Massively Multi-user Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) are something that I have been writing about extensively in my other blog the-Imagineer. However the posts in that blog address the technological and economic aspects of this emerging phenomenon. Here I wish to explore the philosophical implications.
But before I attempt to link MMORPGs to Vedanta, let me state clearly upfront that I am not one of those who believe, and try to convince everyone else, that all technology that we see today was known and available to ancient Hindu society. While I am not a pseudo-secularist who revels in trashing each and every aspect of Hindu civilisation, I am also equally sceptical of wild claims about the usage of airplanes in the Ramayana and of nuclear missiles in the Mahabharata. And in particular I have no love lost for Vedic mathematics ... that collection of simple formulae and mathematical shortcuts that have been erroneously compared to the wonders of Euclid and Pythagoras.
What I do have a lot of respect for is the philosophy (darshana -- that which has been seen, by adepts) of the Upanishads in general and its crown jewel (the ChudaMani) Advaita Vedanta -- as elaborated by Sankar -- whose insight, erudition and passionate embrace of the truth is unparalleled in the annals of human history.
Advaita Vedanta is too vast to describe in a single post but the curious may look up my thoughts on Singularity -- the non-dual, which is what Advaita means.
One of the key concepts of Advaita Vedanta is that of Maya, the illusion. Vedanta asserts that the world is an illusion and he who understands this -- at an intuitive level -- realises the unity of the apparent duality of (a) the Creator and (b) the Creation -- or the duality of (a) the Knower and (b) the To-be-Known. In fact enlightenment consists of the convergence of these duals into the Singularity of Advaita or non-duality.
Coming back to Maya, we realise that it is very difficult for us to accept that the sensual world, the world that is accessible to us through our five (six ?) sense organs, does not exist. How can it be that things that we can see and touch are not real but figments of our imagination.
Matrix, the movie, is the first example of how this could be so and you can look up my article on Vedanta@Hollywood on this topic. However, Matrix was fiction, science fiction but MMORPGs suffer no such handicap. MMORPGs are here and now and very, very "real" !
The world of any reasonable MMORPG is certainly not "real" in the traditional sense. Everything inside an MMORPG -- both the physical environment as well as the 'avatars' that operate inside are digital simulations ... created through a computer program and operated by 'external' sentient entities -- the human players.
But inside the MMORPG the sense of 'reality' is immense and with advances of technology, current technology not sci-fiction, the sense of reality is increasing by leaps and bounds. In SecondLife -- the most sophisticated MMORPG at the moment -- the sense of reality is incredible.
What makes SecondLife so different from other MMORPGs is its support for User Generated Content -- users can create artefacts, houses, balls, animals, puppets ... and using the Linden Scripting Language enhance them with 'behaviours'. For example a parrot can kiss you or bite someone ( or his 'avatar') if touched ! Obviously the more scripting you do, the more sophisticated your artefact can become.
And since these artefacts are persistent, the creator need not be logged on to operate his creation ... they could operate on their own like any other well known 'bot' or robot.
This is where the border between the 'reality' of the external, physical world and the 'illusion' of the digital, cyber world begins to blur. Looking ahead we can visualise a programmatic world of 'bots' inhabiting the illusory world of the MMORPG ... and then looking inside us .. it makes me wonder whether the reality of the external world, that we human beings inhabit, is in indeed a fact ..is it really 'real'?
Before I had entered an MMORPG (like Planeshift or SecondLife) I was very sure ... but now my confidence has been weakened. Am I another 'avatar' being operated by some other sentient entity outside this world ?
Is this a recursive ? Just as I could create an 'avatar' within Planeshift or SecondLife .. am I an 'avatar' created inside what we believe is this real world.
Through my avatar, I can create a quasi-intelligent artefact, that exhibits some kind of behaviour. Can I extend this ability to create and end up creating a third virtual world inside the MMORPG .. a third world where my avatar, if he is 'intelligent' enough, can log in and play ThirdLife ? And if that be so ... then how am i sure that my so-called 'real' life is indeed the FirstLife that I believe it is ...
Of course we understand and appreciate programming avatars and 'bots' to be intelligent is a non-trivial problem and one that researchers on AI have been breaking their heads against since the 1960s. But assuming that this problem can be tackled -- see my thoughts on how this could be attempted -- we see no difficulty in envisioning an entire range of worlds where the one that we currently know is called the "Nth life" and a 'normal' MMORPG is "N+1th life"
For the time being N = 1, we believe we are in FirstLife and we are playing SecondLife (N+1 = 2). However whether that is really so ... is something that is known only to he who is a true adept at Advaita Vedanta.
Let me conclude with a story that is popular with Zen Buddhists. There was monk who fell asleep under a tree and had a very vivid dream. He dreamt that he was a butterfly and was flying around the tree. When the monk woke up he was very confused ... and wondered -- "Am man who had been dreaming that he was a butterfly ? Or am I a butterfly who is currently dreaming that I am a man ?"
Is it possible for an avatar to ask similar questions if he has been programmed to do so ? And finally ... have I been programmed by someone else to ask this question through this blog ?
The answer will perhaps be known to those who have have achieved the Singularity of Advaita Vedanta.