“Virtual” is often used as a metaphor for “almost nothing” – like in “it’s only virtual, it’s not real”. I encountered an interesting example of that language usage by a well-known historian – actually what he referred to was more “mixed reality” than “virtual reality”, but his logic was the same: to express the idea that something, in this case religion, is not real, just an illusion.
Derek Thompson of The Atlantic interviewed the historian Yuval Harari who just published his new book Homo Deus. In the interview, The Post-Human World, Harari describes a scene in which kids almost get into a fight when opposing groups try to catch the same Pokemon Go creatures. The fact that these creatures are “just virtual” does not matter to them. That reminded Harari of Jerusalem: where competing monotheist religions see a holy city, he just sees old stones. In his view those religions live in a virtual (I would say “mixed”) reality – members get good points when performing or not performing certain actions and bad points/punishments when doing or not doing other things. Harari:
There is nothing in reality that corresponds to these rules. But you have millions of people playing these virtual reality games. So what is the difference between a religion and a virtual reality game?
I think he stretches the notion of “virtual” here while at the same time interpreting it too much in the negative sense of “unreal”. Used in this way we could use “virtual” for many if not all other cultural phenomena: we humans constantly give meaning to our physical environment since what we experience is tied up with our emotions and ideas. These ideas and convictions are not tangible but they are part of our social reality. It is also not clear what he means by “religion” as even the big monotheist religions come in many flavors.
In the book Thank You for Being Late Thomas Friedman devotes a chapter to the question “Is God in Cyberspace?”. He mentions Rabbi Tzvi Marx, a Talmudic scholar, who explains that there is a Jewish post biblical view of God. In that view God is present by our own choices and our own decisions. You have to bring in God (or not) “by the moral choices and mouse clicks you make.” I would hesitate calling this “virtual reality” in the sense of “just a game”.
Or do I misinterpret Harari here?