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Do you know whether the chair you are sitting on actually exists?

At first glance, it seems like a silly question, but — as my correspondent pointed out — the truth is considerably more complex. There could be some sort of force field combined with signals sent to our brains, showing us (and letting us “sit” upon) chairs that aren’t really here. To take it even a step further, our “brains” could be soaking in a nutrient bath in an entirely different universe, with a giant computer feeding us “information” from a multi-sensory virtual reality simulation.

Most of us will begrudgingly acknowledge that this all could possibly be true, but don’t really care. My correspondent, however, wants to recognize G-d to a greater extent than our level of knowledge that the chair exists — suddenly making this a matter of genuine concern.

To the best of my understanding, that level of understanding G-d falls in the realm of what even Moshe was unable to “see.” In the Talmud Chagiga 13a (quoted in Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Da’as Tevunos, Section 34), it says “what is wondrous beyond you, do not seek.” There are areas in understanding of G-d and G-d’s Attributes that we are supposed to delve into, and understand to the best of our ability — and others that are simply beyond human comprehension. The Malbim says that we are incapable of understanding G-d through His essence, but only through His actions. Our minds are incapable of seeing beyond how G-d interacts with the world, because we are limited by the physical world. So we must take as axiomatic that what our senses deliver to us does, by and large, reflect physical reality, and work from there.

At the same time, those who subscribe to the Torah’s vision of the world must recognize how strong my correspondent’s point really is. The Torah tells us that this is Olam HaSheker — a “false world.” We are in a virtual reality simulation. The “computer” is feeding us a series of tests to see how well we respond, and the Torah gives us the tools to answer correctly to each one.

The virtual reality simulator is an excellent modern paradigm for the concept of Olam HaSheker. What is around us is ephemeral. It seems extremely real, because we see only that delivered by the VR helmet and gloves we wear.

It’s possible to play a video game many different ways, aiming for different goals. We can focus on how many levels we pass, or on how many opponents we vanquish, or on how pretty the color patterns are in the corner of the screen. But when it’s time to take off the gear and step out of the game, the tournament authorities score by points — not by any of those other things we might have considered important while under the helmet.

With Yom Kippur rapidly approaching, it’s time to get our minds back in the game.

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4 Responses

  1. Feivel says:

    An eccentric philosophy professor gave a one question final exam after a semester dealing with a broad array of topics.

    The class was already seated and ready to go when the professor picked up his chair, plopped it on his desk and wrote on the board: “Using everything we have learned this semester, prove that this chair does not exist.”

    Fingers flew, erasers erased, notebooks were filled in furious fashion. Some students wrote over 30 pages in one hour attempting to refute the existence of the chair. One member of the class however, was up and finished in less than a minute.

    Weeks later when the grades were posted, the rest of the group wondered how he could have gotten an A when he had barely written anything at all.

    His answer consisted of two words: “What chair?”

  2. Lisa says:

    I’m not sure who your correspondent is, but what of someone to whom that level of conceptualization is relatively easy to achieve? It isn’t a matter of smarter vs. duller or educated vs. ignorant. We each see the world in different ways. Art of all kinds makes that clear.

    There are genres of literature, such as science fiction, that train the mind to be able to consider ideas that the average person would dismiss as silly. It’s no coincidence that the most strongly theological film in decades, The Matrix (which you alluded to in your article), was a science fiction movie.

    There have been times in history when the average person was comfortable with simple answers to questions about Hashem and reality. But today, when people’s minds have been stimulated — for good or for ill — by literature, television, movies and the like, and when people are up for the challenge of looking at more than just the surface, I think we are making a huge mistake to insist on teaching only surface concepts. It makes us look primitive, and it prevents young people from seeing the tremendous wealth of thought that exists in Judaism.

    When I was 12, I read a book called “The Werewolf Principle”. It was a science fiction novel, and I remember very little about it. One image that stuck in my mind, though, was of the protaganist in a house. The house was empty. It was uniformly grey with no doors or windows or distinguishing marks whatsoever. And at some signal, the house began to “extrude” furniture, wallpaper, pictures, doors, windows… until it looked like a regular house. the reality was, however, that none of the things the protaganist saw in the house were real. They were manifestations of the house itself. Nothing was actually there *except* the house.

    When I described this scene to a rav I once had as a teacher (in my late 30s), he was extremely impressed by the imagery, and felt that it was a clever way to analogize certain Jewish concepts relating to Hashem and reality. Concepts he didn’t think his students were up to comprehending.

  3. Mike Fisher says:

    Yaakov Menken’s point that we are living in a “Virtual Reality Simulator” reminds me also of the movie, The Truman Show which is about a person who is living in a “Virtual Reality Simulator” and who finally begins to realize this and tries to escape. I think this movie is very appropriate for a rational thinking person who either struggles with this concept or is not even aware of this concept. This movie made me more aware than ever that we are definitely living in Hashem’s “Virtual Reality Simulator” however we cannot escape until our ultimate death where we then enter Olam Habah- the real world. Furthermore, you may want to point this out to your Correspondent as a simple thought. Just look no further than a technology that most of us take for granted- The digital camcorder.

    If we can go around and easily film anyone or anything today, surely G-d in heaven is “filming” our every move and will be playing it back to us one day. If that doesnt scare a person to recognize G-d, I don’t know what else will.

  4. Scott Bryan says:

    I suppose the problem for me is that in each of the VR alternatives, one is left wondering why our minds themselves need a physical brain to exist in a vat or wired to some device while apparently everything else can be perfectly simulated. Especially when you consider that of all the things we know of, our minds alone seem to have the least intrinsic need for any particular enabling physical apparatus.

    Perhaps Olam HaSheker illuminates something much simpler. A heuristic reminding us that the word we inhabit is indeed a virtual one of our making that exists only in our own minds. The physical world simply cannot be experienced directly, only the representation we create for it inside our minds.

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