What is Cyberspace?
I wrote this essay for a dictionary a few years ago. Despite all the changes in the Internet world, I think it is still pertinent. We need to understand our technological times and do what pleases God and blesses his creation.
The term cyberspace typically refers to the whole gamut of computer-mediated modes of communication that are permeating and transforming society in numerous ways. The prefix “cyber” comes from the discipline of cybernetics, the study of self-regulating systems (usually computer systems). Cyberspace is the space or place where humans and computers interact and connect in manifold ways. This neologism was coined by novelist William Gibson after reflecting on a teenager’s immersion in a video game. The boy was situated both in literal space (before a screen) and in the virtual space of the computer game. In this sense, one “enters” cyberspace mentally and imaginatively. To use concepts from philosopher Michael Polanyi, one’s “focal awareness” is in cyberspace (whether it is a video game, chat room, web page, or full-fledged virtual reality) while one’s “subsidiary awareness” is on the keyboard, the controls, or the computer screen. This parallels a surgeon’s use of a probe to explore portions of the human body not otherwise accessible and visible. Her “focal awareness” is on the region made visible by the probe; her “subsidiary awareness” is on the moving of the probe itself.
The pertinence of cyberspace to apologetics is at least threefold. First, some cyberspace enthusiasts hail cyberspace as a realm of exhilarating freedom where one can leave the body and attain transcendence through technological means. Some extol virtual reality technologies as opening up an alternative world free of conventional morality and the frustrating limits of physical objects (or “meat space”). Although these technologies are still in their early stages, they allow (or will allow) percipients to immerse themselves in a simulated and convincing cyberspace environment to one degree or another. This is accomplished by means of a bodysuit equipped with sensory modalities such as sight, sound, and touch. One may “interact” with some wholly computer-generated settings or entities or with other body-suited participants (or some combination thereof). Even beyond this scenario, some have claimed that human consciousness itself can be duplicated through software and loaded directly into cyberspace. This was explored in the horror, science-fiction film, “Lawnmower Man.” This utopian vision represents a kind of techno-gnosticism: one escapes the perils of the living organism (flesh) by immersion into the mechanism of cyberspace (silicon). The “soul” is freed by being digitized and injected into cyberspace. (Naturally, a crash or corruption of the hardware would ensure one’s digital oblivion.)
According to a Christian worldview, these far-flung claims—in addition to their technological implausibility—present a counterfeit soteriology and are riddled with philosophical conundrums. Whatever benefits cyberspace may offer for the rapid transference of information or for some simulations, it remains a human artifact, not a source of salvation. Redemption is only available from outside the cursed and fallen environs of a world east of Eden and still awaiting its final liberation (Romans 8:18-25).
On this front, the Christian apologist should marshal two related arguments. First, the physical world, while fallen, should not be fled as inherently evil. The Scriptures affirm the created goodness of the universe (Genesis 1; 1 Timothy 4:1-4), and the Incarnation (John 1:1-3; 14) ratifies that goodness in the person of Jesus, who is truly human as well as truly divine. The attempt to escape the body into an amoral realm of unlimited potential is both to betray our created purpose as God’s image bearers (Genesis 1:26-28) and to replay the ancient error of seeking self deification when we are but finite and fallen mortals (Genesis 3:5; Ezekiel 28:1-10). The second apologetic argument is that, while we are physical creatures who may await a glorious resurrection of the body if we follow the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15), we are not merely physical beings. Jesus and the apostles taught that there is an immaterial element to the human person that interacts with, but is not reducible to, physical states. In addition to the unified biblical witness, contemporary philosophers such as J.P. Moreland and Richard Swinburne have convincingly made this case. If the mind or soul is a substance distinct from the body, the notion of transferring human consciousness (understood as reducible to brain function) into physical software is inherently impossible. For the same reason, the claim that sophisticated computers will eventually attain consciousness is wrongheaded. (One philosopher has predicted that computers will so transcend human abilities that they will retain us only as pets.) Matter cannot generate consciousness. Although artificial intelligence (AI) is capable of tremendous computational power, it is not sentient.
Second, the Internet as a source of information on diverse religions, worldviews, and cults affords the apologist with both opportunities and dangers. Quality control on the Internet is minimal; anyone with a web page can post anything. In his research, the apologist must develop a good sense for what is trustworthy information (such as official web pages for new religious groups) and what is not (hoaxes and amateur apologetics sites). Moreover, one should not substitute on-line research at the expense of pertinent printed materials, such as standard reference works, which have had more editorial filtering and are more legitimate.
Third, as Quentin Schultze has argued convincingly, the conditions of cyberspace, if engaged in uncritically, tend to undermine a life of virtue. With its emphasis on information over wisdom, efficiency over moral character, spin over authenticity, the present over received tradition, and virtual realities over the physical realities that provide the ambiance for communion and community, cyberspace poses a threat to the kind of Christian character that is essential to authentic apologetic endeavors. Since winsome apologetics demands both solid arguments and a humble and wise demeanor, apologists should be on guard that their cyberspace activities do not short-circuit the fruit of the Spirit in their lives (Galatians 6:16-26). For example, although email makes it easy to engage in heated, rapid, and thoughtless disputes (sometimes called “flame wars”), the representative of Christ should flee such temptations to impatience and anger in order to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15; see also 2 Timothy 2:24-26).
Furthermore, many high-powered and popular video games trade on heinous violence (such as shooting innocent elderly people) and graphic sexual scenes. Some “first-person shooter” games employ the same technologies used in computer simulations by the US military to break down a soldier’s reluctance to kill on the battlefield. Evidence indicates that some teenage murderers, influenced by these games, adopted this mentality in their homicides. Since Jesus warned that sins of anger, lust, and violence begin in the mind (Matthew 5:21-30), such video game simulations should be rejected as irreconcilable with the life that God blesses. Apologists should recommend wholesome and wise recreations in their place.
Groothuis, Douglas. The Soul in Cyberspace. 1997; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock reprint, 2001.
Grossman, Dave, Gloria DeGaetano. Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movies, and Video Game Violence. New York: Crown Publishers, 1999.
Heim, Michael. Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998
Houston, Graham. Virtual Morality. Leicester, UK: Apollos/InterVarsity, 1998.
Schultze, Quentin. Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.