"Basketball players would play just as well..."
Let us imagine a nation of souls hooked up to networked reality simulators, who have always been hooked up in this way, since birth. Fed perceptual data by direct cortical injection, these subjects lead what they feel are perfectly normal lives. They eat, sleep, have sex, take trips to Rio, try out for the cheerleader squad, triumph over certain rivals and are defeated by others, have children, grow old, and die, all on the electronic tit.
They don't know, of course, that they are leading synthetic lives. They would have no way of knowing, unless they were told, or unless their programmers were thoughtful enough to provide thousand-cycle beeps every 20 seconds, as legal telephone tappers do.
Setting aside for the moment the possibility that we ourselves might comprise such a nation, and that no one has ever had the decency to tell us so, let us perform the following thought-experiment designed to show that there is nothing "virtual" about virtual realities.
To begin, let us assume that the computers have been programmed to provide normal, veridical experiences for the subjects involved. (This mode of operation of reality simulators is already envisioned as a latter-day cure for the congenitally deaf and blind). The world experienced would be, by definition, identical to ours. Scientists working in the artificial environment would come to the same conclusions regarding physical laws, the existence of certain theoretical entities, and so forth, as "our own" scientists do, and the world of objects which they would infer as "out there" would be identical to the world of objects which we infer as the ultimate causes of our own sensations. In this basic case, virtual reality would coincide with "real" reality, and there would be no sense in which anyone would want to regard the former as deficient, or the latter as privileged. They would be identical realities.
Now let us imagine that, ever since Day One, the programmers of the computers had arranged for the various sensations to be presented as though in a world governed by different physical laws. Let us imagine, for example, that the gravitational constant had been chosen differently, and that as a result objects were perceived to fall towards the center of the earth at a velocity which increased 16 feet per-second, per-second, instead of the usual rate, which is double that. For the purposes of discussion, let us imagine that this is the only physical constant which had been changed for our nation of sensation-fed, but otherwise perfectly normal, observer-subjects.
The nation would not be scandalized, of course, or even know that their physical laws had ever been tampered with by their unseen masters. Science would conclude that things fell at the lower rate, and that that was the way things really were, out there. There would be no dropped batons, or miscalculated times of fall, or anything of the kind. Basketball players would play just as well in the "synthetic" environment, and moon shots would not turn into catastrophes. Everything would work just as well as in the parent, natural environment.
Accordingly, the citizens of the nation would be entirely justified in maintaining that objects accelerated towards the center of the earth at 16 feet per-second, per-second. For them, that would be the way things really were, and we privileged sorts would be entirely unjustified in pulling the plug on them all, and rushing in to announce that they were wrong, and that things really fell at twice the speed they thought. In fact, we could be proven wrong in that assertion, unless of course we had instructed the programmers to change the gravitational constant back to its higher value, which would be a perverse thing to do. It would be safer to say that what is "really-real" is frame dependent. It depends who you are, and in what machine.
Are we sure that things really accelerate towards the ground at the rate of 32 feet per-second, per-second? Is it not possible that we are being toyed with ourselves, by masters unseen by us, who have made it come to pass that we think there is such a thing as distance, and time, but that there really are no such things in a parent framework? Might not our masters also be the toys of even greater, sterner powers, which are themselves subservient with respect to, and thus capable of being duped by, masters of their own?
There is nothing virtual about virtual reality—not for the souls within the framework of sights and sounds and bodily feels out of which that reality is a perfectly valid construct. Not for the souls inside the simulators, is anything being simulated.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.