Friday, 6 December 2013

On the realness of the imaginary

Sometimes you have a thing in the back of your mind forever, and then you read or hear something that sort of jolts it out of the shadows and into the open. This just happened to me with the words "real" and "imaginary" as opposites, and as synonyms/parallels with "true" and "false", or "useful" and "fake" and so forth. There is a thing that has bothered me about the way we use these two words. I'm going to try to unpick what it is. (It came up because I was reading this page about Lacan, which was linked as an aside in a story in The Stranger, which is— perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not— where I get most of my news about the USA since I stopped getting the NYT headlines emailed to me every day. They are my #1 source of news because they syndicate Dan Savage. Good one, The Stranger. You get my pageviews.)

(Of course, our categories of "opposite" are always intricately bound up with each other, or they wouldn't make sense: the opposite of "black" is "white", after all, not "spoon" or "snow" or "quickly". Each is a color, is an extreme and pure color, and is a color that is sometimes thought of as not really a color, not like the colorful ones anyway. The opposite of "man" is "woman"; the opposite of "child" is "adult", and so on. However, even though these opposites need to be in the same category in order to make sense as opposites, they can be thought of as diametrically opposed, or at least as non-overlapping Platonic ideals with which reality can be filtered. One can exist, of course, on the continuum between adult and child, between man and woman, but the continuum itself is linear: it is fairly straightforward to, given one point on the line (and a cultural context), describe something that would move a given person toward or away from a given terminus. And this is how we think and speak of "real" and "imaginary". But this leaves out some fairly important things about the brain, consciousness, and our perception.)

So what we're implying when we say something is "real" is what, exactly? That is can be seen, touched, or moved around? That it has physical existence? What about a dream? People will contrast something that happened in a dream with something that "really" happened, which is a pretty clear distinction. But the dream is also real— it's a real dream. If I imagine a unicorn, it's not a real unicorn, but it is a real imagining of a unicorn. It's a pattern of neural connections and activity inside my head. But then, so is the dream. And so is the sky, the sidewalk, the sunshine... or at least my perceptions of them.

Ok, we're in brain-in-a-vat territory now, so it's time to wrap things up. Our minds are real: they are patterns in our brains. Our brains our real, although we don't have any appreciable direct perception of them most of the time. Everything else is real, and so is (separately) our internal representation of it as a pattern in our mind.

Oh hi, Daniel Dennett, what are you doing here?