A Philosopher's Blog

Virtual Vacations

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 7, 2016

In Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” Rekal, Incorporated offers its clients a form of virtual vacation: for a modest fee, memories of an amazing vacation are implanted. The company also provides relevant mementos and “evidence” of the trip. In the story (and the movie, Total Recall, based on it) things go terribly wrong.

While the technology of the story does not yet exist, a very limited form of virtual reality has finally become something of a reality. Because of this, it is worth considering the matter of virtual vacations. Interestingly, philosophers have long envisioned a form of virtual reality; but they have usually presented it as a problem in epistemology (the study or theory of knowledge). This is the problem of the external world: how do I know that what I think is real is actually real? In the case of the virtual vacation, there is no such problem: the vacation is virtual and not real. Perhaps some philosopher will be inspired to try to solve the problem of the virtual vacation: how does one know that it is not real?

Philosophers have also considered virtual reality in the context of ethics. One of the best known cases is Robert Nozick’s experience machine. Nozick envisioned a machine that would allow the user to have any experience they desired. Some philosophers have made use of this sort of a machine as a high-tech version of the “pig objection.” This objection, which was used by Aristotle and others, is against taking pleasure to be the highest good. The objection is often presented as a choice: you must pick between continuing your current life or living as an animal—but with the greatest pleasures of that beast guaranteed.  The objector, of course, expects that people will choose to remain people, thus showing that mere pleasure is not the highest good. In the case of the experience machine variant, the choice is between living a real life with all its troubles and a life of ultimate pleasure in the experience machine. The objector hopes, of course, that our intuitions will still favor valuing the real over the virtual.

Since the objection is generally presented as a choice of life (you either live life entirely outside the machine or entirely inside of it) it worth considering there might be a meaningful difference if people take virtual vacations rather than living virtual lives.

On the face of it, there would seem to be no real problem with virtual vacations in which a person either spends their vacation time in a virtual world or has the memories implanted. The reason for this is that people already take virtual vacations of a sort—they play immersive video games and watch movies. Before this, people took “virtual vacations” in books, plays and in their own imagination. That said, a true virtual vacation might be sufficiently different to require arguments in its favor. I now turn to these arguments.

The first reason in favor of virtual vacations is their potential affordability. If virtual vacations eventually become budget alternatives to real vacations as in the story), they would allow people to have the experience of a high priced vacation for a modest cost. For example, a person might take a virtual luxury cruise in a stateroom that, if real, might cost $100,000.

The second reason in support of virtual vacations is that they could be used to virtually visit places where the access is limited (such as public parks that can only handle so many people), where access would be difficult (such as very remote locations), or places where access would be damaging (such as environmentally sensitive areas).

A third reason is that virtual vacations could allow people to have vacations they could not really have, such as visiting Mars, adventuring in Middle Earth, or spending a weekend as a dolphin.

A fourth reason is that virtual vacations could be much safer than real vacations—no travel accidents, no terrorist attacks, no disease, and so on for the various dangers that can be encountered in the real world. Those familiar with science fiction might point to the dangers of virtual worlds, using Sword Art Online and the very lethal holodecks of Star Trek as examples. However, it would seem easy enough to make the technology so that it cannot actually kill people. It was always a bit unclear why the holodecks had the option of turning off the safety systems—that is rather like having an option for your Xbox One or PS4 to explode and kill you when you lose a game.

A fifth reason is convenience—going on a virtual vacation would generally be far easier than going on a real vacation. There are other reasons that could be considered, but I now turn to an objection and some concerns.

The most obvious objection against virtual vacations is that they are, by definition, not real.

The idea is that the pig objection would apply not just to an entire life in a virtual world, but to a vacation. Since the virtual vacation is not real, it lacks value and hence it would be wrong for people to take them in place of real vacations. Fortunately, there seems to be an easy reply to this objection.

The pig objection does seem to have bite in cases in which a person is supposed to be doing significant things. For example, a person who spends a weekend in virtual reality treating virtual patients with virtual Ebola would certainly not merit praise and would not be acting in a virtuous way. However, the point of a vacation is amusement and restoration rather than engaging in significant actions. If virtual vacations are to be criticized because they merely entertain, then the same would apply to real vacations. After all, their purpose is also to entertain. This is not to say that people cannot do significant things while on vacation, but to focus on the point of a vacation as vacation. As such, the pig objection does not seem to have much bite here.

It could be objected that virtual vacations would fail to be as satisfying as actual vacations because they are not real. This is certainly an objection worth considering—if a virtual vacation fails as a vacation, then there would be a very practical reason not to take one. However, this is something that remains to be seen. Now, to the concerns.

One concern, which has been developed in science fiction, is that virtual vacations might prove addicting. Video games have already proven to be addicting to some people; there are even a very few cases of people literally gaming to death. While this is a legitimate concern and there will no doubt be a Virtual Reality Addicts Anonymous in the future, this is not a special objection against virtual reality—unless, of course, it proves to be destructively addicting on a significant scale. Even if it were addictive, it would presumably do far less damage than drug or alcohol addiction. In fact, this could be another point in its favor—if people who would otherwise be addicted to drugs or alcohol self-medicated with virtual reality instead, there could be a reduction in social woes and costs arising from addiction.

A second concern is that virtual vacations would have a negative impact on real tourist economies. My home state of Maine and adopted state of Florida both have tourism based economies and if people stopped real vacations in favor of virtual vacations, their economies would suffer greatly. One stock reply is that when technology kills one industry, it creates a new one. In this case, the economic loss to real tourism would be offset to some degree by the economic gain in virtual tourism. States and countries could even create or license their own virtual vacation experiences. Another reply is that there will presumably still be plenty of people who will prefer the real vacations to the virtual vacations. Even now people could spend their vacations playing video games; but most who have the money and time still chose to go on a real vacation.

A third concern is that having wondrous virtual vacations will increase peoples’ dissatisfaction with the tedious grind that is life for most under the economic lash of capitalism. An obvious reply is that most are already dissatisfied. Another reply is that this is more of an objection against the emptiness of capitalism for the many than an objection against virtual vacations. In any case, amusements eventually wear thin and most people actually want to return to work.

In light of the above, virtual vacations seem like a good idea. That said, many disasters are later explained by saying “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”


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Spotting Psychopaths

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 19, 2011
Character Rick Deckard has a hard time resisti...

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Seeing Jon Ronson’s interview on The Daily Show got me thinking about psychopaths. I did not buy his book, so I will not comment on it. Rather, I’ll say a bit about spotting psychopaths from a philosophical perspective.

First, a bit about psychopaths. According to the standard view, a psychopath has a deficit (or deviance) in regards to interpersonal relationships, emotions, and self control.

In terms of specific qualities  psychopaths lack, these include shame, guilt, remorse and empathy. These qualities tend to lead  psychopaths to rationalize, deny, or shift the blame for the harm done to others. Because of a lack of empathy, psychopaths are prone to act in ways that are tactless, lacking in sensitivity, and express contempt for others.

Psychopaths are supposed to behave in ways that are impulsive and irresponsible. This might be because they are taken to fail to properly grasp the potential consequences of their actions. This seems to be a  general defect in that it applies to the consequences for others as well as for themselves This reduced ability to properly assess the risks of being doubted, caught, or punished no doubt has a significant impact on their behavior (and their chances of being exposed).

Robert Hare, who developed the famous Hare Psychopathy Checklist, regards psychopaths as  predators that prey on  their own species: “lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.”

Given these behavior traits, it might be wondered how psychopaths are able to avoid detection long enough to actually engage in such behavior. After all, people tend to be on guard against such treatment.The answer is easy enough. First, psychopaths often seem charming. Since they seem to tend to lack a commitment to truth, they are willing and able to say whatever they believe will achieve their goals. Second, they are often adept at using intimidation and manipulation to get what they want. Third, they are often skilled mimics and are able to pass themselves off as normal people.

It is estimated that 1% of the general population is made up of psychopaths. The prison populations are supposed to contain a larger percentage (which would hardly be surprising) and the corporate world is supposed to have an above normal percentage of psychopaths. However, these numbers are not solidly established.

One obvious problem facing anyone attempting to determine the number of psychopaths is that they will tend to do their best to hide their true nature. After all, the intelligent psychopaths will generally get that they are not like other people and that normal people will tend to react negatively to them. The same holds true in attempts to determine whether or not a specific person is a psychopath or not. In many ways, the psychopath is like Glaucon’s unjust man in the Ring of Gyges story: he is a person who wants to do what he wants without regard to others, but needs to avoid being recognized for what he is.

As noted above, psychopaths are characterized as possessing traits that would tend to result in their exposure. As noted above, psychopaths are characterized by having poor impulse control, having difficulty with behaving responsibly, and a poor capacity for assessing consequences. Their deficiency in regard to empathy also probably  makes it more difficult for them to blend in properly.These could be called “exposure traits” in that they tend to expose the psychopath to others.

One rather interesting point to consider is whether or not these exposure traits are actually traits that are essential components of being a psychopath. After all, they might merely be traits possessed by the psychopaths that have been exposed. To advance this discussion, I will head into the territory of science fiction.

In science fiction, one interesting problem is the thing problem. This problem gets its name from Carpenter’s classic horror film The Thing (which is based on “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell). The thing is an inimical alien that can almost flawlessly imitate any living thing it has consumed. In the case of the movie, the humans had to sort out who was a human and who was a thing. In the case of psychopaths, the challenge is to distinguish between normal humans and psychopaths. In the movie, a test is devised: each part of a thing is its own creature and will try to survive, even if that means exposure. So, sticking a hot wire into a blood (or thing juice) sample will reveal whether the person is human or thing: if the “blood” squeals and tries to escape, the donor is a thing.

This test will, of course, expose any thing. Or, more accurately, expose any  thing that acts as expected. If a thing was, contrary to the way things are supposed to be,  able to suppress the survival response of one of its parts, it would pass the test and remain undetected. As such, any exposed thing would be a thing that could not do this, and this could lead the humans to believe that things cannot do this. At least until the things that could finished them off.

If you prefer machines or replicants to things, this situation can also be presented in terms borrowed from Phillip K. Dick’s works. In Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) there are replicants that can easily pass for humans, with one exception: they cannot pass the Voight-Kampff Test because they do not have the time to develop the responses of a normal human. The similarity of the Hare checklist is obvious. Of course, the test only works on replicants that cannot mimic humans enough to pass the test. A replicant that could give the right responses would pass as human.

Dick’s short story “Second Variety” also presented human-like machines, the claws. These machines were made for a world war and eventually broke free of human control, developing machines that could pass as humans. Unlike the replicants, the claws were always intent on killing humans-thus necessitating a means to tell them apart.  The early models were easily recognized as being non-humans. Unfortunately for the humans in the story, the only way they could tell the most advanced models  from humans was by seeing multiple claws of the same variety together. Otherwise, they easily passed as humans right up until the point they started killing.

It seems worth considering that the same might apply to psychopaths. To be specific, normal people can catch the psychopaths that are poor mimics, have poor impulse control, have difficulty with behaving responsibly, and  possess a poor capacity for assessing consequences. However, the psychopaths that are better mimics, have better impulse control, can act responsibly, and can assess consequences would be far more difficult to spot. Such psychopaths could easily pass as normal humans, much like Glaucon’s unjust man is able to conceal his true nature.  As such, perhaps the experts think that these specific traits are part of what it is to be a psychopath because these traits are possessed by the psychopaths they have caught. However, as with the more advanced claws, perhaps the most dangerous psychopaths are eluding detection. At least until it is too late.

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