This essay is part of a series called The Big Ideas, in which writers respond to a single question: what is reality? You can read more by going to The Big Ideas series page†
How should we understand reality in a digital age? The popular acronym ‘IRL’, short for ‘in real life’, contrasts real life with digital life. On social media I post pictures of philosophy conferences. In virtual reality I am an expert at playing the beat saber rhythm game. But IRL, I’m a professor at New York University who writes books about consciousness and reality.
This 1990s acronym seems old-fashioned now. In the 2020s, the assumption that digital life is not real life is no longer true. When a child is bullied on Instagram, it is a real event with real consequences. When you hang out with your family via Zoom, it’s a real family gathering. When you lose money by trading Bitcoin, it’s a real loss. Digital life is now an integral part of real life.
To get to the bottom of this, we need to clarify what it means to be real. Philosophically, there are a few different ways in which we can define the concept of reality.
First definition: something is real if it makes a difference. The coronavirus is real because it makes people sick. The tooth fairy isn’t real because he doesn’t do anything. Her work is mainly done by parents who tell stories about it and leave money for teeth. In that sense, digital life is real. What happens on the internet affects our daily lives. A change in Google’s algorithm can ruin a business† A politician’s tweet can bring down a government.
Second definition: something is real if it is not only in our minds. A mirage is only in our minds, so it’s not real. A tree falling in the forest happens outside of our minds, so it’s real. The internet is not just in our minds. Websites still exist while we sleep. Blockchains are be present on networks of machines around the world and stay there even if no one is watching them.
Third definition: something is real if it is not an illusion, hallucination or fiction. In his 1984 novel “Neuromancer,” science fiction writer William Gibson said that cyberspace was a “consensual hallucination” experienced by billions of people. Today I would say that cyberspace is a consensus. An online store like Amazon is just as real as one of Walmart’s brick and mortar stores. Amazon is a thoroughbred institution that helps structure our reality.
Fourth definition: Perhaps the most important in our digital age, we say something is real when it is authentic. If something isn’t authentic, it’s fake. The physical world is full of falsehood, from counterfeit money to fake smiles. Inauthenticity is even more prevalent on the internet, where fake news, fake bots and Instagram filters that idealize our lives abound. Still, there is a lot of authenticity online. Friendships can be maintained via email. You can sincerely protest against government policy on Twitter. On Spotify you can enjoy real music. Our experiences in digital reality can be just as authentic as our experiences in physical reality.
Discussions about what counts as real will become increasingly relevant in the upcoming virtual realities metaverse. Today’s virtual worlds, from social worlds like Second Life to gaming platforms like Roblox, are reflexive towards ‘the real world’. Many people think that virtual reality is by definition unreal. By my criteria, this is wrong. Virtual worlds are real worlds.
Second Life has made a difference in users’ lives by fostering new relationships and new communities. Roblox persists on servers when no one is watching. The same goes for immersive virtual realities experienced through a headset. For example, the immersive social environment VRChat is more than an illusion: you seem to be having a conversation with other people who inhabit colorful avatars, because you really are. Who says these experiences cannot be as authentic and important as the experiences that take place in physical reality?
The 2021 movie “Free Guy” does this well. Two of the film’s protagonists are non-player characters who live in a video game world. Upon discovering this fact, one asks the other, “Does this mean none of this is real?” The other replies, “I’m sitting here with my best friend, trying to help him through a rough time. If that’s not real, I don’t know what is.” This interaction touches on a fifth way of defining what is real: something is real if it is meaningful.
As a philosopher, I think the meaning of our lives is rooted in our consciousness. Humans are conscious and this gives us the ability to give meaning to the physical world. We can do the same with virtual reality. While an artificial city may not have the same meaning as one’s hometown, over time virtual worlds will take on a meaning of their own — meaning that comes from us.
All this does not mean that virtual reality will only be great. Like physical reality, digital worlds are full of loneliness and pain. And suffering in virtual reality is just as real and just as meaningful as suffering in physical reality.
In the future, we will spend even more time in online environments. We will work and play in digital worlds. We will communicate with friends and family and build new communities in virtual worlds. It matters whether we can gain authentic and meaningful experiences there. I think we can.
Because of this, it no longer makes sense to use “IRL” and “the real world” when talking about physical reality. Instead, we can talk about the physical world and contrast it with digital and virtual worlds. All these worlds can be real.
David Chalmers is a professor of philosophy and neural sciences at New York University and the author, most recently, of “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy.”