DL Seminar | Meaning and Value in Virtual Worlds
Individual reflections by Momina Nofal, Elizabeth Pysher, and Anastasia Sorokina (scroll below).
By Momina Nofal
The concept of a fully virtual reality is one that society has toyed with for decades now, with the idea of living a “simulated” life appearing in fiction as far back as 1933. Largely these ideas had not been taken seriously beyond science fiction tropes, but a complete switch to online reality doesn’t seem to far-fetched in today’s world. Most of us spend the major fraction of our day interacting with a virtual system, whether it be for work or to connect with friends and family. Recently, the idea of a metaverse has come up as well, which is used to connote a single, massive social virtual world.
Despite the fact that virtual reality is a widely talked about concept, there seems to be a general view that experiences in virtual reality do not matter as much as experiences in real life. Virtual reality is considered to be a sort of second-class reality, and experiences in virtual reality are considered equivalent to watching a film or reading a book; an echo of real life. Professor David Chalmers (pictured above) recently spoke at the Digital Life Seminar at Cornell Tech, where he argued against this idea. Professor Chalmers is a professor of philosophy and neural science at NYU, and he presented on how experiences in virtual reality hold the same significance as those from the real world.
Professor Chalmers went over his argument in three steps:
1. We might already be in a virtual reality: since there is no proof that our current real life reality is not some sort of a shared programming, then there actually is no difference between virtual reality experiences and real life experiences. This point is expanded by the quote “being digital is no worse than being made of quantum processes”.
2. VR is not an illusion or fiction: events that happen in virtual reality are actually experienced by all participants, and virtual reality events have causal powers. Virtual reality events take place outside the mind, and are the way they seem, and not an illusion.
3. One can live a meaningful life in VR: life is considered to be meaningful if it has any sort of value at all, whether it be good or bad, and experiences with value can be had in virtual reality.
This last concept of value is central to Professor Chalmers’s argument. He talked about a thought experiment known as “the experience machine”, which is often used to disregard the value of virtual reality. The experience machine gives one the choice of becoming connected to a simulation, where they can preprogram the experiences they want to have, and they will not know they are in the experience machine while having these experiences. There are three reasons one should not plug into this machine; humans want to do things and not just have the experience of doing them, we want to be a certain kind of person whereas in the machine we are not any type of person, and lastly, the experience machine is completely human made and cuts off connection to natural reality.
Whereas the first two reasons don’t really apply to virtual reality, the last one somewhat does, and Professor Chalmers responds with the fact that many of us live in large cities, that are almost entirely man-made, and we are not thought to have less real experiences because of this fact. This discussion tends to circle back to the concept of value. While it is true that there are certain kinds of real-life value that virtual reality cannot provide, such as nature, history, physical embodiment, and birth and death, there also exist types of value that virtual reality provides that real life cannot. For example, virtual reality can provide new bodies, new forms of experience, and new communities.
Most of these arguments are grounded in the idea of a near-perfect immersive metaverse, which is slightly beyond current times. However, augmented reality is the more feasible first step towards virtual reality, and the notions of value can extend to this medium as well. Another assumption the perfect metaverse makes is a sort of unlimited resource and democratic virtual reality. This assumption is one that will most likely be found untrue when the metaverse actually comes about, and the discussion after the talk brought up the important point of what it means for users of the metaverse if it is built, owned and operated by big tech corporations.
By Elizabeth Pysher
Can one lead a meaningful life in a virtual world? Despite common skepticism and potential consequences, David Chalmers, philosopher and professor at New York University, contends one can. Chalmer’s research provides parallels between familiar examples from the physical world and novel concepts from virtual worlds to help the hesitant public better appreciate the potential social value of this daunting technology. He insists “virtual reality is a sort of genuine reality, virtual objects are real objects, and what goes on in virtual reality is truly real.” (Chalmers 1)
Chalmers’ exploration of this topic first takes stock of the average perception of virtual reality (VR). “The most common view is that virtual reality is a sort of fictional or illusory reality, and that what goes on in virtual reality is not truly real.” (Chalmers 1) To approach this view from a different perspective, Chalmers expands on the traditional philosophical probing of perceived reality by first asking, what even is ‘real’?
One might consider something real if it can make a difference or have causal powers. Under this definition, virtual world interactions are real. VR is not illusion or fiction since entities in VR really exist and interactions really happen. An interaction in a social digital life has the potential to make a positive or negative impact in one’s genuine reality.
Virtual worlds are real, even if less so than the genuine physical world. Chalmers gives one the benefit of the doubt to acknowledge and overcome this fact. He argues one adapts to this concept quite easily in other contexts. One supporting example was of mirrors. Mirrors are both physical objects and illusions. At first glance in a mirror, one might feel there’s another person on the other side, but one quickly learns the truth and thereupon treats mirrors as mirror-objects instead of complete illusions. From this learning, one becomes a mirror-expert. The reflection is real, but not as real as an identical person physically being there. Chalmers hypothesizes that one can similarly adapt to virtual worlds and become virtual world experts, seamlessly distinguishing between real digital objects and real physical world experiences. Once Chalmers establishes the realness of virtual worlds, he explores their potential for meaningful experiences. Chalmers asserts that, in principle, one can live a meaningful life in a virtual world and that VR is not just a form of thoughtless escapism. The physical world’s reality ranges from awful mishaps to beautiful miracles, and the same spectrum exists in virtual worlds.
Many social values overlap between the physical and virtual worlds. Social values from genuine reality that can be present in virtual reality include relationships and achievements. Chalmers asks, “are experiences in virtual reality less valuable than experiences outside it? If I climb a virtual mountain, is that less of an accomplishment than climbing a non-virtual mountain? If I win a chess game in VR, does that count for less?” (Chalmers 24) While one can achieve certain similar experiences in both realities, there are key social values of the physical world that are missing from VR, including bodily senses, birth, and death. However, virtual worlds also provide completely new opportunities for social values that could never be possible in the physical world. These include completely new forms of bodies and different laws of nature, such as assuming the avatar of a mythological bird and flying over a valley. These new, previously impossible, experiences should be considered when evaluating the merit of virtual worlds.
Chalmers compares the human-made virtual environments to human-made cities where billions of people around the world live meaningful lives. “... if [being human-made] is an objection to living in virtual reality, it is also an objection to living in a modern city … It is certainly reasonable to value naturalness in an environment, but this seems an optional value and for most people, not the sort of thing that makes the difference between a meaningful life and a meaningless one.” (Chalmers 25)
Comparing the unnaturalness of virtual programmed domains to built environments, leads one to contemplate the recent re-evaluation of urban life.Although historically cities valued human-made infrastructure over natural habitats, communities are now facing serious consequences for replacing the organic with the fabricated.
Since the pandemic, many urban initiatives have included a renewed appreciation of nature. Governments are re-investing in parks to provide open space to counter small apartments. Municipalities are re-wilding their coastlines in response to natural disasters. The return of urban landscapes to the physical, natural world has benefits for climate change, aiding public mental health, and more. (Urban Land Institute) If virtual worlds are comparably artificial to cities, then a future pandemic or social movement might cause VR users to similarly reject the artificial environment and re-seek meaning in the natural, physical world.
David Chalmers encourages us to broaden our understanding of virtual worlds and, in turn, our reality. He challenges us to imagine an experience where responsible users balance their virtual life with their physical one, and find meaning in both, much like city dwellers value both the concrete environment and nature. Chalmers asks us to wonder if rather than VR destroying meaning in our lives, if it is just transforming it, as many other human-made elements have done for centuries.
Chalmers, D. J. The Virtual and the Real.Http://Consc.net/Papers/Virtual.pdf.
Six urban trends shaping the future of Cities. Urban Land Magazine. (2021, November 21). Retrieved March 2022, from
By Anastasia Sorokina
David works on problems of philosophy with a specific focus on consciousness, reality, knowledge. He is interested in such topics as value and ethics, and their relation to politics. His work is centered around the philosophical aspect of technology, especially virtual reality.
The idea of the virtual world can be broadly defined as an interactive digital world that is immersive to some degree (like a computer-generated game space). The most popular way to enter this virtual world now is using VR headsets. The Metaverse is an emerging concept today that is described as a single highly immersive massive social virtual world that allows for a second life in a sense. The social aspect is important here – it enables human communication and various ways of interaction available for a user. One real application that already brought this aspect to life is VR-chat that’s considered to be an instance of the disconnected Metaverse. Facebook has also claimed their commitment to creating its immersive internet experience and changed the company’s name to reflect this commitment.
In his book “Reality+”, David argues that virtual reality is a genuine reality. There are several different ways in which people see virtual reality. A dystopian view says that we might be in virtual reality already. It implies that virtual reality is not just fictitious, we can live a meaningful life in VR since a complete range of values is available there. Another view is skeptic’s view that reasons that virtual reality is illusory. It's an illusion, a trick, William Gibson says. Fiction is a construct that plays with your mind, creating a world within. Finally, the standard view is based on the idea that virtual objects are unreal but not illusory. They are real digital objects that are different, but not just in mind. In the end, they have their special qualities and, in some cases, they are not worse than objects in physical space. Expert VR users tend to have a non-illusory perception of the virtual world.
Can we have a meaningful life in the virtual world? Robert Nozick’s thought experiment tried to answer this by asking if we should enter the experience machine that is preprogrammed for wonderful experiences of life. And the answer was “No!” for the following reasons:
1. In the experience machine you can’t choose a thing, everything is already predefined;
2. It’s an illusion;
3. It’s artificial and has no nature.
These points make the experience machine meaningless. We can possibly extend this argument and contend that we shouldn’t enter VR. But there is a difference: at least VR is not 100% prescript, you can make autonomous choices there. What issues does VR still hold? It lacks the basic life values: nature, history, physical embodiment, birth and death. However, there are also novel sources of value like new bodies and new forms. The choice of where to spend most of the time (reality vs virtual reality) then depends on one’s personal values.
What are the risks of moving into VR entirely? Virtual worlds have their omnipotent creators - all-powerful and all-knowing. Historically, great concentrations of corporate power were associated with harms – both economic and social. VR creators play a role of a corporate god in a virtual setup. This leads us to the argument that virtual worlds will definitely be monetized and manipulated because they are governed by corporations. Will users ever have any power? Or will the space be totally dominated by a corporation? These questions are hard to answer since we may end up in either scenario. It may also happen that only elites will have access to virtual worlds, and this leaves us with the eternal question about the relation of powers.
Chalmers, David J. (2017). The Virtual and the Real. Disputatio 9 (46):309-352.