• Victoria Bergström

Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy by David J. Chalmers


Photo credit: https://www.amazon.com/Reality-Virtual-Worlds-Problems-Philosophy/dp/0393635805?asin=0393635805&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1


Introduction


Zoom calls, Netflix shows, and instant messages are just at the tip of the iceberg of realities within a virtual space. However, are these virtual representations a new reality? How can we consider simulations a part of daily life? David J. Chalmers asks these questions while detailing the philosophical and ethical considerations and consequences of virtual spaces which are expanding. The book “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy,” published in early 2022, reflects on a rich history of technological advances, philosophical situations, and the future of virtual reality.


A Projection of Reality


"VR is a very intense visual experience and having the most powerful PC is the only way to deliver certain experiences." — Mark Zuckerberg


Many sources can create representations on a wall. From hand signals to objects past a light source, this is represented on walls to smartphones. Several generations from Zhuangzi of China, Narada from India, and Plato from Greece have considered identity, being, and representation. In the situation presented by Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave," a group of people cannot control their reality nor the representations they see in a cave (514a – 516e, Plato, Republic). Plato details their experience explaining that they are imprisoned in chains, and their only conception of the world is through the shadows they can see on their walls. This is their only reality. Unless someone frees themselves from their chains to leave the cave, these are the only worldly images they can see. It is not up to the cave-dwellers to decide whether this representation is a genuine reality.

Facebook founder and president Mark Zuckerberg used a modern version of the proverbial cave . Zuckerberg unknowingly entered a conference while audience members wore virtual reality (VR) headsets. Instead, participants saw a reality different from the one they were experiencing or a simulation (Chalmers, 2022, p. 7 – 8). Chalmers's book debates whether this will become an accepted reality to live in with VR headsets or other technological forms.


Chalmers comprehensively represents philosophical stances from political and theological thought to the increasingly mathematical and scientific. There are no "yes or no" questions. Conversely, many questions are up to different interpretations. The aspects of a changing reality are examined through lenses that usher in questions around the dynamics and scopes of reality, and virtual worlds are at the heart of Chalmers's narrative. Further questions of what a simulation constitutes, its boundaries, and knowingly being in one takes a Matrix-like turn. Except, there is no blue or red pill to take – instead, there are ideas to ponder.


The Extent of Technological Receptions


The advent of computers and the spread of the Internet brought forth new fields such as computer science, artificial intelligence, and other science-related fields. However, this is not the limit. Chalmers intertwines modern culture, philosophical scenarios, science, and history to create a multidisciplinary understanding of the limitations of technology, alongside some thought-provoking illustrations and humour. The complexity of technology expands not only into innovative materials, but rather societal implications.


Virtual worlds are not limited to social media websites. Video games create a society whose respective members or users interact in and with each other. However, this reality has no laws (Ibid. p. 356 – 357). Therefore, virtual reality is not solely a science-based illusion; instead, it is a reconception of society and is not imagination. The societal possibilities to learn are unlimited, yet whether this will occur in a virtual classroom is undecided.

The conception of whether political leadership could emerge from such a reality is not clear to conceptualize. As Plato discusses in the example of Philosopher Kings, the ideal leader is one with a philosophical background rooted in science and mathematics who later has political rule (536d – 541a, Plato, Republic). This rule follows 15 years of training, yet where does this example apply to virtual realms?


In virtual worlds, the Philosopher King is two things – the user, who is heavily involved in virtual engagement or the creator of technology, who presents limitations, and unique characteristics. A user can interact with their virtual environment as deemed fit. Considering that there is free will within this virtual reality, users can become who they desire and they are presented with abilities they did not have in the physical sphere (Chalmers, 2022, p. 320 – 321). Furthermore, these worlds can be facilitated by various means from VR headsets, computers, and even futuristic Matrix-like sleeping pods. VR is hosted by several platforms, allowing users to interact with one another, despite a user's respective locality (Maloney et al., 2021, p. 271). Despite this good, there are inherent evils.


The founder or developer has a risky position. As virtual worlds are inherently anarchic or lawless, there are dangers within the extent of power abuses (Chalmers, 2022, p. 355 – 356). In a society without clear leadership, are software developers to blame for inappropriate actions? This ranges from the dissemination of fake news to abusive behaviour.


Fake News or Just Imagination?


The ability to create new realities faces significant considerations in regards to the validity of representations from fake news to deep fakes. Fake news are quickly disseminated through virtual worlds, similar to the 2016 Pizzagate affair spreading on social media (Ibid. p. 248 – 249). From the nature of virtual worlds, there are no coherent ways to prevent this information from spreading. The validity of information becomes distorted within virtual worlds as almost anyone can release information, regardless of its outlandish claims.


Besides fake news, deepfakes' potential to emerge is another concerning area. Deepfakes are digitally manipulated videos, deceiving viewers through increasingly realistic strategies to blur virtuality with reality (Ibid. p. 240 – 242). This poses a risk for law enforcement, which lies within this development, and is intertwined with Artificial Intelligence (AI). The methods of AI creating deepfakes are primarily rooted in distorting audio and video files, with significant usage in "disinformation campaigns" (Gradoń, 2020, p. 139 – 140). Parody accounts add legitimacy to their image by appearing like a verifiable source while contributing to this spread.


Nevertheless, virtual worlds cannot stop fake news or deepfakes from spreading unless there is a form of verification. Authentication is proposed to be one of the best solutions or relying upon trusted sources such as a reliable media source (Chalmers, 2022, p. 246). Nevertheless, reliable sources can be hacked and parodied. Fact-checking is related, yet Chalmers insists that reliable sources are the most plausible way to avoid fake news and deepfakes.

Some organizations exist, such as the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and some state-sponsored public media organizations (Gradoń, 2020, p. 141). The long-term efficacy of these groups is unknown due to the speed of information disseminated and algorithms. Therefore, virtual worlds present risks not foreseen in the physical world due to spatiality and robust connectivity, alongside increasing ethical and legal considerations.


The Ethics of Technological Advances


The extent of connections made through phones, computers, and other devices shows the advancement of technology, bringing people together and easing daily communication. The advances are not always beneficial, as privacy questions are centred in EU debates over tech giants such as Google and Facebook. The aspects of virtual security are not coherent.


Within virtual reality, avatars become an innate part of identity. Avatars in a simulation can be similar to humans or possess unique attributes and non-human characteristics. However, there are abuses between avatars, as mentioned in a virtual sexual assault occurring in the early 1990s (Chalmers, 2022, p. 350 – 351). Virtual worlds build societies, and the divide between the physical and emotional wellbeing is blurred, as abusive behaviours can carry over to virtual realms.


This is not a new phenomenon. "Social virtual reality" describes the social interactions within VR and its potential implications (Maloney et al., 2021, p. 271 – 272). In a society where anything can be created, are there any limits? Within this, VR could create "virtual abundance," potentially limiting considerations for equity and justice while allowing AI to avoid ethical considerations (Chalmers, 2022, p. 360 – 361). The abuses extend material considerations, as political power is not defined within any advancements.


The potential for democracy is not transparent. Instead, corporatocracy has a solid potential to emerge (Ibid. p. 357 – 359). Corporations can set their own agenda and even threaten democratic values within this governance. Nevertheless, the line between reality and imagination is blurred within this reality as virtual words create new realms of existence.


The Future of Virtual Worlds


VR has limitations due to technological advancements and implementation. However, the realms of expansion from the arts to sciences demonstrate the flexibility of virtual worlds to connect fields and communities. Video games have started virtual realities, from VR headsets to even realities such as life on an island like Nintendo's Animal Crossing franchise.


One proposal Chalmers introduces the aimless possibilities for VR, from engaging senses from smell to touch, which could emerge in the future (Ibid. p. 16). This demonstrates that VR has a place in providing invaluable support for people with disabilities and connecting people. Further legal considerations around technology are left open as the evolution of virtual reality can provide previously unimagined realities. The danger within these realities is the spread of fake news, deepfakes, and the rise of abusive and undemocratic behaviour.

Regarding VR, Chalmers identifies three concepts that go against the philosopher Robert Nozick's philosophy of the experience machine. VR is not a machine. Instead, VR is (1) reality and "is not illusory," (2) is not automated, so it responds to each user, and (3) is artificial, similar to many physical human environments (Ibid p. 314 – 315). Hence, VR could become a new reality in the emergence of another pandemic.


The political capabilities of virtual worlds will affect the international political economy, as currencies will expand from Bitcoin to correspond with respective virtual realms. Future virtual realities could see the European Commission hold meetings versus requiring physical meetings. The opportunities for virtual worlds to expand into ordinary life grow, like Zoom and Google Meet connected communities for various purposes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether physical and virtual realities will merge in the future is unknown. Perhaps, technology will show its limits or a new epoch for societies worldwide will begin.


Bibliography


Chalmers, D. J. (2022). Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.


Gradoń, K. (2020). Crime in the time of the plague: Fake news pandemic and the challenges to law-enforcement and intelligence community. Society Register, 4(2), 133-148.


Grube, G.M.A., & Reeve, C.D.C. (1992). Plato: Republic. Hackett, Indianapolis.


Maloney, D., Freeman, G., & Robb, A. (2021, March). Social Virtual Reality: Ethical Considerations and Future Directions for An Emerging Research Space. In 2021 IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces Abstracts and Workshops (VRW) (pp. 271-277). IEEE.