Are we living in a virtual world?

Are we living in a real world? Is there any way to know for sure? See more virtual reality pictures.
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Movies like Dark City and The Matrix are set in worlds in which the inhabitants don't realize they're actually living in a virtual space. To those people, everything in the world seems tangible. They don't realize everything they encounter, whether it's food, clothes, buildings or even other people, are actually just bits of data organized to simulate reality. I guess it's too late to say "spoiler alert."

What about our own world? Is it virtual? Our senses inform our perception of the world. According to the philosopher David Hume, all human knowledge stems from perception rather than reason [source: Hume]. We gather information through sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. Using this input, our brains interpret the world around us and create the experience of what we call reality.


But is what we perceive actually reality? Or does the fact that all of this data must first pass through a filter -- our own minds -- mean that the world we experience is just a representation of what's really there? That would mean that all of us inhabit our own virtual worlds all the time. We don't even need a computer to get there.

This isn't a new idea. Philosophers have debated the nature of perception and reality for hundreds of years. Part of the problem is that our minds are not infallible -- they're actually quite easy to trick. An illusion or hallucination can fool us into thinking we perceive something that isn't reality. A simple example is forced perspective. In forced perspective, objects closer to the observer appear larger than objects further away. By framing the view correctly, the observer can be fooled into thinking a person closer to the observer's view is taller than someone else farther away.

If our minds can be fooled so easily, is what we perceive actually reality?



Arguments from Illusion and Hallucination

David Hume's philosophy stressed sensory experience over inherent rationlism.
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The argument from illusion is a set of ideas that propose what we perceive is not truly reality. We'll illustrate a simplified version of the argument with an example:

Bob is in a room, looking at what appears to be a blue box behind a glass wall. In Bob's mind, he has categorized the object as having a particular form -- a box -- and a particular color -- blue. But in reality, the box is just a folded piece of cardboard set against a mirror to give it the appearance of a box. In addition, the cardboard is white -- a blue light focused on the cardboard gives it the appearance of being blue.


This example shows that Bob thinks he is seeing one object when, in reality, he's looking at something else. The argument from illusion says that because Bob has no way of distinguishing between what he perceives and what's real, we can extrapolate this to mean there is no way to be sure anything we perceive is not just an illusion. Our own point of view is what some philosophers call "naïve realism" [source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy].

The argument from hallucination is similar to the argument from illusion. If it's possible for a subject to hallucinate a situation or object that seems real but doesn't exist independently from the subject's mind, then perception is unreliable and reality indefinable. Not all philosophers subscribe to this argument. Many take issue with the assumption that such hallucinations are really possible and indistinguishable from normal perception.

The debate continues in philosophical circles over whether perception and reality are one and the same. We do know that it's easy to trick the brain -- stage magicians and mentalists rely on that fact to make a living. But does that mean the mind is fundamentally unreliable?


Does Virtual Living Matter?

Augmented reality creates a virtual layer over what we think of as reality.

Ultimately, if our minds are unreliable and reality as we understand it is simply a shared hallucination, does it matter? If what you see as a table is the same thing everyone else sees as a table, would it make a difference if the object were actually a chair? While this example is an over-simplification of the problem, it's a good illustration. If our perception of the world depends entirely upon our interpretation of sensory input, doesn't that make it reality to us?

A pragmatist might say that without being able to step outside the human experience and perceive reality in an objective way, it's impossible to say if what we think of as real is representative of true reality. There's no way we know of to wake up from the shared dream or emerge from the matrix. That could mean we're permanently stuck in an illusion or it could mean that our perceptions actually match up to reality and there's no illusion there in the first place. Perception and reality are the same as far as we're concerned.


Meanwhile, we're making progress in creating virtual worlds in the technological sense through multiple paths. Computer engineers, technologists and psychologists are designing virtual environments that mimic real situations and can provide a real sense of immersion. While subjects in such a virtual environment might not think of the world as being real, they do tend to learn the rules of the virtual environment and adapt to them. The subjects begin to behave in the world as if it were real -- even going so far as to have real physiological reactions to virtual stimuli. But most are still fully aware they exist only in a simulation.

We're also seeing developments in the field of augmented reality. With augmented reality, we create an overlay of data and interactivity on top of the world we perceive around us. Using devices like smartphones, we can view the world surrounding us and access additional data. A good example of this is the Monocle feature in the iPhone app Yelp. As you point the iPhone's camera toward businesses, reviews pop up on the screen. Your perception of the world is augmented instantly.

As we find new ways to perceive and interact with the world around us through technology, we may further divorce ourselves from reality. In fact, we feel safe in saying it's a virtual certainty.

Still curious? Take a look at the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Crane, Tim. "The Problem of Perception." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. March 8, 2005. (March 4, 2010).
  • Huemer, Michael. "Sense-Data." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Aug. 27, 2007. (March 4, 2010).
  • Hume, David. "A Treatise of Human Nature." London: Longman's, Green and Co. 1874.