VIRTUE AND VIRTUALITY
by Max More, Ph.D.
Is advancing technology deepening our sensory contact with reality or reducing it? I will explore ways in which technologies under development such as augmented senses and enhanced reality (a virtual overlay on our perceptions of external reality) will deepen our sensory contact with the world and its underlying nature. Over the next few decades we will not only achieve more penetrating sensory awareness of our environments, we will also gain a deeper sensory awareness of our internal bodily and cognitive processes.
In the long term, we may expect humans (or posthumans) to spend more time in virtual worlds. We may even "upload" our minds into non-biological brains, living full-time in VR. Will we then lose sensory contact with reality? And if we do lose contact with reality in some sense, should this concern us? Would we be missing anything important? I address these concerns by asking whether virtual worlds allow us to express our values and drives effectively and fully, and by distinguishing different types of possible virtual worlds and experiences. Abstract theory is combined with practical considerations to consider what kinds of virtual worlds we might want to encourage and which to discourage or avoid. I will ask which kinds of sensory experiences might be thrown safely into the trashbin of history and which will be a vital part of posthuman virtual living.
Is advancing technology deepening our sensory contact with reality or reducing it? As computer power and communication bandwidth continue to grow explosively over the coming decades we can expect to develop virtual worlds. Will the effect of advancing technology on sensory contact change as we become enveloped in virtual worlds? I will argue that in the near futureperhaps the next one to three decadestechnology will extend and deepen our natural perceptions. We will see more of the world, penetrate its mysteries more fully with our senses, and perceive it more accurately that we do today.
In the longer term the development of fully immersive virtual worlds may make it easy for us to disconnect ourselves from what we have traditionally called "reality". Whether that amounts to a disconnection of sensory and perceptual contact with reality or the addition of new layers of reality depends on what kind of virtual worlds we choose to construct and inhabit. I will consider ways in which the character of virtual worlds might differ. Some virtual worlds will support the qualities important to human and posthuman existence, fostering virtue and self-development, while others will stifle these qualities.
While new frontiers have until now been sought by outward expansion to new lands and to outer space, we seem now to be shifting towards an "inward turn". If the inward turn takes the form of passive "experience machines" our outward awareness and progress will be stunted. However, an inward turning can develop at the same time as outward expansion if we construct our virtual worlds to support creative activity and contact with the physical world.
Those who take it upon themselves to critique the "cyberculture" often take it as a given that members of the cyberculture reject the body. According to this view, we despise our current bodies, or we hate them, or fear them, or are disgusted by them. Im not sure where this view comes from. Perhaps its based on an exaggeration of the stereotype of the hacker who stares at a screen all day without taking care of his or her body. The critic apparently takes the view that those in the cyberculture care only for computer code, for electronics, and the virtual world. If the cyberworld is all, the physical world of bodies, sensations, sensory awareness, and physical pleasures and challenges can be nothing.
I experienced this assumption being made when engaged in a debate with Paulina Borsook in the BrainTennis forum on HotWired. Ms. Borsook, without any cue from me, jumped to the view that Extropians reject the body and the pleasures of physical sensation. Since the target referred to by the term "cyberculture" is so broad and so vague, its hard to fully assess the justice of the claim. Probably it has something to it if we focus on the most extreme representatives of the hacker stereotype. Certainly there are plenty of people who feel uncomfortable with their bodies and who have mixed feelings about them. Most of these, however, would rather improve their bodies rather than reject them, though they may lack the drive to do so. Some of these people, some of the time, may well deny, dislike, or disassociate from their bodies, feeling more comfortable manipulating computerized realities.
Having granted a thread of truth in the critics claim, I must in general deny its correctness. In my HotWired debate I represented the Extropian movementone highly philosophical and idea-dense part of the cyberculture. I would be hard put to name an Extropian who seems to reject the body and the senses. The impression that we do may stem from all our talk about merging bodies and brains with technology. We seek to overcome the limits of the human body. We foresee uploading as a possible late stage of this posthuman synthesis, i.e., the transfer of personality and consciousness from the natural biological brain to a synthetic, non-biological device.
As an Extropian, I do not see my goals as having to do with rejecting my body or my senses. On the contrary, I value my physical being highly. I invest much time in exercising my body, in feeding it well, and in ensuring its continued healthy and pleasurable functioning. I enjoy being embodied as I hike up a mountain, make love, take a shower, or dance. Far from rejecting my body I, along with other Extropians and non-Extropian cyberculture participants, seek to enhance and extend my body, my sensations, my physicality.
I see emerging and future technologies as opportunities for improving on our natural senses. Evolutionary pressures gave us senses capable of perceiving medium-size objects in a narrow spectrum moving at slow speeds. We developed the capacity to taste the difference between substances likely to be poisonous or nutritious. We can feel objects well enough to manipulate objects not too much bigger or smaller than our bodies. In order to survive, we evolved the ability to sense certain kinds of injuries and pains as well as feelings of satiety and satisfaction. The sensory capacities evolved to suit our survival needs have numerous enjoyable and productive side effects: the same eyes that spot predators also show us the sunset. Our current sensory abilities developed for survival in primitive environments. This fact should make it obvious that we might benefit from using advanced technology to augment our senses. Nothing in this desire to augment has anything to do with rejecting what we already have. We can embrace the sensory qualities of our current bodies while seeking new sensations, a wider perception of the electromagnetic spectrum, more finely tuned senses, upgraded ability to filter incoming sensory data, the ability to see microscopically and telescopically and to perceive through using exosomatic instruments. We can also celebrate our existing bodies while modifying ourselves for more revealing awareness of the internal functions of our bodies, and while making our physical beings stronger and more beautiful.
I find it hard to account for the critics view. It seems just obvious that a desire to improve and refine the body and its senses, to transcend its limitations, has nothing to do with fear or hatred. The critic seems to believe that either we must uncritically and unconditionally love everything about our physical being, or else we must despise and reject it. Perhaps this false choice results from the culturally ingrained religious tradition that asserts a mind-body dichotomy. Either you are trapped in the flesh, in the degraded, gross physical worldthe world ruled by evil passions and owned by the Devil, or you have escaped to the divine realm of non-flesh, non-sensation, pure spirituality. Either you revel in the unaltered base physical world, or you seek to transcend to a pure, non-physical other realm.
I suggest that this dichotomy is false and the belief in it harmful. I see no reason to believe in a perfect, ethereal realm. Believing in such a flawless non-physical (or anti-physical) realm, whether in Platonic or Christian guise, tends to lead one to dismiss and debase the real, physical world of the senses. But even if there might be such a spiritual dimension, why not improve the world of the senses rather than rejecting it? The choice is not between rejecting the world and completely accepting it. We can continue to alter the physical world, eventually using molecular nanotechnology to program the configuration of matter almost like software. We can add on to the world a new virtual layer, a layer still grounded in and inseparable from the physical.
There is therefore no inherent rejection of the body and the senses in the drive to technologically alter the body and to add virtual experiences. Yes, it is possible to use new computer technologies to channel the senses narrowly at the expense of broader experience. But the best virtual worlds and virtual interfaces to the physical world will foster human and posthuman virtues and creative capacities. They will help sustain and foster relationships. They will extend and deepen our perceptual relationships with the world. These virtual interfaces and worlds will not be solipsistic, masturbatory dreamworlds (though these will have a place too!).
Technology already allows us to modify and refine our bodies and our senses through dentistry, cosmetic surgery, new clothing materials and styles, contact lenses, make-up, and steroids. Along with a growing ability to shape our natural body will come virtual overlays on our senses. These overlays, as I will describe, can allow us to magnify the power and subtlety of our unaided senses. The virtual world also offers ways of extending the delights of embodiment. In the 1990s, a few people have become familiar with "avatars"representations of selected bodies in a computationally generated environment. Though mostly limited to textual descriptions, avatars are set to become full visual forms, with other senses to follow. Early in the 21st Century we can expect to have a choice of virtual bodies to accompany our increasingly sculptable physical bodies.
Contrary to the cyberculture critics, then, in favoring the technological augmentation of the human body and the development of virtual worlds, I embrace sensation, perception, and the expressions of life currently dependent on the physical form. I do not accept or welcome every possible variation of virtuality. My concern is that our inward turn toward virtuality be guided by an understanding of the value of the senses. Virtualization should extend our selves and the possibilities for living, not reduce them. How then might technology allow us to make the most of our bodies and our senses?
Enhanced Reality (ER)
For centuries technology has been extending the range of our senses. Brahes and Galileos telescopic discoveries led to a revolutionary shift in our worldview. Spectroscopy uncovered the structure of DNA. Space telescopes coupled with image processing computers have filled in many blanks in our view of the universe. Yet most of these sensory augmentations have been physically and functionally external to us. The instruments have been distinct from our bodies, not embedded. Once we put down the microscope we immediately lose its functionality. When we put down our binoculars and lose them, we abruptly realize that they are not part of us.
Although most sense-extending instruments cannot be said to be a part of us, others have come to seem more intimately connected. Those of us wearing glasses or, even more, contact lenses, feel a bit lost without them. Contact lenses, sitting closely on the eyeball, feel almost as much part of us as do our natural corneas. I expect this trend to continue, leading to what Extropian theorist Alexander "Sasha" Chislenko has called "Enhanced Perception" or "Enhanced Reality (ER)". Achieving true enhanced reality will require an embedding of technology to augment our natural senses. Far from cutting off our senses from reality, ER will extend and deepen our sensory contact with the world.
Technologically-augmented senses range from the trivial or amusing to the profound. At first we can expect visual and auditory enhancements to be mediated by our computer screens and audio peripherals. With increased processing power its not hard to imagine enhanced multimedia such as the video manicure portrayed in Bruce Sterlings Schismatrix. In Sterlings scenario, programs automatically adjust our video images to remove beard stubble, tidy our hair, and perhaps dress up even though we just crawled out of bed or are sitting in shorts at our computer/video terminal. (You can already buy a program that softens facial features in video transmissions.) Chislenko suggests some amusing and probably marketable uses such as converting the image and voice of your mother-in-law to that of a Klingon. Existing technology already offers crude capabilities like this: I saw an advertisement for a small device you place over the telephone which alters your voice, allowing a woman to sound like a man, or allowing a one-person office to sound like an office with a receptionist.
More seriously (though the security benefits of the telephone device can be serious for women), we can soon expect automatic text translation on our computers. The new Corbis release of Leonardo da Vincis texts includes a virtual sliding lens that you can position over da Vincis original text, immediately translating it into English while preserving its original feel. If we tire of seeing cliched phrases, we might run a program that converts them into more stimulating prose. We can expect useful utilities that make words of interest to us blink, move, change color or otherwise attract our attention.
Filtering and converting visual and auditory information through a computer will soon be superseded or supplemented by a more immediate sensory augmentation. It is now possible to buy a small video monitor attached to a computer sitting around your waist. This cumbersome device, impressive as it is, will soon be replaced by something more convenient. Military and corporate funding is pushing serious research into retinal displays. One version of this idea calls for a special contact lenses, perhaps solar powered, that overlays information on the visual field. Another version, being developed for virtual reality applications, involves using a low-power laser to "paint" images directly on the eye. When we carry around a virtual overlay rather than having to access it through an external computer or video device we will have the feeling that our own senses, not an external device, have been powered up to an unprecedented level.
With a virtual overlay and a visual input processor (and an audio equivalent) many sensory augmentations become possible: Spectrum translation could allow us to perceive infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays, or ultrasound. Filters could enhance objects of interest, reduce background noise, or magnify images of interest. Traditionally difficult to achieve, these kinds of filtering devices are being engineered from fuzzy logic, neural networks, and sophisticated algorithms. At the 1995 Bionomics Conference, I heard a chip developed by Synaptics that was able to distinguish a voice from background noise, isolate the former and fade out the latter. How pleasant it would be, next time you are at a restaurant seated next to someone with a piercing and unpleasant voice, to be able to filter it out or convert it into a purple haze.
Enhanced perception could allow us to project information into our visual field, including clocks, reminders, thermometers, and weather predictions as well as totally synthetic additions for our amusement. When driving in unfamiliar locations, ER would enable us to see which turn to take by highlighting the road or superimposing a flashing arrow on what we see. If we are wired to receive signals from elsewhere, we might switch our view to that seen from other locations. This would be far more convenient than todays equivalentlogging on and going to a web site whose images are updated periodically from a camera over Times Square or a university campus. Arriving at a crowded concert, perhaps we could patch in to an overhead view of the auditorium to locate seating more easily.
We can see that while Enhanced Reality could allow us to play with our senses, sometimes obscuring what is really there, much of the time ER would boost our senses, letting us see more of what is there, or transform what is there into forms more useful to us. As Chislenko notes:
"In many cases, ER may provide us with more true-to-life information than our "natural" perception of reality. It could edit out mirages, show us our "real" images in a virtual mirror instead of the mirror images provided by the real mirror, or allow us to see intoand throughsolid objects. It could also show us many interesting phenomena that human sensors cannot perceive directly. Giving us knowledge of these things has been the historical role of science. Merging the obtained knowledge with our sensory perception of the world may be the most important task of Enhanced Reality."
Despite our scientific knowledge, we continue to perceive the world as if we had only the knowledge of the ancients. For example, we "see" the Sun rise instead of seeing the Earth moving around the Sun. We see the stars as if they were at the same distance, embedded in the "celestial spheres" of the past. So long as we are confined to our natural senses we will find it enormously difficult to overcome intuitions generated by limited sensory input. Enhanced Reality will help bring our perception together with our scientific knowledge. Looking into the sky we could see the Earth orbiting the Sun by changing the speed of our perception by projecting ahead or back in time. We could directly determine the speed of a moving object from its Doppler effect.
Our senses connect us not only to external reality, but also to our internal states. We are aware of acid stomach, raised body temperature, accelerated heartbeat, and damage resulting in pain. Senses like proprioception (the awareness of the position and motion of our limbs) are less recognized than vision yet are crucial for daily living. Technologically augmented senses will extend not only to our environment but also to our internal bodily and cognitive processes.
Critics who contend that technology is alienating us from the world and from ourselves have not noticed how poor is our natural access to our internal states. Most bodily and neural events pass by without our being aware of them. Not only are we not aware of them, we cannot become aware no matter how hard we try. For almost all of humanitys existence we have been short-lived. Death came early by accident, disease, or predation. Evolutionary pressures therefore had no reason to equip us with the more penetrating internal senses useful to the longer lived creatures we have become. How useful it would be to have a natural EKG to make us aware of cardiac irregularity! How beneficial if we had an inbuilt natural warning system keyed in to the presence of budding cancer cells!
We can expect technologically enhanced perception to unfold the mysteries of our bodily and even cognitive processes. Implanted micromachines and nanomachines could monitor all bodily processes, feeding us useful information and setting off alarms when a threshold is reached. The information might be brought to our awareness by a visual signal in our retinal lenses or optic nerve implants, or it might be converted into some other sensory signal that we would recognize. We might, for instance, program our ER devices to reveal hypertension as a red haze in our visual field.
Technologically augmented senses could keep track of our blood pressure, making the numbers instantly available in our visual field. These senses could monitor the regularity of heart beat, provide feedback on stress hormone levels, signal bodily injury without the sensation of pain, and alert us to challenges to our immune system outside the norm. With the increased ability to monitor and understand our internal processes, perhaps the sense of mind as distinct from body will diminish. The belief that mind and soul are entirely separable probably owes much to our inability to connect with our internal bodily processes.
More radically, technologically enhanced senses may be able to reveal not only states of our torso and limbs, but also states of our brain. Despite a well-developed scientific understanding of much of the external world, we are only beginning to develop comprehensive and accurate models of our brain processes. Our crude old modelsJungs collective unconscious, Freuds id, ego, and superegoand our inability to directly detect at a fine level of discrimination what goes on inside our three-pound biological computer make it hard for us to understand and control our minds.
As we develop a neuroscientific understanding of cognition and emotion we will gradually come to employ this new, more penetrating conceptual framework to our everyday thinking and feeling. Perhaps we will cease to talk of "beliefs" and "desires", instead referring to activation vector spaces in a particular layer of the neocortex, or to a firing rate in a certain circuit of the amygdala, or to a surge in levels of a particular hormone or neurotransmitter. Without an accurate understanding of our mental processes we find it hard to control or modify them. We find moods coming and going without our having much influence over them. We surprise ourselves with our reactions, and disappoint ourselves by following old programming that is not in our best interests. Far from being naturally in touch with our inner life, even the more psychologically sophisticated of us have severely limited awareness of our mental life. We are alienated from our deepest processes. Too often we have to treat our brains as black boxes working according to unknown principles.
By employing the neuroscientific understanding now starting to emerge, and by combining that knowledge with new internal neurological sensors, we may achieve an unprecedented level of self-awareness and self-control. For example, micromachines or nanomachines could monitor levels of neurohormones and neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline, pregnenolone, cortisol, vasopressin, and GABA, as well as activation levels of neural layers and subunits. The information about changes in neural activity could be converted into visual, auditory, or somatic signals when we enter desired or undesired emotional or cognitive states. Through biofeedback mechanisms we may then be able better to modify our moods and thoughts. By tying abstract emotional states to percepts we can more easily monitor and regulate those states.
Over the next couple of decades, then, we can expect technology to increase our sensory contact with reality, both external and internal. Far from cutting us off from the world or alienating us from ourselves, new technologies will give us more penetrating, discriminating, and illuminating senses. But, if we move from a consideration of Enhanced Perception and Enhanced Reality to Virtual Reality, might not technological change take us in a different direction? I now turn to this question.
Enhancement and Disconnection
As we increasingly augment our internal and external senses in the ways I have described, we will become more connected to the physical world. "Ubiquitous computing" should add to this process, as our physical environment becomes ever more responsive to our presence, making the physical world more like a customizable virtual world. On the other hand, it seems that the development of virtual reality systems leads in the opposite direction: away from sensory contact with the world and towards immersion in entirely synthetic worlds. As we spend more time in virtual worlds we will have diminishing contact with external reality. These virtual worlds will arise both from current VR interfaces and from the Enhanced Reality systems sketched above.
Over the shorter term of 10 to 20 years I find it difficult to say which of these trendstowards or away from deeper sensory contact with the worldwill be stronger. I suspect Enhanced Reality will have a stronger pull than VR in that period, but no one can reliably foresee all developments. In the longer term it seems safer to expect virtual reality to become the stronger attractive force. We can expect humans (or the posthumans they become) to spend more of their time in VR because of its advantages. The physical world is hard to manipulate. Gravity weighs us down, weather is difficult or impossible to control, large objects cannot easily be moved or modified. In VR the same rules do not apply. We write the rules in VR and we can change them as it suits us. Physical distance between persons becomes irrelevant (up to distances measured in tens of thousands of kilometers). Appearances can be altered, and environments can far more easily be customized and configured. As computing power grows and its cost falls, incentives to move business and much leisure activity into VR will intensify.
Even further in the future (though only two or three decades according to Hans Moravec) most humans may choose to "upload" their personalities into synthetic computing devices, leaving behind their biological brains. If this possibility comes to pass, virtual reality will become our natural habitat. It will cease to be a special environment that we enter for specific purposes. We will continue to have sensory contact with the "external" physical world but we will find it more normal to live in virtual worlds.
If we upload, or even if we remain biological yet become increasingly absorbed in VR, will we finally lose contact with physical reality? And if we do lose this contact, should this prospect concern us? Would these future persons be missing anything important about existence? This question can be more usefully restated as: Will virtual worlds allow us to express our values and drives, and to exercise the full range of our capacities? Will virtual worlds allow and encourage us to grow and flourish? Or will they confine us, limit us, stunt us? I will explore an answer by considering the possible types of virtual worlds and what we should want from them.
First, let me note that the transition from today through Enhanced Reality to VR will be smooth and continuous. We will not suddenly jump from raw physical sensation to total immersion in virtual worlds. What we can expect to see is a gradual coming together of physical and virtual reality. This will give us ample opportunity to shape where we are headed. I have described how enhanced perception will add a virtual layer on top of the natural world. So long as we have a need to interact with physical things, the demand for improving that interaction will continue, leading to more sophisticated virtual interfaces. Simultaneously, we will play and work some of the time in VR as it grows more advanced. A further factor reducing the difference between physical reality and virtual reality will be the growing ability to modify and sculpt the physical world. If molecular nanotechnology comes to fruition, its applications will allow us more easily to reconfigure matter. In a sense, physical stuff will be programmable like software. Finally, as both Hans Moravec and Sasha Chislenko have suggested, VR will increasingly incorporate archived and live recordings of events and objects from the physical world. Through this process the distinction between ER and VR may become fuzzy. All these factors will smooth the transition from todays mostly non-virtual world to the almost totally virtual worlds of the late 21st Century.
Two Types of Virtual World
In thinking about how the move into virtual worlds will effect our sensory contact with reality and our flourishing, we can distinguish two kinds of virtual world. Clearly, virtual environments may fall somewhere between the two models and may, at different times, emphasis elements of each. Still, looking at two distinct models will bring out the important differences. The first kind of virtual world is what we can refer to as an "experience machine". This has been described by philosopher Robert Nozick as follows:
p.42-43: "Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel that you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your lifes experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your lifes experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you wont know that youre there; youll think its all actually happening "
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp.42-44.
In the experience machine described by Nozick, sensory input is fed to us. We never actually do anything or achieve anything. This differs radically from a second kind of virtual world. In this other virtual world we no longer perceive external physical objects, except on occasion and even then probably in a highly mediated form. But rather than being subjected to illusory virtual experiences here we live through real virtual experience (if I am allowed this seeming oxymoron). In the experience machine you believe that you are living in an objective virtual world, interacting with other persons, and doing things, but you are not. Your experiences are generated directly in your brain and reveal nothing about the world outside, whether that world be physical or virtual.
The second kind of virtual world seems much more like the physical world, except that here magic is routine. Words and gestures can change the environment and transport you instantly between virtual locations. Vastly more configurable than the natural world, this kind of virtual world seems capable of supporting at least as wide a range of activities as the physical realm. Achieving things, not just the illusion of having achieved them, still requires planning, persistence, effort, and cooperation with other persons. Not only do you believe you are interacting with others, as in the experience machine, you really are interacting with them. Here you are doing real things and creating real things, even if these things are information and datastructures. You might also have some contact with the external physical world and cause change in it either by emitting information or using actuators and robots and other machines.
In principle it appears that we might have all the same experiences in the two kinds of virtual worlds. The difference between them is that in the first it is merely a pleasant illusion. Should we care about this difference? Should we seek to ensure that the actual virtual worlds of the future are more like the second than the first kind? Why should we care about actual rather than illusory experience? Why be concerned that our virtual senses really put us in touch with objects and persons distinct from us? Why not wrap ourselves in solipsistic sheets, slumbering virtually, passively dreaming of living?
Virtue and Virtuality
In referring to "virtue" I am talking about all the creative, productive, active characteristics of human beings (and the posthumans they will become). These characteristics include rationality, creativity, persistence, courage, benevolence, personal responsibility, self-control, self-direction, temperance, and cooperativeness. I will suggest six reasons to avoid the soma of experience machines, several of which involve protecting the genuine exercise of the virtues. Experience machines, if programmed to stimulate us into fantasies of achievement and joy create delusions of virtue. By doing it all for us, they make the true exercise and development of virtuous character impossible. Instead we should seek virtual worlds that will sustain and extend the most creative qualities of humanity as we become posthuman.
(1) The first reason to avoid experience machines is that we wish to actually achieve things, rather having the illusion of achievement. This argument, of course, depends on each of us having this desire to create and achieve. Those who, after careful consideration, genuinely do not care about really doing anything will not be moved. However, I believe that most of us in fact have a basic desire to exercise our will in order to make real changes in the world, not just alterations in our beliefs. Once we have plugged into an experience machine we will (presumably) be unable to realize that we are not actually doing anything. We will be in the middle of a dream in which we are unaware of dreaming. But from our current perspective, outside the dream, we can see that we do not want to be lost in such illusions. Rather, if we are to move from existing in the physical world to a virtual world, we want the latter to offer at least as much room for exercising our talents and capacities as the former. In fact we can expect well-designed virtual worlds to expand the range of possible achievements and the range of sensation and perception. This constitutes a major argument for the desirability of building such electronic realms.
(2) A closely related point to the first is that, for most of us, we want to actually be a certain sort of person, not just to believe we are. Once plugged into an experience machine we might believe that we have become rich through our own productiveness, intelligence, and persistence. In reality, we are passively being fed these experiences. We are not like anything. In our dream, we may have the experience of wanting to become more courageous, more sensitive, or more adventurous, and then experience acquiring those characteristics. In reality, we have not changed. If, as I believe, most of us want to really acquire virtues rather than wanting to believe that we have those virtues, we will be repelled by the idea of passive experience machines.
(3) Someone might object to the previous point by imagining a more advanced experience machine. This model not only gives us the experience of being a certain sort of person, it also periodically alters our brain and body structure to match. Now, if we are awakened after experiencing becoming a skilled skier, we will find that we really are a skilled skier. The reflexes and muscle changes have been built into us. The problem with this is that we are not making ourselves into the person we want to be; we are being made into that person by the experience machine. Too big an alteration in our personality at a time by the machine will break the chain of psychological connectedness and continuity that makes us the same individual over time. (See my The Diachronic Self: Identity, Continuity, Transformation for an extended discussion of this idea.) If we went through the equivalent of a decade of change during our dream experience, then the machine altered us all at once, the discontinuity between the new and the old personalities may be very large. The discontinuity may be large enough that we should say that the original person has ceased to exist, having been replaced by another individual. Perhaps we would not be concerned about this if the machine altered us every few seconds to make our brain structure and body match our experiences. Deciding this issue would require more detailed specification of how the advanced experience machine operates. So long as experiences are being done to us rather than participated in by us, it is hard to make sense of the idea of a continuous personality that integrates changes in personality to form a coherent individual across time.
(4) Another reason to avoid living inside an experience machine rather than an open, participatory virtual world is the limited depth and richness of the former. The experience machine would be built and programmed by an individual or team according to their knowledge and skills. Surely the experiences they can program could never match the depth of genuine reality. Certainly they might be more pleasurable, if programmed that way, but most of us do not place pleasure based on illusion above other values. Most of us want endless worlds to explore for new knowledge, more profound understanding, fresh ideas and perspectives. We want relationships with real people with all their surprises, not limited models of people confined to their programmed behaviors.
A related point: If we seek to progress, to develop our character and wisdom, we need the benefits of multiple, dynamic perspectives. Stuck inside an experience machine, we live in a pseudo-reality constructed according to the knowledge of the designers. New knowledge and deeper understanding arises from the interplay of many minds, each with a unique perspective. In the shut-off world of the experience machine we would miss out on this fresh input.
(5) Thinking pragmatically, entering an experience machine is dangerous. Absorbed in the experiences fed to us, closed up inside a private, passive universe, we would be unaware of threats to our existence. We would be helpless. One kind of threat is that the experiences fed to us will cease to be the desirable ones we had intended. Out in the real world, if life is not going as we would like, we can work at changing it. Inside the experience machine, we have no control. Since we are not learning and getting stronger, we do not gain in ability to sustain our lives. Since we cannot affect the rest of the world, we are unable to anticipate and prepare for dangers to our continued existence. The fact that we would be not be in control shows the experience machine thought experiment to be a fantasy. Even if some of us would not mind only believing that we are achieving things, there is no obvious way to guarantee the desired character of our supplied experiences.
(6) A final factor that strongly suggests the desirability of maintaining sensory contact with the worldthe external physical worldoverlaps with the last one considered. We would need to keep some contact with the physical world in order to make the machines that we live in and that sustain us. We would need awareness of the outside world in order to protect ourselves from physical assault, whether deliberate or through accidents, meteorological upheavals, geological disturbances, or cosmological strikes. Perhaps this protection could be entirely automated. However, we would be unable to monitor the reliable working of our automation. We would be unable to ensure than persons not inside experience machines were refraining from interfering with our automated protection systems.
Living in cyberspace offers vast freedoms but also risks to the flourishing of our core virtues and capabilities. Enhanced reality and virtual worlds designed to connect people with one another in open systems fostering growth should be our goal. Experience machines differ utterly from this goal. Rather than expanded, flexible new virtual worlds they represent electronic narcotics of the most absorbing and dangerous kind. Experience machines generate uncreative, passive, stultifying, deadend experiences. They mean the end of personal growth and flourishing. When hearing attacks on the cybercultures drive towards the electronic enhancement of the senses, we would do well to keep these different paths in mind. The rapidly unfolding technologies that await should be used to foster the best within us.
More, Max, The Diachronic Self: Identity, Continuity, Transformation. (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Southern California, 1995). Available on my web site: http://www.primenet.com/~maxmore/disscont.htm.
Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia
Nozick, Robert, Philosophical Explanations
Unger, Identity, Consciousness, and Value
Alexander "Sasha" Chislenko, "Intelligent Information Filters and Enhanced Reality", Extropy #16, 1996, pp.13-17.
Arnold Zuboff, "The Story of a Brain", in The Minds I, pp.202-212. (Bantam Books, 1981.)
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