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Virtual reality is the term for any technology designed for the
creation of a computer generated environment in which users can experience
lifelike visual experiences, sounds and other sensual illusions using a headset
in some form. The first example of such technology was Morton Heilig’s Sensorama
Machine released over 50 years ago in 1962, a large arcade-like machine in
which users sat and placed their head towards a screen which generated the
simulation of, for example, a bicycle ride through Brooklyn. In the past decade
such technology has advanced significantly to a point where we can now wear a
small headset and hold motion controllers and navigate through a high quality,
virtually generated world amongst other users who can join the same world via
online connections. Alongside these advancements came the philosophical
questions regarding the sensory experiences people have in virtual reality: what
is the ontological nature of the things they are interacting with? Is the
virtual reality we can experience allowing us to see digital objects as they
really are, or is it merely creating an illusion of fictional objects? In this
essay I will argue that the experience one has when operating a virtual reality
headset is real, a theory known as digitalism or virtual realism, which equates
to virtual objects actually existing and experiences in virtual reality really
occurring just as real life experiences do. To do so I will deal with the more
broad case of illusions in general, as this is analogous to virtual reality, with
the specific example of mirrors providing a useful setup to the two sets of
views at hand with regards to the illusionary nature of perceptual experiences
in virtual reality. I will largely use the arguments proposed by David Chalmers
to shape the structure of this essay and will ultimately conclude in his favour.

Whilst virtual reality specifically provides a more complex
case study through which to debate the nature of our perception, It is
important to simplify and tackle the two opposing views using a more basic
example provided by Chalmers himself, namely that of mirrors. When we see a
reflection in the mirror, intuitively we are usually able to identify that what
we see is actually a mirror image of what is either in front of us or behind
us. Simple cases such as standing in front of a large mirror and seeing our own
reflection are relatively simple in terms of how we judge them, but in more
abstract examples we may find greater difficulty in doing so. For example, if
we see a mirror but initially believe it to be a window then we may be fooled
by the contents of our perception, thinking that what we see is ahead of us
rather than behind us. What we see in the mirror is in a sense analogous to
what we see in virtual reality. Intuitively we know that what is in the mirror
is not physically available to us in the sense that we cannot touch the
reflection of something, but to what extent is what we see illusory? One side
would say that we do not perceive something which is actually there, that the
mirror is in fact merely an illusion. The other side, however, would argue
that, although what we see in the mirror does not actually exist where we see
it, this doesn’t mean that our perception of it is false as it is qualitatively
the same as seeing something directly. Likewise, just because something we see
in virtual reality is not there in the traditional, physical sense, doesn’t mean
that the underlying facts of a virtual object do not cause a genuine perceptual
experience in the same sense that looking at a physical object does.

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The stance taken by Chalmers is referred to as digitalism.
Proponents of this view hold that objects in virtual reality are real in a
virtual sense, are causally able to interact either with other virtual objects
or with those experiencing the virtual reality and are composed of data systems
grounded in complex computational processes, just as an object in our physical
world is composed of some form of physical matter. The virtual objects interact
causally in the sense that they are able to follow physical laws within the
virtual reality and affect other objects within the world, such as a virtual
golf club hitting a ball. Furthermore, virtual reality can causally affect the
user by making them move their own body in order to change their position in
the virtual world, such as a golf ball hitting a user in-game and causing the
user to jump out of freight. Combining all of these aspects, we can see why
Chalmers argues that an object in the virtual world generates a perception
which is in a sense no less real than that of the physical world which we
experience day to day. A golf ball in the virtual world responds to being hit
just as one in the real world would, and have a basis in technology and data
which is analogous to the physical makeup of a golf ball in the real world.

Closely related to digitalism, and another view taken by
Chalmers, is called structuralism. In the context of perception, this view
holds that all we can know of our perceptual experiences is not the objects
themselves but the relations which hold between the objects we experience. We
cannot know the golf ball in itself, but we can know the properties which
belong to the golf ball as well as its relational properties with other
objects. The properties which belong to the object itself are unknowable, but
the relations it has to the world around it such as colour and weight relative
to other objects is accessible to us. This description holds regardless of what
causes the perceptual experience; the golf ball may exist in the physical world
or in a virtual reality; either way we are justified in assigning certain
properties to it, such as its shape or its colour. The sense in which an object
exists is irrelevant to our perception of it as our perception is shaped solely
by either the relationships between or the properties possessed by objects in
whatever world we are experiencing.

The two previous theses combined provide a firm basis upon
which Chalmers is able to form an argument for the realness of perceptual
experiences in virtual reality. Recent forms of virtual reality have been
extremely immersive and graphical capabilities have advanced at a rapid pace. This
has made the virtual worlds which users inhabit realistic enough to feasibly be
placed on some sort of level with the physical world. When we take the
arguments proposed by structuralism and digitalism, then, we can see how
Chalmers believes the perceptual experiences one has in virtual reality to be
equivalent to one outside the virtual world. Structuralism argues that the only
thing that we can know about the things we interact with and see is the
properties they possess and their relations with other objects. This connects
directly to digitalism, which states that objects in the virtual world act just
as objects in the physical world do, possessing properties in the same sense
and interacting with both the virtual world and those inhabiting it. Just
because a virtual golf ball is created by data structures as opposed to solid
matter, doesn’t mean that the former cannot possess properties in the same
respect that the latter does. It still appears to us perceptually as a white,
spherical ball, and we could hit it with a virtual golf club and it would move
just as a physical golf ball would outside this virtual reality. Chalmers
argument concludes, therefore, that the perceptual experience of a virtual
object is just as real as the perceptual experience of the non-virtual world.

The attempted refutation of this argument begins with an
argument against Chalmers assumption that the perceptual experience we have
whilst in a virtual world is indistinguishable from the physical world.
Opponents of Chalmers’ wider argument may state that the fact that we know that
we are in a virtual world is enough of a distinguisher between that and the
physical world in which we exist, and that therefore we cannot state that we
are having a genuine perceptual experience in a virtual world the same sense
that we would do so were we in the outside world. When we put on a virtual
reality headset we do so in the knowledge that we are entering a virtual world
in which, whilst the simulation might be of an extremely high quality and might
seem like it could be a physical
world, our knowledge that it is not is sufficient for our perception of the
virtual world to be differentiated from our usual perceptual experiences. This
could be taken as stating that the virtual perceptual experiences are not real,
but more likely is merely an attempt to categorise them elsewhere, alongside perhaps
the perceptions we experience when dreaming during sleep, or when having taken
hallucinogenic drugs. Regardless, it is a criticism which attempts to show that
virtual experiences are not on a level with a normal perceptual experience. A
further argument, closely related to this one, states that regardless of whether
our belief about the object we are seeing is that it is a virtual golf ball or
a physical one, the fact is that it actually is a virtual one and this means
that we aren’t seeing what we may think we are; rather we are looking at a
complex series of data designed to combine to appear as an object which is able
to fool the human perceptual structure. In his book ‘Seeing, Believing and
Knowing’, Fred Dretske distinguishes between two versions of perception:
sensory perception and cognitive perception. To differentiate, take once again
the simple example of a golf ball. When we see a golf ball in the physical
world, our sensory perception provides us with knowledge merely of what we see;
our sense data and visual experience of the golf ball. Our cognitive
perception, on the other hand, tells us about the ball itself; it allows us to
relate the fact that we are seeing a white, round object and the context of
this and know that we are looking at a golf ball, moving beyond mere primary
sense data to discover actual facts about the ball. In a virtual reality, then,
whilst we may retain the sensory perception of a virtual golf ball, we would
lose the cognitive perception regardless of our knowing or not knowing whether
we were in a virtual world, as any facts they attempt to learn about this
non-physical object would be false. Both of these arguments attempt to refute
Chalmers’ original argument and in turn disprove the theory that our experience
within a virtual reality is equivalent to the perceptual experience we have in
the physical world.

In response to the first argument against Chalmers outlined
above I will refer to Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument which states that we
may be living inside a simulation created by a higher species millions of years
ago. Bostrom states that, given the speed at which technology is advancing in
our world, it is highly likely that in the not so distant future we will have a
level of computer processing power thought impossible a short time ago. Once
such a time arrives, at which point our computers will be able to run programs
on extremely large scales, it seems to him highly likely that somebody will opt
to create and run a simulation of our ancestors or of some previous state of
our existence. Computers at this stage would be so complex that they be able to
not only simulate people but would be able to make them conscious within a
world as complex as our own. The people in this simulation would believe
without a doubt that they exist as physical beings, with no reason to think otherwise.
Given that this is the case, then, does it not seem fair to suppose that it is
less likely that we are the original species, the first to advance to a point
where such simulations are possible, rather than that we are merely a virtual product
of another species who advanced to this level and then opted to create us as a
simulation? This idea has been controversial to many but has also received a
lot of support; Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space-X, takes it a step
further, suggesting that it is not only possible that we are part of a
simulation but that, given the time it has taken us to go from relatively primitive
creatures to ones capable of such complex computations, it is a ‘one in a
billion’ chance that we aren’t simply a simulation. Moving back to the
criticism of Chalmers’ argument, I would argue that the fact that we ourselves
may be living in a virtual simulation belittles the idea that we will always
know when we are in a virtual reality machine. Our idea of a true perception at
the moment indubitable places what we believe to be the physical world as true,
and yet even this can be thrown into doubt using Bostrom’s simulation argument.
Therefore, for the opponents of Chalmers’ view to state that we have a true
perception of the physical world but that we will always be able to distinguish
between that and the virtual reality which is so rapidly being developed seems
to me to be presumptuous, and I would therefore argue that this does not act as
a sufficiently strong distinguisher between the two worlds, and therefore
cannot be used to belittle the perceptual experience we have when in a virtual
reality. It is feasible to say the least that we are now, or will at some point
be able to using virtual reality headsets, experiencing a virtual world which
provides a perceptual experience which is on a level with that of the physical
world.

As for the second argument regarding Dretske’s distinction
between sensory and cognitive perceptions, I believe that there is a
distinction to be made here between a categorical difference and a qualitative
difference. The very nature of the structuralism proposed by Chalmers is that,
whilst there may be a difference objectively between a golf ball in real life
and one we see when we put on a virtual reality headset, the fact that the two
are qualitatively identical in terms of how they interact with other objects
and the properties they appear to possess means that the perception they cause
is also identical. It is chauvinistic and circular to suggest and assume that
just because the virtual golf ball is not physical it cannot provide the same
sort of perceptual experience as one in the physical world. It is of course
true we are aware when putting on a virtual reality headset that, compared to
the physical world, there are some objective differences in substance between objects,
but the fact that the two experiences are qualitatively the same means that the
two perceptual experiences are equally valid.

In a book written by Thomas Reid, ‘Essays on the
Intellectual Powers of Man’, he outlines a hard stance on perception which
could be seen to refute the argument by Chalmers that virtual reality can provide
a true experience of perception. He provides several necessary conditions for
perception which exclude virtual objects from being categorised as perceivable,
namely that: we must have some concept of the object we are looking at; we must
have a ‘strong and irresistible’ belief that the object exists in some sense;
and this belief must be a primary belief which is the fruition of no rationalisation
no matter how abrupt it may be. As we can see straight away, these conditions,
if true, represent significant issues for Chalmers’ theory.  Firstly, the premise which states that we
must believe in the existence of the object we are seeing for us to truly
perceive it. It seems wrong to suggest that, when we step into the world of
virtual reality, we continue to believe that what we are seeing exists in the
same sense and to the same level that something in the physical world does. When
we see a person in the physical world we intuitively say that they exist, but
if we then join a virtual reality chat room in which both we and the other
person have characters it seems that intuitively we may not go beyond stating
that this virtual character does not exist in the same way that the person
controlling it does. If so, we would not be perceiving the virtual character in
the same sense that we have a regular perception in the physical world.
Furthermore, Reid’s next premise, linking closely into the previous point,
states that we must have an immediate recognition of what it is that we are
seeing and how it exists, rather than requiring some consideration to reach
this point. If, in virtual reality, we have to consider what it is we are
seeing due to the fact that at best these objects exist in a different way to
that which we are accustomed to seeing and judging the existence of, then our
understanding and therefore perception of said objects would be mediated and
therefore not to the same level of that which we experience when viewing the
external world.

Using a case study commonly deployed in the philosophy of
language I will show why a lack of understanding of the thing being perceived doesn’t
imply that this thing cannot be truly perceived. The morning star/evening star
analogy outlines how, in Ancient Greek times, there was thought to be a star
which appeared just before the sun came up in the morning – the morning star –
and another star which appeared right before the sun went does – the evening
star. These were thought to be two distinct stars, the Greeks believing they
had a full understanding of what they were seeing. As it transpired, however, these
two stars were in fact different locations of the same star due to the rotation
of the Earth; both stars were in fact the relatively nearby planet Venus. Now,
according to Reid, since the Greeks did not truly understand what they were
seeing fully, they could not actually have been perceiving it. But the fact is
that the two stars acted qualitatively the same as they were required to act; they
could be used for navigation, or to put a rough estimate on the time of day.
The knowledge that the morning and evening star were both in fact Venus seems
irrelevant in practice to whether or not the perception of them was true. Our
perception of the physical world can just as easily be fooled by external
facts, and so if we are to accept that what we have in the external world is in
fact a perception then surely it is appropriate to assign such a status to our
experiences in a virtual reality? As for the second point, I once again refer
to the simple argument based on the qualitative parallels to be drawn between
physical and virtual worlds. A veteran user of virtual reality would no longer
go into the computer generated world considering what is existing and what isn’t,
as they would know that virtual things don’t exist in a physical sense but that
they are qualitatively the same as that which does, and therefore in some
respect they do exist. If the two worlds remain qualitatively the same, and the
user is not running around considering whether things exist or not, then there
is no rationalisation of the situation required and therefore it can be said
that, although the objects in virtual reality do not exist as physical
entities, they can evoke the same perceptual experience as the world we
naturally live in.

To conclude, then, I believe that David Chalmers’ argument
that virtual reality is able to create a human perceptual experience level with
that which the physical world can create. The combination of his structuralism
and digitalism provide a solid base upon which to prove this to be the case.
The former shows how we cannot know objects in themselves, be they in the physical
or virtual world, but instead can only know the properties they seem to possess
and their relation and interaction with other objects. Digitalism directly
applies this to virtual reality, stating that objects in the virtual world are
just as able to possess properties and interact with other virtual objects,
even interacting in a sense with the people inhabiting the world. These two
combined form an argument which, in brief, states that objects in the virtual
world are just as real as physical ones as they have properties and interact in
the same way, and if the objects are just as real then our perception of them
must also be. The first two criticisms of this theory claimed firstly that we
will always know that we are in a virtual reality, meaning we will always view
it differently; and secondly that there is a distinction between sensory and
cognitive perception. The former is provided in both cases whereas the latter
arguably only exists when we can fully understand the object. Refutations to
both arguments diminish their power, however. The first criticism assumes that
we always know when we are in a virtual reality, and that we always will know
in the future, which given the speed at which technology is advancing seems
highly unlikely. The second criticism ignores the qualitative similarities between
physical and virtual worlds which seems like the most pertinent factor in
deciding where perception truly exists. Finally, Reid’s description of
perception at first seems strong, but in fact I would argue that a lack of
understanding of an object doesn’t mean it cannot be perceived, as the
morning/evening star example shows. The second point once again ignores the
qualitative factors; virtual reality users would have long accepted that
virtual objects don’t exist in the same sense as physical ones, but they
nevertheless can exist in some way and knowledge of this need not require any
rationalisation on a case by case basis. Given the strength of Chalmers’ initial
argument, and the failings of opposing views, I must conclude that virtual
reality experiences do count as perception.