As long as humans have been around, we’ve been trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not. You find some version of this question in virtually all of the world’s great philosophical traditions — from the West to the East — and the answers are often surprisingly not that clear.
It’s even harder today because the world has become much more complicated. On the one hand, we all have a pretty decent idea of what’s real in our own lives. Whatever we can see, feel, or touch seems real. Our experiences, our thoughts, our relationships — they all seem real. But sometimes our senses can deceive us, so how do we really know?
And what about the virtual world — is that real? Are our experiences online real in the same way that the car I drove this morning, or the chair I’m sitting in now, are real? Or what about our beliefs and our emotions and our values? Are those real, too? Or do they fall into some other category?
A new book by pioneering philosopher David Chalmers takes up these sorts of questions and much more. Chalmers is the co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness at NYU and perhaps best known for his 1996 book The Conscious Mind. His new book is called Reality+, and it makes a very interesting case that virtual realities are genuine realities, invested with just as much meaning as anything that happens in the physical world. As more and more of our lives play out in the virtual space, or the “metaverse,” this is becoming more than an abstract debate.
I reached out to Chalmers for the latest episode of Vox Conversations. We discuss the nature of reality, why he thinks we can live a meaningful life in the virtual world, whether we might actually be living in a simulation, and if he thinks there’s any chance consciousness survives the death of the body. This is a fun conversation, one that might take you back to those late-night chats in your college dorm room, but we lean into that and we do think there’s something serious to ponder here.
Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Defining “reality” seems like a fairly straightforward task, but you argue that a lot of us are confused about what counts as real and what doesn’t. So I’ll just start by asking: Do we even have a consensus definition of reality at this point?
Despite calling my book Reality+, I’m still not entirely sure what the word “reality” has meant to me. There are so many different meanings for the word and philosophers love to make these distinctions. I guess in one meaning, reality is just everything that …….