Virtual Realism: Really Realism or only Virtually so? A Comment on D. J. Chalmers’s Petrus Hispanus Lectures

Disputatio 11 (55):297-331 (2019)
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What is the status of a cat in a virtual reality environment? Is it a real object? Or part of a fiction? Virtual realism, as defended by D. J. Chalmers, takes it to be a virtual object that really exists, that has properties and is involved in real events. His preferred specification of virtual realism identifies the cat with a digital object. The project of this paper is to use a comparison between virtual reality environments and scientific computer simulations to critically engage with Chalmers’s position. I first argue that, if it is sound, his virtual realism should also be applied to objects that figure in scientific computer simulations, e.g. to simulated galaxies. This leads to a slippery slope because it implies an unreasonable proliferation of digital objects. A philosophical analysis of scientific computer simulations suggests an alternative picture: The cat and the galaxies are parts of fictional models for which the computer provides model descriptions. This result motivates a deeper analysis of the way in which Chalmers builds up his realism. I argue that he buys realism too cheap. For instance, he does not really specify what virtual objects are supposed to be. As a result, rhetoric aside, his virtual realism isn’t far from a sort of fictionalism.
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