In the day to day tedium of life, I often turn to fiction for comfort. I appeal to fictions in part because they help pass the time, and also because I innately feel as if they can explore the big “what if?” sorts of questions that so often float around in my head. What if we made contact with aliens? What if we had access to infinite ‘free’ energy? These sorts of questions appeal to my childlike sense of wonder and my curiosity as to whether or not certain counterfactual conditionals pertain.
At first glance, fictional narratives seem like they can offer a window into that possibility – that they really can help determine what would likely happen if there was a zombie virus, or if I was lost at sea, or if some totalitarian government ruled the world. However, upon closer examination, I find that there are a couple hurdles keeping fiction – as an information medium – from properly revealing any kind of meaningful response to “what if?” questions. First, the authors of fiction are almost always unequipped to make the complex counterfactual claims that they do, and second, audiences are necessarily unequipped to distinguish between an equipped and unequipped author, and therefore misappropriate epistemic privilege where it is undeserved.
The Limitations of Authors
To write a fictional narrative is to provide a rough sketch of an otherwise maximally descriptive world – a completely detailed way in which both objects – the people, institutions and ‘things’ in fictions – as well as natural and social laws could be organized. Authors usually spend a lot of their time carefully describing the objects in their worlds, but usually don’t describe the laws.
An unspoken rule governs all fiction – the natural and social laws are exactly as they are in the real world. We don’t need to be told that Newton’s laws are just the same in Game of Thrones or To Kill a Mockingbird as they are in everyday life – we can assume as much in that nowhere are they explicitly said not to hold. The same goes for the laws of psychology, economics, sociology, biology, etc. Until an author states otherwise, the fictional world is in every way similar to our world. This is particularly true for stories that try to address “what if?” questions.
It follows that the objects in fictional worlds have to stay within a certain degree of possibility and act as they would in this world. When a secret agent lands safely from a dangerous height by rolling to break the fall, or a man is held in higher esteem among his peers after telling a joke, authors are telling us that these events are compatible with the laws that govern them – the natural laws that exist in reality.
The problem here lies in the fact that to properly make all of the objects in a fictional narrative correspond properly to real laws – at least wherever authors intend to – an exhaustively comprehensive knowledge of those laws is required.
How could anyone write a space-epic that assumes physics to be as it without knowing precisely what physics entails? What’s the point – besides mere entertainment – of exploring a dystopian world constructed by an author ignorant of the laws of sociology, economics, and psychology?
This all leads to one contingently true conclusion – that since no author can be a reasonably sufficient authority on all of the natural laws which govern the objects in their narratives, the fictional worlds authors create amount to a world possible only within their admittedly uninformed opinion, and that we have very little to learn about real possibilities to our “what if?” questions.
The Limitations of Audiences
Now imagine that a supreme genius takes it upon herself to author a fictional narrative. She possesses all of the requisite cognitive ability and education to make any true counterfactual claim. Given any set of assumed antecedent conditions, the genius can perfectly apply her knowledge of natural laws to determine the resulting outcomes of any characters or events described in the antecedent conditions. The genius can therefore provide perfect and exhaustively descriptive answers to any “what if <X>?” questions.
However, it does not follow that the fictional narratives of this genius provide audiences insight into any “what if?” questions, and I shall attempt to show why.
As a medium, fiction is bound up both in attempting to entertain and also to achieve beauty. Fictions may also attempt to probe “what if?” questions as well, but this is always in addition to the other goals. A fiction without an attempt at entertainment or beauty is just a dry counterfactual, the value of which is bound up in the scientific and methodological matter of whether or not the counterfactual is true – and there are better mediums than fiction for this kind of dry, purely scientific goal.
Good fictions are not merely true counterfactuals subject to standards of accuracy, but are also beholden to aesthetic standards as well. These aesthetic standards often require, or at least strongly tempt authors to portray events that are unrealistic, or at least improbable. That is, good authors intentionally ‘force’ certain consequent facts about their fictional worlds that do not follow from the assumed antecedent facts and natural laws in order to achieve desired narrative ends. For example, the stormtroopers in George Lucas’ Star Wars shouldn’t miss all that often given that they are described as extremely well trained and well equipped genetically engineered warriors – but they are constantly ‘forced’ to miss by Lucas for plot convenience.
The supreme genius might be able to perfectly formulate any true counterfactual claim, but it will be nearly impossible for her to write a good fiction without ‘forcing’ a few consequent facts for the sake of generating aesthetic value. The problem then, is that most ‘forced’ facts in fiction are completely indistinguishable from any other consequent fact. Authors themselves may be blind to when they unconsciously bend to these aesthetic standards.
Without getting too much into the epistemic concern of what constitutes knowledge, people cannot come to know anything about reality without logically deducing, empirically experiencing, or appealing to authoritative testimony. At first glance, any knowledge of reality derived from fictions authored by a ‘supreme genius’ is going to be of the third and last kind. The problem with authoritative testimony in fictions, however, is that it is impossible to distinguish between ‘forced’ consequent facts – which will falsely provide authoritative testimony – and those which follow from natural law as the supreme genius perfectly interprets. That is – it is impossible for audiences to determine where exactly in a given novel or movie the supreme genius provides authoritative testimony and where they force details to fulfill aesthetic values.
This is analagous to trying to extract truths from a textbook for which unknown bits and pieces are made inaccurate so that it’s a bit more entertaining. Of course not everything in a textbook is accurate. What makes textbooks trustworthy is that they only aim for accuracy, and entertainment is only a minor side concern. Therefore, audiences necessarily cannot come to know anything about “what if?” questions from fictions, even if a supreme genius were to author them.
Addition: For a discussion of examples of authors and readers who commit the fallacy, some psychology research behind it, and new approaches to reading fiction check out The Fiction Fallacy, Part 2: What Now?