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.