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How could that be? Isn’t a simulated or “virtual” world necessarily a realm of illusion, and wouldn’t we be fooling ourselves if we thought its inhabitants real? Chalmers answers no, arguing that the terms “virtual” and “real” should not be contrasted in the way this objection suggests. Correct, the products of a computer simulation are not one of them physically Reality, but there are other ways something can be real. For example, consider the possibility of me throwing a no-hitter in the World Series, and then contrast that with each of the following: my throwing a World Series no-hitter in the context of a simulated season in a video game and my I have just dreamed that I threw a no-hitter. There’s a very natural sense in which the middle way that I play a simulated season without ever leaving my living room is one that I Yes, really Throw a no hitter. (For example, when I brag about the exploit to my friends and they ask if I Yes, really done, then I won’t lie or mislead you if I say yes, so long as it’s clear we’re talking about a video game.) Chalmers applies a sophisticated version of this line of reasoning to the idea that our entire world is one giant simulation. Having rejected the error of merging the real with the physical, we can see that there need not be anything unreal about what happens in a virtual world.

But wait. For me to throw a no-hitter in a World Series game, a lot of things would have to apply to me that aren’t — like having the ability to effectively pitch professional hitters, and at some point I was on the mound at a major league stadium. None of these things have to be true for me to throw a no-hitter in just a video game, or just in a dream. Of course, these things wouldn’t have to be true for me to throw a no-hitter in a giant computer sim either – in which case I wouldn’t be a person on a pitcher’s hill (or in my living room or in bed), but a brain in a vat or a confident virtual avatar made entirely of digital bits. And does this not show that there is an important difference in the way things stand with me and in the kinds of activities I engage in, depending on whether I am a living organism, living in the physical world through my actions acts or not body movements? Doesn’t it show an important difference between what we are and do in a physical world and what we are and do in a purely virtual world?

This is one point where Chalmers’ argument draws on his commitment to a fundamentally Cartesian anthropology and betrays his failure to recognize that Descartes’ image is at work in the background. Consider the following passage in which Chalmers discusses what makes a particular body “mine”:

I could lose pain or hunger and be unable to eat or drink, but that body would still be my body. My thinking could be in a Cartesian mind, but that body would still be mine. And it’s not so obvious that the physical body is the place of my existence. I could transplant my brain into a new body or upload myself to the cloud and exist without the old body. So it is questionable as my avatar [in a computer simulation]my physical body is not quite the same as me.

This reasoning is intended to show that if I make a pitch in a virtual baseball game, I myself will be no less and no more on a pitcher’s mound than when I do so in a physical game. In either case, according to Chalmers, “my body,” whether a physical thing or a digital avatar, will stand on a physical or virtual hilltop, and my body will not be the same me. This, of course, is precisely the conclusion of Descartes’ second meditation, for which a similar argument is made.

What is striking, apart from the similarity to Descartes’ arguments, is that whatever description Chalmers gives of what “might” happen is entirely uncontested and unsubstantiated. It is an observable fact that people can enter persistent vegetative states in which they are unconscious and unable to eat or drink voluntarily. In contrast, the assumed possibility that human-like thinking could occur in immaterial minds, or be transplanted into new bodies via our brains, or uploaded into computer systems, has so far only been a philosophical fantasy. And outside the confines of this fantasy, we have no way of telling what would happen if any of these “could” become a reality. Imagine my brain being transplanted into another body, which then starts thinking the same way as me. What reason is there to believe that the resulting person would actually do so be me, rather than a mental duplicate of me being brought into existence? The problem is even more serious when “I” is said to have been uploaded to a digital cloud. Given that multiple versions of “I” can be created simultaneously in this way, why should any of them claim to be identical to the original? In any case, the answer is that the only reason for saying what Chalmers is doing is that we simply take Descartes’ picture of the mind for granted.

reality+ is an overwhelming success in many ways. It’s well written, cleverly illustrated, and packed with useful distinctions and strong arguments. It makes excellent use of both history and contemporary culture to help the general reader understand the key concepts. And all this without sacrificing the rigor one would expect from an analytical philosopher’s treatment of these subjects in a scholarly journal.

Nonetheless, I also find the book an instructive example of how one of the dominant contemporary approaches to philosophy can fall short of the demands of the discipline. As long as our philosophical thinking is bound only by fantasies or the extreme fringes of scientific speculation, its conclusions will tend to reflect our fortuitous and cultural assumptions. And as long as this work proceeds without awareness of the philosophical images on which our thinking rests, we will not be able to question the accuracy of these images or to seek possible alternatives to them.

Virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy

David J Chalmers
WW Norton
$32.50 | 544 p.

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