David Kolb

David Chalmers on the Simulation Argument

January 25: I encountered a review of David Chalmers new book Reality+ about the simulation hypothesis. I immediately purchased a copy and send him a note about some of my earlier work on virtual reality, published in obscure journals, where I move toward similar conclusions about the “reality” of experiences and objects in virtual environments. I was interested in the issue of “real places” in virtual spaces and not in the overall issue of the reality of virtual objects.

I admire the patient thoroughness and good humor of Chalmers’ book.. I’m also impressed that it can serve as a kind of intro to philosophy through the question of Cartesian skepticism about the existence of the external world. I’ve thought that was not a good way to introduce philosophical issues because students tend to get stuck on the skeptical tropes and enjoy repeating them like a child continually asking why why why, missing the subtlety of the responses that derive from Wittgenstein and Austin and Putnam. But Chalmers handles the problem with grace. To the skeptical problem “can we know that we are not living in a simulation?” he answers that we can’t be sure — indeed there’s some likelihood that we are — but he makes the crucial move of refusing to conclude that the objects and experiences we encounter in virtual environments are “unreal.” It’s elegantly argued.

My own concern had been to show that a virtual environment could contain “real places” where social norms applied and real causal effects happened. For an example I compared a meeting being held through a phone conference call to a meeting being held in a virtual environment where people that were sitting around the table were located in diverse physical locations. In the second case if I can insult a colleague by my turning my back on them or walking away from the table, where changes in my spatial position interact with social norms which map values and behaviors onto the perceived expanse of the virtual space, then it made sense to say that that was a real place in which real life effects could happen.

Chalmers develops a more general argument using criteria for “reality” but the strategy is the same, to locate causal and social effects which indicate that the objects are not illusions or hallucinations but real objects that enter into the texture and causal chains in our life. He then applies his insights to diverse areas of life and philosophy. A book well worth reading and pondering.