The Simulated World According to David Chalmers

Don’t worry, even in a simulation, life is still perfectly meaningful.

David Chalmers is a philosopher at New York University and co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness. Chalmers is known for formulating the “hard problem” of consciousness, which asks how seemingly immaterial experiences arise out of the material brain. In his new book, Reality+, Chalmers takes a deep dive into virtual worlds. He argues, for starters, that virtual worlds can be every bit as real as physical worlds, and that virtual lives can be as meaningful as physical lives. And yes, he’s willing to entertain the notion that the Matrix might be more than pure fantasy. “The world we’re living in could be a virtual world,” he writes. “I’m not saying it is. But it’s a possibility we can’t rule out.” I caught up with Chalmers recently for a virtual interview.

Let’s start with the simulation hypothesis itself. It’s a provocative idea—but is it just an exercise for philosophers, or do you think we really might be living in a simulation?

I think it’s possible. I don’t rule out that we’re in a simulation—and I think we can’t rule out that we’re in a simulation. So it’s at least a serious theoretical possibility that we’re in a simulation. I wouldn’t want to say it’s necessarily likely—it’s hard to put a probability onto it—but it’s a hypothesis I take seriously. That said, I am to some extent thinking about this as a philosopher; I’m not putting it forward as a scientific hypothesis right now. It’s a thought experiment for how reality could be. At the same time, it connects to some pretty practical ideas. In the coming years we’re going to be spending a whole lot of time in virtual worlds, and that raises a lot of important questions. Can you live a proper life, a meaningful life, in a virtual world? Will that just be illusion or escapism?

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