Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, by David J. Chalmers (W. W. Norton, 544 pp., $32)
When Facebook changed its corporate name to Meta, it was not a simple case of rebranding for a company embroiled in issues of privacy, censorship, and political interference. It was, rather, the first step toward an integrated digital platform—the “metaverse”—incorporating global communication (WhatsApp), virtual reality (Oculus), and traditional social media (Facebook and Instagram). The promotional video was predictably uninspiring, but the immersive virtual environments predicted by science-fiction writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson loom ever closer on the horizon. That raises some important questions about the status of these brave new worlds—and whether we are really better off living online.
These questions about virtual reality provide the framework for Reality+, by New York University philosopher David Chalmers. The book is an excellent introduction to the big questions of philosophy—and also an enthusiastic endorsement of our high-tech future. Chalmers is one of the most influential philosophers working today: a pioneer on cognition, the nature of consciousness, and the foundations of modern science. And he has a lot to say about life in the metaverse.
More specifically, Reality+ is what Chalmers calls “technophilosophy”: philosophical reflection about new technology, which, in turn, casts new light on old philosophical conundrums. Consider the traditional problem of skepticism. Descartes suggested that we cannot know anything for certain, since our lives themselves may be an illusion; any evidence to the contrary, he said, could just be another part of the elaborate deception. While Descartes contemplated evil demons manipulating his senses, later philosophers worried that they might be just brains in a vat. For his part, Chalmers suggests that we might be living inside a computer simulation.
But like Facebook’s changeover to Meta, the shift from an evil deceiver to a hyperreal simulation is not merely an exercise in rebranding. Many philosophers dismiss the problem of skepticism as too outlandish, a violation of common sense, or somehow self-refuting. But a growing number, led by Nick Bostrom, believe that the current trajectory of computing power makes it likely that we really are in a simulation. Elon Musk summed up the reasoning: “Simulation technology is likely to be so ubiquitous that most beings in the universe (or most beings with experience like ours) are sims. If so, then we are probably sims.” As technology improves, civilizations will run ever more computer simulations; eventually, simulated individuals will massively outnumber non-simulated individuals; thus, the argument goes, anyone who thinks they might be in a simulation probably is in one.
Not all of this is bad news, says Chalmers. The central claim of his book is that virtual realities are genuine realities. Digital object are real objects, grounded in the real processing of a real computer. Someone inside a simulation therefore knows just as much about their (virtual) environment as we know about our (physical) one. And once we recognize the equivalence, then the possibility that we are inside a simulation becomes no longer a source of skepticism but rather a metaphysical thesis about the nature of our reality. As Chalmers puts it: “Some philosophers have thought reality is made of minds. Others have thought it’s made of atoms. Now we have a new hypothesis: The world is made of bits.”
It’s a bold hypothesis, but it does more than simply spark debate in the philosophy classroom. It carries immediate consequences for how we think about emerging technologies, the use of virtual reality in everyday life, and even for the authenticity of a life plugged into the machine.
The issue, of course, turns on what it means to be “real.” We talk about real objects existing independently of our minds or possessing causal powers to affect things—but this is also true of a (suitably sophisticated) computer simulation. It is hard to pin down a robust sense of reality that excludes the virtual. Moreover, contemporary physics increasingly conceptualizes fundamental reality not in terms of “concrete” objects (atoms, quarks, strings) but as an abstract mathematical structure. But a computer program is also nothing more than an abstract mathematical structure, albeit one implemented by manmade machines rather than the cosmos. For Chalmers, though, this is a difference without a distinction:
Our leading current theories in physics aren’t formulated in terms of bits but as more complex mathematical quantities, such as quantum wave functions involving mass, charge, spin, and so on, all embedded in space and time. . . . On that approach, current physics is realized by digital physics involving the interaction of bits.
So even if we’re not living in a simulation, the fundamental structure of physical reality is no different than the digital structure of virtual reality. There is nothing “second-rate” about life inside the metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg is doing us a favor. Take the blue pill.
Living online may seem to have its advantages. Virtual worlds do not face the same scarcities as the physical world. Zoning regulations will be a thing of the past—beachfront villas for everyone! If we end up irreparably damaging our existing environment, the virtual may be our only option. Chalmers is certainly optimistic about our prospects: “In the long term, virtual worlds may have most of what is good about the nonvirtual world. Given all the ways in which virtual worlds may surpass the nonvirtual world, life in virtual worlds will often be the right life to choose.”
Yet doubts remain. As Robert Nozick noted in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, people derive value from more than enjoyable experiences. No matter how convincing the simulation, or how imaginative the possibilities, virtual existence will miss something. We want our experiences to be genuine. We want our choices to matter. Ultimately, we want our lives to have meaning.
These issues have troubled philosophers for millennia. But if Chalmers is right that virtual realities are genuine realities, then will our simulated experiences really be less genuine than our actual ones? You can build meaningful relationships with other people in a virtual environment, undertake significant challenges, and succeed or fail just as readily as in any other (non-virtual) environment. Some may use virtual reality as a form of escapism, others as an excuse for immoral behavior. But that has been a problem for any new technology. Only a bad workman blames his tools.
Yet if virtual reality will not render our lives meaningless, Chalmers is overly optimistic if he thinks that it will not radically transform that meaning. The environments we inhabit and the technologies we use have always influenced the way we understand ourselves, from the productive citizen of the Ancient Greek polis to the freethinking individual of the European Enlightenment.
The social and political effect of virtual reality is difficult to predict. Facebook’s mission statement is to “bring the world closer together,” yet the company has arguably done more to inflame the divisions in society. Chalmers argues that virtual realities are genuine realities. One wonders if that might be the problem.
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