Interview with AAAS Academician Chalmer on Metaverse: Zhuang Zhou Mengdie in The Matrix

virtual is reality

Interview with AAAS Academician Chalmer on Metaverse: Zhuang Zhou Mengdie in The Matrix

[Introduction] Virtual reality is real reality, or at least, it is one of the real realities. The virtual world doesn’t have to be seen as a second-class reality. It may become our primary reality.

David Chalmer, a professor at the Australian National University, a professor at New York University, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a well-known philosopher, discovered the PDP-10 mainframe system at the age of 10 at the medical center where his father worked, and taught himself BASIC programming. Among them, a game called “Adventure” was found. In the game, Chalmer was in a forest as a player, collecting food, water, keys and lights and other props, entering underground caves, fighting snakes, and collecting treasures. In the text version of the game Roaming the underground world. This is Chalmer’s first virtual reality and Metaverse experience. That was 1976.

Over the next few years, Chalmer discovered video games. And play Blasting Comet and Pac-Man on an Apple II computer.

In the 90s, games like Doom and Quake pioneered the use of the first-person perspective. In the 00s, people started spending a lot of time in multiplayer virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft. The 2010s saw the first waves of consumer VR headsets, like the Oculus Rift. That decade also saw the first widespread use of augmented reality environments, which populate the physical world with virtual objects in games like Pokémon GO.

With the pandemic and more and more of everyday life moving online, Chalmer has a weekly meeting with a group of happy philosophers in VR. Tried many different platforms and activities together: flying with angel wings in Altspace, cutting cubes to rhythm in Beat Saber, talking philosophy on the balcony in Bigscreen, playing paintball in Rec Room, doing it in Spatial Lectures, chats in virtual reality. 

VR technology is far from perfect, but we already have the feeling of inhabiting a common world. As we stood together after a short talk, someone said, “It’s like having coffee at a philosophy conference.”

The virtual world will become more and more like the real world, and the Metaverse will become a part of everyday life.

Chalmer’s guess: Within a century, we’ll have virtual reality that’s indistinguishable from the non-virtual world. Maybe we’ll plug into machines via brain-computer interfaces, bypassing our eyes, ears, and other sense organs. These machines will contain extremely detailed simulations of physical reality, simulating the laws of physics to track the behavior of every object in that reality.

Interview with AAAS Academician Chalmer on Metaverse: Zhuang Zhou Mengdie in The Matrix

Chalmer’s new book “Reality+” will be published in January 2022, and online lectures related to virtual reality and the Metaverse will be held in early February. The following is based on some of Chalmer’s interviews, papers, and lectures.

Is this real life?

In the opening remarks of British rock band Queen’s 1975 hit “Bohemian Rhapsody,” frontman Freddie Mercury sings in pentatonic harmony:

Is this real life? 

Is this just fantasy? 

These issues have a history. The three ancient civilizations, China, Greece and India, all presented different versions of the Mercury problem. Their questions involve alternative versions of reality.

Is this real life, or just a dream?

Is this real life, or just an illusion?

Is this real life, or just a shadow of reality? 

Today we may ask: is this reality, or is it virtual reality? We can think of dreams, hallucinations, and shadows as the counterparts of ancient “virtual worlds” — just without the computers that were invented two thousand years later. 

With or without computers, these scenarios raise some of the most philosophically deep questions. We can use them to introduce these questions and guide our thinking about the virtual world.

Zhuang Zhou Mengdie

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi lived around 300 BC and was a central figure in Taoism. He narrated this famous fable: “Zhuang Zhou dreams of a butterfly”. 

One day, Zhuang Zhou dreamed that he was a butterfly, flying around, enjoying himself and doing whatever he wanted.He didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and he was there, solid and clear Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know who he was, was it Zhuang Zhou who dreamed of butterflies, or was it Zhuang Zhou who dreamed of butterflies?

Zhuang Zhou could not be sure that the life he experienced as Zhuang Zhou was real. Maybe the butterfly is real and Zhuang Zhou is a dream. 

Dreamworld is a virtual world without a computer. So Zhuang Zhou’s assumption about his being in the dream is a computerless version of his existence in the virtual world. The plot of the Wachowski sisters’ 1999 film The Matrix provides a good example. The protagonist Neo lives an ordinary life until he takes a red pill and wakes up in another world, where he’s told that the world he’s in, the Matrix, is a simulation. If Neo thought deeply like Zhuang Zhou, he might have thought, “Maybe my old life is a reality and my new life is a simulation”, a perfectly reasonable thought. While he’s an ordinary hacker in the Matrix, the new world he comes to is an adventurous one, where he’s seen as a savior. Maybe the red pill knocked him out long enough for him to take part in this exciting simulation. 

In one explanation, Zhuang Zhou Mengdie raised a question about knowledge: How do we know that we are not dreaming right now? This is also the question we ask: how do we know that we are not in the virtual world right now?These questions lead to a more fundamental question: How do we know that everything we experience is real?

Transformation of Narada

Ancient Indian philosophers in the Hindu tradition were troubled by the question of fantasy versus reality. A central theme emerges in the folk tales of Narada’s transformation. In one version, Narada said to Lord Vishnu: “I have conquered delusions”. Vishnu promises to show Narada the true power of illusion (or Maya). Narada wakes up as a woman, Suhira, ignorant of what happened before. Suhira married a king, became pregnant, and eventually had eight sons and many grandchildren. One day, the enemy came and all her sons and grandchildren were killed. When the queen was sad, Vishnu appeared and said, “Why are you so sad? It’s just an illusion”. Narada soon found himself back in his original body. Narada concluded that his entire life was an illusion, like his life as Suhira. 

Narada’s life as Suhira is similar to life in a virtual world – a simulation with Vishnu as the simulator. As a simulator, Vishnu actually implies that the ordinary world of Narada is also a virtual world.

The metaphor of Narada’s transformation is revived in the animated series Rick and Morty, the interdimensional adventure of a powerful scientist Rick and his grandson Morty. Morty puts on a VR headset and plays a video game called Roy: The Good Life. (It would be better if Morty played Sue: The Good Life, but you can’t have everything). Morty lived the entire 55 years of Roy’s life: childhood, football star, carpet salesman, cancer patient, death. Moments later, when he emerges from the game as Morty, his grandfather suggests that he made a bad life decision in the simulation. This is a recurring theme throughout the series. Its characters are in seemingly normal situations that turn out to be simulations, and are often led to ask them if their current reality might also be a simulation.

Narada’s transformation raises profound questions about reality. Is Nalada’s life as Suhira real, or an illusion? Vishnu said it was an illusion, but it was far from obvious. We can ask a similar question about virtual worlds, including the world of Roy: The Good Life. Are these worlds real or imaginary? A more pressing question looms. Vishnu said that our ordinary life is as illusory as the life of the transfiguration of Narada.

Is our own world real or an illusion?

Plato’s cave metaphor

Around the same time as Zhuangzi, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato came up with his cave metaphor. In the opening of the seventh volume of the dialogue collection “Republic”, in the name of his teacher Socrates, he tells the story of human beings being imprisoned in a cave. They can only see shadows cast on the walls that mimic things in the world of sunlight outside. Shadows are everything people see in caves, so they take them as reality. One day, one of them escapes and discovers the real world outside the cave. Eventually he re-entered the cave and told the story of that world, but no one believed him.

Prisoners in Plato’s cave are looking at shadows, reminiscent of audiences in a movie theater. It’s as if the prisoners have only seen movies, or, to update the technology, they’ve only seen movies on virtual reality devices.

Interview with AAAS Academician Chalmer on Metaverse: Zhuang Zhou Mengdie in The Matrix

A mobile tech conference in 2016 posted a photo of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg walking down the aisle of the audience at the conference. In the dark hall, the audience, all wearing virtual reality headsets, didn’t notice Zuckerberg striding past.This is a contemporary illustration of Plato’s cave metaphor.

Plato used his metaphors for many purposes. He is implying that our own imperfect reality is like a cave. He also uses it to help us think about what kind of life we ​​want to live. In a key passage, Socrates asks the question whether we should prefer life inside the cave or life outside the cave.

Socrates: Do you think the man who came out of the cave would still envy the people in the cave and want to compete with those who are respected and powerful? Or, as Homer said, he would rather live on earth as a poor man’s slave and suffer, than have a common opinion with the prisoners, and then live their life? 

Glaucon: I think he would rather endure any misery than live a prisoner’s life. 

The cave metaphor raises deep questions about value: that is, about good and bad, or better and worse. Which is better, life inside the cave or life outside the cave? Plato’s answer is clear: life outside the cave, even the life of a drudge, is much better than life inside the cave. We can ask the same question about virtual worlds. Which is better, life in the virtual world or life outside the virtual world? This leads to a more fundamental question: What does it mean to live a good life?

three questions

Traditionally, philosophy is the study of knowledge (how do we understand the world?), reality (what is the nature of the world?), and value (what is the difference between good and bad?).

Our three stories raise questions in each area.

– Knowledge: How does Zhuang Zhou know if he is dreaming?

-Reality: Is Narada’s transformation real or fictional?

– Worth: Can one live well in Plato’s cave?

This raises three key questions about the virtual world as we move the three stories from the original dream, transformation, and cave into the virtual realm.

The first question that Zhuang Zhou Mengdie raised was about knowledge. I call it a knowledge problem. Can we know if we are in a virtual world?

The second question, posed by the incarnation of Narada, is about reality. I call it a real problem. Is the virtual world real or unreal?

The third question posed by Plato’s cave metaphor concerns values. I call it the value problem. Can you live a good life in a virtual world?

These three questions, in turn, lead us to three more general questions at the heart of philosophy:

– Can we understand the world around us?

– Is our world real or fictional?

– How can I live a good life?

These questions about knowledge, reality, and value will be at the heart of our exploration of virtual worlds and philosophy.

Knowledge question: Can we know if we are in a virtual world?

In the 1990 film Total Recall (remastered in 2012), the audience could never be sure which parts of the movie took place in the virtual world and which parts took place in the normal world. The protagonist is a construction worker named Douglas Quaid (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) who has experienced many strange adventures on Earth and Mars. At the end of the film, Quaid looks out onto the surface of Mars and begins to wonder (and we do) whether his adventures take place in the ordinary world or in virtual reality. The movie hints that Quaid might indeed be in the virtual world. Virtual reality technology embedded with adventure memories plays a key role in the plot. Since heroic adventures on Mars may be more likely to take place in a virtual world than in everyday life, Quaid, if he is reflective, would conclude that he may be in virtual reality.

How about you? Can you tell if you are in a virtual world or a non-virtual world? Your life may not be as exciting as Quaid’s. But the fact that you’re reading a book about virtual worlds should give you pause. (The fact that I’m writing one should give me more pause). why? I suspect that as simulation technology develops, simulators may be used to simulate how people think about simulation, perhaps to see how close they are to realizing the truth of their lives. Even though we seem to lead very ordinary lives, is there a way to know if those lives are virtual?

Of course, I don’t know if we are in a virtual world. I don’t think you know either. In fact, I don’t think we’ll ever know if we’re in a virtual world. In principle, we can confirm that we are in a virtual world – for example, the simulator can choose to show us itself and show us how the simulation works. But we’ll never know for sure if we’re outside the virtual world.

We can never prove that we’re not in a computer simulation, because any evidence of ordinary reality — whether it’s the magnificence of nature, your cat’s antics, or someone else’s behavior — can presumably be simulated.

Over the centuries, many philosophers have offered strategies that can be used to show that we are not in a virtual world.They don’t work. Beyond that, we should take seriously the possibility that we are in a virtual world. Swedish-born philosopher Nick Bostrom believes that, under certain assumptions, there will be far more sims in the universe than non-sims, on statistical grounds. If that’s correct, maybe we should consider that we might be in a simulation. All these considerations mean that we have no way of knowing that we are not in a simulation.

This conclusion had a major impact on Descartes’ question: How do we know anything about the outside world? If we don’t know if we are in the virtual world, and if nothing in the virtual world is real, it seems that we have no way of knowing if anything in the outside world is real. Then it looks like we know nothing about the outside world.

This is a shocking consequence. We don’t know if Paris is in France? I didn’t know I was born in Australia? I didn’t know there was a table in front of me?

Many philosophers have tried to avoid this shocking consequence by arguing for positive answers to knowledge questions: we can know that we are not in a simulation. If we can know this, then we can know something about the outside world after all. If I’m right, though, we can’t go back to this comforting position. We have no way of knowing that we are not in a simulation. This makes knowledge problems of the outside world more difficult.

Reality question: Is the virtual world real or unreal?

The same repetition is heard whenever virtual reality is discussed. Simulation is an illusion. Virtual worlds are not real.Virtual objects don’t actually exist. Virtual reality is not real reality.

You can find this idea in The Matrix. In the waiting room of the Prophet in the Matrix, Neo sees a child apparently bending a spoon with his mind. They start talking:

Child: Do not try to bend the spoon. This is impossible. …just work hard to get to the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Child: No spoon.

This is a profound truth. No spoon. The spoons in the matrix are not real, just hallucinations. This means that everything a person experiences in the matrix is ​​an illusion.

In his review of The Matrix, American philosopher Cornell West, who plays Zion West Councillor in The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolution, takes this line of thought a step further . Speaking of awakening from the Matrix, he said: “What you think you’re awakening to may actually be another hallucination. It’s hallucination from start to finish”. Here are echoes of Vishnu: simulations are hallucinations, and ordinary reality can also be hallucinations.

The same line of thinking recurs in the TV series “Atlanta.” Three characters sit by the pool late at night discussing mock hypotheses. Nadine was convinced: “We are nothing. This is a simulation. We are all fake”. She takes it for granted that if we live in a simulation, we’re not real.

I think these claims are false. Here’s what I think: Simulation is not fantasy, nor is it a hallucination. The virtual world is real.Virtual objects do exist. In my opinion, the kid in The Matrix should have said, “Try to get to the truth. There’s a spoon — a digital spoon”. Neo’s Matrix world is completely real. The same goes for Nadine’s world, even when she’s in a simulation.

So is our world. Our world is real even though we are in a simulation. There are still tables, chairs and people here. There are cities, mountains and seas. Of course, our world can be full of fantasies. We can be deceived by our senses and others.But ordinary objects around us are real.

What do I mean by “true”? It’s complicated — the word “real” doesn’t have a single, fixed meaning. I would argue that even though we are in a simulation, the things we perceive meet all of these reality standards.

What about ordinary virtual reality experienced through a VR device? This sometimes involves delusions. If you don’t know you’re in VR and see virtual objects as normal physical objects, you’re wrong. But for experienced VR users, they know they’re using VR and don’t need to be delusional. They experience real virtual objects in virtual reality.

Virtual reality is different from non-virtual reality. Virtual furniture is different from non-virtual furniture. Virtual entities are one way, non-virtual entities are another. Virtual entities are digital entities that consist of computational and informational processes. More succinctly, they are made of bits. They are completely real objects, based on bit patterns in the computer. When you interact with a virtual sofa, you are interacting with bit patterns. The patterns of the bits are completely real, as is the virtual sofa.

“Virtual reality” is sometimes understood as “false reality”. If I’m right, that’s the wrong way to define it. Instead, it means something closer to “digital reality.” A virtual chair or table is generated by digital processes, just as a physical chair or table is composed of atoms and quarks, and ultimately generated by quantum processes. Virtual objects are not the same as non-virtual objects, but both are real.

If I’m right, Naratha’s life as a woman is not entirely an illusion. Nor was Morty’s life as a football star and carpet salesman.The process they went through really happened. Narada really lived the life of Suhira. Morty really lives Roy’s life, albeit in a virtual world.

This view has a major impact on the problems of the outside world. If I’m right, I can’t say I don’t know if the objects around us are real, even if I don’t know if we’re in a simulation. The tables are real if we are in the simulation (they are bit patterns) and if we are not in the simulation the tables are real (they are something else). Either way, the table is real. This provides a new way to solve problems in the outside world.

Value question: Can you live a good life in a virtual world?

In James Gunn’s 1954 science fiction novel The Unfortunate, a company called Hedonics, Inc. uses the new “science of happiness” to improve people’s lives. People contract to move their lives into a “sensory system,” a virtual world where everything is perfect:

We take care of everything; we arrange your life so you never have to worry again. In these anxious times, you never have to be anxious. In this age of fear, you never need to be afraid. You will always have food, clothing, shelter and happiness. You will love and be loved. For you, life will be a pure joy.

Gunn’s protagonist rejects an offer to surrender his life to the company.

American philosopher Robert Nozick offers readers a similar option in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Suppose there is an experience machine that can give you any experience you want. A super duper neuropsychologist can stimulate your brain and make you feel like you’re writing a great novel, or making friends, or reading an interesting book. All the while, you’d be floating in a tank with electrodes attached to your brain.Should you be plugged into this machine for life, pre-programmed for your life experiences?

Gunn’s “sensory system” and Nozick’s experience machine is a virtual reality device. They’re asking, “If you had the choice, would you live your life in this engineering reality?”

Like Gunn’s main character, Nozick says no, and he wants his readers to do the same. His point seems to be that the experience machine is a secondary reality. Inside the machine, a person is not actually doing what he appears to be doing.A person is not a truly autonomous person. For Nozick, life in an experience machine doesn’t have much meaning or value.

Many would agree with Nozick. In the 2020 survey of professional philosophers, 13% of respondents said they would enter an experience machine, and 77% said they would not. In the broader survey, a majority also turned down the opportunity — although as virtual worlds become more of a part of our lives, the number of people who say they’ll join is growing.

We can ask the same VR question more generally. If you had the chance to spend your life in VR, would you do it? Could this be a reasonable option? Or we can ask the value question directly: Can you live a valuable and meaningful life in VR?

Ordinary VR differs from Nozick’s experience machine in some ways. You know when you’re in VR, a lot of people can be in the same VR environment at the same time. Also, normal VR isn’t completely pre-programmed. In an interactive virtual world, you make real choices instead of simply living according to a script.

Still, in a 2000 article in Forbes Magazine, Nozick extended his negative comments about the experience machine to general VR. “Even if everyone has access to the same virtual reality, it’s not enough to make the content truly authentic,” he said. He also said of virtual reality: “The fun may be so great that many people will choose to spend most of their days and nights this way. At the same time, the rest of us may feel the choice It’s deeply disturbing.”

Regarding VR, I would argue that Nozick’s answer is the wrong answer. In 360-degree fully immersive virtual reality, users will build their own lives according to their choices, interact sincerely with those around them, and live meaningful and valuable lives. Virtual reality doesn’t have to be second-class reality.

Even existing virtual worlds — like Second Life, which may have been the leading virtual world for building everyday life since its inception in 2003 — can be of great value. Many people have meaningful relationships and activities in today’s virtual world, although many important things are missing: proper bodies, touch, eating, birth and death, and more.However, future fully immersive VR will overcome many of these limitations. In principle, life in VR can be as good or as bad as life in corresponding non-virtual reality.

Many of us already spend a lot of time in virtual worlds. In the future, we will likely face the choice of spending more time there, or even spending most of it there. If I’m right, this would be a reasonable choice.

Many would consider this a dystopia. I would say no. Sure, virtual worlds can be dystopian, just like physical worlds, but they don’t become dystopian just because they’re virtual. As with most technologies, VR is only as good as it is by how it is used.

Closing remarks: reviewing core philosophical questions

To recap, our three main questions about virtual worlds are as follows.

-Reality question: Is the virtual world real? (My answer: yes.) 

– Knowledge question: can we know if we are in a virtual world? (My answer: No.) 

– Value question: Can you live a good life in a virtual world? (My answer: yes.)

Questions of reality, questions of knowledge, and questions of value match the three central parts of philosophy.

– Metaphysics, the study of reality. Metaphysics asks questions such as “What is the nature of reality?”

– Epistemology, the study of knowledge. Epistemology asks questions such as “How do we understand the world?”

– Axiology, the study of values. Value Theory asks questions – such as “What’s the difference between good and bad?”

Or, to simplify: what is this? That is metaphysics. how do you know? This is epistemology. What’s good? This is the theory of value.

When we ask questions of reality, questions of knowledge, and questions of value, we are studying the metaphysics, epistemology, and value theories of virtual worlds.

Other philosophical questions we will ask about virtual worlds include:

– Mind Question: What is the place of the mind in the virtual world?

– God’s Question: If we’re in a simulation, is there a God?

– Ethical questions: How should we act in the virtual world?

– Political questions: How should we build a virtual society?

– Scientific question: Is the simulation hypothesis a scientific hypothesis?

– Language Questions: What does language in the virtual world mean?

Like our three main questions, these six further questions each correspond to a philosophical field: philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, ethics, philosophy of politics, philosophy of science, and philosophy of language.

The traditional questions in these fields are more general: what is the place of ideas in reality? Is there a god? How should we treat others? How should society be organized? What does science tell us about reality? What is the meaning of language?

In this way, our answers will not only help us understand the role of the virtual world in our lives.

They will also help us understand reality itself more clearly.

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