READ MORE: The Dream of Virtual Reality
It is hard to imagine humans spending their lives in virtual reality when the experience amounts to waving your arms about in the middle of the lounge with a device the size of a house brick strapped to your face.
But this is where humanity is heading, according to philosopher David Chalmers, who argues for embracing the fate. The Australian professor of philosophy and neural science at New York University has written a book called Reality+, publicized in The Guardian to the irritation of at least one prominent armchair philosopher.
READ MORE: Download an excerpt of Chalmers’ new book Reality+ Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy here.
Michael Sacasas, who blogs at The Convivial Society, dismantles Chalmers’ argument (from the article alone, rather than the book, which was just published) in convincing fashion.
READ MORE: The Dream of Virtual Reality
Chalmers’ essential thesis is that virtual realities are not fake at all but instead “can be as real as our ordinary physical world. Virtual reality is genuine reality.”
He seems to advocate that advances in technology will deliver virtual worlds that rival and then surpass the physical realm. And with limitless, convincing experiences on tap, the material world may lose its allure, he says.
First of all, Sacasas dismisses this as a somewhat banal observation.
“Of course, the experience of putting on VR goggles and navigating a VR environment is a real, genuine experience,” Sacasas points out. “What matters is the specific character and quality of the experience — what sort of reality is it? — and its standing in relation to the rest of our experience.”
To unpick the argument he makes an analogy between VR and our dreams.
“A dream is ‘genuine reality’ but it does not follow that we should treat it as the same kind of experience as our waking life,” Sacascas says.
A dream can linger in our minds when we are awake, and so can a VR experience. The two realities may intermingle, but they are each of a different order, he suggests.
There are other similarities and crucial differences between waking life and the stuff of dreams. “In a dream we are not always conscious of the fact that we are dreaming,” he says. “Indeed, the power of the dream lies in its ordinarily immersive quality, and, while VR is often touted as an immersive media experience, it remains… a comparatively inelegant, awkward, and sometimes disorienting experience.
“Additionally, of course, you potentially encounter other people in virtual worlds, although their presence is highly mediated. Also, as it stands, VR yields an experience that fails to engage the human sensorium in full, and, critically, the dream arises out of our own psyche in its interactions with the world and not from a tech company’s proprietary software. But, like a dream again, the experience must always end.”
“The experience of putting on VR goggles and navigating a VR environment is a real, genuine experience. What matters is the specific character and quality of the experience — what sort of reality is it? — and its standing in relation to the rest of our experience.”— Michael Sacasas
Chalmers further claims that eventually, “virtual worlds may have most of what is good about the nonvirtual world. Given all the ways in which virtual worlds may surpass the nonvirtual world, life in virtual worlds will often be the right life to choose.”
Does Chalmers mean that we should look forward to the day we uploading our consciousness to the internet as seen in sci-fi dystopia like Transcendental and The Matrix or BBC dramas such as Years and Years?
It’s not clear, but quoting from The Guardian article, we learn that “Chalmers sees technology reaching the point where virtual and physical are sensorily the same and people live good lives in VR,” and also that, “Chalmers suspects we will ditch the clunky headsets for brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, that allow us to experience virtual worlds with our full suite of senses.”
This is where Chalmers’ argument seems to fall down, as if he has indeed gulped the Kool-Aid of Mark Meta Zuckerberg and Ready Player One.
He seems to envision that the good life for humanity is merely an artificially triggered neuronal activity.
Even to get to that point of brain to machine interfaces, there is an “expectation of dramatic technological advances,” Sacasas observes. “He must presume that the technology will yield a subjective experience that is basically indistinguishable from the experience of the non-virtual world. But it is not at all obvious to me that the technologies Chalmers anticipates will necessarily materialize.”
He dismisses this as another example of the “rhetoric of technological inevitability,” or what he calls the “Borg Complex.” (Resistance is futile, and all that).
Then even if we grant that the experience of virtual reality will be indistinguishable from the experience of non-virtual reality and that it may even be somehow richer and more pleasant — it will still be the case that the experience will cease.
“The VR equipment will come off, you will disconnect from the virtual world and come back to the non-virtual world. Unless, of course, you posit an even more disturbing Matrix-like scenario in which human beings can choose to remain hooked up to virtual worlds indefinitely with their biological needs somehow serviced artificially.”
“In a dream we are not always conscious of the fact that we are dreaming. Indeed, the power of the dream lies in its ordinarily immersive quality, and, while VR is often touted as an immersive media experience, it remains… a comparatively inelegant, awkward, and sometimes disorienting experience.— Michael Sacasas
Does Chalmers imagine that really? There are signs he doesn’t — but only in the near term.
“In the short term we’re pretty clearly going to be based in physical reality and I certainly wouldn’t recommend abandoning it,” Chalmers concedes.
He also notes, “As fulfilling as virtual worlds may become, people will need real food, drink and exercise, and perhaps even the odd glimpse of daylight, to keep their bodies from withering away.”
Assuming this even happens, Sacasas plays ethics with the logic.
“I wonder for how many of us the experience of the world is already so attenuated or impoverished that we might be tempted to believe that a virtual simulation could prove richer and more enticing?
“The claim that, even now, virtual realities can outstrip my experience of the world is increasingly plausible when I have lost the capacity to wonder at and delight in the gratuity and beauty of the world.”
The combined impact of climate change, the degree to which we are all ignorant of the environment around us (and its politics) by being glued to screens, and the escape to new worlds pioneered by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk (as if this planet were not worth saving) means, for Sacasas, that we “might have already begun to sever our relation to our common world long before the virtual worlds Chalmers envisioned are ever realized.”
Is the chief appeal of VR in fact one expends no particular effort and risks nothing of consequence. “The VR paradise, we are offered is sanitary, safe, and comfortable,” he writes. “We are able to set aside the lived body along with its frailties and vulnerabilities. It is, one presumes, a customizable and programmable realm in which we can exercise maximal control over our avatars and their environments, within the parameters established by the proprietors of the virtual realm, of course.”
The metaverse does not yet exist and these sorts of arguments can become overheated. But if we take it for granted that at some time in the future technology makes all this possible then logically there is the potential for genuine horror. If we’re all strapped permanently into virtual worlds to escape the misery of our physical “non-virtual” existence then who, he asks, will care for the sick or tend to decrepit infrastructure or acknowledge the poor or concern ourselves with failing ecosystems?
“It amounts to the temptation to surrender and accept defeat, to forsake the struggle, refuse responsibility, and escape into a realm of virtual hedonism.”
In Chalmers’s vision, we would, be trapped in a situation wherein we would encounter nothing but ourselves and those things some of us have made. And it would be altogether likely that we would do so while swaths of our common world increasingly became inhospitable to human life. If so, the burden will fall, as it always does, on those who will not have the luxury of retreating into virtual paradises.”