Talking of virtual worlds smacks of sci-fi, but little did we know that a simulated reality is being offered as one of the most plausible explanations of human existence. It seems mind-boggling until you dig deep like the Wachowskis did in creating the 1999 film, The Matrix, It centers on the mundane life of Neo, the central character played by Keanu Reeves. In the end, everything is revealed to be an illusion.
What we see as a green-tinted “reality” turns out to be a digital simulation, the product of connecting human brains to a computer. Neo has to make a decision between the blue and the red pill at the close of the story, both offered by Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. He chooses the red, as we know, and becomes disconnected in a moment’s notice. What then? Neo ends up in a new reality, one frightening to be sure. It is the physical world. Surprise!
We turn to the Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist, David Chalmers, for an explanation. After all, he wrote an essay for the official website of the original film 1999. Neo might just be in another simulation, right? The new version, called The Matrix Reloaded, features Professor Cornel West, who proclaims, “It’s illusions all the way down.” What does Chalmers make of the rabbit hole we are now in?
It is hard to take that the real world is but a fantasy! Interestingly, Chalmers is retreating from his original stance that the digital simulation, the Matrix, is an illusion. “Neo’s world is perfectly real,” he now writes. Virtual reality (VR) is in fact “genuine reality”. Wow! What a reversal. But Chalmers is credible through in through, having taught himself to master computer programs at the age of ten.
In 1976, after reading the Colossal Cave Adventure, he was thick in the midst of virtual worlds. He relishes his time with VR systems. “I put on a headset, open an application, and suddenly I’m in a virtual world.” He writes that he assumes a female character visiting Mars. “She” ends up grappling with assassins no less and takes to the skies akin to a bird in flight. We can clearly see a creative mind at work.
Yet Chalmers is a true philosopher at heart; despite a lack of vast technical knowledge, he enters the fray feet first to discuss virtual simulations. He notes that he and his merry band of philosophers, “had the sense of inhabiting a common world”. We are glad that they did!
Now Facebook is rebranding as Meta (shortened form of metaverse, a term from Snow Crash, a 1992 novel by Neal Stephenson) so millions, if not billions, can jump on board. Cyber technology is rapidly expanding, becoming more and more immersive. You can’t get away from it no matter how hard you try. Facebook now offers its Oculus Quest headset while Apple is releasing one too.
Augmented reality (AR) gets better and more impressive all the time; it offers an experiencing that is simultaneously part virtual and part physical. Think of digital objects or text overlaid across your visual field. AR could become more influential than VR, per Chalmers, eventually replacing screen-based computing.
Nir Ziso of The Global Architect Institute has his own take on virtual reality. His theory, Simulation Creationism, offers a plausible answer to deep philosophical questions, those that Chalmers and others are struggling with. Everyone is dealing with advancing technology and how it manifests in digital constructs. For Ziso, it is about The Simulation.
Meanwhile, we have those awkward AR glasses or contact lenses as an expression of the latest technology. We soon should see retinal and brain implants to make the virtual experience even deeper. What if we never want to re-enter everyday reality? Ziso says, we are already living in The Simulation, so it is no longer an issue.
Nonetheless, a brain-computer interface would change everything in terms of sensory organs and human experience. Image a whole new way of thinking, working, and living!
Chalmers writes, “My guess is that within a century we will have virtual realities that are indistinguishable from the nonvirtual world.” Eventually people could spend most of their lives in altered environments, just as they now can choose to emigrate to another country.
He goes on to say, “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.” No, it is not about escapism or pure fantasy. Simulations are not illusions per Chalmers. By contrast, virtual worlds are real, and the virtual objects in them are real. Don’t equate them with “non-virtual” objects despite the use of digital pixelation. But isn’t it akin to objects made of atoms and quarks?
We can now conclude that happiness is possible when living in The Simulation. Life can be meaningful if not totally fulfilling. “We can never prove we’re not in a computer simulation because any evidence of ordinary reality could be simulated.” The big question has been asked and answered.
The simulation hypothesis is out in the open and up for grabs. The sequel to The Matrix, called Matrix Resurrections, is testimony to its timeliness. So are the most recent video games, like The Sims. They are progressing like wildfire, now running on millions of personal devices. Chalmers also contemplates the universe as a whole: “if any aliens have human-level intelligence, they should eventually develop computers and program them. If these alien civilizations survive long enough, they’ll likely create simulated universes.”
Is there one or more simulations? Some say that the simulated outnumber the “real” ones. In the words of Oxford philosopher, Nick Bostrom, it’s more likely we’re living in a simulation than in the original version of our world. If we are in fact living in The Simulation, the creator per Nir Ziso has to be God. It is not a mad scientist, an alien, or an ancestor civilization. Nor is it the product of a virtual game player who has pressed a button to set The Simulation going.
As an atheist, what would Chalmers make of Nir Ziso’s Simulation Creationism? Per Chalmers, “The Simulation Hypothesis has made me take the existence of a god more seriously than I ever had before”. His book, Reality+, pertains to extending our sense of the real. “There is more to reality than we thought”, he says. He should be applauded for taking a pure sci-fi subject and turning it into a readable philosophical investigation.
For Chalmers, it is all about his idea of “technophilosophy”. This means that he is asking philosophical questions about technology and, conversely, using new technology to tackle philosophical problems. It is the stuff of a high mind yet also engaging if not entertaining. It smacks of pop culture to critics; but in the end, we have to get out of the rabbit hole of doubt and embrace our illusions.