Saturday, January 24, 2009

Virtual Reality

It occurred to me yesterday, on my bike ride from the University District, where’d I’d been having a drink after attending a philosophy colloquium on something called “contextual explanation” in science, specifically as it plays out in evolutionary theory, that it shouldn’t be too hard to get students wondering about whether reality is really “real” (in the Platonic sense, say) because most of them, many times a day, engage in a kind of ongoing exercise in an unreal reality; that is, when they text message their friends.

Think about it: when you’re communicating with someone and all they are is a few squiggly lines on a several square-inch display in front of you (typically, hidden under the desk as your teacher prowls around the room) aren’t you essentially entering into a kind of virtual reality whose tangibility is attenuated at best, if not entirely non-existent?

So aren’t my students, who come to believe that “reality” is what exists in front of their eyes as they type away, not unlike those fabled prisoners in Plato’s cave who, since birth, chained by the neck and feet, unable to turn their heads, see nothing but shadows on the wall before them?

Of course, I could have been pushing this metaphor a bit; that might, in part have had something to do with the couple glasses of wine I had at the reception after the talk followed by the bourbon rocks I imbibed after that. But hell, even Socrates did some of his best work under such influences, just think of the dialogue The Symposium.

Most students are what I would call fetishists about reality. That is, when we do Robert Nozick’s famous “experience machine” thought experiment (essentially, “The Matrix” in a box) most say they would not to hook up, even though the “reality” they would experience therein would seem entirely real.

But if that’s the case, why is it so hard to get them not to text in class?


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