Vortrag im Rahmen der Kolloquien des Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of Science
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The widespread integration of virtual experiences into our daily lives, accentuated by the COVID crisis, has propelled the notion of virtuality to the forefront of many sociological and philosophical debates over the past two decades. In particular, the rise of virtual meetings, virtual laboratories, virtual reality and the burgeoning promise of the metaverse have raised questions about the ontological status of virtuality. Fueled by long-standing discussions, notably in 20th century French philosophy, these debates reveal that the virtual is a particularly difficult notion to grasp, as far removed from the real as it is from the unreal.
The vagueness surrounding such a notion may seem all the more surprising given that it has a long history, well predating the advent of the digital age. Beyond its roots in Greek philosophy and Scholasticism, it has a well-established trajectory in the sciences, with “virtual displacements” and other “virtual images” becoming central concepts as early as the 18th century. Later, the use of virtuality gained renewed interest in modern physics, particularly in quantum theory. In this field, from its formal introduction in 1924 to address questions relating to radiation theory to its most contemporary manifestation with virtual particles in high-energy physics, virtuality has also raised fundamental questions about its ontological significance.
A focus on historical developments in quantum theory—which in fact provides substantial support for the transition of the notion of virtuality from classical physics and philosophy to computer science—then provides a fresh look at our current understanding of the notion of virtuality and the debates surrounding it. In particular, as we shall see throughout this presentation, it highlights some of its virtues in a scientific context, while revealing partial explanations of its inherently elusive nature.
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