No! Chalmers! What are you doing?!

It seems Dave Chalmers has decided that the problem of consciousness is too hard. He’s now moved on to virtual reality:

I really like Dave Chalmers, and I really hope his philosophical interest in VR isn’t intended as some sort of endorsement of the thing itself, or I might have to stop liking him so much.

Last year I was on a stag do (I know, how very modern) and one of the guys had brought along a little cardboard-box viewer gizmo which was supposed to turn into a virtual reality headset when he put his iPhone into it. They made me look through it. I looked around a bit. There were shapes. They moved. Not only was it aesthetically displeasing, it seemed devoid of meaning and purpose. I said so, and asked if anyone was planning on going outside today (we were in a youth hostel in rural Scotland, and it wasn’t raining).

They told me it wasn’t the thing itself that was amazing, it was what it represented in terms of technological potential.


Reality is not just about what’s out there. What about what’s in here? Consciousness is the only thing we can be sure of existing. Consciousness is what makes life what it is.

Sure, ponder the idea of virtual reality for philosophical purposes, but do we really have to develop it? Much like space travel and with time travel in Asimov’s Age of Eternity, once you’ve got the technology, that’s one thing. But just think about all the really bad ‘proto-virtual reality’ we’d have to endure on the way.

I hate to think of all this time and money being spent on developing sophisticated technologies that mimic a prescribed visual world. The most beautiful, moving things I’ve ever ‘seen’ have been with my eyes closed; while on psychedelics, during orgasm, while dreaming, etc.. They have been creative acts of seeing, and that is what has been so profound and moving about them. Virtual reality would not engage the imagination. It would even, I presume, restrict interpretation.

Say we did, one day, have the technology to plug ourselves in and experience skiing for ‘real’; the metallic smell of the snow, the cold air on our face, the crunch of the skis on the fresh powder. How could it possibly feel the same, emotionally? Would the threat of falling bear the same consequence (a long trudge uphill to search for a lost ski, a broken leg, death)? Would you be looking forward to a well-earned bowl of gulaschsuppe and a beer served by a cheerful Austrian in a dirndl? Would you feel a glow of gratitude for the lovely weather and an urge to make the most of it before tomorrow’s snow that is likely to keep you playing Scrabble in the chalet? Would you feel a tinge of sadness that you have to leave the mountains on Saturday to go back to work? Would you feel proud and pleased that your friends are noticing the improvement in your short-turn technique?

No. Because you’d be in a wind tunnel on springs with a box on your face, in Swindon.

Finally… take Chalmers’ point that it is, in fact, highly likely that this world *is* a virtual reality, maybe constructed for other beings’ entertainment. Would they really be entertained by us discovering and creating a virtual reality of our own? It sounds like watching someone else play Tomb Raider, only a thousand times worse. Maybe that’s the point of the game. Maybe the moment when we create our own virtual reality, it’s ‘game over’… and we all disappear.

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