Reality+ by David J. Chalmers: a ‘gripping’, ‘brain-tenderising’ book
The philosopher ponders what virtual reality could mean for man
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Virtual reality may still be a “fringe indulgence”, but it won’t stay that way for long, said Josh Glancy in The Sunday Times. We are hurtling towards a Matrix-like future in which wholly convincing “computer-generated realities” are readily accessible to virtually everyone.
In Reality+, “the most alarming and thought-provoking book I’ve read in years”, the philosopher David Chalmers ponders what this could mean for humanity. He suggests that in the not-too-distant future, as our planet becomes increasingly ravaged and overcrowded, people will migrate more and more towards the virtual realm.
By “plugging in”, they’ll be able to lead richer lives than will be possible in the analogue world – ones where they inhabit “sprawling mansions”, interact with “breathtaking nature”, and spend time with people they truly love. As the physical world becomes increasingly squalid, people may be inclined to inhabit it as little as possible, going offline only to eat, sleep and relieve themselves. It’s a prospect that will strike most people as horrific, but Chalmers seems “rather pleased” with it.
Central to his thesis is the “seemingly outlandish” claim that virtual worlds – whether “corporate metaverses” or “slay-the-dragon VR games” – are “just as real as physical, analogue worlds”, said Kit Wilson in The Times.
Virtual realms, he says, meet all the criteria that philosophers have traditionally used to determine if a thing is real, including “mind-independence” (they exist when no one is perceiving them) and “causal power” (actions taken in them have an impact). Life lived in virtual reality can still be meaningful, he argues, and should be judged by the same moral standards as offline life. Not everyone will find such arguments convincing, but this is still a “gripping”, “brain-tenderising” book.
Many of its ideas are “frankly mindbending”, said P.D. Smith in The Guardian. For example, Chalmers argues that it’s more than probable that we are already living in a simulated universe. There are, he claims, almost certainly other civilisations with “human-level intelligence” out there, and it’s probable that at least some of these will have created their own simulated universes. Therefore, statistically, it’s “more likely we’re living in a simulation than in the original version of our world”.
Chalmers “disappears down a few too many philosophical rabbit holes”, said John Thornhill in the FT. But overall, this is a “rich”, “scintillating” work that raises profound questions about where humanity is headed.
Allen Lane 544pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99
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