INTRODUCTION to be in control of an

INTRODUCTION It has long been a trope of philosophy and science fiction alike to question whether or not we exist in a so-called ‘real world’, or whether we are in some kind of false, constructed reality; Rene Descartes famously put forward the idea that, contrary to our sense datum, we may exist in some grand illusion created by a deceptive demon, as the evidence from our senses could be entirely mistaken and indeed part of the demon’s deception. The abstraction I would like to focus on from Descartes’ hypothesis is that of perception within a so-called virtual reality; if one is within such a reality, would these virtual experiences count as perception? In this essay I will examine some of the arguments in favour of the notion, and the criticisms thereof. I will attempt to show that, despite some meaningful objections to the contrary, virtual reality experiences should be considered to count as perception. The problem with perceptive experiences in a virtual reality is chiefly that they can easily be seen to be, in an immediately intuitive sense, ‘false’. In 2016, for example, EA released a Star Wars Battlefront X-Wing mission for the Playstation VR, which allows the player to be in control of an X-Wing spaceship and fly through space – the VR headset in question covers the entirety of the user’s vision, and if the user looks around whilst wearing the helmet every degree of their perceptive field will be covered in-game (that is, if one looks directly behind them, they will be looking out of the back of the spaceship they are piloting, and so forth). Whilst only covering the sense of sight and partially the sense of hearing (obviously the technology does not fully integrate every single one of a player’s senses), the simulation is so convincing that it is reported to have caused motion sickness in some players, despite the fact they were sitting still and clearly did not actually move whilst playing. However, the space battle that the players are taking part in is obviously not real, being that it is simply a very advanced, very player-involving video game. This raises the question of whether the perceptual experience that a player had of moving fast – fast enough to invoke the real-world feeling of motion sickness – should also therefore be considered not real. Moving from this example to a fictional but entirely enveloping (and also highly plausible) one, what of the experiences of a person who is in a simulation such as that presented in famous science fiction classic ‘The Matrix’? Although the film’s protagonist, Neo, starts the film existing within the matrix, the simulation is entirely encompassing of all of his senses and perceptions, and as such he is unaware that what he is experiencing is not real. The crux of the debate, then, is this; if such experiences are indistinguishable from absolutely real ones, on what grounds can they be said not to be ‘real’ perceptual experiences? With this idea in mind, I will now examine some arguments in favour of virtual reality experiences counting as perception.    CONDITIONS FOR VIRTUAL REALITY AND THE ARGUMENT FOR VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE For a virtual world to be realistic enough to at least appear to satisfy genuine perceptive criteria, it must satisfy certain conditions that make it indistinguishable from the external world – namely, said virtual world must be immersive, interactive and computer generated. The virtual world is immersive if it gives the impression that it follows the same rules as our world, and gives the user a sense of presence within the world; the virtual world is interactive if the user is able to perform actions that the world will then appropriately react to (as opposed to the user simply observing the world with no input on the proceedings); and the virtual world is computer generated if it is caused by one or more computers which themselves are based in the real, physical world (this condition rules out instances such as lucid dreams or hallucinations). The interesting point here is that aside from computer generation, our real world and a convincing virtual one both satisfy these conditions; it is also worth pointing out that we cannot be entirely sure that our world is not itself a computer generation, which throws an interesting shade upon the debate in question. In his paper ‘The Virtual and the Real’, David J. Chalmers puts forward two concepts, digitalism and structuralism, which help establish his account of a virtual reality, and form the basis of his argument for the genuinely perceptive nature of a virtual experience. I will evaluate each of these concepts in turn before establishing an argument put forward by Chalmers. Digitalism is the view that an object in a virtual world does (in a sense) actually exist, in a digital way, as opposed to the account of ‘virtual fictionalism’, which states that a virtual object is entirely fictional. If we go by the conditions established at the beginning of this section, it is easy to see how the digitalist account of a virtual world satisfies them; a virtual object can follow laws in the same way as their physical counterparts, thus satisfying the condition of immersion; a virtual object can have an effect upon the user just as a physical object would (for example, causing the instinct to flinch if an object suddenly moves towards the user’s vision at a high speed); and such objects are, by their digital nature, computer generated. Structuralism, in regard to perceptual experiences, is divided into two types by Chalmers; the first is “ontological structural realism, which holds that all reality is structure”, and the second is “epistemological structural realism, which holds that all we can know of reality is structure”, which Chalmers claims to be more crucial to his argument. The claim that all we can know of reality is structure is the claim that our perception does not allow us to know objects intrinsically, but it allows us to become aware of their ‘outward’ qualities, or their relations to other objects or ourselves. The key point to take from this is that, for any given object, we can only be aware of our experience of it, and the way it relates to other objects or ourselves – as we cannot know an object intrinsically, we cannot assess whether or not it is a ‘virtual’ object or a ‘real’ one without transcendent knowledge. Combining these two ideas with Chalmers’ conditions for a virtual reality set out above, it is easy to understand Chalmers’ argument that virtual reality experiences count as perception. The digitalist view tells us that there is no observable difference between a virtual world and the real one; the structuralist view tells us that our perceptual experiences limit us only to the external properties and relations of objects. If we apply both of these views to a computer generated virtual world that is immersive and interactive, then we can see that a virtual reality experience is at least as perceptive as an equivalent experience in the real world, and so a virtual reality experience should count as a perceptive experience.  ARGUMENTS AGAINST VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE AND REFUTATIONS The first problem some have with this conclusion is with the truth of the claim that a virtual world is indistinguishable from the real world. Semantically speaking, one can intuitively understand the difference between something being ‘real’ and ‘virtually real’; that is, even is one is within a virtual reality and experiences something that appears to be real, one is still aware that what one is viewing is ‘not real’. For instance, in the Star Wars VR example mentioned above, the visual immersion is highly praised, yet all of the users remain aware of the fact that what they are witnessing is not real. That is, although the perceptual experience gives the impression that it is real, we are consciously aware that it is not, and so the virtual reality experience merely gives the illusion of counting as perception as opposed to actually being such. This point is well illustrated by Fred Dretske in his 1990 paper ‘Seeing, Believing and Knowing’, in which he draws the distinction between perceiving a fact and perceiving an object through the following example. If we consider a child who mistakes a cat on a sofa for a cardigan on the sofa, there are a few variant claims we can make in regard to the child’s perception. In one sense, the child perceives the cat – that is, the child perceives the physical presence, or object, of the cat. But in another sense, the child is mistakenly perceiving the fact that there is a cardigan upon the sofa, and is actually (unbeknownst to them) perceiving the fact that the cat is upon the sofa. This distinction between ‘fact perception’ and ‘object perception’ can be easily applied to a virtual world; if one perceives a yellow car in the real world, then one is perceiving a yellow, metallic object and is also perceiving the fact that a yellow car is driving past. However, in the virtual world, one is merely perceiving that there is a yellow, metallic object, as the car driving past is only virtually true. This leads to his distinction between object perception and cognitive perception, which can be understood as the difference between the basic experience of perceiving an object, and the ‘secondary’ process of having some level of epistemic understanding of the object. Dretske then goes on to say that “visual perception is a way of seeing objects that involves, in some essential way, a knowledge of the object”, and given that (by his definition) there is no ‘fact’ perception in virtual reality, it can be said therefore that a virtual reality experience does not count as perception. The response to this is that structuralism somewhat accounts for this objection already. The sense stimuli that one receives from seeing a car in the real world and in virtual reality are identical (by this account of a perfect virtual reality); the only difference is that we would be aware that the virtual car is not created of physical matter but is instead composed of lines of code and programming. However, this line of reasoning makes an inherent assumption about the way in which to think about the real world; could it not be argued that the yellow car in our reality is also composed of ‘lines of code’ (ie, atoms, molecules etc.)? If one is to make a distinction between the perceived nature of something in the real and virtual worlds, they make the mistake of assuming that the given perceivable traits of a virtual object are false because they are reducible to non-perceivable objects, but assume that the same cannot be said of real objects. In fact, there has been research done to suggest that our reality may in fact be a holographic construction itself, where the smallest known units of matter are in fact a sort of ‘pixel’. As such, the objection to distinguish between perceiving virtual and real ‘constructions’ does not appear to hold much sway. A slightly different attack on virtual reality experiences counting as perception comes from Thomas Reid in his essay ‘Of Perception’. Reid puts forward what he considers to be the three conditions of true perception: “First, Some conception or notion of the object perceived; Secondly, A strong and irresistible conviction and belief of its present existence; and, Thirdly, That this conviction and belief are immediate, and not the effect of reasoning”. The second condition, clearly, is what is troublesome here – no matter how immersive or interactive a virtual reality, a user will most likely not suddenly believe themselves to be in the real world. Whilst expanding upon the first condition, Reid explains the importance of a certain level of cognitive ability in perception – he uses an example of a child and an adult roasting meat on a fire, and how although the two will be seeing the same thing, the adult (due to their higher cognitive ability) will be much more aware of their perception of the event, and “the relation of the parts to one another, and to the whole”. So, either instance of a virtual experience appears to be rendered moot by his conditions – either a user is aware that they are in a virtual world, and as such cannot pass the second condition, or they are unaware that they are in a virtual world (as it is also a given that said world is indistinguishable from the real world) and cannot pass the first condition. The rebuttal for Dretske’s argument can also apply to Reid’s second condition, but in the instance whereby a user is unwittingly in a virtual world, their experience would appear to not count as perception due to their lack of awareness of their situation by his first condition. However, Reid’s first condition is not exclusive to the concept of virtual reality, and could also be applied to the real world; a famous example of this can be found with the difficulty had in establishing the order of the planets in the solar system. Before Nicolaus Copernicus posited the heliocentric – that is, sun-centred – view of the solar system, it was accepted (and in fact, a staunchly defended view) that the earth was at the centre of the solar system, because the sun appeared to rotate around the earth. Whilst the geocentric (earth-centred) view is no longer the generally accepted consensus (if it is even still accepted at all), and as such I will claim for the purpose of this essay that it is a fact that the earth orbits the sun, the people living before the 16th century would have looked to the sky and had a perceptual experience of the sun orbiting the earth (which to this day, it still looks like to the untrained eye). To say that they did not have a perceptual experience because of their lack of knowledge of the truth of their belief is absurd; if we are to allow such experiences to count as genuine perception, despite a false belief on the part of the perceiver, then I put forward that a perceptual experience in virtual reality which the user mistakes for real should also itself count as genuine perception – and thus, Reid’s first condition does not reasonably object to the perceptive genuineness of a virtual reality experience.  CONCLUSION Overall, then, a strong case has been made in favour of virtual reality experiences counting as perception. The virtual reality in question must operate and react to a user in the same way that the real world does; it must be immersive, interactive and it must be computer generated (that is, not something such as a dream or a hallucination). Chalmers’ concepts of structuralism and digitalism further ensure that a virtual experience should be counted as being perceptual. The arguments against this idea are credible, but it is my opinion that they fail because the distinction they draw between the real world and the virtual is not as strong as it appears to be, and many of the purported failings of a virtual experience can easily be extracted and applied to our ideas of perception in the real world. Thus, I conclude that, despite formidable ideas to the contrary, virtual reality experiences do count as perception.

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