Most twenty –first century English speakers imagine themselves to be rational, logical beings. Yet we employ a language strewn with references to things which no one presumes to exist. We read and hear words like “angel” and “demon,” “unicorn,” and “fairy.” Yet even when seriously drunk, few people believe to have ever seen such phenomena. And almost no one over nine years old believes in their existence.
One could argue that these words entered the language in an earlier, more innocent age, when people actually believed in such things, and the words live on as fossil remains of long extinct concepts or perhaps as metaphors still useful in the modern world.
Yet our modern world itself continues to add to this inventory of words which precisely describe the non-existent. How many science fiction plots could hold together without the glue of “faster than light-speed travel,” often euphemized as “warp drive” or “hyperspace drive,” or “space folding; ” (not to mention “transporter beams.”) We need these concepts as plot devices because we have learned two very inconvenient facts: One; there is no habitable planet other than Earth in our own star system. Two, all other star systems are a very inconvenient distance away. Any plot in which the time required to travel to anywhere worth going would take the greater part of a human lifetime would not be very fast-paced, and would probably not hold our interest.
But what would be the result if, just for one year, we resolved to abstain from reading, writing, or speaking any word describing that which is non-existent. Mind you, I do not rule out things which do not now exist, simply because they are beyond our current technology. The Sci-fi films like Gattaca and Jurassic Park invoke technologies that do not presently exist—and perhaps will never exist. But, unlike “warp drive,” they are not mathematically impossible technologies. Supposing we just swore off, for one year only, the impossible. Is there some basic human need to imagine beyond the possible? When ancient poets spun tales of gods and heroes, was this just “bubble gum for the mind?” Or is there a fundamental human need understand what is possible—and then pretend to live in a world beyond it?