Limitations of the Limitless: In response to “Reality+” and our VR future
“When speaking about the letters, Theuth said: “This branch of learning, my king, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory. The drug (Pharmakon) for memory and wisdom has been discovered!” […] The king responded: “Oh, Theuth, the greatest of technicians […] And now you father of these letters, have in your fondness for them said what is the opposite of their real effect. For this will produce a forgetting in the souls of those who learn these letters as they fail to exercise their memory, because those who put trust in writing recollect from the outside with foreign signs, rather than recollecting from within by themselves. You have not discovered a drug for memory, but for reminding.”
— Plato, Phaedrus, 274e-275a
Above is one of my favorite stories told by Plato, not just because it is situated in my homeland and embedded within my history, but also because it depicts the human desire to circumvent our inherent limitations with tools that we believe will deliver us remedy (Pharmakon), when it could be delivering us poison (Pharmakon). Writing is a useful tool that allowed human beings to transport the specifications of their thoughts to transcend their lifetimes. It allowed for the democratization of knowledge. Knowledge became no longer a possession of the individual soul, an innate quality, rather it became production, a process of externalization that emanates from within to without. Nevertheless, the words of the wise king are true. The departure of knowledge from the self leaves a vacant space and a dependence on the written word. The blessing of writing had a cost, the cost of forgetfulness. I was recently reminded of the tension within this story while reading Professor David Chalmers’ interview here on Epoché Magazine about his new book, Reality+.
The main thesis of the book is that Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) will usurp Physical reality in the near future, and that we are already witnessing some manifestations of this in the present. Accordingly, Chalmers states that we should philosophically engage with VR and AR, because whether we like it or not this will be the dominant state of affairs. Implicit here is the thought that philosophy can either choose to enter and participate within these ethereal realms or be forever secluded within the old reality. He further adds that “In principle, VR can be much more than escapism. It can be a full-blooded environment for living a genuine life.” Thus, Chalmers claims that within VR there would be an opportunity for authentic human liberation, rather than it being a mere portal for escape from the humdrum of everyday life. That is why he believes that it is imperative for philosophy and philosophers to partake in VR.
On the one hand, I agree and applaud Chalmers’ pragmatic approach to VR. Like him I believe that there is a pressing need to philosophically investigate this new reality/realities, in an effort to seek the truth, and because VR will soon enough pervade multiple aspects of our daily lives. Perhaps, like writing, it will be an essential tool, but at what cost? Which philosophical questions should we ask? In an effort to align ourselves with Chalmers’ approach, let’s ask the same questions that he asked and see if we will reach the same conclusions.
Limitations and the Potentiality of Liberation
There is, firstly, the question of inherent human material limitations and how VR can at least allow us to unshackle the potential of the limitless. In the interview, Chalmers recounts his personal experience of feeling limited in Australia. That the promise of different experiences were looming beyond this spatial limitation. This drove him to travel. He places the human desire to experience more, not be shackled with the givenness of our limited existence, as the basis for the popularity of VR. The necessity to overcome one’s own shortcomings, whether natural or enforced, is an innate human aspiration. Who wouldn’t want to become unfettered from the biological, physical, and mental limitedness that we experience to varying degrees? So, in essence, VR provides this freedom. The freedom to become whatever you dream of becoming.
However, Chalmers cautions that for this opportunity to be one of liberation and not incarceration two things are needed; historical grounding and awareness. Our personal history, as a narrative that unites the dispersed individual experiences and offers continuity as identity, can help prevent VR from being a dystopian reality like in the Matrix. The second thing is our awareness or knowledge that arises from our informed participation within VR. The awareness of the nature of VR is different from physical reality. He also identifies the knowledge that one cultivates from multiple engagements in VR, when one is an expert, as the defining factor that can allow this person to differentiate the two realms. In Reality+ he uses an analogy with mirrors to argue for a ‘no-illusion’ view of VR. In short:
“I think there’s a close analogy between VR and mirrors. Again, there are two possible views of the matter. According to the illusion view of VR, anyone using VR experiences a physical-space illusion. That is, users experience objects as being in a physical space in front of them, and this is an illusion. When you see a ball coming toward you in VR, the ball seems to be moving toward you in the physical space in front of you. In fact, there’s no ball (virtual or otherwise) in that actual space, so you’re experiencing an illusion. According to the no-illusion view of VR, there’s no physical-space illusion. Instead, you experience objects as being in virtual space. Typically, the objects will be where they seem to be in virtual space, so this won’t be an illusion. When you see a ball coming toward you in VR, the ball seems to move toward you in virtual space—and in fact, it does. So there’s no illusion.”
In this excerpt Chalmers is differentiating between two distinctive perceptions of the same sensory experience facilitated by VR. The first perception depicts the novice, who, unaware of their situatedness confuses physical and virtual realities and treats virtual objects as if they were physical ones. If we use the mirror analogy this would be a baby who witnessed their reflection for the first time and dealt with it as an other. The other prototype is the expert, the person who has a clear and distinct awareness of the virtual realm and deals with objects within it as their nature necessitates, i.e. virtual not physical objects. Regarding the mirror analogy, this prototype is all of us, people who use mirrors functionally without imagining that there is really another person on the other side of the glass. In essence, according to Chalmers, awareness is an initial awareness of the realm one inhabits and then acting in accordance with the rules of that realm.
The immersive experience provided by VR requires the active participation of the person who chooses to enter it. Initially, we indeed choose to embark upon this imaginative existence, but for us to be able to participate within it, we must wilfully forget that it is imaginative. Perhaps certain bouts of awareness will surface in our consciousness when encountering glitchy events or the lack of expected interactions, but otherwise we implicitly agree that awareness will be the first sacrifice on the altar of virtual reality. And so, in a way, VR isn’t like a mirror. A mirror has a strictly functional role requiring that we utilize it without being seduced by its reflections. VR can be, rather, likened to a movie. If I’m watching an emotional movie that is engrossing and am moved to tears, my husband might be inclined to tell me that it was just a movie, it wasn’t real. But instead of feeling better, I feel defensive because I made an emotional investment, it touched me, I discarded my awareness and immersed myself in the story. Then, the awareness that it wasn’t real is there in my mind too; I was stupid to make this emotional investment, and no one likes to feel stupid. Moreover, the narrative of the movie which is utterly separate from my life had an enduring impact on my life and moved me to tears even though I am fully aware that it was a performance done by professionals who lead very different lives other than the ones I immersed myself in. So, there is a sort of spillover effect: complete separation can never be achieved. Yet Chalmers is proposing that we shouldn’t deal with VR as simply an unreal illusion, rather we should be aware that our mode of existence itself has become virtual just like the other objects within VR. The question that needs to be asked is, how much time before we abandon our physical existence for the sake of the virtual one? Because eventually the knowledge and awareness that he speaks of will dissipate due to the fact that human beings will forget their physical existence, and VR will be their all-encompassing reality. We have a great track record when it comes to deliberately dispensing with awareness and the attractiveness of VR makes it only a matter of time.
A blatant example of our willful self-deception, or insistence on lack of awareness, is regarding a basic biological fact, i.e. death. From the moment we are born, we are destined to die. Some have longer, or more meaningful, lives than others. However, no one can debate with the inevitability of biological death – at least for now – so to an extent we live under its watchful gaze and should be aware of its constant presence. Yet, as perfectly articulated by Yuval Harari, death became a technical problem, a failure of the medical profession rather than a necessary end to human life. Heidegger placed Being-towards-death as the most authentic mode of being because the authenticity of human life could perhaps only be revealed on the horizon of our finite nature. To be constantly aware of our impending finitude is to be nothing less than a philosopher. Awareness, in general, is a difficult state to continuously inhabit, let alone for those who chose to redeem themselves from its claws and be fully delivered to the experience.
The popularity of VR lies in the fact that it offers the opportunity of dwelling an infinite life. An opportunity that perhaps we always yearned for but only felt its necessity when dissociation from all forms of materiality became a way of life. The idea of gender fluidity has gained primacy over biological sex in many circles. I would even say that gender fluidity, as a transient internal feeling, has begun to replace sex altogether as a category. The Covid pandemic, extended periods of isolation, all the safety precautions it entailed, further consecrated the stigma of the body as a harbinger of disease and death. Thus we have decided to revolt against all the material chains. VR has risen in profile not only because it provided the dream of the limitless but because it is symptomatic of the dissonance and dismay human beings experienced when faced with the frailty of the flesh.
The Isomorphic argument and individual autonomy
Chalmers posits that the material/physical reality isn’t as solid or material as we historically thought it was, advancing an “it from bit” theory. So, if the physical realm is in actuality a continuous manifestation of informational energy that contains very limited matter, and if the continuity that we observe within the world is actually imposed by the mind and that the natural state of affairs is evanescence – is it really different from VR? If the body demands extended periods of rest to be able to function properly isn’t that similar to a process of external incursion on our autonomy? If human beings are already entangled within a web of social and biological conditions that impact and effectively undermine their individual autonomy and freedom of thought, is it really different from uploading your mind online? Isn’t the liberation of the mind from the enforced shackles of biology and society a noble aim in and of itself that can assist human beings to achieve their telos?
It sounds quite compelling to be honest. The isomorphic argument substantiates that, firstly, we hold a flawed understanding about the nature of materiality, and secondly, that the criticisms brought against the virtual realm as unreal could be utilized to criticize the world we are thrown into from birth. It provides us with a tacit acceptance that we have given in advance to virtuality even before entering virtual parameters. His argument provides intelligibility to VR and removes the element of fear from the discourse. We already, beforehand, know what VR is like because we live in a similar universe. If we are weary of the “unreal” VR, then maybe we should also be weary of the “unreal” physical existence. That in the end we are dwelling within an “illusion”, but the illusion provided by VR can perhaps allow the mind the possibility to inhabit or to morph into various life forms and hopefully allow us to make new discoveries about ourselves unbridled by the limitations that we once thought were intimately bound to our authentic selves. Philosophy, after all, in all its varied forms has primordially bound itself to the injunction to ‘Know Thyself’, so why not apply it in VR?
But one must question, if I want to free myself, free my mind, of all material encumbrances whether physical or biological and opt for the unadulterated freedom that I can enjoy within virtuality, what exactly am I freeing? My mind/consciousness is to a great extent shaped within, and because of, the limitations that I now desire to remove. The social, biological, geographical, economic conditions were all constituents that impacted my consciousness. It’s true that those factors alone didn’t create my conscious experience, but they were crucial in shaping it. So, perhaps when I upload my mind, I am freeing it from its physical captivity, but physicality may still leave an indelible mark on it. Not to mention that in the newly consecrated VR worlds, corporations have the authority to create the new geopolitical and economic landscape. That will have a far reaching impact on intellectual autonomy.
Another issue arises here, concerning originality. If we like to believe, or claim, that each human being is a unique individual who is irreplaceable, what will happen to the notion of originality when people start uploading their minds and their contents on to block chains, or other public, networked technologies? One could argue that human beings have always imitated one another, and that perhaps the act of mimicking is pervasive within the physical reality already. Some could even claim that the act of writing itself ushered the way for revealing the contents of one’s mind and providing it to a larger audience. I agree that there are some undeniable similarities between writing, especially personal narratives and uploading your mind. However, with writing the author chooses which parts they should share – will we be granted the same choice with this technology? We may be prudent in the beginning, but as Chalmers’ admits, we will soon become impatient, uploading our minds faster. With incentives for companies to develop quick, painless, and streamlined processes for uploading minds, how much deliberation will be made when one can upload one’s mind with a single click? There’s also the issue of the influence of dangerous ideas propagating online, as we saw with ISIS propaganda, or white supremacists. If we are struggling as it is to limit or remove dangerous material from existing online platforms, won’t the struggle be even more difficult if we have to deal not with representations of dangerous thoughts, but with dangerous thought itself? Wouldn’t this possibility lead to a further disintegration of any attempted cohesion and lead to the creation of more echo chambers? These speculations hope to show that even if our physical world is ephemeral, always-already virtual, there are still significant qualitative differences between it, and the VR worlds of our future.
Current manifestations of solipsism and impact of VR
We are already witnessing the decay of a common sense of value that binds human beings. Chalmers ponders the evolution of explicit social contracts in the digital world and their importance especially when it comes to VR. Nevertheless, we can already see the foundations of human interaction as governed by an unspoken social code beginning to collapse because human beings can no longer agree on what is acceptable social behavior. A striking example is the consent form that some young people sign prior to sexual encounters. The form usually details the actions that would be accepted or not before engaging in the sexual escapade. The form, of course, came into existence in response to the Me too movement, the popularity of BDSM, and perhaps an overall mood of experimentation that necessitated legal cover in case the experiment turned sour. The explicit contractual agreement still doesn’t pervade all aspects of social interactions but one day it might and the fact that it exists is telling of the rift that might turn into a gaping abyss between human beings. If we can’t agree on acceptable behavior within the intimacy of sexual intercourse, then we might imagine a scenario when we can’t agree on acceptable behavior within larger social intercourse. Communication in the future might ultimately boil down to written explications, or at least this might be the foundational structure for human interaction, because we have seemingly lost all sense of common ground that could unite us. The exact role of the emergence of VR, or at least the pervasiveness of virtual communities with niche normative standards that don’t necessarily fit in with wider society, might bring focus on pre-articulated agreements to govern interactions.
This might result in more solipsistic realities where migration from one virtual reality to another could entail a paradigmatic shift not only in behavioral interactions but in the entire fragmented moral landscape. The multiplicity and diversity of those online realities will deliver us to what Chalmers identified as a product of the simulation hypothesis.
Simulation Hypothesis and Problem of Evil
The simulation hypothesis is a popular hypothesis both in the philosophical and scientific worlds. It argues that we could be already living in a simulation, a possibility that Chalmers takes seriously. He makes a clear distinction between good simulations and bad simulations. The discerning characteristic dividing them is the individual’s ability to exercise their autonomy in choosing the initial stance of unfolding events within a particular reality versus being compelled to dwell within a reality that was pre-vetted and predetermined by another, i.e. a dystopian reality. The question that arises is how would you know if you are being manipulated or not? Or in a Cartesian introspective/philosophical terms how do I know that I’m not being deceived by an evil demon? This question is articulated numerous times by Chalmers and provided as an exemplar of a probable dystopian reality.
The question itself, however, of how do you know if a particular simulated world is dystopian or not if you are within it isn’t really answered. He goes on to claim that even if the physical reality that we now inhabit turns out to be a simulation, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be unreal. In another interview, he asserts
“If it turns out we live in a simulation, that’s really interesting. That might be shocking, but after a while, life would go back to normal, maybe with a few changes. But basically we could still continue our lives. We could still continue our relationships. We could still be continuing our activities. If it turns out that we’re in a perfect simulation, then some people say that would mean, “Oh, my God, all this is meaningless; all this is an illusion.” That’s the view I want to combat. I want to say, “No, even if we’re in a perfect simulation, this is not an illusion; I’m still in a perfectly real world; the conversation I’m having with you right now is a perfectly real conversation. Everything is just as meaningful as it was before.”
And I have to agree. The mere fact that we might be living in a simulation doesn’t necessarily invalidate our human experience. The force of habituation is much stronger than the initial shock that could result from discovering that we live in a simulation. Essentially the theory of simulations, or parallel worlds, was proposed a long time ago by Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz proposed a metaphysical theory that foresaw the possibility of multiple realms of existence or infinite worlds of possibilities. But he was adamant that we lived in the best of all possible worlds. Accordingly, the multiplicity of realities isn’t exactly a contemporary postulate brought on by the onset of technology. It is grounded to a great degree within human consciousness and its interaction with reality.
Yet for both Leibniz and Descartes the ‘problems of evil’ (that we could be deceived by a malicious demon, or that evil exists within the world, respectively) were resolved by a single tenet. For Descartes the representation within his mind of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent being, a representation that supersedes in its perfection all the contents of his limited mind, broke the carapace of solipsism and allowed him to proceed beyond the confines of his own mind. For Leibniz the omnibenevolent God couldn’t allow evil to manifest in this world unless it was a significantly lesser evil than all other potentialities offered by the parallel universes. Thus, it is safe to claim that their metaphysical and epistemic stances rested on their faith and trust in this being.
In Reality+ Chalmers points out the similarities between the simulation hypothesis and religion. He also concedes that there are some similarities between Theism and VR, further claiming in an interview that “if we are in a simulation then the creator is our God”, but also adding “I don’t think there’s any particular reason to think that our simulator is going to be especially good or especially wise. It might just be a teenage hacker in the next universe up. For that reason, I think I’d be particularly hesitant to want to suggest forming a religion or an ethical belief system around the simulator.” But then the entire premise of life within a simulation hypothesis is anchored on the identity of the simulator. Both Leibniz and Descartes had faith in their simulators and that made life plausible, hopeful, worth living. If one can’t be certain of the intentions of the simulator, because there will surely be biases introduced by corporations to maximize their profits, then how can I have hope that I’m leading a meaningful or worthy life within a simulated universe?
I’m by no means trying to preach any theistic tendencies. I am simply trying to posit the solution that was provided by earlier philosophers to a similar problem. And if we cannot trust a simulator who doesn’t have the criteria of perfection that we historically attributed to God, how would we truly know that we are not being manipulated? In all honesty I don’t think that we can know. The simulator is always veiled behind the reality they manifest. This uncertainty in and of itself can ultimately lead to the potential of a dystopian reality.
The role of the philosopher
Some might claim that my questioning functions as an appeal against technologies that will benefit humanity and enrich their lived experiences. I assure you that my questions aren’t meant to thwart the technological advances that will inevitably happen with or without my nagging questions. The root of my annoying questions perhaps emerges from the long philosophical tradition that began with Socrates who likened himself to the gadfly that bites the horse’s ass. Our role as philosophers mandates asking uncomfortable questions in an effort to seek the truth. Concerning VR, Chalmer’s succinctly put it: “It turns out that to make our case that virtual reality is genuine reality, we have to think hard about those old questions. As always, the illumination flows both ways; thinking about technology throws light on the old questions in turn.” We just need to make sure that when directing the old questions to the new realities, we assume the role of the badgering philosophers, rather than morphing to prophets of imperfect gods.