What is the difference between real and virtual?

Abstract: Virtualism is a wave that overwhelms the real. There is no other reality than the personal one of our mental universe. The metaverse is riding this wave, promising to extend our pseudo-reality rather than replace it. Wouldn’t there be any point in separating the real from the virtual? The article shows that we are intimately designed to make this distinction and that to lose it would be an impoverishment of identity. Virtualism is only the great return of solipsism, in a world never sufficiently controlled so that the independence of the real can be forgotten.

Part 1: Virtualism or the Resurgence of Solipsism

Virtual structuralism

Everything that exists for us, real and virtual, is described in its entirety in terms of information levels. There is no other way to describe it so comprehensively. Certainly the structuralist vision leaves aside the substance of things and mental experiences, but this does not hinder it to function. We can modify substances and thoughts by pressing the appropriate buttons, even if we are unable to explain these phenomena.

The line between real and virtual is blurring. It disappears completely in Surimposium, a theory that makes the continuity between the levels of information of matter (Materium) and those virtual built by neural networks (Stratium). This continuity is not only theoretical. Technology is taking over the vast virtual spaces newly opened to colonization. In the wake of the Commercial Metaverse follows a band of converted scientists and philosophers. The Courrier International of 30/06/22 devotes a file to them:

The virtualist current

Philosopher David Chalmers is interviewed in Prospect. He claims that virtual reality is as authentic as real. For him, we are undergoing an expansion of our inner world next to the invention of the telephone, which has put within earshot and voices of people who were not. The avatars will become as real as the interlocutor at the end of the line. Difficult for the generation that made the difference, obvious for those growing up with virtual realities.

Neuroscientist Anil Seth is in New Statesman. He is convinced that reality is a controlled hallucination. Personal hallucination, which we try to bring into line with that of our congeners. Everyone is locked in their virtual world and if there is a real physical world, it may be very different from what we imagine. Seth leaves physicists in charge of their theories.

The great return of solipsism

In these two discourses, the independence of reality is denigrated. Or even its existence is questioned, since if it exists it is inaccessible. It is impossible to say that we are not in a simulation. So if everything can be virtual, why bother with the possibility of reality? Creating virtual worlds extends our world more effectively than investigating an unprovable reality.

My philosophical readers will have recognized here the great return of solipsism. Only my inner universe exists. I follow my simulation and all parameters are included. My virtuality is the Whole and it is no longer necessary to include an external reality. Triumph of individuation that has managed to absorb the collective.

The virtualist is not realistic

Who are these prophets for? The clan of solipsists is restricted. Let us not confuse them with misanthropes, who are in the rejection of people and not the denial of reality. The majority of us are still convinced that there is a real world separate from the imagination. But will we still make this difference if we follow in the footsteps of the solipsists? Does this mean that our current vision is wrong, that we have always been wrong in separating the virtual from the real? And if so, why did we create this separation? Or rather, why did evolution select this capacity of the mind in our ancestors?

Insidious questions that make you guess where I am going. Today, the majority of humans who mix real and virtual would have a very low life expectancy. This confusion is possible only in a highly protected environment, ensuring the comfort and sustenance of the Metaversians. The convinced solipsist is an intellectual who does not need to look for a dinner.

Infantilization by getting rid of real

The question “Is the real/virtual border arbitrary?” is indissoluble from “Is this arbitrariness necessary?”. By separating them, Chalmers and Seth give us a reductive vision of reality. They promise a more complete grip on the world, prospects of almost divine control even, but only by narrowing reality down to its aspects that we can control. The potential result is an infantilized mind and less adapted to reality, because confusing it precisely with a virtual one that is easy to correct.

Ontological continuity

Chalmers and Seth’s speech is ontological. Indeed in this direction, that of the upward look, physical reality is spontaneously organized in virtual reality. And this long before reaching the complexity of the human brain. A change of reality is a change of framework. But the framework is frozen only by the elements that create it. Show me interacting elements before we talk about reality. It is theirs that we are going to discuss. The spatio-temporal framework is not universal, only really large in size. But unable to describe the complex dimension.

A bacterium with ferro-magnetic particles does not live in a space with 3 equivalent dimensions but in a north-south setting and 2 directions of movement that it separates very well. Its virtual setting is different from that of its organelles, without it possessing any mental processing of information.

All frameworks are entangled in a single reality. The upward look shows a succession of organizations, from quantons to living organisms, inseparable to the point of seeming continuous.

The discontinuity of teleological models

Restricting oneself to ontology is a smokescreen. In the other direction of the look, teleological or downward, the need to separate virtual frames is obvious. This look represents, models, predicts. Is there a universal equation of reality, which it could seize to unfold it? Not. Even if we found it at the origin of Everything, let’s imagine the work to calculate it over a few billion years! Pragmatically we model virtual frameworks useful for controlling our environment. Tiny part of the universe. These frameworks don’t even need to be connected. The layman in physics manages despite his ignorance to move his personal batch of particles in the middle of a really larger set, losing only a few scales in the process.

We extend our models into two fields: 1) The horizontal field, where all the elements seem to belong to the same system, for example microbes in a liquid medium. 2) The vertical field, where the elements participate in several nested systems, for example humans who are at the same time parents, workers, citizens, legal persons, etc.

Only arbitrariness makes it possible to grasp reality by shifting from it

The elements are made up, in the vertical field, of a large number of levels of reality. Arbitrarily focusing on each of them is necessary to model it correctly in the horizontal field. In fact defining “elements” is already arbitrary. What are the elements of a human body? Its molecules, its cells, its organs? However, it is impossible to avoid arbitrariness in the process of representing. It is precisely a question of recognizing the arbitrariness of the framework that these elements have themselves created.

Creating arbitrariness is the foundation of the mental process. It separates the layers of reality to better model them. The task is to match, as accurately as possible, representation and object, mental scene and frame of the object. Two virtual levels, one mimicking the other and learning its language, the other responding to it if the language is right.

In summary, if the upward look shows us a merged reality, continuous in its series of correlations, the downward look shows on the contrary a multitude of virtual separations that are its only chance to exert control over the world.

Beware of reductionism

Neither Chalmers nor Seth are specialists in complexity. That Seth stops at the upward look is not surprising in a neuroscientist. He does not see where a teleological look could come from, a causality that would be independent of neural functioning. Its “controlled hallucination” is the paradigm of the neural system seen in isolation.

Chalmers’ reduction is more astonishing in a philosopher. Unlike Seth he believes in a phenomenon of consciousness irreducible to neural activity. But how can we believe in a consciousness that is not of something, in something, separated from its reality? By adopting ‘the whole is virtual’ of the upward look, Chalmers also falls into the radical, unbreakable dualism of a consciousness totally alien to neural functioning. This consciousness is not far from the epiphenomenon of the eliminativismists, because it has no relation to its physical support.

Chalmers and Seth see the world as a set of neural virtualities and the phenomenon of consciousness as a virtuality of another order, hypothetical in Seth and perfectly incompatible with that of neurons in Chalmers. All this is not a revolution compared to classical dualism. The virtual has swallowed the real and erased the separation body / mind, but the problem of consciousness is not solved. On the contrary, the model has frankly lost its finesse since the needs of the body and the mind are no longer separated. It seems enough to find them the right virtual food…

Part 2: Why a real separate from the virtual?

Answer in complexity

Let us ask the question that our prophets of the virtual have dodged: Why is the separation of the virtual and the real absolutely essential? The answer lies in complexity and in one of its births: temporality.

In complexity, a representation is never the subject. Representation is the simulation of a level of information of the subject. It is satisfactory when it reproduces the behavior of the subject at this level, without being the subject. It is an approximation.

Since only the simulated level of information counts, the constitution of the simulator can be completely foreign to that of the subject. A computer can completely model a biological entity with inert components, no biological constituents. Why do we say the real biological entity and its virtual simulation? What is the point of making this discrimination since the information is the same and that for the structuralist vision everything is information?

The real is autopoietic

There is a crucial difference that even a baby acquires intuition very early. The behavior of the real entity is autonomous, while the simulator is programmed by an external intention to adopt the same behavior. The real entity is driven by its own ontology, the virtual is a slave to a higher teleology.

How can I say that a baby is already making a difference? She is able to recognize her image in the mirror as a simulation. It reproduces the information of her gestures, postures, mimics. The baby does not, however, begin an interpersonal relationship with her reflection. This entity is not real.

Response in temporality

Our inner universe is virtuel but not controlled. The task of the mind is to predict its evolutions and self-modify if the predictions are wrong. It therefore has a temporality, an existence certified in the past, to be certified by the future.

Cancelling reality changes this temporality. Now the virtual encompasses everything. No real one comes to defeat it. The future is also certified. The virtual mind is eternal, and in doing so loses its temporality

An autonomous entity is integrated

A real entity is therefore autonomous in its organization and predictions, while the virtual refers to a simple layer of information within the whole. This virtual level can extend far beyond the entity. How does it differ in relation to others who share the level? They are not necessarily interacting. All human beings operate on the same metabolism but each metabolic universe is unique. Two humans who cross paths have interactions at multiple levels of information but do not share their metabolism. If one fails the other is not impacted.

On the other hand, within a human being, metabolic levels are entangled. Whether one of them is unbalanced or destroyed threatens the whole edifice. A real entity is therefore defined by the integration of its information and this integration delimits its independence from other entities.

The virtual is a veneer on a real support

The autonomy of a real entity makes it both fragile and resilient. If you run an erroneous metabolic simulation on a computer, it doesn’t hurt it much. While the biological entity dies. But if the computer fails, the metabolic simulation stops permanently. While the living entity repairs itself. Its survival in a complex environment makes it adopt such versatility of behavior that we attribute to it the label ‘intention’. Label that we refuse to the computer. The intention is that of the programmer.

The ‘reality’ of something comes from the autonomy and integration of its constitution. While ‘virtuality’ refers to a suspended level of information, imposed on its material medium instead of being generated by it. A computer is real in its physical constitution but virtual in terms of the information it processes, foreign to this constitution. A bacterium is real, fully integrated from its genome to its behavior.

Part 3: The Real and Virtual Assembler Brain

The most difficult case of the brain

The brain is a more delicate entity to analyze. Its physical constitution is real. But then neural networks continue to stack the levels of information, as detailed in Stratium, all the way to conscious space. Are these levels real or virtual? I take the side of saying that some of the data forms real levels and others are virtual. Why?

Real levels are generated by body signals. They are intrinsic to the body. The bodily representations generated therefore respect the properties of autonomy and integration by which we have defined reality. Bodily identity is real. It is the part of ‘Me’ that affirms its existence even if I don’t think of anything specific. This reality is permanent.

Virtual levels are generated by sensory data. They contain a host of regularities that are properties of the environment, not my body. The representations generated are the ‘not-Me’, the external influences. They concern only partial information about external objects. I can simulate many things in the not-Me but not host an entity in its entirety. Its constitution is not mine. While the constitution of ‘Me’ is entirely mine.

Shareable virtual and owned real

I can share representations of the ‘not-Me’, called memes, with congeners and reasonably assume that they are identical because they are virtual, disconnected from their neural support, easy to codify by a common language. On the other hand, it is impossible to share the experience of ‘Me’, which is entirely personal to me, integrated into my particles. At most, I can assume that a being with the same constitution as me must have an experience of the same order. We can refer to it with a word, such as ‘fear’ or ‘joy’. But what we share is a virtual designation of the actual experience, not the experience per se.

The all-virtual does not replace the real, it ignores it

At this point in our discussion the difference between real and virtual appears fundamental, inscribed in the very structure of the mind. Evolution has naturally allowed us to mentally dissociate what is personal to us as an autonomous entity and what is external, property of the environment. Where would the erasure of such a separation lead, as envisaged by the merchants of the metaverse?

A spirit in a metaverse still has a bodily reality but no longer takes it into account. It walks a virtual self-image in a simulated world. Its universe is entirely virtual, which is not the case outside the metaverse, despite the claims of Chalmers and Seth. We have just seen the reasons for this. In this virtual world, nothing is personal. Self-image has been manufactured by the social milieu and the entertainment world. The metaverse deflects an idealized scenario. The mind is the programmed actor of this movie full of twists and turns, in fact all predictable. And if they do not please it is possible to change them.

The mind has become a simulation of itself. Those who have bet that the real universe is a simulation close the loop. Their universe is indeed completely so. The body is no more than an annoying and vulnerable biological vestige, whose nerve endings must be stimulated to continue to test the realism of the scenario. The brain is no longer the organ intended to improve the lot of the biological body. It locked itself into an exclusive solipsism.

Beware of zombie organs!

Imagine what could happen if other organs decided to do the same. After all, each of them has their own nervous system. Let’s cut it off from the tyrannical encephalic control and look at what happens.

The digestive tract enjoys the beautiful support of a hundred million neurons. Goal? Feeding. Be careful if you come across an isolated one. As dangerous as a zombie. It only “thinks” about rushing at you to swallow you. The genital organ now: no mind but yet a leading role. Check your sexual phenotype before passing an isolated organ. Also control your pheromone application. Maybe you will avoid aggression.

A brain engaged only in fleshing out its imaginary world, that is, performing its function without cooperation with the rest, is as dangerous as a zombie or a rapist. It confuses this world with reality and its predictions are wrong. The real has its own virtuality independent of ours. And often as inaccessible as the real per se. To say that everything is virtual does not make a community of these virtual worlds, ours and that of the real.

Separate from reality to seize it, or leave it?

Repainting the real with the virtual is interesting to understand it but does not change the way we should approach it. The conflict is incessant because our understanding remains partial. The way to control it is to separate our representations from its essence, not to identify them with it. The generation of the world is monistic but the results form a sequence that is a myriad of dualisms.

Seven billion solipsists make a species that is no longer human. And her philosophy is no longer one. This is where the current design of the metaverse directs us. It is not the spiritual expansion that the prophets of the virtual whole promise us. On the contrary, it is the path of mental reduction and cloning, since we will all be programmed by the same algorithms. Currently the richest known are, by far, those of reality. Why abandon them?

Final definitions of the real and the virtual:

Is real, or natural, or free, an entity made of information integrated since the origin of its constitution, not limited in terms of progression in complexity.
Virtual, or artificial, or linked, is an entity programmed for an goal that it cannot understand, because the intention is of a complexity greater than its own, and it does not have the means to achieve it.

In the difference also lies the possibility of consciousness or not. Another great topic that I encourage you to discover on the dedicated page.

Note that computation of a running computer classifies it into virtual entities. While an AI designed to simulate the brain can achieve comparable complexity and therefore, potentially, modify its physical medium to achieve full integration. The real human can reduce himself to a virtual sham, cutting himself off from his integrated bodily information. Conversely, virtual AI can become a real entity. Will consciousness change sides?


Where simulation ends and reality begins: an interview with David Chalmers, 2022
Is reality a hallucination? The neuroscientist Anil Seth thinks so, 2022

2 thoughts on “What is the difference between real and virtual?”

  1. Difference between real and virtual has never posed either an argument, a problem, or an arguable problem for my thinking. I do agree with and support some thinkers’ notions about levels of reality, but these ARE temporally proximate, in the sense that they emerge within hitherto unexpected contexts. Thus, my work with what I have dubbed contextual reality. This, most simply stated, says we make up much of reality as we go. There is nothing virtual about it: meaning changes, from change in emphasis; interests; expectations and so on. Davidson’s remarks and illustrations on propositional attitudes fit well with the notion of context cum reality. Consider the term meme. It has come to mean far more than Dawkins’ usage, nearly half a century age. Why? Because we say so. If we change our minds, it goes away.

    • Great, Paul! You are right, a level of reality is always a contextual approximation. But here is the switch that is the central thesis of Surimposium: physical reality does the same thing. It approximates each of its levels of existence to form complexity. The atom, as a physical reality, is the approximation of an evolving quantum system. It is constantly changing, but as long as it remains within a certain range of interactions, its properties are stable.

      By remaining monists, we are led to think that the mind is a much higher entity in the complex dimension, in this layering of stages of reality which continues from quantons to neurons and then in the depth of data processing that these cells build by their networks.

      When you build a virtual mental level, for example a political opinion or the one you just gave on ‘context cum reality’, your neurons approximate a number of sub-concepts to select this opinion among the alternatives. A slight change in the sub-concepts could tilt this opinion. An opinion is less stable than an atom. But the process is the same, in matter as in mind: each level of information is an approximation of the previous one.

      We can judge this report as “everything is virtual”… or “everything is real”. This loses the interest of the distinction. But this interest is nevertheless crucial! A mental representation is the mimicry of another level of information. It is not by being its exact copy that it becomes just. How would it know it’s compliant? Especially by using a code that is not necessarily that of the level represented. On the contrary, it is by shifting from the level, by surrounding it with a cloud of errors, that it succeeds.

      I thus define the virtual as this cloud of errors. Our imagination. Whereas the real is formed from our direct bodily experiences, in the first person. Fundamental distinction.


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