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The Blurring of the Distinction Between Reality and Virtuality

Plato's allegory of the cave, the distinction between body and mind, or that between internal fantasies and actual behaviours are fundamental and ancestral dichotomies through which we think and act. They are three among many other expressions of the dualist way of thinking. Philosophers have argued that these dichotomies are fragile and more illusory than one may think. However, dualist thinking remains a pillar of common sense and of the moral and political experience. By making virtuality more real than ever before, the digital transition undermines the real/virtual divide, and thereby all dualist forms of thinking. This calls for new framings of several issues, either through monism, a new dualism, or pluralism. Cognitive sciences can usefully complement the philosophical perspective with a scientific account of the link between the different ways of thinking (in pluralist, dualist or monist terms) and behaviours.

In concrete terms, exploring these issues will shed light, for example, on the level of continuity in behavioural and moral terms that should be expected in the virtual and the physical public spaces. For example, anthropologists tell us that it is common practice for people to lie about themselves on the internet, not necessarily for bad reasons, but rather as a social practice: minors and dating adults lie about their age, appearance, interests, and so forth. Is this really affecting trust or, on the contrary, is it part of the acculturation of ICT tools by society, producing the shadow areas that any individual needs to live as a human? Another issue relates to where one should draw the line between real and virtual when it comes to committing crimes, such as murder or rape? At the physical end, it is and must be strictly forbidden and severely punished. At the virtual end, when dealing with a mere solitary game, it can be considered as being part of the private sphere and tolerated as part of one's own deep intimacy. Yet, there is a middle ground between these two ends (social gaming, avatars, web-dating etc.), and it is not trivial to draw the line between the space where public morality has to apply and the space where inner dialogues and negotiations take place.

The Blurring of the Distinctions Between People, Nature and Artefacts

Once upon a time, it was easy to distinguish people from artefacts and nature. The blurring of the distinction has been increasing since Darwin and the industrial era. After Darwin, we acknowledge that we are part of nature, in full continuity with animals. Since the industrial era, artefacts and nature have become intrinsically connected, through the metabolism of the industrial development, which is drawing on natural resources. More recently, with the use of medical devices, human beings and artefacts have also connected.

The digital transition acts as a huge accelerator of the blurring of these once effective distinctions. The multiplication of sensors and prostheses, the progress of cognitive sciences and biological engineering blur the distinction between humans and artefacts. The multiplication of artefacts, the intensification of industrial development on the whole planet and the increase of monitoring means we may not exhaust the planet, which will pursue its course in the universe, but it surely exhausts the notion of blank nature or of an endless reservoir.

This means that our conceptual toolbox, still reliant on these once effective distinctions between humans, nature and artefacts, needs to adapt to this new reality, where these distinctions no longer exist. What impact does this have on policy making in the ethical domain? What impact does it have on the framing of the sustainability challenge in a prospective way?

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