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26 January 2022updated 28 Jan 2022 2:19pm

David Chalmers: “I’d love to come back every 100 years to take a look”

The techno-philosopher on why life may be a simulation.

By Sophie McBain

During the 2020 lockdown, the philosopher David Chalmers, a director at New York University’s Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness, started to hang out with other philosophers in virtual reality (VR). The eight of them, scattered around the world, still don their Oculus Quest headsets weekly to fly with angel wings in AltspaceVR, play games such as Beat Saber, or deliver lectures. Chalmers had recently given a ten-minute lecture exploring the physics of VR, and to test his theories, the philosophers threw virtual tomatoes and paper planes at each other. He predicts that when the next pandemic comes, in ten to 20 years, most of us will have ditched glitchy Zoom calls to meet one another in virtual space.

As VR becomes richer and more immersive, Chalmers believes we’ll conduct more of our lives there. “Right now, we treat virtual worlds more like Disney theme parks or something, but in the long run, virtual reality is going to be more like life on Earth generally,” he told me, when we spoke on Zoom.

This will present huge political and moral challenges. If you’re concerned about the power of Big Tech, the erosion of our privacy and the potential to manipulate the truth online, consider a situation in which humans begin living the majority of their lives in virtual spaces: the corporations hosting these worlds will be all-powerful, and perhaps all-knowing, about our environment. We might witness the creation of state-run virtual worlds. Chalmers hopes, too, that it will be possible to inhabit user-built virtual worlds, underpinned by shared principles.

“We’re going to have to experiment with a whole lot of different models,” he said. “As people increasingly spend time in these worlds, this is going to be very serious politically: who is going to run these places? What form of government will there be?” We can expect new hierarchies to emerge. What will seem most desirable: a life led largely in virtual space, or one rooted in the physical world? 

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Chalmers is 56 and has an ageing-rock-star aesthetic. He wore a worn-in leather jacket over a black T-shirt and trousers, and his white-grey hair was long and wispy. He describes himself as a “techno-philosopher”, someone who explores the philosophical implications of emerging technologies and also uses technology to help him answer long-standing philosophical questions. In his new book, Reality+ (Allen Lane), he explores what virtual worlds can tell us about the nature of reality. He thinks VR is as real as physical reality: that virtual objects are made up of bits, rather than atoms, does not make them any less substantial. He argues that a life lived in VR can be as good, and as meaningful, as one lived in physical space.

The development of virtual worlds raises new questions about our knowledge of the external world. Can we know that we aren’t already living in a computer simulation? Chalmers argues that it’s conceivable that we learn that we are living in one: perhaps the simulators will choose to reveal themselves to us and offer incontrovertible proof of their existence. But he doesn’t think we can ever know for certain that we’re not. In fact, given the probability that, across the vast expanse of the cosmos, other intelligent beings have, like humans, learned to build virtual worlds, it might be more likely that we’re living in a computer simulation than that we’re not.

Does it make any practical difference to us if we’re living in a virtual reality, I asked Chalmers. “There are some potential practical implications if, for example, we’re living in a simulation where the simulators are communicating with us, or might potentially communicate with us, or they might give us access to other worlds – oh, boy! That would be very interesting, a bit like in The Matrix. And if there’s another world out there, I want to have access to it!” he replied enthusiastically, as he did to every question, running through the logical possibilities like a gymnast flying through a familiar routine, enjoying every pretzel-like configuration. There might be fewer practical implications, Chalmers conceded, if the simulation is so perfect as to be undetectable. But even then, this possibility might change our views on God. “I’ve always thought of myself as an atheist; there’s no particular reason to believe in that supernatural hypothesis. But the idea that we’re in a simulation shows that there’s one way that there could be a creator of the universe that doesn’t seem especially supernatural,” he said.

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If God is our simulator, he may well be omniscient and omnipresent, though there’s no reason to believe he would, like a traditional god, be wise or benevolent: “he could just be your teenager in the next universe up with their own motivation”.

“I’m not going to suddenly erect a religion around the idea that we might be in a simulation. I don’t recommend anybody do that, in general. I’m suspicious of the idea of getting your meaning or values from some being in another universe, even if they happen to have created this world,” he continued.

Chalmers grew up in Australia and was a maths Olympiad and computer geek who taught himself computer programming aged ten, using an early computer at the medical centre where his father, an eminent medical researcher, worked. He initially studied maths at university but switched to philosophy and cognitive sciences after spending a year at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. For much of his career, Chalmers has focused on consciousness, a subject he said fascinated him even as a child. Growing up he’d experienced synaesthesia, songs appearing to him in colours (mostly murky brown), and when he got glasses, aged ten, to correct short-sightedness in one eye, he was awestruck by how the world “popped out” from two dimensions to three. How, he wondered for years, do our brains do that?

Chalmers achieved international prominence in the mid-Nineties when he presented a landmark paper outlining the “hard problem of consciousness”: how can we explain the way objective, physical matter can give rise to the subjective experience of consciousness? He’s intrigued by how tech is changing our minds: the tools we use, from paper and pens to smartphones, are not separate from our minds, he argues, but extensions of it. He believes that artificial intelligence may be conscious.

Chalmers said that if he were offered the possibility of extending his life by replacing his brain with computer hardware, he would. Ideally, the process would be gradual: scientists would slowly swap out his biological neurons for silicon replacements. Such a process would, he believes, make it most likely that the end result is still conscious, and still him. And it avoids messier situations, such as the simultaneous existence of a biological Chalmers and a bionic clone (although not necessarily: would you want back-ups?). “There’s so many possibilities that I won’t have exhausted at the end of 70 or even 100 years. So, if there’s a way to live another 100 years, I’m all for it. And if it extends beyond that, why not?”

He hasn’t signed up for cryonics, but he wouldn’t rule it out. “I’m very curious about the future,” he said. “It’s somewhat disappointing that, in a few decades, I’m probably going to die and I’ll never know. Even if I just got to come back every 100 years ago, just to see what’s going on, that would be fascinating.” You’d be able to see what kinds of virtual worlds had been created, and how people were confronting this new technology, I suggested. “Exactly! I’m kind of hoping that maybe if I make enough predictions in this book, then maybe the AIs of the future will choose to reanimate and reconstruct me, maybe just to show me that I’m wrong,” he said.

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed