We no longer think twice about going online to work, socialize, play, learn, meet with medical professionals, or attend funerals. Supposedly, it’s just a matter of time before we’re strapping on virtual reality headsets to do all this and more in the so-called metaverse.
But should we want this type of future? Sure, online interactions have been a lifeline during the pandemic, when in-person get-togethers have been canceled. Yet many of us have experienced a profound sense of loss — a lingering sense that Zoom conversations with friends and family aren’t nearly as fulfilling as being together in the same room. Won’t avatar-to-avatar meetups in digitally constructed environments feel even more remote and, frankly, less real?
The challenge of understanding virtual worlds is something David Chalmers has considered for some time. In 2003, Chalmers, professor of philosophy and neural sciences and codirector of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness at New York University, wrote “The Matrix as Metaphysics” for the official website of “The Matrix” movie, which hooked audiences on a longstanding philosophical question: What’s real?
In his new book, “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy,” Chalmers defends the counterintuitive ideas of “virtual realism”: that virtual reality is a genuine reality; digital objects are not illusions; and, eventually, life in virtual worlds may be our best option. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Imagine we conducted this interview in virtual reality — that we put on headsets, we logged on to a social VR platform, and our cartoon avatars talked in a digitally rendered café. Since the avatars and the café are computer-generated, it’s tempting to say they’re fictional, like characters and settings in novels and films. Why do you believe they’re real?
In a “Lord of the Rings” video game, we play fictional characters, but an ordinary conversation between two people in VR is perfectly real. There’s nothing fictional about it. Our avatars are real digital objects and the café is a real digital space. Digital objects aren’t the same as physical objects, but they’re still real. They make a difference and they’re not all in our minds. We’re really meeting in a virtual café and having a real conversation. In the future people might genuinely be employed in virtual worlds and build real relationships. That’s not a fiction!
Let’s further imagine we sat our avatars down on virtual chairs at opposite sides of a virtual table. Since we would perceive the table and chairs to be in physical space, it’s tempting to say virtual reality tricks us. Why aren’t these objects illusions?
If you perceived virtual tables as physical tables out there in physical space, that would be an illusion. But sophisticated users of VR don’t perceive things this way. They know they’re in VR and perceive and interpret everything that way. They perceive virtual objects as being in virtual space. That’s no illusion. It’s what I call the sense of virtuality.
Imagine we conducted this interview in the distant future. An AI-controlled avatar comes up to us and says, “Pardon me for interrupting, but I find your conversation fascinating.” You have said you believe that if science and technology become sufficiently advanced, the avatar may be conscious, not merely an intelligent chatbot. Since the avatar lacks a biological brain, how is this possible?
If the avatar is anything like a current chatbot, it won’t be conscious. But if it has something like a simulated brain, I think it may well be conscious. I don’t think there’s anything special about biology. In principle, we could swap out our neurons for silicon chips and stay conscious. In my view, consciousness is tied to certain patterns of information processing and not to a specific biological substrate.
But how likely is it that a digital entity will ever match or approximate the complexity of human consciousness? After all, the biochemistry of the human brain plays a fundamental role in what we understand and experience.
The human brain seems to be a complex machine, with 86 billion neurons interacting in complex patterns. In principle, it should eventually be possible to simulate that machine by simulating its parts and their interactions. Complexity is no bar to digital entities having the same sort of consciousness as human brains.
Imagine the avatar continues to speak and says, “It’s immoral that most humans treat digital beings like me as mere objects.” Why do you believe the avatar deserves better if it’s conscious?
I’d argue that the reason humans deserve moral respect is that we are conscious. It follows that if a fully simulated human brain has humanlike conscious states, then that system deserves the same sort of moral respect that humans do. For example, torturing a conscious AI would be just about as bad as torturing a conscious human. I’m sure that if we ever develop conscious AI systems, they’ll agree.
Let’s say that after we finish talking to the AI avatar, you tell me you’re finding VR so satisfying you’re considering spending most of your time there — perhaps permanently uploading your mind and abandoning physical reality. How would you defend this decision?
I like physical reality! And I don’t recommend abandoning it for VR anytime soon. But I can imagine a distant future in which physical reality is degraded and VR offers a far better environment with much richer experiences, richer relationships, and the possibility to build new societies. In that case, I think a life in VR could be just as meaningful as a life in the physical world. We’d certainly need to take care of physical reality, and some people might go back and forth. But I think it would be defensible for many people to spend their lives in virtual reality.
Wouldn’t it be frightening to disappear into virtual reality and leave our physical bodies so vulnerable to abuse and neglect? And wouldn’t it be tragic to stop treating natural wonders, family heirlooms, and historically significant artifacts as irreplaceable?
Yes, we have to treat our bodies well. That’s one reason for keeping a firm footing in physical reality. In the long term, there will be new technologies for taking care of our physical bodies while we’re in VR and perhaps even for migrating to new digital bodies. But the physical world will always have special significance, just as the earth will always have special significance when we explore the galaxy.
How could VR offer better possibilities for building and maintaining meaningful relationships than physical reality?
Friendships built in virtual worlds such as Second Life can already be as meaningful as ordinary friendships. They bring new possibilities: They allow old friends to stay in touch, and they allow aging and disabled people without full access to physical reality to make new friendships. Of course, sexual relationships are quite limited in current VR. But new technologies such as brain-computer interfaces will gradually widen the possibilities. One long-term possibility is illustrated in the “Black Mirror” episode called “San Junipero,” in which a dying couple upload themselves to a digital world to continue their relationship there.
We’ve been talking about VR without mentioning Big Tech. Suppose companies like Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) exert a powerful influence on how virtual worlds are designed and governed. Do you think we’ll be able to avoid further degradations of privacy and the emergence of more potent forms of harassment and bullying?
Most virtual worlds now are corporatocracies, governed by corporations. Corporations are in effect the gods of these worlds, potentially all knowing and all powerful. This has the potential for manipulation and abuses of privacy far worse than we already find with social media. For this reason, I hope that there will be a robust environment of virtual worlds, many of which are owned and controlled by users rather than by corporations. If there is real choice between virtual worlds, there may be less abuse.
There’s another way the profit orientation of companies can limit the potential of VR. Companies can create markets where luxury goods and services differ immensely from basic ones. Are virtual worlds likely to exacerbate inequalities?
One big difference between VR and physical reality is that material goods in VR are abundant. It’s near trivial to duplicate a car or a house in VR. This opens up the possibility of a post-scarcity economy where material goods are well distributed. I don’t think this will be an egalitarian utopia. Profit seekers will inevitably develop forms of artificial scarcity, like the non-fungible tokens that can’t be duplicated. And relations of power and domination will still be there. But the abundance inherent in virtual worlds at least opens up new possibilities for social justice.
Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity. Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.