Is our world a virtual reality?

By | June 13, 2010

Do we inhabit a virtual world, a world which our brains create? Many of us would reply in the negative: “No; our world is real and not our invention.” Are the things which we perceive (see, hear, touch) virtual objects? Again, many of us would reply that we perceive real things like trees, dogs, and apples, not virtual objects.

Why bring up such questions? Why should anyone think that we live in a virtual world and perceive virtual objects? Surprisingly a number of people have affirmed such a philosophy and continue to do so. In the world of philosophy nothing should surprise us; but the world of biology should be different, we think. However, the famous evolutionary biologists, Richard Dawkins, in chapter 11 of his book Unweaving the Rainbow, (Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, 1998) seems to adopt this view of things when he claims that we experience a virtual world. When we take what he says seriously, and not as mere metaphors or figurative language, we find that his philosophy presents significant conceptual problems. Consider the following argument:

1) Virtual models constructed by the brain’s simulation software exist in the brain; sometimes Dawkins states this as “in the head.”

“…every species that has a nervous system uses it to construct a model of its own particular world, constrained by continuous updating through the sense organs …. “Our brain constructs a three-dimensional model. It is virtual reality in the head.”

(Unweaving the Rainbow, pages 274, 276)

2) The world that we inhabit and perceptually experience is a virtual world, viz., a world comprised of virtual models constructed by the brain’s simulation software.

“..we humans, we mammals, we animals, inhabit a virtual world, constructed from elements that are, at successively higher levels, useful for representing the real world. Of course, we feel as if we are firmly placed in the real world — which is exactly as it should be if our constrained virtual reality software is any good.

. “ (Ibid.,275)

“We are so used to living in our simulated world and it is kept so beautifully in synchrony with the real world that we don’t realize it is a simulated world.”

(Ibid., pages 279-280)

From (1) and (2) we draw the fantastic inferences:

A) We perceive a “world” that is really only in the brain; and

B) We inhabit a “world” that is really only in the brain.

This, in turn, implies that
we exist only in the brain.

Surely Dawkins does not embrace that proposition. He seems to distance himself from such thinking when he qualifies this ‘thesis,’ which he does by acknowledging the misleading aspect of his talk of virtual reality:

“The metaphor of virtual reality [misleads] us into thinking that there is a “little man’ or ‘homunculus’ in the brain watching the virtual reality show.”

(Ibid., page 283)

This is the misconception that Daniel Dennett warns against and which Dawkins acknowledges as a misconception on page 283.

“The problem arises [when] we take the virtual reality metaphor literally and imagine that some agent locked inside the head is ‘experiencing’ the virtual reality performance.”

(Ibid., page 283)

Dawkins explains that his thesis is a more modest one:

“…that each species, in each situation, needs to deploy its information about the world in whatever way is most useful for taking action. ‘Constructing a model in the head’ is a helpful way to express how it is done, and comparing it to virtual reality is especially helpful in the case of humans.”

(Ibid., 283)

Although this qualification might help somewhat, the problem seems to remain; for Dawkins does not appear to completely disengage from those propositions that imply absurd conclusions. If his reference to “constructing a model in the head” is just a helpful way of explaining human experience, he should have qualified his earlier statements. Instead of the flat statement that “we inhabit and perceive a virtual world” he should have written that it is as if we experienced a virtual reality, given the extent to which our nervous system shapes the reality we experience.

As long as Dawkins holds on to the earlier statement he seems to remain in the grip of a ‘model’ which implies a “homunculus inhabiting the brain and perceiving a virtual world only,” despite his recognition of the conceptual problem that all this involves.

Moreover, all this talk about virtual or simulated worlds in the brain (or in the head) suggests that that we don’t experience a public world, a common framework that human beings share. Virtual world talk implies that I don’t share the simulated world in your head, nor do you share the simulated world in my head. Isn’t it a mystery how these separate worlds seem to intersect? Of course we don’t need to introduce such a mystery. The obvious and reasonable assumption is that we share a common framework, i.e., the real world, a public world as opposed to a private, simulated world constructed by the brain inside the brain. As the English philosopher D.W. Hamlyn tells us in his book, A Theory of Knowledge (1970), a common, public framework must be our starting point, if there’s to be any intelligible discourse at all. Simulated, virtual worlds existing inside individual’s skulls do not give us such common framework, although reference to such a ‘model’ might help to highlight how much brain contributes to ‘color’ the world that we perceive. Surely Dawkins does not mean to deny all this. Most likely he just got carried away with his metaphors, analogies, and “poetic science.”

His qualification of his “model” (see Unweaving the Rainbow, page 283) suggests that by referring to the workings of the nervous system (sense organ, brain, simulation software, virtual models), Dawkins is simply explaining how it is possible that animals (including humans) acquire (through perception) enough information about the world in order to negotiate successfully through that world. The world here is the objective, public world, the real world that we all share despite the earlier statements by Dawkins to the contrary.

D.W. Hamlyn, The Theory of Knowledge, (1970, Doubleday)
George Pitcher, A theory of perception, (1971, Princeton Univ. Press)
Perceive, Sensing, and Knowing, (1965, Doubleday) edited by Robert J. Swartz

4 thoughts on “Is our world a virtual reality?

  1. John Jones

    "Virtual" is a comparitive adjective. So we wouldn't expect there to be a "virtual world". If we want to say that there are two worlds and that one is actual and the other is virtual then it is a matter of personal preference concerning which world gets which label. The actual/virtual binary is a privileged binary in that the comparitive status of the two elements is given by values or conditions that fall outside the binary.

    Wittgensteinian analysis of the impossibility of a private language would tell us that the language and description of private worlds can only be given in a public framework. Kantian analysis would tell us that the whole actual/virtual binary is a species of transcendental realism and a logical faux pas. Kant's transcendental idealism informs us that it is simply incoherent that objects can be portrayed in a mind, even if that portrayal is claimed to be completely accurate.

  2. philosophylnge

    I tend to agree with Wittgenstein and Kant, insofar as I understand them, on the incoherence of private objects or "objects portrayed in a mind." I suppose that any talk of "virtual worlds" has to be understood in its context. It sounds correct to say, as you do, that the word "virtual" is a comparative adjective. It does seem to imply virtual in relation to the real world.

    I suppose one of the interesting aspects of contemporary references to virtual worlds (in science fiction, computer realms, etc.) is that sometimes it is not easy to distinguish one from the other; or the virtual begins to take on a stronger realism than the actual world.

    The point of my article is that Richard Dawkins use of "virtual world" implies a paradox or anomaly that he likely would not accept, being a realistic, evolutionary biologist.

  3. jbernal Post author

    Of course I do not buy the model of knowledge that many assume: a subject presented with ‘objects’ (sense-data, impressions, images, ideas, etc., etc.) which he then interprets as representing some objective reality, which itself cannot be perceived or directly experienced. This is the old skeptical problem which runs through much of Western philosophy, somewhat accelerated by the Cartesian treatment and allegedly resolved by Kant. Philosophers and their students have too long been fixated on this “picture” and have invalidly inferred a number of propositions about the thing-in-itself, the unknown reality “out there,” and more recently, notions about the human subject being limited to a “virtual reality,” with genuine reality ever inaccessible. Sorry, I don’t buy that entire picture. But your remarks were interesting and probably merit a more careful reply than I’m giving now.


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