Sunday, July 10, 2005

Transphysicalism and Virtual Happiness

The ideal behind transhumanism is to free humanity from its biological constraints. Our frail bodies and physical environments limit us in many ways. The standard solution is to make use of technological developments that allow us greater control over the environment -- and eventually even our biological selves. But I wonder if it might be worth considering an even more radical idea. Perhaps we could shift our very medium of existence, and live in a world of our own creation -- a "virtual" world -- rather than this physical world that limits us so. Perhaps we should not stop at mere 'transhumanism', but rather, go all the way and embrace what I will call transphysicalism.

It is important to note that this virtual world would be no less "real" than our own. It would just be real in a different way. (Cf. me and David Chalmers on The Matrix.) The fundamental building blocks of our physical universe are (we may suppose) particles like quarks, electrons, and the like. Our created universe would rest upon a computational rather than physical substructure. Its fundamental building blocks would be computational 'bits'. But those bits are real, just as real as electrons, and when arranged correctly they can yield a computational representation of an object, just as particles can be arranged to form physical representations of objects. This difference in 'medium' has no intrinsic importance. And at the 'surface' level, the results would be indistinguishable.

The difference is of practical significance, though, because humans could potentially create a computational universe. I do relish that thought. We could design and build our own universe, to meet our own specifications. We wouldn't just be free from our biological constraints. We would be free from the freaking laws of nature. We could do anything!* I feel giddy just thinking about it.

Realistically,** I guess we would end up imposing our own constraints on the created world. Omnipotence would soon get boring. Humans need challenges. It sounds cliched, but often striving for a goal really is more important than attaining it. So we would need to bear that in mind, in creating a universe ideal for human flourishing. Still, I expect it should be possible to improve upon the present one.

One might question how well this fits with my desire-fulfillment theory of well-being. Recall that what matters is whether our desires are fulfilled in actual fact, not merely whether we believe them so. But the implications for transphysicalism will depend upon the content of our desires. I have previously suggested that most of our everyday desires are concerned with the "common world", i.e. whatever world it is that we happen to inhabit, which contains tables and chairs and such. It would not matter if it turned out that those tables and chairs were fundamentally constituted by computational bits rather than physical particles. If I'm in the Matrix, and I want a car, then what I desire is that I have a car in the Matrix, it doesn't matter that I don't have a car in the physical world. That turns out not to be the world that I care about. I care about this world.

Now, supposing that our current world is physical (we're not in the Matrix), could we create our own "Matrix", or computationally-based universe, and transfer our desires into that world? I see no necessary reason why not, though it would depend on the individual. Some people would be happy to pursue their projects in the computational world, and others might continue to care exclusively about the physical world. The latter group would presumably refuse to join us in moving to the new world. (That's fine, nobody's forcing them.) But the former group, at least, would have goals that can be achieved in fact through the computational world (for short, "the Matrix"). For example, a budding politician might desire to be president-in-the-Matrix. Others might merely desire to start a family***-in-the-Matrix, get a good job-in-the-Matrix, and so forth. All of these goals are indexed to the computer world. If you desire to get X-in-the-Matrix, and so you enter the Matrix and achieve X, then your desire has been fulfilled in fact. It is objectively true that you have X-in-the-Matrix. Your desire is fulfilled, it's not merely an illusion. (Alternatively: if you desire an illusion, and achieve it, then the fact that it's an illusion does not matter. You really have achieved just what you wanted.)

Now, all this has been pretty "out there" so far. It's not like any of this is going to occur within our lifetimes. But we can already take moderate steps in this direction. There are multiple "worlds" with which we interact, each offering different advantages and opportunities. Video games are an obvious example of "virtual worlds". People can create their own characters, and achieve great**** things with them. Granted, most of us don't care about such worlds very much. But if somebody really did care deeply about a virtual world, and managed to achieve many of the goals they set themselves within it, then I see no reason to deny that this would contribute value to their life, and boost their well-being.

The same goes for cyberspace more generally. Indeed, just look at blogs. We all get to create our own little worlds, our own goals, our own standards for success. And if we achieve them, then isn't that something important? Isn't that something real? I can't see any principled reason to think it any less real than success in such "socially constructed" physical arenas as sports, acting, or pop music. Obviously it doesn't come with the same incidental benefits -- you won't get rich or famous from it. But insofar as the intrinsic value of achieving one's goals is concerned, I don't see any good reason to privilege the physical world over computational ones.

So, should people be encouraged to emotionally invest more in cyber-pursuits, if this would provide them with greater chances of success than might otherwise be open to them? I'm not sure. Probably not - at least, not too much. The cyberworlds available at present are awfully limited, too "artificial", and generally not capable of providing the sort of emotional nourishment that humans need, and that - at present - only the "real" world can provide. But that is due to differences in surface structure, and to how people relate over the internet. It isn't a fundamental difference between the mediums. (As noted above, a computational world could potentially be indistinguishable from our physical world, and thus equally emotionally nourishing.)

But perhaps we can conclude that it would be desirable if cyberworlds were developed so as to become more able to provide for human needs, more able to mediate meaningful human connections, and so forth. The transphysicalist ideal might be a long way off yet, but I hope that this post has at least presented some reasons to think it worth aiming for -- a genuine 'ideal'. And in the meantime, even if it would be unhealthy to overinvest in cyberworlds, we can at least grant that they can contain value, and that some (limited) personal investments in them could well prove worthwhile.

*(Well, within logical limits.)
**(that word so does not belong in this post, ha.)
***(note that the other people you interact with would be quite real, just like you. We want to interact with real people, not artificial simulations, of course. But the computational world allows for that. It is inhabited by other real people, with whom you causally interact. Again, the only difference is that the causal interactions take place against a computational rather than physical backdrop. Cf. my comment here.)
****(by the internal standards of such worlds.)


  1. You aren't that old I think this sort of total emersion VR can pretty easily come within our lifetime.

  2. Well its possible that we could inmprove on this world.. especially lifespan i think, however there are definite limits to what we can desire and come true. Much of what people desire in the physical world is directly relative to the position of others. Ie you president example. Human naturla competetiveness means that we may be happy with our 'X' while it the newest and best on our sttreet, until neighbour Joe gets the newer model 'X' and we are not happy anymore - not cos we don't like our x, but wbecause someone has a situatiuon better than ours.

    You are a relativist right?

    well desire and wellbeing surely is relative to others, so we cant all improve like you suggest. Maybe many could however...

  3. A side point on AI.

    If we all came from the inorganic, slowly changed into organic and then self awareness and intelligence - surely this is no different than a process of AI.

    Being organic is not a necessary part, but the fact that intelligence originally came from Inorganic matter means that logically, without a doubt AI is possible.

    Same blogger as above.

  4. I am not sure what you mean by "relativist" in this context. (I am not a relativist about truth or ethics. I am, in a sense, a subjectivist about well-being, in that I hold to the desire-fulfilment theory of well-being.)

    Perhaps some of our desires are "relative to others", e.g. the desire to be the best at X, or the richest, or whatever. But many of our desires are not. (If I'm hungry, I desire to be fed. It's nothing to do with other people.) Moreover, it is even possible to fulfill everybody's competative/"relative" desires, so long as they are competing on different axes. Perhaps Alan wants to be the best at X, and Bob wants to be good at Y, Carla at Z, and so forth. If everyone is good at something different, then there is no conflict.

    (Of course, in practice there would always be some conflict. My point is simply that the situation is not necessarily so dire as you suggest. Universal improvement is indeed possible.)

  5. Suppose for a moment that the sorts of desires that can be fulfilled in the matrix can only be done so by believing that the virtual world is in fact the 'real world.'

    So becoming president for example is only fulfilling if you believe you have done it in the actual world by overcoming all obstacles and not because that destiny was programmed for you.

    If this is the case, entering the matrix would mean volunteering for an illusion. (One of the classic thought experiments of philosophy of mind.)

    Would you enter the matrix under this condition?

  6. Well, that will depend on what exactly it is that you really want. Do you want to be (physical world) president? If so, you would not enter the matrix. Alternatively, perhaps all you want is to feel happy and successful, in which case you might want to be deceived.

    But I'm not sure why we should want to grant your supposition, as that reduces it to the standard Nozickian 'experience machine' scenario. What I think is interesting about the earlier discussed ideas is that it goes beyond that standard scenario. It points out that genuine fulfilment of (even external) desires is possible within a virtual world. If I want X-in-the-matrix, this is an external desire that can be satisfied by the matrix world.

    Why think that being president of the cyber-world would be much less fulfilling than being president of the physical world? What relevant difference does the underlying metaphysics make?

    Note that I am not envisaging a "pre-programmed" world, where everyone has set roles. One has to work for their cyber-success, just as they do their physical success. There would just be more possibilities, fewer constraints, etc.

    We want to retain genuine personal responsibility for our success. I would not want to live in a pre-programmed matrix. I value my autonomy too much. But the sort of open-ended cyberworld I have in mind would have no such problem.

  7. GeniusNZ, note that "total immersion VR" is not quite sufficient for what I have in mind here. What we require is a whole VR world, which can hold vast populations of people simultaneously, and allow them to interact in all the usual ways. This would require massive flexibility, which I expect the first generation of t-i-VR would lack. Also, if immersion is to be permanent, issues arise about sustaining and protecting the inhabitants' physical bodies. But never mind the practical details. Even though I think it unlikely, maybe it could be possible within our lifetimes -- who knows?

  8. A further step would be disposing of our bodies completely...

    The reason i brought up AI earlier, is because i was saying that we are essentially AI beings.

    If you grant this, and our brains are simply super computers, it would be possible to copy our computer functions and make up a type of computer programme that exactly replicas the way we think given all the external inputs, as well keeping and adapting with memory. We in a sense are able to download ourselves, and are thus able to live for possibly thousands of years. Sounds far fetched, but so what. The whole programming reactions for every type of input kind of brings free-will argument into play.
    Logically possible?


  9. >What we require is a whole VR world, which can hold vast populations of people simultaneously

    Not sure if you really need the worlds to interact in a complex manner. At least not for many humans.

    Anyway it is possible the worlds would tend to seperate out in order to allow each person maximum flexibility.

  10. Hey Richard,

    I enjoyed your essay. I have contemplated such things at length as well. Although I have not written much about this subject directly I have been working on the underlying metaphysical, scientific, mathematical and computational foundations that could eventually result in such a scenario.

    In the context of the work that I do, the ultimate test of the hypothesis would be to devise an artificial universe within a quantum computer and to then teleport 'physical objects' into and out of it, including ourselves. That would breakdown our naive realist beliefs in 'physicality'.

    It is already possible to teleport single particles and at this level it is all just quantum information.

    Just thought I'd let you know of the existence of this work. It provides a deep metaphysical foundation for cyberspace based upon matrix algebra, discrete mathematics, information theory and system theory. From this there are working software prototypes of basic artificial universes. These are actually "general system simulators" that can simulate ANY system that can be represented using a finite amount of information - which includes all known systems. The main protoype simulates systems of particles as well as a simple calculator program, i.e. the dynamics of a game could be simulated as virtual systems but so too can general software and any system whatsoever. It essentially provides a general operating environment for systems. This could eventually replace the concept of 'software' and 'code' and 'operating systems'. In the new paradigm a computer is an interface into a virtual universe with deep metaphysical properties just like our current 'physical' universe, in which we can create, participate and interact.

    There is a lot more to it than this, it also explores the metaphysics of this reality, the systemic dynamics that are driving current global crises, the nature of mind, experience and knowledge, and so on.

    If you're interested have a look at An Information System Analysis of Mind, Knowledge, 'the World' and Holistic Science this is an overall discussion, all formed into a single narative.

    And also check out the main website which is a network of related ideas, that you can explore in your own way.

    There are many essays about virtual reality and metaphysics... the implications are profound and far reaching !!!!

    Below is a quote from the preface of the information systems analysis...

    It contains some mind-blowing ideas (literally). As they flow through my mind and out my fingers they are blowing my old paradigm into tiny pieces - dissolving everything and re-casting it into a new paradigm or vision of reality. So beware if you are attached to your familiar world-view - you will find this discussion threatening. Read this only if you are willing to question fundamental beliefs and assumptions, and you seek a deep rational knowledge of your self, of the world, of the nature of the phenomena and events in the world and how to holistically, harmonious and effectively participate in reality. This is the red pill, take it and I will show you "how deep the rabbit hole goes". Or simply turn away; “take the blue pill and the story ends... you believe whatever you want to believe.” The decision is: “Do you live on in ignorance (and potentially bliss) [but for how long?] or do you lead what Aristotle called 'the examined life'...”

    John Ringland


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