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Book Review Is our currently experienced reality a simulation?

ANDY HEDGECOCK recommends a book which is the perfect starting point for those with an interest in the possibilities of immersive technology

by David J Chalmers
Allen Lane, hardback, £25


THIRTY-EIGHT years ago, I was struggling to understand the use of Boltzmann machines, cellular automata and neural networks in the simulation of human behaviour and development. Using these mathematical models as the basis for computer programmes was a challenge, but I was even more bemused by the philosophical implications of simulated worlds.

The experience might have been less perplexing if I’d had access to the thoughts and teaching of David J Chalmers, whose latest book is a comprehensive and painstaking study of simulation, consciousness, and being.

At the heart of Reality+ is a far-reaching and perennial question: “how much can we know about reality?”

Initially, the conclusion to which we are led seems patently absurd. Chalmers’s controversial thesis is that virtual realities can be genuine realities. He claims life in virtual worlds can be rewarding and meaningful, then goes on to suggest the world in which we are living may be a virtual one.

Beginning with philosophers of the ancient world – Zhuangzi, Narada and Plato – Chalmers builds an understanding of issues of reality, knowledge and value. He goes on to consider the extent to which the idea of simulation has fired the imagination of novelists, filmmakers and video game developers.

Chalmers believes interaction with computer-generated worlds through our sensory inputs and motor outputs makes us part of those worlds. We experience them as if they are the physical world.

The development of fully immersive virtual reality has raised unsettling issues of reality and knowledge. If we believe immersive realities can be constructed, we must accept it is impossible for us to know whether our currently experienced reality is a simulation.  

For Chalmers, simulations are not second-rate realities: they are social systems and the actions of those experiencing them are not without consequence. They are, therefore, places in which life should be lived with enjoyment and integrity, rather than ironic detachment.   

Exploration of this thesis has unexpected consequences. For example, Chalmers is obliged to consider the existence of a creator – “a hacker in the next universe up” who is unworthy of worship, and unlikely to be omniscient.   

The book reflects on is themes from a wide range of scientific and philosophical perspectives – mathematical, cognitive, biological, spiritual, epistemological and metaphysical. The mix is leavened with references to the stories of Philip K Dick, Ursula K Le Guin and Charles Stross, and the songs of Janet Jackson, Olivia Newton-John and Freddie Mercury (“Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?”).

Encyclopaedic in scope, leisurely in pace and based on carefully developed explanations, this is the perfect starting point for those with an interest in the possibilities of immersive technology, but little formal knowledge of philosophy or cognitive science.    



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