What does Immanuel Kant actually say about the METAVERSE?

A short philosophical game.

The metaverse - a polarising term. Some geeks can't wait to use it, others don't even like to hear the word any more. For most of us, it is probably still a closed book.

For the sake of simplicity, I define the metaverse here as the creation of a second self, a second virtual personality. Everyone would be "cloned" INTO the metaverse internet, so to speak. This clone would always be there, constantly - so not only when we switch on the computer or mobile phone, as we do today.

The physical real self could partially live in the metaverse without boundaries with the second virtual person, who can be reinvented at will. Boundary-less in the sense of: the boundaries become blurred. This also makes it clear that the metaverse could revolutionise every industry, every coexistence, and every activity.

Microsoft, for example, wants to offer "holoportation": a holographic 3D image of people in virtual space. It could look like this: for example, as an architect you stay in your cosy real home in the morning, click into your virtual architecture office, which looks online 1:1 like the real one. There you meet your employees or the clientele, who are so close to reality that you have the feeling they are standing, sitting or walking next to you. Just like in the physical world, you then work on your projects and models, which you can edit, move and embellish together. Who is on site in the real office and who joins in via metaverse should eventually no longer play a role. Microsoft offers a 2-minute video on this future scenario that has so little to do with the current formats of teams or  skype here.

If you want to explore this on your own, just grab some VR glasses (I bought the cheapest I can get in Germany, they work very well btw), choose a Metaverse-App and I promise that you won’t be able to stop giggling at how cool this feels.

And for those who now think that VR glasses are not enough, after all we humans have more than one (visual) sense, they can read here that feeling, smelling, tasting and walking in the metaverse is already technically possible or will soon be possible.

By the way, sensor technology that will be installed in real walls, ceilings and floors of our real houses is also on the way...and that will eventually replace the currently clunky hardware like VR glasses. So then you might wake up in the morning in your real bed and you're already WITHIN the metaverse thanks to sensor technology.

I ask myself: what does the possible creation of a second reality in a 3D world do to us as a society? What values and norms apply if we humans can leave the restrictions of physical space at any time? When we recreate ourselves as god-like omnipresent beings and live in a mixed world of the physical and virtual?

Exciting questions. Which, of course, have preoccupied philosophy for millennia, which have been intensified by technology and the internet for decades, but which are now being raised to a completely new, never-before-reached level by the possibility of the metaverse.

With this essay, I would like to briefly and crisply, and in a more playful way, "ask" the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) about his opinion on today's metaverse, thus philosophically preparing the field for a later possible answer to the questions raised earlier.

Why him?

According to his own account, he had "the fate to have been in love with "meta-physics". "Meta" (here Greek for "higher level") of "physics" (here Greek for "natural research"). Kant developed a kind of basic science of a moral-practical action of human beings. The similarity of the name with the portmanteau word metaverse alone appeals to me.

Moreover, Kant was on the cutting edge of scientific and technical innovations. These insights were always incorporated into his philosophical texts, which is why I strongly suspect that such a groundbreaking new technical possibility as the metaverse would also have appealed to him.

Last but not least, the philosopher, who never (!) travelled and thus never left his tranquil home in Germany, had a gift for transporting himself "virtually", so to speak, to other places, as the following short anecdote shows: "his favourite reading was travelogues; for example, he once described the construction of Westminster Bridge so precisely in the presence of a Londoner that the latter asked him in amazement how long he had lived in London and whether he was particularly interested in architecture!" (Christoph Helferich, Geschichte der Philosophie, 1992, S. 246. Translation by JJ).

What is Kant's core philosophy?

According to Kant, an object only comes into being because we as humans perceive it with space and time and thereby link it to something from within ourselves. Things therefore do not "be", but only "appear" to us. Outside of space and time, humans cannot know anything, not even about a God or something similar. According to the philosopher, all our knowledge is based on possible experiences. What we do not or cannot experience, we cannot know.

Kant's contemporary Heinrich von Kleist put it pointedly like this in 1801:

"If all men had green glasses instead of eyes, they would have to judge that the objects they see through them are green - and they would never be able to decide whether their eyes show them things as they are, or whether they do not add something to them that does not belong to them but to the eye. So it is with the mind. We cannot decide whether what we call truth is truly truth, or whether it only seems so to us" (in: Christoph Helferich, Geschichte der Philosophie, 1992, S. 253. Translation by JJ).

If we replace "green glasses" with "VR glasses" here...we are already in the middle of the metaverse!

According to Kant, our mind helps us to ensure that objects do not "appear false" to us. By means of our thinking we find terms for all sensual perceptions and could thereby categorise them. In other words, we can also classify whether a new sensory perception fits into a certain category of terms or not. Whether it is an illusion or not.

How exciting this is in relation to our metaverse! Each of us can decide for ourselves whether the 3D world seems true or not! Whether it fits into our conceptual categories of living, dwelling, working etc. or whether we find new terms for it. Do you have ideas for new categories of terms around the metaverse? I look forward to your suggestions!

According to Kant, our reason should guide us in thinking and categorising. Even if we can't really explain things like a soul or the whole of the world, our reason would offer us another, an "as-if category". We would assume that a thing is one way and not another, even though we cannot pinpoint the reasons why. The classic example of this is religion. What if we take the "as-if category" to mean virtual reality as an extension of physical reality?

Kant offers even more exciting statements that can easily be extrapolated to today's metaverse: for the philosopher, man is a "citizen of two worlds"!!!

In the 1780s, he meant by this that on the one hand, a human being is born on this earth and is "unfree", i.e. influenced from the outside, from the very beginning due to physical, mental and spiritual entanglements. But, on the other hand, a human being is also "a thing in itself": we have a self-consciousness that is linked to understanding and reason. This individual character is only accessible through thinking and stands outside of cause-effect chains.

Why not apply this fact to the duality of the real world and the virtual world? A physical human being is "unfree", for example, because of his physical constitution. However, in the metaverse as an avatar, they could also leave the boundaries of earthly nature behind them as a "thing in itself" and, for example, fly freely like a bird (there ARE avatars = people who do this).

In this essay I have used a few core metaphysical ideas from Immanuel Kant to draw possible analogies to today's metaverse. There are so many more helpful (and critical) ideas from the Enlightenment philosopher that could help us answer moral and ethical questions around the new 3D world.

What morals and norms should there be in the metaverse? Let's listen to Kant's opinion again here.

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law". This is his famous Categorical (=without conditions) Imperative, which, according to Kant, reflects on an abstract level what is a generally valid moral law for human beings.

If, for example, I do not want to be cheated (= maxim or subjective principle of my personal will), then I also act in this way, i.e. I do not cheat anyone else. Et voilà, "do not cheat" could be the principle of a general legislation in the metaverse as well.

Kant's Categorical Imperative has weaknesses, of course (what happens for example, when two avatars have completely contrary maxims of their will. Who determines what could be general law?!) and it also shows his rather idealistic attitude towards peace.

As a matter of fact: for Kant, the basic prerequisite for an enlightened human being is personal freedom of will. Whether this can be given in a metaverse, which unfortunately could also develop into a "corporatocracy", I think is worth discussing.

Based on my quick research on Kant, I come to the following Solomonic conclusion (with a wink): there is a 50/50 probability that the 18th century philosopher would have been a fan of the metaverse today.

One on hand, he might have been against the metaverse, because Kant held that only nature is the measure of all things. He calls nature the only free beauty that all people would perceive as pure. Well, a 3D-Hologram of everyone of us in a virtual world is probably not "nature" by its pure meaning.

On the other hand, he might have been for the metaverse, especially when we consider his following statement: "Sublime is that with which everything else is small in comparison [...] Sublime is that which even to be able to think proves a faculty of the mind that surpasses every measure of the senses".

So for me at least, the possibility of the meta-versal creation of a second self by all of us surpasses every previous standard. It is sublime, so to say.

What do you think?