An Empirical Metaphysic: Theology and Virtual Worlds 12

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This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: reli­gion and/or the­ol­o­gy in games. We have a great bunch of arti­cles lined up, from the very per­son­al to the deeply the­o­ret­i­cal, from both reg­u­lar OntoGeek con­trib­u­tors and sev­er­al guest writ­ers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on spe­cif­ic arti­cles and the month as a whole – com­ment freely and e‐mail us at!

One of the three great con­tenders with Christian thought in the last few cen­turies has been the pos­i­tivist view of human knowl­edge.1 Deeply under­min­ing philo­soph­i­cal assump­tions of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions the adher­ence to “that which only can be proven empir­i­cal­ly” has cast doubt on the con­cepts of meta­physics which under­lie ideas as basic as cause and effect. What has result­ed is a stripped‐down but prac­ti­cal under­stand­ing of human knowl­edge. In near­ly full retreat are many of the old the­o­log­i­cal con­cepts that once stood as great pil­lars in the cities of Augustine, Aquinas and even Luther or Calvin. The mod­ern and post‐modern ages have seen Christians rethink­ing con­cepts such as the Omnipotence, Eternity and Immutability of God. As well, other doc­trines such as the Incarnation, Miracles, the Second Coming and the Resurrection of the Dead have all been found embar­rass­ing by many and in need of rework­ing. Traditional under­stand­ings of these ideas appear only in the staunchest defend­ers of ortho­doxy whether they be fun­da­men­tal­ists, aca­d­e­mics uncon­vinced of the valid­i­ty of this new epis­te­mol­o­gy, or the faith­ful who refuse to budge from “the faith once given.”

In the face of all of this, it may seem strange to pro­pose a meta­physic, one which opens the doors to all of these cat­e­gories in their old robust splen­dor, derived from vir­tu­al worlds. That we should pro­pose that Pac‐Man might save the Incarnation or Gordon Freeman pre­serve the con­cept of Obediential Potency may seem absurd. Yet this is what I will attempt in this short piece.

We begin by ask­ing what vir­tu­al worlds are. At their base, vir­tu­al worlds are con­structs based in our own world which have rela­tion­ships in them­selves depen­dent on the rules of our own world, but which are worked out in a sys­tem that is no longer iden­ti­fi­able as equiv­a­lent with our own world. We might call these Ontological Frameworks. Here we define an Ontological Framework as a col­lec­tion of enti­ties in rela­tion­ship with each other so that they have poten­tial mutu­al causal­i­ty over each other. When we say “Entities” we mean what­ev­er a “thing” might be in that par­tic­u­lar frame­work. In our world, an enti­ty might be a sta­pler or a plan­et, in Halo it might be a grunt or an sticky‐grenade. We say that the mutu­al­i­ty is poten­tial due to the fact that it must be con­di­tioned by the laws of the Ontological Framework. So the sta­pler poten­tial­ly could have some effect on Jupiter, though due to the laws of our uni­verse, that doesn’t seem like­ly. Things stop being in the same Ontological Framework the moment they stop hav­ing this poten­tial mutu­al causal­i­ty over each other. My sta­pler and a sticky‐grenade do not have the same kind of rela­tion­ships the sta­pler and Jupiter do. Thus we can see that the bounds of a frame­work end where mutu­al poten­tial causal­i­ty ceas­es and we under­stand how that causal­i­ty is con­di­tioned by means of the laws of the frame­work.

And inter­est­ing­ly enough this is exact­ly what we can draw from observ­ing a game of Pac‐Man. We have enti­ties, a field of play, a Paku Paku man, four ghosts, pel­lets, power pel­lets, walls, por­tals and fruit. These are each enti­ties in the Framework and they all have poten­tial mutu­al causal­i­ty over each other which is con­di­tioned by the laws of the Framework. Thus the walls bound Pac‐Man; the Ghosts can change his state and he can change theirs. The ghosts can­not affect the pel­lets but Pac‐Man can and power pel­lets can affect him.2 Had the pro­gram­mers wished it they could have changed the laws of the frame­work to allow the ghosts to con­sume the pel­lets. There would have been no change to the bounds of the frame­work in that case.

We see most clear­ly what is meant by the bounds of the frame­work when we con­sid­er two things: our rela­tion­ship to a game of Pac‐Man, and the rela­tion­ship of two dif­fer­ent games of Pac‐Man. In our frame­work which con­tains Jupiter, books of Shakespeare, the event of Caesar cross­ing the Rubicon and quan­tum mechan­ics, changes of state in ener­gy and mat­ter are hap­pen­ing. Yet with­in the depen­dent frame­work (an Ontological Framework that exists with­in anoth­er Ontological Framework) of Pac-Man’s world, dif­fer­ent kinds of changes are hap­pen­ing. That which is the change of the state of ener­gy in our world is the move­ment from left to right of Pac‐Man. It is a kind of asym­met­ri­cal change that is not one‐to‐one which reveals the dif­fer­ent lev­els of real­i­ty involved. When a ghost changes state in Pac-Man’s world there is not a cor­re­spond­ing ghost in our world chang­ing state instead some­thing total­ly dif­fer­ent hap­pens. As well the enti­ties in Pac-Man’s world are not acces­si­ble to me in the same way that they are acces­si­ble to him. In fact the enti­ties in Pac-Man’s world are not even acces­si­ble to the ener­gy states in our world which form them in the same way that they are acces­si­ble to him. This reveals the divi­sion between one Ontological Framework and anoth­er. The power pel­let and I do not have mutu­al poten­tial causal­i­ty over each other. I have poten­tial causal­i­ty over it but only by trans­la­tion into my frame­work (visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion on an arcade cab­i­net) does it have any kind of poten­tial cau­sa­tion over me.

In addi­tion, we may observe two games of Pac‐Man played next to each other. The enti­ties in each of the two frame­works have no nat­ur­al poten­tial causal­i­ty over each other. The ghosts in one are not, as far as the other game is con­cerned, ghosts at all. They are for­eign, external…supernatural.

Now there are a num­ber of con­clu­sions we can draw from this sev­er­al of which are very inter­est­ing to the­olo­gians. First this gives us a model for under­stand­ing how par­al­lel frame­works might exist and what their mutu­al causal­i­ty might be con­sid­ered. This is because two Ontological Frameworks depen­dent on the same over­ar­ch­ing frame­work might inter­act with each other only by means of that over­ar­ch­ing frame­work. Thus I bump you while I’m play­ing Mortal Kombat and you mis­fire while pilot­ing your X‐Wing in the 1983 Star Wars game. But more impor­tant­ly, we are able to see a num­ber of very impor­tant things about how a par­ent frame­work relates to a child frame­work.

1. The Parent Framework’s nature (actu­al­ized laws and objects) com­plete­ly deter­mines what kind of child frame­works it can host. Thus the rules of our world fully deter­mine what kinds of vir­tu­al worlds we can cre­ate. We can eas­i­ly imag­ine worlds and indeed cre­ate worlds in which vir­tu­al worlds are impos­si­ble due to their sim­plic­i­ty. For exam­ple, the world of Super Mario Brothers, no mat­ter how we arrange the pieces, is not com­plex enough to host a depen­dent vir­tu­al world of its own. For the­olo­gians this relates to two ques­tions: What kind of frame­work could poten­tial­ly be the Parent for our real­i­ty, and what would that rela­tion­ship look like? What must the most basic rela­tion­ship look like from the ulti­mate Parent onto­log­i­cal Framework? What would the rela­tion­ship between the Trinity and the World look like? What would the Nature of the Trinity be if per­haps the Father was the ground of the other two per­sons?3

2. There is an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal lim­it­ed­ness to a child frame­work as to its own nature. For the laws of that frame­work are not defined by the enti­ties in its own world but by the enti­ties and rules of the par­ent frame­work. Thus the rules of Pong are writ­ten in our world, which is inac­ces­si­ble to Pong. Should a sen­tient being exist in that world, he would only ever be able to deter­mine the rules by exper­i­men­ta­tion and obser­va­tion. Yet the laws them­selves would never be acces­si­ble to him. He might even come to the con­clu­sion that the ques­tion as to “why” the ball bounces as it does is inap­pro­pri­ate. Relationships with the sci­ences here are recon­sid­ered given the poten­tial ram­i­fi­ca­tions of this model.

3. Furthermore epis­te­mo­log­i­cal ques­tions are reframed because of the anal­o­gous nature of exis­tence. We might say that Pac‐Man is played on a 2‐dimensional plane but we are real­ly speak­ing in analo­gies. The world of Pac‐Man is like2‐dimensional plane on an x/y axis but it is not real­ly so. The rela­tions of Pac‐Man to ghosts are not real­ly spa­tial but only anal­o­gous­ly spa­tial, for space is a thing that exists in our world, not in Pac-Man’s world, where the ghost­ly “move­ment” is achieved through the assign­ing of val­ues to vari­ables, not the phys­i­cal relo­ca­tion of an object.4 Thus we can speak only in analo­gies of even our child frame­works and they could only speak of our world in the same way. Theologians here are con­cerned with con­cepts like the Analogy of Being and the whole world of thought that comes in with it. What do we mean when we say that “God exists?” Does exis­tence there mean exis­tence as we take it in our uni­verse? Does the apophat­ic tra­di­tion, which speaks of God being “beyond exis­tence” have some­thing sub­stan­tial to con­tribute at this point?

4. It might be impos­si­ble for a child‐framework to have epis­te­mo­log­i­cal cer­ti­tude about the frame­work that is host­ing it. Try as we might we must always com­mu­ni­cate with it on its own terms. Thus all inter­ac­tion with it must be in the terms of its own frame­work or else all com­mu­ni­ca­tion will not be received. Therefore, yell at the screen as I might when my video game char­ac­ter does not move as I have direct­ed him, he can­not receive the input. Instead, all input must be in terms he can receive. Theological mod­els of rev­e­la­tion are of course brought in here for con­sid­er­a­tion.

5. Dependent Ontological Frameworks can be designed with their own integri­ty, so that they func­tion with­out out­side inter­ac­tion. But they can also be made with the poten­tial as well as the pur­pose of being inter­act­ed with from their par­ent Ontological Framework. Thus when I con­trol Gordon Freeman he acts as he is sup­posed to. If I do not inter­act with him, the world goes on; and if I do, the world still goes on. Yet it is changed because of my inter­ac­tion. That inter­ac­tion is by def­i­n­i­tion “super­nat­ur­al” to the child frame­work. In fact, we observe that we cre­ate these vir­tu­al worlds very often for the express pur­pose that we might inter­act with them. They are not “com­plete” until we do. Here the whole con­stel­la­tion of ideas includ­ing mir­a­cles, Obediential Potency, the Incarnation, Resurrection, Sacraments and the Eschaton, is rein­tro­duced as com­plete­ly com­pat­i­ble with cre­ation.

6. Value sys­tems are imbued pri­mar­i­ly from the par­ent frame­work into the child frame­work. Thus inter­ac­tions in an MMORPG might indeed be inter­ac­tions of virtue or vice due to the agents who enact them with­in our own frame­work. A vir­tu­al elf killing anoth­er vir­tu­al elf is not moral­ly good or bad but a friend betray­ing a friend in this man­ner to get an orange drop very well is. The ques­tions for the basis of our moral sys­tems are here intro­duced for the­o­log­i­cal thought.

With regard to these con­clu­sions we find that the old robust the­o­log­i­cal doc­trines of Christianity are once more put back on the table. Miracles, Revelation and Obediential Potency all are sug­gest­ed imme­di­ate­ly by this frame­work as real­ly pos­si­ble and observ­ably mod­eled by our inter­ac­tions with video games. The state of our epis­te­mo­log­i­cal prob­lems in sci­ence, such as the inabil­i­ty to get at the “why” of nature instead of mere­ly the “how”, are also clear­ly sug­gest­ing that our own Ontological Framework is in fact a Dependent Framework, or in other words, a cre­ation. Finally, the Incarnation itself is mod­eled as the in‐breaking of the parent‐framework (the divine Trinity) into our frame­work in order to com­mu­ni­cate with us on our own terms and to enact other real changes in our frame­work both in terms of our nat­ur­al state and super­nat­ur­al ele­ments.

In clos­ing, a few things should be said. First with regard to the rela­tion­ship between the Trinity and the Created world, this the­o­ry would not pro­pose exact­ly the same kind of rela­tion­ship as our world has with our vir­tu­al worlds. Instead, because the rela­tion­ship is defined (as in #1 above) by the par­ent frame­work the rela­tion­ship of the Trinity to this frame­work would be total­ly defined by the Trinity’s nature which the­olo­gians have con­sis­tent­ly iden­ti­fied as God’s free cre­ation of the world from noth­ing. This would be pos­si­ble and with­in the bounds of this observed frame­work if indeed such a being as the Triune Christian God exists. Secondly, this model should not triv­i­al­ize God as cre­ator or as incar­nate in the terms of “God play­ing video games.” We may cur­rent­ly use our vir­tu­al worlds mere­ly as recre­ation, but this does not indi­cate the total­i­ty of poten­tial rela­tion­ships and means for such vir­tu­al worlds in humanity’s future in gen­er­al or the con­cept of child frame­works as a whole. This is not a pro­pos­al for “why” God cre­ates (i.e. for some form of enter­tain­ment) but, instead, a pro­pos­al for how we can observe from our own cre­ative process­es what is inher­ent in the rela­tion­ship between a “ground of being” and that which is ground­ed.

  1. The other two being of course the ques­tion of evil and the ques­tion of plu­ral­ism. []
  2. Here of course per­son­al pro­nouns are used at the level of con­ve­nience. Pac‐Man the Ghosts and all other enti­ties are mere­ly “objects” in their world real­ized enti­ties. This how­ev­er should not be con­fused with the term “object” either in a three dimen­sion­al sense nor in the sense of Object Oriented Programming con­cepts. []
  3. The work of Metropolitan John Zizioulas with regard to per­son­hood and being is in mind here. []
  4. This is not to assume that orig­i­nal chip‐sets in Pac‐Man games used the same con­cepts for pro­gram­ming as mod­ern day pro­gram­ming. []

Joshua Wise

About Joshua Wise

Joshua Wise is a Doctoral Student of Systematic Theology at Catholic University of America. However, he is an Episcopalian, which will explain both the hunted look and the penchant for wanting to have it both ways. His areas of interest involve Christology, Trinitarian Theology, Theosis, and the intersection of Pop Culture and Theology. He runs the website and hosts the podcast.