Virtual Reality’s Got No Soul

At the Interface:

Theology and Virtual Reality

by Mary Timothy Prokes, FSE

Fenestra Books, 2004

181 pages, $15.95

To order: (520) 798-3306

For Catholic theologians reared in the realistic metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, contemporary developments in “virtual reality” pose questions about what is real. How “real” is a “world” created by a computer, a head-mounted display unit and a forced-feedback device?

Virtual reality can, of course, provide real benefits to real people. Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Mary Timothy Prokes, no Luddite, does not deny this. A psychotherapist can, for example, cure a patient of a phobia via computer simulation of the long-avoided situation.

But every paradise has its price and, for every airline pilot logging hours of practice flight without ever leaving the ground, there is a deepening sense that individuals can be reduced to so much malleable blood, bone and tissue — ripe for the fine-tuning or repairing. 

The erosion of a holistic vision of the ensouled person is especially evident in biotechnology, which is prone to thinking of people in reductive, utilitarian terms. The victory of California Proposition 71, for example, means that some unborn children there will now be treated as so much raw material for genetic engineering. This utilitarianism stands to be advanced by the use of virtual reality in all its burgeoning applications.

Sister Prokes warns against certain attitudes that virtual reality technology can foster. These attitudes can be essentially summed up as dualism — a ghost that has haunted western civilization for millennia. The danger to Christianity is obvious: A  religion that professes that God came down from heaven and “was made man” is in tension with a mindset inclined to think of reality in disincarnate terms. Not that we’re likely to see a new Docetist heresy, akin to the one that plagued Patristic-era Christianity. Today, rather, the sword is pointed straight back at man.

If “Jesus Christ fully reveals man to himself” — to quote Vatican II — and man thinks of himself as merely a being in a body, then such a dualistic self-conception is bound to have adverse impact on how people understand such truths of the faith as the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

This is how the author sums up the way virtual reality as a mindset can feed off some other debilitating aspects of the “postmodern” worldview:

“‘Relativity’ has become a term that not only applies to Einstein’s theory but also describes the qualities of indefiniteness, reversibility, boundarylessness and unpredictability that pervade contemporary human experience. In fact, these qualities are sought with various degrees of avidity, particularly in the affluent societies of the Western world. … There is particular attraction, then, in what is ‘virtual’ — in what can be fashioned, refashioned, experienced simultaneously in a variety of ways, or exterminated at will.”

Sister Prokes’ comments on the impact of, and questions raised by, virtual reality for theological understanding are on the mark. The depth of her treatment of virtual reality from a technical viewpoint is much weaker. That’s unfortunate, because most laymen would profit from a deeper and more systematic introduction to the state of virtual reality technology today.

In any event, Sister Prokes provides a welcome service in bringing the theological implications of “virtual reality” into serious discussion. She calls these phenomena a “sign of the times,” and insists — rightly — that the Church cannot defer its theological assessment of these developments.


John M. Grondelski writes

from Warsaw, Poland.