From Virtual to Real

This is Appendix B of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see

Thanks to the computer, we are today flirting with certain ideas that would have been anathema to an earlier scientific and technological mindset:

  • The Net and its “information spaces” are increasingly conceived as a kind of global, nurturing, immaterial sea of wisdom, from which we all may freely draw, and to which we contribute our own unique achievements. We are now learning to regard even our own identities in terms of “DNA databases” -- extensions of the larger information space. And, as these databases become digitized and manipulable, the hope is that I may eventually alter my personal genetic database at will, selecting my physiological destiny by multiple choice from the informational surround. On the face of it, this matrix of informational essences carries us a long way from the brute, fixed stuff of nineteenth-century materialism, shaped solely by the outward impact of mechanism upon mechanism. Materiality has been caught up, so to speak, within a ”superior” realm of information, and made to serve it.
  • When we construct virtual realities, we do so “from the inside.” We not only experience the virtual world, but we create it, sustain it, and alter it (both as programmers and as “inhabitants”). We participate in its phenomena. One aspect of this participation is a strong connection between word and thing. The word takes on substance. Given the right programming environment, I can say, “let the world be blue,” and it is so. It is precisely such participation, however, that the strict cleavage between subject and object was supposed to remove from our scientific understanding of the world. The scientific method was to yield an objective reality uncontaminated by the investigator's subjectivity.
  • The discipline of artificial intelligence has freed the “mind” from the body. The bit patterns constituting the computer's intelligence can be transferred to a second computer without moving any hardware. Same mind, it seems, but different body. Also, there is much talk of the intelligent agents we will soon commission to go gibbering through the vast, logical spaces of the Net, bound to no single machine, and surviving from one flitting incarnation to the next as restless shades with an insatiable thirst for information. And yet, the strictest materialism once held that all mentality was -- if not nothing -- pure and simple physicality, precisely located in space.
  • Intelligence -- the kind with which we invest our artifacts -- is rapidly evolving. This decade's machines are far more sophisticated, more knowing, more subtly clever than last decade's, and the next decade's will be even more so. It is not only a matter of degree. The fundamental principles by which these intelligences operate are also evolving, as our programming strategies change. Nor are these developments restricted in any absolute way by limitations of hardware. The computational mind evolves independently. But not so long ago, the evolution of the mind's most basic structures was conceived by biologists to be entirely consequent upon evolution of the underlying substrate. The brain is what sustained evolution, not some epiphenomenal mind.

Computer technology, in summary, appears to suggest certain redirections away from older scientific stances: a de-materialization, with information replacing matter as the more basic construct; a participation that blurs the distinction between subject and object; a new metaphysics that resists the theoretical assimilation of mind to body; and a nonmaterial evolution of intelligence, independent of matter.

It turns out, as we will see, that these ideas represent a strengthening of the familiar habit of abstraction upon which science has long been based. Or, at least, that is what the common statement of the ideas makes of them. But another way to think about these things has been on offer since well before the computer came along.

Ancient principles, or new?

One way for me to introduce the work of Owen Barfield -- admittedly an eccentric way -- would be to ask what happens if we take these “new truths” in their most radical and disturbing sense. For then we will find ourselves driven to the work begun by Barfield early in this century. It is a remarkable fact that he developed a closely corresponding set of insights, and brought to bear upon them a historical awareness and a richness of discrimination not yet evident in discussions of electronic technology.

Of course, Barfield had one advantage over us: since computers did not exist when he began his work, he was not driven by any illusion that they represented some bright, new paradigm, with the aid of which we would finally lift ourselves from the supposed muck of our earthly origins. He saw clearly enough that the computational model -- whether of mind or world -- was rather the final, lifeless crystallization of a paradigm that was already taking form within the murky penumbra of the Scientific Revolution's first, promising light.

When, in the 1920s, he began his research, he did so not by looking forward to the computer, but rather by taking in the distant human past. The truths he discerned were gleaned from the ancients, yet he recognized in these truths a double significance, for they must come alive again in a new way if our future is to be preserved.

And what are these ancient truths upon which the future hangs? Here, in brief, I will restate the four, closely meshed assertions given above as I imagine they might emerge from an encounter with Barfield's pen:

  • We -- and the world -- are descended from something like a sea of pure meaning -- of spirit and light -- and we still bear our origin within ourselves. It would be truer to say that human beings were first incarnated upon the resonant wings of language -- as “standing waves,” so to speak, within the flow of divine speech -- than that language originated with the human being. (As to the material, “information-bearing” gene, it is a metaphor -- a focused yet veiled image within which we may hope to read a few of the wordlike gestures raying in from the surrounding spiritual matrix.)
  • We participate in the world's phenomena from the inside. For example (as Coleridge observed), what I experience within myself as an idea, and within nature as a law, are not two different things, but the same inner reality encountered from two sides. The creative word summoned from the profoundest depths of man's being is one with the word that sustains nature. Now largely lost from view, this unity (along with the responsibility it implies) is in danger of becoming irretrievably destructive. Treating the world as mere object, we are on the way toward making it into mere object in its own, most essential nature.
  • While our human consciousness is mediated by the brain, consciousness as such is the product neither of matter nor of its organization. Rather, consciousness precedes and prepares the way for its own embodiment in material organs. The thinking that occurs upon the stage of our consciousness takes place as much “out there” as within the cranium. Consciousness is the enduring prerequisite from which all physical reality is, as it were, coagulated.
  • Quite apart from the history of ideas, there has been an underlying evolution of consciousness. From one side, this can be seen as a progressive contraction of consciousness out of the world and into our individual centers, which in turn marks a transition from subject-object unity to our own subject-object antithesis. The present necessity is to learn again to participate consciously in the world, but without giving up our hard-won self-consciousness and our capacity for detached, objective thinking. That is, we may no longer merely suffer our participation as the ancients did; we must freely speak the creative word out of ourselves, in full and disciplined consciousness. Only so can we renew the world from within.

A changing of the guard?

If you compare these two groups of statements closely, you may find yourself perplexed. On the one hand, the paired statements almost say the same thing. But on the other hand, it appears that Barfield inhabits a world altogether foreign to conventional wisdom about computers and the Net -- so much so that his remarks bear the taint of taboo. The computer engineer may speak of intelligent software on a disk, but she is not likely to tolerate thoughts of an intelligence brooding over the primeval ooze from which human life is thought to have arisen -- much less any idea that the ooze itself congealed from some sort of consciousness or spirit.

I say only “not likely,” for it is no longer the near impossibility of a few years back. The taboos do show signs of weakening, even as the materialistic paradigm continues its stunning transformation toward apparent immateriality. The younger generation today is not so inclined to distinguish artificially between the visible and the invisible, the material and the immaterial, as we once were.

If you doubt the change, just ask those stolid guardians of scientific tradition who despair over so much in our well-educated society today: the many flourishing “disciplines” beyond the pale, such as astrology, psychic counseling, and channeling; the rediscovery and celebration of indigenous spirituality; and the remarkable spread of the most diverse forms of “New Age” science and religion.

The various sillinesses to be found among these cultural phenomena are hardly the main point -- any more than the forgotten sillinesses of the Renaissance were its main point. The significance in both cases lies rather at a deeper level where the fundamental capacities and yearnings of human consciousness take shape. As to the travesties, should we not lay them at the door of those same stolid guardians, who have for so long arrogated to themselves all “legitimate” scientific energies, denying even the lackluster crumbs to their spiritually hungry brethren?

However, I have also just now suggested that certain of our distinctive thoughts about computers can be read in either of two dramatically divergent ways. That is, computers have led us onto the knife edge, and as our current vertigo already indicates, we cannot long avoid committing ourselves to one side or the other. We will either choose for ourselves, or else receive an unceremonious shove from the gathering technological nisus.

A question of abstraction

When we look at the two sets of statements given above -- one arising from high technology and the other from Barfield's work -- a crucial difference is immediately apparent. Where Barfield speaks of the everyday, familiar world, we children of technology appeal instead to virtual reality and to that apotheosis of distributed information we like to call “cyberspace.” And so, for us,

  • An old-style materiality gives way, not to a rediscovery of the spirit (from which all meaning once descended), but to a field of measurable, manipulable information (from which no meaning can arise).
  • We begin to experience our creative participation in virtual worlds, but this participation turns out to be a matter, not of head, heart, and will -- nor even of head alone -- but solely of the calculator-in-the-head (although the calculation is admittedly superb, down to the least pixel). We program these worlds, which consequently lack all inner connection to the sustaining Nature that bore us.
  • We devise evolving forms of intelligence existing independently of any material substrate, but far from bearing creative powers and intentions for the earth's renewal, these empty forms are the last, dead echoes of a human intelligence now content to live as its own shadow, impressed upon highly articulated, but uncomprehending mechanisms.

The computer, it appears, can remind us of forgotten truths -- truths that were perhaps bound to reemerge in one form or another with the exhaustion of a one-sided scientific quest. But at the same time, by encouraging us to translate those truths into a distant reflection of themselves, the computer also shields us from their direct force. The technological vision appears almost as if an entire body of wisdom, deriving from all ancient peoples of the earth and bearing deep significance for our future, had been “lifted” and applied in attenuated form to an artificial world safely insulated from the real thing.

Moreover, the nature of our shield against forgotten truths is not hard to recognize. It is woven of abstractions. We have seen such a pattern already in classical science: using a mathematical sieve, a “material” residue was sifted from the spiritually rich world. But this residue turned out to have no substance, no weight, of the sort we once imagined. In fact, it finally reduced to the abstract mesh of the sieve itself -- which is hardly surprising. As William Temple once remarked, “if you attend to things only so far as they are measurable, you will end with only measurements before your attention.” And so today the physicist plays in a realm of number, equation, and probability, disavowing all attempts to assign meaning to his constructs.

What happens if we bring the physicist's proclivities to the sciences of man? The same abstraction that sifted matter from spirit now distills quantitative information from qualitative meaning with technocratic efficiency; and then it proceeds to articulate the logical structures of a computational “mind.” Freed from the necessity of “instantiation” in any particular material, these informational and logical structures gain a kind of notional immortality, a release from the encumbering weight of gross matter.

But here is the enticing danger. Today many people are inclined to welcome any possible “escape” from the dead weight of several centuries' materialistic debris. With good justification. And yet, the deliverance they are now being offered is in reality the quintessential product -- the ultimate extension -- of that same materialistic undertaking that has till now so effectively constrained their spirits.

It is, after all, now evident enough that the essence of scientific materialism never did lay in a defense of what we still like to think of as “solid matter” over against whatever sort of immateriality we cared to imagine. For materialism is finally located in those habits of abstraction that gave us dark, featureless matter in the first place; and if this originally comforting matter of science has been found to dissolve more and more into abstract fields and statistical distributions, a strikingly similar dissolution has reduced the living spirits of old to the vague, informational-spiritual stuff of the high-tech mystic. Whoever we are, we define ourselves today by our abstractions.

The real divide, then, occurs not between materiality and immateriality, but rather between abstraction and meaning -- between, on the one hand, the abstraction that gave us “physical” and “mental” stuff in Cartesian opposition, and, on the other hand, the meaning through which we can rediscover the spirit-saturated world, and ourselves in it.

Eventually, one may expect, the abstracted mind will implode from its own weightlessness. For we must finally ask: abstraction from what? If there is no what -- no “familiar world” worth knowing, possessed of substantial reality in its own right -- how shall we abstract from it?

Goethean science

If abstraction is the instrument by which we produce the informational content of cyberspace, imagination is the activity by which we discover meaning in the world, for with the imagination we apprehend “the outward form as the image or symbol of an inner meaning.”/1/

Imagination is already employed in the scientific method. But what we need now, according to Barfield, is the use of imagination, not only in devising hypotheses, but “in the very act of observation.” This would lead us beyond some vague sense of meaning in nature as a whole. It would enable us to read the “book” of nature in such a way that “the meaning of the whole is articulated from the meaning of each part -- chapters from sentences and sentences from words -- and stands before us in clear, sharp outlines” (p. 20).

Such a method may be hard for us to conceive, but Barfield points out that Coleridge and the Romantics took some first, tentative steps in this direction. Moreover, Goethe actually exercised the method in making some profound discoveries -- although they have largely been overlooked in the accelerating rush of science toward manipulative effectiveness. Goethe, as Barfield puts it, perceived that “nature has an ‘inside’ which cannot be weighed and measured -- or even (without training) observed -- namely, the creative thoughts which underlie phenomenal manifestation” (p. 20).

Goethe's scientific work included a study of light and color, which, until recently, drew less attention from scientists than from artists; investigations of the human skeleton; and the discovery of the principle of metamorphosis of plants, by which a single “form” repeatedly expresses itself through a series of expanding and contracting transformations in leaf, calyx, petal, reproductive organs, fruit, and, finally, in the extremely contracted seed. Barfield characterizes Goethe's achievement this way:

By ordinary inductive science the unifying idea, or law, behind groups of related phenomena is treated as a generalization from particulars: it is an abstract notion ... and it must be expressible in terms of measurable quantities. For Goethean science, on the other hand, this unifying idea is an objective reality, accessible to direct observation. In addition to measuring quantities, the scientist must train himself to perceive qualities. This he can do -- as Goethe did when he saw the various parts of the plant as “metamorphoses” of the leaf -- only by so sinking himself in contemplation of the outward form that his imagination penetrates to the activity which is producing it. (p. 21)

Information or meaning; abstraction or imagination? We choose between reducing nature's fullness to the abstract generalizations of mathematical law, or penetrating to the inner activity that produces the phenomenon. That activity can no more be expressed as information than your and my meaningful activity.

Goethe's recognition of the principle of metamorphosis could hardly have arisen from any sort of generalization following upon the logical analysis of already defined structures. He had to wrestle through to a qualitative seeing that required years of disciplined observation before he could discern the crucial forms. He held that anyone who perceived these creative forms could, in thought, derive every possible plant, including those that did not yet exist./2/

I referred above -- perhaps much too breezily -- to the gene as “a metaphor, a focused yet veiled image within which we may hope to read a few of the wordlike gestures raying in from the surrounding spiritual matrix.” There is no denying that these words are more easily spoken than entered into. But it is Barfield's message that we must at least become aware of the two contrary directions our investigations may take. With respect to the gene, we may, on the one hand, elect to analyze the outer body of the metaphor, bringing to bear upon it our admirably detached, but perceptually emptied, quantitative observation -- and so we may gain our desired powers of manipulation. But this brute manipulation will stand unrelated to the meaning of the metaphor, for that must be read, not measured or calculated.

If, on the other hand, we could begin to see the developing human being rather as Goethe saw the plant -- and I, for one, do not wish to minimize the challenge in this -- perhaps we would find ourselves able to move beyond the seemingly insoluble ethical quandaries posed by genetic manipulation in particular and biotechnology in general. What we would then confront is the concrete reality of personhood and destiny, not the abstract, informational “programming” of a few strands of DNA. Only then would we know, from the inside, the proper laws constraining every human transformation.

Can the appearances be saved?

We have been abandoning the world in two directions. On one side, pure science leads us away from nature toward a notional, almost metaphysical realm of particles. Here we look for the real basis and the final explanation of everything in nature. Such a stance drains the sense of present reality from all ordinary experience. If particles are the real stuff, precisely characterizable, why bother overmuch with the profligate, undisciplined cornucopia that presents itself immediately to our senses? Isn't everything we know most immediately -- prior to applying our grid of abstraction -- “merely subjective”?

On the other side, we are now abandoning the world by constructing artificial alternatives to ordinary experience, christening them “virtual.” If normal experience is only subjective anyway, there is no reason not to create worlds of sensation more to our liking. One can even imagine that, just so far as we learn to control these sensations, we will begin to view the virtual environment as more objectively real than any other world, for we have long considered our experience valid just so far as it expresses our powers of control.

In any case, the phenomenal world is clearly being neglected -- if not positively undermined -- from two sides. This raises the question implied in the title of Barfield's book, Saving the Appearances./3/ Transferring this question to our present context: in addition to the effective control we gain by constructing a notional world of particles, and in addition to our capacity for arbitrary expression through the technology of virtual reality, do we still need to take deep, creative hold of the “middle world” -- the familiar world -- the world that nursed our ancestors and stirred them to unprecedented artistic achievements, the world from which we abstract the particles, and the world we merely imitate with our virtual realities? Can we consciously take hold of this familiar world from the inside, working with it artistically as stewards of the future?


Barfield's answer, given in Saving the Appearances, is so fundamental that I can scarcely even gesture toward it here. This is not surprising, given that he asks us to reconceive both the gesturing human being and the things we can gesture toward -- and even more, to become in the process different gesturers, beholding a different sort of thing. Nevertheless, I must at least cite one of his starting points, along with a few mileposts, none of which, unfortunately, can be set in context here.

Barfield begins, quite simply, with what is nearly undisputed:

On almost any received theory of perception the familiar world -- that is, the world which is apprehended, not through instruments and inference, but simply -- is for the most part dependent upon the percipient. (p. 21)

If the hard sciences have retreated into quantitative analysis, it is precisely because the phenomenal world -- the qualitative world handed to us by direct awareness -- is felt to be “contaminated” by the consciousness of the subject. The world of cold and hot things, green and blue things, loud and quiet things; the world of familiar faces, strange places, clouds, sky, and seas; the world about which each of us thinks whenever we are not critically applying our physics lessons -- that world cannot (we are told) be described rigorously. We are advised not even to try; our first lessons in science teach us to seek quantities in the phenomena.

We have already heard one of Barfield's responses: the phenomenal world can be described rigorously -- it can be read as a meaningful text -- although (as the example from Goethe indicates) it indeed takes a great deal of trying. But the main thrust of Saving the Appearances derives from a very simple proposition: if we really believe what the physical sciences have told us about the dependence of the given world upon the one who perceives, then we ought to hold onto the belief consistently -- something that is almost never done. That thought leads to a number of others:

  • We must distinguish between the (possibly eccentric) representations of the individual, and the “collective representations” constituting the public world./4/
  • What is given to us by these collective representations encompasses everything we think of as the world when we're not doing our formal physics or philosophy -- right down to and including the brutest solidity, the physical existence, of the planet earth. When we are doing physics or philosophy, we dismiss this planet earth in favor of a rarefied (and too often reified) realm of “particles.” The undisciplined shift from one frame of thought to the other accounts for most of the aforementioned inconsistency (pp. 15-21).
  • One aspect of this inconsistency is the almost universal writing of imaginary natural histories by paleontologists, botanists, geologists, and so on. “It can do no harm to recall occasionally that the prehistoric evolution of the earth, as it is described for example in the early chapters of H. G. Wells' Outline of History, was not merely never seen. It never occurred” (p. 37).
  • Any serious look at history reveals, moreover, that the collective representations (down to and including the solid planet earth) have changed remarkably over time. If we would imagine an arbitrary prehistory, the first question we must answer is why we clothe that prehistory in the peculiar sort of appearances characterizing our day, rather than those of some earlier day. There may, after all, be good reasons for deeming the earlier representations more adequate to the reality (p. 37).
  • The primordial earth cannot consistently be thought of even in terms of potential phenomena, “unless we also assume an unconscious, ready to light up into actual phenomena at any moment in the process” (p. 135).
  • What is most “objective” about the world -- what is least dependent upon the whims of the subject -- is what we usually think of as going on “inside our heads,” namely, thinking. In actual fact, thinking goes on in the world and is the inside of the world.

I said I could scarcely gesture toward the argument in Saving the Appearances, and that was the scarcely gesturing. One who is not familiar with the disturbingly vivid tapestry of Barfield's thought might well judge all this to be a kind of intellectual trick. Anyone who dives into the work, however, should be prepared for the eventual realization that the real trick is the one our intellects have played on us over the past several hundred years, by putting nearly beyond comprehension many understandings that once were mere common sense. Barfield would enable us to regain these lost sensibilities -- but in a modern context.

On being responsible for the world

Barfield, then, sets us down before a “virtual reality” that turns out not be be virtual; he brings us back to the familiar world -- not a phantom of our subjectivity, but rather the surround from which our consciousness has contracted into its bright focus. Our inside is also the inside of the world. Prepared or not, he tells us, we now bear a responsibility for what the world becomes. The agent of evolutionary change in the world, having once worked from without inward, has progressively reached consciousness in the individual, wide-awake human being, who must now learn to speak the creative word outward, from within himself. Our toying with virtual realities (one can now add) is a remote and abstract echo of what is really required of us: to animate and regenerate our world from within while retaining our hard-won wakefulness.

It is an endangered world for which Barfield would have us take responsibility. Moreover, for good or ill, consciously or unconsciously, we cannot help exercising that responsibility. For example, our penchant for virtual realities is itself contributing to what the world becomes. It is entirely conceivable that, in the end, we will lose all distinction between the real and the virtual; it requires only that we attend ever more exclusively to our new, virtual realities -- to the informational abstractions of cyberspace -- while ignoring the phenomenal world. We will by that means finally succeed in rendering the inside of the world abstract. The inner life with which we animate the world will be the “life” of a program.

There is, after all, no final distinction between the virtual and the real. That is why the term “virtual reality” proves so slippery, seeming to apply alternately to everything and nothing. Every representational work of art is a virtual reality. (But, then, to one degree or another we work artistically upon everything in our earthly environment.) Every stick-and-ball “model” of atoms and molecules is a virtual reality -- in this case an embodied abstraction bearing almost no phenomenal truth, but giving expression to certain theoretical constructs. Every photograph and television image is a virtual reality -- a two-dimensional abstraction from the familiar world, reinvested with a set of dimmed-down meanings suitable for such an abstraction./5/

We are surrounded, in fact, with exteriors into which we have breathed our own peculiar interiors. That, in their highly restricted way, is what virtual realities are. But that, Barfield urges us to remember, is in a much fuller sense also what the world is. The supposedly clear-cut line between human creations and nature simply cannot be found. It is not there. Yet we may lose sight of this fact. As participative experiences, virtual realities seem so distinctive in part because we have lost our awareness of our participation in the world. Perhaps also they awaken in us memories of an earlier relation to nature.

We can, then, choose either of two directions. If virtual realities remind us of a forgotten, more participative immersion in the world, it is possible that they will stimulate us to a renewed, more conscious participation. They may even provide us with a starting point, since (initially, at least) the difference between the virtual and the real catches our attention. If we contemplate that difference, moving in thought from the virtual to the real, we will actually discover more of ourselves “out there,” not less. For through disciplined, scientific imagination we will, like Goethe, find in the world an inner meaning (our meaning), a fullness of being, that no abstractions -- no programming languages and bit-manipulated graphics -- can mediate.

The alternative -- and surely it is a potential we all must sense within ourselves -- is that we will be content to convert the world from real to virtual -- continuing in the direction of the past few hundred years. Then, too, the difference between virtual and real will eventually vanish, not because we have penetrated the world more deeply and creatively, extending our responsible reach from artifact to nature, but rather because we will have finally abandoned the world to artifice.


1. “The Rediscovery of Meaning,” p. 19. This popular article was reprinted in Barfield, 1977b. The remaining quotations in this section are from the same source.

2. There are signs in some quarters that this “Goethean science” is beginning to be taken more seriously in our day. See, for example, Zajonc, 1993; Schwenk, 1965; Adams and Whicher, 1980; Edelglass et al., 1992.

3. The following quotations are from this book.

4. Barfield initially describes a representation as “something I perceive to be there” (p. 19).

5. See Chapter 21, “Mona Lisa's Smile,” and chapter 22, “Seeing in Perspective.”

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