A philosopher explores the nature of reality using “The Matrix” and other science fiction as thought experiments

The universe of “The Matrix” is an illusion constructed by malevolent godlike AIs. Nothing in the Matrix is real. But we might also think of objects in a simulation as real, but digital rather than physical.

On Ars Technica, Jennifer Ouellette interviews NYU philosopher David Chalmers, author of the new book, “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy.”

Exploring mind-bending questions about reality and virtual worlds via The Matrix

Chalmers:

I partly got into this about 15 years ago through watching my five-year-old nephew play with SimCity. He built up the city and the environment and all the people. Then he said, “Now, here’s the fun part,” and he just set fire to it all, sent in earthquakes and tidal waves. I thought, “OK, now I understand the Old Testament God.”

Even if we’re living in a simulation, if I stub my toe, the pain is real.

The metaverse already exists, and it is very old

The metaverse has existed since the invention of language and art.

The metaverse is the universe of information the human race has been building for 200,000 years, beginning with the emergence of modern homo sapiens in Africa. Our ancestors began to make drawings by daubing red ochre on cave walls, and probably had language and other modern behavior too. They began to build the metaverse then, an information architecture that exists outside any individual mind, in illustrations or speech that was memorized and shared between people and from one generation to the next.

Writing accelerated the construction of the metaverse, emerging 5,000 years ago and providing a much improved means of preserving and communicating information. Writing started with financial records, records of transactions, and laws and administrative orders by political leaders. That is the principal form of the metaverse today.

Of course, computers accelerated the development of the metaverse even more. You exist both in the real world and the metaverse. The metaverse you is your financial, employment, and criminal history, the records of your interactions with governments and most businesses. If you’re stopped by the police, or try to take out a mortgage, or you need lifesaving medical care that costs as much as a new car or house, your metaverse version is as important to your life as your physical self.

Wars are primarily fought in the metaverse. “Amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics” has been attributed to Gen. Omar Bradley. (More quotes about military logistics here) Logistics is the science of getting bullets, uniforms, vehicles, guns, food, shelter, and all other essential equipment from the real echelons to the front, where soldiers can use them. Logistics require a whole lot of record-keeping. Logistics happen in the metaverse. It’s been said that World War II was won with the typewriter.

Those of us who work and socialize primarily through screens, and did so even before Covid, live much of our lives in the metaverse.

The recent talk about the metaverse, with virtual reality and avatars, is just the latest step in a journey that’s been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. Personally, I’m skeptical that people are going to want to live large parts of their lives with their eyes covered by screens. But it doesn’t matter. The metaverse is already here, and it’s nothing new.

“The Gilded Age”

We watched the opening episode of “The Gilded Age” yesterday. It’s been getting negative reviews online. Ignore those reviews. If you liked “Downton Abbey,” you’ll enjoy “The Gilded Age.”

Such a great cast! Three particular stand-outs from an all-around terrific line-up: Christine Baranski is playing another tough, smart, older, aristocratic woman, which is a kind of role she specializes in. And Cynthia Nixon is a meek spinster, a very different role for her from “Sex and the City.”

And of course show is visually gorgeous.

The show is unabashedly un-progressive, which bothered me in the weeks before. I thought: Do we REALLY need a show about how great rich white people are, given the historical moment we live in today? But my reservations disappeared while we watched, because it’s such a good, and good-hearted show. I encourage separating one’s politics and entertainment; it makes life more pleasant. Watch “The Gilded Age” in the evening, and donate to and volunteer for the progressive cause of your choosing—Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, the Democratic Party, whatever.

And the show manages to sneak in progressivism around the edges. One character is gay, and of course, closeted. Women are clearly operating within the confines of their gender roles.

And in a pleasantly surprising move—sorry if this is a spoiler—there is not only a major Black character, but she seems to be a member of the historical Black upper class, which is not a group we see represented much on TV, so nice move there.

Then and now

The first two books I read, when I was 8 years old, were “Red Planet,” by Robert A. Heinlein, and a biography of Helen Keller.

I’m still a science fiction fan—and Heinlein is a favorite. And I’m still a history buff.

When I find something that works, I stick with it.