I’m reading David Chalmers’s “Reality+”
It wasn’t on my list but I received it as a Christmas present. For me Chalmers is to philosophy as Brian Cox is to science; a rock star that gets everyone waving their knickers in the front row, which I admit may cultivate interest in the previously ignorant, but which adds more sound-and-light-show than enlightenment to the subject itself. So it’s a struggle. For me.
Obviously, I’ve been following his virtual worlds – Matrix – pronouncements for decades, along with the Zombie thought experiments and his infamous “Hard Problem” of consciousness, long since debunked as a confusion – like Cartesian duality – that is itself “part of the problem”. Part of the problem of “science” taking a too naive – limited, autistic – view of reality and (like Pat Churchland, one of his early references) in danger of condemning swathes of philosophy to the same limitations. Scientism.
If ever there was a “footnote to Plato” this is it. He famously uses his image of users in a VR suite as his 21st C version of the cave. Easy to find. It only adds to Plato’s understanding if you understand his take on VR, which to be fair is the point of his book.Philosophy and science regularly use simulations to test theories, and test cases which are incidentally or deliberately limited versions of normal reality. Neuroscience and consciousness (science and philosophy) would be nowhere without the #LesionLiterature in its widest sense. A real subject with some missing or artificial feature. Artificial – as in not naturally evolved – is already the stuff of science and philosophy (and indeed engineering in our real world “built environment”). What’s “new” to Chalmers is the technology, VR in the ICT technology sense. Technophilosophy as he would have us call it. New as in 30+ years old. And we get his life history as a gamer kid. He seems also to have discovered virtual meetings during Covid times. In the real world we’ve been doing these for the same 2 or 3 decades?
Anyway, prejudice aside 🙂 How do we know we’re not living in a virtual reality, a simulation, the matrix?
The Value of Virtual Worlds
Sure, the virtual worlds we create are in – part of – the real world, they are additions to our world, but each VR world – even a complex connected system of systems of VR worlds – is a limited version of some part of the whole real world(*).
World plus VR = The Reality+plus
Each VR = A Reality-minus
“Today’s VR & AR systems are primitive […] Virtual environments offer immersive vision and sound, but you can’t touch a virtual surface, smell a virtual flower, or taste a virtual glass of wine when you drink it.”
Indeed, and you can’t get food poisoning from Mazviita’s Lobster either, let alone the pleasure and nutrition from tasting and consuming it. (Excretion? – let’s not go there.) The point is not that they’re technologically primitive, relative to future versions. They surely are. The point is accepted models of physics and sentience don’t support each other – yet(*). People are going to spend a lot of time and money, having a lot of fun in the process of building deeper and better VR & AR experiences. Like most science, failure to achieve a solution to the subjective sentience aspect and the “reality” of others – like the bacteria and toxins in that lobster – will be empirical evidence of a lesson learned. Negative results are always valuable to science. Anyway:
“The central thesis of this book is:
Virtual reality is genuine reality,
or at least, virtual realities are genuine realities.
Virtual worlds need not be second-class realities.
[And we can’t rule out the possibility we might already be living in a virtual – simulated – reality.]”
Sure, they’re “real” but inevitably limited versions of other realities – different classes – we’re setting up a taxonomy of realities. And we’re back to the same fundamental problem as the many worlds / multiple universes speculations. The root of both ontology and epistemology – what do we mean by existence in this – the/our – world? Illusions are real too. We run out of meanings for the words we have. Chalmers prefixes his “realities” with “genuine” – genuinely real. This is never ending race to the grounding of physics itself. Properly, genuinely, in actual fact, physically, real – anyone? I’m with Deutsch – everything we can conceive of is – in some sense – real, part of the real world. It’s the sense we’re lacking.
As my prejudiced position said above, without properly understood, properly modelled, living sentience in ourselves and others, AI / VR / AR will fall short of expectations.
Chalmers thought experiments will make you think if you’ve not thought them before, and by promoting VR & AR for experimentation in real world applications will expose more people to more of the possibilities as well as the limitations. I will skim later chapters to see what’s new, but I’m sceptical, so please alert me if you find anything I’ve missed.
(*) Which isn’t to say I don’t believe artificial life and sentience cannot be engineered, they can and will be (see previous post), but they will be real life and sentience – artificially evolved – when that happens.