MUDs, Metaphysics, and Virtual Reality

by Wesley Cooper

The University of Alberta


I study MUDs both as exemplars of postmodern culture and as evidence for a postmodern or 'irrealist' philosophical thesis according to which there is nothing external to our representations. I explain why the case for irrealism is not compelling, but I also defend a neo-Platonic contrast between the value-laden Real world and the natural Actual world, which captures the reality in virtual reality, in particular the virtual realities we call MUDs. I interpret MUDs as something more than 'just a game', specifically as a new art form, with the same credentials that modernist aestheticians would want to reserve for traditional art forms. I track the modernism/postmodernism distinction that Sherry Turkle uses in her book on MUDs, as well as the roots of that distinction in Fredric Jameson's work. I consider a modernist objection, Mark Slouka's, that MUDs are an escape from reality, and by way of replying to it I explore the idea that MUDs are 'ways of world making', just as real in their own way as other conceptions of reality, including what common sense takes to be the real world. I ultimately reject this irrealist defense of MUDs in favour of the realist view that we live in one world of which, and in which, there are many conceptions. But as communities MUDs have values that focus their activities, and these intersubjective values shared by the players can be understood as the 'reality' of their worlds and of themselves qua explorers of the world and its focal values.


Cyberphilosophy,^1^ or the philosophy of computers, is a branch of the philosophy of technology which attempts to understand the computer revolution in all its manifestations, from the technical innovations of pioneers such as Alan Turing and John von Neumann, to philosophical issues about the nature of intelligence and life, to new social, legal, and political issues raised by the pervasiveness of computers in our lives. (These latter issues are often classified under the rubric of computing ethics.) Cyberphilosophy is entwined with philosophy of culture, since any plausible philosophy of technology must be Marxist at least to the extent that it acknowledges the fact that technology, and forces of production generally, strongly condition culture, and social superstructure generally. Implicit in my argument then will be the hypothesis that virtual reality technology, and MUDs in particular, are among the engines that drive postmodern culture. I will be tracing a connection between computer technology and postmodern culture, and I will be arguing that some of the paradigmatic computer artifacts of this culture are comparable to traditional art forms as ways of world-making. However, I will be emphasizing that this status does not undercut the idea that we live in one world, ultimately a world external to our representations.

Sherry Turkle is one of the few to explore the full terrain of cyberphilosophy, especially in her Life On The Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, where she returns continually to the Internet phenomenon of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) in order to illustrate and document her ideas about how the computer revolution is changing our thinking about personal identity, the nature of mind and community, and the difference between appearance and reality. I will be traversing some of the same ground in this essay, but without ethnographical case studies of the sort she employs so skillfully, and with more concern to separate philosophical issues from characterization of contemporary culture. Not trained as a sociologist, I will be pursuing a more abstract philosophical argument, focusing on the topic of appearance and reality, setting up an issue between modernists who theorize a reality underlying appearances, and postmodernists who challenge such theories, holding that there are only many appearances, a multiplicity of "texts". I will also use the broader terms realist and irrealist to characterize these positions, so that I can call Plato a realist, for defending a transcendent world of immutable and immaterial essences or 'forms' hidden beneath the chaotic flux of sensory appearances, without describing him as a modernist, a term which seems anachronistic in application to a philosopher who flourished over two thousand years ago.

One of Turkle's major themes in Life on the Screen is the relationship between `the screen', that is to say the networked computer, and postmodernism, the former and the computer revolution generally being viewed as exemplary of a shift, in the past few decades, from the modernism of the past hundred years or so to the postmodern culture of the present. The special interest of MUDs, for her, is that they are a striking artifact of postmodern culture, just as Wallace Stevens's poems or Wagner's operas are, in different ways, exemplars of modernism. The larger cultural shift is recapitulated in the transition from the early years of the computer revolution, in which a 'culture of calculation' was dominant in a small sub-culture of programmers, when expertise in computing was mainly demonstrated in vertical understanding, mastery of a computer from its highest levels of programming 'down' to its lowest, machine-language operations. The transition that we are passing through, in these later years, involves a much larger social group, including previously excluded humanists, women, and children, constituting a 'culture of simulation' in which the meaning of expertise has shifted to horizontal understanding of a particular high-level application, such as a word-processor, a graphical image manipulation program, or a complex game like DOOM or a MUD.

The culture of calculation has given way to a culture of simulation, in which deep knowledge of the 'inside' of the computer is less important than expertise with an application running on it, and, more broadly, modernist concern with a thing's inner or authentic essence has given way to acceptance of things at 'interface value'. Within artificial intelligence, the cleft between modernism and postmodernism is played out as competition between a 'reductionist' research paradigm in which intelligence is a matter of a computer's running the right program (GOFAI, or Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence), and an 'emergentist' paradigm in which it is a matter of massively parallel, distributed, sub-symbolic information processing (connectionism). In psychology, the centred self typified by the bourgeois of the modern era, stabilized in a life-long career and family relationships and a few enduring social roles to play out, is replaced by the 'decentred self' who churns through a much more complex social world without the old stabilizing features, perhaps becoming 'fragmented' in the process of coping, perhaps playfully accepting the chaos and not caring about the lost depth of the centred self and its abiding social relationships.

Turkle's modernism/postmodernismdistinction
A culture of calculation A culture of simulation
Seek reality beneath appearances Accept appearances at face value
Outer a sign of inner Take things at 'interface value'
Vertical understanding Horizontal understanding
Reductionist/Symbolic AI (GOFAI) Emergentist/Sub-Symbolic AI
The self is 'centred' The self is 'decentred'
Focal value of depth Focal value of playfulness

Turkle draws on a more encompassing study of postmodernism conducted by Fredric Jameson, for instance in Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. It will be helpful to put Turkle's modernism/postmodernism distinction in the light of Jameson's conception of postmodernism, in order to set the stage for a philosophical `showdown' between modernism and postmodernism. There is a great deal going on in Jameson's subtle and sprawling theorizing, and much more than I can hope to address. I will be content to give a thumbnail sense for what he is doing, especially so as to identify a certain point where plausible characterization of culture may tip over into false philosophy. I may as well say straightway what I think this point is: It is what Jameson calls 'the acculturation of the Real' in postmodern culture, which immerses us in representations to such an extent that the world external to them is lost. The tipping over occurs when this loss is glossed as the philosophical discovery that there is nothing--no reality, no world--external to our representations. I will show how Nelson Goodman's account in Ways of World-Making applies just this gloss, and then I will argue that it presupposes a false view of the relationship between representations and what they represent. But finally I will recommend a distinction between Reality and Actuality which might be presented as a form of philosophical postmodernism, for its positive interpretation of 'the acculturation of the Real'.

Jameson announces in the opening paragraph of Postmodernism that "postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good," because there has been an immense dilation of culture's sphere, and it, culture, has become an inescapable second nature.~\cite[page ix]{fj:pm Nature is no longer visible to postmodern consciousness, which isn't even looking, but instead is textualizing the world, moving laterally through its representations rather than looking through them to 'nature itself', 'the thing itself'. The modernization process has exhausted the potential for the search for meaning in the depth of the soul, in great works of art, and so forth, setting the stage for an era, the postmodern era, when it is a condition of success for art that it resists interpretation as having this meaning or that, and when the very notion of depth, in personhood as well as in art and elsewhere, gives way to a culture which orients itself toward the superficiality of images.

Some elements of Jameson's conception of postmodernism:

  • The acculturation of the Real: Culture is inescapable, nature is gone for good.
  • The end of the 'work of art' and the arrival of the text
  • Effacement of the high culture/commercial culture difference
  • Culture as having a constitutive relationship to the new digital technology
  • Depthlessness and superficiality
  • The 'death' of the subject itself, the autonomous bourgeois monad or ego
  • Video, including television and computer, as the predominant medium
  • Resistance to meaning and interpretation

One striking new source of such images is the on-line virtual reality, specifically MUDs. The idea of virtual reality is becoming a staple of popular culture, and it is being approximately realized, not only in research laboratories but also in the lives of those who participate in on-line virtual realities, especially the young people whom Mark Slouka, borrowing from Allucquere Rosanne Stone, has called computerjugen. What are we to make of this large-scale tinkering with the human mind and its time-tested orbit? What should those of us in RL make of the dizzying proliferation (and ever-increasing sophistication) of cyberspace communities-the so-called MUDs and MOOs and MUSHes? Or of the fact that an entire generation of computerjugen is now spending its leisure time in electronically generated space, experiencing what cyberspace theorists like to call "lucid dreaming in an awake state"? Or that cyberization--the movement to animate everyday objects in order to make them more responsive to our needs--is making rapid progress? In a word, how seriously should we be taking all this? (Slouka, 1995) Slouka wants us to take all this very seriously, so much so in fact that he compares the computerjugen and other "cyberists" to Hitler, accusing them of mounting "stunning attacks on what we might loosely call humanist values", and not only that but "an attack on reality as human beings have always known it".^2^

Buried underneath this overheated rhetoric there there are philosophical issues to rescue, specifically a pair of related issues about the nature of reality and the fact/value distinction. Plato, to whom all subsequent philosophy is a footnote, according to Alfred North Whitehead's sense of the history of ideas, famously denied the reality of everything pertaining to sense experience, arguing rather that only the eternal and immutable Forms were real, such as the Forms of Goodness, Justice, Truth, and Beauty; and the rest, including even good or just or true or beautiful sensory things, were at best a pale approximation of the Forms. (Are text-based MUDs Platonic, because they substitute abstract concepts for their sensory referents?) Plato is also notable for ignoring the separation of facts and values that modern philosophy insists upon, the Form of the Good being as real and objective as can be, and immeasurably more real than the objects of sense experience. What we call natural science, or more broadly empirical science, is directed away from reality, by Platonic lights.

I want to arrive at a neo-Platonic interpretation of MUDs, which associates them with a value-laden conception of reality. I call this interpretation neo-Platonic rather than Platonic, because Plato, as in his 'Divided Line' analogy, likened the empirical world, the world that our natural sciences study as well as the world of common-sense sense experience, to illusion. I think that is a mistake. I want my neo-Platonic Reality to depend on the Actuality inhabited by common sense and theorized by our sciences. But in order to present this neo-Platonism properly I must loosen the grip of a postmodern philosophical interpretation of our representations, by which I mean an interpretation which construes representation as ultimately confounding any philosophical conception of a reality underlying appearances, a construal which might cite MUDs as though waving a flag, the construction of virtual reality serving as a symbol for the idea that it's construction all the way down, the so-called external world being just another construction, another "text".

I do not mean to deny that MUDs are postmodern in their playfulness, or in their reveling in appearances and representations, or in their egalitarian populism. It is only the philosophical conceit that I question, and to emphasize this I will often call it, as I indicated at the outset, by the more specific name of irrealism, the denial that there is a reality external to our texts, narratives, symbols, words, images, and so forth; I will use the word representations to cover this family of terms. I hope to arrive at a position between Slouka's and the postmodernist's. There is a reality underlying our representations of it, as Slouka maintains, but equally our conceptions of reality are expressive of our values, as the postmodernist holds. We need a more subtle conception of reality than Slouka presupposes. A primitivist about reality (akin to Jean-Jacques Rousseau), he tends to assimilate the real to the natural, as though to live in a city, spending much of one's time among representations (books, newspapers, radio voices and television images, and so forth), were to be less close to reality than a camper who devotes emself to hewing wood.^3^ But being close to nature, like the camper, doesn't yield metaphysical rewards; being closer to nature isn't the same as being closer to reality.

The postmodern insight is that, for better or worse, human beings are symbolic creatures whose natural habitat is a culture that puts them at a great distance from primitive nature. Nature for us is something conceptualized, sometimes in Slouka's romantic, Rousseauian fashion. Unlike butterflies, we do not simply interact with it causally. But it is certainly independent of our minds (external to our representations), however much our conceptualizations give it this or that conceptual coloring. This is as true of our technological artifacts as it is of primitive nature. The former is different because it would not exist, as a technology, if we hadn't created it, but at bottom it is made up of brute physical stuff, the stuff of primitive nature, whether electricity or the atoms that make up plastic (and so forth). So we need, what the postmodernist denies, a sense of our value-impregnated representations as representations of something external to them, however dizzyingly complex and abstract our cultural and technological achievements become.^4^ I will turn next, however, to a powerful attempt to avoid this conclusion.

There is a vital difference between philosophical and cultural levels of discourse about modernism and postmodernism. In my critique of Goodman's irrealism I am understanding it as a philosophical thesis which denies the existence of a world external to our various representations, and frames of representation; it is philosophical postmodernism. Its namesake at the cultural level would criticize privileged frames of representation such as those of the sciences, and call into question the special power and authority of those who occupy important roles in the social institutions devotes to those frames, such as academic institutions, government funding agencies, and the like.

You needn't be a philosophical modernist or postmodernist holus bolus. For instance, you might be convinced by the philosophical case for a modernist view of science, while being sceptical of modernist aesthetic standards.

It is possible to be a modernist at the philosophical level and a postmodernist at the cultural level (and conversely) with respect to the same `topic', such as science or art. For instance, you might accept that the natural sciences describe a world external to our representations, while accepting a postmodernist critique of the concentration of power and authority in the sciences. Or to take another example, you might hold modernist aesthetic standards, which valorize work which has deep meaning, while interpreting our postmodern culture as characterized by an aesthetic that rejects such standards.

Cooper's Meta-principles about the modernism/postmodernism distinction

  • Distinguish philosophical from cultural modernism/postmodernism.
  • Philosophical modernism/postmodernism doesn't entail its cultural counterpart.
  • Cultural modernism/postmodernism doesn't entail its philosophical counterpart.
  • It is possible to combine modernist and postmodernist tenets.


Postmodern thinking has challenged the traditional notion that there is a reality underlying appearances, and in particular it has challenged the valorization of science in this respect and others, questioning the political power that the scientific community wields in virtue of its claimed access to reality. There is nothing outside of texts, as Derrida's mot has it. "Il n'y a pas de `hors texte'.") Perhaps the strongest philosophical argument for this challenge has come from Nelson Goodman's Ways Of Worldmaking. I will begin by considering the case he makes for a plurality of worlds, and raise the question whether MUDs and other "virtual realities" meet his criteria for being among the ways of making worlds. I will argue that they do meet them, but then I will mention some reasons to be skeptical about those criteria and the general idea of a plurality of worlds. Then I will frame a hypothesis that mediates between the modernist idea that we live in one world and the postmodern idea that there are a plurality of them. MUD virtual realities prove helpful in this mediation.

MUDs have populated the Net by the hundreds over the past twenty years, and, as Sherry Turkle has documented in Life on the Screen, members of the sub-culture that surrounds them are often inclined to think of MUD-worlds as real, sometimes citing the "mind-to-mind" aspect of synchronous communication, the construction of a virtual geography and virtual physics that free the imagination while enforcing world-like constraints, and the other trappings of virtual reality. In itself this might be dismissed as a feature of an insignificant sect, but it dovetails with the emergence over the last few decades of a broader postmodern culture that calls into question the pursuit of a reality underlying appearances, a world external to our representations, narrative, texts, etc. Neither philosophy nor science, on this view, has the power to disclose foundations which would nullify the claims to reality that other narratives might make; in particular, the MUD way of world-making cannot be dismissed because it lacks features that philosophers or scientists or men-in-the-street associate with reality. One of my aims here is to severe this connection between virtual reality and postmodern skepticism about a world external to our representations.

We postmoderns take things at "interface value," as Turkle writes in her ethnography of our times. If it quacks like a duck, it's a duck; if the program Depression 2.0 gives therapeutically beneficial results, it is a psychoanalyst and a veritable "psychological being"; if a computer passes the Turing test, it's intelligent; if a MUD world seems real, it's real. Questions about an underlying reality are elided, a chaos of appearances is valorized. If this posture seems less than serious to a modernist sensibility, that suits the playful spirit of the postmodernist, who associates such seriousness with elitism and invidious hierarchy and is content to "deconstruct" appeals to reason, science, and philosophical foundations.

I won't be taking up the question whether such ideas are obfuscating or liberating. Instead, I will be focusing on a set of philosophical arguments, drawing on Nelson Goodman's work, that lends support to them, and another set, drawing on John Searle's work, that tends to undermine them. My intent here is, first, to highlight a level of discourse where argumentation about the truth is central rather than immersion in (or reaction against) the trends of the moment. The truth at stake is truth about the reality of worlds in cyberspace. No amount of sociological, ethnographical, or other social-scientific description broaches this issue, or at any rate a philosophical defense is needed for the inference from "This culture treats such-and-such as real" to "Such-and-such is real." Second, I hope to provide a resolution of the dispute between modernist skeptics and postmodern enthusiasts about "virtual reality." This requires an expanded notion of "the nature of reality," one which blurs the neat distinction between normative and metaphysical issues. As indicated earlier, I will arrive at a distinction between Actuality, which is disclosed by the empirical sciences, and Reality, which has somewhat Platonic features.

Let me begin by responding to the objection that talk about a MUD virtual reality is a contradiction in terms. After paying it homage here, I shall ignore Harold Rheingold's distinction between "virtual reality" and "textual reality," which reserves the former term for the sort of multi-sensory immersive experience depicted in movies likeThe Lawnmower Man and aimed at by research programs with data-gloves and eye-phones, like Jaron Lanier's work, the man who gave us data-gloves and eye-phones. (Woolley, 1992) A better approach is to think of virtual reality as a genus, with sense-oriented or immersive virtual realities making up one genus, and textually-oriented ones making up a second genus. On this account, it is a mistake to think of textual VR as an early stage in the development of sensory VR, just as it would be a mistake to think of books as anticipation of cinema. Even those who are officially committed to the narrower conception of virtual reality, tying it to the technology of head-mounted displays and datagloves or their equivalents, define VR in terms that fail to exclude MUDs. For instance, Ralph Schroeder defines virtual reality in Possible Worlds: The Social Dynamics of Virtual Reality Technology as "a computer-generated display that allows or compels the user (or users) to have a feeling of being present in an environment other than the one that they are actually in and to interact with that environment." (Schroeder, 1996) The textual character of most MUDs is no bar to their being virtual realities, for they typically do create an illusive sense of being in a place other than one's body's location and interacting with people and things in that environment, just as Schroeder's definition demands. Virtual reality in Rheingold's sense would enhance the illusion enormously in a certain direction, though it will still be a matter of taste whether one prefers the quality of this sort of illusion or the sort generated by textual VR (just as similar matters of taste will distinguish bibliophiles from cineasts). In any event, MUD virtual realities have already planted the seed of the metaphysical issue. We do not have to keep our mind's eye trained on the Startrek holodek, like Michael Heim inThe Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, to grapple with the fundamental issue. He argues that the "ethos" or ultimate purpose of MUDs and other virtual realities is the holodeck, a seamless simulation of ordinary experience; and, fearful of this, he proposes legislation and self-help proposals to avoid such a fate. I am skeptical about the legislation. Although self-help is always good, why should we prepare ourselves against a patently unlikely scenario, instead of simply rejecting the "ethos" argument that demands that we should? Why don't the virtual realities that we are currently beginning to build constitute a "way of world making" with its own integrity, without reference to the standard set by Startrek's holodeck or, for that matter, the so-called real world?

Thinking that these questions have force, I will explore the best philosophical defense of them that I know of. Then I will counter that defense, and finally offer a Platonic resolution.


There is a tradition in modern philosophy, which I will give reasons to resist, that begins with Kant's Copernican Revolution, exchanging questions about the structure of the world for questions about the structure of the mind. Subsequent philosophers, less certain than Kant about there being any such single structure of the mind, exchanged it for the structure of concepts. And now that tradition is proceeding to exchange the structure of concepts for the structure of symbol systems. These symbol systems in science, philosophy, art, perception, and everyday discourse create a multiplicity of worlds, none of them "the right one," no unique truth of the matter. So the metaphysical issue raised by MUDs is: Are MUD worlds the newest members of this ecumenical multiplicity?

The issue is not whether there are possible alternatives to a single actual world; the point is, rather that there are many 'actual' worlds, not just one. Goodman cautions, Let it be clear that the question here is not of the possible worlds that many of my contemporaries, especially those near Disneyland, are busy making and manipulating. We are not speaking in terms of multiple possible alternatives to a single actual world but of multiple actual worlds. (Goodman, 1978) By 'multiple actual worlds' Goodman does not mean simply that there is a variety of what anthropologists might call life-worlds, since acknowledgement of anthropological facts about how things appear to different cultures is consistent with robust philosophical realism about the external world: We live in one world, a world which is external to our life-worlds and which is ultimately the ground of our having any such life-worlds. (There are many scientific realists who would make this claim, holding that the natural sciences describe the external world. The Goodmanian response is to deny that the sciences have this privileged position; they are cultures within a broader set of cultures. Goodman's irrealism goes beyond the anthropological facts about cultures, arguing in effect that there is nothing external to those cultures: they are different ways of world-making, including the ways characteristic of the arts and sciences.

What Goodman means by the reference to Disneyland, I think, is that Disneyland and its like simply mimic this or that aspect of the world of common sense, the so-called real world, whereas the philosophically interesting creativity is exercised by different cultures, including those in the arts and sciences, which create {constructive visions, as I shall call them, possessing powers and insights comparable to those that are enshrined in common sense's vision. Painters like Picasso, composers like Bach, and novelists like Dickens have their own 'languages', capable of parsings through paint, notes, and words, such that the author's vision can be extended and revised in systematic and principled ways, elements added or deleted so as better to express the vision, weighting or emphasizing aspects of things in accordance with the vision, and so forth. (Goodman's complete list of such criteria for world-making will be laid out shortly.) By contrast, additions to Disneyland have the character, rather, of being slapped together with what was there previously, like mud added to a mud-pie. (Some MUDs are like mud-pies in this respect, but not all.) Disneylands lack a distinctive, articulate 'language' for constructing a vision.

I want to suggest that the irrealist should accept that MUDs are capable of constructive vision, on the grounds that they are sufficiently similar to a recognized art form which is a source of ways of world-making, namely: opera. In many ways MUDs and opera are different, notably in the fact that the latter has an author and the former does not; insofar as the concept of an author has any application at all to MUDs, there are many authors, and there is no distance between author and audience, their being essentially one and the same. But just as nineteenth century opera is a landmark of modernist aesthetics, nascent virtual realities, such as MUDs, are beginning to define twenty-first century successors to opera, which will be landmarks of postmodern aesthetics as well as a definitive art form for postmodern culture.

Despite the differences between opera and MUD virtual realities from the point of view of aesthetic theory, there are sufficiently significant similarities that the following argument goes through: "Operas like those of Richard Wagner count as worlds and Wagner's creativity counts as a way of world-making, by Goodmanian lights; but MUDs are like opera in the respects that figure in making such judgments; so MUDs are worlds, and the creativity of their makers counts as a way of world-making." Like novels, paintings, and symphonies, operas afford artists the material to make worlds by Goodman's criteria, and they are strikingly similar to MUDs.

The operatic singer has an "operatic frame of reference" toward the stage, viewing it perhaps as an Italian village square. And this frame of reference is different from various other frames of reference, such as the janitor in the playhouse whose frame reveals a stage populated by quaintly dressed, vocally aggressive people; this is not to mention the theist and the atheist, the Aristotelian and the Newtonian, and the myriads of other users of frames of reference that count as actualities. Surely one can speak in Goodman's sense of Wagner's way of world-making, even if there are reasons to reject Disney's way or world-making in favor of classifying his endeavor as a way of creating amusements or diversions. But then, by parity of reasoning, MUDs should be classified on the world-making side of this dichotomy. One should not be misled by the fact that both MUDs and Disneyland pretend to be worlds that one might actually live in, whereas there is no such pretense in the worlds of Matisse and Mahler, say. Such pretense can't be used to exclude MUDs, because opera, not to mention literature and film, create comparable pretenses. Categorization should be determined rather by constructive vision.

Bear in mind that the tradition countenances only frames of reference, as opposed to a single actual world that they are all about. It will be asked: "How could you tell me about the world apart from some frame of reference? You can't; you must use this frame or that. So our so-called `world' consists of these ways, and there is a multiplicity of them." Granting this point arguendo, it seems that MUDs and operas meet the entry conditions for the list of "ways." They are among the actual worlds.

Assuming that the conservative irrealist doesn't want this result, consider a different tack. Perhaps we should concentrate on entry-conditions rather than conditions that defeat entry onto the list of actual worlds. In Ways of Worldmaking Nelson Goodman helpfully mentions five processes that go into "worldmaking." He is trying to identify what it is about "worlds," such as the world of "the man on the street" (as Goodman puts it) but also Picasso's world and Dickens's world, that sets them apart from games like chess or Doom and amusements like Disneyland. The general idea is that these processes are at work in the way of world-making that the common person or the scientist thinks of as the real world, but they are also at work in the way that artists and musicians create worlds; and consequently there are no grounds for prioritizing them, with the common person's or the physicist's way being constitutive of reality while the others are viewed as supervenient appearances. The scientist's way of world-making facilitates prediction, but the artist and the musician have their own excellences. Goodman thinks that what they have in common should be emphasized, namely the processes below, rather than the alleged fundamentality of the scientific way, or the ordinary person's way.

Goodman's criteria for ways of world making

  • Composition and Decomposition: A way of world making involves the power to put together and take apart, in some characteristic manner, whether it be the manner of particle physics or biology, Bach's music or Cezanne's paitings.
  • Weighting: A way of world making leads those who enter into it to emphasize and accent things in the world in a characteristic manner.
  • Ordering: A way of work making enforces characteristic ways of ordering experience, as the common-sense way of making words orders time by division into twenty-four hours, as music orders through sounds and silences, and so forth.
  • Deletion and Supplementation: A way of world making allows its author or authors to add or remove things from the world in a characteristic way.
  • Deformation: A way of world-making distorts things in a characteristic, revelatory manner, whether it be simplification of experience that scientists engage in when they wield Occam's Razor ('Do not multiply entities beyond necessity') or the distortions of pointillism or expressionism in painting.

MUD worlds are complex structures, not just because of their source code, but also because of the computation added by the players (sometimes, but not necessarily this code goes into the source code), and because of the multi-user dimension of the worlds, which enables all sorts of game-playing and social interaction. If we think of these worlds as communally constructed works of art, they satisfy Goodman's criteria with as much certainty as the traditional, individualistic works of art, like those of Dickens, Bach, Picasso, and Wagner, that he wants to defend as 'ways of worldmaking'.

With regard to composition and decomposition, much worldmaking consists of taking apart and putting together, normally assisted by the application of labels such as names, predicates, and so forth. A symbol system can bring temporally diverse elements together in a name, such as yours or mine, or take apart what I might call snow, without internal differentiation, into another's elaborate classification of differences. Worlds can be too heterogenous or too monotonous, furthermore, depending on how things are sorted into kinds. Regularities in nature do not belong to "the structure of the world," but rather presuppose a notational system that makes certain kinds salient and others not. In this way, as Goodman says, the uniformity of nature we marvel at or the unreliability we protest belongs to a world of our own making. That is, the world that science discloses is only one of many worlds, marked by a particular way of classifying things as belonging to the same or different kinds.

The question is, do MUD worlds exhibit composition and decomposition? And clearly they do. Their frames of reference enable composition or "entification" just as dramatically as the frame of everyday discourse. MUDs' character names, for instance, are closely analogous to the names of RL people in this regard, organizing an otherwise arbitrary set of TCP/IP connections into the history of a single character. And their frames enable decomposition too, for instance, in the creation of various player classes, so that a newbie's conception of a "player" in the MUD can give way to a fine-grained conception of a programmer, a builder, a wizard or janitor, a member of a morphing player class, and so forth. The monotony of a minimal database with a single room and a single player contrasts with the excessive heterogeneity of a MUD world with no thematic control over the building of its players, resulting in a motley of mutually incoherent frames. In a well-governed MUD world, contrarily, patterns of time, weather, growth, and parameters to what's possible (virtual physics) will be chosen and enforced by the wizards of the MUD. The point deserves emphasis: composition and decomposition in a MUD context are at least as powerful a force as they are in science and everyday life, and probably more. Because of the fact that they are not bound by natural laws or "the facts of life," MUD worlds have immensely greater scope for experimentation with this way of world-making.

What about weighting? Different frames not only sort things into kinds differently, but they also differ in their emphases and accents. The theist's world will emphasize the God-given good in the world, the atheist the evil in it. Daumier's world will accent things differently than Michelangelo's. And so forth. But equally there are differences in emphasis between a MUD that emphasizes player-killing and one that emphasizes learning, or between a MUD that emphasizes socialization and one that emphasizes programming research. Even if the workers at Disneyland are pretty much locked into stereotypical modes of behavior and confronted with repetitive environmental contexts, this is plainly not true of players in MUDs.

What about ordering? Daily time's division into twenty-four hours, for instance, is not "found in the world" but, as Goodman emphasizes, built into a world. But just so for MUD worlds, which experiment in countless ways with time and space. In the splendid Legend MUD, for instance, players routinely exchange life in ancient Ireland for medieval Germany, and it for industrial London; and so forth for explorations inspired by serious historical research. And an example like this is a drop in the bucket. Very simply, there is enormous energy out there in cyberspace, coming both from computer-savvy hackers and literate (and computer-literate) digerati, and directed willy-nilly to ways of world-making. (I don't mean to deprecate their achievement--artists have always disclosed world willy-nilly; art lacks a Master Plan, and MUDs just go to show it.

What about deletion and supplementation? Making of one world out of another usually involves excision of some old and supply of some new material, thanks for instance to our capacity for overlooking things, expectations that supplement old fragments, the editing of memory, guidance by considerations of simplicity, psychological mechanisms like the "phi phenomenon" that supplement the perception of motion, and so forth. But these features are present with a vengeance in MUDs, in which textual cues must be profoundly supplemented by imagination, knowledge of conventions, and so forth in order to give rise to the "consensual illusion" of a MUD world.

And deformation? The physicist who smoothes out the simplest rough curve that fits all the data, and the artist like Picasso who distorts in a revelatory way, are contributing thereby to world-making. MUD worlds practice deformation in this sense too, creating a myriad of visions of different worlds within the both liberating and constraining materials that cyberspace makes available, comparable in this respect to the physical materials the natural scientist uses, the paints and brushes an artist employs, and so forth.

It seems that MUDs are meeting the irrealist's conditions for being ways of world-making. They belong on the list of "actual worlds." There is a 'language' of MUDs, ultimately derived from the source code but extended in world-defining ways by its players, that makes for constructive vision, implemented by processes like the five just outlined.

But doesn't the truth act as a filter on this list? The irrealist answer is that truth is often irrelevant, particularly for nonverbal frames or versions such as Mondrian's. As Goodman says, "A non-representational picture such as a Mondrian says nothing, denotes nothing, pictures nothing, and is neither true nor false, but shows much" (19). I think Goodman means that it shows much about "the actual world," according to Mondrian's lights, of course. But there is no separating the actual world from the various lights at our disposal, on the irrealist view; Mondrian's (actual) world is one of a multiplicity of actual worlds. As for verbal frames, there is none that uniquely tells the truth about reality, so seeking after "agreement with" or "correspondence to" reality is out of the question. Rather, Goodman says, "a version is taken to be true when it offends no unyielding beliefs and none of its own precepts" (17). So a theist can reconcile religion with science, for instance, by making sure that religion makes no commitment to predictions that science might present as "unyielding." (Construing religious creedal doctrines as myths or metaphors, in Tillichian fashion, is useful in this regard, as Richard Rorty [1997] has recently advocated. Should the doctrine seems to predict that the world will end tomorrow, theological hermeneutics should find a way of interpreting the apparent prediction as a metaphor for something "fuzzy" enough, as Rorty says, to make no testable factual claims.)

Goodman concedes that the man-in-the-street has a notion of there being one world, and he analyzes it as something "jerry-built from fragments of scientific and artistic tradition and from his own struggle for survival," and its reality as "largely a matter of habit," like his finding a picture realistic because of the conventions he takes granted (20). Analyzing the world of common sense by reference to mere habit, Goodman trivializes, deflates, or 'deconstructs' its claim to be THE world. All of this suggests two solutions to our original issue about whether MUD virtual realities are actual worlds. First, they would be real if our viewing them so became a matter of habit. Gibson's recent futuristic novel Idoru contains several such characters, and Sherry Turkle's sociological enquiry in Life on the Screen documents several cases of MUD players who seem to have acquired the requisite habits. (These cases are admittedly scary, but a future generation may have done enough deletion and supplementation of versions to lose this response.)

Second, and more importantly, MUDs are real worlds because they meet the irrealist's entry conditions and there is no real world that they fail to agree with or correspond to. The second solution is the more profound one, because irrealist argumentation makes no concessions to the man-in-the-street's jerry-built frame; it's just one version among many, and among the many are the MUDs. Putting aside the habit that favors the world of common sense or the world of science, MUD worlds belong to a plenitude of actual worlds and ways of world making.


At this point we have a fairly well-defined metaphysical issue about the reality of MUD worlds, and two irrealist solutions to it. It is time to hear from the realist, who need not and should not deny Goodman's point that all description is relative to a frame or version, but instead should ask:Why can't different symbol systems be about the same reality? A realist needn't assume that there is a unique vocabulary that cuts reality at the joints. Metric and Imperial measurement systems, for instance, can both truly purport to measure quantities in in a reality external to their symbols. It can be true both that this distance is a mile and that it is 1.6 kilometers. In this sense they both agree with, or correspond to, reality, even though they are both human creations and to that extent arbitrary. The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything," as William James famously said, but that is consistent with, and even logically entails, the proposition that there is something underneath the human serpent's trail".^5^

The Achilles' Heel of the irrealist argument, then, is the assumption that realism about a world external to our symbol systems requires that there should be a single vocabulary, uncontaminated by human constructivity, which vocabulary alone tells the truth about reality. The realist should deny this assumption. Like blind men feeling different parts of the same elephant, different symbol systems with their different emphases and accents, may all be about the same reality. Less colorfully, the same thing may be described in different ways, bestowing what Searle calls different "aspectual shapes" on the thing described, like those bestowed by metric and imperial measurement standards. So the fact that the man-in-the-street's system of symbols is "jerry-built" does not defeat its capacity to be about the real world, the same world described by the physicist, depicted by the photographer, painted by the artist, and so forth.

Is nature "lost", as Jameson writes? If it counts as losing nature to lack contact with it that is unmediated by representations, then nature has always been lost. Even before the proliferation of technologically enhanced representations figuring in the dilation of culture that Jameson reflects on, we represented nature in our desires and beliefs--one wanted to drink from this pool, one had a specific vision-informed belief about what a tree looked like, and so forth. And of course for a long time we have had words and paintings with which to represent nature. The fact that all our modes of representation, including psychological modes such as desire and belief, have aspectual shape is no reason to deny that they are about a world external to all representation. Representation bottoms out, in a brute physical world (though the vocabularies of our physical sciences have particular aspectual shapes). Construction of reality is a genuine phenomenon, and it's right to be impressed by how thick our constructions have become; but the construction does not go `all the way down', as the postmodern conceit would have it.

One of the underlying themes of this essay is that MUDs can be laboratories for philosophical reflection. In the case at hand, they lead us into a fundamental discussion between realists and irrealists. I have suggested that, although there may be a predisposition in our "postmodern culture" to favor the irrealist position, realists may have the better argument. The predisposition may also have something to do with the pervasive influence of the computer as a paradigm for understanding things, leading some to confuse computer simulations of human cognitive powers with the real thing, and, in the case at hand, to confuse simulations of reality with reality. A simulation is not a duplication, and a postmodern generation's taking things at "interface value" is not an argument for the things being that way. Artificial intelligence doesn't duplicate human intelligence because AI lacks the latter's pervasive feature, consciousness; and virtual realities don't duplicate reality, lacking its central feature, namely, its being independent of our minds. The MUD world is entirely constructed, entirely dependent on the minds of the programmers' code and the builders' words.

Artificial intelligences typically attempt to model this or that aspect of human behavioral competence but without consciousness, and virtual realities try to model this or that aspect of reality but without the physical properties of the real world. So ELIZA does more or less well at simulating a psychoanalyst, modeling some aspects of a Rogerian analyst's behavioral competence (especially non-directed questioning), and a MUD does more or less well at simulating nineteenth century London (etc.), modeling some aspects of the real London.

When Turkle coined the terms "the Julia effect" and "the ELIZA effect," she was interested in computer intelligence, but these effects can be extended and applied to virtual realities as well. The Julia effect occurs when the convenience of adopting "the intentional stance" toward a "smart" machine leads us to dispense with quotation marks and simply describe it as having desires and beliefs: "Our language seduces us to accept, indeed to exaggerate the "naturalessness" of machine intelligence." (101). The Julia effect also occurs when quotation marks come off "apple," "rape," "reality," and so on as they are used to describe a virtual apple, a virtual rape, and a virtual reality. The ELIZA effect, Turkle writes, "refers to our tendency to project our own complexity onto "the undeserving object," treating it as intelligent though it is not. (ELIZA simulates a conversation by having the computer hold up its end with a programmer's bag of syntactical pattern-matching tricks.) Extended to virtual reality, the ELIZA effect projects the complexity of our world onto the MUD "undeserving object."


Let the argument take another turn, an attempt at mediation between realist and irrealist evaluations of the claim to reality made on behalf of virtual worlds. Although denial of a mind-independent real world may be less plausible than affirmation of it, irrealism about social reality is still an option, and the claim that MUDs are virtual realities could be understood as their being social realities, constructed out of the materials made available by the Net. The realist demand that we live in one world, a world that is external to our symbolization of it, is consistent with the constructivist idea that we build social reality "on top of" the world that realism posits. Assume that the real world is the objectively physical world described by the natural sciences, and that a complex process of human beings and their technology operating on that world leads to computers being connected world-wide on the Net, allowing communities to supervene upon it as a complement to communities that arise out of geographical neighborhoods, for example. Although a virtual apple cannot nourish, a virtual community can support its members in a variety of ways, as Internet users have learned not only from MUDs but also from IRC, Usnet news groups, and other forms of virtual community. The virtual apple and other elements of the MUD's simulation of a world seem to promise more than virtual community, but this promise, if the realist argument is correct, cannot be sustained unless it simply means: "virtual community plus a world simulation" rather than "one of a multiplicity of actual worlds."

Although a virtual rape is not a rape,^6^ it can be a betrayal of the values that a virtual community builds itself around, and a humiliating insult to the player whose character is victimized. In this way it can be "rape-like." Unlike the virtual apple severed from connection to the physical world, A character is connected to a player (the typist) quite closely, the player speaking and being spoken to (emoting and being emoted to, etc.) through the character. The distinction between character and player may effectively reduce to zero, so that the player is just as much present as he or she is on the telephone. (This is especially common on educational MUDs, which typically dispense with the role-playing aspect.) In any case, the real-time causal source of the character's behavior on the MUD is the player, and this is is the key element that makes for virtual community, contrasting sharply with the virtual apple and other non-character objects in the MUD database, however much these may be livened up by programming.

Moderated claims for MUD virtual realities, construing them as virtual communities or virtual social realities, may be agreeable to both realists and irrealists. But the irrealist idea that they are among the "actual worlds" relies upon a dubious inference from conceptual relativity to denial that there is one world that is external to our representations of it.


Let the argument take one final turn in conclusion, beginning with a basically stipulative distinction between reality-in-the-descriptive-sense and reality-in-the-evaluative sense, or between Actuality and Reality.^7^

Actuality (or reality-in-the-descriptive-sense) is what exists external to our representations (conceptions, versions, etc.) of it. It is independent of our minds, in that it is logically capable of existing even if human beings and other sentient creatures were to disappear, or even if they had never existed. So the Earth belongs to Actuality, though the concept Earthdoes not. My jeep belongs to actuality, but only qua piece of metal with such-and-such physical dimensions; its status as my jeep is mind-dependent, dependent on the piece of metal counting among us twentieth-century car-users as a jeep).

Reality (or reality-in-the-evaluative-sense) is what has value. If it is better to be actual than to be fictional or merely possible, then Actuality is a species of Reality, in addition to having the properties that the natural sciences describe. Value in the sense of this definition is (I stipulate) not subjective, a matter of simply being desired by someone ("I value chocolate ice-cream."), but rather intersubjective, a matter of being accepted within a community as being good apart from whether it is subjectively good for a given person." Whether our intersubjective values, such as our moral values, are objective as well, perhaps written into the fabric of the universe as a Platonist might suppose, or at least binding on all rational agents, as a Kantian would hold, is a question we can leave open here. The immediately relevant point is that there is nothing about the various dimensions of Reality, from morality to Mondrian to MUDs, which blocks the idea that we live in one world, which is fundamentally Actual. The dimensions of Reality can be understood as causally emergent from the Actual, requiring specific cultural and technical conditions for access to them. (Morality requires education in our moral culture, Mondrian requires acculturation in the artworld, MUDs require Internet culture, and so forth.) Unlike mind-independent Actuality, which doesn't require a particular psychological or cultural perspective to be perceived, the mind-dependent dimensions of Reality require just that: the perspective of Internet culture and its enabling technology in the case of MUDs, and so forth for the other dimensions. (Someone who perceived only Actuality couldn't even perceive a bathtub, much less a MUD world, since a bathtub is a cultural artifact.)

Without pausing to answer delicate questions about how to individuate communities, I venture that for us there is value in knowledge, love, courage, honesty, intelligence, beauty, art, athleticism, faith, and so forth. Our Actual world is made more Real by the presence of these features, and a person is made so by possession of them. We sometimes speak this way, for what that's worth. We say things like, "She is a real human being," and we don't mean simply to describe her species or contrast her with fictional human beings; we are positively evaluating her in some way. It would not be an outrage against our linguistic intuitions to say that Mr. Bungle's player is less Real, as judged by the standards of the LM community, than those who adhere to its standards for its virtual citizenry.

Now how do virtual realities fare, on these definitions? They are not Actual, for they are constructed symbol systems and therefore mind-dependent. But they may be Real, and Real in as many ways as there are dimensions of intersubjective value. (One might, with Nozick, try to induce structure and hierarchy into these dimensions, assigning degrees of Reality according to a measure of the "depth" and "height" of a virtual reality's focal values.) An educational MUD would have a measure of Reality proportional to its realization of its educational values; a social MUD would be measured by its helping people to overcome loneliness, make friends, and expand their horizons; an adventure MUD would be measured by the intrigue of its quests, the wit of its descriptions, etc.; a corporate MUD would be measured by its adding to the profitability of the business or to the collegiality of the workplace, or whatever the corporate values happen to be; and so forth. For unfortunate people whose experience of the Actual world contains little Reality, a MUD world may be more Real than Actuality. This is one way of interpreting the following remark of one of Turkle's interviewees, while resisting its irrealist suggestion: "RL [real life] is just one more window, and it's not usually my best one" (13).


I have approached MUD virtual realities here as an object for philosophical reflection, taking up the metaphysical question of whether they are real worlds or not. I first followed an irrealist line of reasoning that supports the affirmative, then a realist one that supports the negative. Then I explored a compromise view which locates the reality of virtual realities in their being real communities. This led, finally, to the thought that MUDs might have greater or lesser degrees of Reality, depending on their success in achieving their focal values. We live in one world, fundamentally an Actual one, but with dimensions of Reality that open up in the course of physical, cultural, and technological evolution and development. MUD virtual realities belong to a dimension, sometimes called "cyberspace" or (synecdochically) "the Net", which computer technology has spawned. Like the ouevre of a young artist, it is in the early days of its development. And those who are participating in its development -- like the priests and monks who, when religion was a newer aspect of the human condition, opened up and explored the dimension of our spirituality-- are opening up and exploring this new dimension of Reality.

Let me conclude by responding to the dismissive claim that MUDS are just a game. First, a confessional note: I like games. Early in life I became devoted to chess; later I came to prefer Go; and these days MUDs (which often include implementations of chess and Go) strike me as especially admirable games. Especially in the light of the considerations to follow, it's not clear that being a game is a matter for deprecation.

Second, unlike most other games, they are capable of being ways of world-making, as I have argued here, comparable to the greatest of traditional art. Indeed, and thirdly, MUDs should be understood as harbingers of a new art form, the one Michael Heim has in mind when he writes,

Perhaps the essence of VR [virtual reality] lies not in technology but in art, perhaps art of the highest order. Rather than control or escape or entertain or communicate, the ultimate promise of may be to transform, to redeem our awareness of reality--something that the highest art has attempted to do and something hinted at in the very label virtual reality, a label that has stuck, despite all objections, and that sums up a century of technological innovation. VR promises not a better vacuum cleaner or a more engrossing communications medium or even a friendlier computer interface. It promises the Holy Grail.

We might learn something about the esoteric essence of VR by thinking about Richard Wagner's Parsifal. Wagner himself was searching for a Holodeck, though he did not know it. By the time he finished Parsifal, his final opera, Wagner no longer considered his work to be opera. He did not want it called opera or music or theater or even "art," and certainly not entertainment. By the time he finished his last work, Wagner realized he was trying to create another reality, one that would in turn transform ordinary reality. The term he came to use was "a total work of art," by which he meant a seamless union of vision, sound, movement, and drama that would sweep the viewer to another world, not to escape but to be changed. Nor could the viewer be a mere spectator. Wagner created a specially designed building in Bayreuth, Germany, well off the beaten track, where the audience would have to assemble after a long journey because he forbade the performance of Parsifal in any other building. The audience would have to prepare itself well ahead of time by studying the libretto, because Parsifal was long, mysterious, and full of complex, significant details. (Wagner's Ring cycle takes over fifteen hours to present a related myth.) Looking for the right terms to express his intent, Wagner called Parsifal "a festival play for consecrating the stage" (ein B\"{uhnenweihfestspiel). The Bayreuth theater would become the site for a solemn, nearly liturgical celebration. The myth maker would create a counter-reality, one reminiscent of the solemn mass of the Catholic church, which appeals to all the senses with its sights, sounds, touch, drama, even appealing to smell with incense and candles. The audiences of Bayreuth were to become pilgrims on a quest, immersed in an artificial reality.~\cite[pages 123-4]{mh:mvr

Heim's thought adds another dimension to the present study's earlier comparison of MUDs with opera. Not only are they comparable as ways of world-making, but also MUDs and opera of Wagner's ambition point beyond themselves to the total works of art that we may expect in the third millennium.

My fourth reply to the proposition that 'MUDs are just a game' is the thought that perhaps life itself is a game, especially if Bernard Suits is correct to define a game as a matter of overcoming unnecessary obstacles with respect to some goal,~\cite{bs:gr and if Sigmund Freud is correct in assuming that it's human nature to have an unconscious death wish, or Thanatos. Then each of us is overcoming unnecessary obstacles with respect to the goal of death: our lives are games, in which we engage in everyday activities, the forms and rituals of our lives, in subconscious postponement of our desire for death. On this account life is different from more ordinary games only in the fact that its goal is unconscious, whereas the goal of a foot racer (say) is the conscious one of getting to the finish line before anyone else. It follows that the most serious artist, scientist, or business person is engaged in playing a game, just as much as any ordinary game player. I do not submit this fourth consideration as conclusive; especially its Freudian hypothesis is highly speculative and controversial. But it has the merit of obliging re-examination of the assumption that life's obstacles are necessary. In what sense are they necessary? There must be a specification of their necessity which precludes their being necessary only as rules of the game, the game of life. For the present hypothesis is consistent with such intra-game necessity. It is necessary to move a pawn before castling in chess, but the obstacles that chess throws up to putting the pieces in a 'checkmate' position are themselves unnecessary; a vulgar cheater could arrange them in this pattern easily, without all the fuss of arriving it according to the rules of chess.

Fifthly, and finally, if the point that MUDs are just games is meant to put them on one side of a divide between the serious and the playful, or between the deep and the superficial, or between that which has and that which lacks a unified meaning, that may simply underscore their suitability as exemplars of postmodern culture, playfulness and superficiality and resistance to interpretation, as much as anything else, being defining features of that culture and its aesthetic artifacts. One of my themes has been that the postmodern features of MUDs, including their playfulness and their more or less emphasized game-like features, do not prevent them from being comparable to modernist art as ways of world-making, vehicles for articulate visions. As such, it is wrong to construe MUDs as an escape from reality, as Slouka recommends. Rather, they are explorations of dimensions of Reality, of the values that define the MUD's community. --------------------------------------------------------------------------


  1. I believe the term 'cyberphilosophy' was coined by Professor Jeff McLaughlin.
  2. For the comparison to Hitler, see page 94. For the accusation of an attack on humanist values, see page 96. For the accusation of an attack on reality, see page 4, and passim.
  3. I will use the Spivak system of personal pronouns in this essay.
  4. I am assuming here that external reality is physical, but that is not absolutely necessary to my argument. What's necessary is that there be something external to our representations, and at this juncture the "something" could be bare information states, as the "It from bit" conception of physics asserts. (See David Chalmers's The Conscious Mind, Chapter 8 (Consciousness and Information: Some Speculation for a helpful overview of speculation about non-physical conceptions of fundamental reality.) Or it could be "pure experience", mental or proto-mental but unsullied by conceptualization and ubiquitous, so that both the physical world and minds would somehow reduce to it. (Chalmers is sympathetic to such a view.)
  5. James's more enthusiastically pragmatist descendants have interpreted this as a denial of realism, on the grounds that conceptual relativity, induced by the human serpent's diverse interests in forming concepts, is incompatible with the idea that there is a reality external to our concepts. (This is a version of Goodman's basic argument for irrealism.) For the reasons I am sketching, I think James was too impressed by conceptual relativity, and this led him to be skeptical about truths corresponding to reality (because any putative truth "p" would have a conceptual structure that would fail to carve reality at the joints). But despite this he was a realist. He believed in a world external to our conceptions, representations, versions, etc. This world, he thought, was a world of pure experience, neither mental nor physical, and unsullied by conceptual carvings-up of any kind.
  6. See Julian Biddell's "A Rape in Cyberspace" for suggestions of how the opposite judgment might go. He describes an incident on LambdaMOO, in which the player behind the character "Mr. Bungle" took advantage of his knowledge of MOO code to "do" degrading things to female-passing players, and have them "do" degrading things to themselves as others "looked" on. The debate about the "Mr. Bungle" affair, though furious, was inconclusive as to whether a rape was committed or not. I am suggesting that philosophical ascent, from the exchange of intuitions among the LambdaMOO players to the issue between realists and irrealists, supports the negative claim. Virtual rape isn't rape.
  7. This account draws on Robert Nozick's discussion of reality in The Examined Life. But I do not tie value to organic unity as he does, and I don't commit myself to his "matrix of reality." He is after an account of objective value, whereas mine is explicitly intersubjective rather than objective. Value in my sense is good by definition, whereas in his sense it may be good or bad, positive or negative. (The Devil's schemes might have a high degree of organic unity, hence a high degree of negative value, in Nozick's sense.)


  • Julian Biddell. "A Rape in Cyberspace." In High Noon on the Electronic Frontier. MIT Press, Cambridge (MA), 1996.
  • David Chalmers. The Conscious Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995.
  • Nelson Goodman. Ways of Worldmaking. Harvester Press, 1978.
  • Michael Heim. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, Durham, 1991.
  • Robert Nozick. The Examined Life. Simon & Schuster Press, New York, 1989.
  • Ralph Schroeder. Possible Worlds: The Social Dynamic of Virtual Reality Technology. Westview Press, 1996.
  • John Searle. The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press, Cambridge (MA), 1992.
  • Mark Slouka. War of the Worlds. Basic Books, 1995.
  • Bernard Suits. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Toronto University Press, Toronto, 1978.
  • Benjamin Woolley. Virtual Worlds Blackwell, Oxford, 1992.