David Chalmers interview: Virtual reality is as real as real reality

Philosopher David Chalmers explains how virtual worlds shed light on questions such as what is reality and are we living in a simulation, and explores what corporate metaverses mean for humanity


26 January 2022

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Jennie Edwards

THE Australian-born philosopher David Chalmers has long made waves in the world of consciousness. In 1994, at the age of just 28, he coined the phrase “the hard problem of consciousness” to describe the seemingly intractable problem of subjective felt experience – why there is something it is like to be you. Two years later, he developed the concept of “zombie” thought experiments – using theoretical agents identical to us in behaviour and outward experience but with no inner life – in an attempt to tease out the nature of conscious experience.

In 1998, Chalmers struck a famous bet with neuroscientist Christof Koch that we wouldn’t discover a distinctive signature, or “neural correlate” of consciousness, within 25 years. Although we now understand a lot more about the links between brain activity and consciousness, with little more than a year to go, Chalmers is quietly confident he will win that bet. He thinks consciousness can’t be reduced to a brain process. He has speculated that it is a fundamental attribute of the universe like space-time or mass, perhaps tied to quantum mechanics.

Now co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness at New York University, Chalmers has turned his attention from our mind’s relationship with the world to our relationship with worlds created by human minds. His new book, Reality+: Virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy, explores existential puzzles, including what reality is, whether we are living in a simulation and how we would know. And, as Meta (formerly Facebook) and other tech companies look to create digital “metaverses” in which we can live our lives, he asks what …