The ontology of virtual worlds

Virtual world: an interactive computer-generated world

Virtual reality: an immersive, interactive computer-generated world

This is how David Chalmers (he of Zombies fame for undergraduate philosophers of my generation) defines virtual worlds and virtual reality in a recent Philosopher 1923 discussion. His point is that “virtual reality is genuine reality” in contrast to those who see it as an illusion, hallucination or second class reality. He argues it is a digital reality rather than a physical reality but no less real for this:

It follows from this that for him we can lead a fully meaningful life in Virtual Reality. This is an idea I’m sceptical about but which I don’t think can be dismissed lightly. It raises important questions about what a meaningful life is, the conditions which make it possible and whether virtual reality can provide these conditions. The obvious sociological objection to this is what on earth does it mean to live in virtual reality? Even if we imagine someone who is immersed in virtual reality 24/7 there still needs to be structures which support their embodiment, ensure connectivity and facilitate sustained immersion. In popular dystopian scenarios virtual reality becomes an escape from a crisis-ridden world but this still entails a relationship between virtual reality and physical reality.

Once we recognise that life necessarily includes some balance between the real and virtuality, it precludes the dichotomy on which Chalmers is depending. In other words I’m not sure how we can ask the question in the way Chalmers does without obliterating the social context. It sets up ‘meaningfulness’ as a feature of individual experience rather than the relationship which a socially embedded person has with a reality which includes other people.

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