"Artificial": real vs not real

In the second paragraph of the entry for the word “artificial”, the following sentence appears:

The word was applied from 16c. to anything made in imitation of, or as a substitute for, what is natural, whether real (light, tears) or not (teeth, flowers).

But I think this real/not-real distinction may be faulty somehow. If I imagine an ideal horse but I don’t produce any pictures or descriptions of what I’ve imagined, that ideal horse is (I think) not real - and it definitely doesn’t qualify as an artificial horse. In that sense I think every artificial item must necessarily be real, in order to qualify as artificial, if you see what I mean.

Taking the examples in the quoted sentence, artificial teeth often are real, in the sense that they function as teeth (e.g. dentures), though the teeth worn with a vampire costume do not function as teeth. Artificial tears are in a similar situation; there are non-functional artificial tears that only try to give the outward appearance that someone has been crying, and there are medically and chemically appropriate artificial tears made for people who have certain eye problems. Artificial light is an example of real light, without any doubt, but the functionally appropriate kind of artificial tears is not a type of real tears, because the definition of tears specifies the means by which tears are produced. And by similar reasoning, artificial sunlight is real light but not real sunlight, because “comes from the sun” is part of that definition. And a very good cartoonist can add artificial light to a cartoon by drawing things in certain ways so that the viewer is conscious that it has been done, creating a real fake artificial light that is really not artificial and artificially not real.

One could even say, arguably, that the nature and function of real cut flowers is to look pretty and smell nice, and therefore perfumed artificial flowers are entirely real.

In short, I think “artificial” is a relatively clear relatively simple concept, but I think “real” is a terrible mess and it would be nice to be able to avoid using it in this explanation.

Maybe we can create a substitute for it. :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

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I definitely agree that “real” is a terrible mess, and we are in illustrious company: Einstein said that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”, and I’m afraid he was terribly right.

But about “artificial” I wouldn’t be too sure: deftly used the word may assume an amazing number of different meanings. Over time the original (and etymological) sense of “work of art” has slowly shifted first to “man made”, then to “non-natural”, then to “simulated”, then to “fake”. And all of them survived except the original “work of art”: today no one would ever call artificial a van Gogh or a work of art a 15-story condo (probably not even the architect who designed it), but all the others are perfectly legitimate - think for instance of artificial wood, of artificial intelligence, of an artificial smile, of Granny’s artificial teeth.
Most likely such a drift went hand in hand with the evolution of the notion of “art”: first the talent of the caveman who painted animals on the cave walls, then the dexterity of the potter who made almost perfectly round clay pots with his bare hands, then the skill of the engineer (the pontifex?) whose bridges would survive the fury of the elements… a slow inexorable drift towards technology from what we today would still call “art”.
After all also what the ancient Greeks called τέχνη (then art) in the course of a few millennia gave birth to technique and technology, in a wicked process where the magic touch was slowly replaced by a set of strict rules and algorithms.
One thing seems clear though: whatever meaning “artificial” may take on in AD2024, it has very little to do with the concept of reality, whatever the latter may mean.