The opposition between the real and the virtual is not really relevant, either from the point of view of our perceptive culture of the virtual or from the point of view of the history of the concept of the virtual. In fact, the virtual is a soft modality of reality, which can allow us to better tame its hard and current modality. Then let us celebrate the union of the real and the virtual!
According to our current perceptive culture: the virtual is not opposed to the real.
Reality is what it is. It is the set of things (res) and present events. It’s the totality of everything that happens. As such, the reality is never perceived. Montaigne, better than all, reminds us:
“we have no communication with being (nous n’avons aucune communication à l’être)” — Montaigne, Essais, II, 12.
If reality remains for us an unreachable horizon, we nevertheless reach phenomenal realities, individual or collective representations of reality. These representations are influenced by our nature, by our personal history, by our social and cultural environment, and also by our techniques.
Indeed, our devices are « phenomenotechnical devices » (Stéphane Vial, L’être et l’écran, 2013), because they influence our relationship to the world and the way phenomena appear to us. Therefore, any great technological revolution is at the same time an ontophanic revolution, affecting the way beings (in Greek: ontos) appear (phaïnô).
“Virtuality is an integral part of the ontophany of the contemporary world conditioned by digital devices. (La virtualité fait partie intégrante de l’ontophanie du monde contemporain conditionnée par les appareils numériques.)» (Vial, 2013).
We are now used to simulation via interfaces. In fact, the so-called « digital natives » generation has been used since its birth to seeing the world through screens and manipulating computer-generated simulations of reality via digital interfaces. For this generation, these are real things that are seen on the screens.
As Sherry Turkle (Life on the Screen) put it back in 1995:
“We have learned to take things at interface value.” (Turkle, 1995)
We have entered a culture of simulation, in which we increasingly substitute representations of reality for reality itself.
In fact, our relationship to virtual (computer simulated) objects is not affected by a feeling of unreality. The culture of simulation thus leads us to take what we see on screen for cash (« at interface value« ). In the culture of simulation, what works for us has all the reality we need.
According to the history of the concept: the virtual is not opposed to the real.
The concept of virtual goes back to Aristotle’s philosophy. Aristotle needed to forge this concept to find a solution to the antinomy of being asked by Parmenides: « Being is and Non-Being is not ».
To get out of this radical opposition, Aristotle proposes to define being in two ways: being in act (Greek: energeai ; Latin: in actu) and being in power (Greek: dunamis ; Latin: in potentia). The potential being exists as a promise, without manifest actualisation.
Thus, the marble block contains virtually the statue that will be actualized by the sculptor. Similarly, the tree exists virtually in the seed. Each time, the virtual exists, but without yet being there: potential existence is a real existence, the virtual is a real way of being. Scholasticism (medieval philosophy inspired by Aristotle) thus contrasts virtualis (from the Latin virtus: strength, power), not with « real », but with « actual ». Aristotle and all Western philosophy thus do not oppose the virtual to the real, but to the act.
However, panicked by digital simulation devices, many thinkers have affected the virtual by a coefficient of unreality. The virtual has often been opposed to the real and brought closer to the fictional, the imaginary, the dangerous simulacrum, the artificial, the illusory false, the inauthentic.
On the contrary, let us celebrate the union of the real and the virtual. The virtual is a soft modality of reality, which can allow us to better tame its hard and current modality.
On the same subject, see also the interview of François Jourde conducted during C2E 2017, an event organized by the Laboratoire Techné de l’université de Poitiers: