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David Chalmers leaves behind the hard problem of consciousness for an adventure tour of computer-simulated worlds and virtual reality. Paul Doolan interviews him about his new book, Reality+: virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy.
In his new book, Reality+, David Chalmers leaves the well-trampled garden of human consciousness and travels in a new direction, taking readers on a technophilosophy adventure tour of computer-simulated worlds and virtual reality. He has penned a philosophical page-turner that cascades from Aristotle to Zhuangzi, from Plato’s Cave to Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine, while wrestling with the big questions of knowledge, reality and mind. Discussions of epistemology and metaphysics are as likely to reference the Netflix drama Black Mirror, as the ideas of Daniel Dennett. The Matrix receives more attention than the works of Kant. Sci-fi classics like Snow Crash and Speak Player One stand shoulder to shoulder with Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy and Putnam’s History, Truth and Reason. Scores of humorous philosophical illustrations drawn by Tim Peacock help to push the argument forward. Chalmers is arguing that we should take seriously the likelihood that we are simulated beings living in a simulated universe. Our creator could be a teenage hacker one universe up from ours, although it seems more likely that some form of AI generated our simulated universe. The fact that we are conscious beings does not negate the idea that we are sims, since consciousness is substrate independent, emerging from the organisation of a complex system, whether biologically- or silicon-based. Chalmers reveals himself to be a virtual realist, arguing that the ‘entities in virtual reality are real’ (p.105) – they are digital objects, made of information or bits. He concludes that we should not be afraid of migrating into a virtual world, as we can live genuine, fulfilling lives there. In October 2021 I met with him for a virtual (of course!) talk.
You have done much work on consciousness. This seems like a new departure. Is it a natural progression, or have you taken an entirely new turn with this book?
David Chalmers © Claudia Passos 2021
To some extent it’s a new topic. It’s certainly consistent with what I have said over the years about consciousness. But I also like to think that this book is open to people who heavily disagree with me about consciousness – those who are much more reductionist or functionalist about it. They might happily take this new work onboard. In fact, I find that some people who are sympathetic with me about consciousness are less sympathetic with me here.
There certainly are lines of continuity. One central part of my work on consciousness has been arguing that machines can be conscious. Artificial minds are potentially genuine minds, and that’s quite important for thinking about simulated realities. Another strand in thinking about consciousness is a kind of structuralism in the physical world; that maybe physics can’t add up fully to an explanation of consciousness because physics is mostly a kind of abstract causal structure but consciousness goes beyond that. Maybe that strand is continuous with what goes on in this work, with its structuralism about the physical world. It is a way of thinking about physical reality whereby virtual reality and physical reality are not so different.
In the introduction to the book you outline different ways of reading it, with varying levels of difficulty, like levels of competency in a computer game. Does the architecture of the book deliberately reflect VR/gaming?
I hadn’t thought of that! I guess one could have the ‘new player’ setting for reading the book, and the ‘expert’ setting. I was thinking more that people might have many different interests that could draw them to the book – technology, science, fiction, and many different topics in philosophy – and that it could be helpful to give them some guidance.
Is this a fair outline of the book? It is likely that we live in a computer simulation but that should not worry us because everything is still real. Virtual reality is built out of digital objects that are real (made of bits) so virtual reality is real. As we spend more of our lives in VR that will be fine.
I wouldn’t say it’s ‘likely’ we’re in a simulation, I’d just say that we might be and that we can’t rule it out. In the book I speculate that there is at least a 25% chance. Maybe more important is the idea that virtual reality is genuine reality: that is, both under the simulation hypothesis and in regular VR, the virtual world is just as real as ordinary physical reality. VR will become an increasingly central part of our lives, and I think life in VR can be perfectly meaningful.
Life in lower resolution
AltspaceVR Camp Fire © Orangemaking 2020
It seems to me that the simulation hypothesis and the virtual reality aspects of the book are two different arguments. What’s the relationship between them?
Yes, that’s an interesting question. Lately I have been giving talks ‘From the Matrix to the Metaverse’. I think of that as the structure of the book as well. Start off with something extreme – the Matrix movie – which is mostly science fiction yet philosophically very rich and interesting, and try to give an analysis of it. Then apply some of the ideas from that analysis to what I call ‘real virtual reality’ and the technology that’s coming our way that’s called the Metaverse. [A metaverse is a 3D or 2D simulated world within which people interact, sometimes with the help of VR headsets. Ed.] Often in philosophy or science it’s nice to start with an extreme, so I start with the extreme case of the simulation hypothesis. I try to argue for the ‘it from bit’ idea, that even if we are in a simulation, the objects we are interacting with are real, on a good definition of ‘real’. They are digital objects to be sure, but they are in a real world of real experiences. Then I apply that idea to a less extreme case. In ordinary virtual reality, we are interacting with real digital objects, which have causal powers and exist independently of our minds. I think that has some interesting consequences. For instance, the practical use of virtual reality is not an illusion or fiction. Maybe it means there are no blocks to us leading a meaningful life in virtual reality. Part of what is going on here is starting with a pure extreme case, and then going on to the more practical version of that case.
Can you explain how VR helps to cast new light on Descartes’ problem of how we can know anything about external reality?
Well, Descartes considered the idea that we are being fooled by an evil demon right now, such that everything we think is real is an illusion. You can think of the evil demon’s world as being a type of virtual reality. The examples the students get instantly these days are ‘You might be in the Matrix right now’, or ‘You might be in a simulation right now’. I use VR to pose the Cartesian question, but that’s just at the level of illustration. Nothing about that particularly transforms the question. However, if you combine this with an analysis of virtual reality, and if you argue that virtual realities are genuinely real, as I do – well, that has consequences, both for using virtual reality and the sceptical argument about external reality. Descartes’ argument basically assumes that virtual realities are not genuine realities: that if we’re in one of these simulation scenarios, nothing around us is real. In addition, he uses that to argue that we cannot know if any of it is real. I think that is a big assumption behind Descartes’ argument – that virtual realities are not genuine realities. However, if you accept that virtual realities are genuine realties, it means that Descartes’ type of sceptical argument is somewhat harder to get off the ground. The world becomes somehow less removed from us than it was in the purely Cartesian conception. That is not to say that this solves all of the problems of scepticism. But thinking about virtual reality this way could clarify quite a lot of the issues Cartesians bring up.
Philosophers use metaphors that are emblematic for their age. When clock-making was the cutting edge of technology, Deist philosophers like Voltaire believed that God was like a clockmaker – God created the universe to work mechanically. Now computer technology is often used as a metaphor for the human brain, or even of all of reality. Could it be that the concept of a computer-simulated universe is simply a case in which the metaphor has displaced the real?
Yes, that’s a fair point. Philosophical thinking tends to reflect the technology of the time. Our philosophical thoughts can also reflect our latest information about the world. Advances in science have often driven good philosophy, and so have advances in technology. This can have upsides or downsides. Of course you are right; we don’t want to go too far. We don’t want a sort of knee-jerk enthusiasm like ‘String theory is the key to the universe’ or ‘Virtual Reality is the key to the universe’. However, I also think you have to go case by case.
I have been critical of some examples of people saying we can use the latest neuroscience, or the latest AI, to explain consciousness. But at least in the case of thinking about reality I have found quite a few useful ideas from reflecting upon VR. However, I wouldn’t want to say ‘That is the latest technology and so that’s how the world works’. For me, thinking about virtual reality, technology, and the simulation idea, provided a way to drive certain broader ideas about reality in its broadest structural or mathematical terms. For me the technology was a very useful driver to get there. But certainly it is a reasonable reaction to say, isn’t this pushing analogies too far? A fair amount of where it gets you to is speculation: ‘God is a hacker in the next universe up’, for example. That’s presumably no more than a speculative possibility. But even if technology’s opening up speculative possibilities, that is interesting in its own right.
Speaking of God being a hacker, isn’t the promise of Reality+, with the potential for uploading ourselves to some pleasing digital realm, simply a replacement for Christian eschatology for a post-Christian world?
I don’t think uploading has to be tied to religion, but obviously it has something in common with religious ideas about the afterlife. Perhaps you could call it a secular eschatology if you like!
Will spending increasing amounts of time in virtual reality help solve problems like climate change and the sixth extinction?
I think we need to think about all these issues in thinking about the future – climate change, social justice, AI, virtual worlds, and much more. I don’t think virtual worlds solves the problem of climate change, or vice versa. Virtual worlds might provide one way of dealing with the problem if we don’t solve it: namely, live our lives in virtual worlds that have not been degraded like the non-virtual world has. It would be much better if we can avoid the degradation in the first place, though.
But isn’t the scenario of mass extinction more likely than the idea that centuries from now our ancestors will create a perfect simulation, and that something like simulation is exactly what we’re now experiencing?
There are possible long-term futures with mass extinction, and possible long-term futures with simulations. I don’t know the probabilities, but it would be highly speculative to say that mass extinction is more likely.
There are vast numbers of dangers and threats. I remember when I was a kid I read a book by Isaac Asimov called A Choice of Catastrophes (1979). The possibility I worry about most when it comes to extinction is actually artificial intelligence, because once you have artificial superintelligence, it’s just so unpredictable. It may well have the power to do things on a massive scale. It could potentially lead to extinction. I would not confidently proclaim that we will get beyond that development. On the other hand, I would not confidently proclaim that we’re going to go extinct… The reasonable place to be about all of this is to be very worried, very cautious, thinking very hard about how to handle all of these future threats. I lean towards optimism in general. Maybe that’s a character flaw.
You use the allegory of the prisoners in Plato’s cave. Who do you think are the jailers today?
I’d say it depends on the cave, or on the simulation. In the Matrix, the jailers are the machines. If we’re in a simulation, who knows? Perhaps our jailer is a hacker in the next universe up. As for near-term virtual reality: in many current virtual worlds, the people running the simulation are corporations. In Tim Peacock’s illustration in my book depicting VR as a twenty-first century version of Plato’s Cave, Mark Zuckerberg is running the simulation. But to be fair, no one is jailed in VR, exactly – at least not yet!
Isn’t this the problem: Reality+ will not be the creation of philosophers (maybe that’s a blessing!) but will develop in the context of corporate capitalism, or Chinese communism, where profit or control will be the goal, making a technological dystopia more likely than a utopia?
My view is that VR has both utopian and dystopian potential. I can’t predict what will win out. If it’s dominated by corporations, it’s easy to see many things going wrong. But just because virtual worlds are dominated by corporations in the short term, it’s far from obvious that they’ll be dominated by corporations in the long term. There may well be forms of governance coming that we can’t yet anticipate.
Any thoughts on Facebook changing its name to Meta, and all the development work on metaverses and VR headsets announced by Meta and by Apple?
The Metaverse is complicated. Zuckerberg seems to use the term as the sum total of all virtual worlds, or something. There will be a universe of virtual worlds – maybe the metaverse will be all of Virtual Reality. This raises all sorts of interesting questions. Will there be a single interconnected metaverse of open standards, not run by anybody, maybe analogous with the internet? The internet isn’t run by anybody but of course has many parts run by different groups, not least including Facebook. Or will it be more like a propriety metaverse from the start – dominated by a single corporation? That’s the idea behind Apple and Facebook racing to make the metaverse. At the moment, we don’t know which way it will go. Probably in the short term it will be dominated by corporations, but in the longer term you can see this basically becoming part of the infrastructure of our lives, something like a public utility, in the way the internet is more or less a public utility.
When people will be living half their lives in a virtual world it’s hard to imagine that they’re going to give over control of that to corporations. I’m optimistic that they might come to new forms of government and regulation, and not simply be run by corporations. I certainly agree that if it does end up being run by corporations that has major dystopia potential. Whoever owns these virtual worlds are going to be basically like the gods. They’ll be omniscient and omnipotent with respect to those worlds, and we don’t really want to put that power in the hands of corporations. But in the long term I think it’s going to develop in ways we can’t even imagine.
• Paul Doolan teaches philosophy at Zurich International School and is the author of Collective Memory and the Dutch East Indies: Unremembering Decolonization (Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2021).
• David Chalmers is University Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science at New York University. He first became widely known for his 1996 book The Conscious Mind.