All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2013:
Elysium, Earth; Elysium, Mars (Sept.)
The Futures We Love to Fear (Aug.)
Do I Really Exist? (May)
New in 2015:
Short story The Marchioness
2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…
2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…
2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…
2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…
2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…
2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…
2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…
Index to essays – including:
The Great Sociology Debate (2011)
Building Selenopolis (2008)
Do I Really Exist?
Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK
A friend recently lent me a copy of Sophie’s World by Norwegian philosopher Jostein Gaarder – “the number one bestseller” it says on the front cover.
This is a story about people who are characters in someone else’s novel, and who speculate about being characters in that person’s novel. They approach the big questions of life – who am I? is the world real? how can we know what is true? – thru a summary history of philosophy, starting with ancient myths and the classical Greek philosophers, and ending up with Freud, Marx and Sartre.
I was a bit irritated with the novel to begin with: there is an abrupt change of viewpoint halfway thru, and there is rather too much philosophy for my taste: I don’t get terribly excited about knowing who thought everything was made of matter and who thought it was all made of spirit. I wasn’t much impressed by Gaarder’s assumption that all he needed to say about capitalism was expressed in the person of Ebeneezer Scrooge, or that he could give the impression that he had covered the question of the reality of the physical world without delving into the mysteries of quantum mechanics. But apart from these quibbles the story itself gradually started to make sense, and by the time I reached the end I was enjoying the book.
The question left in one’s mind when one finishes this book is: am I merely a character in someone else’s work of fiction? This question goes back at least as far as Shakespeare, who sometimes liked to describe real life as a stage play, thus “All the world’s a stage” in As You Like It, and Macbeth’s despairing outburst (act V, scene v):
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Indeed the idea goes back much further, to Plato’s parable of the cave.
On the face of it the speculation is silly: we are real people, but a character in a story is merely a collection of smudges of ink on paper, or sound waves in the air, or chemical stains on celluloid, or an imposture at the theatre, or digits in a computer file. There’s nobody really there: firstly, there’s no conscious mind (apart from those of the author, the actors if any, and the readers, listeners or viewers), and secondly there’s no freedom of action, because the fictional character’s life is completely predetermined in every detail once the final full-stop has been put to the work of literature, barring possible nuances of interpretation, particularly in the theatre.
But on thinking more deeply, perhaps there is some valid point here after all. We may call ourselves real people, but the whole point is to ask: what exactly is a so-called real person? If Sophie, the heroine of Gaarder’s novel, is merely a string of words in one format or another, what am I but merely a conglomeration of atoms which in themselves are equally unconscious, and the collective organism I call myself equally temporary?
Consider Sophie: is she in fact a conscious person? In herself, no; the atoms on paper which are her life are not conscious any more than are the atoms in my brain. Yet while someone is reading the novel she acquires a bit of the reader’s consciousness: I read that Sophie is walking home from school, I imagine myself as Sophie walking home from school, I become Sophie for as long as I lose myself in the story.
So she borrows her conscious existence from the reader. Since consciousness has not been identified as a physical property of atoms, or of molecules, or even of neuronal cells, it is reasonable to speculate that I may be borrowing my own consciousness from outside myself, if “myself” is defined as purely my material brain and body.
What about Sophie’s freedom of action? Apparently she has none: everything that happens to her is already given in the book; everything that she does for herself is equally predetermined. Yet for the reader the events in her life are not predetermined until the reader passes the page on which they are depicted. In real life, too, my freedom of action is restricted to the future. In my past, everything is now fixed and unchangeable: whether I have free will to act or not is determined by whether that action is in prospect or already in the past. I cannot change my past, and in the long run every aspect of my life will be in the past.
This is not to say that free will is an illusion, but merely that it depends upon the temporal point of view, given our ignorance of the future.
I can watch a movie (if it is a good one!) dozens of times, and still feel emotionally involved with it, as if it was happening in real time every time. My normal self knows how the film will end, but while viewing it that knowledge is suspended and I immerse myself once again in the story.
Thus a fictional character does, I think, model the life of a real person rather faithfully.
Does this imply a dualist view of reality, in which consciousness (spirit, soul, or what you will) and matter are two different kinds of things? I suppose it must. One could say that the matter generates consciousness, rather like an electric current generating a magnetic field – a popular line of speculation today. But that model implies a pre-existing electromagnetic field, so a pre-existing psychic field into which brains can induce impressions. Or one could say that the consciousness generates matter, as a dreamer produces a dream. Either way, I suggest, the two sides are related in a non-physical way, thru the exchange of information alone.
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World (translated by Paulette Møller, Phoenix House, 1995; originally published in Norwegian in 1991).