Everything Is Real

June 4, 2011 Comments Off on Everything Is Real

Trailers for M. Night Shyamalan movies and others of that ilk frequently contain the question, flashed in dim letters on a dark ground, “What is real?” as if it’s the ultimate frightening question that has no answer, that everyone has to grapple with. And people seem to agree. It might be one reason why I’m such a scaredy-cat that, to me, the obvious answer is “Everything.” Imagination and reality bleed into each other, and I see no reason that they’re not both real in their own ways (maybe it doesn’t matter…maybe they’re the same thing).

I don’t need to prove to you that reality can influence imagination. Reality is the undisputed good guy here; reality is what everyone thinks they know and that they can depend on, “what is real” paranoia notwithstanding. But what about the other way around?

Philosophers have been stressing out for centuries over whether we can trust our perception of the world. And obviously, from one point of view, we can’t. The list of things other animals can perceive that we can’t, and the list of senses they use to navigate the world that we don’t have, is impressively long. But what we can perceive is our reality—just because we can’t experience every single aspect of Reality (imagine the overload!) doesn’t mean that what we think of as our world isn’t real. So now are we talking about imagination or reality? It’s somewhere in between. And we can go back and forth between both ends of the continuum. What we think we know about the world influences what we think about what we think we know about the world, and vice versa. It’s all one big feedback loop. And what about placebos? Talk about imagination creating reality. You think the echinacea will help your cold go away, and guess what? It does.

I thought hard about this after watching A Beautiful Mind. What would have happened, I wondered out loud to a friend, if the Ed Harris character had shot Russell Crowe? Would it have broken the illusion? She thought it would probably mean that Russell Crowe had killed himself, and I thought about that a lot. It’s along the lines of a tree falling with no one to hear it—which, come to think of it, is another example of the fluidity of reality/imagination! (Sidebar, ladies and gentlemen.) Sound is a perception, which implies that there must be someone to perceive it, and yet the absence of an observer doesn’t alter the reality of the tree falling—regardless of who hears it (or doesn’t hear it), you can still come across a fallen tree in the woods. So what is “real” about the tree falling? Everything. Every detail about its falling is real, including the waves that would be sound if anyone were there to hear them as such, but so too is the sound itself (maybe only perceptible to humans…so is it imagined?), even if it doesn’t exist because it is not being observed. Does it matter whether the sound was “real”? But back to schizophrenia. If a schizophrenic is found drowned in a pool and no one saw him die, does it matter whether the person who drowned him was “real”?

Pedants will insist that I define “real” before I go around classifying stuff as such, but it’s very simple. What’s real is real. Until we can perceive all the layers of reality at once, every subjective definition of reality must be collapsed into the supercategory “real.” You could argue with me over whether something most humans can perceive with their senses is “real,” or whether the hallucinations of a schizophrenic are “real” to them, and so on, but until someone comes up with conclusive proof that something does not exist in any layer of reality—which, when you think about it, is an extremely tall order—then your arguments will hold no water, and you have to put everything into the “real” category, albeit tentatively.

Bonus points if you’ve been following all this.

For me, the biggest can of worms opens once you begin to consider fiction. What about ghosts, gods, magic, Harry Potter, Rumpelstiltskin? If they were real to someone once, then by my own arguments I have to consider that they might be real now. And just as imagination and reality bleed into each other and each influences the other, mightn’t the layers of reality do the same? When the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you whip around to see who’s watching you, only to be confronted with an empty room, is that your imagination spontaneously influencing the reality of your body, or is it another layer of reality infiltrating yours? Or maybe it doesn’t matter…maybe it’s the same thing—and this is what’s started to scare me. According to my logic, there’s no reason that anything I can imagine might not show up in my apartment, which makes it a problem when I read things like Beloved or “Myths over Miami.” On the other hand, it means I have an open mind and am not reckless with wishes. I’m not going to make a deal with a fairy or make a reckless bet with a magical dwarf or ask to be made pope. In short, if my life turns out to be a fairy tale, I think I’m going to do okay.

But that doesn’t mean all this doesn’t periodically send me into a paroxysm of fear. Reality is scary as hell, man.

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