Our world could be a simulation. Would it be so wrong? | Books

REALITY+: VIRTUAL WORLDS AND PROBLEMS OF PHILOSOPHY by David Chalmers, WW Norton, 544 pages, $32.50

Philosophy, the critic Arthur Danto has often argued, is defined by its singular obsession with doubles. Take two things — exactly like our senses — and show why one is stone and the other is shadow. It’s philosophy.

Scan the philosophical writings and you will find that Danto’s assertion is confirmed over and over again. The philosophy of language often asks us to imagine a “Twin Earth,” a world like our own but different in a critical way that transforms the definition of, say, the word “water.” Writing about personal identity, meanwhile, could launch you into a Star Trek-style teleporter, asking you to figure out whether your original self is making the journey or you’re being replaced by an atomically identical replica. Pick up a book on consciousness and you’ll meet a horde of “philosophical zombies”, beings like you and me – they can talk, write, perform complex actions – with one key difference: none of these activities are like anything to the living dead. They are intelligent but have no qualia: the ineffable sense of “how it is” that seems to define conscious experience.

This latter group of speculative doppelgangers often roam the writings of David Chalmers. Zombies make an appearance in his latest book, Reality+: virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy, as well as the aforementioned Twin Earth. But all of these familiar pairings and impostors play a supporting role in Chalmers’ quest to solve what could be the greatest of philosophical double puzzles: how do we know if this world is the real one?

As Chalmers notes, you can find variations of this conundrum throughout the history of philosophy – both Eastern and Western. Plato challenges his readers to recognize that what they take for reality is no such thing; we are in direct contact not with reality but rather with copies and reflections, shadows projected on a cave wall. The Indian sage Narada, punished by Vishnu for his hubristic insistence that his intellect could pierce even the most powerful illusion, was forced to live an entirely false second life, from birth to old age, before being pushed back into it. Zhuangzi wondered if he was a philosopher who sometimes dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly who became a philosopher when he slept. In the modern age, the most influential version of the puzzle – and the one that Reality+ most dwells on – appears in early sections of René Descartes meditations. There, Descartes wonders how he can distinguish reality from a dream, then contemplates the possibility of an almost omnipotent deceptive demon who could propel him into an ersatz existence.

Reality+ takes these stories of dreams, shadows and hallucinations seriously. They are not, Chalmers insists, mere idle fantasies of eccentrics, nor old-fashioned puzzles from the past of philosophy. In fact, the proliferation of contemporary versions of this question — What if I was a brain in a vat? What if I was immersed in the Matrix? What if I’m an unwitting, unwitting contestant on a very unethical reality show? — shows that concerns about the unreality of what passes for everyday life are flourishing in our cultural imagination.

And for good reason. Chalmers argues that ongoing technological advancements — especially in virtual reality and computer simulation — will eventually turn the scary stories being told around seminar tables about dreams and simulacra into real-life possibilities. After all, I don’t need to imagine a demiurgic deceiver, as Descartes did, if (or when) it becomes possible to plug a person into a virtual world that actually feels real. Once that happens, another question follows: Could I have somehow slipped into a simulated world without noticing?

Answering this question leads Chalmers to what is sometimes called the “simulation argument,” essentially the modern, technological version of the caves, demons, and dreams of past philosophy. In a nutshell, the simulation argument says this: if we ever manage to develop a fully compelling virtual world, then it’s likely that our reality, right now, is just a simulation forged by a “higher” civilization. , more advanced. After all, if such simulations can exist, they will eventually outnumber the original realities. As a result, our world is statistically unlikely to be – as we often like to assume – outright reality. Rather, we live in a part of “reality+”, a “cosmos”. . . contain[ing] many worlds (physical and virtual spaces).

Like all great philosophical theories, the simulation argument can seem both overwhelming and coldly convincing. Chalmers, who largely approves of this idea, is adept at clarifying the hypothesis without sacrificing its complexity. Indeed, Reality+ sometimes reads like two books in one. It presents itself as a welcoming tome for new philosophy readers, full of brilliant references to cultural touchstones such as The Matrix and Rick and Morty. At the same time, it remains substantial enough for those familiar with the field and its ongoing conversations.

As a graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington, Chalmers worked with Douglas Hofstadter, the author of Godel, Escher, Bach, a compelling but sometimes enigmatic meditation on math, the mind and music. And Reality+ often reads as an attempt to both replicate and soften the thorny genius of that previous book. Like Hofstadter’s work, Reality+ is often bizarre, wild and wonderful; it captivates the ordinary reader by refusing to condescend. But where Hofstadter is playfully enigmatic and brash, Chalmers’ writing is insightful and educational – an approach that keeps him from crumbling into recalcitrant obscurity.

For example, in a series of rapid but voluminous dramatizations, Chalmers shows how the “simulation argument” subtly complicates, deepens and extends questions of ethics (are real lives more valuable than simulated lives? ?), philosophy of science (the fundamental principle structures reality a kind of computer code for atoms rather than bits?), and philosophy of mind (Can I fake consciousness?).

Throughout, Chalmers returns often to a set of questions that he says inevitably arise once we grant the correctness of the simulation argument. These include the question of “knowledge” (if I were trapped in a simulation, would I know the difference between this virtual world and the real world?), the question of “reality” (is virtual reality in somehow incomplete or second-rate to the real world? original?), and the question of “value” (How could I live a “good”, meaningful or just life in virtual reality?).

It is when he answers these questions that Reality+ is what is most surprising and audacious.

If a really powerful simulation set out to trap us, Chalmers argues, it would succeed. This may seem like a desperate conclusion if you’re attached to the idea that virtual reality is inferior to reality. But, in what is probably the most controversial move in the book, Chalmers wants us to think otherwise: simulated or virtual reality can be just as meaningful, robust, and comprehensive as reality — maybe even more so. “If I’ve lived my whole life in a simulation, every flower I’ve experienced has always been digital,” he writes. The beauty we enjoyed when looking at these simulated flowers was genuine, so why would it matter if they weren’t “real”?

Chalmers defends this thesis tirelessly and well. But in my opinion, it is less convincing when it seeks to extend it. It happens when Chalmers sets out to convince us not only that the simulations are real in themselves, but that they have the potential to enhance bare existence. While he’s sometimes neutral on this point – “As with most technology, whether VR is good or bad depends entirely on how it’s used” – there’s a recurring techno-optimistic note that rings throughout. Reality+ this often seems untrue: “Virtual reality can be better than ordinary physical reality,” he writes, adding that it “can enable many difficult or impossible experiences in physical reality: flying, inhabiting entirely different bodies, new forms of perception”.

But Chalmers too quickly dismisses the obvious counter-argument: that technology, while seemingly enriching life or facilitating existence, necessarily alienates, diminishes and restricts. Think of how social media turns the promise of authentic interpersonal interaction into a dreary, theatrical, preachy blood sport.

Other philosophers, perhaps most notably Jürgen Habermas, have explored these issues, but Chalmers never really takes the time to stage their arguments or offer an answer. Instead, he settles for the possibility that our dual existence is, in his own way, entirely singular. ◀

About Joey J. Hott

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