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Exploring mind-bending questions about reality and virtual worlds via The Matrix

Virtual worlds might be digital, but they can be as real and meaningful as our physical world, philosopher David Chalmers argues in his new book, <em>Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy.</em>
Enlarge / Virtual worlds might be digital, but they can be as real and meaningful as our physical world, philosopher David Chalmers argues in his new book, Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy.

Aurich Lawson | Getty Images | David Chalmers

There’s a famous scene in The Matrix where Neo goes to see The Oracle. He meets another potential in the waiting room: a young child who seemingly bends a spoon with his mind. Noticing Neo’s fascination, he tells him, “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.” And what is that truth? “There is no spoon,” the child says.

The implication is that the Matrix is an illusion, a false world constructed by the machines to keep human beings sedated and docile while their bodies serve as batteries to power the Matrix. But what if this assumption is wrong, and the Matrix were instead just as real as the physical world? In that case, the child would more accurately have said, “Try to realize the truth. There is a spoon—a digital spoon.”

That’s the central argument of a new book, Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, by New York University philosopher David Chalmers. The Australian-born Chalmers is perhaps best known for his development in the 1990s of what’s known as the hard problem of consciousness. Things like the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli; the brain’s ability to integrate information; and the difference between wakefulness and sleep can all be explained by identifying an underlying mechanism.

Enlarge / “There is a spoon—a digital spoon.”

Warner Bros

But the subjectivity of experience is qualitatively different. Emotions, the taste of strawberries, or the smell of lavender all fall under the “hard problem” rubric because they are much more difficult to account for in physical or biological terms. Chalmers has also championed the concept of “philosophical zombies“: exact physical duplicates of human beings who lack any kind of consciousness or qualitative experience.

Chalmers has been pondering The Matrix as it relates to the so-called simulation hypothesis since the first film came out in 1999. The Wachowskis’ production company, Red Pill, had employed a Clemson University philosopher named Christopher Grau while they were developing the film, and they asked Grau to invite some of his academic colleagues to write essays about The Matrix for the film’s website. Chalmers was among those who received an invitation. He had already been working on an academic paper, and he was able to adapt those early thoughts into an essay, “The Matrix as Metaphysics.”

In that essay, Chalmers challenged the film’s oft-repeated theme that if someone is in the Matrix, they are experiencing an illusion, an elaborate deception, a hoax, or a fiction—in other words, the constant insistence that the Matrix is not the “real” world. “I argued that, yes, we could be in the Matrix, but if we are, it’s still perfectly real,” Chalmers told Ars. “It turns out that The Matrix is a wonderful way to illustrate a whole set of philosophical ideas.”

Reality+ develops that central techno-philosophical argument in greater detail, delivered in deceptively breezy, almost conversational prose. Chalmers uses The Matrix and other aspects of pop culture to explore a broad range of mind-bendingly deep philosophical ideas.

“For me, it’s a great way of making many of these questions very concrete, by anchoring them to actual science fiction scenarios,” said Chalmers, citing as an example James E. Gunn‘s 1954 sci-fi novella “The Unhappy Man” (later incorporated into The Joy Makers). The plot concerns a company called Hedonics Inc., which offers people the opportunity to move into a virtual world where everything is perfect. The story’s protagonist rejects that offer, deeming that perfect virtual world to be inferior to imperfect reality. Its themes prefigured those of The Matrix in many ways.

A recurring theme in <em>The Matrix</em> franchise is that the Matrix is an elaborate deception or hoax. Only by taking the
Enlarge / A recurring theme in The Matrix franchise is that the Matrix is an elaborate deception or hoax. Only by taking the “red pill” can those trapped within it free their minds and re-enter the “real” world.

YouTube/Warner Bros.

In this accessible yet thought-provoking book, readers will encounter everything from Plato’s allegory of the cave and John Wheeler’s it-from-bit hypothesis to how mind and body might interact in virtual worlds, whether reality is a mathematical structure, and whether we might just be Boltzmann brains floating in a dream world. Chalmers also tackles techno-centric questions like whether smartphones extend our minds, whether the Internet is making us smart or stupid, the threat of deepfakes and alternative facts, and whether there can be an objective reality in a multiverse of virtual worlds.

“Our minds are part of reality, but there’s a great deal of reality outside our minds,” Chalmers writes in the introduction to Reality+. “Reality contains our world and it may contain others. We can build new worlds and new parts of reality…. There may be parts of it that we can never know. Reality exists, independently of us. The truth matters. There are truths about reality, and we can try to find them. Even in an age of multiple realities, I still believe in objective reality.”

Ars sat down with Chalmers to learn more.

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