Is life just virtual reality?

I recently graced my Twitter followers with a link to this Guardian article by Yuval Noah Harari:

WordPress grants me a few more characters, so here is my analysis.

The article

Here is my summary, but don’t take my word for it; read the whole thing

The rise of VR will reduce the number of jobs that humans can do better than machines, and a new ‘useless class’ of unemployable people will emerge. Virtual reality games will give them something to do all day, as well as meaning and purpose.

Religion is like a virtual reality game in that it superimposes meaning and purpose onto the bare facts of reality, giving people imaginary laws to follow. Its adherents are like children who, through an app on their smartphones, see Pokemon lurking around every corner:

When you look at the objective reality of Jerusalem, all you see are stones and buildings. There is no holiness anywhere. But when you look through the medium of smartbooks (such as the Bible and the Qur’an), you see holy places and angels everywhere.

Living in a fantasy world, a world of ‘deep play’, is fulfilling. The orthodox Jews subsidised by the Israeli government to say prayers and research theology report high levels of life satisfaction. So will the teenager whose mother leaves food outside his door while he plays Nintendo – at least in the short term [me: this is critical].

In the end,

the end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working.

He finishes up with this:

But what about truth? What about reality? Do we really want to live in a world in which billions of people are immersed in fantasies, pursuing make-believe goals and obeying imaginary laws? Well, like it or not, that’s the world we have been living in for thousands of years already.

The gist

Tl;dr: we shouldn’t be nervous at the prospect of spending our time in virtual reality worlds; humanity has always done so by cleaving to religion and consumerism.

My response

I think this is based on huge generalisations or misunderstandings about (1) human nature, (2) meaning, (3) religion, and (4) work. (Yep, pretty much all the key concepts used in the article.)

1. Human nature

The claim:

  • Jewish scholars report high levels of satisfaction
  • Theological scholarship and playing VR are analogous
  • Therefore we will be highly satisfied with playing VR

The problem:

The second premise is wrong. You don’t have to be religious to see that theological scholarship has its value, in precisely enumerating things like the meaning of life and human nature (among other less commonly interesting things of course, such as how many angels can fit on a pinhead). It’s no wonder people who spend their lives trying to work these things out, within a religious framework that is obviously core to their identity as people, are highly fulfilled. I haven’t seen any computer games that will provide the same benefit. Perhaps we could create some: great. Then they won’t be games, they’ll be educational resources. Don’t really object to that.

2. Meaning

I have no idea what meaning is, so I’m not going to say for sure that the author is wrong. But all his claims about meaning could be challenged:

  • Meaning is generated (rather than just there to begin with?)
  • Meaning is generated by the mind
  • Meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working
    • Question: what is the difference here? Much work is highly imaginative, creative, problem-solving … see below

3. Religion

Where to start?

  • He lumps all religions together, where it’s quite clear that different religions will be more or less right or wrong about different topics, including the ones under discussion here: the meaning of life, the nature of the human person, how to live ethically
  • He assumes religion has nothing to contribute to those discussions. You might disagree with that
  • The rules of religion are ‘imaginary’. I mean, yes, they are imaginary in the sense that they are at the very least formalised by humans. But surely what he means to say is that they are futile, unmotivated, uncommonsensical, unconducive to or impeding of human progress, cruel, or some other negative. Some of them certainly are. Will he say the same of ‘Thou shalt not murder’? It’s unclear.

4. Work

I might have more sympathy for these arguments if every job in the world was as stultifying as one described in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – the protagonist’s father spends his days screwing lids onto tubes of toothpaste. But we’re not talking about the Industrial Revolution automating farm and factory work, for crying out loud (not to mention some people actually enjoy manual work!). The trend of economic development seems quite obviously to be towards service industries. Service industry work is much more creative, evolving, challenging, problem-solving than this sort of daily grind – theoretically, at least.

Broader problems

But what about truth? What about reality?

The author waves these questions aside. It’s not clear whether he’s sniffy about our delusions, thinks we’re doomed to them, or actually wants us to propagate them. Regardless, some of us do care about truth and reality, thanks. Robert Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ thought experiment might bring that out of you (or it might not).

What does it mean for something to be ‘real’, and what things are real? Computer worlds aren’t real, but the console and the electrons running up and down the cable from the TV to the socket are. Meaning isn’t real, but the actions and objects we call meaningful are. Remember what he said about Jerusalem? Meaning, value, construction, history, are supposed to be opposed to objective reality. That’s an assumption. It all sounds a bit like ‘tables aren’t real, but that bunch of atoms that we’re calling a table is real’. That’s another assumption.

In summary, shouldn’t we get all these things straight before we make sweeping claims about a golden future in which we look to the state to meet our inconvenient physical needs via universal basic income, and to virtual reality for meaning, purpose, value, emotional attachment and fulfilment?


The concept of ‘deep play’ – our knowing engagement with ‘unreal’ constructs as if they are important and real – is quite interesting. I don’t rule out the genuine usefulness of playing games or pretending as vehicles for moral growth, for example (I wrote some stuff about morality and theatre, and morality and sport). Perhaps deep play is necessary for humans. But surely there is a difference between deep play entirely forgetful of reality (virtual reality as usually conceived, or the experience machine) and deep play that still hooks on to reality (the following of moral rules, the creating of companies). Or, if deep play is so ingrained in our way of being as humans, what qualifies it as deep play (with all its connotations of removal from reality, artificiality, meaninglessness) and not just some other way of existing, less misleading and less controversial?



2 thoughts on “Is life just virtual reality?

  1. I read that post when it first came out and my first thought was “this guy has balls!” I always enjoy a contrarian point of view, but I very much appreciate the time and thoughtfulness that went into your post. Thanks for challenging these premises. This is a debate worth having.

    Liked by 1 person

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