On Philosophy

October 27, 2007

Fan Fiction About Reality

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

As I assume you are aware there are some significant differences between fiction and reality. The most striking is, naturally, that fiction isn’t actual, the events portrayed in fiction don’t really occur, we cannot be affected by them, only by descriptions of them. But here I am more interested in the other substantial difference between fiction and reality, that reality is “completely” defined while fiction is not. What exactly a fictional world is defined by is a matter of some debate. The most natural answer is that it is defined by the material the creator has published about it, but some would argue that it is defined by the author’s conception of it. However, no matter how it is defined, it is defined only incompletely. There are a nearly infinite number of facts about the fictional universe that the nature of the work implies are fixed, but are completely undefined. A famous example of this is Hamlet’s eye color. Obviously Hamlet is portrayed in play about him as having some eye color, otherwise the other characters would surely remark about its absence. But we are never told what that eye color is. And thus Hamlet’s eye color is simply not defined in this fictional world, there are no facts about it. There a quote by Douglas Adams I stumbled upon recently, in which he says basically the same thing.

”The book is a work of fiction. It’s a sequence of words arranged to unfold a story in a reader’s mind. There is no such actual, real person as Arthur Dent. He has no existence outside the sequence of words designed to create an idea of this imaginary person in people’s minds. There is no objective real world I am describing, or which I can enter, and pick up his computer, look at it and tell you what model it is, or turn it over and read off its serial number for you. It doesn’t exist.”

But because we become involved in these fictional worlds, and take them somewhat seriously, there is a strong temptation to treat them as real worlds. And thus fan fiction is born, which I will define generally as an attempt to describe the contents of the fictional world beyond what has actually been defined. Sometimes this can take the form of stories written by other people who describe things that they supposed have happened in this universe, but which were not described in the original works. On other occasions fan fiction takes the form of explanations that attempt to put the events described in the fictional universe as described in some wider context that justifies those events, so that they are reasonable given the nature of the universe. A great example of this is Star Wars and Star Trek fan fiction, which extend their respective universes by describing how the technologies and societies of these fictional words work, often in order to resolve possible consistencies, or just to fill in details that are considered interesting but never officially explored. But fan fiction is not doing what it purports to, it is not revealing new information about this fictional universe. Rather it is creating a new fictional universe that overlaps significantly with that which was its inspiration.

A significant portion of this fan fiction is motivated by the desire for explanations. Why, for example, are star destroyers shaped as they are? What advantage does a wedge shape confer in space? Because we treat fictional worlds mentally in essentially the same way we treat the real world we expect these explanations to be in the form of further facts about the fictional world, about how the empire’s technology and strategists motivated this design for their battleships. But, despite our expectations, these are not the correct explanations, these explanations are not uncovering the real reasons, they are creating reasons that seem plausible to us. The real reasons have to do with the artistic direction of the film, and why the people involved thought that design would look good on camera, or simply appealed to them on some level. And even those explanations might not exist. It is not impossible for a book or film to be created by an entirely random process (for example, by monkeys). When considering a work created in this way there are simply no explanations to be found at all. If monkeys wrote Star Wars there would be no reason at all behind the shape of the star destroyers, their shape would just be a bare fact, with no further facts behind it, that star destroyers have a consistent shape at all would simply be a coincidence. None of this affects the fact that explaining their shape in terms of further facts about the fictional world is the most satisfying. And that is because we approach the question with certain expectations about what explanations should be like, formed from our experience with the actual world in which explanations tend to take certain forms. But just because these explanations are the most satisfying doesn’t mean that they are correct in any way. And indeed they aren’t, they are pleasing inventions, with the real explanations having to do with the actual sources of the fiction.

But, while this talk about fictional worlds may be interesting (or not), uncovering how to best think about fictional worlds is not my aim here. I claim that certain theories about the actual world are essentially fan fictions about reality, that they extend the world beyond where it is actually defined (meaning that they make claims about which there can be no way, even in principle, of deciding their correctness, or are in some sense meaningless), and are thus are essentially fictions. This doesn’t necessarily make them worthless, but in realizing that they are fictions most of our reasons to care about them seriously evaporate, with squabbles about them being reduced to the same level as an argument about whether the shape of the star destroyer was arrived at because of constraints of hyperspace or because the designers had a thing for triangles. The debate may be an interesting intellectual exercise in argument and constructing consistent fictions within certain constraints, but it has no real consequences, it doesn’t tell us anything about the actual world (in the case of fan fiction about reality) or the original fictional world (in the case of ordinary fan fiction).

But first allow me to say which facts are defined for the actual world. I can do this relatively simply: the actual world, by definition, is defined completely by the set of facts that are the transitive causal closure (the causes and effects of that fact, and of those facts, and so on) of an arbitrary physical fact (since this transitive causal closure is the same for all physical facts). Let us simply take the existence of my desk lamp as that arbitrary physical fact, for convenience. As an example of a fan fiction about reality let us consider an arbitrary theory about universals that describes them as anything more than a way of talking about certain physical facts. An example of such theory would be one that claimed that they universal was something of its own, either an independent thing or something that was extended throughout all the instances of that universal. Obviously this is to make assertions about more facts than are included in the actual world, defined as the transitive causal closure of my desk lamp, assuming the absurd assertion that universals have causal effects on the world in addition to those resulting from the particulars is not made, because the facts about these universals are additional facts that can be neither true or false. Now we must ask ourselves why someone would make such assertions. Certainly there is no need to make them; nothing requires the universals’ existence. For example, if we wish to know why two objects seem the same we could simply point to psychological facts, noting that beings who were wired differently might see them as quite different, and not similar at all. Or we might wonder why they have similar causal properties, but in this case there simply are no further facts, the physical facts and their relationships are all there is to the world. (There is an analogy here with the fictional work created by a random process; just because we can ask why that fictional world is constructed as it is doesn’t mean that there is an answer, and just because we can ask why the physical facts are as they are doesn’t mean that there is an answer.) The reason that universals are thought to exist then is not because they are needed, but because of the ways in which we tend to think about them. For example, we often describe two similar objects as sharing something in common. And we talk about abstract categories as if they were themselves things, which can have properties and relations of their own. Just as taking a fictional world as real world leads people to construct “internal” explanations for facts about it so do such ways of thinking about universals lead people to postulate their existence, because they have given us certain expectations about the form the explanations must take, that to say why two objects have something in common we must say what they have in common and how it is related to them. But just because it is natural to explain the apparent validity of such ways of thinking by appealing to the actual existence of universals doesn’t mean that this is the correct explanation, any more than our tendency to think of fictional universes as real justifies the explanation of star destroyer shapes in terms of star destroyer designers. Of course because these ways of thinking about universals seem to work that means that they probably mirror some statements that are simply generalizations over the actual facts. It’s not my purpose to provide such translations here, only to point out that the apparent validity of certain ways of thinking doesn’t imply that they are themselves correct descriptions of the world.

Now just because some philosophy is essentially fan fiction about reality doesn’t mean that all philosophy is fan fiction about reality. And indeed there are theories about universals that aren’t such fictions, those that explain universals in terms of how assertions apparently about them reflect certain general statements about the world. But we must be wary of creating such fictions without realizing it, of being led by our ordinary way of talking about the world from misleading us as to the kinds of explanations that are required.

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