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Virtual flourishing

Could future artificial worlds provide the meaning that we need?

Part two of a three-part series on human flourishing and our biotechnological future. Here we explore the human need for meaning and how that might work in the artificial reality systems of the future.

Humans are the meaning-making animal. During our uniquely prolonged period of childhood and adolescence (by comparison, baboons reach adulthood at age six!), we spend a great deal of time becoming acculturated, learning the values and social rules of the society around us. We then often question those values in teenage years and young adulthood, and then come to a satisfactory synthesis of internal and external values and motivations. These grand narratives for our lives guide our actions and determine where we get meaning.

We know that as individual humans we are finite in space and time, and that we are mortal. Yet we long to extend ourselves beyond our limitations: engaging with purposes that transcend our lives, influence the world more broadly, and give us a reason for being.

That’s what meaning is: a feeling that our lives are in the service of something bigger and longer lasting than ourselves. A deeply meaningful life also includes such human virtues as courage, compassion, and self-sacrifice, which allow for the deepest experiences of meaning.

“[T]o be lived well, lives must have purpose, embodied by projects and pursuits that give dignity and meaning to daily existence, and allow for the realization of one’s potential,” as Ryff and Singer remind us.[1] Indeed, it is hard to imagine a state of full human flourishing that doesn’t centrally involve meaningful life pursuits.

Is meaning unique to humans?

Culture, at a basic level, is not entirely unique to humans. Different groups of chimpanzees have different tool-making cultures, and different troops of baboons have different norms around the relationship between males and females. But humans advance the domain of culture to incredible heights of complexity. It has become so important to who we are as to constitute a separate line of inheritance that shapes our evolution, running in parallel to and interacting with genetics.[2]

Our culture is to us like water is to fish; it is the substance that constitutes our entire worldview; it gives us our ideas and institutions that tell us how to think, feel, and act, yet we rarely recognize it explicitly. (Of course, our biology also drives a lot of those things, but cultures have effectively proven their ability to subsume, modify, and set the conditions and contexts for many of our innate behavioral drives).

The culture(s) we inhabit provide us with narratives that pervade our interpretation of the world and our own lives, telling us what makes for a good life. By narrative, I mean stories about the individual’s place and role in society, how people relate to each other, values and moral norms, and destiny and purpose for groups of people.

On an individual level, we receive messages about what it means to be a good member of our ethnicity, class, gender, etc. If you were a warrior in ancient Sparta, a good life was excellence in battle and an honorable death. If you watch a lot of advertising in the modern-day United States, a good life is one of consumption, accumulation of resources, and the satisfaction of pleasurable desires. If you center your life around spiritual pursuits, a good life comes from connection with the divine, awareness of present-moment reality, and a satisfying cosmology that might include narratives about life after death.

And on a collective level, narratives regarding humanity’s place and purpose in the cosmos compete to determine our collective action and future. Is humanity the steward of the ecosystem or its master? Should we seek to transcend our biological evolution and self-engineer our way to becoming a new species? Are we destined to become an interplanetary order, or is our fullest flourishing to be found here on Earth? Narratives promise a life of meaning in answer to each of these questions. This construction and pursuit of meaning is both unique to and pervasive among all humans.

Meaning is essential

These narratives about meaning are complex in their relationship to flourishing. In our pursuit of meaning, we may flourish in the short-term (the excitement of finding a powerful new cause that ends up being a cult, the draw of a new video game) but later come to regret our decisions. What seems to be meaningful in the moment can, upon reflection, turn out to be hollow. To support our flourishing, something should feel enduringly meaningful, regardless of circumstance and distance from the event.

Scholarship on well-being routinely emphasizes the importance of narrative and meaning. When asked about periods of high well-being in their lives, 75 percent of people spontaneously mention feelings of purpose and meaning.[3] Meaning is also listed as one of the five elements of well-being by Martin Seligman in his book, Flourish.[4] And, as approvingly quoted in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” More than just a clenched-teeth bearing of difficult circumstances, the right “why” can empower the deepest flourishing of the human spirit.

In the absence of meaning, we are left with the feeling that there’s still something missing, even when everything seems to be going well. You’ve satisfied all the criteria you thought you needed to be good and to be successful, but you still feel an emptiness inside—a meaninglessness that is distinct from clinical depression. How many variations of that story have we heard from pro athletes or rock stars who by all the world’s standards appear eminently successful, and yet they wake up one morning and say, “Is this all there is?”

Technology and the search for meaning

“[Humans are] capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice,” Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death. “But [they have] to feel and believe that what [they] are doing is truly heroic, timeless, and supremely meaningful. The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up. … [T]he problem of heroics is the central one of human life.”

In plenty of ways, modern humans are finding meaningful narratives with which to guide their lives, as humans always have—those centered on family, community, and the support of noble social causes. But many of our pursuits do not bring us the deep and long-term meaning we seek, as Becker points to, above.

We ought to be careful where we derive our meaning—including from technology. At a simple level, we find meaning in novels, movies, video games, and, more recently, in increasingly high-quality virtual reality environments. These spin their own (artificial) narratives, and because of our species’ unique penchant for narrative thinking, we can’t help but get deeply caught up in what feels genuinely meaningful. This isn’t problematic in itself, and indeed, pursuits in fantasy worlds can be enjoyable and beneficial. Some gamers are less lonely and anxious when in their online worlds than offline[5] and lonely people can find emotional support and social acceptance online.[6]

Like many children of my generation, I’ve spent many hours (to be honest, probably many thousands) in the virtual worlds of video games. They can be compelling, challenging, creative, and rewarding, as they are carefully engineered to be. Though accomplishment in these games feels meaningful in the moment, but it’s eventually followed by a sense of emptiness. The elite status I worked so hard to achieve (top of the leaderboards), all the points I scored, all the virtual creations I made—they all eventually were eclipsed by other drives I’ve come to recognize as more worthy and rewarding: physical and mental exercise and improvement, relationships with family and friends, and working to reduce suffering in the world.

As compelling as gaming activities can be, they’re not sources of true, deep, and lasting meaning. This is particularly important when considering the virtual worlds of the future.

Virtual realities of the future

Many people find meaning through work (the second-most common source of meaning after family[7]), and as robotics and artificial intelligence advance, fewer workers will glean meaning from the physical and intellectual work that will increasingly be performed by machines.

What does this mean for our quest for meaning? When Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and human future prognosticator, looks ahead to this possibility, he is unperturbed by a broad, unemployable swath of society, convinced that virtual realities will fill the human need for meaning. Writing for The Guardian, Harari says “[v]irtual realities are likely to be key to providing meaning to the useless class of the post-work world.”[8]

In the same article, Harari rightly points out that future virtual worlds will be incredibly engrossing: “People in 2050 will probably be able to play deeper games and to construct more complex virtual worlds than in any previous time in history.” With advances in visual displays, haptics, and odorants—combined with precisely-titrated chemical cocktails intravenously injected and even direct recording and stimulation of the brain—we are indeed heading toward a future of hyper-immersive, hyper-real virtual worlds.

In the conventional, superficial sense, I grant that these virtual worlds will provide meaning, just as we currently get from a host of artificial narratives—getting lost in the plots of novels and movies, crying real tears when our protagonists suffer and die. These will be even more compelling and lifelike in the future. And we also may deeply value relationships we forge in the virtual world with other humans playing and exploring VR alongside us, particularly if they lead to real-world interactions.

These worlds will be fun and amazing and sensational at the highest levels. People will be engrossed, knowing full well that it’s an artificial experience. But will they, upon sober reflection—perhaps at the end of their lives—value the discoveries they made in the virtual world? Value the friendships they forged with AI companions? Value the time they spent on virtual endeavors and creations?

Why they might fall short

Though virtual worlds will undoubtedly amaze and delight us, I suspect they won’t tap into the deepest wellsprings of human meaning and purpose that arise from an authentic engagement between ourselves and the world around us.

Even if I’m wrong there, and people do indeed rate their virtual experiences as highly meaningful in an enduring way, these worlds still lack one key characteristic of the deepest meaningful experiences: physical stakes.

I’m assuming that virtual environments designed by human engineers won’t have serious physical stakes. Sure, you might be able to feel the punches in a boxing game and fans, pulleys, and inversion tables can give you a feeling of flying, but designers probably won’t let you sustain real physical injury or death. I don’t think people will willingly strap themselves into a device that might kill them if there is a non-lethal alternative.

With that assumption, it’s then impossible to sacrifice your body: the physical stakes just aren’t there. And if you can’t put your life on the line, courage, heroics, and self-sacrifice at the ultimate level aren’t possible.

A willingness to give everything—for family, friends, community, future generations, etc.—is the ultimate act of love, whether or not circumstances ever require such a sacrifice. I think this is what provides us the deepest sense of meaning that is tied to our deepest flourishing.

What I think Harari misses is that no matter how perfect a simulation may be, and no matter what’s possible within it, so long as humans know it to be artificial, and so long as there aren’t actual lives at stake, it won’t be meaningful at the deepest level. How could such a virtual world solve the “problem of heroics” that Becker points to when no deep or ultimate sacrifice is possible?

Furthermore, being outdoors and in nature provides meaning to nearly 50 percent of those in the United States[7], and more virtual reality time would certainly supplant some of this time in physical reality. It remains to be seen whether virtual worlds, no matter how grandiose, can replace the grandeur of physical connection and exploration of the natural world.

On the other hand . . .

Now to be fair, Harari does admit that “virtual worlds” of the future might encompass typical physical reality as well, in the form of new “religions.” I do think these may provide meaning, but only to the extent that they encompass the heroics of real human lives with real physical stakes.

And, of course, we could invoke the scenario from The Matrix, and keep virtual-world occupants ignorant of their true condition, imagining such perfect neural implants as to create virtual reality indistinguishable from actual reality. In this case, I would be hard-pressed to say why meaning in this artificial world would be any less conducive to flourishing, though it would ultimately be based on a falsehood (not to mention, potentially technically impossible to accomplish). The simulation of meaning can, indeed, feel as real as true meaning, but if one knows it’s fake, the stakes that allow us to penetrate to the deepest levels of flourishing are lacking.

Finally, it’s true that virtual worlds will offer opportunities for some genuine human virtuosity: compassion, curiosity, integrity, empathy, and even some heroic action. For example, we will need to protect the vulnerable from bullying or exploitation just as we do in our online communities today, and genuine resources and reputations will be on the line in doing so. However, this only matters in the ultimate sense to the extent that we continue to engage with genuine real-world humans whose suffering we care about. They won’t be a product of the virtual world alone.

As I imagine them, the virtual worlds of the future will exemplify the Aristotelian notion of hedonia (the good life as happy and pleasurable) rather than the fullest expression eudaimonia (the good life as purposeful and virtuous), but we need both to thrive as humans. Virtual reality may come close to giving us what we need, but as we charge forward toward an uncertain biotechnological future, we need careful reflection on the conditions and activities that bring meaning and flourishing to our lives.


[1] Ryff, C. D. & Singer, B. The contours of positive human health. Psychol. Inq. 9, 1–28 (1998).
[2] Durham, W. H. Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity. (Stanford University Press, 1991).
[3] Heaney, C. A. et al. A qualitative exploration of well-being: What is well-being? How do we know? Why do we care? (2019).
[4] Seligman, M. Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. (Simon and Schuster, 2011).
[5] Martončik, M. & Lokša, J. Do World of Warcraft (MMORPG) players experience less loneliness and social anxiety in online world (virtual environment) than in real world (offline)? Comput. Human Behav. 56, 127–134 (2016).
[6] Morahan-Martin, J. & Schumacher, P. Loneliness and social uses of the Internet. Comput. Human Behav. 19, 659–671 (2003).
[7] Pew Research Center. Where Americans Find Meaning in Life | Pew Research Center. (2018).
[8] “The meaning of life in a world without work” | Technology | The Guardian.

Steven Michael Crane (@stevenmcrane) is a researcher at Stanford Anthropology and Neurobiology departments, on the research staff of The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals, and Machines in the Age of Biotechnology.

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