Monday, August 28, 2006

Dog walking reality

I am a realist, in the minimal sense that I believe there is a real world that we all share and that we have only limited ability to control, whether we are acting individually or collectively. While walking the dog this morning, I puzzled over what exactly distinguishes that real world from all the fantasy worlds out there. I knew there are many literatures relevant to this issue, but I ignored them, because I was walking the dog.

The first thing I decided was that no one feature distinguishes the real world from fantasy worlds, and that all of the features used in the distinction exist in some degree in fantasy worlds. This means that an imagined world can at least appear to be more and more real as it acquires and strengthens the features it shares with the real world. This fact is just what we would expect, given all we know about people who get lost in novels, online games, and delusional ideologies.

So can I back this up? Well, let’s try some features that might distinguish reality from fantasy. (Do you think someone will be less offended if you leave dog crap on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, than if you left the crap on their lawn proper?) The obvious feature of the real world that is important is that it is out of our control. But imaginary worlds can be out of our control, too. The world of the Sims is constrained by what other players do and by the rules of the game. You might say that fictional worlds are different because all of the constraints on your actions can be traced in some way back to human agency. The other Sims characters are controlled by other people, and the software itself was designed by people. But not all pretend worlds are like that. A live action role playing game (where a bunch of nerds dress up in Ren fest gear and pretend to fight goblins) is constrained by the laws of physics. You might say that human agency is still at work here, because the players decided to use the real world. But this weak sense of human agency is also at work in the constraint on real world social activity. When Israeli and Palestinian diplomats negotiate over the fate of the West bank, their actions are constrained by the facts on the ground, but this is a result of the fact that they have decided to negotiate over this stretch of territory, just as the live action role players decided to play their game on the fair grounds out side of town.

(I was proceeding in a kind of transcendental deduction mode here, where I assumed that the distinction between reality and fantasy as we know it is possible, and then ask how it is possible. I was thus allowed to assume that we can distinguish real and fictional people.)

I said many features distinguish reality from fantasy, can I think of others? Yeah, containment. The real world contains the pretend worlds. The dreamer is sleeping in the real world; the movie is shot on a real soundstage. (I’m certain I’ve seen this point made in the philosophical literature, but I can’t think of where.) Of course, fictional worlds can contain fictional worlds, too. Think of Shakespearian plays within plays.

(At this point in my reverie, I was done walking the dog, and began riding my bike to work.)

Ok, so what do we have? The difference between the real worlds and the pretend worlds isn’t that the real world is constrained by things beyond human agency, but that it is more constrained. Further, the difference between real worlds and pretend worlds isn’t that the real world can contain other worlds, but that the real world is, as it were, the outermost container.

The possibility of the real world thus depends on a kind of convergence. As we move into containing worlds, we should also see less control falling to human agency.

(At this point, I had arrived at my office, and decided to write this down. The reasoning went very neatly here, so I am probably re-inventing someone’s wheel. Maybe someone can tell me whose?)

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