The gist of my argument is that there is no way to define a concept of a "real world" that resembles the world we inhabit (and are comfortable calling the real world) while simultaneously excluding the possibility of "unreal worlds." This leaves us with two possible conclusions: (1) if we do actually inhabit an "unreal" world, then unreal worlds are what reality actually is; or (2) we inhabit an unreal world and real worlds are nothing at all like the type of world we live in.
When talking about the world we seem to live in, I lean toward option 1 because I think it allows us to do some work ontologically. That is to say, I think we can feel justified in calling real many things that might not seem to be real depending on your point of view (subatomic particles, ideas, time, etc.). When talking about my truly fundamental beliefs, however, I subscribe to a system that you might say is a combination of options 1 and 2. But that's a whole 'nother bag of beans (worms? shrimp? cats?--a quick googling doesn't settle this). Anyway, without further ado, here's my damn essay. Oh, also, spoiler alert for the final Harry Potter. But come on, I haven't even read the book and I know what happens.
Near the end of the final book in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry has a seemingly impossible conversation with his mentor Albus Dumbledore. The seeming impossibility of this conversation is predicated on both characters apparently being dead at the time. As the conversation draws to a close and Harry realizes that he might not actually be dead, he asks Dumbledore, “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” The ever clever Dumbledore answers, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
This brief exchange alludes to a problem that philosophers have wrestled with at least since Descartes and to a plot device employed in many works of fiction, from Borges’ short story The Circular Ruins on through to contemporary films such as The Matrix and Inception. The problem is this: what is the difference between the real world and one only inside our head, or one that is illusory or fictitious? To get to the heart of the matter, the question is often posed thusly: how do you know that you are not dreaming or being dreamt? If we could answer this question succinctly, then we would have a clear conception of what the real world is and whether or not we are in it.
I think it might be useful, however, to tackle this question from the opposite direction. So the question might instead be posed: how do you know that you are dreaming? That is to say, if we assume that you are dreaming, what could happen in the dream world that would allow you to correctly conclude that you are, in fact, dreaming? There is an easy but unsatisfactory answer that immediately comes to mind—you could wake up. Unfortunately, all this tells you is that you were dreaming; it gives you no information about what’s happening to you in the moment.
In fact, waking up doesn’t even tell you that you’re not dreaming, because it is not entirely uncommon to have a “dream within a dream” à la Inception. That phrase may be something of a misnomer, though, for what it describes seems no different than moving from one dream to another, an experience with which many of us are also familiar. It is more accurate to say, then, that dreaming can be followed by the apparent experience of waking up, regardless of whether or not we actually do wake up.
Rather than focusing on waking up, it might be useful to examine elements of dreams that strike us as particularly dream-like. But if we’re dispensing with waking up, we can generalize dreaming to include other types of unreal experiences, such as being simulated, fictional, dreamt, or imagined. The common thread that binds these experiences is an apparent disconnect between our subjective awareness and what the real world truly is. It may seem something of a leap to lump in these other concepts, however, because all of us have had the subjective experience of dreaming but few of us would claim to have ever been a fictional character. In comparing these disparate types of unreality, then, we must consider not what it feels like to be that way but what elements are common to our conception of unreal worlds.
I posit that there are four features we might say are characteristic of various forms of unreality. These are abrupt changes, rule violations, missing information, and absurd scenarios. To get an idea of what I mean by these terms, a few examples might be necessary.
We’ve already seen examples of abrupt changes just a few paragraphs up. If you move from one dream to another, then the steady flow of reality has been altered, continuity broken. You may have been dreaming of playing in the World Series and then suddenly shifted to a dream of your wedding day. More generally, abrupt changes abound in our unreal creations. In chapter 6 the main character may decide to take a trip across the country, and in chapter 7 the main character may arrive without the intervening journey having been written by the author.
Rule violations would seem to be the most obvious feature of unreality. Natural laws apparently govern what we are comfortable calling the real world, so an unreal world should not feel bound to obey said laws. Stories taking place in a fantasy or science fiction setting are often rife with events that could not happen according to the laws as we know them. Dreams very often involve impossible happenings, such as reunions with long-dead relations or the ability to fly by flapping your arms. The only limit to what may happen in an unreal world is our imagination, and I can imagine a being possessing a far greater imagination than I have.
Our next unreal attribute is a little harder to pin down. Missing information is the fact that unreal worlds are often insufficiently detailed. An author may write a mundane, temporally continuous story where nothing out of the ordinary happens, but it is very unlikely that the author will describe, unless motivated to do so by story concerns, how that character’s internal organs function, or what’s happening on the other side of the world. This might not seem troubling; after all, I am not constantly aware of everything happening inside my body. But if a fictional character can have a subjective experience produced by the work of fiction that character inhabits, does that character have internal organs not written about? Worse still, if a fictional character is in a room described as merely “plain” or “having four walls,” how rich are the perceptions of that character regarding the room? This is missing information.
Finally, unreal worlds are very often absurd. What constitutes absurdity can certainly be a matter of opinion, especially because I am distinguishing this from scenarios that explicitly contravene physical laws. So for our purposes, absurd scenarios are ones that are prohibited by no natural laws but that we are confident would never happen in reality due to their implausibility. I may dream that I am trapped in an elevator playing Monopoly with all of my ex-girlfriends; this is a deeply unlikely scenario, but no law ever conceived of by Newton says it cannot happen. Absurdist fiction follows similar lines. Look to any TV sitcom such as Seinfeld for examples of situations that may not be physically impossible, but certainly aren’t likely.
With the features of unreality defined, are we now equipped to correctly conclude, if we’re dreaming, that we are? Unfortunately, we are not. If these four elements are common to unreality, then I can identify three possible scenarios we associate with the real world that could explain these elements.
The first is this: in what we are comfortable calling the real world, our scope is limited. Humans are finite, non-omniscient beings. We gather up our experiences of the world through our senses and derive much more, but not everything, from our capacity to reason and imagine. I mentioned earlier that the impossibility of unreal worlds can be thought of as a product of our seemingly unlimited imagination. And it may be true that our imagination is infinite. But even if it is, infinity is not everything. For example, it can be shown that there is an infinite quantity of rational numbers between 0 and 1 (1/2, 1/3, 1/4 … 1/10,327,452, etc.), and yet none of those numbers is the number 2 (or any other number greater than 1, of which there are an infinite number). So even granting an unlimited imagination, a human’s experience of the world is not all of the world.
Thus we are very often apt to encounter events we have failed to anticipate, events which may seem to violate the laws of the universe or be absurd. Consider the first Native Americans to witness European colonists sailing in giant wooden ships, riding horses, and firing guns. No experience had by a Native American up to that point could have prepared them for such an encounter, and yet it happened and was real. Or consider what it might have been like if an asteroid comparable to the one that killed the dinosaurs had struck the Earth during the course of human history but before the advent of telescopes. The world would have changed abruptly, and the change brought about would have been absurd and seemingly in violation of the natural laws taken for granted. The real world is certainly not a place that can suddenly be engulfed in flames, tidal waves, and blackened skies, we would have thought. But we would have been wrong.
From this we can see that our expectation of what is absurd or impossible is a consequence of the limited scope through which we view the world. It is highly dependent on what we have experienced or imagined so far.
The second scenario in which the defining qualities of the unreal world become insufficient is one in which our senses deceive us. All of us are aware that we can be fooled by optical illusions or that we can hallucinate. We think of such instances as being exceptional, but increasingly research in neuroscience points to our being fooled as the norm. This fact can account for abrupt changes and missing information, to say nothing of hallucinations in which absurd or impossible events occur. A real example of an abrupt change in the world is that which occurs during a bout of dreamless sleep. It is night outside, and then suddenly it is light and eight hours have passed. We excuse the continuity break only because it happens every day. A further illustration is highway hypnosis, in which we can be in one place at one time and then another place at another time with no conscious awareness of what occurred in between.
Missing information manifests in our shoddy attention to the world around us. Cognitive scientists have great fun demonstrating our inattentional blindness by having us watch videos in which we can miss wardrobe changes, people swapping, or gorillas. All of this demonstrates that we can completely fail to be aware of the real world out there and yet have no sense that we do not inhabit a richly detailed world.
This conception, however, is predicated on there being a real world which we can somehow know despite what our senses tell us. Much of this view arises out of modern science, which has allowed us to build up a representation of the world that is free of illusions and hallucinations but also only marginally connected to what we observe empirically. So while we may see color and shape and contrast, what we know from physics tells us that light is just a wavelength of electromagnetic radiation governed by Maxwell’s equations.
But this modern notion is ultimately borne out of experiments performed and reason applied to the observed results of those experiments. In other words, observation has taught us that observation is flawed. But our observations of the real world and our observations about our observations are flawed in the same way: we do not connect directly to the world but build up an image that is filtered through our senses and constructed by our brain. More abstractly, there is a real world, and there is our experience of that world; they are not the same thing. Here it would be wise to remember Morpheus from The Matrix, who tells Neo, “If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
Finally, all manner of unreal occurrences can be accounted for if we live in a world governed by supernatural entities. This is the famous evil demon present in Descartes’ Meditations. But it is also a world governed by any kind of god whatsoever. If we live in a world in which miracles can occur, then we live in a world in which the laws of physics can be flouted, abrupt changes can occur, and absurd events can transpire. Rather than evidence of being dreaming or fictitious, miracles would be evidence in favor of a particular supernatural entity.
Moreover, if something exists that is supernatural, the implication is that two kinds of world exist: the natural and the supernatural. Superficially, miracles connote a world that very much seems to resemble an unreal world. If we are dreaming, dreamt, fictitious, imagined, or simulated, then there is some person or entity which is responsible for and has created the unreal world of which we are a part. We could call such an entity a god.
Some might object here by arguing that this is not what fictional universes are generally like. If an author writes a fantasy novel, there may be gods in that novel, but the author is not usually one of them. And yet it is not inconceivable that such a story could be written. It would be no trouble at all for me to write a story about characters in a world created by the god Ori Vandewalle, who sets forth such and such laws and demands such and such prayers. In a slightly less vain direction, science fiction author Greg Egan has written a trilogy of books, beginning with The Clockwork Rocket, that takes place in an alternate universe with laws of physics different from our own. If we are positing the reality of fictional characters, he has a created a new universe subordinate to and different from our own.
So then we have failed to identify criteria sufficient for determining that we are dreaming. But this failure is not a result of dreaming being too slippery a phenomenon to get a handle of; rather, the conclusion is that the type of awareness that comes from existing in an unreal world is indiscernible from the type of awareness that comes from existing in a real world. That is to say, there is no difference between real and unreal. An “unreal world” is one in which a creator in the “real world” imposes an incomplete, incongruent, potentially impossible image on the inhabitants of the unreal world, an image which may not be empirically similar to the real world. Our real world, on the other hand, is one in which we construct an image of the world from the information that falls into us, and the image we form may be incomplete, incongruent, potentially impossible, and ultimately controlled by a supernatural entity.
We cannot know if we are awake because there is no difference between being awake and dreaming. Or rather, if we are forever dreaming, or being dreamt, or fictional or simulated or imagined, then that’s what it is to be real. We might call this Dumbledorean Realism. Yes, it may all be in our heads, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. To say otherwise, to say that being a fictional character is not what it is to be real, is to say that a true real world is one in which unreal elements cannot impose themselves—a world that could not have been made by a creator, where subjective experiences map directly onto the world perfectly, and where all inhabitants are omniscient and could only fail to anticipate that which could not happen anyway.