Saturday, June 6, 2009

Reality and/or Virtuality

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Queen's questions have driven many an sf story. The love-it-or-hate-it blog io9 offers a dozen fine examples of (un?)successful attempts to escape from a virtual environment in two posts: the first six and then the second six. Take a look. What'd they miss?

The most recent film I've seen that blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy is Charlie Kaufman's wonderfully eccentric Synecdoche, New York. You wouldn't classify it as science fiction, although it's decidedly speculative! And it doesn't use the idea of a virtual reality at all. In fact, the film's characters aren't ever wrestling with the question of whether what's happening to them is real or not. No, it's the viewers who must grapple with that one. And I still haven't figured it out. If you have, let me know.

Philosophically, this kind of story raises lots of questions. The main metaphysical question is what it is for something to be real. In The Matrix films, for example, we gradually move from thinking that the Matrix is an unreal deception to seeing it as simply another part of reality. We do call it virtual reality, after all! For an intriguing treatment of this issue, see David Chalmers's "The Matrix as Metaphysics."

More familiar is the epistemological question: how do we know what's real and what's not? Or, better, how do we know we aren't being deceived about our surroundings? After all, I could be perfectly aware that I'm in a virtual world, or I could be deceived into believing I'm in a virtual world when I'm not. Christopher Grau gives an elementary account of these issues, Matrix-style with clips, here and here.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, we might wonder with Jim Pryor "What's So Bad About Living in the Matrix?" Why do most sf stories depict a virtual reality as a prison or a trap or a trick? What precisely would be missing in a virtual existence? As more and more of our lives happen digitally, this question may become increasingly important.

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