Monday, September 28, 2009

Hallucination, Virtual Reality, and Reality

Some consider virtual reality to be akin to mere hallucination, whereas others see it as potentially on a par with physical reality. Both seem possible to me (depending on the precise nature of the VR we're imagining), so let's try to clarify matters by drawing some distinctions. First, we can consider the epistemic dimension of whether you remain aware (on some level) that you're in a virtual world, or if the VR is all-consuming. More importantly, I think we can identify variation along a metaphysical dimension of sorts, as per the following three alternatives:

(1) Passive Experience Machine: You are passively fed an externally determined 'phenomenal soup' (including the phenomenal experience as of making certain decisions), effectively living out someone else's story from the inside.

(2) Active Solipsism: A genuinely interactive fiction, where you make decisions that affect how things turn out. But you are the only sentient being immersed in the world -- any others you "see" are mere simulacra (or 'Non-Player Characters', in geekspeak).

(3) Active Shared Virtual Worlds: In this final category, the virtual world serves as a medium for causally interacting with other people, as in The Matrix.

When it comes to assessing a life spent immersed in such VR, I think these differences are of immense normative significance. The Passive Experience Machine is indeed akin to an extended hallucination, and a life so bereft of agency may strike many of us as no life at all. The case of Active Solipsism is at least some improvement on this, though still abhorrent insofar as we are social animals who value genuine relationships, and see them as grounding much of the meaning in our lives.

What about the final option: Active Shared VR? In principle (i.e. if the VR faithfully reproduced all the multi-modal sensory richness and fine-grained environmental responsiveness that physical reality has to offer), I think that such a world must be acknowledged as no less 'real' - in any sense that matters - than our own. It seems a piece of metaphysical chauvinism to claim otherwise: to think that when lovers intentionally cause mutual sensations of kissing this only counts as really kissing when there aren't any bits or bytes (but only atoms serving in a non-computational capacity) in the causal chain. (Compare the absurdity of claiming that people on the phone aren't really talking to each other, but merely "simulating" talking.) What's so special about material reality? It only matters insofar as it provides a common causal medium for the interaction of minds against a stable backdrop; but any other equally-responsive and stable medium could fill this role just as well -- its intrinsic nature, as material or computational, cannot plausibly be thought to matter.

'Reality' is just the stable causal backdrop for interacting minds. As such, it is multiply-realizable. Material stuff can do the job of reality, as can computational bits and bytes (at least in principle), or we could even have a kind of Berkeleyan Idealism according to which our existence is fundamentally based in the mind of God. So long as the requisite stability and mutual (counterfactual-supporting) causal influence obtains, the fundamental grounds don't matter. Our everyday concepts, and hence the contents of our desires, typically concern the surface structure of reality (that which the materialist and idealist worlds have in common), not its fundamental nature. So this is not a difference that would make a difference, so far as most of us are concerned.

(N.B. It would make a difference if the causal structure mediating our experiences were to be excised or impaired. I'm no subjectivist: a world where people have no causal impact on each other's experiences is a world that's sorely lacking.)

So, I agree with Alexandre Erler that "there is an important difference between my actually going to see the pyramids of Egypt, or having sex, and my sitting alone in my house in an armchair with electrodes plugged into my brain... believing I am doing these things." But then, there's also an important difference between merely believing that you're doing these things, and actually doing them in a different medium. This distinction is occluded if we fail to carefully distinguish the different forms that a 'Virtual Reality' could take.


  1. So, I accept what you say about (3). I'm not so sure about (1) and (2). (By the way, that paper you read of mine for Singer's seminar last year was effectively trying to get people to agree that (3) was fine, and then force them to agree that (1) and (2) are fine. I think I like your examples better, though.)

    Anyway, does it matter to you how we spell out (2)? Let's say it works like this. You're the lone flesh-and-blood human that's hooked up to the machine. Everyone else is very sophisticated AI. These sophisticated AI/NPCs are so sophisticated that they are functionally very similar to people. I think that in this case you should agree that there is no normative difference between (2) and (3). The only possible difference seems to be that in (2) the thing that realizes your life is different from the thing that realizes the lives of others. And how could this possibly matter? As you say, it would be 'material chauvinism' to think that it did.

    Now suppose we spell things out the other way. The AI have all the appearances of being very sophisticated, but in fact they are not. I take it that in this case, you'll claim that (2) is quite bad.

    Here's the kicker. Once you say there's a big difference between the two ways of spelling out (2) and agree that (3) really isn't a problem, I think you're on thin ice when you try to bludgeon the mental state welfarist with common sense repugnance at (1) and other experience machine scenarios. For the very reasons that common sense is against (1) and other variants of the experience machine, common sense would be unhappy to accept the nice distinctions between the various ways of spelling out VR. Maybe you think that the strong reasons to reject the acceptability of experience machines and such stem from something other than foot-stomping defenses of common sense, but I tend to doubt it.

  2. I agree that your threefold distinction is helpful, and indeed has normative significance. One of my worries in the blog entry you cite was that many people might be tempted by active solipsism, which you seem to agree would be questionable if it were used as a replacement for valuable activities (traveling, romance, etc).

    However, I can't agree with you that active shared VR is immune to ethical concerns and is necessarily just as real as the non-virtual world. Surely, if you and I both plug into a perfect simulation of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and can interact with each other during our visit, that doesn't make it the case that we really visited the Great Pyramid, since we didn't actually go to Egypt. So it seems to me that if someone were to claim, "I don't get it why people still spend loads of money traveling when you can do all the sightseeing from home today", it would be reasonable to reply that it's not quite the same thing. This isn't being a "metaphysical chauvinist": plausibly, to count as having really visited the pyramid, you must actually have been on the premises.

    Also, active shared VR might still contribute to bolstering intolerant norms of appearance, for instance, or limit opportunities to practice the virtues (cf. the examples I give in the blog entry).

  3. Nick - are the "sophisticated AIs" conscious persons? If so, that's a type-3 situation by my classification. (I didn't mean to suggest that the minds you're interacting with must share the same fundamental grounds as you. The essential thing is just that you really are interacting with other minds -- "persons" in the broad sense.)

    I'm not sure why you think that "common sense would be unhappy to accept the nice distinctions between the various ways of spelling out VR." Intuitively, it makes a world of difference whether you're really interacting with other people. So I'd claim commonsense as being on my side here.

    Alexandre - 'Giza' denotes a material-world location, so it's true that you can't really visit there in VR. In exactly the same way, if people in a virtual world expend a lot of time and effort to develop a monument of 'Azig', then you wouldn't be able to visit Azig in the material world (someone might cobble together a mock-up, but it's "not quite the same thing.") So travel limitations go both ways, and provide no reason to doubt that the shared VR is "just as real" as the non-virtual world. It's simply a different reality.

    One this is granted, your other objections become moot. You can practice virtues in other places besides here. And "intolerant norms of appearance" are not a problem if we have sufficient choice and control over our appearance. (Imagine a world where clothes were as difficult to change as bodies currently are, and people stuck with frumpy-looking clothes are stigmatised because of this. Wouldn't it seem ridiculous for the local ethicists to denounce the greater liberty of our world as ethically problematic on the grounds that it "bolsters intolerant norms of appearance"?)

    More interesting challenges arise when, instead of Matrix-like permanent immersion, we suppose that people flit in and out of the virtual world -- more like the virtual worlds of today. Then, even if the VR world is intrinsically unobjectionable, there's some possibility of unfortunate extrinsic effects on our world (where people can't control their appearance so much, for example). Maybe "mixing worlds" is problematic, even when either one alone is okay. But I doubt it'd be all that much of a problem, and I'd be frankly amazed if the kinds of advances we're talking about weren't vastly beneficial on net.

  4. "'Giza' denotes a material-world location, so it's true that you can't really visit there in VR": that's all I wanted to say. If you want to call VR a "different" reality, that's ok by me. What I object to is the idea that VR could serve as an adequate replacement for the actual world.

    Yes, you can in principle practice the virtues in VR as well. But often not as well as here. F.ex., even if you could create a VR game where players were really equally at risk on the battlefield, or doing charity work, as they can be in the actual world, hardly anyone would want to play it. And even the few who did wouldn't compare to real soldiers or charity workers if their actions had no beneficial consequences for real people.

    Suspect norms of appearance might not pose a problem in VR itself, but if someone took refuge in VR because she had been rejected in this world on account of her looks (Castronova's example), then that would already constitute a capitulation to such norms. The ethicists in your fictional world shouldn't condemn our own world, but they would be right to see sth wrong with a person escaping into a virtual world where clothes can be changed at will after discovering that no one in her local town wanted to be friends with her on account of her (more or less unchangeable) frumpy-looking clothes.

  5. I also wonder about distinguishing 2 from 3. Let's say the sophisticated AIs aren't actually conscious minds, but the person in the simulation doesn't know that. Does it make that person's experience in the situation less meaningful than in scenario 3?

    Apologies if you've addressed this in previous posts. I've always been curious about whether those who think "zombies" are concievable think interactions with such creatures have less value than interactions with conscious minds.

  6. Alexandre - "What I object to is the idea that VR could serve as an adequate replacement for the actual world."

    This is misleading. Is America an "adequate replacement" for Britain? Well, they're obviously distinct - you can't visit Westminster Abbey in America! - so in that sense it isn't. But they might be equally good on net, so that a person could live just as good a life in America as in Britain. In that sense it is perfectly 'adequate', though it is not a perfect 'replacement'. (To think that any good place to live must be a perfect replacement for Britain would obviously just be another kind of chauvinism. What's so special about Britain?)

    Nobody would deny that virtual worlds are non-identical to the material world. The dispute is about whether they might be (equally) good places nonetheless.

    Eric - yes, I think consciousness makes all the difference. To be surrounded by zombies is a type-2 scenario, where you don't actually interact with real people in the way that many of us most deeply value.

  7. Richard,

    Thanks for the response. I find the difference in intuitive responses to these scenarios fascinating.

  8. Here is what I'm assuming the common sense view is: (3) is much worse than living in the real world, but better than (2). (2) and (3) are both so bad that there isn't much of a difference between them. (1) and (2) are about the same.

    Now, suppose that's what common sense says, and consider your dialectical position wrt mental state welfarism (MSW). MSW is deeply at odds with common sense, saying that (1)-(3) and living in the real world are all equally good. Your view is also deeply at odds with common sense, since you think that (3) is equally as good as living in the actual world, and (2) is much better than (3). Moral: Your view may be less at odds with common sense than MSW, but I don't think that it is significantly so.

    Since your view and MSW are both so at odds with common sense when it comes to VR, it seems unreasonable to think that you get a lot of leverage against MSW by appealing to common sense (for example, in experience machine cases). (By writing all of this I don't mean to suggest that I think conformity with common sense is a very strong measure of the quality of a normative theory.)

  9. Nick - I'm not sure what you mean by "common sense". If you mean what a random person on the street would say off the top of his head, then maybe you've described it accurately, but then I've never appealed to such a thing, so I don't see the dialectical significance.

    If we mean to instead appeal to a widespread consensus that survives reflection -- reflective equilibrium and all that jazz -- then I'd insist that you're misdescribing common sense. For I take myself to have just given a knock-down argument that it's non-sense to think that (3) is much worse than living in the "real" world.

    (Of course, if you can give an equally compelling argument for MSW, then we can call the dialectic even! But the mere fact that unreflective folks might initially disagree with me doesn't mean that anything goes.)

  10. Great post, the kind of thinking we need as VR becomes more developed. I don't have much to add except that we already have all three of these in forms less immersive than full VR: television shows, single-player games and online games. So as full-blown VR becomes more feasible, it will very likely take all three of these forms; this is much more than a hypothetical distinction.


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