Nathaniel Stein has an interesting article at Aeon, The why of reality:
The easy question came first, a few months after my son turned four: ‘Are we real?’ It was abrupt, but not quite out of nowhere, and I was able to answer quickly. Yes, we’re real – but Elsa and Anna, two characters from Frozen, are not. Done. Then there was a follow-up a few weeks later that came just as abruptly, while splashing around a pool: ‘Daddy, why are we real?’
After spending some time pondering exactly what his young son meant with this existential question, and veering through a good part of philosophical history (curiously sans Descartes), Stein finishes with this:
How, then, can I give a good answer, if the question is about what’s real and what’s pretend? I suppose the right answer has something do with the fact that trustworthy images are causally connected to their subjects in the right ways, and carry information about them because of these causal connections, but I don’t think we’re ready for that. I settle for something a bit simpler: he can do whatever he decides to do, but Elsa can do only what happens in the story. It’s not great, but it’s a positive message. It works for now.
That’s an interesting answer. It assumes we have more free will than characters in a story. While I’m a compatibilist on social responsibility, I don’t think we have the contra-causal version of free will, which essentially makes us characters in the story of the universe. The characters in the movie, if they had any viewpoint, would likely see themselves as having just as much freedom of choice as we do.
So that’s not the answer I would have given. Mine would have been that you’re always real to yourself. Even if we’re only characters in an advanced 22nd century video game, relative to ourselves, we exist. The very fact of asking that question makes you real to yourself. This is, of course, a version of Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, although a bit more hesitantly as, “I think therefore I am to me.”
The question gets more challenging when considering everything else. I’m a skeptic, so by what means do I determine what is real? We only ever have access to our own consciousness. Everything else “out there” is a theory, a predictive model that our minds build from experience. But our minds can hold both real and unreal things. Is there any concisely stated standard we can use to tell the difference?
In the end, I think that which enhances our ability to predict future experiences, future observations, is real. That which can’t, isn’t. This isn’t always a satisfactory answer, because often we won’t know for some time, or possibly ever, whether a particular notion fulfills this role. But if there’s another standard, I’m not sure what it might be.
So what do you think? What would your answer have been?