Doctoral studies

Doctoral dissertation examines whether virtual friends are indeed real friends

In an age where a large part of interpersonal communication has moved online, the question arises whether relationships that are only virtual are indeed real. Oliver Laas, doctoral student at Tallinn University’s Institute of Humanities, investigates whether virtual friends and virtual community are actually real.

Oliver Laas

People have increasingly more virtual friends with whom they only communicate online. This raises the question of whether virtual friends are real friends. If the answer is yes, we have the same moral obligations to virtual friends as we do to all our other friends.
An ever-increasing number of people belong to various virtual communities - mostly social groups that meet on the Internet. Are virtual communities real communities? If the answer is yes, virtual communities can offer their members similar benefits as do traditional social groups – families or village communities.

Several philosophers have criticized virtual friendship and virtual communities. This criticism is usually based on a definition of some sorts of the term "virtual" and the assumption that virtual phenomena are not real. The pluralism of definitions has caused a conceptual confusion, on account of which it is unclear which phenomena are virtual and what are the connections of virtual phenomena with phenomena considered real. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the term "virtual" had a long philosophical history before its application in the context of information and communication technologies, which affects modern comprehension of the term.

The aim of this doctoral dissertation is to provide by way of philosophical concept analysis a new solution to said conceptual confusion. Philosophical analysis of relevant concepts is essential as answers to above questions depend, at least in part, on how we understand concepts such as virtuality and reality. Malfunctioning concepts distort our thinking, decisions, and actions. One of the tasks of philosophy could be to eliminate such distortions. 

Within the framework of this study, I analyze three philosophical approaches to virtuality. According to the first approach, all virtual phenomena are fictitious - like Santa Claus or characters in a work of fiction. The second approach states that all virtual phenomena are interactive computer simulations. According to the third approach, virtual phenomena are digital objects.
As all three approaches have their shortcomings, I develop a fourth alternative, according to which all virtual phenomena approximate typical examples of the concepts regarding said phenomena. For example, a friendship based on face-to-face communication is a more typical example of friendship than a friendship that consists in correspondence. By reference to above, a virtual friendship is real if it is equivalent to typical examples of friendship. Virtual communities are real if they approximate typical examples of a community. 

The advantage of this approach is that, in order to talk about virtual phenomena, we do not need to assume that they are fictional, simulated, or digital objects which would raise additional metaphysical questions and therefore not resolve relevant conceptual confusion. I also question the common assumption that virtual and real things are inherently opposites. This assumption encourages in public and philosophical discussions simplistic criticism of virtual friendships, virtual communities, and other virtual phenomena. Often, this seemingly objective contrast between the virtual and the real is based on default value judgments instead of philosophical analysis. The approach proposed in my dissertation endeavors to direct virtual phenomena related philosophical discussions to a more empirical premise than before, where technical facts and qualitative and quantitative data would take center stage instead of intuitions.

Doctoral student Oliver Laas with Tallinn University’s Institute of Humanities defended his doctoral dissertation "Toward a Nominalist Theory of Virtuality" on September 11, 2023. The dissertation was supervised by Professor Tõnu Viik from Tallinn University and Andres Luure, PhD. Opponents of the dissertation were Professor Bruno Mölder with the University of Tartu and Professor Mark Silcox from the University of Central Oklahoma.