The Virtual World

Presentation to the Melbourne Philosophy Forum, December 6, 2009

1.0 Virtual Reality: Some Foundations

1.1 The 'Virtual World' refers here to the physical, social and mental experience of technologically-mediated information, communication and networking. This includes technological facts, fictional expectations and organisational management.

Question: What does the virtual world consist of for you? Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying? The Internet in general? Radio? Telephone? Books? Is imagination itself a type of virtual reality?

1.2 Many expressions in science fiction speculate the possibility of a virtual reality with experiential feedback at least as strong, and in some ways stronger that reality.

Question: Formal pragmatics argues that there are 'three worlds' of natural experience; the physical, the social and the mental. Is the 'virtual reality' of computerised experience a fourth world or is it an extension of the three?

1.3 In the other direction, a number of philosophers over time have speculated that we are potentially inside a simulation or an illusion. Plato had an allegory of the cave, with the particularly interesting point that the those in the cave were angry at the person who took them to the light. Descartes hypothesised the existence of an evil daemon "as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading me." The evil daemon presents a complete illusion of an external world, including other people, to Descartes' senses, where in fact there is no such external world in existence. A more contemporary version is the brain-in-a-vat argument (c.f., Hilary Putnam, Barry Stroud). A contemporary simulation argument [1] is based on a trilemma which either (a) No civilization will reach a technological level capable of producing simulated realities, (b) No civilization reaching aforementioned technological status will produce a simulated reality, for any of a number of reasons, (3) Entities with our general set of experiences are living in a simulation.

Question: If reality is an illusion how could you tell? Does it matter pragmatically? Is the trilemma accurate? Which is likely to be true?

2.0 The Internet

2.1 The Internet, understood technically, is a network of information and communication technologies which utilize the TCP/IP suite of protocols. Description of the Internet as an anarchist and decentralised body are tempered by the existence of a very real hierarchy of power for decision making, with the United States government in ultimate authority, then the Internet Assigned Names and Numbers Authority, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and Regional Internet Registries. In terms of technical development, the Internet Society, the Internet Architecture Board, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Engineering Steering Group and the Internet Research Task Force are authoritative.

Question: With these institutional restrictions why does is the Internet often claimed to be an anarchy? Do the claims match the facts of experience?

2.2 Access to the Internet is limited by the conditions of the real world (computational resources, bandwidth), social limitations (language resources, technical competence), and legal restrictions (to sending and receiving content) and privacy/anonymity concerns. This issues can be compared with a counterfactual 'ideal speech situation', where an individual may raise any issue of interest among others and with the intent of free and reasonable communication, debate an issue and seek a rational resolution to any problems.

Question: How far from this experience is the Internet? Is it better or worse than other forums of public discussion? What social laws could be implemented or removed to improve this?

2.3 People primarily use the Internet for accessing information and communication with others on a topic of mutual interest. This was not the original expectations, which thought that most people would use it for remote access to other machines (e.g., to use programs). Numerous studies [2] also show how communicate differently online compared to face-to-face communication.

Question: Is the use for communication surprising? What are the phenomenological differences in online communication? Will video-conferencing make a difference?

3.0 Virtual Reality and Cyberculture

3.1 Artificial, or virtual, reality (VR) allow a high-level of interaction with a computer-simulated environment, whether that environment is a simulation of the real world or an imaginary world, as if normal sensory input was available. Key questions include the degree virtual reality simulates or elaborates on physical reality, the psychological predilections arise from the environment and tendencies based on the scale of the technology. It is often used for military purposes or as an aid for people with various disabilities. Psychoanalytically, virtual reality is presented as an idealized narrative totality, a self-contained and compliant second self and alternate world of perfect knowledge and perfect erogeny whose impossible ideal are the seeds of its own neurotic desires.

Question: Is the quest for virtual reality transparent immersion plausible?

3.2 Cyberculture is the emergent culture of the computerised society, historically including hackers, cyberpunks and netizens. It comes with its own ethos ("The Hackers Code"), subcultural activities (electronic music, online gaming), identity issues, literary fiction (cyberpunk science fiction) and as a result mythology (e.g., transhumanism).

Question: Is cyberculture going to become a cultural norm? What social and political norms does this imply and requires? Is there a race condition between the transhuman possibility and environmental catastrophe? [3]

[1] e.g., Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? Nick Bostrom. Philosophical Quarterly, 2003, Vol. 53, No. 211, How to Live in a Simulation. Robin Hanson (2001) Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 7. I, Sim - An exploration of the Simulation Argument (2008), Masters Thesis by Anders Hammarstrom. All available at see also

[2] e.g., Elizabeth Reid, Electropolis: Communication and Community on Internet Relay Chat (1991) and Cultural Formations in Text-Based Virtual Realities (1994)

[3] See two presentation from this Church: The Future of the Human Species and The Future of Planet Earth