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Virtual, Fictional and Real

Circle-of-life How do we determine what is real? More importantly, how are we to understand things which are not real? By this I do not mean false or impossible things, such as the first Australian-born President of the United States of America or the value of a number divided by zero, but things which do not form a part of what is claimed as objective reality but which are nonetheless important aspects of our lives.

I want to distinguish in this regard between real, virtual and fictional in a manner which preserves aspects of what is conventionally recognised in these concepts but which is nonetheless specifically defined (and thus suited to further philosophical investigations using those terms). What follows is the system in brief and in draft – the whole point of posting it here being to furnish future discussions appropriately.

Real denotes what corresponds to the imminent world of existence (the imminent frame, in Charles Taylor’s memorable term). Thus only what can be measured and tested qualifies as real in the terms of this system. Gold is a real commodity, gravity is a real phenomenon, Chris Bateman is a real person.

Virtual denotes that which has the influence of real entities while lacking the usual status in the imminent frame. Thus anything which is as influential as the real but which is not part of the imminent frame as it is usually conceived qualifies as virtual. Money is a virtual commodity, inflation is a virtual phenomenon, a videogame avatar is a virtual person.

Fictional denotes that which resembles the imminent world of existence to some degree, yet is known to be imaginary. Following Kendall Walton, I shall say that anything which serves to prescribe imaginings is fictional – a film, a book, a play, a song, a painting are all props used in a game of make-believe, and the imaginings that occur in such a game are fictional. (A detailed account of Walton’s system follows later this year). Mithril is a fictional commodity, warp speed is a fictional phenomenon, Hamlet is a fictional person.

(Beyond these terms, it may be prudent to recognise an additional definition for supersensible, which – following Kant - corresponds to that which is transcendent of imminent reality but putatively real. Anything of this kind cannot be tested, and is therefore metaphysical in nature. Thus, the theist places God in the supersensible while the atheist places God in the virtual. God cannot be purely fictional, as this misrepresents all forms of bhakti/devotional worship as if their practitioners knew their gods were imaginary – this is clearly a mistake even if you believe you know this with certainty.)

In this system, virtual denotes unconsciously or subconsciously pretending, while fictional denotes consciously or near-consciously pretending. The latter corresponds to Walton’s make-believe, the former to his imaginary in the wider sense. In fact, there is a case to be made that even real involves imagination, and thus that all these ontological questions are distinctions in the contents of minds. Consider Einstein’s general relativity: we may accept that space and time are not separate conditions, but constitute a single entity, space-time, but in point of fact since we experience space and time as separate conditions (or rather, by virtue of the fact we are in time, we experience space, and by virtue of our memories we deduce time) we must imagine space-time. Even things which we believe are real must still be imagined! However, what we claim in such cases is that they are not pretended, only imagined.

Virtual and fictional entities, conversely, are pretended and imagined, and differ principally in whether we are tempted (or culturally conditioned) to call them real. Those claimed as real but depending wholly on imagination are what I am calling virtual. Those universally known to be otherwise than real I am calling fictional. Can something be fictional and also virtual? I suspect this is so, otherwise how can we explain court cases over property in synthetic worlds (such as MMOs). The people involved surely know that this property is not real – it is obviously fictional – yet they still fight a (real) legal battle over it. Exploring the fringe between fictional and virtual is one of the key goals of this present philosophical investigation.

Another area of particular interest is those things which are virtual but not fictional – such as money, nations and our sense of self. Recall that the crucial distinction between the two terms is that something is fictional when the person dealing with it recognises it is not real, while something is virtual when it affects you as if it were real. What I am expressly claiming is some of the things we consider “real” – such as money, nations and selves – have no claim to real as it is defined above; they are not part of the imminent frame, except via a chain of inferences or implications. Such things are better understood as virtual.

There are big questions here, many of which will end up being addressed in comments if at all. For now, I shall just briefly address the question of how we know that something is real. If this is a question about how we know something, it is an epistemological issue and thus in the sidelines in respect of what I am gesturing at here. What we are interested in is the ontological issue of distinguishing between what is real and what is otherwise than real – and specifically, what sort of states we shall attribute to things which we can agree are not real without suggesting that not being real is a hindrance to something being meaningful or useful to us. The hope is to clarify “real”, not to muddy it, but some turbid opacity may be unavoidable.

Why do I claim money is virtual? This is a good example of what I mean by virtual. Money is not a real commodity like gold or sand or water – although bank notes and coins are real objects, made of real commodities like paper, ink and metal alloys. They are objects intended to hold a value, a value which we treat as if it were real. We go to work in order to earn money to exchange for goods and services. But the money we earn and spend is not real – it is not part of the imminent frame – and this is especially true of our bank accounts! Unavoidably, if there were no people to believe in the value of the money, coins and bank notes would no longer hold value. The value of money is virtual – it influences us as if it were real, but it is not part of the imminent frame (at least, not directly).

You might want to claim that money is fictional – we know a bank note doesn’t have value – but this is surely the same category error as claiming that God is purely fictional, and for the same reason – the users of a currency by definition do not dismiss it as purely imaginary, even if they recognise the role of imagination in supporting its value. In fact, the value of money is genuine precisely because people recognise and uphold its value, but this value is not real (in the terms I am using) because it is not part of the imminent frame. (No instrument will measure the value of a bank note, while conversely, mass and distance are real values – they can be measured).

Similarly, nations are virtual and not real – Benedict Anderson calls them “imagined communities”, since there is no way every member of a nation can actually be in a personal relationship with every other member of a nation, at least in the case of the larger countries. We treat a nation as if it were real, just as we treat a banknote as if its value were real. Again, we would not claim France or Germany are fictional, although there are of course fictional nations, such as Ruritania, Gondor or Melniboné. Even someone who recognises that their notion of countries is imagined must still attest to the influence those nations may have on them – I may not believe in the United States of America as a real entity, but this does not prevent its representatives from detaining me, say.

My third example of the virtual is more controversial – our notion of self is virtual. Why is personal identity not real? Derek Parfit provides excellent reasons for doubting that there is an objective way of securing a notion of personal identity, and ends up with a philosophy which allows persons but is sceptical of personal identity. To my mind, his philosophy is based so clearly on a variant of Buddhist metaphysics that even though he wishes it to be considered “non-religious ethics” it nonetheless seems to me to be more like “Robot Buddhism!” (As with Walton, a detailed account of Partfit’s system follows later this year). A short cut to his conclusion is as follows: if I scan and disintegrate you with a Star Trek-style transporter and then use the data pattern to make two absolutely perfect copies, which one is you? Either? Neither? Both? If this question is indeterminate, our notion of personal identity cannot be real, and since it is not fictional it must be virtual.

Yet I said that Chris Bateman is a real person – if personal identity will not hold as real, am I truly a real person? Should I not be a virtual person instead? This is in fact my conclusion, so perhaps it would be fairer to say that I inhabit a real human – there is a human body I can measure wherever I happen to be. Despite the fact that the virtual person is dependent upon and coexistent with that real human, Chris Bateman is not real – there is no instrument which can measure my name or identity – and this is because language, which furnishes us with nouns, is as virtual as nations, money and persons. As Wittgenstein illuminated, it is an institution that occurs between people, and although it is grounded on the imminent this is not enough for us to consider it real. It is only functionally real, and that is the essence of what I am terming the virtual.

Do you have ideas concerning further virtual things? Any thoughts about the boundaries between the real, the virtual and the fictional? Please share your views in the comments.

The opening image is Circle of Life by Vitor, which I found here on his blog, The Fractal Forest. It is used with permission, and is copyright (c) Vitor Bosshard 2009.

Comments

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I'm not clear on why inflation is a "virtual" principle. Its effects can't be tested and measured, same as gravity? Where's the pretense?

And if virtual money is being used, even if only within the context of its game, how is that "fictional" at all? You suggest that it's some kind of borderline case, but it seems to be firmly in the realm of the virtual.

This is going off on a tangent, but you connect "non-fictionality" to belief so strongly that I'd like to ask whether the delusions of the insane are virtual, rather than fictional. Are we only going to accept something as a non-fiction if a large number of people agrees with it? If so, can we look at, say, a specific household, and say that in that household the majority doesn't believe in God so that's a fictional entity? You'd like to keep the boundaries of reality clear, but I think they're pretty murky in real life.

Is the moral at the end of a children's story a virtual principle, or a fictional principle? The principle is being given in the context of a fictional story, and it is being learned by the child as an insight into the behaviors of fictional characters. But the hope on the part of the storyteller is that the child will integrate this understanding into real life. So maybe its inclusion in the story is more along the lines of teaching philosophy, which I doubt you'd call fictional because it's always about the real world. The moral of a story is not a truth about how the world acts, but it's a philosophical and therefore non-fictional lesson.

Now, take warp speed -your example of a fictional principle. There is a certain theoretical logic to how it works, and it may be that -given the optimistic tendencies of Star Trek- the writers hope that we will achieve it someday. If so, maybe that too can be seen as a philosophical principle. We're only seeing it as it relates to a fictional world, but then we're expected to have a real belief that we can get there someday. So it's a virtual principle about the real world.

And if we allow those flood gates to be opened, then everything in fiction can be seen as virtual rather than fictional. Everything in a story is a representation of concepts in the real world!

Very interesting indeed! I've been reading and lurking in your blog for over a year now. I absolutely love reading it because of how much it makes me think.

Is it possible for something to be real,virtual and fictional at the same time. While seemingly a contradiction, would not race qualify? We can measure skin tones and other physical characteristics of race as real, however when race becomes a factor in a decision it would seem to become virtual. Race is a broad concept and not a real thing. When considering variations of peoples that contradict their "race" and thirdly, I feel race is becoming fictional, already been renounced by sociologists, race's influence could completely disappear (optimistically) in the future causing it to become fictional.

I would also like to point out that the definition you give for virtual sounds a lot like the Thomas theorem to me, 'if something is defined as real, it becomes real in it's consequences'.

Can I just check a couple of things that appear to be implicit in this view?

First off, do Real, Virtual and Fictional cover everything we might wish to communicate? If something is neither Real nor Virtual, is it necessarily Fictional or are there other options?

Secondly, consider: Fictional denotes that which resembles the imminent world of existence to some degree, yet is known to be imaginary. You know how distrusting I am of passives. Exactly who knows it is imaginary, and how do they find out?

As ever, a thought-provoking post.
I think Mory Buckman has essentially covered the question I wanted to ask, although I think you could expand this beyond looking at the moral of an ethical fable. I remember reading a short story by Italo Calvino which for several days turned my view of the world upside down. I know it to be a fiction, as did Calvino. Yet it had an effect on me, and to the extent that it may have affected my behaviour it had a real effect on others. This fiction then becomes something more than fiction in your definition. Just to be clear, it was not a story with a moral - there was no isolatable philosophical lesson or principle. And all fictions that move or affect us fall into this category. It also seems probable that the kinds of stories we tell affect our view of the world, and hence our actions in it, in all kinds of ways of which we are never conscious. That is what Brecht's critique of bourgeois theatre was getting at.

I could see the fictionality of identity coming from miles off. I think you're probably right. I wonder, though, if you accept the Buddhist critique of personal identity, could you not then extend this to cover everything we take as real, including rocks and banknotes?

An aside to Ami: is it desirable that 'race' should disappear? I certainly agree that racism would in an ideal world cease. But not sure about race. The philosopher Paul Feyerabend critiqued human rights as people doing the wrong thing for the right reason, because universal human rights postulate a 'pure' human without a face or an accent or a skin colour. When we jettison all these things what we have is no longer a human being but a monster. He implied that we should instead cherish our differences - tone of voice, inflection and, yes, skin colour. This is a bit of an aside to Chris's points, and I don't necessarily agree with Feyerabend. Still, it gives me pause.

So, how would you categorize a ritual in this schema? It seems like you want it to be "real", considering your classification of a legal proceeding (which is a particular sort of ritual, and your classification of a legal proceeding as such is critical to your definition of another sort of entity), but it only has effective existence in terms of its meaning, making it virtual - except that it does exist in a particular place in space and time, but nonetheless can't be divorced from its meaning. A ritual seems to be a very confusing entity when applied to this categorical schema.

As a result, I'm not entirely sure that this is a generally useful set of categories, though certainly it is an interesting attempt to get at what we mean by "real".

Some great comments, thank you! I will endeavour to do justice to them! :) I'll try and find a sensible order to address the points raised...

Let me start by attempting to clarify the use of "fictional" in Walton's sense, which I am using. Walton says:

"Imagining aims at the fictional as belief aims at the true. What is true is to be believed; what is fictional is to be imagined."

Thus fictional things *prescribe imaginings*. There is no question of reality claims in the context of the fictional.

Right, onto some specific comments...


Ami: always great to hear from lurkers! :)

"Is it possible for something to be real,virtual and fictional at the same time?"

To some extent. Suppose I write a story about a coin; a specific coin, a coin I had when I was a child (say). There is a real coin - a real object that corresponds to that coin. Additionally, the coin has a virtual life in the currency system. But in the story, the coin is a prop in a game of make-believe - it is fictional. So this would hit all three bases, but it is worth noting that while the fictional coin matches the real coin, they are not per se *the same*. So perhaps it is not possible for anything to cross between fictional on one hand, and real/virtual on the other.

I welcome other challenges on this point though! :)

"thirdly, I feel race is becoming fictional, already been renounced by sociologists"

Race cannot be fictional in Walton's sense; there is no prescription to imagine, and this is the core of what fictional means. The renunciation of race would be a denial that we should allow race to be virtual, perhaps?

"I would also like to point out that the definition you give for virtual sounds a lot like the Thomas theorem to me, 'if something is defined as real, it becomes real in it's consequences'."

Thank you so much for citing this! I've never heard of the Thomas theorem but it is absolutely an intersection with what I mean by virtual here. Great to have something else to refer to in this regard.


Peter: "First off, do Real, Virtual and Fictional cover everything we might wish to communicate? If something is neither Real nor Virtual, is it necessarily Fictional or are there other options?"

Good question. Do you have an example that might qualify? Things which are neither real nor virtual need not be fictional (they could be supersensible, for instance). But if something is not fictional, must it be either real, virtual or supersensible? I'm not sure about this. The temptation is to say yes, but I may be missing something.

"Secondly, consider: Fictional denotes that which resembles the imminent world of existence to some degree, yet is known to be imaginary. You know how distrusting I am of passives. Exactly who knows it is imaginary, and how do they find out?"

Representations in Walton's system are props in a game of make-believe. The appreciator (viewer, listener etc.) of a representation (e.g. a painting) is prescribed to imagine the fictional truths in a representation. So there is no 'finding out' involved here; if you are prescribed to imagine something, it is fictional. The appreciator of a representation imagines something; it is fictional. Note that what is imagined may also be real - if I see a painting of Kant, it is fictional that I see Kant. But that doesn't mean Kant wasn't real, of course. The painting (in Walton's terms) matches the real Kant to some degree.

I welcome a rewording of that sentence without the passive.


Mory: "I'm not clear on why inflation is a "virtual" principle. Its effects can't be tested and measured, same as gravity? Where's the pretense?"

Inflation tracks changes in the value of money. If the money is virtual, and I think it's clear that it is now (although it wasn't always so) then inflation must also be virtual. Yes, we can track it. But only in terms that are in effect virtual. You cannot send a robot to Sweden to measure the inflation there - you must participate in the virtuality of currency in order to track inflation.

I'm open to debate on this, but it seems to me that tracking changes of something that is virtual must in itself be virtual.

"And if virtual money is being used, even if only within the context of its game, how is that "fictional" at all? You suggest that it's some kind of borderline case, but it seems to be firmly in the realm of the virtual."

Hmmm... I don't believe money can be claimed to be fictional. The argument here goes like this: if everyone knows money doesn't have real (i.e. objectively measurable) value, then doesn't this meet the criteria for fictional i.e. known to be not-real? I counter this by suggesting that even though it may be known that the value of money is sustained by the imagination it still has value as-if-real, and this as-if-real is what I am terming virtual.

"This is going off on a tangent, but you connect "non-fictionality" to belief so strongly that I'd like to ask whether the delusions of the insane are virtual, rather than fictional."

This is a great question! To the insane person, yes, their delusions are virtual. Are they fictional to the observer of the insane person? Not in Walton's sense of fictional (which I am using) since to be fictional is to involved in a game of make-believe. But a delusion is not make-believe - it is as-if-real, hence virtual. This is my reading, anyway - I welcome further discussion on this point.

"Are we only going to accept something as a non-fiction if a large number of people agrees with it? If so, can we look at, say, a specific household, and say that in that household the majority doesn't believe in God so that's a fictional entity?"

Does the household engage in an activity in which God is an object in a game of make-believe? No, they do not. They just don't believe in God - that doesn't make God fictional in Walton's sense, which I am using. You might say they believe that theists engage in this game of make-believe - but since the theists are treating God as-if-real (from the perspective of the atheists) God would be virtual to the atheists (and, as mentioned in the piece, supersensible to the theists).

"You'd like to keep the boundaries of reality clear, but I think they're pretty murky in real life."

I agree - hugely murky! It is exploring this murk that I am interested in here. :)

"Is the moral at the end of a children's story a virtual principle, or a fictional principle?"

Ethics I am claiming is virtual. The moral may be a fictional truth inside the story, but I am claiming it is also virtual outside of the story. Great example to explore!

"Now, take warp speed -your example of a fictional principle. There is a certain theoretical logic to how it works, and it may be that -given the optimistic tendencies of Star Trek- the writers hope that we will achieve it someday. If so, maybe that too can be seen as a philosophical principle. We're only seeing it as it relates to a fictional world, but then we're expected to have a real belief that we can get there someday. So it's a virtual principle about the real world."

I'm not convinced by this argument. Star Trek is fiction, it is a prescription to imagine what happens within its stories, and warp drive/speed is part of this imagining. The writers may hope we may achieve this, but this for me doesn't hit the criteria of the virtual (as defined here) which is as-if-real. There is no way to take anything in Star Trek (except perhaps moral content of stories) as virtual; it is all fictional, as far as I can tell.


Theo: "I know it to be a fiction, as did Calvino. Yet it had an effect on me, and to the extent that it may have affected my behaviour it had a real effect on others. This fiction then becomes something more than fiction in your definition."

Walton refers to Calvino in his book, actually. Yes, I'm willing to say the effect that the book had on you was virtual in my terms - it extended beyond the fictional, certainly. However, in terms of emotions generated by fictional things, Walton is unwilling to grant these a fully fledged status; he would say, for instance, that when we read Anna Karenina it is fictional in our game of make-believe that we pity Anna, not that we pity Anna. (This point may be too detailed to pursue at this time).

"It also seems probable that the kinds of stories we tell affect our view of the world, and hence our actions in it, in all kinds of ways of which we are never conscious. That is what Brecht's critique of bourgeois theatre was getting at."

Yes, I'm willing to say that literature, theatre etc. - narrative and descriptive art of all kinds - can have a virtual effect, far beyond its fictional content. Describing this is trick1

"I wonder, though, if you accept the Buddhist critique of personal identity, could you not then extend this to cover everything we take as real, including rocks and banknotes?"

This is precisely what the Hindu principle of Maya does. One can do this, but only if one takes an idealist stance, rather than a materialist stance. Parfit takes a reductionist/materialist stance - what amazes me is that he still ends up with a Buddhist conclusion in respect of personal identity!

"[Feyerabend] implied that we should instead cherish our differences - tone of voice, inflection and, yes, skin colour. This is a bit of an aside to Chris's points, and I don't necessarily agree with Feyerabend. Still, it gives me pause."

I think there is a cultural aspect of race which is not going anywhere. Black people in the US, for instance, have a very distinct culture (or rather set of cultures!) What we are losing, perhaps, is the assumption of race as an explicit category - it is becoming subsumed into culture. This could be a positive step. I think this is part of what Feyerabend was gesturing at, that when we imagine a "cultureless human" we are imagining something quite ridiculous and utterly impossible! But this virtual "cultureless human" may still be useful; in the case of human rights, I believe it can be.


Chris Vermeers: "So, how would you categorize a ritual in this schema?"

Rituals are virtual, I would say. I miswrote when I suggested that a legal proceeding was real - the outcome of a legal proceeding may be real (an item may change physical location for instance) but the content of a legal proceeding is clearly virtual - it is as-if-real. I should not have implied otherwise.

Of course, saying that all rituals are virtual doesn't mean that they might not also have supersensible effects - this is a matter of individual belief, though.


Thanks for the great comments everyone! Hope we can have more discussion of these points.

Ah, fair enough. Sorry to jump on that specific example. I still don't know if there's enough validity to make this a generally useful categorization, but it seems clearer now. One might say, perhaps, that the things that you term "real" are those things which can be measured independently of any particular measurer, while those things which you term "virtual" or "fictional" are those things which rely to one degree or another on meaning for their effect.

Hmm… interesting. It would seem to bear further thought.

First off, I apologize for assuming you were neglecting this thread. Now that you've explained how you blog I won't make that particular mistake again.

"Hmmm... I don't believe money can be claimed to be fictional. The argument here goes like this: if everyone knows money doesn't have real (i.e. objectively measurable) value, then doesn't this meet the criteria for fictional i.e. known to be not-real? I counter this by suggesting that even though it may be known that the value of money is sustained by the imagination it still has value as-if-real, and this as-if-real is what I am terming virtual."

I should have been more clear. I was speaking specifically about money in online games. You've divided the lines clearly, where anything that takes place in a fictional setting is in itself fictional. But I don't see a difference in practice between money in imaginary worlds and money in the real world. We think of all of them in the same way -as something to be used to get something else- and as such it's all virtual regardless of context. That's all I was saying.


Why are ethics "virtual" but stories "fictional"? Where is the dividing line? You seem to be saying that whenever an element of a story starts encroaching on the perception of the real world it becomes virtual, but I'm going to add on to what Theo was saying and insist that everything in a story affects the way we see the real world, though it's usually very subtle. It's easiest to point out in stories with messages or profound thoughts, which is why I brought the idea of a children's story, but even when we don't notice it it's still happening: a story changes the way we see the real world.

I don't know how the brain processes information, and where the switch is between knowing something's real and knowing it's a story. But I do know that whenever I see a policeman in a TV show it's getting added to what I think of when I think of cops in the real world. And when I see black people in a TV show it gets added to what I think of when I think of real black people. And so on. If this were not true, people wouldn't get so bothered by inaccurate or unflattering portrayals of people like themselves in fiction. We care only because we know that it's not just fiction, and all fiction represents the real world.

You keep using the term "make-believe" to describe fictionality, so let's go with that. A little kid pretends he's an astronaut. He jumps up and down yelling that he's in space, he takes a toy rocket and throws it around the room, he takes random inanimate objects and calls them aliens. A few hours later, he hears the name of a real astronaut. What's going through his head right then is a fiction: he's imagining the astronaut flying and finding weird things and having fun. Because that is what he imagined being an astronaut is like. And this example shows that make-believe is not separate from how we perceive reality; in fact, it is a crucial part of it. Every little detail the kid adds to his game, he then believes is what the real thing is like. Oh, as he gets older he'll hide that. But deep down, that's still what's going on. How many people became astronauts because of Star Trek?

And that is why all fiction has to be considered virtual. Even the parts of fiction which seem totally pointless are adding to our perceptions of the real thing in subtle ways. Even the most abstract or surreal piece of fiction is going to reshape a person's worldview somehow, and that means that the fiction itself has real-world value. The fact that it's all interconnected in the way we process reality means that fiction is in our perceptions "as-if real", or "virtual".

Or to put it in the terms you used:

"Anything which is as influential as the real but which is not part of the imminent frame as it is usually conceived qualifies as virtual."

Fiction can be every bit as influential as the real. Do you doubt that the average American gets as much of his worldview from fictional TV as from news?

Chris Vermeers: No need to apologise - it's useful to discuss these things. :)

"One might say, perhaps, that the things that you term 'real' are those things which can be measured independently of any particular measurer"

Yes, this is precisely what I am gesturing at here! When I update this piece, I might move closer to your definition - thanks for this!

"...while those things which you term 'virtual' or 'fictional' are those things which rely to one degree or another on meaning for their effect."

Need to think about this, but there's definitely something more solid to be teased out in this regard.


Mory: "I should have been more clear. I was speaking specifically about money in online games."

Ah right, yes, well this *is* an interesting case. The money in these games is fictional - yet it enjoys a rate of exchange because there is an existential leakage into the virtual! Castonova draws attention to this when he speaks of the magic circle becoming porous in respect of MMOs in his book, "Synthetic Worlds".

"Why are ethics 'virtual' but stories 'fictional'? Where is the dividing line?"

Stories prescribe imagining - when you read the story, you are expected to imagine it. This makes it fictional (in Walton's system - I apologise that we are discussing Walton's system *before* I write about it, but this gap will get bridged later this year).

Ethics do not prescribe imagining - they are supposed to be applicable to 'real life'. As such, they seem clearly virtual to me.

"You seem to be saying that whenever an element of a story starts encroaching on the perception of the real world it becomes virtual"

I didn't plan to make this claim, but yes, I do seem to be leaning this way... I find it an interesting claim, certainly.

"a story changes the way we see the real world."

Sure, and in this effect it can have a virtual effect. I have no problem with this. The magic circle is leaky! :)

"We care only because we know that it's not just fiction, and all fiction represents the real world."

We certainly care about how things are represented in fiction, and this caring is not obviously fictional since we want to affect how these things are represented. This might be a topic for future exploration - it's certainly an interesting sideline, well worth exploring.

"And this example shows that make-believe is not separate from how we perceive reality; in fact, it is a crucial part of it. Every little detail the kid adds to his game, he then believes is what the real thing is like. Oh, as he gets older he'll hide that. But deep down, that's still what's going on."

Are you sure this shows that make-believe is not separate from how we perceive reality? That our conceptions of what we call reality get incorporated into make-believe doesn't mean there isn't a boundary - it might be a boundary that works only one way (from real to fictional), although I'm not making that claim expressly. But then again, it is *precisely* this blurring between reality and fiction which I am trying to explore here...

"And that is why all fiction has to be considered virtual."

I'm open to this claim to some extent. But I don't think all fiction has to be considered virtual - rather, I think it is possible for virtual effects to occur from fiction. But I'm not sure, for instance, that "The Very Hungry Caterpiller" has much in the way of virtual effects... teaching about metamorphosis? Maybe this would qualify?

"Fiction can be every bit as influential as the real. Do you doubt that the average American gets as much of his worldview from fictional TV as from news?"

Well a lot of "average joe" viewers *can't* separate fiction from reality when it comes to TV, as indicated by the number of people who, upon meeting the actor who plays such-and-such a role, they call them by their stage name (or Michael Dorn being offered prune juice - despite it being Worf who likes prune juice; he hates it!)

Or, for that matter, the number of people who trust Fox News, when Fox News admits itself that most of their programming is not news but "opinio-tainment" or some such.

This inability to separate real, virtual and fictional is precisely what is of interest to me here. Attempts to clarify how fiction can act virtually is definitely of interest, but perhaps the debate is moving ahead of itself, in that I may need to present Walton's theory in detail before we can draw these boundaries.

Don't let that stop you continuing this debate for the time being, though! :)

Thanks for the discussion!

"Are you sure this shows that make-believe is not separate from how we perceive reality? That our conceptions of what we call reality get incorporated into make-believe doesn't mean there isn't a boundary - it might be a boundary that works only one way (from real to fictional), although I'm not making that claim expressly."

That's not what I was saying at all. That reality effects imagination is a given. What I was pointing out is the reverse: that imagination always effects the perception of reality. What we imagine something to be is the filter through which we see what it actually is.

I think you're overlooking the meat of what I'm saying. I am not saying that there are little bits in stories like "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" that might possibly in some extreme cases effect the perception of reality for a limited number of strange people. I am saying that every little bit in every story ever told is changing the perception of reality in everyone who listens to them. That the effect is subtle most of the time should not compel us to forget that the effect always exists.

Our brains are constantly changing and adapting in reaction to absolutely everything they come across. Processing something in front of us is not an entirely passive experience, though it may seem that way to the outside observer. The complex links and associations and memories which arise in our minds are always forming. We don't stop that basic neural functioning just because something isn't real. Regardless of how sane or intellectual you are, you learn as much about terrorism from Jack Bauer as from a news report on a terrorist attack. It's just the way we're wired, we don't naturally make hard distinctions between "real" and "unreal" except to usually give priority to the real when the two are in conflict.

I understand that this might be a hard concept to understand, which could explain the way you have sidestepped my main argument rather than addressing it. But all fiction changes our perceptions of reality. Not some fiction, all fiction. Not parts of stories, every tiny little detail of stories. Because every time you see anything, your brain rewires itself to compensate. When we see reality, we naturally make associations to fiction. And this means that all fiction is virtual.

Mory: if I have sidestepped your main argument, it can only be because I haven't seen it clearly yet. :)

Perhaps we can try and bring out your core argument more clearly?

Here is a work of fiction entitled "The Squirrel".

---
Once upon a time, there was a squirrel. The end.
---

Can you elucidate the virtual effects of this story? How does it affect us as-if-real? How is this not purely a work of fiction?

If you mean to make the basis of your argument that our mental states are affected by fiction (our attitudes and memories, for instance) then I don't find this to meet my criteria for virtual very well. That we remember fiction or have emotional states from engaging with fiction can still be annexed under the heading of "fictional" if no-one considers these memories and experiences to be real. It would not rise to the level of virtual that I mean to address here. (And if it did, it would be an argument for rewording my definition of virtual!)

You say "when we see reality, we naturally make associations to fiction" but this claim could be doubted. One could say that what is being associated with is our memories of fiction, which are real. This would not make the fiction real - the fiction would remain fictional.

The Mona Lisa is a real object, our memories of it are real memories. But when we view the Mona Lisa we engage in a game of make-believe with the Mona Lisa as a prop. The propositions within that game of make-believe are fictional, and not true (as such). It is not true that the Mona Lisa has no eyebrows (or at least, not true in the way this is usually meant!) - since the Mona Lisa is a painting, and not a person (with or without eyebrows!) Indeed, no paintings have eyebrows, per se (ignoring the comedic potential of attaching false eyebrows to a painting!) But it is fictional (==fictionally true) when we look at the Mona Lisa that we see a woman with no eyebrows.

I claim the above observation doesn't have a virtual effect of any kind. You claim (I am assuming) that it does have a virtual effect. But is this virtual effect merely a result of the memories of fiction (which are real)? Because if so, this doesn't seem to me to rise to the level of what I mean by virtual.

In case this line of attack doesn't add usefully to the discussion, let me take another tack. What would you have to do to my definition of virtual to exclude your claim that "all fiction is virtual"? (I have to ask *you* to do this, since I don't share your perspective here and am not yet convinced that all fiction is virtual). That might be a prudent way to continue this exploration.

Thanks for your input!

"Here is a work of fiction entitled "The Squirrel".

---
Once upon a time, there was a squirrel. The end.
---"

Your story is short, and therefore makes only one statement about real-world squirrels: that squirrels are uninteresting creatures about which there is not much to say. Since I have very few associations connected to squirrels, seeing as how there aren't any where I live, I will never again be able to think of a squirrel without remembering The Squirrel and reflecting that they are not interesting creatures. And so, to a degree proportionate to the scope of your story, you have changed my real worldview.

"You say 'when we see reality, we naturally make associations to fiction' but this claim could be doubted. One could say that what is being associated with is our memories of fiction, which are real. This would not make the fiction real - the fiction would remain fictional."

This is a very strange argument to make. You defined virtual as "anything which is as influential as the real but which is not part of the imminent frame as it is usually conceived". If you'd like to redefine, go for it, but this is what we're talking about right now. The memories of fiction (which are real) were created by the fiction (which is not). Without the fiction, those memories would not exist. Therefore, if we're talking about influence, anything the memories caused can be traced back to the fiction itself. I don't see why it should make a difference that the process of influence passed through some real things along the way.

If we were to accept your logic, the entire category of "virtual" would cease to exist. Let's take money, for instance. How does money have an influence? You could say that we do things to try to get money, but we only do that because we remember the existence of money. Without that real memory it wouldn't happen, so it's the memory, and not the money, that has the influence. You could say we use money to get things, but we're actually using coins or credit cards, which are real. Money only enters the picture if you bring up our associations between coins and the concept of money, and those associations go back to the memory of the concept of money. That memory is real. If you were to raise every influence money has, I could shoot every single one down as "because of the memory", and you'd be left having to conclude that money has no influence at all, and therefore is fictional.


"What would you have to do to my definition of virtual to exclude your claim that 'all fiction is virtual'?"

Actually, I'm not at all convinced that that's a sensible thing to do. Separating the world into things that are real and things which are not, that makes sense to me. One category is objective yet unknowable, the other category is everything we think and imagine including all our explanations and understandings of reality. This duality makes perfect sense to me, and though I don't know anything about philosophy I have to imagine there are philosophers who broke the world down into those two categories with no difficulties. But this third category you're trying to make, I'm not convinced it's useful. I'm perfectly okay with saying that money, ethics and the Mona Lisa are all in the same category, whether that category is called "virtual" or "fictional". I don't think there is a difference between the two, so I can't answer your question.

Mory: thanks for your full explanation here - but sadly it puts us at an impasse! You have convinced me there may be a need to redefine virtual, but I don't have the tools at this stage of the discussion to make the attempt. I am, however, not happy with a simple division into real and fictional as adequate to the task... but the onus is clearly on me to take a step here, since you are! :)

Many thanks for taking the time to go through this with me. I hope it has been an entertaining discussion!

---

Let me put this out to anyone else to chip in - other perspectives most welcome. Don't let the intensity of my discussion with Mory discourage anyone (lurkers et al) from chiming in with a perspective. As far as I'm concerned, this question is wide open - perhaps even more wide open than when I began! :)

Cheers!

I think I may see a way to keep a three-category system of reality, but I'm pretty sure you won't like it.

I propose we change the three categories to "real", "virtual" and "nonexistant". "Real" encompasses everything that physically exists. "Nonexistant" encompasses everything that does not physically exist. Neither of these two categories are knowable, because no observer of the real is objective and the nonexistant cannot be observed. By trying to process anything in those two categories, we create a third category in our minds, "virtual", about which we can think and make observations and statements. We consider things which are virtual to be real, because otherwise we could not function. I guess the way to define "virtual" would be "anything filtered through a consciousness". So while there is a real person Chris Bateman, I'm not talking to him. I'm talking to the virtual Chris Bateman in my head. And while money, being a concept rather than an object, does not exist, in my mind I create a virtual thing called "money" which I can talk about.

The trouble with breaking the world up like that is that it's not really three categories, just two categories with a separate idea (that we perceive the world through representational symbols rather than through objective truth) grafted on top.

It might help if I understood exactly why you want three categories.

Or to ask more precisely: why are you "not happy with a simple division into real and fictional as adequate to the task"? What task is it that it's not adequate for, and where's the inadequacy?

Mory: "It might help if I understood exactly why you want three categories."

Yeah, I wondered whether I was holding things up by not giving this context! :)

I'm working on a popular philosophy proposal, and within it I will be dealing with "fictional" under Kendall Walton's model. But I also want to deal with the way that money, nations and people are concepts of mind, not objective truths. It is finding a way to portray this that lead to my use of "virtual" in my current approach.

I'm now thinking that virtual could be tied to the imagination - in a manner not dissimilar to what you suggest here. But I have a problem as I want to veer away from too strong an anti-realist position - I don't want to say that electrons don't exist because they are merely an object of mind we use to model a particular phenomena, I want to claim that the phenomena that our idea of electrons model is a genuinely objective phenomena - it would still happen if we could not imagine it - while money, nations and people *could not* be what they are if we were not able to imagine them.

Hope this clarifies!

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