Richard G. Epstein
"VIRTUALIST SCHOOL" GAINS
FOLLOWING IN FRANCE
French Philosopher DeLeary
Leads New Movement that Places
Virtual Reality on an Equal Footing
with Ordinary Reality
DeLeary Presents Controversial
Views at SVU Commencement
Special to the Sentinel-Observer
Lisa G. Costello
Arts and Culture Editor
In the salons of Paris these days there is no hotter topic than the new philosophy of "Virtualism". Of course, these salons can either be the salons in the traditional sense or the new cyberspace "virtual salons" that are becoming the main gathering places for intellectuals of every stripe.
Virtualism is associated with the Virtualist School that was founded by the French philosopher, Pierre DeLeary. DeLeary's mammoth and almost incomprehensible book, Space, Time and Reality, is a best-seller throughout Europe and is gaining in popularity in the major metropolitan centers here in the US.
When the Trustees of Silicon Valley University announced that DeLeary would be the featured speaker at this spring's commencement, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. DeLeary's main thesis, that there is no essential difference between virtual reality and ordinary reality, has been met with derision in most American intellectual quarters. Many faculty members and students threatened to boycott the commencement unless the invitation to DeLeary was withdrawn.
As it turns out about 40% of the graduates and 90% of the faculty did not attend the commencement. About 80% of the faculty do not attend the commencement in an ordinary year, so it is not clear whether the boycott was truly effective.
DeLeary was introduced by University President Carla Hernandez, who called DeLeary "among the most creative minds of the twenty-first century." These words were met with hisses from the assembled crowd, which evidenced that some of DeLeary's opponents had not boycotted the commencement.
DeLeary did not mince words. He immediately launched into a presentation of his thesis that there is not that much difference between virtual reality and ordinary reality. "I call those who consider ordinary reality as superior 'ordinarists', which I view as a pejorative term, such as racist and sexist were when I was sitting where you are sitting." DeLeary is a graduate of the University of Lyons. He did not mean to imply that he was a graduate of Silicon Valley University.
DeLeary argued that reality is wherever the human consciousness is engaged, whether that engagement is with a computer-generated reality or a culturally agreed upon reality. "The ordinarists want to keep us imprisoned in their culture of greed and of oppression and of exploitation. If you buy into their reality, into their system, you will always be their prisoner, and you will never be able to escape."
At these words, three members of the Board of Trustees, who were seated on the speaker's platform, rose from their seats and left. There were boos and hisses from the audience, but it wasn't clear who was being booed, the speaker or those who were leaving.
DeLeary's attack on conventional thinking, what he calls ordinarism, was relentless. "If you accept their values without developing your own, if you surrender your heart to live according to their materialist values, then it would have been better for your soul if you had never been born.
"The whole purpose of virtual reality is to help us to escape from this prison called ordinary reality, which is not reality at all, which is not the creation of God or of nature at all, but is the creation of selfishness and greed. At least in virtual reality we have the opportunity to free ourselves from the prevailing ordinarist assumptions: that greed is good, that you can measure human happiness in terms of money and possessions. Virtual reality gives us the opportunity to explore alternative values and alternative world systems."
At this point several faculty members left in evident disgust.
"And that is why I am telling young people, and most of my disciples in France and throughout Europe are young people, that it is important to assert the reality of virtual reality as a challenge to ordinary reality. The ordinary reality of most people is just cultural conditioning, it is just mental habit! It is not the real reality, which is God's reality, which is the mountains over there and that bird flying over there. What people call 'ordinary reality' is the whole rotten system of greed and exploitation. Yet, they seem to imbue this ordinary reality of social convention with some kind of eternal, absolute, significance.
"So, I tell my students to assert the equality of virtual reality with ordinary reality, so that people will take alternate systems, alternate world views, seriously, thus breaking away from the prevailing world system, which is just a big machine for making money and exploiting people."
By this time, only one member of the Board of Trustees and President Hernandez remained on the speaker's platform along with DeLeary. This means that eleven trustees as well as all of the deans, assistant deans, the provost and the assistant provost had left. Many faculty members, students and members of their families were also filing out in a display of displeasure with the commencement speaker.
"Virtualism is not well understood in America," President Hernandez told a NewsNet teleconference after the commencement. Hernandez, who herself has a Ph. D. in Philosophy, defended DeLeary's world view as a "relevant challenge to the prevailing modes of thought that have become ever more rigid as computer technology has overwhelmed nearly every human endeavor.
"I think DeLeary is opposed to many of the dehumanizing aspects of technology. He sees virtual reality and self-projection technology in cyberspace as potentially liberating people from the prevailing world view that has imprisoned us all within it. I realize that this is an unpopular position, but it is a defensible position, and for that reason I took it upon myself to invite him as our commencement speaker. I might lose my job because of this. I realize that almost all members of the Board of Trustees were deeply offended."
DeLeary held an old-fashioned news conference at Kennedy Airport in New York on his way back to Paris. He chafed at comparisons between himself and Timothy Leary, the 1960s drug guru who urged young people to "turn on, tune in and drop out", or words to that effect. DeLeary dismissed Leary as a serious philosopher. "Timothy Leary was trying to get people to use illicit drugs. Thousands ended up with destroyed lives. Many ended up in mental hospitals. My work is a serious philosophical challenge to the established order. In fact, I try to avoid virtual reality as much as possible, and people who have read my books carefully will realize that.
"People in America have been superficial in their approach to my philosophy. You see, virtual reality has replaced the human imagination and I believe that this development is dangerous. What do we do if the human imagination, which I believe is our most sacred capability, our connection to God, is completely overwhelmed by technology? I am hoping that my students and the readers of my books will wake up and realize the extent to which this whole rotten system of technology and virtual this and virtual that is destroying the powers of the human imagination, what traditional societies nurture by means of spiritual exercises. That's what I'm really about, but you would have to read my books on a profound level to understand what I really mean when I equate virtual reality with ordinary reality. Virtual reality and ordinary reality are both provisional. They are both cultural constructions that derive from the same economic and social forces. Perhaps the conflict between the two can help people to discover the actual reality that is unconditioned, that is sacred, that is untouched by selfishness and greed. That is the reality that I am trying to help people to find."
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