Are humans the metaverse animal?
Updated: Feb 14
A column by Gabrielle Halpern, Philosopher
A famous company recently announced its desire to conquer the new world of the "Metaverse". What if the temptation of this alternate reality was a symptom of a contemporary disease, rooted in a much older fantasy?
In fact, technological progress makes this dream of creating a “meta-universe” tangible - a virtual, persistent, interactive, interconnected and immersive world. In addition to naked reality, there are realities adorned with qualifiers: virtual reality, augmented reality, fictional reality... Has reality become so boring that it's no longer enough for us and that we need to invent new ones? Other ones? Have we already exhausted this limited natural resource? This stimulus, which constantly pushes us towards the creation of other realities, does it not carry aloft the anxieties and desires of human beings?
A close study of Western thought, from Antiquity to the present day, reveals three successive ways of approaching the world: humanism, anthropocentrism and transhumanism.
The Presocratics, then Plato, Aristotle and the others had the objective to explain nature, by gradually building the sciences. The human being was no longer "thrown" into the universe, among the other animals; little by little he became a subject, capable of thinking about the world. The incomprehensible turning into comprehensible; we discovered causes and consequences of events and, in doing so, we were able to anticipate them. It was the advent of humanism which brought human beings into the history of the world. No metaverse yet, but a need to know everything about the universe ...
Then, in modern times, human beings no longer wanted to simply exist, they wanted to place themselves at the center of the universe and demonstrate their superiority over other animals. Explaining nature was no longer enough; we now had to master it, make ourselves its "masters and owners", as the philosopher René Descartes wrote. In this unprecedented anthropocentrism, the unpredictable began to be repressed, not as something negligible, but as something insignificant. In a letter, René Descartes states, for example, that we should no longer speak of "nature". All of this is far too "suspect" and uncertain. Better to speak of "matter" - a much more precise and malleable category. Doesn't that remind you of the Metaverse? It’s not just a change of word; it's an upheaval in the relationship of humans to nature, to reality. Everything that has to do with vagueness, hybridity, uncertainty, unpredictability, anything beyond humans, must be erased. Is it at this precise moment that the idea that humans can have a decisive influence on Nature to the point of metamorphosing it, and cutting it into pieces to store it in useful boxes, - "natural resources" -, finds its seeds, its justification, its ideology? Didn't Immanuel Kant write that "order and regularity, it is we ourselves who introduce them into the phenomena that we call nature"? The modern age has seen an immense desire for mastery of the universe.
A desire which, in our contemporary world, has become even more acute - we're no longer content with wanting to explain or dominate the universe, we intend to recreate it from scratch. So, for example, we seek to create artificial rain and snow. In this desire to re-create the universe, human beings intend to annihilate all possibility of unpredictability; they intend to deny reality any possibility of escaping this fate. Man no longer asserts himself only as a different animal, at the center of the world; transhumanism intends to make him an omnipotent, omniscient and immortal god. While it had been centuries since we had built our lives around our fear of the unpredictable and we repressed everything that couldn't in principle, fit into our boxes, covid-19 has brought down all our strategies. Irritated by the unpredictability of a virus that it is difficult to control, the human being - decidedly not wishing to learn from this experience - accelerates the creation of other worlds that he is certain, this time, to be able to fully control. So the world doesn't obey me? Using technology, I create a virtual one - the metaverse.
The crisis we are going through is not primarily economic, financial, social, ecological, institutional, territorial or political; what we are experiencing is above all crisis in our relationship to reality.
We've been missing much of reality for centuries at best; at worst, we abuse it through our desire for totalitarian domination over it. And the temptation of the metaverse - which is a temptation of obedient and predictable alternative realities - is a cruel symptom of this.
But this is forgetting that, as Cesare Pavese said, "the human imagination is immensely poorer than reality" ... Isn't it time to be reconciled with it?