Have you ever pondered where the borders between reality and unreality run?

There are the obvious cases of the fictional and the mythical: the worlds of
a novel or a movie are not real, they are constituted by stories in a way that may bear more or less resemblance to the real world (depending on the genre), but what is narrated in those books and films did not actually happen as it is depicted there. And thought-up scenarios are on reflection much more common than it looks at first glance: think of illustrative stories that you may use in a speech or presentation; think of scenarios used for simulation of the effects different strategies may have in business, warfare or disaster prevention; or think of the thought experiments, hypotheses or assumptions used in almost any activity that requires planning and deliberation. Even more frequently, we encounter untrue descriptions or depictions of states of affairs of a more fragmented sort: quick lies and unintended deceptions, legends and rumors, illusions and hallucinations, fantasies and dreams — the varieties are endless, and in general these have little more in common than the fact that they refer to something that isn't so in reality. The realm of what we can talk about (we might say) is much larger than just the real.

We often use the language of 'real' to indicate this fact: we say things like: "I thought I saw him, but he wasn't really there, I mistook someone else for him." — "I was lying, in reality things went differently." — "This isn't the real story, it's just a movie." (That seems to be the main role played by these expressions in our language: they're mostly used when recognizing occasions where we didn't get to the truth of the matters; they appear when we want to mark something as an instance of unreality.)

Unreality is as much part of our lives as reality; we deal with forms of it every day; and while we certainly have some appreciation for select forms of it (think of the carefully crafted works of beautiful fiction), we are generally wary, or should be, of accepting the unreal as if it were real. (Note that where we do appreciate something unreal, that appreciation requires us to recognize its status as unreal in the first place, so that we can see and evaluate the art and skill that were applied to create it.) Take lies or illusions as the primary example: we have an interest to find out whether and when we are subject to those, even though it often is more painful to face the truth than it would be to remain deceived. We're not content to live in a dream world; we'd prefer reality to it, even if it turns out to be drearier.

We need to be conscious, then, of all the forms of unreality around us, and of their character. Especially in our beliefs and our emotions we tend to react to unreality in much the same way as we respond to actual fact — and this is something urgently requiring correction. Fine perceptiveness and subtle judgment are what is called for here, and it certainly helps to study unreality in all its manifestations (a field that makes for fascinating study anyway). Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.