Imagine that when your great-grandparents were teenagers, they got their hands on a groundbreaking new gadget, the world’s first fully immersive virtual reality entertainment system. These weren’t those crazy glasses you see everywhere now. This device was more Matrix-y – a stylish headband filled with electrodes that somehow tapped directly into the perceptual system of the human brain, replacing everything a wearer saw, heard, felt, smelled and even tasted with new sensations created by a machine.
The device was a blockbuster; magical headbands quickly became an inescapable fact in people’s daily lives. Your great-grandparents met in Headbandland, and their children, your grandparents, rarely met the world outside. Later generations – your parents, you – never did.
Everything you’ve ever known, the entire universe you call reality, has been fed to you by a machine.
Anyway, this is the kind of outdoor scenario I keep thinking about as I think about the simulation hypothesis – the idea, much discussed among technologists and philosophers of late, that the world around us could be a digital fabrication, something like the simulated world of a video game.
The idea is not new. Exploring the underlying nature of reality has been an obsession of philosophers since the time of Socrates and Plato. Since “The Matrix”, such notions have also become a staple of pop culture. But until recently, the simulation hypothesis was a matter for academics. Why even consider that technology could create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality? And even if such a thing were possible, what difference would knowledge of the simulation make to one of us stuck in the here and now, where reality feels all too tragically real?
For these reasons, I’ve sat out many of the debates about the simulation hypothesis that have been bubbling through tech communities since the early 2000s, when Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher, put forward the idea in a much-cited essay.
But a mind-bending new book by the philosopher David Chalmers – “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy” – has turned me into a seasoned simulatorist.
After reading and talking with Chalmers, I’ve come to believe that the coming world of virtual reality could one day be considered as real as real reality. When that happens, our present reality will immediately be called into question; After all, if we could invent meaningful virtual worlds, isn’t it likely that another civilization somewhere else in the universe would have done the same? But if that’s possible, how can we know we’re not in the simulation yet?
The conclusion seems inescapable: we may not be able to prove we’re in a simulation, but it’s at least a possibility we can’t rule out. But it can be more than that. Chalmers argues that when we’re in a simulation, there’s no reason to think it’s the only simulation; in the same way that many different computers use Microsoft Excel today, many different machines can run a copy of the simulation. If that were the case, there would be many more simulated worlds than non-SIM worlds – meaning that, just as a matter of statistics, it would not only be possible for our world to be one of many simulations, but likely. Chalmers writes that “the chance that we are sims is at least 25 percent.”
Chalmers is a professor of philosophy at New York University and has spent much of his career pondering the mystery of consciousness. He is best known for coining the phrase “the hard problem of consciousness,” which roughly describes the difficulty of explaining why a particular experience feels like that experience to the being experiencing it. (Don’t worry if this hurts your head; it’s called the hard problem for a reason.)
Chalmers says he started thinking deeply about the nature of simulated reality after using VR headsets like Oculus Quest 2 and realized that the technology is already good enough to create situations that feel viscerally real.
Virtual reality is now advancing so quickly that it seems reasonable to assume that the world within VR will one day become indistinguishable from the world beyond. Chalmers says this could happen within a century; I wouldn’t be surprised if we crossed that line in a few decades.
Whenever it happens, the development of realistic VR will be earth-shattering, for reasons both practical and profound. The practical ones are obvious: if people can easily switch between the physical world and virtual ones that feel exactly like the physical world, which one should we consider real?
You could say that the answer is clearly the physical. But why? What happens on the internet today does not stay on the internet; the digital world is so deeply entrenched in our lives that its effects are reflected in society. After many of us have spent much of the pandemic working and socializing online, it would be foolish to say that life on the internet is not real.
The same would be true of VR Chalmers’ book—which amusingly travels through ancient Chinese and Indian philosophy from René Descartes to modern theorists like Bostrom and the Wachowskis (the siblings who created “The Matrix”)—is a philosophical work, and so goes through a multi-part exploration of how physical reality differs from virtual reality.
His result is this: “Virtual reality is not the” the same as ordinary physical reality’, but because its effects on the world are not fundamentally different from those of physical reality, ‘it is nevertheless a real reality’. So we should not view virtual worlds as mere escapist illusions; what happens in VR “really happens,” Chalmers says, and if it’s real enough, people can live “completely meaningful” lives in VR
To me this seems obvious. We already have quite a bit of evidence that humans can construct advanced realities from experiences they have over a screen-based internet. Why wouldn’t that be the case for an immersive internet?
This touches on what is profound and disturbing about the advent of VR. The mixing of physical and digital reality has already plunged society into an epistemological crisis – a situation where different people believe different versions of reality based on the digital communities in which they come together. How would we handle this situation in a much more realistic digital world? Could the physical world even continue to function in a society where everyone has one or more virtual alter egos?
I do not know. I don’t have much hope that this will go smoothly. But the terrifying possibilities suggest the importance of seemingly abstract investigations into the nature of reality under VR. We need to start thinking seriously about the possible effects of virtual worlds now, long before they become too real to be comfortable.
Office Hours with Farhad Manjoo
Farhad wants chat with readers on the phone. If you’d like to talk to a DailyExpertNews columnist about something that interests you, fill out this form. Farhad will select a few readers to call.