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What does it mean to “exist”?

When deciding what I am taking with me as I pack up the house, ready for my next adventures, I put my notes and research for the next ‘Quantum Lace‘ books into my ‘goes with me’ pile so I may work on them as I continue to travel the globe as a Luxurious Nomad.

I have been thinking about Bridgit, Markus, Charles, and Marianna (my ‘Quantum Lace’ characters) over the past few days, and contemplating an interesting question:

What does it mean to ‘exist’?

In my mind, I know both characters intimately.  My readers have come to know Bridgit (Marianna makes her debut in the next book) – but does that mean they ‘exist’?

If your immediate answer is ‘no’, consider this…

There is a passage in book one where Markus is explaining time travel and quantum physics to Bridgit:

“You know, it’s amazing. We think that reality is all ‘out there’, but consider when you go to the movies. Not only are you simply seeing one still image after the next that gives you the illusion of reality and movement and travel through time and space, but when you see a scary picture, and something happens suddenly, causing you to jump, your heart-rate goes up, your fight-or-flight reaction kicks in – but yet nothing ‘out there’ has changed at all! You are still sitting safely in your seat, eating your popcorn that is now probably scattered all over the place,” he chuckled.
Seeing Bridgit still did not appear to be amused, he asked, “So, it makes you wonder – what is reality and how do we know it exists the way we currently believe it to exist? Because ‘reality’ certainly isn’t the scary bogey-man on the screen who is coming to get you right here and right now in this moment in time – he is just a series of still pictures strung together with some words and music – but yet your mind and your body react as though he were real… So, how can we say we know what ‘reality’ is for sure?”

Does the monster on the screen ‘exist’?  If he doesn’t, why do we respond as though he does?

So, to pick up Markus’ question, what is ‘reality’?

Consider the placebo effect.  These treatments have no medical therapeutic value, but yet patients experience physiological responses as though they do.  How do we explain the ‘reality’ of the person getting better – and in very practical terms, altering matter / material reality – from taking an inert pill?  Do the health benefits of that inert pill now suddenly ‘exist’?

  • Does your fear of heights exist?
  • Does your distaste for Brussels sprouts exist?
  • What about your love of pizza – does that exist?

Do they exist?  Or did my consciousness merely create them?  …and even if it did, does that mean they do or do not exist?

Taking this another step, does memory ‘exist’?

Think of the old adage of an accident with five witnesses – each of whom gives a slightly different account of what happened.  Which one is ‘reality’?

Or, think back to one of the happiest moments of your life… really put yourself there in your mind…  How do you feel?  Neuroscience researchers have shown time and again that this type of visualisation produces physiological effects practically identical to when the event first occurred.  So, does that mean the memory ‘exists’ in the same way that the event ‘existed’ when it happened?

I read a fascinating article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy today that discusses the topic of the nature and reality or otherwise of fictional entities – and that prompted this post, and my renewed passion in writing my Quantum Lace series.

To me, my characters are real, they exist – the places they visit, the historical events they witness – all ‘real’.

In doing my research for the book, I came across (and included) a number of fascinating elements, such as:

  • Morgan Robertson really did publish a book on the sinking of the “unsinkable ship” that hit an iceberg fourteen years before Titanic;
  • The edition of “The Time Machine” published by Holt, really did misspell Wells’ name as H.S. Wells and Wells’ address listed on the letter sent to Bridgit, was Wells’ actual address at the time;
  • Lord Brassey really did go off to Australia to become Governor of Victoria and his first wife did die on board the ‘Sunbeam’;
  • The quotes from Tesla’s presentation are actually verbatim of the words he uttered in 1892;
  • …and the quantum physics mentioned is all real scientific fact as we know it today…

“There are books out there about time travel that we’ve all read and enjoyed. But this one is so entirely plausible, so highly engaging, that one can’t help but wonder if the concept of time travel is not only possible, but is perhaps undeniably real.”  Literary Classics Book Review

‘The Measure of a Man’

For the Star Trek Next Generation fans among us, you may remember this episode as being one of the most powerful – and it almost didn’t see the light of day.  The script was written by a former attorney and it was only thanks to the 1988 writers’ strike that producers turned to a pile of spec-scripts, among them was this episode which, in my opinion, is a philosophical masterpiece.

The episode explores, among other topics, whether one can demonstrate consciousness – and if we also take that a step further and look at the scientific field of panpsychism that suggests consciousness is a quality inherent to all matter – and the likes of theoretical physicist Max Tegmark, who argue that consciousness is a state of matter…

…and we already considered earlier in this post about the role of consciousness in our fear of heights or love of pizza…

So, if consciousness is matter as Tegmark suggests, and therefore ‘exists’, do the vivid characters created by the consciousnesses of writers of fiction also ‘exist’?

Think of Sherlock Holmes…  Most people can describe him, they era in which he ‘lived’, his clothes and hat, his trusty friend, his intelligence, even his address…  So, can we honestly say Sherlock Holmes does not exist?

To me, Bridgit and Marianna exist just as vividly as does Sherlock Holmes… and so I have decided that rather than return to writing the next installment of a fictional series, I am going to approach this as though I am recounting to you my memories of their lives, their adventures, their loves, their hopes, their dreams…

History is told through stories of what people think is reality, what is real, what exists – but even many of those ‘realities’ change over time.

“Can you fly like a bird in this reality?” Markus asked.
“Of course not,” replied Bridgit, shuffling uncomfortably on her seat.
“Actually, what if you can,” said Markus with a smirk, “but the reason you don’t is that you think it is impossible. Think about it…” he said leaning forward toward Bridgit. “Once upon a time it was thought impossible to sail around the world. Once upon a time it was thought physically impossible to run a four-minute mile. Once upon a time it was thought impossible to put a man on the moon. Now we know they are not only possible, but we have actually done them, all of them, and more.”

So, what does it mean to exist?

I’ll ask Markus and Bridgit and get back to you…

~ Bella