The Perils and Promises of Virtual Reality

“Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakably Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.”

Thus begins David Chalmers enchanting new book Reality + which engages imaginatively with philosophical issues connected to Virtual Reality (VR).

In his book, Chalmers argues for:

Chronic Metaphysical Uncertainty: We cannot absolutely be sure that we do or do not live in a Simulation. From this premise, according to Chalmers, it follows that we might either be Pure Sims (simulated beings wholly inside the simulation) or Bio Sims (biological beings residing (spatially) outside of the simulation yet connected to it)

Virtual Realism: The view that Virtual Reality is real. Entities in virtual reality really exist.

Virtual Digitalism: The view that objects in virtual reality are digital objects—roughly speaking, structures of binary information, or bits.

The it-from-bit hypothesis: Physical objects are real and they are digital.

The Equivalency of Worlds hypothesis: If the it-from-bit hypothesis is true, then both the natural world and the simulated world are real because both are based on bits which make up their underlying structure.

The Equivalency of Value in the Two Worlds: This is the view that life in virtual reality can have the same sort of value as life in nonvirtual reality.

The Heim Prophecy: Based on the philosopher Michael Heim’s somewhat prophetic assertion that “Virtual entities are indeed real, functional, and even central to life in coming eras.”

In principle, I only find myself able to agree with all of these arguments if I am allowed to make an important distinction between what I call Strong VR vs Weak VR.

Weak VR is the ability to create a simulation, participate in it while at the same time never being able or wanting to completely forget our original starting point in our presumed “natural” world. In Weak VR, we never loose our knowledge of the difference between the “natural” world and the “virtual” world although both are equally real, metaphysically speaking. In Weak VR we enjoy immersing ourselves temporarily in virtual worlds for purposes of entertainment and education. Conceivably, too, immersion in virtual worlds could serve as a temporary kind of virtual “punishment center” or “mental correction facility” for those we deem criminals although it would have to be scrupulously monitored and deemed safe beyond any reasonable doubt.

Most importantly, in Weak VR we inhabit both virtual worlds and our “natural” world never abandoning the latter for the former or allowing ourselves too much time spent in the former. We navigate these worlds achieving a “golden mean” where we enjoy the potential benefits of both. But in Weak VR we never decide to erase our memories of our “natural” selves or our “belongingness” to the original state that we were born into.

However things are very much different once we enter into Strong VR.

Strong VR has a long pedigree stretching back to Zhuangzi, Plato, St. Augustine, Descartes and more recently to modern philosophers such as Nozick and Baudrillard too. What these philosophers all have in common with recent popular science fiction movies like the Matrix is that they imagine that what we believe about our world and ourselves is completely false.

The key differences between an inhabitant of Strong VR and an inhabitant of Weak VR are the following:

In Strong VR:

1) You are completely unaware that some entity has either created the simulation, your identity or, most likely, both

2) It follows from the first premise that we are completely unaware of the intentions, if any, of the creator of the simulation

3) It follows from the first two premises that the creator might be able to change the terms, conditions, and properties of the simulation (and all those who inhabit it) at any time

4) It follows from the third premise that everything or some things in the simulation could be in a constant state of flux

5) It follows from the first four premises that we do not know if we are Pure Sims or Bio Sims

6) If the above premises are true then we have no way of securely following our own purposes, plans, or intentions. We cannot know if what we currently feel, remember, know, or experience has just occurred for a mere instance or for longer periods. This condition of “potential flux” negates any and all concepts of meaningful authenticity.

7) Under the above conditions we live at both the potential whim and command of the “Simulator-God” who created the simulation irrespective of whether that being, itself, is a simulation or not

8) In such a situation there is no extrinsic or intrinsic freedom only at best the “illusion of freedom”

9) Thus there is no stable personality, order, or law in Strong VR. There is only the will or intentions of the simulator who is, practically speaking, the only “real entity” and it lies outside the simulation

10) Although it does not strictly follow from the above premises it is my contention that to be a full person one must be able to enjoy the relative stability of place and personality; in Strong VR these two things could be completely missing. If so, then I conclude that Strong VR is potentially neither desirable, good, or commensurate in value to life in the “natural” world.

Yet, why did I spend so much time talking about Strong VR when it seems so clearly undesirable? Because in today’s world it matters greatly and serves as a warning for the future.

For instance, more than one college student of mine has admitted to me that they would willingly forget who they are in this world and jump right into a strong simulation if they could be guaranteed a sufficiently pleasant life.

I find this both startling and naive on two counts. Firstly, there are never any “guarantees” if someone other than yourself is controlling your life situation. Things and people can always change on the “outside”. Secondly, a life rigged for pleasure is no better than a life lived as a “pig satisfied” as John Stuart Mill once so memorably put it.

It would perhaps not be too melodramatic to say that these willing confessions made by my students as to their receptivity to a life lived in Strong VR have troubled me deeply.

To voluntarily accept the possibility of a life in Strong VR is to run all the risks that I have enumerated above. More than this, it is an act of self-banishment to a Platonic Cave which admits of no exit towards any Sun. It is the abandonment of the search for the truth, for real challenges, for growth, for authenticity in any meaningful form.

Perhaps it will turn out that reaching out towards the stars was but a temporary quest of the twentieth century while the twenty first century will reveal a more permanent flight into irreality, fantasy, Strong VR, as the true and pitiful destiny of a creature ultimately far more interested in the pursuit of pleasure than in truth, beauty, and the good life.

As Aristotle taught us long ago, and Robert Nozick reminded us recently, we become what we are by doing, by overcoming. In a Strong Simulation, all is being done for us, through us, unbeknownst to us. In Strong VR, the sum of all of our strivings are even less than those of a Sisyphus who, after all, knew the true hopelessness of his situation. This true knowledge ennobled Sisyphus. His scorn and his suffering were real. What kind of nobility shall we find in a life lived in Strong VR? Once inside, we shall not know our own selves, situations, or even the nature and duration of the very rocks placed before us. We will become a perpetual plaything of others whom we cannot even curse because we cannot see or even think them. Who cares then if Strong VR is ultimately real? In any meaningful sense, it is worthless.

The advent of Strong VR is the return of the Olympian Gods who remain unseen and always possibly malevolent. No matter how much potential light we may think we perceive in Strong VR, while dwelling there we will always remain unknowing creatures of the dark. Unknowing, unseeing, unfeeling living in an anonymously controlled flux of experiences that we foolishly mistake for the solidity of the Ground of Being. In a world where all is blind there can be no prophecy for the living.

It increasingly appears that in the early 21st century Man is unconcerned about the nature of the ground he stands upon; all that matters is the subjective quality of his existence. If it is pleasurable then it shall be called good. If it allows for excitement, adventure, and ecstasy it is to be welcomed wholeheartedly even if it is only the digital projection of another’s power. Man is apparently ready to fly straight into the spiderweb of his own manufactured realities even before he has somewhat understood the nature of his primeval one. He is ready to lend his heart, soul, and mind to a technological theater wherein lies the promise that he will play the hero, the lover, the genius all without the slightest effort. But his adolescent dream shall inevitably turn into a nightmare in the careful hands of those who still believe in the Real for it is they who shall control the newly multiplied shadows of technological being. Strong VR will open up a new kind of slavery, fashion new kinds of chains, and even call forth new forms of torture that even Plato’s Cave did not contain. Beware my friends of this your great farewell to the Sun.

Perhaps it all turns on this: Do you want to dig as far as you can to reach some kind of truth? Or do you want to abandon such a search as hopeless and resign yourself to a possible life of pleasure whatever its means, terms, conditions, and ultimate origins? Shall we put down the burden of philosophy and enter the Garden of the Lotus Eaters? Shall we put questioning in its place as a useless irritant; a relic of an ancient time and focus on the promises of technologically created well being and harmony? Shall we usher in the reign of Nietzsche’s Last Men wherein the very flesh and blood of the species becomes irrelevant; where nature disappears and digital pictures furnished by the paltry imagination of Man swallows all? The vortex of the Rabbit Hole becomes wider and wider with each passing technological iteration. In the end, Strong VR will prove itself a false messiah luring its victims with easy promises and the anesthesia of compact solutions to life’s ancient problems.

Within a Strong Simulation, one minute you could be a beauty pageant winner, or a heavy weight champion of the world, or a Nobel Peace prize winner, or just a contented frog in a pond, or even a brzg (fill in your favorite fantasy creature), or anything or anyone else. In Strong VR, nothing is fixed. Here, All is potentially in flux because natural laws as we know them do not necessarily govern Strong VR. Instead, it is more likely than not governed by the whim of those who control the simulation; nothing is constant, fixed, or immutable here in principle. In this digital world, the sun, pace Hume, may indeed not rise “tomorrow”. You may or may not be “yourself”. The world and your place in it may undergo innumerable, rapid revisions. Ultimately, you are not in control. Because there is no “you” anymore. There is only a natural shadow of a “you” somewhere outside the subjective landscape of the strong simulation.

In this way, Strong VR can be seen as the philosophical and cultural triumph of the forces of subjectivity over objectivity. With Strong VR we renounce objectivity for feeling. We retreat into ourselves thereby perfectly culminating the historical arc of Romanticism. We escape from this world and all of its problems and disappointments and dwell within a digital poetry of our very own making. VR is the Age of Technological Poetry rising over the hard Analog Prose of the Past.

Yet, in the past, too, Mankind dreamt. Myths, Superstitions, Religions, Ideologies all these were dreams that both glorified and horrified the ages. Indeed Man still dreams, it is the very essence of his nature. But the dreams inherent within Strong VR will lack at least one essential ingredient that checked and corrected and eventually defeated all the other dreams of the past: a real world. It was the challenge of the real world which eventually corrected the collective vision of the species. What will chastise and discipline the dreams engendered in Strong VR? How are dreams eventually defeated in a Dream?

It is ironic that just as Man is about to conquer many of the perennial challenges of the real world (such as hunger, poverty, and war) that he wishes to fully abandon it. It is as if, tired from the long struggle, he wishes to forget the conflicts that fashioned him and sleep the dream of the Blessed unburdened by the past, untroubled by the present, unconcerned for the future. In Strong VR, time will be abolished and true worry with it.

What exactly ails present day Humanity that a digital world seems equally as good as the present world? Have all the Paths of Being been cleared? Are all the Ways of Being exhausted? Have the Riddles of this existence become unsolvable or not worth the effort? Wherefore the pain in Modern Man’s Soul that he is ready to dissolve his very own flesh and abandon the mysteries of his original home? I fear something very dark lies within the center of his fleeing.

The seriousness of life has become démodé. All has been transformed into Game. Gamification is the way of Modern Man. To play is to live. It has become the sole reason for existing. Sports, Movies, Sex, Drugs, Crime, Politics, Art, Work; all are viewed through the lens of Le Jeu. TheSystem has become a Game in which the winners and the losers are all hierarchically arranged; each to play his intrinsically nonsensical part. In such a world Liberté, égalité, fraternité have become a bad joke told by a somnambulist. Perhaps Oswald Spengler was right when he said over a hundred years ago that Democracy was but a clever trick hiding the dire workings of the dictatorship of money? Or when, more recently, Vaclav Havel wrote that formal Democracy was not the sufficient solution necessary for the return of authenticity to man and his relationship to both himself and the world?

It is no surprise then that in just such an historical situation Heidegger famously proposed that “only a God could save us”. Now, apparently, rather than a God it is Strong VR that has opened up the door to a solution, if a very bad one. In a world eerily similar to ours in some ways, the Roman Empire, people then turned to Stoicism to bear the injustices of a false and empty existence; with the help of the philosophy of Epictetus and Seneca they withdrew from the world retreating within themselves; in a similar manner we now turn inward and away from this our world into Strong VR: thus a new form of technological Stoicism is born. Politically castrated, precariously mesmerized by economics, and spiritually depleted Modern Man slowly turns his sorrowful head from a natural scene long since not under his beneficial control.


Dan Corjescu teaches at the University of Tübingen’s TRACS program.