In The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen poses as fantasy a question that we are likely to confront in real life in the near future. The question is, what happens when individuals from one level of reality meet up with individuals from another level of reality?
In a Woody Allen movie, what happens is that romance, highjinks, and some pointed philosophical discussions ensue. We get to see what happens when a character from a 1930′s screwball comedy is dropped into real 1930′s New Jersey. He quickly discovers that the fake wad of money he’s carrying around is no good and that cars don’t just automatically start when you need them to. Later we get to see what happens when a real person from 1930′s New Jersey gets dropped into the movie world; she laments that the “champagne” served at the Copacabana is just ginger ale.
Some of the movie’s most interesting dialog occurs among the characters stranded on screen after one of their number departs — there’s no way to advance the story without him. One is a committed communist who argues that the movie stars exploit the labors of the characters on screen, who night after night do all the real work. Another fears the blackness into which they are all plunged each time the projector is turned off. Each of them is convinced that the movie is “really” about him or her.
An intriguing question that gets raised is whether these characters are the creations of the actors who portray them or the screenwriter who wrote them in the first place. The world they live in is apparently the joint creation of the screenwriter, the producer, and the director of the film — all of which leads to some interesting discussion about God.
Of course, projected images on a screen are not people. They don’t think or feel, nor do they inhabit a “world,” other than the one we construe out of the combined images. However, we are fast approaching a day when created characters will have behavior, feelings, and intentions of their own, and who will be as convinced of the reality of their world as we are of the reality of ours. In fact, we can’t rule out the possibility that we ourselves are such “characters,” and that our world may be a simulation.
So what happens when we meet up with the designers of our world, or when characters from one of our simulations meet us? Will we find that our money is worthless in the real world, or that all their champagne is ginger ale? What will we have to say to each other about the meaning of existence or the nature of identity? And what kinds of relationships might we have with one another?