Are Virtual Pets, Pets?

Coming home from a long day of work, you are greeted by the wagging tail of your pet Shiba Inu, ‘Rocko’. Whatever work-place injustices were committed against you today seemingly dissolve into thin air. The only thing that matters to you now is this bouncing ball of fur, whose only condition for unconditional affection is that you simply come home.

Now, what if I told you that Rocko is not a real dog but a virtual one, say, from Nintendo’s Little Friends: Dogs and Cats? Is your comfort lessened? If so, ought it to be? The answer depends on whether you think there are relevant mental differences between real, biological dogs and virtual, computerized ones.

To take this case by case, I first assume that the intuition most people have is that the biological Shiba Inu is authentic in its affection, whereas the virtual dog is only simulating affection. But what basis is there for this assumption? Well, in the case of Real Rocko, we infer from his affectionate behaviour that there must be genuine affection in his dog mind. We simply see that the dog is running around, jumping, wagging its tail and we think: That there is one happy dog. Strangely, the same thing is going on with regard to Virtual Rocko, who is running, jumping, and tail-wagging just as much. Yet, nobody really believes that Virtual Rocko is genuinely happy, despite being behaviourally indistinguishable from Real Rocko.

The bias, then, lies upon another assumption, namely, what kind of stuff the two Rockos are made of. A dog of flesh and blood is more likely to be genuine in its behaviour because we, too, are flesh and blood, and we know first-hand that when someone steps on our toes, we don’t just yell and scream and act like it hurts, it actually hurts.

But does this argument from analogy really stand up? Is it not possible for anything without a brain like ours, or at least similar to ours, to be capable of mentality? Why assume that we exhaust the material model of what can give rise to consciousness? We are just one featherless biped on a blue rock. Why assume there is something special about brainstuff? It seems possible (though not as likely) that a very complex circuit board, or Martians with brains of silicon, could be genuinely conscious as well and not merely behaviourally similar. If not, someone has to explain what is so special (other than the fact that we have brains and we are very special) about brainstuff that it is the only substance in the universe that can give rise to consciousness.

However, the danger in disregarding material constitution as irrelevant in assigning mentality is that now we must assume that Virtual Rocko is every bit as genuine in his affection as Real Rocko. Why? For this reason: We assume Real Rocko is not just behaving affectionately, but is actually affectionate. Virtual Rocko, despite not being flesh and blood, is behaving every bit as affectionately. If material constitution is irrelevant, then consistency demands that if behaving affectionately is good enough for Real Rocko to be considered actually affectionate, it should be good enough for Virtual Rocko, too.

So next time throw your Little Friend a virtual bone: He deserves it every bit as much.