritual landscape that such a future could create. These changes would likely prompt dialogue, reflection, and adaptation within various spiritual traditions.

It then presented a few additional points to consider. It seemed to me exceptionally interesting that it was capable of framing some of the issues as questions. It thinks like we do! 

  1. Its first point concerned Spiritual Education: As virtual reality becomes a platform for spiritual experience, it said, new forms of spiritual education and mentorship might be necessary. How do religious leaders, spiritual mentors, or educators guide individuals in a virtual spiritual world? What principles and practices might need to evolve?
  2. Accessibility and Equality: Virtual reality could make spiritual experiences and education more accessible to those who might otherwise be excluded due to physical disabilities, geographical location, or social status. However, issues of inequality might also arise if access to virtual reality becomes a privilege available only to certain segments of the population.
  3. Potential for New Spiritual Movements: The advent of a virtual world that is indistinguishable from reality might give rise to new spiritual movements or reinterpretations of existing traditions. Virtual reality could become a medium for spiritual innovation and creativity, fostering novel ways of understanding and connecting with the divine or the sacred.
  4. Human Agency and Control: The ability to create and manipulate virtual worlds that emulate reality might lead to new philosophical inquiries about human agency and control in the universe. What does it mean to have the power to create worlds? How does this influence our understanding of ourselves in relation to higher powers or cosmic forces?
  5. Integration of Virtual and Physical Spirituality: Finally, how would societies and spiritual communities integrate virtual and physical experiences? Finding a balance that honors both virtual spiritual exploration and traditional physical practices might be an essential task for religious communities and spiritual seekers.

GPT’s concluding summary of entire discussion was that “the spiritual implications of a fully emulative virtual reality are profound and multifaceted, offering opportunities for growth, inclusivity, and exploration, but also presenting challenges related to authenticity, ethics, and the relationship between the virtual and the real. The way in which different cultures and spiritual traditions navigate these opportunities and challenges would likely shape the spiritual landscape of the future in unexpected and complex ways.”

I could not have agreed with it more. What about you?

C-J: I feel overwhelmed, as if I’ve ingested an entire swimming pool of information. Had I not conducted similar research I would never have been able to keep up!

To summarize, we often view new technologies as innovative, potentially dangerous, and unique. This has been the case throughout history with various media—books, radio, television, movies, computers. The challenge is discerning what is real and what engages our imagination, whether in advertising, belief systems, or interpersonal relationships. It’s all about influence, access, and the privilege of being in the inner circle. In this dynamic, there’s nothing truly new; only the tools change.

I agree that mental health will be a significant challenge. We saw a glimpse of this with COVID, as children struggled to adapt to remote learning. I personally would find remote learning difficult, as I need hands-on interaction, the opportunity to ask questions and engage with others and their opinions.

On a different note, I recall watching Star Trek episodes that explored many of the “what ifs” David discussed, examining how new frontiers could change cultures. It’s about observation, influence, and shaping things according to our beliefs.

Don: It seems to me that we already have a precedent for contrasting the virtual world with the real world. From our perspective, one might say that God exists in a virtual realm, represented by our beliefs about heaven and its streets paved with gold. On the other hand, we have nature, often referred to as God’s “second book,” which is part of our tangible, real world. In a sense, then, we already inhabit a dichotomous existence, balancing virtual reality with what we consider to be real. So the concept itself isn’t necessarily new, but the ways we apply it and the platforms we use to discuss and understand God are continually evolving.

Donald: I find myself reflecting on questions we’ve asked in this class, such as “What does it mean to be human?” I’m considering what transpired during COVID and how it affected our minds. Before COVID, we couldn’t have imagined its impact. Even three years later, as we try to move on, there are residual effects on our psyche.

It seems to me that technology could have a similar effect. We don’t know what it will do to our heads, but we must move forward. Technology evolves, and it’s challenging to separate reality from fiction. For example, watching a show like “The Good Doctor” makes me ponder the reality of decision-making in a hospital environment and the technology used there. Different perspectives exist on what should be done and how, including what technology should be employed.

It’s scary to think about, but technological evolution is inevitable. We’ve gone from books to cutting the cord on cable because there’s a new way to do things. It’s a matter of the haves and have-nots, and the process seems crucial. I was listening to a technology show about a back-to-school app that teaches algebra. It doesn’t just provide answers but shows the process, which is what teachers grade. The upcoming technology might give us all the answers, but learning the process is essential to being human.

One intriguing question that arises from this morning’s presentation is: What makes a space sacred? We define some spaces as sacred, and more people are choosing different ways to honor sacred places.

Sharon: As I gaze at the stunning African sky, I find myself pondering the potential impact on our communities if all safaris were to become virtual. There’s the obvious advantage that more people could access safaris who otherwise couldn’t, but what about the broader implications if only virtual safaris were available?

What would we lose if people couldn’t ride in those rugged vehicles, inhale the unique scents of the lions, or engage with the intricate cultural and natural relationships that are so intertwined? Crafting such an experience through virtual reality may be a possibility in the future, but it seems incredibly challenging in the short term.

I’m trying to envision what this might look like. For a child in downtown Detroit, experiencing a virtual safari would undoubtedly be an extraordinary opportunity. But what would the consequences be if the option for physical safaris were taken away, and we were left with only virtual ones? The thought raises complex questions about the balance between accessibility and authenticity.

C-J: Donald’s remark about the importance of “process” resonates with me, especially in the context of mental health and creativity. The process allows us to take something familiar and reimagine it. Without it, we’re left with binary choices, lacking nuance and context.

Imagine being a student in Michigan, stepping into a hologram to experience a safari. Without the process of physically being there, I would lack context and connection to reality. I wouldn’t be able to smell the environment, feel the ground beneath my feet, or hear the conversations of indigenous people in languages I don’t understand. While I could watch a TV program like Nova to gain some insight, it wouldn’t be the same.

Without the physical experience, I wouldn’t be able to apply what I learned to my world except through imagination. If we view everything we experience as a process and a tool to help us adapt to different environments and times, then removing that process complicates matters. It hinders our ability to adapt, and I think that’s a significant concern.

Donald: I’ve had the incredible blessing of going on safari multiple times, and I wholeheartedly agree that you couldn’t replicate the experience virtually. It just wouldn’t be the same. There is no doubting the reality of the fear you feel when a lion is right in front of you. That’s a vital part of the experience. You might feel fear in a virtual setting, but it’s not the same as knowing the animal could actually bite you. Technology may try to replicate the sensation, but it wouldn’t be authentic.

As well—to echo Sharon’s concerns—once we’ve captured the experience virtually, what’s the need for preserving all that space in Africa? Could we, would we, just use the space for something else? These are significant ethical questions that would arise.

Also, consider our attention span, which has already changed dramatically in the last decade. If I don’t want to deal with a virtual lion, I could just click out of the safari and into a major league baseball game. Our ability to change channels so quickly is a far cry from when we were kids and only had three or four channels to choose from. Now, with the vast menu of options, we can still only watch one thing at a time but the choices are nearly endless.

I’m not doubting the potential of virtual experiences; I’m just awed by the possibilities and the questions they raise. Are we merely trying to play God?

C-J: Humanity grapples with trauma such as COVID in ways we don’t yet fully understand. Wars, famines, diseases, and natural disasters have transformed communities, whose initial reaction often revolves around spiritual questions. People wonder, “How could God do this to us?” or “What did we do wrong?” From that starting point, more practical concerns emerge, like the need for food, clothing, and shelter, and questions about who remains strong, who is sick, and where the most vulnerable, like the children, are.

We must also grapple with the consequences of technological advancements, such as when Oppenheimer exploded the bomb in the desert. Questions arise like, “Will this make us sick?” “Will it make us whole?” “Will it isolate us?” Today’s discussion prompts us to consider scenarios and ask, “What if?” What would it mean for us not just to survive but to perpetuate a species that is whole in mind, body, and soul? What does wholeness even mean to us today?

These are profound questions that challenge us to think deeply about our values, our technology, and our place in the world.

Don: This connects with Sharon’s question about how we perceive God through genetics or through suffering. But this also brings up a broader question: Who serves as the ultimate judge of what is real? Can we reach a point where the lines between virtual reality and actual reality become so blurred that we can’t distinguish one from the other? These questions challenge our understanding of reality itself and prompt us to consider the potential complexities and ambiguities that may arise as technology continues to advance. It’s a thought-provoking inquiry that opens up a wide range of philosophical and practical considerations.

C-J: That phenomenon is something we see with individuals who experience mental illness. They can traverse the line between different realities as easily as you and I might walk down the street. Living in multiple worlds, they often find themselves caught between them. It’s astonishing to me how they manage to function at all, whether with or without medication. This observation highlights the complexity of the human mind and the delicate balance that exists between our perception of reality and our mental well-being.

Donald: Electricity is a fundamental aspect to consider, as it’s the lifeblood of our modern conversations and technologies. Just the other day, we sat in the dark for three hours because a tree fell somewhere, cutting off our power. This entire discussion would come to a halt if we didn’t have battery-powered energy. It brings us down to something quite basic: our phones, for example, are essentially paperweights without a battery, having no value whatsoever.

So, the question becomes, who will control the content, and who will control the energy needed to power up society? These are vital considerations as we navigate our increasingly interconnected and technology-dependent world. The control of energy and information is not just a practical concern but a matter of ethics, governance, and societal structure. 

Reinhard: Who decides about all these affairs? As a believer, I think we have God’s guidance. The Holy Spirit will tell us. In June this year an AI “pastor” gave a sermon to 300 people in a church in a German city. Some attendees liked the sermon and some didn’t, perhaps because it was delivered in a monotone robotic voice. But the content of the sermon still served to draw people to God. Some commented that this is the future, and we cannot avoid AI taking over some human affairs.

I remember when Jesus entered Jerusalem (Luke 19:24, 39-40) some Pharisees told him to rebuke his disciples, and he replied, ‘If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’ Now, what’s the difference in modern times if AI starts talking about God, as long as it’s in line with the Bible? In modern communities, many people like to be alone or don’t want to associate with others. Maybe AI is a great benefit to such people.

I look at the positive benefits of AI. If it makes people start talking about God and the Bible, what’s wrong with that? AI is here for good; we cannot deny that. We must move forward and not dwell on the past. We have to appreciate the physical reality that God gave us, but what comes next is undeniable. This is here to stay for good.

So again, as believers we know in our hearts that God will guide us. As long as it’s going to increase our faith and enhance our outlook, AI offers good ways to deal with society and to strengthen our beliefs, especially our connection to God Almighty. The future is here to stay.

Janelin: As I sit here in my garden on a fine Saturday morning, I’m struck by the difference between seeing a picture and truly experiencing one’s surroundings. I’m sitting here. I can show you pictures of my garden, but experiencing the smells and sights of nature is unique. 

David: People who put on virtual reality headsets and participate in violent role-playing games are essentially hunting down other human beings. They are on a macabre virtual safari. So, in some ways, we are already in that brave new world. The visceral aspects of a safari, like the vehicle jolting on the track or the fear of being in front of a lion, may be missing today, but the exponential acceleration in technologies promises a perfect virtual safari in which you do feel the vehicle shaking, and you do feel real fear of the virtual lion roaring at you because it looks so real. We’re not talking 200 years down the road; we’re literally talking about the next few decades. This is coming, and that’s why these discussions are so important.

Part of the future I envision is a world where many forms of suffering will have disappeared. Medicine is increasingly capable of overcoming ailments like cancer, for example. But what if virtual reality introduces new forms of suffering? How we see God through suffering will probably remain a constant question for all time, regardless of whether the context is virtual or real.

Don: Next week, Sharon will share her views on the perceptions of God through suffering. 

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