Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Schrödinger's God Box

In the mid-90's, I used to bring a latex velociraptor puppet named Vaal to meetings, concerts and (to the dismay of my family) gatherings of relatives. I'd even have Vaal read tarot cards for people at parties. I was good enough at it that people would respond to Vaal as if he were the one giving the reading (and most people seemed satisfied with the fortunes they got).

Vaal certainly wasn't a "real" tarot reader in the sense that he wasn't a living being. So does that make him a virtual avatar? To get really existential, who was the author of the fortunes: the cards, me, or Vaal?

Which leads me to Second Life, the on-line game where people create virtual versions of themselves, or avatars, and explore an on-line world filled with virtual objects created by other players.

The latest conundrum is, of course, what are the spiritual and religious ramifications of building a virtual ritual space? If one of the strengths and virtues of Neo-Paganism is the use of imagination, does visiting someone else's virtually constructed ritual space take away from the visitor's imagination? I'd argue it doesn't erode religious imagination any more than visiting a real world church with a fairly set worship order of service.

The problems with a nature-based pantheistic religious event on Second Life are
  1. the software that creates the world simplifies everything (so it can run on my computer) and being in second life is like being in a flat cartoon with no shadows, and, um;
  2. it's a virtual world with virtual avatars doing virtual things and the "participants" are really in front of keyboards typing commands.
I took my questions of virtual grace to David Raines, who, among other things, is a real live minister. Apparently I contributed to David's insomnia when he read my e-mail at 4 AM asking, "If a priest's avatar gave a parishioner's avatar a virtual host..." Unfortunately, I forgot about Transubstantiation Issues, and the conversation took an unexpected turn.

But David pointed out that "virtual religion" is as old as Christian mass on radio shows. He has issues with the Sacrament of Communion being virtual -- in his view God can use the virtual realm to spread His message, but at this point in time virtual worlds cannot provide all the necessary ingredients -- the sound of bread ripping, the community of parishioners, the smell of the wine, a physical vehicle for the Holy Spirit -- for an efficacious Communion. Yet.

I can see David's point. But at the same time, I wonder -- his comments on radio masses got me thinking. We're used to listening to recordings and broadcasts of orchestral music. Hearing a concert changes my emotional and mental state; if the effects of hearing a piece of music live or recorded are similar enough, at what point does grace require physical reality, especially if outer physical symbols are merely pointers to an inward spiritual state?

For example, in Second Life, I created a magic circle -- a boundary of floating lights enclosing the sacred space of the ritual area. The magic circle in real life is an imaginary boundary, and visualizing it is a signal to Neo-Pagan participants that they are entering a ritual state of mind. A non-Neo-Pagan saw my avatar working on the space, and navigated her avatar closer -- but she stopped her avatar at the edge of the circle. So, an imaginary circle in a virtual world communicated its symbolic meaning to her and had an effect in the real world: she navigated her avatar to the circle's edge but no farther. In her mind, she was on the edge of something, something that looked like a sanctuary.

Which brings us to the locus of the self. Am I or Am I Not my avatar? Does my "self" stop at my skin? I'm legally responsible for my words, and my words can bring me legal tender -- which means in one sense my words are as real as my hands. So is an avatar me, a puppet, or simply "intellectual property"? Remember, puppets can give pretty good tarot readings. I conclude that the question is a bad one: I am my mind and my spirit and my body and my words and my avatar.

At this point, I think navigating an avatar through a set of virtual ceremonies qualifies as a prayer or meditation. What Diety or spirit does from that point on I'm unsure, and the whole thing feels like Schrödinger's Cat meets Deus Ex Machina -- if you don't look, nobody's dead. But of course I must look.

Ultimately, what would matter most is the feeback loop between one and one's religion. In my case, Neo-Paganism instructs me to participate and commune with the divine systems of choice, consequences and randomness entwined in the cosmos -- and as soon as soon as I'm done with this essay I should go for a walk in the woods, because Deity is the wind and virtual logos and flame and tree and leaves and ocean and flicking fishes and....
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