The essays following here are animated by the sentiment that we are on the threshold of important empirical advances which will change the ways we think about the real world. I am alluding to technological innovations which already allow us to take very substantial control of the sensory information provided to persons, and which will eventually allow a chosen few to control the sensory environments of persons absolutely.
My belief is that these changes will produce a marvelous glut of sensorial spaces from which inferences will be made, correctly, to the existence of a marvelous glut of equally real worlds, and that this will inevitably entail a dilution, a taming, of the concept of "the real" for those still eager to reflect upon it.
I will be forgiven, I hope, for the informality of these essays. They are more concerned to startle, and to tease the brain, than they are to relate philosophical positions to similar positions held by others in the past. A doff of my cap to metaphysical Idealists such as Berkeley, and to Radical Empiricists in the tradition of Hume, and, more recently, the Logical Positivists of this century, will have to suffice. (If you're a graduate student, God bless you; perhaps you should put this book down and do something less fun.)
If you're almost anybody else, we're in this together for a dozen or so chapters, and I'm here to help. Let me start by telling you how the arguments go, by and large. They are all very similar.
The setting is that offered by the "virtual reality" pundits, and those many technicians laboring to produce computer-driven simulations of real sensory experience which average subjects find incredibly real, and from which some are quick to infer the existence of real physical objects and spaces, whether or not such things actually exist!
These devices, which we refer to as "reality chambers," are already installed in research labs, military installations and gaming rooms throughout the Western world. There will be more of them very soon.
As reader, you will be asked to imagine reality chambers which have been perfected, and which constitute closed systems. This will involve the not-yet-actual technique of "direct cortical injection" of sensory inputs, which will foreclose any possibility of comparing experiences inside with those outside a synthetic environment, as in a convincing and uncontrollable dream.1 You will be reminded that, under these circumstances, there is no test that you could perform, from within the chamber, which would prove that you were in fact strapped into such a device, and not, say, watching a real sunset first-hand in Acapulco. This is supposed to encourage critical thinking on what it is that coaxes us to infer that there are real things like sunsets, tables, chairs, and neutrinos, and to suggest that, whatever it is, this temptation exists inside the reality chamber, too.
You will be treated to frequent reminders that, for all we know, we may all be strapped into such devices as we speak.
Philosophers will recognize this as an updating, within the language of reality simulation, of the positivist criterion used to separate empirically verifiable statements from "metaphysical nonsense," and as a perhaps mischievous application of the resulting razor in favor of the current view from inside the chamber. As such, positivists may be impressed; metaphysicians will not be.
But that's an acceptable outcome, since there's more to titillate others, like science fiction buffs. Time travel, anyone? Without the logical contradictions involved whenever, even in the Twilight Zone, we try to change past events, and make things come out differently? No problem, within the schema advanced here. It turns out that our limitations, as Virtual Reality time travelers, will not involve anything like the Principle of the Excluded Middle (no statements about one, self-same world ever being both true and false at the same time), but the availability of mass data storage mechanisms and cheap Random Access Memory chips.
Travel at the speed of light also becomes possible, notwithstanding the cautions of Einstein. So does travel into the future.
If all this were not enough, I have said some things about the media theoretician Marshall McLuhan, who I think would have greatly approved of these pages, in recognizing that reality simulation is the ultimate medium, and never-ending human message, as man plays God.
I hope finally that game theorists will appreciate my suggestion that it is player-agency within a responsive environment, in accordance with rules, that makes the environment, and the player, real. In any case, that seems to be what occurs.
I will apologize one last time for the light-hearted spirit in which these essays are set down, and insist that I mean no insult to the many serious practitioners of professional philosophy who, in teaching me over the years, made something like this little book possible to begin with.
Gilbert Scott Markle
Black Rock, Tobago
1 This is not a novel concept, having been first introduced to the science fiction community in the mid-1980s by William Gibson's book Neuromancer. It was Mr. Gibson who coined the word "cyberspace" to denote such synthetic environments, suggesting that they will be created not just by one stand-alone device—one computer—but by a galaxy-wide "matrix" of computers networked together, very much along the lines of the Internet, allowing for "real" interaction, intrigue, and adventure involving multiple players.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.