“I think what happens in virtual worlds can, in principle, be very significant. You can build a meaningful life in a virtual world. We can get into deep social and political discussions and decisions about the shape of society in a virtual world. Rather than living in a video game, my analogy would be more like we’re moving to a new, uninhabited country and setting up a society. The issues will be somewhat different from the issues where we came from, but I wouldn’t consider that escapism. Also, I’m not saying abandon physical reality completely and go live in a virtual world. I think of the virtual world as a supplement to physical reality rather than a replacement, at least in any remotely short term.“
Source: David Chalmers, as told to the New York Times
AT A GLANCE
As part of the press tour promoting his forthcoming book “Reality+,” NYU professor and philosopher David Chalmers sat down with New York Times Talk columnist David Marchese to talk real ethics in virtual worlds.
Marchese notes that Chalmers book is unusually optimistic about buzzy technological developments — like the metaverse — that have other philosophers bemoaning the advent of a soulless dystopia. Of course, that’s not to say that Chalmers is blasé about a virtual future’s challenges for man- and robot-kind, which is exactly what Marchese chose to focus on during this interview.
Not pulling any punches, Marchese’s first question challenges Chalmers to consider “something that a virtual world might be missing that … could inhibit the pursuit of a meaningful life?”
Chalmers appears to dismiss the premise; if you think virtual worlds are inherently fake or mere illusion, the question makes sense, but if you view virtual reality or the metaverse as the next opportunity for humanity to explore and evolve, then significance is always possible.
When interviewing a philosopher, it can be easy to get bogged down in asking The Big Questions, but Marchese avoids this trap by personalizing an eternal favorite (and following up on his first query about pitfalls of a virtual future): “What makes your life meaningful? And are there any ways in which a virtual existence would get in the way of those things?”
Chalmers seems to demur on the personal question: “There’s a lot of factors in a meaningful life. There’s having significant goals and reaching them. There’s having positive relationships with other people. There’s having positive subjective experiences. There’s coming to understand things. But most of these basic kinds of things that matter, you ought to be able to get in a virtual world.”
But on the second go round, he bites on the considerations of what a virtual existence might be lacking.
Realistic interaction with the world (“brute, unencumbered nature”) is not yet possible in any simulation, nor is it likely to be for at least a century, Chalmers admits. “I suspect the kind of embodiment we get from virtual worlds will be a pale shadow of what we get from physical reality. But looking to a long-term future, it’s easy to envisage a world where a lot of the short-term obstacles are overcome.”
On the other hand, Chalmers admits that societal problems — inequity, racism, climate change — will not be erased or even necessarily mitigated by the metaverse. But nor does he think that virtual reality will necessarily exacerbate these issues by offering an avenue for escapism.
We can think about climate change and social justice and all these things at once. And virtual-reality technology is coming. We need to be thinking about it.David Chalmers
Chalmers explains, “I want to resist the idea that it’s either/or. That if we’re thinking about virtual reality, we can’t think about physical reality. We can think about climate change and social justice and all these things at once. And virtual-reality technology is coming. We need to be thinking about it. It’s clear to me that virtual worlds have a lot to offer. This doesn’t make them a panacea. “
Simulation Theory: The Question of a Simulation… Or Assimilation?
So about virtual reality coming… is it coming or is it here? Chalmers is not in the camp that’s convinced we are already living in a simulation (a theory posited by Nick Bostrom in 2003), but he isn’t ruling it out, either.
Chalmers tells Marchese, “I think it’s reasonable to remain agnostic. Nevertheless, in recent years, we’ve been getting increasing reason to take this hypothesis seriously simply from the fact that we now know that this technology is possible.” (Watch the explainer video below to learn more about the simulation argument.)
OK — let’s say you’re convinced. We’re living in an ancestor simulation. Now what? How does our life (simu-life?) change?
Well, according to Chalmers, “It depends on what kind of simulation we’re in.” (Typical philosopher!) Such as…?
For example, Chalmers explains, “If we suddenly were to start communicating with our simulators, who tell us they’re only going to upload us for eternal life if we worship them in appropriate ways, then maybe our lives would be transformed in the same kind of ways as it would be transformed by discovering that there’s a God. “
Alternatively, “[I]f we come to discover that it’s just a simulation churning away in the background then, yeah, maybe our initial reaction would be shock, and there’d be a lot of hand-wringing, but I think I’d say, ‘Well, life goes on.'”
None of this is real. All of it is real?
But Chalmers acknowledges that many of us might have an existential crisis that would challenge our meaning-making abilities. Still, he insists, “I think even if we are in a simulation, we’re still living in a real world and we can still have a meaningful life.”
So what does a real world entail? “Reality+” digs into this in detail [insert subtle book plug here — or download the intro and Chapter One], but Chalmers argues realness breaks down to five basic elements:
- causal powers
“I think if we’re in a simulation, there’s a vast structured external world around us. Its nature is somewhat different from what we thought, but that doesn’t make it less real. Discovering that we’re in a simulation would then also tell us that there’s potentially a reality beyond the reality that we experience…”
(So the simulation theory can be accurate/real and change nothing … and everything… for us?)
In the interim, before we acknowledge our potential AI/ML/post-human overlords, how does Chalmers suggest that those of wary of VR behave? Cautiously? Deferentially?
“You can try to think of our own ordinary physical universe as being a digital universe with bits at the bottom. That’s not pathological; that’s just a way for the world to be. I want to normalize this idea of simulations.”
Simulation Movie Models May Be Useful
Chalmers also (more helpfully?) cites the plot of this summer’s Free Guy as a useful approach, if we ever do confirm that we are living in a simulation.
“…[T]he guy discovers he’s a nonplayer character in a video game and instead of totally freaking out — None of this is real! — he starts a movement. It’s like, OK, we’re real people too, and our lives matter and our world matters,” Chalmers explains. “That’s thinking of the simulated world not as dystopia but as a place where people can live meaningful lives.”
(Was that supposed to be my takeaway?)
As for that other much-discussed sci-fi series: Well, let’s just say that the professor hopes the Matrix might solve its own problems in the fourth installment, in theatres Dec. 22.
Read Marchese’s complete interview with Chalmers via the New York Times.