David Chalmers in his new book: : Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, takes the philosophical stance of virtual realism.
As I understand it, virtual realism is the thesis that virtual reality is genuine reality, with emphasis especially on the view that virtual objects are real and not an illusion. In general, “realism” is the word philosophers use for the view that something is real.Chalmers, David J.. Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (p. 106). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
I generally agree with this view, with some qualifications which will become apparent. But saying something is real raises the question, one that might also pertain to our recent discussions on things like wave function realism, what do we mean by “real”? And what criteria to we use to determine if something is real?
Chalmers discusses five ways of thinking about what is real:
- causal power
Existence is probably the first thing anyone thinks about for saying whether something is real or not. If it exists, then it’s real. If not, then it isn’t. Chalmers uses Joe Biden as an example of a person who exists, in comparison to Santa Claus, who doesn’t. But this really just moves the difficulty from what is real to what exists.
Causal power is the criteria I often reach for. Something is real if it can affect and be affected by other real things, if it is part of the causal chain in its environment. Apparently this is often called the Eleatic dictum after a character in Plato’s dialogue The Sophist. Joe Biden has causal powers in the world. Santa Claus doesn’t. (Although the stories about him do.) Chalmers notes that there could be real things without causal powers, such as a forgotten dream, but he acknowledges this criteria as a sufficient condition for concluding something is real. (I could quibble about the forgotten dream example, since it’s very unlikely to have had zero causal effects in the brain.)
Mind-independence follows Philip K. Dick’s proposal that, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” If everyone stopped believing in Santa Claus, there would be nothing left. But if everyone stopped believe in Joe Biden, there’s still be the man there. Although this isn’t air tight. If I stop believing in Santa, but the imagery of him remains everywhere, there’s still something out there.
And it’s interesting to ponder what really remains of Joe Biden if everyone, including Biden himself, stops believing in him. How much of what Biden means to us would really remain? Certainly his causal power in the world would be greatly diminished. It shows that a lot more of our reality than we like to admit is a social and psychological construction.
Still, if something exists independent of all minds, it remains a useful point in determining whether it’s real. Note that this is true even if minds were originally involved in its construction. The Great Pyramids are real even though their architects are long gone.
Non-illusoriness focuses on whether something is as it seems. Something is real when it’s as it seems. It’s illusory when it’s not as it seems. The boundary between this one and the next seems a big fuzzy to me.
Genuineness gets at our use of language. Chalmers cites philosopher J.L. Austin as noting that often discussions about what is real or not are ambiguous. We need to look at how the word “real” is typically used. In this view, it’s meaningless to say X is real, or X is not real. It invites the question, “A real what?”, a real person, object, idea, or something else?
I really like this point, as it gets at the fact that most debates about realism are definitional disputes about the item under consideration. It also clarifies the discussion. So, Santa Claus is not a real person, but he is a real character, and as a character meets the criteria above (even mind independence when we remember that there are lots of physical images of him).
Chalmers qualifies his support for this criteria a bit, noting that it’s perfectly legitimate for a child to ask whether Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny are real. But I think when we consider the context of those questions, there’s always an implied what there, in this case of a being of some type in the world, not whether they are real characters in fictional accounts.
Chalmers points out that often things in virtual worlds meet all these criteria, as long as we consider the context. This makes sense when we remember what the word “virtual” originally meant having all the virtues of something. I work in IT where we regularly work with virtual servers, virtual network routers, virtual desktops, and many other things. These entities are real servers, network routers, and desktops, at least for what “server”, “router”, and “desktop” mean for typical users. (This web page probably loaded from a virtual server.)
In the same sense, a virtual library or virtual book is a real library or book. On the other hand, a virtual cat is not a real cat, at least not in the sense of being a biological DNA based system. Although conceptually the day may come where there is a virtual cat that has virtual biology, virtual DNA, etc. At that point the cat will arguably be real within the context of the virtual world it’s in. It won’t be a real cat from the perspective of outside the virtual world, but within it, it may exist, have causal powers, be mind-independent, and genuinely be what it seems within the context of that world.
All of which is to say, that what is real is context dependent.
What do you think of these criteria for realness? Too inclusive? Not inclusive enough? Or are we putting too much emphasis on the label “real”?