Can We Have a Meaningful Life in a Virtual World?

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The imminent arrival of the long-awaited fourth Matrix movie will surely spur another round of thinking about a question that philosophers have been kicking around at least since Platos time: How do we know that our world is real? Nowadays, of course, were far more likely to consider that a simulated reality would be rendered in bytes rather than shadows on a cave wall. Furthermore, given both the technical progress being made and the business push behind it, far more likely than our predecessors to actually embrace the prospect of life in a virtual world. The philosophical implications of such worlds as well as the possibility we might already be existing within one are the subject of the philosopher David J. Chalmerss new book Reality+, which will be published in January. In it, Chalmers, who is a professor of philosophy and neural science at New York University, as well as co-director of the schools Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness, argues, among other things, that our thinking about our future virtual lives neednt be rooted in visions of dystopia. The possibilities for virtual reality, says Chalmers, who is 55, are as broad as the possibilities for physical reality. We know physical reality can be amazing and it can be terrible, and I fully expect the same range for virtual reality.

You argue in your book that virtual realities have the potential to be just as rich and valid a place for people to exist in as real ones. But whats something that a virtual world might be missing that, in your thinking, could inhibit the pursuit of a meaningful life? I think what moves a lot of people is the idea that somehow if you were in a virtual world, it would all be fake, it would be an illusion. Maybe the virtual worlds are like video games: Nothing that happens there really matters; its just an escape from the issues in the real world. Whereas I think what happens in virtual worlds can, in principle, be very significant. You can build a meaningful life in a virtual world. We can get into deep social and political discussions and decisions about the shape of society in a virtual world. Rather than living in a video game, my analogy would be more like were moving to a new, uninhabited country and setting up a society. The issues will be somewhat different from the issues where we came from, but I wouldnt consider that escapism. Also, Im not saying abandon physical reality completely and go live in a virtual world. I think of the virtual world as a supplement to physical reality rather than a replacement, at least in any remotely short term.

What makes your life meaningful? And are there any ways in which a virtual existence would get in the way of those things? Theres a lot of factors in a meaningful life. Theres having significant goals and reaching them. Theres having positive relationships with other people. Theres having positive subjective experiences. Theres coming to understand things. But most of these basic kinds of things that matter, you ought to be able to get in a virtual world. This is not to say that virtual worlds are on a par with physical worlds in every respect. For example, someone might value brute, unencumbered nature. A virtual world wont give you that. I dont want to say theres no loss in moving to a virtual world. At least for the next century or so I suspect the kind of embodiment we get from virtual worlds will be a pale shadow of what we get from physical reality. But looking to a long-term future, its easy to envisage a world where a lot of the short-term obstacles are overcome.

Is there something sort of nihilistic about arguing for the positive possibilities of a virtual world? To me it takes some of the air out of trying to fix problems in this world. I want to resist the idea that its either/or. That if were thinking about virtual reality, we cant think about physical reality. We can think about climate change and social justice and all these things at once. And virtual-reality technology is coming. We need to be thinking about it. Its clear to me that virtual worlds have a lot to offer. This doesnt make them a panacea. I dont expect this to solve the problems of social justice overnight by giving everybody a virtual mansion at the beach. Many of the sources of inequality are still going to remain.

David Chalmers in 1996.
UC Santa Cruz Review, via David Chalmers

I want to move on to the idea that we cant know that were not living in a perfect simulation. Lets say you were at a bar making conversation with a stranger about your book. How would you present that idea? I would first point to existing simulation technology and virtual-reality technology. VR technology is still primitive, but you can put on one of these headsets and be in an immersive virtual world that is in some ways reminiscent of a physical reality. Give it another 50 or 100 years and then maybe were going to have simulations of the world that are basically indistinguishable from physical reality. Then you just raise the question: How do you know thats not happening to you already?

And it turns out that the person at the bar is into Descartes: I have thoughts. I have an inner world. How could that be the product of a simulation? Its not part of my thesis that we are definitely in a simulation. I think its reasonable to remain agnostic. Nevertheless, in recent years, weve been getting increasing reason to take this hypothesis seriously simply from the fact that we now know that this technology is possible. For Descartes, this was a very abstract possibility: Maybe an evil demon is fooling me in this way. But now were actually building the technology that can do this. So maybe its possible that in the history of the universe there are going to be thousands, millions, billions of such simulations, and that makes whether we might be in one of them a very live question.

I understand the logical arguments for why we might be living in a simulation. Im less clear on the consequences. What might accepting the simulation hypothesis mean for how I go about my life? First of all, if its a perfect simulation, maybe well never know thats what it is. But if we did come to discover that were in a simulation? It depends on what kind of simulation were in. If we suddenly were to start communicating with our simulators, who tell us theyre only going to upload us for eternal life if we worship them in appropriate ways, then maybe our lives would be transformed in the same kind of ways as it would be transformed by discovering that theres a God. But if we come to discover that its just a simulation churning away in the background then, yeah, maybe our initial reaction would be shock, and thered be a lot of hand-wringing, but I think Id say, Well, life goes on. Some people say that if we were to discover this, it would mean that nothing is real and this is all a delusion. I want to resist that idea. I think even if we are in a simulation, were still living in a real world and we can still have a meaningful life.

Could you sketch out what you see as the necessary characteristics of a real world? In the book, I say, Here are five different things you might mean by a real world. One is it has causal powers. There are various other ones but maybe the most important one to me is not being illusory. I argue that if were in the Matrix, none of this is fundamentally an illusion: interacting with tables and chairs, people. They do things, theyre out there independent of us and theyre not illusions. If were in a simulation, theyre just made of something different.

A specific mental hurdle I have a hard time clearing is what living in a simulation would mean for the subject-object aspect of human existence. Im thinking of a statement like I exist in the universe. In which I is the subject and the universe is the object and my sense of self comes from the distinction between the two. But if I accept the argument that we might be in a simulation, and thus the subject and object may both be artificial constructs, do I then also have to collapse my subject-object relationship? And wouldnt doing that devalue my personal experience? I dont think so. Either way, whether were in physical reality or a simulation, theres going to be conscious creatures at the core and theyre going to be interacting with the world outside themselves. Some people react to the simulation idea by saying that if that happens, its all in the mind and theres no genuine reality outside ourselves. But I think if were in a simulation, theres a vast structured external world around us. Its nature is somewhat different from what we thought, but that doesnt make it less real. Discovering that were in a simulation would then also tell us that theres potentially a reality beyond the reality that we experience, which is the reality of the simulating world, and who knows whats going on there! So I think of this, if anything, as potentially greatly expanding reality beyond the single reality were familiar with.

Chalmers at TEDxSydney in 2011.
Fiona Lumsdaine/TEDxSydney.

Theres a part of me that cant quite shake the feeling that youre being a little casual about peoples connection to certain beliefs about reality. I understand that youre saying that those beliefs can flow just as well from a virtual digital world, and maybe you have an enlightened view or are more open-minded than I am, but is it also possible that theres something sort of emotionally dissociative about this kind of philosophical investigation? Thats fair, and there are different people that are going to have different philosophical and emotional attitudes to virtual worlds. If some people are going to have a viscerally negative reaction to spending time there then they certainly should not be spending time there. I understand this. Many people have a viscerally negative reaction to the digital over the analog.

But I think thats kind of beside the point. Its not so much about resisting changing from one format to another. Its about a fundamental belief about what reality consists of. And youre positing that people will just switch modes of thinking and belief which are based on that fundamental reality. I may be a Luddite, but that switch seems like it could be a pretty big leap for some people. I guess I want to have a philosophical conversation with a person like that and say maybe first start by thinking about what weve already learned from quantum mechanics and other very abstract areas of physics that suggest that physical reality at the bottom level is not the solid bunch of building blocks and space that we might have thought it was. Maybe some people would have the reaction to that of, well, in light of quantum mechanics, the world is less real than Id thought. But Id try to convince them that as long as theres this world out there appropriately connected to our consciousness then that is a form of reality always remembering that we have this amazing capacity to invest things with meaning ourselves. Theres not a fundamental obstacle here. I would also point out theres a whole lot of people out there who are going to be able to find new kinds of meaning from virtual worlds who may well be restricted in various ways from their access to the physical world. Whether its disabled people or people in oppressed societies.

Constructing either a perfect simulation or a fully developed virtual world would probably require conscious A.I. How close are we to understanding what the missing ingredient is that would give A.I. the spark of consciousness? Consciousness remains a mystery. We dont know how consciousness could arise in a digital system. But we also dont know how consciousness arises in biological systems. It may well be that once we have a solution to the problem of consciousness, that will transform how we think about all these things. Its very likely that at some point in the future well have A.I. systems as sophisticated as humans are. Maybe even A.I. systems that simulate human brains. At that point, my view is its very likely that A.I.s will be conscious. Theres nothing special about being made of biology versus being made of silicon that means one gets to be conscious and the other one not.

But why is it likely that A.I.s will be conscious given that we still have no idea what it is that generates consciousness in the first place? I dont think theres a guarantee that artificial systems are going to have the potential for consciousness because, as you say, we dont fully understand consciousness. But there are a lot of reasons to take it pretty seriously. Heres an example: someone says that if I build a biological duplicate of us, it will be conscious. Most of us would find that plausible even though we dont understand consciousness perfectly. Once weve established that much, then the question is, Which features of us are going to be most relevant in producing consciousness? Is it the specific biology or is it the information processing? There are lots of reasons to think its not the specific biology. I think theres solid reasons to go with the information processing, and if thats the case then theres a strong case for the possibility of digital consciousness.

Does thinking so much about the nature of reality and consciousness and sorry to put it crudely ever freak you out? It happens less when Im thinking about this stuff professionally but absolutely there are moments where its: Im conscious and somehow the world is present to me. How can this be? Or every now and then Ill look in the mirror and say: Why does this guy David Chalmers keep following me around? Every time I look in the mirror, hes there. Thats kind of freaky. How did I get to be somebody in the first place? And then when you start thinking about simulations: What if the only person in the simulation is me?

As Im sure you can tell, this stuff freaks me out sometimes. You can try to think of our own ordinary physical universe as being a digital universe with bits at the bottom. Thats not pathological; thats just a way for the world to be. I want to normalize this idea of simulations. I quite like the recent movie Free Guy where the guy discovers hes a nonplayer character in a video game and instead of totally freaking out None of this is real! he starts a movement. Its like, OK, were real people too, and our lives matter and our world matters. Thats thinking of the simulated world not as dystopia but as a place where people can live meaningful lives.

Let me ask you this: If we are in the Matrix, why would the simulators have made two such terrible sequels? Im hopeful well have an answer soon. Im counting on the fourth one!


This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. Recently he interviewed Brian Cox about the filthy rich, Dr. Becky about the ultimate goal of parenting and Tiffany Haddish about Gods sense of humor.

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