From Virtue to Virtual Reality       

On the curious etymology of virtualScreen shot 2016-02-25 at 3.43.22 PM

Do you naturally assume it was better then than it is now? Do you seek out the authentic, the original, the old? Do you have contempt for the ersatz, cheesy, slick and plastic new?

Do you have a sense that in the beginning, there were secrets encoded in the universe that you hope to discover before you die?

Then you may have a fatal disease called “GF,” the Genetic Fallacy.

Do you think that basketball before the three-point shot and liberal interpretations of travelling or carrying or fouling was any “truer” than more recent forms? It may have been gentler and more civilized and easier than watching the Billy Budd of Basketball, Steph Curry, get mugged night after night, but it wasn’t more “authentic,” was it?

There’s an irresistible magic in believing that the original captured some natural essence, some “aura” as Walter Benjamin called it, which has been corrupted and degraded by copying and translations, a kind of cosmic game of Telephone.

If you’re theologically inclined like me, then you’re committed to the belief that there was a Perfect If Unknowable Source of all things, and He spoke in a Holy Tongue. There is an irresistible magic in supposing that at the moment of its creation, something was pure and perfect. To us true believers, there’s no fallacy in GF.

Religion aside, this is what the Brits used to call the Tory view of progress. Things always tend towards decadence. We are always slouching toward Bethlehem. Or as Gresham’s Law implies, The bad drives out the good. When you’re afflicted with GF, the future is a bleak vista of diminished horizons, where vinyl then leatherette then bonded leather drive out animal skins.

There is a corner of the GF ward reserved for academicians. Here, we hide our madness by practicing etymology as a more respectable pursuit, a kind of occupational therapy. We etymologicians are forever seeking that perfect seizure of revelation, trying to uncover some lost original sense in a word that will reveal the truth of things. We imagine whole lost universes and understandings in a three-letter root.

Which brings us to the curious etymology of one of the sexiest words in our language, virtual. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Accompany me on an archeological excursion to ancient Rome. The Latin virtus meant valor or courage on the field of battle, stoutness of heart in a soldier. Virtue was inherently masculine. In fact, the word occurs on the first page of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, that most macho of historical narratives. But where did that trope come from?

Strip away yet another layer beneath the ancient Roman ruins, and you discover virtus came from the Latin for man, vir.

Dig yet deeper and we find that the root of vir  was taken from an even earlier proto-Latin root (probably Hindo-Sanskrit or Greek) for stick, twig, or rod and, naturally, phallus.

Now fast forward to modern centuries. By the 18th century, virtue had evolved to serve almost exclusively as a euphemism for a woman’s ability to preserve her virginity before marriage. In the 19th century, Nietzsche quipped that “virtue, which originally meant virility in a man, came to mean chastity in a woman.” In one stroke, he marks the genealogy of the word, contrasts two cultures (ancient Roman, modern European), and also martials evidence for his own Tory (and perhaps sexist) view that Western culture has become increasingly feminized and thus has shrunk the arena for (manly) heroism.

But perhaps he forgot that the Romans also had a word for a woman of valor or courage, virago — a female warrior of man-like courage. In latter days this, too, is forgotten however: virago, a valiant woman warrior came to mean a woman who went to war against her husband with a pan in hand, a harridan or shrew.

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Queen Artemisia, Persian virago who warred against the Romans

This dual movement of vir exposes a decay in our aspirations, both as men and women.  As we grow more civilized, we become confused about the sexes. Both manly vigor and womanly valor dissolve in the mists of time to be replaced by powdered wigs and waltzes.

Nietszche’s complaint about the feminizing of European culture is traced in our literature. Ian Watt, my professor at Harvard, said (in his book The Rise of the Novel) “the first true novel” was Samuel Richardson’s sentimental novel about a young woman of virtue, Pamela  or Virtue Rewarded (1740). Within a year, Pamela became a runaway bestseller and overnight sensation. Henry Fielding, at the time a lawyer, was repulsed by its sanctimony and wrote a slim parody of it, Shamela, almost as soon as he read it (1741). Through slight changes in color, Fielding portrays Richardson’s earnestly virtuous and pious Pamela as a shameful low-class wench. Inspired by her mother and sisters, Shamela angles to trade her pretense of virginity – she was formerly a prostitute – for marriage to a gullible Squire Booby. The women who, er, mentor her are constantly swearing upon their virtue, which they’ve also sold off many times before.

It was the sexist notion that virtue was exclusively female that led Fielding to then write Joseph Andrews (1742), the story of a young man of virtue and then later his long masterpiece, Tom Jones. Both  use the same model as Pamela: innocents try to retain their virtue in a corrupt world. But Fielding’s heroes become comic figures because they are men intent on preserving their virginity, an absurdity in 18th century England. But it’s a conceit that enables Fielding to portray a robust ideal of morality and a realistic view of the decadent world that would have pleased Nietzsche. Fielding shows us that in an era when virtue is reduced to spurious parlor room notions of female chastity, we lose more muscular ideals of virtue. Meanwhile, the world around us is corrupted and decaying.

From Virtue to Virtual Reality       

So where did the word virtual come from, the name appended to that multi-billion dollar economy for a technology-yet-to-be invented called “virtual reality” or cyberspace.

We call it virtual reality because it is “almost really” real, or virtually real, don’t we? It’s an oxymoron. It’s “not real reality.” Virtual therefore means “that which is essentially true though not actually, factually, completely so.”

This peculiar application of the word comes from that other uniquely masculine attribute: the vir is the source of fluid essence, it is seminal. The Oxford English Dictionary records the first such application of this sense in the 12th century. Virtual means “to be possessed of the power to influence, to have the potential to affect.” Not long after, it is attached to the idea of Divine influence. Indeed, OED’s very first definition of “virtue” is “the power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural god or being.”

So we might say, with apologies to Nietzsche, that

Virtue, which once meant manliness in a man, comes to mean godliness in God.

Beginning as the literal stick or phallus, vir becomes metonymically associated with the essence that flows from man, then with the essential ideals of manliness (among the ancient Romans), and then with the metaphysical ideal of essential powers for good flowing from Godhead into the universe.

Finally, however, this deification of the word, by making the virtue of virtue  as abstract as possible, invites a fatal postmodern turn. Virtually comes to be mean essentially: that is, for all intents and purposes, as far as anything important is concerned, for all practical purposes, the same thing. Finally, in postmodern philosophy á la Derrida, essences are taboo. Every fixed idea or value are all to be deconstructed, are all always already deconstructed. There are no essences, only representations of them. Thus the essence of the thing is no more real (or illusory) than the word we use for it. Virtual, which used to mean the fixed essential reality of something deriving from a transcendent authority, now collapses into its opposite. It is the word we use for the collapse of a deeper realism into illusion.

Which brings us to virtual reality, that great oxymoron. Will computers one day simulate reality enough to trick our senses into thinking we are some place we are not? That’s the dream. “Virtual reality” is a great sell-job of a monicker for it. The word hypes the promise. It’s the most vaporous of vaporware. It implies that the computer simulation somehow captures the essence of reality, that for all practical intents it is almost but not quite really real, when even the promise is not yet realized. In other words, all our examples of virtual reality, like today’s version, the Oculus Rift, the darling of Mark Zuckerberg, is virtually virtual reality. I tried a version of wearable 3D glasses in 1995. It made me nauseous. I wonder if this is better.

Pardon my skepticism. Yes, I’ll grant that if the medium is the message, then how we experience reality will be seriously and effectively altered inside cyberspace, maybe even essentially altered, once it even kinda works. Perhaps a technology spun out of simulations of our nerve net will redefine the body in space even when there is no there there. You can’t get a “realer” change than that.

The Tory view

The story of cultural evolution is recorded in these etymologies. Simple, violent, manly virility becomes feminine virginity becomes universal virtue. Our culture moves from stick to metaphorical phallus to ethics to aspirations to divinity, from monkey to man to manliness to godliness.

But then, in postmodern times, truths becomes truthiness, nothing is essentially true in itself, and all virtue becomes just another vain delusion as reality becomes virtually real.

Entanglement, Chesed, and the Quantum Biology of Incense

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After the end of the Sabbath service meant to recall the sacrifices in the Temple, we recite a curious addendum. It’s a recipe taken from the Talmud (Kereisos 6b) for a kind of incense that was used in the Temple. It required 11 ingredients in specific measures, including “galbanum,” a terpentine-smelling extract of gum plants, and “Carshina lye,” which is toxic and can be substituted for by urine. Indeed, it sounds altogether foul, although if you knew the ingredients of the most expensive perfumes out of Paris, you’d turn up your nose, too. Likewise, together these 11 substances produced a divine smell. Furthermore, the mixture was so sacred, violating the formula by one jot was punishable by death.

Although the Amidah is meant to substitute for the Temple service, and the spreading of smoky incense was the conclusion of the service, this technical, arcane process from a relatively obscure Talmudic passage seems out of place when the rest of these Shabbat prayers are abstract, about holiness, peace, and the greatness of God.  The fact that it is so insistently technical, earthy, materialistic and sensory, even more so than the original in Exodus 30, makes it more jarring.

On a recent Shabbat (2016), R. Yitzchok Feldman of Emek Beracha in Palo Alto expounded on the mitzvah of the incense used in the Temple, ketores. He explained its connection to the kabbalistic sefira (aspect) of God called chesed, usually translated as “kindness” – but meaning much more. The ketores produces a transformative scent. It influences all who smell it and binds them together in its experience. Like acts of kindness, it emanates and spreads throughout the congregation and out into the world in unforeseen ways that bind humanity together and elevates them.

I naturally thought of the concept of entanglement in quantum mechanics. Ok, that’s weird. Let me try to explain.

Quantum Biology Breaches the Wall of Our Reality

For the last century, most physicists treated the troubling and enigmatic implications of quantum mechanics as something to be banished to the realms of philosophy and metaphysics, trying to keep the nose of the consciousness camel out of the tent of strictly causal and objective physics. Physics still largely quarantines the absurdity of subatomic shenanigans from the observable macroscopic world we live in by claiming the two realities are unconnected. The world we experience continues to behave in an orderly, Newtonian, commonsensical fashion. Things don’t change each other by magic. Reality is there whether someone’s looking at it or not. Stuff can’t be in two places at once and no where at all.

But in the last decades, this quarantine has become increasingly difficult to maintain. Science itself has stormed its own comfortable cliches with experimental results that show consciousness, human or at least intelligent consciousness, is implicated in determining reality even in the macroscopic world we experience directly through our senses.  Experiments in the 1960s and 1980s have shown that two objects separated by any conceivable  connection, even at other ends of the universe, are entangled and somehow affect each other instantaneously. Still, physics had a whole armory of ways to wall off these disturbing phenomena from commonsense reality. saying that when the quantum world interacted with a macroscopic phenomenon, that macroscopic entity “observed” the probabilistic quantum, collapsing it into a stable realism. Its formal name is “Decoherence.”

But in the last ten years, quantum biology has shown that behaviors in our familiar world of nature are directly connected to and reliant on quantum processes. The orientation of migrating birds. The operation of genes. Photosynthesis. The comfortable quarantine that has kept our sense of reality simple and free from philosophy and metaphysics has now collapsed. And that collapse is utter and complete. It can’t be confined, because it is now likely to be shown that the whole universe interacts at all levels with quantum weirdness.


One of those quantum phenomena that is impossible to ignore at the macroscopic level is entanglement: the spooky coordination between the behavior of objects that have no material, physical or any other possible connection either invisible or theoretical. Even objects – photons – that are traveling apart at the speed of light or are separated by vast distances instantaneously coordinate their reality. When one is tickled, its entangled twin across the universe laughs.

Perhaps we can get comfortable with the way this betrays our commonsense notions of reality for photons, because they are weird little buggers to begin with, both wave and particle, expressions of a probability formula that ineluctably shows they don’t even really exist in any proper sense of the word until they are observed.  But entanglement isn’t confined to photons and other sub-atomic particles. As two physicists explain in a recent book:

“We talk in terms of twin-state photons because that situation is readily described and subject to experiment. In principle, however, any two objects that have ever interacted are forever entangled. The behavior of one instantaneously influences the other. An entanglement exists even if the interaction is through each of the objects having interacted with a third object. In principle, our world has a universal connectedness.
“Quantum entanglement for large objects [like chairs or people] is generally too complex to notice. But not always.”

Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, QUANTUM ENIGMA: PHYSICS ENCOUNTERS CONSCIOUSNESS (Oxford UP, 2006)

This wasn’t written by tripped-out tree-hugging Zen Juddhist ecstatic hippies, but by two well-respected tenured physicists at UC  (admittedly, it is Santa Cruz, but nonetheless…). Their book, published by the well-respected Oxford University Press, chronicles how orthodox physics has suppressed those enigmatic but unavoidable conclusions of quantum mechanics. And the most disturbing of these enigmas is the conspiracy between human consciousness and the way it binds our reality to the spookiness of the quantum level. Once things including human things, interact with quantum weirdness, it is entangled with it. And, by the way, everything in the universe interacts.

These aren’t just mystic metaphors  They are the serious and real, if often censored, consequences of quantum physics. They troubled Einstein and generations of brilliant physicists since, but experimental evidence shows they are incontrovertible.
The science that studies how quantum mechanics breaches the wall of biology is called Quantum Biology. One of the known ways that behavior in our natural, observable world is actually produced by quantum events is the navigation of birds. Another is photosynthesis. A third is enzymatic reactions, including those that transform the nature of one organic substance into another, like milk into cheese via rennet, or juice into wine via yeast, or flour and water into bread, also via yeast.  These have rituals attached to them in many cultures. But in Judaism, the metaphysics of their physics (or organic chemistry) is revealed, if we read it through this lens, by the halacha attached to them: cheese, wine, bread.

Another event that relies on quantum biology, and all the metaphysical implication it brings, is smell.

I always wondered why ketores is recited after the end of the Musaf amidah. It seems like such an odd and specific intrusion in the climax of the service. But Rabbi Feldman brought it all into focus by connecting the incense with chesed.  Ketores is designed to created the most beautiful, pungent, memorable, unique, and transporting scent, wafted on smoke to fill the Temple. We’re supposed to remember that Divine smell – or rehearse the rabbis’ memory of it  –  and also remember their pain at its loss. We are supposed to long for that smell as we long for the Temple, with the curious admixture of ache and inspiration, in the hope of the time when we can smell that smell again in the rebuilt Temple. Nostalgia, nostos algia, pain for home. And in the particular technical instructions for making it, we are reminded of the elaborate instructions for building the Mishkan, the Sanctuary of the Temple, in two sections of the  Torah itself. And so we are looking forward to rebuilding it.

Metaphysics in the physics (and chemistry)

The recipe for ketores specified in the Talmud, specifically the part of the formula that will produce an emanating smell I believe, is an enzymatic reaction produced by lye, which as I said above, relies on quantum mechanics. Lye, which is highly alkaline, catalyses and binds all the other ingredients into an active, dynamic new compound that transcends the sum of its parts. The siddur specifies that urine could be substituted for lye to rpoduce the same outcome, but it is undignified for use in the Temple. It makes sense: it would introduce the same highly alkaline catalysis, depending on the diet of the donor. (At the risk of boring you, lye is produced by a membrane cell chloralkali process, which is itself a quantum biological process.)
So when Rabbi Feldman taught that the smell of ketores means chesed because it spreads out and connects all of us in unseen and ineffable ways, it is literally true at the level of physics. If we dug a little deeper, I’m convinced we find equivalence between the kabbalistic meaning of chesed as universal connectedness and emotion – as Proust knew, nothing affects emotion and memory like smell – and this quantum understanding of the process the ketores formula unleashes, its entanglement and not just as a mere metaphor,  but as an actual physical process.
The G-Theory: Orthodox Judaism, Quantum Biology, and the Weakening of Orthodox Science
From the viewpoint of orthodox science, the ultimate heretical implication of quantum mechanics is that the universe is sustained by an unimaginably dynamic and omniscient Universal Consciousness Who observes every one of the infinite quantum events occurring everywhere in every sub-nanosecond and His observation enables reality to unfold. Even our Jewish heretic physicists, Rosenblum and Kuttner, completely avoid mention of the G-word, except in one dismissive, and I believe, self-contradictory sentence (“God may be Omnipotent, but he is not Omniscient” – p. 171).
However, accepting the G-Hypothesis actually does away with some fairly absurd and, so far, unprovable assertions. I think of them as contortions, illogical turns designed to preserve logic in the face of experimental and mathematical proofs that show logic’s limitations. Although these still dominate the way orthodox physics is taught today, I predict they will be short-lived: The Many Worlds Hypothesis, String Theory, and some other gyrations too technical and in the end self-contradictory to delve here (A Universal Robot Consciousness; Decoherence, as I explained above; Random Collapses of the Wavefunction, and others).
On the other hand, embracing the G-theory explains plenty of scientific mysteries without introducing any idea not consistent with what science itself has shown. It explains the “Unreasonable Efficacy of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” as Eugene Wigner described it in his 1960 paper. It explains the otherwise unreasonably and statistically far-fetched coincidence of constants  (Planck’s Constant, the strength of electromagnetic, gravity, and weak forces, among others) in the universe enables life to arise. It opens the door to implicating a Conscious Force in the Creation of the Universe, for which science has no satisfactory theory, and how Free Will and Determinism can both exist without contradiction.
At the same time, this vision – or scent – of a Quantum-Mechanical, Reality-Unfolding, All-Observing God moves in the opposite direction, from science to an appreciation of spirtual matters, for it gives us a pretty good understanding of what the Torah might have meant by His ineffable Name, an Unfolding Ever-Present Consciousness observing every minute event in the universe, even at the ineffable and impossibly infinite quantum level.