Fantasy or Reality?
by Jonathan J. Dickau
©'97 - all rights reserved
The subject of distinguishing reality from fantasy is a fascinating one indeed, and it properly involves almost every field of human study. If you believe what some of the philosophers have to say, it is actually an impossible task to eliminate all doubt regarding distinctions we make about what constitutes reality. Science has stopped trying to formulate the Laws of Nature, or any kind of fixed description of reality, in favor of propounding theories which describe the interaction of specific entities under certain conditions. This is largely a response to the quick pace of scientific advancement, where new information quickly renders old theories obsolete. A branch of Mathematics called Information Theory goes even further, since it has a proof (Turing's theorem) which implies that it is impossible to determine if some processes even have an outcome.
That which is real is largely consistent, to the extent that is both stable and substantially similar for various observers, but the experience of reality is necessarily different for each observer. Consciousness as an abstract quality may be universal among sentient beings, but the experience of awareness is intensely individual indeed, and has a validity independent of the consensus values of our culture. This is not to say that there are no individuals who are out of touch with reality, but rather that several individuals can independently observe the same series of events, and draw different conclusions about what is real. The best part of the story is that they can all be right, to some extent, even if their conclusions appear to conflict.
The reason for this is that, under the covers, the universe is a wonderfully magical place. Behind a façade of stable consistency, reality is an amazingly dynamic process of continuous evolution. Beneath a calm and cool exterior, solid matter is like a raging volcano. In a flourish of energetic splendor, it dances in steps so tight that the energy remains hidden behind the appearance of substantial form, but it is really Energy which constitutes Matter, gives it substance, and makes it real. Each atom, like a tiny ballerina in endless pirouettes, is just a step away from all of the others comprising that object, and defines its space through motion. In a sense, that which appears solid and stable is that way because its constituent parts move so fast that they appear to be in several places at once.
One sure thing is that reality isn't simple. There are no straight lines (according to Einstein, they're not even possible!), no truly square corners, and only imperfect circles, spheres, or other geometric figures in the real world. Reality's face is often jagged and irregular, like the natural shape of a mountainside, a tree, a cloud, or a bolt of lightning. When we try to measure irregular natural borders such as the perimeter of a lake, we find that there are complications. The shorter the measuring rod you use, the larger your result will be. This is because a small rod lets you follow the actual border more closely than a large one can, and your measurement includes more detail. If you use a rope, the result will be still larger, and with a fine string, it will be even larger. Is one result the real measurement, and are the rest only fantasy, or is there a theoretical absolute?
Questions like this one were puzzling enough to some great minds that a new branch of Mathematics was founded to deal with the problems of a real world that doesn't conform to the concepts of ordinary plane geometry. The key concept of Fractal Geometry is that a class of objects exist which are not strictly 1, 2, or 3-dimensional forms, but rather posess a fractional dimension. In the previous example, the lake's perimiter would be said to have somewhere between 2 and 3 dimensions. The solution itself raises some questions, however, because it introduces as many complications as it solves. In addition, it sheds no light on annoying little questions like how to deal with waves, and fluctuating borders, or what to do if your rope gets wet. We are left to ask whether it's fantasy to believe that there can be an accurate measurement of the perimeter, and a precise definition of the border, or if it's our definition of reality which actually determines the result.
The science of Quantum Mechanics has raised similar questions on the basis of experiments with sub- atomic particles, which are the constituent parts of the atoms from which matter is formed. It seems that the protons, neutrons, and electrons of which we are made are quite a bit more interesting than we can easily imagine. You see, when presented with a choice, they behave as if they are actually two ways at once, until they are measured, and the character of the measurement determines what is found. For example, an electron can behave like a solid particle, or a wave of energy, and it's easy enough to design experiments to show that electrons posess one of these two natures, but no experiment can show both attributes at once! One is again left to ponder which is the real nature, and whether we actually choose it by our definition of reality.
Perhaps it is our desire for reality to be unambiguous which is the cause of our problem. To distinguish reality from fantasy unambiguously, reality would have to be free from paradox, and we know that this is not actually true. On the other hand, the average person's daily life isn't so rife with paradoxical riddles that believing that everything is ambiguous would do us any good. Instead, we can recognize that some things are simple to understand, relatively unchanging, and reasonably unambiguous, but we must acknowledge that there will always be things for which no simple answer will suffice, and that anything you inspect will be seen to have oddities if you examine it closely enough. We should also be aware that there are things which we can't observe without changing them, and that we can't know what would have happened if we weren't watching.
Fantasy appears to exist independent of reality, but those events and entities which find their way into our fantasies are influenced in several ways by our perceptions about the nature of reality. In dreams, people often report seeing familiar people among the characters, but sometimes there are unknown or unusual people, strange beings, and entities which are hard to classify or explain. In addition, there seems to be a suspension of physical limitations in the dream world, where it is not uncommon to be able to fly, to see around corners, or to turn invisible. The dream world is somewhat like a video game where, if your character jumps off a cliff (or something) and is killed, you get to try again, or go on to another level. One can relive the same scenario any number of times, or experience any number of variations in the dream world, and still be OK.
This can give one the impression that our dreams, and other fantasies, are less real than physical objects and events, but I would prefer to think they are simply different realities, or different aspects of a greater reality. To be sure, certain activities are far less risky in the dream world, than they are in physical form, but this doesn't mean that dreams are fundamentally unreal. Just as we must view our feelings as genuine and valid, whether or not they make sense, we must regard our dreams and fantasies as a real part of our experience, whether or not we understand what they are trying to tell us. I don't mean to imply that they are substantially equivalent to physical events, but rather that they are important for us to accept as real and important (in their own dimension) in order to have good psychological health, and physical well being.
Fantasies are real, to the full extent that their presence or absence can demonstrably influence the outcome of events! They may not be perfectly aligned with what is factually in evidence, at this moment, but they can still be helpful because they constitute what we need to believe in order to be effective. For example, one belief that effective and successful people seem to share is that they, as an individual, have the power to influence the course of events by their actions and decisions. There are neurophysiologists who scoff at the idea that people have free will, pointing at brain scans, and the evidence that decisions happens quickly but the cognition of those decisions takes much longer. I would rather believe that I do posess a measure of free will, even if it's quite difficult to prove, because at least I can convince myself to do something. To my understanding, it's far better to take advantage of what little free will we do have, even if it is largely a fantasy.
Fantasy can be helpful as an exercise in re-framing ones relationship with life and giving insight into events by altering ones individual point of view. For some people, their dreams and fantasies will tell you more about them than anything they might tell you about themselves and their waking experience. Who you really are is just as important as what the outside world really is, but the two matters are somewhat distinct, and they each place specific demands upon us. What you want most may not be possible, and who you want to be may not be who you have the power to become. The laws of the physical realm are quite different from those of the emotional or mental realms, and therefore it's necessary to distinguish them from each other. It is here that some people get confused by believing that the symbolic messages of fantasy are quite literal.
There are proper goals to undertake in dreams, and other things that are proper pursuits for waking life. When people mistake the aspirations of dreams and fantasy for waking goals, there is a real and extreme danger of physical injury to themself or to others. It can be helpful to waking life to overcome the fear of flying in your dreams, but this doesn't mean that it qualifies you to do the same feats in your physical body. It is far better to reap the benefits of a healthy dream and fantasy life, without needing to confuse the wonderful realm of fantasy with the wonderful grandeur and majesty of the physical universe. By respecting the lessons that each world has to teach us, we can be happier and healthier in both worlds.
©'97 Jonathan J. Dickau - all rights reserved
single copies may be printed, for reference or personal use,
but reproduction for commercial purposes is not permitted.