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A philosophical discussion of the implications and limitations of using Virtual Reality Technology (VR) as an “Empathy Machine”

Bouabdeli, S. (2023) A philosophical discussion of the implications and limitations of using Virtual Reality Technology (VR) as an “Empathy Machine”. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00113765


This thesis engages in a philosophical discussion on “empathy”, “virtuality”, and the use of virtual reality (VR) technology as an “empathy machine”. Here, I define empathy as the intentional activity (or skill) of recreating aspects of another subject’s emotional experience in one’s imagination to reflectively and “experientially” understand what another is feeling. As opposed to isomorphically appropriating another’s feelings to oneself, I identify empathy as third-personally “feeling with” others. After exploring the narrow and pluralistic approaches to understanding empathy, I argue that there are compelling pragmatic reasons for adopting the pluralistic approach, the proponents of which prefer to highlight varieties of empathy instead of a sole conceptualisation of “empathy proper”. As for virtuality, I subscribe to a third view that can be located between “virtual realism” and “virtual irrealism”, in that I understand virtuality as a sui generis mode of technological actualisation, where psychophysiological illusions, of virtual presence and embodiment, coexist with veridical elements, such as virtual social objects, without causing a defect in users’ rational judgment. My main contention in this research is that VR’s multisensory affordances can be instrumentally utilised as a complementary extension (but never as a replacement) for offsetting some of the limitations in attaining interpersonal empathy through imaginative perspective-taking alone. After discussing this contention in more depth, I then attempt to address some of the recurrent challenges and criticism raised against VR’s use as an empathy machine. Finally, I highlight some of the limitations in VR technology’s capability to capture and transmit a full representation of others’ lived experiences.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Preston, J.
Thesis/Report Department:School of Humanities
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > Philosophy
ID Code:113765


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