Book Note: David J. Chalmers’ “Reality +”

David J. Chalmers, Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (W.W. Norton, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

I’ve been intrigued by some form of simulation theory since I saw The Matrix a couple of decades ago. When I introduce Hinduism to my students, I connect simulation theory to the concept of “Brahman,” the name of existence itself, of which all of us are part. For many Indian philosophers, everything and everyone is Brahman since everything participates in “existence”. When Brahman is personified, questions can be asked as to why there is difference if all of us are ultimately the same thing: lila and maya. Lila is “divine play” where Brahman “decides” to experience endless realities as a way of “enjoying” all the different perspectives that all of us create. Maya is the negative illusion that we’re individuals. Our stress and anxiety come from the false separation of “I” from everything else. So, lila and maya are two sides of the same coin. In order to enjoy our experience of reality, and for Brahman to have that experience, we must believe we are individuals, unique and distinct from the whole of reality in some way. But that sense of self, that illusion, also leads to our own entrapment in samsara, cycling through almost endless lives, until we can realize our oneness with Brahman, releasing ourselves from the illusion of distinction, and merging back into the whole. This is called “moksha”.

Hinduism is said to be “monistic” as in there isn’t one “god” like the popular forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but just one “thing” or one “reality”. Again, that reality is Brahman.

Why do I connect this to simulation theory? Well, simulation theory asks whether or not we are in a simulation and if we could know if we were in one. I push my students to consider the possibility that we are in a simulation, or that we are emanations of Brahman, and then ask them whether discovering that we are simulated or emanated would change how they view themselves and their lives. Since many of my students have been raised in homes where Christianity is practiced, or where Christianity is the unspoken influence, they tend to think of themselves as creations distinct from a Creator—creations with a unique, eternal soul that will never lose its distinction. For these students, the concept of Brahman, and simulation theory, can be unnerving. For students who tend to be more naturalistic, who already see themselves as material beings emerging from a material world to which their bodies will return when they die, neither Brahman nor simulation theory causes much unease.

David J. Chalmers, one of the foremost philosophers in the area of the study of mind, has written a wonderful book titled Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problem of Philosophy that deals a lot with simulation theory. When I’ve told people about the book, some of them say something like, “I can’t imagine reading a whole book on that topic.” But it isn’t about simulation theory only, just like when I teach my students about simulation theory, I’m really trying to help them conceptualize Indian concepts of Brahman. The book uses simulation theory as a gateway to many of the fascinating “problems of philosophy,” as the subtitle suggests. Chalmers has chapters on epistemology, ontology, and ethics that all use virtual worlds as thought experiments. When we ask whether we can know if we’re in a simulation, we’re jumping into a conversation about how we can know what we know or if we can really know anything (and what we mean by the word “know”). When we consider simulation theory, we’re asking what is “real”. It physics the only “real” world. Is our perceptions “real” or completely constructed. And when we consider what it would be like to see sentient life emerge in a simulation—whether we are the created or the creator—it forces us to consider our own ethical paradigms around how we treat other minds.

For this reason, the book can serve not only as a niche study of virtual worlds and how we should consider them—whether that be wearing an Oculus, enjoying whatever Meta is creating, or participating in Second Life—but it can serve as a general introduction to many of the problems that philosophers have been addressing and will continue to address. Also, the illustrations found throughout the book are excellent which makes the book all that more effective at teaching difficult philosophical concepts.

Book Note: “Philosophy’s Big Questions” edited by Steven M Emmanuel

Philosophy’s Big Questions: Comparing Buddhist and Western Approaches edited by Steven M. Emmanuel (Columbia University Press, 2021).

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Philosophy’s Big Questions: Comparing Buddhists and Western Approaches, edited by Steven M. Emmanuel, contains eight essays that each do what the title suggests: examine one of philosophy’s big questions through the lens of “Western” philosophy in dialogue with Buddhist philosophy. These essays cover topics ranging from epistemology (e.g. Chapter 2: “What Is Knowledge? Knowledge in the Context of Buddhist Thought” by Douglas Duckworth) to ontology (Chapter 3: “Does Reality Have a Ground: Madhyamaka and Nonfoundationalism” by Jan Westerhoff) to ethics (e.g. Chapter 7: “How Much Is Enough? Greed, Prosperity, and the Economic Problem of Happiness: A Comparative Perspective” by Emmanuel; Chapter 8: “What Do We Owe Future Generations? Compassion and Future Generations: A Buddhist Contribution to an Ethics of Global Interdependence” by Peter D. Hershock). There’s a mix of theoretical-leaning essays (e.g. Chapter 4: “Can Consciousness Be Explained? Buddhist Idealism and the ‘Hard Problem’ in Philosophy of Mind” by Dan Arnold) with practical-leaning ones (e.g. Chapter 1: “How Should We Live? Happiness, Human Flourishing, and the Good Human Life” by Stephen J. Laumakis).

The reader will encounter the conflict of similarity and dissimilarity. By this I mean, that sometimes “Western” philosophy seems worlds away from what Buddhist thinkers have suggested—for example, Hershock’s discussion of the “Bodhissatva” figure in Mahayana Buddhism— while at other times it seems like they arrived at similar places from different directions—for example, Laumakis’ discussion that also cites ancient Greek philosophers or Arnold’s essay that engages the work of philosophers like David J. Chalmers while speaking of the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” (anatta) in a way that resonates with view of Daniel Dennett and others that our “consciousness” is just an illusion.

On a side note: one thing I really appreciate about this book is that it answers the call of those like Bryan Van Norden who have challenged philosophers to look beyond the Western canon. This volume definitely accomplishes that objective!

Book Note: Bruce Chilton’s “The Herods”

Bruce Chilton, The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021). (Amazon; Bookshop)

If you’ve ever read Tom Hollands’ histories/historical fiction (e.g. Rubicon; Persian Fire), or Anthony Everitt’s (e.g. Cicero; Augustus), you’ll have a sense of what to expect from Bruce Chilton’s new book The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession. You trust their scholarship, and you know they take their methodologies seriously, but when you read their books they’re more like a novel. I may be forgetting but I can’t remember when Holland or Everitt stop to try and prove their interpretations (it’s been a while since I’ve read those books though, so maybe I’m mistaken). Instead, the reader can search endnotes if they’d like to know how a decision was made to tell the story the way it was told.

So, with this stated upfront, The Herods is a wonderful book. It’s extremely readable. It introduces you to major figures at a pace where you can remember who’s who, which can be notoriously difficult with the family tree of Herod the Great. If you can read this book without obsessing too much over whether he trusts his primary ancient source, Josephus, too much, then it’s worth your time. But be aware that Chilton will get creative in his interpretation, like when he presents Jesus’ “temple-cleansing” as less an individual act (which is how I’ve always read the Gospels) and more a mob act of which Jesus was part, which included several hundred followers, and involved Barabbas:

“Jesus’ incursion into the temple was bold, prophetic, and necessarily violent because the outer court of the temple was vast, amounting to some twenty acres, and clearing it of merchants devoted to trade, their animals, and their associated equipment required several hundred sympathetic, able-bodied, and motivated followers. One of them, Barabbas, even killed someone during the melee (according to Mark 15:7).”

p. 168

I’m not saying that this is an impossible interpretation of the gospels, but it would be a contested one, for sure. And that’s the nature of this type of history. A decision is made to tell the story “as it happened,” even when we’re not sure about this or that, because the genre, and the necessity of readability, demands this sort of oversimplified presentation.

I recommend the book for anyone interested in Second Temple Judaism, Jesus of Nazareth, incipient Christianity, and related subjects.