I recently opened an account in the massively multiplayer virtual-reality game Second Life, in order to test out some thoughts about what digital avatars might reveal concerning the metaphysics of personal identity.
I am roundly mocked by everyone I meet there as a 'newbie', and am criticized for my laziness in procuring new clothes, hair, skin, sexual organs. But I don't want to procure these things; I think my standard-model avatar looks just fine. My experience is not at all what I had expected it to be, and I'm finding the philosophical reflections it is stimulating lie rather far from questions of personal identity, in the realm of perception.
One thing that struck me right away was the intense familiarity of the sensation of flying in Second Life. I knew it from dreams, and as in dreams it feels in 2l both perfectly natural and somehow sinful. At first I tried to keep my flying time to a minimum, since one is fairly lonely up in the air and the original idea had been to meet people through my avatar in order to learn whether he (alright, to be honest, she) could in fact be said to be me. (The picture shows me flying outside the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.)
So I walked around a lot, down corridors, up and down staircases, through alleys and fields. And just as dream-flying had supported my 2l-flying with an immediate background of familiarity, a sort of a priori, so too within just a few hours of exploring in the virtual world I started to experience my navigations through similar environments of the real world against the background of familiarity that 2l had begun to provide. That is, walking down a corridor in 'rl', I would sometimes find myself in a momentary state of confusion as to what level of reality I was currently dealing with.
This didn't happen everywhere. Mostly it happened when I was doing in rl what might be called 'exploring': looking for the right number on a hotel-room door in a new city, trying to take a shortcut through an unfamiliar alley, etc. I had a very uncanny sense on some of these occasions that it was only the sort of perceptual experience I'd had in 2l that was enabling me to make sense of the experience I was having in rl at all. As if 2l were itself the a priori framework of spatial perception!
That's absurd of course; I had got by just fine for decades in the absence of virtual reality. I didn't need a simulation of space to teach me what space is and how to move through it. And yet that feeling was there, and, I confess, it was confirming the suspicion I've long had that some version of idealism in fact provides the correct account of reality. 2l didn't teach me about spatial perception, but it did harmonize with a capacity that was already there. This is a harmony that, when one is experiencing it, one senses could have been exercised just fine without an actual spatial world out there for it to operate in.
And at moments I thought: holy shit, we've conjured into existence this whole new reality that does just fine without real reality. What amazing creatures we are. But then I thought, in turn: what would happen if I were to show this new reality to my cat? She, were she to exist, would be entirely unimpressed. She would not even recognize it as a reality, but at most as a luminous object, a computer screen, within her singular reality.
Now we can write this off to her lack of intelligence, but then we might instead imagine another sort of being, one we all recognize to be intelligent but with a vastly different sensory apparatus at its disposal, a being that is unable to recognize, for example, pixel-based two dimensional representations of objects in space as representations. We might try to show this being what a philosophical thrill-ride 2l is, and it might say to us: "I can see that you are having a thrilling time, yet I can't help but notice that your actual experience here does not differ in kind from the experience you have when daydreaming, or listening to a story. These are varieties of what was once called ambulatio animae that need no technological support, but that, like 2l, permit a person to go wandering about in a strictly speaking non-existent space. Sitting at a campfire in the middle of the Paleolithic listening to a story about a descent into the nether-world would have done substantially the same thing, and while 2l provides a sort of hard-hitting illustration of the insufficiency of rl for accounting for experience, storytelling and daydreaming were already, all along, fairly compelling illustrations of the plausibility of idealism (or at least of a sort of phenomenalism that takes the ulitmate elements of reality to be perceivers; call it what you will)."