Imagination and Reality in Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”

You are enrolled in a class with the highest of stakes. The payoff for success is your existence. Or so it seems. This is a classroom conjured up, along with you and all its other pupils, in the imagination of the man in the circular ruins. Like many of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories, “The Circular Ruins” explores the boundary between imagination and reality. How much of what we perceive as reality is the product of imagination? And what kind of reality do the objects of our imagination have? What is the nature of the boundary between imagination and reality?

The man in the circular ruins is preoccupied with one great task: “He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality.” What an audacious task! There would seem to be an immense ontological gulf between these two categories. Reality is the realm where things exist independent of our imagination. Objects in the real world actually have mass and extension in space. The tree falls in the forest whether anyone is there to hear it or not. But imagination is a realm fully dependent on the mind. Our dreams don’t actually exist. How can these dreams possibly pass from the imagination into reality?

But maybe the divide isn’t as sharp as it seems. The tree falling in the forest is the classic, overused and parodied example of the dependence of certain phenomena on a perceiving subject. Does it make a sound without anyone there to hear it? There are vibrations in the surrounding air but these noumena would not become the phenomena of sound to any person because sound is an experience, a quale of a conscious subject. What we perceive as the real world is composed of such qualia and that’s our only way of perceiving it. In other words we only experience reality through our imagination.

From the other side, artifacts like tools, art, music, and literature begin as dreams in the imagination. Through a creative process we give these objects physical form in the real world. A sculpture takes form in stone, a musical composition takes form in thermal energy, a painting takes form in the arrangement of pigments on a canvas. Even then these physical objects require the imagination of the perceiving subject to be understood as more than just objects occupying space, to be perceived as art and artifacts. The dreams of imagination and objects of the physical world overlap.

An eccentric but intriguing idea thrown around among the cognoscenti these days is the possibility that our universe is actually a simulation created by intelligent life in some “higher” universe. What would that make us? Does that mean we don’t live in the “real” world? Borges explores a similar concern in “The Circular Ruins” but in a less technological guise. His version of a simulation is the dream. If you are a subject in someone else’s dream what kind of existence do you really have? One way to collapse the problem is to say that to be the kind of being who can even ask such a question, to be anxious about the nature of your own existence, is to exist in the most significant sense already. Once you are a self-aware entity who can worry about your own existence you simply do exist, in the most meaningful sense. What more could be added to that to make your existence real?

This Borgesian idealism is explored in many of his other works, most explicitly in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, in which Borges refers to the idealist thought of George Berkeley. A classic problem of modern philosophy is what could be called either the hard problem of consciousness or the hard problem of matter, depending on how you approach it. How does our seemingly non-physical consciousness interact with the physical world? The more popular route is to reduce or eliminate consciousness to the material so that there is no more troublesome dualism. The seemingly non-physical aspects of consciousness are illusory, epiphenomena, useful fictions, etc. Another route, taken up be Berkeley is to dispense with the notion of matter instead, to see mind as primary and view matter as the useful fiction. In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” Borges imagines a world in which people take Berkeley’s idea seriously, in a kind of reductio ad absurdum, to the point that they speak in a language lacking nouns.

Among the entities in the dreams of the man in the circular ruins there seems to be a spectrum of autonomy. Some of his dreamed up entities do no more than parrot his instruction while others challenge him and demonstrate capacity for independent thought. He sees this as a key criterion for assessing their worthiness to be instantiated in reality. “He could expect nothing from those pupils who accepted his doctrine passively, but that he could expect something from those who occasionally dared to oppose him.” Borges makes the intriguing statement that the more autonomous of his dreamed entities “preexistían“; they “pre-existed to a slightly greater degree”. In other words the self-aware ideas in this idealism have some kind of independent existence that the man in the circular ruins apprehends in his imagination. The more autonomous of his dreams are not fully his own creation but existed in some ideal form prior to his dreaming of them.

Where did these ideas come from before he imagined them? One answer available in Borges’s universe is that they existed in “The Library of Babel”, another of Borges’s short stories and probably his most famous. One way to think of the Library of Babel is as a reified, physical instantiation of platonic forms as texts in a library. The library is filled with books of every possible combination of characters. In Borges’s library the books are limited to a certain set and number of characters. But it’s possible to throw out that constraint and imagine a library of infinite possibility where every possible combination of characters is produced in some book somewhere in the library. This would mean that anything you could possibly dream would simply be a reflection of some book somewhere in the Library of Babel. Everything pre-exists there. But crucially, most of the books are absolute nonsense. Hidden among the nonsense there are books with intelligible, meaningful text. But the share of meaningful text in the Library of Babel is infinitesimal.

The autonomous entities dreamed up by the man in the circular ruins, who are able to oppose him, would seem to have a special kind of character that enables them to act independently. They are among the infinite number though infinitesimal portion of books in the Library of Babel with sufficient complexity and coherent structure to endow them with consciousness and self-awareness. What then does it take to impose these entities onto reality? If they pre-existed and already have some kind of independent capacity for thought and anxiety over their own existence what more could be added to make them real? What is it that breathes fire into them to make them living souls?

Steven Hawking asked a similar question of the mathematical structure of the universe. “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a Universe for them to describe?” Max Tegmark posits something analogous to the Library of Babel in abstract space, an infinite library of “mathematical structures” of every possible form, one of which is our own universe. What breathes fire into a mathematical structure and endows it with physical existence are “self-aware substructures” inside the mathematical structure that perceive elements of the structure as physical reality. In other words, the presence of self-aware entities creates what they perceive as physical reality. Nothing more is required than this condition of self-awareness.

The man in the circular ruins labors countless hours to dream a man in the most minute detail. To endow this man with physical existence he must make special supplication to the deities of the ruins. But what is it that the deities can do to make the man more real than he already is? There seems to be one crucial step. Before supplicating the deities “He dreamed an entire man – a young man, but who did not sit up or talk, who was unable to open his eyes. Night after night, the man dreamt him asleep.” After he makes his request to the deities “In the dream of the man that dreamed, the dreamed one awoke.” This awakening is the crucial step. There’s no clothing in earth or matter. It’s simply the awakening of self-awareness. At that point the dreamed one is imposed on reality.

The deities eventually require that the dreamed one be sent off to another temple to repeat the same task as the man in the circular ruins, to create a man of his own. But the man worries that the dreamed one will discover that he is a dream. To all other men the dreamed one appears as a man like any other. Only fire knows his true nature and only fire can reveal it: fire will not consume him. The story concludes when fires approach the circular ruins and the man, having completed his life’s work, submits himself to the flames but then discovers that they do not consume him and that he is himself someone else’s dream. What does this mean for his existence? Is he any less real because someone else is dreaming him? What if the one who is dreaming him is also someone else’s dream and so on, as Borges implies?

What seems crucial in this story is that the capacity for imagination is its own reality. To be the kind of thing that can imagine and be self-aware is already to exist and nothing more is required to breathe life into it. Speculations about our universe as a simulation include the idea that we are several layers below “base reality”. That our simulators are part of a simulation whose simulators are also part of a simulation and so on up to base reality. But what would distinguish this base reality from any other simulated reality? In what sense would entities in that base reality exist that we do not? What is it that makes their physical reality more real than ours? Certainly there would be a difference of some kind but it wouldn’t seem to be a difference in the nature of our self-awareness. That would seem to be the same in all levels of reality.

It may just be that we are the dreamers, dreaming ourselves into existence. If the idea of the conscious self is a useful fiction it is certainly quite useful indeed. Perceptions are undoubtedly occurring and it’s much easier for these perceptions to have some single, stable reference point to give them continuous and coherent structure.

The problem of course is that this is viciously circular. How can an entity dream itself into existence as unified prior to its unification? Some form of pre-existence seems to be necessary, on some kind of stable substrate from the outside. If the universe is a simulation the information content of our self-aware substructures subsists in this simulation. In traditional Christianity, supplemented by Neoplatonic thought, we subsist as ideas in the mind of God. And in Borges’s universe these same ideas subsist as books on the shelves of the Library of Babel. In the end the differences between these metaphors are perhaps less significant than their similarities. Among the books stacked in the shelves of the Library of Babel some infinitesimal but infinite number will have the complexity and coherence to dream and dream of themselves as living souls.