The perils and potentials of Cartesian madness

The Scenario

A while back I was working on a story with Kya, and I kept hitting a roadblock with one character in particular. She was an ordinary teenager tossed into a magical world. Unfortunately, she was also more grounded than she was practical. Looking at the magic, she started coming up with every possible explanation: that she’d been dosed with something and was hallucinating, or that she was dreaming.

No matter what she witnessed, nothing could disprove the idea that none of this was real. Now, this was a problem, because she was in a desperate situation… but wouldn’t necessarily react to it with desperation, because she firmly believed that it wasn’t real.

René Descartes (1596-1650)
René Descartes (1596-1650) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Philosophy

In the same way, absolutely nothing could possibly disprove the notion that you’re in the Matrix right now, aside from blind faith that The Matrix is just a movie. After all, any evidence we have could have been fabricated.

One of the first people who considered this idea (at least, the first who bothered writing it down) was a philosopher named René Descartes. He pointed out that everything he learned could be a lie, or a dream, or the influence of a “wicked demon” bent on tricking him.

Bringing a character down the rabbit hole

As far back as Through the Looking Glass, characters have been stepping out of the ordinary into worlds beyond their imagination. Part of the drama there is figuring out how they come to terms with that, if they do at all. For example:

  • In Inception (as well as an episode of Doctor Who), the only way of escaping the deepest levels of the dream world is to die. So how do you know if you’re about to wake up, or just about to off yourself for real?
  • If you’re in a dream, then the other people in the dream are merely figments of your imagination. Therefore, does it matter if they get hurt? On the other hand, should you let yourself get attached to somebody who will disappear when you wake up?
  • If the “dreamer” believes they’re asleep, does somebody else take care of them? How does that interaction play out?
  • Does the “dreamer” ever come to grips with this new reality? What makes them come to that conclusion?

There are countless ways of playing out this scenario, ranging anywhere from the philosophical to the purely practical.

What about you? Have you seen any works where a character has decided to check out and refused to acknowledge reality? How do you deal with a character in this sort of situation? Let us know in the comments!