Have you ever read a book that gets under your skin not because you loved it but because it makes an argument so seemingly preposterous that you recoil from it? Reality+ by David Chalmers is just such a work.
Chalmers is an affable Australian philosopher and an unlikely expert in zombies who I had the pleasure of interviewing for Unthinkable when he visited Dublin some years ago. For his latest project, he commendably addresses an important moral question: Should we be concerned about the retreat of modern citizens from the real world to virtual worlds – be they hermetically-sealed online communities, fantasy-themed gaming platforms, or something altogether more sci-fi like The Matrix (from the movie franchise)?
His answer is exactly that which would be "liked" by Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Peter Isherwell, the creepy futurologist played by Mark Rylance in Don't Look Up. According to Chalmers, virtual reality can be just as good as – if not better than – reality itself. And although there are important qualifications to his argument, Reality+ will give succour to those among us who think it's okay to jet off to one's own private nirvana and to hell with the actual world.
Am I being unfair to Chalmers? Let you be the judge.
The idea that it’s better to face reality than live a lie is deeply rooted in our culture at least as far back as Plato whose allegory of The Cave diagnosed a common slavery of the mind. Chalmers urges us to put aside such cultural baggage and to look at the issue afresh.
In its purest sense, VR promises a life unencumbered by historical or cultural inheritance. It allows participants to start with a clean slate
To some extent we already have virtual worlds. You may have friends online, for example, who you have never met. It’s possible one, or even many, of these friends and followers are computer-generated entities – not real people at all. Does that make your interaction with them any less meaningful?
Chalmers pushes the argument further. Imagine, he says, it becomes possible for humans in the future to travel to other planets and build new lives there. This non-Earthy existence he describes as “Terraform Reality”. Now imagine you could build a virtual reality (VR) that was rich enough to have “roughly the complexity of ordinary reality, after short-term technological limitations have been overcome”.
He proceeds to state: “Life in rich VR is roughly as valuable as life in Terraform Reality. Life in Terraform Reality is roughly as valuable as ordinary nonvirtual life. So: Life in rich VR is roughly as valuable as ordinary nonvirtual life.”
If this strikes you as a circular argument you’re not alone. Stripped down, he seems to be saying: VR is roughly the same as reality because, in the future, we will have a type of VR that is roughly the same as reality.
Talking about “short-term technological limitations” leaves Chalmers open to some ridicule – so don’t hold back. Beyond that, however, there is a somewhat blasé approach to the origin of human values.
“What are the sources of value?” he asks. “I’m inclined to think that all value arises, one way or another, from consciousness.”
This enigmatic answer sits uneasily with our ordinary conception of morality as something rooted in human history. There are good reasons to retain this common sense understanding. The atrocities of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, for example, are moral reference points, setting red lines for behaviour today.
In its purest sense, VR promises a life unencumbered by historical or cultural inheritance. It allows participants to start with a clean slate, without any guilt or responsibility attached to their real-world existence.
Sure, gamers in an online realm can operate under an internal moral code – virtue can be represented by slaying dragons or helping other players, etc. Participants could also get some real-world pleasure, depending on the nature of the simulation. But, should this become our main form of existence, the value to humanity becomes more obscure.
John Danaher, a law lecturer and philosopher at NUI Galway, has written extensively on this topic and is broadly sympathetic with Chalmers' view. Asked whether values abstracted from reality can genuinely be classified as values, he says: "I partly disagree with the assumption that virtual worlds will lack a historical context. Everything, including fiction and games, is a product of human culture and has some historical links or roots in that culture. You cannot divorce them from history.
“Similarly, I think it is a mistake to assume that we have or will face an either/or choice: live in a virtual world or the real world. We will live in a blend of both.” In other words, the future of VR won’t be like The Matrix. “We are not going to slide into a hyper-realistic set of simulated worlds and never return to the real world. Rather, we will flit back and forth and always have some foothold in the real world.”
This sounds more like augmented reality (AR), however, rather than VR – and maybe part of appreciating Chalmers’ perspective is getting the definitions clear. Under AR, people experience an altered or enhanced version of the physical world, whereas VR implies more of a clean break.
Given any VR will be constructed by some kind of Silicon Valley private enterprise, can humans in that VR be considered fully autonomous, moral agents?
When discussing AR, Chalmers is on safer ground – and he makes an intriguing case for treating the theft of a smartphone as not larceny but something “more akin to assault”, given our dependence on the device for working memory. At times, moreover, he closes the gap between AR and VR to make the latter more palatable: “I’m certainly not recommending that everyone abandon the nonvirtual world for virtual worlds.” (So just some of us then?)
However, it’s hard to get away from the dubious moral judgment: “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.”
Just who does he think is going to own these virtual worlds?
Chalmers is alive to the possibility of Big Tech corrupting any VR. “It’s easy to imagine that current sources of oppression will carry over into virtual worlds,” he writes. But a more fundamental question lies beneath: Given any VR will be constructed by some kind of Silicon Valley private enterprise, can humans in that VR be considered fully autonomous, moral agents?
“This strikes me as being the biggest problem with technological forms of VR - who owns and controls the virtual commons? That said, I think it is a mistake to talk about some vague ideal of ‘full autonomy’,” says Danaher.
“In the real world, our actions are constrained in various ways: by laws, by other people, by our physical circumstances. In computer simulated worlds, our actions will also be constrained in some ways but, perhaps, unconstrained in other ways – not bound by our previous social reputations, not constrained by the traditional laws of physics or by our physical disabilities.
“The question is whether the total set of constraints is morally optimal or desirable. Based on current digital environments, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic.”
On that, at least, I think we can all agree.
Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy by David J. Chalmers is published by Allen Lane (£25)