On exponential technologies and fundamental questions

Philosophy begins in wonder.

This Ancient Greek assertion feels even more applicable in our current age of exponential progress and uncertainty. As technology pushes us forward, the philosophical questions that have lingered for centuries and are often taken for granted have been thrust back into the spotlight.

It can feel like opening a can of worms, but I think it’s important to unpack some of these inquiries in the context of modern life. Here are three fundamental questions that are becoming salient and are worth reflecting on.

1. What is the nature of reality?

Historically, reality has been defined by tangible experiences. In other words, whatever we can touch, see, and feel in the physical world. But the advent of virtual and augmented reality experiences is challenging this once-certain notion.

To be clear, we’re not quite there yet. While I’ve had several fascinating encounters with VR, they’ve generally been fleeting hobbies rather than indispensable experiences.

But things are changing quickly. Apple, known for being slow and calculated when it comes to introducing new technologies, has announced its Vision Pro headset. And Zuck, the self-anointed VR king, just did an interview in the Metaverse, represented by his photorealistic avatar. (It’s wild, take a few minutes to watch it here.)

When entire existences can be simulated with convincing authenticity, where does the real end and the virtual begin? The distinction between physical and digital worlds is becoming ambiguous, and the question of whether they together more closely represent reality is an uncomfortable yet legitimate one.

2. What does it mean to live a good life?

Social media, connecting us in ways that would have been unimaginable just a couple of decades ago, constantly challenges our perceptions of living well. It offers seemingly infinite lifestyle choices, each superficially more tempting than the last.

Yet it’s clear that we’re presented with heavily curated slices of life. Attempting to mimic someone’s life or even wishing for what they have is a recipe for disappointment and unhappiness. It’s useful to remember that you can’t just pick and choose the aspects of another’s life that you like. When we imagine being entirely in someone else’s shoes including the ups and the downs, any longing quickly disappears.

So how should we answer the age-old question of how ought we to live? Any answer I could provide would be inadequate, but in my experience, it starts with gaining clarity about your core values and defining the virtues and principles you want to live by.

3. How do we know what we know?

Fake news. Echo chambers. Deepfakes. Today, truth seems more elusive than ever. The shared understanding and idea of truth we once had, even if just an illusion, is broken and fragmented.

We face a barrage of information daily, and sifting fact from fiction becomes an intellectual minefield that we’re not individually equipped to handle.

Most of us have never considered the nature of knowledge because we haven’t needed to. Questions like: what is knowledge? how is it acquired? what are its limits?

But these questions are becoming more relevant as the trust in institutions that are supposed to tell us what to think dwindles. Epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge, had been relegated to academic spheres for decades. But it increasingly feels like a survival skill.

There are many more fundamental questions, and none of them have easy answers. Pondering them, however, offers a kind of depth and grounding in our ever-changing lives.

As Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." In a time where we can deep dive into virtual worlds at the click of a few buttons, it's arguably more vital than ever to dive deep into ourselves and the questions at the core of our existence.