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16 February 2022

Living in an immaterial world

The metaverse promises infinite new realms just as tangible as the one we will leave behind.

By Bruno Maçães

The philosopher David Chalmers believes we may be on the cusp of a great migration, one likely to overshadow every wave of human migration in history: the move to a virtual world or worlds, as the real one continues to degrade. In centuries to come, instead of asking: “Should we move to a new country to start a new life?” we may ask: “Should we shift our lives to a virtual world?” As with emigration, often the reasonable answer may be yes.

Reality+ could not be timelier. In October last year, when Chalmers had already finished the manuscript, Facebook announced it would be changing its name to Meta and altering its mission to the elusive pursuit of the metaverse, a new virtual reality platform that will play host to ever more of our future lives. With sufficient computing power, virtual reality will no longer consist of pre-packaged individual experiences. It will become a concurrent and real-time platform where billions of people can meet to conduct business, shop and have fun. The respected journalist Dean Takahashi calls the metaverse “the most difficult and important thing humanity will ever build”. It is hard to disagree. In the most ambitious version of the project, going far beyond what Meta has in mind, the metaverse is not only a new world – like a colony on Mars – but one that exists in a parallel reality, or perhaps a parallel unreality.

Those migrating to the metaverse might feel troubled by the real world they leave behind. True, the Earth might be so degraded by climate change, pandemics and cyberwar that they would be happy to leave. And yet, even degraded, it would be real and stand above every virtual world on account of its reality.

In Reality+, Chalmers wants to reassure us that we can and should embrace the migration to new virtual worlds. There is nothing to fear because the worlds we are about to enter are no less real than the world we inhabit today and our lives will be no less valuable on account of being virtual.

[See also: Adorno’s damaged life]

One of his main arguments is the famous simulation hypothesis. Now that humanity is approaching the point where it can create powerful computer-based simulations, it is only natural to ask whether a more advanced civilisation, perhaps even our own future generations, might not have created a simulated world and whether we exist within that simulation, Matrix-like, taking it for reality. In that case we have lived in a virtual world all along and there is nothing to fear in moving to new ones of our own making.

A simulation is a substitute for an experience in reality, made usually in its absence, but it may come to usurp reality’s place. It may become more real than reality. For example, the throngs of tourists in the Louvre seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time already have a mental idea of the painting acquired from repeated exposure to the image in books and videos. “It looks different,” you might hear someone say in disappointed tones. The real Mona Lisa is the symbol in your mind, while the actual painting becomes no more than a reflection, and often a pale one. “It looks different from the real thing,” as it were.

The French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote charmingly in the 1970s and 1980s about these odd phenomena, but at that time he had no inkling of the much stranger world of virtual reality, where the real world evaporates. What takes its place is not a transcendental structure of symbols but pure fantasy or play-acting with no pretensions to objectivity. The structuralism of modern cultural theory gives way to a relativism and playfulness older than philosophy itself.

Both Baudrillard and Chalmers miss a critical distinction. Simulations are not virtual reality. For example, John F Kennedy may have been a simulacrum of a US president: an actor delivering the perfect Hollywood image of a president and, like every accomplished actor, never giving the smallest hint that he is acting. Trump is not a simulacrum but virtual reality: someone openly and joyfully playing the role of president. During a rally in Minneapolis in 2019, he addressed his followers with wistful eagerness. “Do you remember the evening when we won?… one of the greatest nights in the history of television.” His presidency was not an event in the political history of the country. It was an event in the history of TV.

Following Baudrillard, Chalmers thinks that virtual reality is indistinguishable from genuine reality, that virtual objects are real and not an illusion. If we have lived our whole life in a simulation, then the cats and chairs in the world around us really exist. If virtual objects and objects in the real world obey the same complex patterns of organisation, how are we to distinguish them? These logical patterns are what make virtual objects genuine realities, equivalent to the non-simulated world. You might say that a mountain in the real world really exists, but the way it really exists is effectively indistinguishable from the way it would exist in an advanced technical simulation. Once we redefine reality as a set of logical relations, there is room for reality both in the physical and virtual worlds.

The discussion becomes more interesting in those rare passages where Chalmers moves from the logical structures of experience to cultural and historical structures, even if he seems afraid to wade into such dangerous waters. Only once does he raise the question of fake news, pondering whether, if simulations and virtual worlds are real, conjured news stories might be real too. Is Chalmers about to proclaim that the various conspiracies voiced by fringe political groups such as QAnon are equivalent to facts? Is he about to claim that Pizzagate or the birther conspiracies about Barack Obama are genuine?

He is not. At first, he argues that virtual realism does not apply to fake news because it is not computer-generated. That is an odd argument, as fake news is generated by sophisticated computer algorithms. Perhaps Chalmers means it is not rendered in complex interactive 3D scenes? But suppose it was. How would a digital reality corresponding to the world of Pizzagate fare? Chalmers does raise the possibility: “Inside the simulation would be a simulated entity, Sim Hillary, engaged in nefarious activities in a simulated pizza parlour.” His answer is that while this simulation would be genuine in some sense, it could not make the allegations against Hillary Clinton true because the Hillary inside the simulation and the real Hillary are different people. In other words, the simulated Hillary is not real after all…

The argument is hard to follow and ultimately incoherent. Chalmers seems to be arguing that our structures of experience include a lot of implicit knowledge about reality and every new experience cannot contradict the implicit knowledge. A simulated Hillary violates existing structures of knowledge and therefore cannot be real, no matter how technically perfect the simulation created to disseminate fake news.

When discussing whether it is possible to lead a good life in a virtual world, Chalmers argues that people in virtual realms perform real actions with their avatars. You can write a book and make friends in virtual reality, and none of that is somehow fake or less valuable than actions in non-virtual reality. Presumably, the escape clause he used against the simulated Hillary also applies here: we can make friends in a virtual world because we bring to that experience a deep structure of knowledge about what friendship means. If someone uses a computer simulation to experience a world where everyone has been programmed to admire and love them, it is difficult to argue those will be real friendships or even real experiences. I think Chalmers would agree.

[See also: The liberal platitudes of Michael Ignatieff]

At this point, the extravagant claims at the beginning of the book about embracing virtual reality suddenly look a lot less extravagant and a lot less interesting. Rather than someone intent on showing the seriousness and value of virtual reality, Chalmers looks like someone wanting to tame its formidable but still unexplored powers. If its impact on our societies is to be constrained within commonly accepted structures of knowledge and experience, we should have little to fear. But surely Chalmers cannot believe that is the case. To return to the exile analogy, he is like a migrant who, on arriving at a new neighbourhood in a new country, immediately proceeds to make it look exactly like home.

As virtual technologies improve and grow, we are already seeing how they are starting to erode the very structures Chalmers appeals to in his efforts to contain them. One could say the whole point of these technologies is to reach deep into the ways we experience reality and radically transform them. Cryptocurrencies have not just dematerialised money; they promise to create social structures built around new forms of decentralisation, where control over the network is equivalent to the network itself. Plastic surgeons are now asked to match the settings on Instagram picture filters and people redecorate their houses in order to create suitable backgrounds for guests to pose against. Social media platforms have yanked us out of the normal rhythms of life and created an artificial world where conversation and politics happen at superhuman speeds and with such gripping intensity many find it difficult to log off. Their saving grace is not the acceptance of prior standards of truth and reality, as Chalmers believes, but that what happens on social media remains for the most part within the realm of role-playing: victims are ritually sacrificed and punished, but not literally hanged in the town square.

Does any of this sound like a world where everything is as real as it used to be? It seems that reality is a childish belief we have outgrown, but also one worth keeping as a warning against the old error: one uses reality only to deny every claim to it. If something is not real, that does not mean that something else is. Reality today has been stripped of content and subsists only as an empty form, but reality as an empty form still performs the important role of preventing a virtual world from assuming the place of the real one.

Chalmers wants none of this scepticism. He still believes in “objective reality”, a set of theses we can all agree on. “Reality exists,” he writes, “independently of us. The truth matters.” He wants to find salvation in the hallowed concept of reality. In my view, it would be better to look for it in the knowledge that truth can no longer be imposed on anyone else. In our age of unbelief, everyone can have their own virtual world. We no longer need share one single, cramped reality. Virtual worlds can be disconnected and replaced with new ones. Rather than placing our faith in objective reality, we should reach for that higher power, the kill switch.

Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy
David J Chalmers
Allen Lane, 544pp, £25

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War