Life in virtual worlds could become wonderful, thinks the philosopher David Chalmers (56). “You can fly there. You can go far beyond the limitations of the physical world.” If new ways of virtually experiencing physical sensations are invented, we get completely new sensations and experiences, he thinks.
“In the coming decades we are going to experience things that will make us find that human physical form was terribly limiting,” he argues during a digital video call from New York.
Australian Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at New York University, is a rock star among philosophers, largely thanks to his publications on consciousness. But in his new book Reality+ shifts focus from the nature of consciousness to another perennial philosopher’s question: the nature of reality. And especially what will change the appearance of digital and virtual worlds.
The book deals with the great philosophical questions that the metaverse evokes the future virtual world that is under construction. Is digital reality a real reality? (Yes, according to Chalmers.) Can we really know for sure that the world we now experience is not a simulation? (Nope). And: can you live a good life in a virtual world? (Yes).
He spent hundreds of hours on the book in virtual reality and on various digital platforms, which he believes were precursors to the metaverse. He describes how he has experienced in virtual reality in recent years what it is like to have a female body, fly through the air like a bird and take a trip to Mars. During the lockdowns, he was able to continue philosophizing with his colleagues in virtual reality. And yes, the technology sometimes faltered, but “it certainly gave us the feeling of entering a shared world.”
He concludes in his book that virtual reality is much more than a place for escapism that critics often see in it. The line between physical and virtual reality will become increasingly blurred in the next century, until the distinction may gradually disappear entirely, he thinks. “As people are faced with the choice between virtual or physical reality, virtual will become an increasingly better option.” The more realistic that world becomes, the more attractive it will be, because it offers more possibilities, he thinks.
The challenge is in the incarnation; the sensations you get from eating, drinking, sex
According to Chalmers, this has important implications for how we should think about the metaverse and how we organize it. He believes that virtual reality is not a second-class world, but in the coming decades it will become an equal, meaningful and potentially enjoyable part of life on many fronts: “It’s not like we’re moving into a computer game , but to a new country, uninhabited, where we can establish a new society. It is not escapism but emigration”. He does think that physical and virtual realities will always coexist.
Nor is it a false reality, Chalmers emphasizes again and again: “Just because something is a simulation doesn’t make it an illusion. Even when you sit in a digital bank, you interact with that bank. The difference lies in the fact that this interaction takes place through bits instead of atoms and quarks in a physical bank. It’s a different reality, but it’s still reality. Virtual reality expands the limits of reality.
‘Incarnation’ of the Internet
He admits that the distinction between the virtual and physical world experience is still quite large. Apple and Meta may be working on advanced virtual reality and augmented reality glasses, but the wealth of sensory experiences of the physical world will certainly remain out of reach for the time being.
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According to Chalmers, the great technological challenge is in the ‘incarnation’ of the internet: „Experience your own body in the digital world: sense of touch, the feeling that you are actually moving, the sensations you get from food, drink and sex. “When there are ways not only to see and hear things, but also to taste and feel things in a virtual world, it gives rise to a whole new range of sensations, tastes and experiences that we can’t even imagine right now, he says.
The main thing we’re looking forward to are brain-computer interfaces: techniques with which the digital world enters your brain directly and can influence your senses; Several big tech companies are already working on this, though it’s questionable whether they’ll ever get that good. as Chalmers suggests.
Brain-computer interfaces will be a nightmare for many people: “Matrix’but then real.
“The problem with The Matrix is not that it is a virtual world. The problem is that it is a world where people are being tricked, controlled and manipulated by the machines that made the Matrix.”
The current state of the Internet is not necessarily reassuring about the future of virtual worlds, is it? Companies like Google and Facebook make a lot of money from surveillance techniques and advanced influence methods.
“Certainly there are virtual worlds in which we are manipulated. But that doesn’t have to be a virtual world. Virtual worlds can get dystopian, of course. But not because they are virtual, but because of the way they are configured. I myself am inclined to think that the Internet has brought more good things than bad. Look at the ways people can connect with each other, how new communities are born and flourish. I hope and think that different models will emerge in the virtual worlds that become part of the metaverse. Some virtual worlds may be completely decentralized, in which users have all the power, some may be under government control. All kinds of new ways of distributing power are possible, the metaverse doesn’t have to come into the hands of two or three big companies.”
Not all philosophers who publish about the digital world are as optimistic as Chalmers. For example, the German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han states: “The computerization of reality in bits leads to atomization: to isolated bubbles in which there is no longer a shared truth and reality.” According to Han, there is something about bits and bytes, the raw material of digital worlds, which means they can never come close to the richness of physical reality, even if technology improves.
Isn’t there something fundamentally different about an environment made up of bits and bytes?
“Look how many new communities have been built in worlds made of bits and bytes. There are all kinds of joint rituals in it, in fact, there is a shared reality. For example, the Second Life platform: in recent years all kinds of new communities of people with disabilities have emerged there, who can move there much more freely than in the physical world. You often hear that social media is dividing communities. But above all, I think communities are changing.”
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Some seem to be falling apart.
“Yes, the fractures between certain groups in society have deepened. But all kinds of new online groups have also sprung up: communities that give a lot of meaning to the lives of many people. Just take as much contact as I can from New York with my family in Australia. So it’s really more complicated that virtual worlds, by definition, affect communities.”
What exactly is a meaningful life in your opinion?
“It varies a lot from person to person. For many people, meaning comes from relationships, friendships, family ties, a community, and from achieving accomplishments, completing projects, and facing challenges and struggles. A meaningful life is not the same as a perfect life, or a life without suffering. Even a lifetime of pain can be meaningful. From what I can see, all those things can also be present in virtual worlds. What I am not saying is that creating meaning in virtual worlds guarantees that they are always better than physical worlds.”
But, he says, the same bandwidth of meaning and value is possible in both virtual reality and the physical world. “It’s easy to focus on where things are going wrong, what’s worse in VR. But I see enormous potential.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on June 18, 2022