In one of Slavoj Žižek’s numerous talks, he discusses the notion of “virtuality” in a very insightful way, paraphrasing something Donald Rumsfeld said: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” It’s an unlikely source for an explication of a philosophical idea, but it does the job and well. However, Žižek was talking about epistemic virtuality, which, even if not by name, is familiar to everyone. That’s not precisely the virtuality I want to discuss. More precisely, the virtuality that I want to discuss, and which is at the heart of Quentin Meillassoux’s philosophy, is ontological virtuality —and, as I hope the reader can imagine, naturally entails epistemological variety. It should also be noted that “virtuality” is a concept that has been introduced and handled differently by a few philosophers. The furthest back, historically, that I have been able to track the concept is Gilles Deleuze. No doubt, Henri Bergson was definitely using some variation of virtuality in his discussion of creative evolution, though not by name; and I suspect that this is where Deleuze got the idea and named it. Like Deleuze, Meillassoux has been intellectually influenced by Bergson.
“Ontological virtuality,” heretofore simply “virtuality,” is the idea that the world is one of non-static ontology, that things can come into being and out. To give you a bit of a better sense about why we tend to think about “unknown unknowns” rather than proper virtuality, consider the following: Whenever, in an individual’s past, that individual has found that she or he didn’t know something, the individual tends to come across someone who does. This tends to give the individual an impression that, while some fact, “X,” was unbeknownst, it was the case before the individual encountered the fact, as evinced by the second person who knew “X.” I suspect that this kind of common experience is what induces the sort of fundamentalist reasoning that philosophers, like Nancy Cartwright, have been dealing with, over recent decades. Anyway, it seems very, very natural to generalize, thinking that the only thing that changes is the epistemic status of the ontology, not the ontology itself. This is among the ideas that Meillassoux hopes to dispatch of. For the sake of your (the reader’s) insight, supposing no prior knowledge of Meillassoux, Meillassoux’s project is to eliminate metaphysics, altogether. (Really, the project is to defeat everything Kantian, but that’s beyond what I want to do in this introduction.) The basis for instantiating this framework is a little bit tricky, and it involves Cantor’s idea of transfinites, so I won’t deal with it here; but there is a basis for virtuality. (Feeding off Alain Badiou, Meillassoux says, “…the ontological pertinence of Cantor’s theorem, in such a way as to reveal the mathematical conceivability of the detotalization of being-qua-being” (After Finitude pg. 103).)
To develop a fuller picture of what virtuality entails, I will paint a symmetric picture between the way we currently think and Meillassoux’s. (Note that the corresponding terms from each framework are emboldened and underlined, so that the reader can easily correlate them.) The reader is reminded that in probability theory there is a static ontology in which there is a definite chance of any particular outcome. If there are three green marbles, two blue marbles, and five red marbles in a sack, then there is precisely a fifty percent chance that a red marble will be selected. So that’s what happens in our sack of static ontology. The case is different in the virtual sack. Virtuality, being that it indicates a non-static ontology, means that there is not a precise set of chances of an event occurring, but that any future event regarding the marble sack is contingent. Let it be stressed that the reader should not ask, “contingent upon what?” because Meillassoux’s philosophical framework is a Humean one. (For more on this, see After Finitude.) If the sack of marbles is exactly as described above, an event such as pulling out an elephant from the sack is a viable event; the prior ontological state does not dictate and determine later states necessarily. At the core of Meillassoux’s argument —and I have, here, only endeavored to present a description of the concepts, without much argumentative support— is that necessity is an ill-conceived notion, in the sense that the only real necessity is contingence, and not all of these other conceptual ideas (relations and so forth) that are commonly taken to be necessary. For the reader concerned about the nature of mathematical and logical necessity, it should be known that Meillassoux sees mathematics (he states this explicitly) as a direct pipeline to what is, and one can, presumably, extend this thinking to logic (he does not state explicitly).