Why Humans Need Fantasy
I was reminded recently of a conversation I had with a friend back in May. He said Stephen Hawking’s statement that there was no heaven was “mean.” It’s mean? You could see it that way. It’s like telling a kid there is no Santa Claus. But is the lack of a white-bearded man residing at the North Pole mean there is no Santa Clause? It’s a matter of how you define it. Santa Claus, like heaven, is an idea. Both may lack a physical existence but both can have real effects. Both can provide hope and inspiration to their believers and can affect peoples’ behavior. In this way both are real. They are as real as things like Mercy, Beauty, and Justice.
There is a scene at the end of the movie “Hogfather” that I think sums this up quite well. You can see it here on YouTube. It’s less than two minutes long and well worth the time.
What Terry Pratchett is telling us in this scene is that belief in imaginary representations of ideals can help us achieve those ideals. We have to begin by believing in little lies so we can believe in big ones and make them become real. These fantasies provide ideals to strive for and inspiration for making the world a better place.
Belief in things like heaven and Santa Clause can also motivate good behavior in children or others who fail to understand intuitively that all people have the same feelings and the same rights, and that they are entitled to the same level of consideration as themselves. These fantasies can provide a selfish reason for people to behave unselfishly. This is not necessarily a bad thing considering the ample evidence of people who never seem to develop an internal moral compass.
So, is Hawking’s statement about the physical existence of heaven mean? Is his reminder that heaven is not a planet or any other kind of physical location in the natural universe somehow depressing? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it is important to be reminded of such things from time to time. It is far too easy to confuse myth and message, fact and fantasy, or knowledge and belief and doing so can have unspeakable consequences. Despite the fact that believing in fantasies can be a great motivator for personal and cultural betterment we also have to remember that these are fantasies; at least we do as we get older, have internalized the ideas those fantasies represent, and are able to understand the difference between things that are physically real and those that are emotional or philosophical ideals. If we don’t, they can be just as powerful motivators for hate, intolerance, and destruction.