In the first part of my exploration of the Fiction Fallacy, I argued that we cannot derive knowledge of the external world from fictions whatsoever. Now, it may occur to you that this conclusion is trivial. After all, at first glance – normal people don’t seem to conflate fictional narratives with historical accounts. No one walks away from Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter believing in dragons or wizards. However, in this article I shall attempt to show that the average person either believes that they can, or at least is subconsciously prone to derive information about our world from fictions. That is – I shall attempt to show that the conclusion of the first part of my exploration is not trivial.
How We Interpret Fictional Worlds
Consider for a moment Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The text depicts the United States in a state of turmoil. The wealthy, intelligent, hard-working captains of industry are encroached upon by the despicable, lowly, entitled working class in the name of ‘social progress.’ These are not my opinions. They are the events and states that truly exist in the world that Ayn Rand has created. Further, there are actually people who give credence to the basic assertions in Ayn Rand’s text, thereby allowing beliefs to register in their minds without sufficiently good reasons, evidence, or authoritative testimony. For example, Eddie Lampert – the CEO of Sears – was so convinced by the economic theories that work in Rand’s books, that he decided to implement Rand’s theories into his business model to the best of his ability – by “pitting Sears company managers against each other … [in the hope that this action] would cause them to act rationally and boost performance.” As a result, “Sears has lost half of its value in five years.”
Authors themselves are not exempt from committing the Fiction Fallacy either. Veronica Ruth, the author of the popular dystopian novel-to-film Divergent, has said that:
There are many reasons [people have for reading dystopian literature] I’m sure, but I think dystopian books are perfect for people that like to ask “what if?” but want to see their “what if?” question played out in a world that has the same rules as our own (as opposed to paranormal or fantasy, in which the rules of the world – in terms of physics or biology or something – are a little different).
Ruth’s mistake is in her assumption that fictions can help answer those “what if?” questions, which I have thus far shown to be basically impossible, mostly because neither she nor anybody else has the near omniscient mind and processing power required to create fictional worlds that have “the sames rules as our own,” but less obviously also because audiences cannot distinguish between ‘forced’ and purely law-governed consequent facts. This will not, of course, stop people from trying.
It has been shown that people subconsciously interpret and process information at far greater rates than we can consciously. Whenever we walk across a rugged landscape, our brains subconsciously plot out a detailed and precise map for where it’s optimal to put our feet. If we drop something valuable or fragile, our brains subconsciously track the trajectory of the object, and attempt to intercept it before it hits the ground. We also make judgments and learn subconsciously. Ever notice that something just isn’t right about a person or situation? In most social situations, our subconscious picks out just the right thing to say without us having to think too hard about it. But sometimes we put our feet on slippery rocks and we fall, or we juggle that precious object before losing out to gravity, or we say something unbelievably stupid. The point is – our subconscious is responsible for a lot of information processing, and sometimes it makes mistakes.
When you read a story about the heroic rescue of a wounded mountain climber, its effect on your associative memory is much the same if it is a news report or the synopsis of a film. Anchoring results from this associative activation. Whether the story is true, or believable, matters little, if at all.
In other words, we do interpret fictional narratives in the same way that we process second-hand accounts of events that have already transpired. For example, when we see in Atlas Shrugged or even in Harry Potter that conflict arises between people just because of perceived differences, we might subconsciously come to think the same is true for reality. Conjoining this with my conclusion at the end of the first part of my analysis of the Fiction Fallacy – fictional narratives cannot provide knowledge of the external world, but human beings still derive beliefs and collect data from them. As long as we desire justly derived beliefs, something has to give.
Two Ways to Better Experience Fiction
While we cannot reliably derive truths about reality from fiction, we can still enjoy fiction with our heads high in two new different ways. For both we need to be more conscious about considering every fictional detail as merely a conception – subject to falsity – in the mind of an author.
First, we need to consider the author as a conversation partner. In this sense, we are to read their fiction with a knack for contention and debate. We must ask ourselves questions similar to the following: Are those characters with their psychology, reactions and habits truly feasible? Could those events really conspire given the laws of economics, sociology, and the particular characters involved? Does that assumed moral theory really hold true in our world? We do not necessarily need to come to conclusions and respond to these questions, but we must at least be aware of and consider them. Otherwise, as Kahneman notes above, we risk unconsciously treating fictions more like stories in the newspaper.
However, if we still want to enjoy fiction, then we need to treat the author not as a conversation partner, but as a subject for aesthetic consideration. Contemplate these related questions: Has the author faithfully captured the unique quality of some physical or emotional state – that I may seamlessly recall or reflect upon my own experiences with that state? Do I find the author’s conceiving of a world – even if the conception itself is false – contributing to the greater beauty of the world? That is, are the failing struggles of an author to truthfully depict the world beautiful or meaningful? Instead of judging a fiction on its accuracy and ability to explore truth, we need to judge authors on their ability to reach aesthetic goals alone.
While the first solution seems necessary to our accepting and reconciling our inability to derive truths from fiction with our desire to enjoy them, I find that the second solution is that which allows me to go back to the fictions of my childhood and still find beauty. I do not find it necessarily in the characters, their interactions, or their epic journeys – but that there are such people to conceive of or hope for such complex, lively worlds. This is the solution for which I find some solace from what – for me –would otherwise surely be a complete abandonment of fiction altogether.