The Germans Are Joking

“In Buddhist metaphysics, there is the idea of ’emptiness.’ To realize the emptiness of things is to say, ‘This is neither real nor nonexistent.’ Our perception of the candle refers to something real, in the real world. But this candle – the one we see – it’s mental content. And yet it’s also not true that the experience, the model in our minds, is unreal. It’s ’empty.’ ‘Empty’ may have been their way of saying that it’s just a virtual model. ‘Emptiness’ could be ‘virtuality.'” Thomas Metzinger, the German philosopher, to Joshua Rothman over coffee at a table lit by a candle discussing virtual reality, The New Yorker, 2 April 2018.


Thomas Metzinger, Professor of Theoretical Philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz – Looking Very German

I know what you’re asking – did ‘real’ philosophy die with Ortega y Gasset in the middle of the last century? Is the mumbo jumbo of Thomas Metzinger any different than the nonsense that Peter Sloterdijk repeats in book after book (60(!!) so far) then the ethical fairy tales Thomas Pogge weaves around morality between diddling students? Ortega likely would have said ‘of course the candle is real – its light illuminates the table which my eyes perceive, the flame flickers in the same breeze that also waifs my face; should I touch the flame (which because it is real, I do not), my fingers will burn and blister. ‘Mental content’? More like neo-Kantian crap a la Metzinger. The added slam at Gautama Buddha is gratuitous. Though I am sure the Buddha would have much to say about virtual reality were he ever asked, ’emptiness’ would be the adjective he’d apply to the head inside the helmet, not to the virtual reality experience. I suspect he might add dullard somewhere in his description as well.

Joshua Rothman Demonstrating Practical Philosophy with the German V.R. Rig.

Rothman was too much of a boner to say anything of substance of Metzinger’s profound insight. He called it neither gobbledygook nor trenchant insight. Instead, he simply changed the subject and went on to describe how the experiences he had in the Virtual Reality laboratory earlier in the day fucked up his mind. He was being paid, of course, to write a sympathetic story about Thomas Metzinger. Let his editor take a crack at adding a clarification sentence if she dared (and she didn’t).

So this is how the whole thing happened: The New Yorker sends Joshua Rothman out to write on the current state of virtual reality. This is the New Yorker so we are talking to academia researchers, not the guys from Google or Microsoft or Apple who are productizing the technology. Somebody says, “Go to Germany. That’s where it’s happening.” and so he does. He finds a lab that has V.R. helmets, robots, AND Thomas Metzinger all in the same place. The Germans strap him in a helmet and start playing with his mind big time. Then he has cake and coffee with Tom (please, just call me Thomas). Eight thousand words of polished prose result. And that’s exactly what the publisher ordered. The story reads great. Dr. Metzinger gets another citation. When you finish the eight thousand word read, you sigh. Thirty minutes of your life now ’empty’. The Buddha would have called in endless suffering.

Gautama Buddha in the Buddha Helmet© Rig.



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