In casual terms, at least from explanations I can find,

  • imaginary is something which "does not exist" in reality: "an imaginary world"
  • virtual is something which "exists effectively": "a virtual machine" / "a virtual victory".

After thinking on this, I have some sort of gut feeling that there is more to it, for example, does then an imaginary world exist effectively as part of our imagination? And a virtual machine, either a virtual victory, does not really exists in reality?

Maybe this is something in the field between semiotics and epistemology?

Please share:

  • Which is the related philosophical field?
  • Has a philosopher or even many already considered this question? (if so, please provide the earliest reference).

To underpin "the philosophical problem" to start considering the topic (correct me I am wrong): in our mind, we seem to refer to some things which empirically do not exist, as having different levels of "real existence"?

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    Too small for an answer: in physics, "virtual" is used in an as-if sense. If one acts as-if these virtual entities exist, one arrives at the correct laws of nature for the system. It lets one expand a model past where it would otherwise break down. For example, the "virtual image" approach to lenses let one act as-if there was a real image and then use simple models where the mirror/lens doesn't do complicated things with light.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 5:31
  • Just to provoke your thoughts - what if there is an "imaginary" creature in a virtual world? Consider computer game. It obviously exists, but to what extent? Does the creature itself "exists", or merely the 1s and 0s that represents it? Anyway there's a David Chalmers article that attempts to clarify the topic. It's not all-encompassing but it's a nice start, I'll try to attach a link later. And for the related field - it really depend to which direction you take it, but it almost always starts with ontology (i.e. what is the definition of existence). Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 8:23
  • @Cortammon in that sense electric and magnetic fields are virtual. There is only the force of attraction between charges, not a field it acts through, anymore than their is ether for light to wave through.
    – Al Brown
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 8:25
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    The Virtual and the Real, Chalmers 2017. You can find on this page related work that you might find interesting. Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 8:33

5 Answers 5


As far as imaginary worlds are concerned, possible world semantics comes to mind. Then comes the question of the ontological status of such worlds, and you can find various, interesting proposals in the literature. I suggest having a read of the SEP article on possible worlds. As far as possible worlds as imagined worlds are concerned, there have been some interesting developments in that regard in the last 20 years or so, in conjunction with research in hyperintensionality. I recommend having a read of some of the work by Francesco Berto, and his papers on Logic of Imagination, in particular.


For me, there's only degree of clarity of anything perceived/imagined by a human being. The common conceptions of virtual/imaginary/factual are all fine but limited compared to its full potential. If you really into any field be it is dealing with facts or imaginations, you'll find all kinds of progress will let you turn all focus back into your own mind. Thus, you'll blame others less, and concentrate on your own value more... like u can always be in a calmed state while still can use your head to solve real problems... It empowers and makes ur life manifold...

In its gist, math/logic is at the clear-but-abstract spectrum of human mind's virtual "imagination", while common story-telling (pretty much everything else human experienced) is at the other vivid-sensational-while-murky "imagination" spectrum, with physics modeling linking in between. It's like QM uncertainty principle, a layperson cannot fully understand both ends who is not math educated.

Most people will regard math as absolute truth, such as number 2 is real and really exists in some Platonic spiritual world apart from this imperfect material world (sounds like dualism here). But my view is contrary, number 2 (or any math) resides in the same "metaphoric" realm of human mind, just happen to be the relatively most clear-countably-verifiable-universal metaphor. I don't opine separating the noumena from the phenomena as a serious business, its useful for some purposes, but all these concepts and separations are still man-made (fake) analogies and stories consciously engineered to explain to a naive but confused child who is actively seeking an authoritative answer from the grown-ups

This world perceived by human mind is nothing but metaphors, that's why we can have several different models/theories about the same phenomena, such as the famous Newtonian Force Laws, Lagrangian/Hamiltonian Minimum Action Principle, and the later Maxwell/Einstein Field Theory in classical physics and then applied further into QM, so far all these above 3 distinct models (metaphors) are not proved wrong and taught in every physics department around the globe. In the meantime, because our mind is constantly forming-destroying-reforming numerous metaphors as free will, most of these created images/processes/analogies are in more or less confused state. For example, if you've never been visiting a place and people around you are talking extensively about it, still in your mind you'll form some vague images from what you heard. Most of these misconceptions are like "avidya" in Buddhism metaphoric teachings, huge huge and thick darkness in the form of ignorant confusions is covering human mind and thus all its derived senses...


I think a good place to start would be the etymology of the word "existence".

On https://www.etymonline.com/word/existence?ref=etymonline_crossreference it says:

existence (n.)

late 14c., "reality," from Old French existence, from Medieval Latin existentia/exsistentia, from existentem/exsistentem (nominative existens/exsistens) "existent," present participle of Latin existere/exsistere "stand forth, come out, emerge; appear, be visible, come to light; arise, be produced; turn into," and, as a secondary meaning, "exist, be;" from ex "forth" (see ex-) + sistere "cause to stand," from PIE *si-st-, reduplicated form of root *sta- "to stand, make or be firm."

Notable meanings are to "emerge", "appear", "be visible", "come to light". If we stay true to the etymology then one could say that imaginary worlds (or even just mental images), for example, "exist" since they can emerge and/or appear for one to examine though they are not as tangible as the brain that is enabling them to emerge. So despite the mode of their existence (the fact that they are distinct from the brain) they are nonetheless "real". Or at least real enough for us to perceive them. This is, however, debatable.

...does then an imaginary world exist effectively as part of our imagination? And a virtual machine, either a virtual victory, does not really exists in reality?<

In a game of viscious circle, I would think yes!


There's a conceptual error on the question: a virtual object does not exist (a virtual machine does not exist, but it appears to).

A common dialectical coupling of concepts coming from the technology domain is virtual vs. transparent. Perhaps this fits better to your goals (although it is not really a philosophical subject):

  • Virtual: does not exist, but it can be perceived (e.g. a virtual disk does not really exists, but the OS makes it appear existent).
  • Transparent: exists, but cannot be perceived (e.g. transparent garbage cleaning is not perceptible, while it exists).

From Oxford Languages online:

Virtual - adjective: almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition.

So a virtual object is a simulation of an object; almost "real" but not complete or according to a strict definition of the object. If an object exists, then a simulation can be constructed in some media (models, prototypes, software, etc). So a virtual object must exist in some manner.

An imaginary object does not exist.

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