In David Chalmers’ paper “The Virtual and the Real,” the philosopher argues that “virtual reality is a sort of genuine reality, virtual objects are real objects, and what goes on in virtual reality is truly real” (Chalmers 1). The avatar is one subtype of virtual object, all of which are real because of their existence as actual pieces of data on a computer (Chalmers 5). Avatars are often considered to be fictional depictions of the real humans behind them, but Chalmers wants to say that avatar bodies are virtual bodies that their owners possess every bit as much as their physical ones (Chalmers 7).
Chalmers argues that people use these virtual bodies to perform virtually real — not fictional — actions in virtual space. This means that anything action occurring in a virtual world such as Second Life is as real as the actions of the physical world, just in a virtual space that is distinct from it. Philosopher David Velleman is in agreement that people can really possess virtual (avatar) bodies, and that they really perform the actions of those virtual bodies. In the virtual world, nothing can be experienced by the physical person — no area of the map explored, clothing purchased, or battle won — without the aid of the avatar as the vehicle through which these experiences can be acted out (Velleman 409). But Vellemen draws a different the line between reality and fiction. For him, although these virtual actions are really performed, they are still fiction, and not, as Chalmers would say, virtually real, or real in virtual space.
What relevance does this distinction have to a conversation rooted in concrete rather than theoretical concern? One of many possible phenomena through which we can consider this question is virtual meditation, the practice of clicking to pose one’s avatar in a meditative position, typically in a virtual setting designed for doing so. Even if we can agree that this meditating avatar is an extension of the physical person doing the clicking, the validity of the avatar’s meditative practice in relation to the physical human — i.e. whether the human really feels the effects of the avatar’s actions — is dependent in part on whether the avatar’s actions can be considered real at any level.
For Velleman, virtual mediation would not possess the same effects as embodied meditation for a human player, because the virtual meditation is fictional, although the person really does it because her avatar is an extension of herself. For Chalmers, I believe that the validity of the avatar’s meditation as achieving the same effect on the physical human as would embodied meditation isn’t necessarily certain. The meditation, rather than being fictional, is virtually real, but it is unclear as to whether virtually real meditation necessitates equal conditions in the world of its physical counterpart.
Chalmers, David J. “The Virtual and the Real.” Disputatio, vol. 9, no. 46, 2017, doi:10.1515/disp-2017-0009.
Velleman, J. David. “Bodies, Selves.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2007, doi:10.2139/ssrn.1006884.