Fiction is an integral part of human life. Man has an inherent need for diversion to get away, even if for a few moments, from the humdrum of life. Story telling has been one of the earliest ways of accomplishing that and over the ages it has grown into the diverse forms of entertainment we have in the present day world. Entertainment is basically of two types - active and passive. The active involves physical participation in one way or other, while the passive does not. Fiction is essentially a passive entertainment even though the mind plays an important role in it. Fiction always involves visualization whether it is covert or overt. The earliest form of overt visualization was the enacting of dramas as the civilizations developed. The development of technology brought in its modern forms - cinema and television. The covert form is inherent to story telling and reading. It is an inherent characteristic of the human (or perhaps any) mind that a thought is always accompanied by an image. So as soon as one hears or reads a story the mind visualizes the scene and the characters; this process continues throughout the story and often even after it has ended.
Fiction by its very definition is unreal. When we read a novel we know that the story and the characters in it are merely a product of imagination of the author. When we see a movie we know that the characters are just acting their parts essentially pretending to be someone other than themselves. Still we are emotionally affected by the twists and turns in the story. We laugh with them, weep with them, and even feel indignant towards the bad guys. The lovable hero or heroine may be despicable in real life and the villain may be a perfect gentleman, but we identify them with the characters they are portraying. In essence for that brief period we ourselves get transported into the imaginary world of the author. Strangely enough this happens also with the author at least to some of them. He or she goes through the same emotions while writing and perhaps later as well.
"Knowledge is limited, imagination is not." Albert Einstein said that although the wording of the second part might have been different. Einstein like any other human being was not infallible. Some of his views that he held right till the end turned out to be wrong even in the field of physics. In this particular statement also he seems to have it backwards. Knowledge may be limited in the case of an individual but in general it is unlimited even if we consider just rational knowledge leaving aside transcendental. Science in particular has demonstrated this at every step in the course of its development. Imagination pertains to an individual mind and is constrained by several factors depending on the circumstances of the individual. A mind can imagine only what relates in some way to things already stored in it. A person who has never been outside a remote place in wilderness and has had no contact with the world outside cannot imagine what metropolitan cities are like.
Getting back to fiction the imagination of the author also has to be based on his direct or indirect experiences. In this sense fiction is based on reality and to that extent it represents just another dimension of reality. Here of course we run into the philosophical problem of the precise meaning of reality. There are two diametrically opposite views - materialistic and spiritualistic. According to the former only things that can be perceived through our senses are real, everything else is unreal. The latter maintains that there is just one ultimate reality from which all that we perceive comes out and everything that is perceived is simply an illusion. We again consider a statement by Einstein: "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one." He was obviously referring to the reality of the phenomenal world. The word illusion can have different connotations but in general it means perceiving something as different from what it is. So the existence of the thing is a prerequisite for illusion, it is not a mental construction. Imagination is purely a mental phenomenon and has nothing to do with anything actually existent. Therefore the relationship between fiction and reality is entirely different from that between illusion and reality.
In a philosophical sense the phenomenal world itself may be regarded as fiction. This is what Shakespeare perhaps meant when he wrote: "All the world's a stage, and all men and women merely players". We may as well think of everything in the universe (space, time, matter) as players because everything has its entry and exit. We of course run into the problem of stating what the stage is and who wrote the script. Shakespeare most probably believed in God, strict determinism, and in the reality of the world, so he did not have this problem. Now it is generally believed that the universe also has a beginning and will have an end. If the universe is also a player, are there multiple universes or does it come alone on the stage and then introduces other players? But what is the stage in this case? Quantum physics points to one possibility. At extremely small scales of space and time there is a quantum void that is not really empty but filled with energy which is constantly transforming itself into virtual particles and back. What remains after the end of the universe may be an infinite version of this quantum void filled with energy into which all the matter has converted itself. This universal energy is the source of and background for everything.
It is not merely a philosophical point either. We spend a considerable part of our life in the imagined or fictional world. We muse about the things in future and also dwell over the past imagining what could have been. The imagination about the future is based on our hopes and aspirations and to some extent it is a positive in the sense that we are in a position to mold our future if we sincerely try. But musing over the past is a futile exercise because we know for a fact that 'what could have been' is mere fantasy that never happened. Still it serves the same purpose as fiction from the point of view of entertainment. We entertain ourselves by imagining how life would have been, knowing fully well that it has no reality whatsoever. In a metaphorical sense past, at least the remote past, is fiction. In a certain sense history itself is fiction since it invariably contains the subjective bias of the author. What we know of Buddha and Jesus now is more fiction than facts.
We all may be players on the world stage, still the question remains why we show the emotional responses to the happenings depicted in the fiction, whether in print or visual presentation, just as in real life? Just like dreams our imaginations get presented to us on the mental screen as if we were watching television or movies. And just as in dreams the real world gets supplanted by the imagined virtual world even though we are fully awake. That world still has perfect resemblance to the real one and everything happening in it seems real due to something changing in our cognition faculty. But the mechanism that triggers our emotional responses remains unchanged and therefore we react to the fiction in the same way as in real life.
Here we have some similarity with the virtual reality of the modern computer technology, which is an artificial environment created by software. It is presented to the viewer in such a way that the person temporarily suspends own belief pattern and accepts it as a real environment. In a way it is not different from the phenomenon of being transported to the imagined world of fiction, except that the computer doing the job is in the mind and we have no clue as to what is the software and who is the programmer.
That brings us to the cause of emotional response itself. In regard to fiction the most common emotions are likes and dislikes that may turn into their stronger forms of love and hate. In real life we love or hate a person because of some attachment through kinship, friendship, or even through indirect knowledge of the person. One cannot love or hate a person one does not know at all. Attachment can also be to other living beings, material things, and even to imaginary things. We love or hate a story or even an idea. For an ordinary person it is impossible to live unattached to things in the world. If one is able to get rid of attachment, one joins the rank of enlightened souls who are indeed rare. We carry our capacity and desire for attachment even into the imaginary world of fiction. We see the characters that we come to know as the story progresses, form our likes and dislikes, and react in the same way as in real life except that we cannot interact with them physically. But we do interact with them in our minds and hearts from where the emotions come.
The fact is that in a certain sense life itself is fiction. Like a story it has a beginning, an end, and lot of things in between. We do not know who writes this fiction nor will ever know. Thus we have an innate affinity with fiction and cannot completely detach ourselves from it. And perhaps that is why, while reading or viewing fiction we get lost subconsciously in the wonderland of imagination, but for that brief period we function exactly in the same way as we would in the real world of our perception. In that sense fiction is just invented reality.
D. R. Sharma is a retired professor with electrical engineering and physics background. He maintains a website http://www.cosmosebooks.com devoted mainly to philosophy, science, and self-development. Apart from academic activities he has a down-to-earth interest in helping poor and suffering people and runs small projects in rural India.