Virtual Reality is the Only Reality

by Chris Robinson, Philosopher At-Large


It takes a special kind of crazy to disbelieve reality, and when a philosopher falls down that rabbit hole, he doesn’t often return. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer declared the material world to exist “solely in our representation.” He compared the world to a dream. A hundred years later, Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges fell down the same rabbit hole and affirmed that the world is “an activity of the mind,” “a dream / the souls erect in shared magic.” He took it a step further: if the world is nothing but a dream, then “there is an instant / in which its being is immeasurably endangered / and it is the shuddering instant of the dawn, / when few are those who are dreaming the world.” Borges took this idea seriously, returning to it again and again. In “Avatars of the Tortoise” he sees Zeno’s paradox, infinity, and other mathematical mind-breakers, as “tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us [the world] is false.”

Borges lived in an analog world, and he died before computers advanced far enough to make the idea of simulated reality plausible. Fortunately, that rabbit hole exists outside of time, and philosopher Nick Bostrum was able to logic his way into the idealist tea-party. He has since become a prominent thinker about the danger of artificial superintelligence, but his first claim to (philosophical) fame was the “Simulation Argument,” which, in brief, goes like this:

If future humanity has “enormous amounts of computing power” (which seems very reasonable), and if they are interested in running “detailed simulations of their forebears” (wouldn’t you be?), and if “these simulated people are conscious” (as many cognitive philosophers think), then most minds like ours would be simulated minds, and “we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones.” Lots of technologists and futurists, including Elon Musk, take this idea seriously. If only Borges had lived to see rise of scientific idealism!

Right now, we’re still a ways away from simulating entire worlds (though not as far away as you probably think.) Our current virtual reality technology is relatively crude, but it’s evolving by the day, and as we create experiences ever more immersive, we must ask harder and harder questions, not only about the nature of our reality, but about the role of art as a reality within that reality. Even books are a form of virtual reality, word-woven worlds that we inhabit through reading. Cinema is more immersive yet, and from its inception, we have turned to the metaphor of the dream to describe it. In 1925, critic Jean Goudal referred the new art form as “conscious hallucination.” Andre Breton described cinema as a resolution of “dream and reality.” If cinema—what VR pioneer Chris Milk calls “a sequence of rectangles”—can seem like a dream, then virtual reality presents some prospects that are truly awesome (and I mean that literally: reverence and fear). We are on the verge of creating art that voids reality outside itself, what David Foster Wallace called the “ultimate entertainment.” There is danger there, and the possibility of transcendence.

“Art—always—requires visible unrealities.” Borges again. It reminds me, as a thinker, consumer, and producer of virtual reality, that in the quest to make our virtual experiences more seamless, more “real,” the most beautiful elements of our daily perceptual world are those that defy intuitive explanation (understanding the physics of a rainbow doesn’t undermine its beauty). Perception itself is wondrous. And it may be all that exists. In “The Witness,” Borges asks himself a heartbreaking question: “What will die with me when I die, what pathetic or fragile form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonia Fernandez, the image of a red horse in the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?”

As I venture deeper into the glorious metastasizing chaos of the VR world, I’m excited by the possibilities that defy my imagination, but I cannot forget the simple beauty of the everyday objects that constitute my reality. I believe the best art of this new medium will hold the real and the unreal in equal esteem—perhaps, in the end, there’s no difference between the two.