I wrote this post in response to a personal writing challenge from Stephen Anderson.
We all live in imaginary worlds. This will seem to many to be a controversial assertion, so it probably makes sense to define the key term: “imaginary.” By chaining together the definitions of three different words (imaginary, imagination, and imagine) from a handy online dictionary, I have settled on the following definition:
Something is “imaginary” if it exists only in our faculty for making mental images of things.
When I was an undergraduate philosophy student, I was fascinated by the early Greek philosophers known as the “Presocratics.” The visions of the world presented by Heraclitus and Parmenides — the one, a world in a constant state of flux; the other, an immutable and immovable eternal present — both haunted my thinking and played a major role in how I understand the world today. The views of Democritus and the other Atomists provide the easiest starting point for my journey. They held that everything was made of atoms that were physically indivisible. Each atom was unchanging, indestructible, and eternal, but they were all constantly moving and constantly being re-arranged. The Atomists thought that popular opinion believed in many deceptive illusions. They had a saying that summarizes their position nicely:
By convention hot, by convention cold, but in reality atoms and void.
We often talk about “hotness” and “coldness” as if they are real things that exist as properties attached to objects. But as I wrestled through many various philosophical problems in different classes, I became convinced that a strict reductive materialism was the only logical solution to these problems. I thought about color in these terms for a long time. Scientists tell us that atoms are colorless: but then how can a large collection of colorless atoms suddenly starting having color? That’s illogical. The only logical conclusion seemed to me to say that color must not really exist. When light bounces off objects and is reflected to our eyes, our eyes perceive this light and send information about it to our brain; our brain then translates that information into a mental image of color. This may seem like a silly example — like some amateur philosopher being overly dramatic — but I wrestled with it for quite some time. The important turning point in this story came when I finally admitted the following: color was imaginary.
I felt like I had taken a step down the correct path, Parmenides’ Way of Truth. I even felt a little smug and elitist that I knew that color was just imaginary while so many mere mortals — even the mere mortals in my metaphysics class — thought color was a real thing. After color, I had to admit that many other things that seemed real were also imaginary. Traffic laws did not exist in the physical world; they were just arbitrary conventions that existed in our imaginations. (In some countries, after all, they all happily drove on the wrong side of the road!) Next up: sports accolades, stock prices, job titles, property rights, state boundaries, the value of American dollar — all imaginary. Even the value of an ounce of gold was imaginary; you couldn’t look under a microscope to find some intrinsic value there. Even physical things, like desks and chairs, were imaginary: they weren’t real objects that came into existence and then went out of existence, but they were arbitrary arrangements of atoms that we conventionally agreed to put our imaginary labels on. Finally, art and beauty had to go: we all know that no two people can agree exactly what constitutes “art” (a sure sign it is just an imaginary convention), and everyone knows that “beauty is in the eye” — or, more accurately, the imagination — “of the beholder.” The only thing that wasn’t imaginary was the physical matter underneath all our imaginary conventions.
But one thing still nagged at me. These imaginary things seemed to be affecting the real world. People would spend a lot of their time doing work other people wanted them to do in exchange for dollars with only imaginary value; they could give those to other people in exchange for real things like bread and milk. I knew of plenty of people who were about to quit their jobs and retire when their 401Ks lost half of their imaginary value; after that, they made drastically different decisions about how to arrange their lives. People make enter into imaginary agreements and contracts, and breaking them results in real consequences: people have lost their houses when they couldn’t afford to pay their imaginary adjustable-rate mortgages, and they have ended up in jail for violating federal tax laws. (People without shelter get rained on by real rain atoms, and people in jail put different food atoms in their bodies than people not in jail.) Wars have been fought over all kinds of imaginary things, to expand imaginary boundaries or to fulfill some conviction or to take possession of some object of imaginary value or in response to a dream; the death and destruction caused by these real wars have significantly changed the way that real atoms have been arranged.
I never lost my conviction that these things were imaginary, but I became fully convinced that they were also real. I stumbled on a quote from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that summarized my own conviction perfectly. Harry asked Dumbledore if what he had been experiencing had been real or inside his head, and Dumbledore replied,
Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?
We do all live in imaginary worlds. The things we value, the things in which we find meaning and place our trust, the things we use to make our decisions, the labels and convention we use to help us understand the various arrangements of atoms around us — for the most part, they exist in our imaginations and not in the physical world. How can these imaginary things be real if they do not exist in the physical world? How do we distinguish between real imaginary things like those I have discussed and other imaginary things like unicorns or hippogriffs? I’ll leave those questions for another day. For now, I’ll conclude with this: these imaginary things are real in every way that matters.