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Lies that Speak Truth to the Human Heart; Fiction, Imagination, and Empathy

If there is one thing I can count on the internet for, it’s that when a discussion of a video game, comicbook, television show, novel, movie, or whatever form of media floats your boat comes up, someone, somewhere, at some point will likely respond to criticism of it with some variation of, “It’s just fiction.”

At first blush that certainly seems like it has some validity to it, doesn’t it? After all, something that is fictional is by its nature not true. It likely even meets Kant’s definition for being an analytic statement; that is to say it is a statement which contains its own definition without needing supplement (bachelor being one of the more commonly used examples of an analytic statement; it contains in itself the meaning of “an unmarried adult male”). The word’s place in a Kantian schema isn’t terribly important, particularly since further elaboration would require me to listen to a Kantian without entering a catatonic state, and I fear I’m simply not up to so Herculean a task.

The important takeaway from the above is not the Kantian digression, but the fact that most adults upon hearing the word fiction will understand it to mean that we are speaking about something which is not true. Bertrand Russell would certainly agree with this sentiment; in his tendentious, torturous essay on why ordinary language is insufficient for  the doing of philosophy, Russell talked about if I say something like, “The current king of France is bald,” said statement is meaningless largely because there is not a current king of France. Which is why despite admitting it would render ordinary communication impossible, Russell insisted we needed to make a language specifically for the doing of philosophy, so that shenanigans could be avoided.  This particular point of view would underlie (and undermine) the ideas of logical positivism (the forerunner of analytic philosophy). (I will interrupt with a brief confession. Russell did do some good work, and I’ve always wondered if the essay I mention here wasn’t done as something of a joke; written in a deliberately obtuse and obstructive style in order to illustrate his point. Regardless, the moves in philosophy that Russell describes, and which became profoundly influential, were also moves that helped direct contemporary philosophy away from usefulness and toward academic circle jerking. Moving on.)

We, as a species, have something far more important than a language of logic or a factual king of France; we have the ability to think abstractly, and to imagine. There does not need to be a current king of France for me to conceive that there is, or could be, and that this nonexistent king is in fact bald. I would even go so far as to say it is easier for me to understand what the statement out a fictional king of France being bald is representing than it is for me to properly understand the distances involved in something like a light year; while the light year might be a “factual” unit, the scale of what it represents requires significantly more imagination, because most of us have no experiential referent to compare it to.

So on at least a literal level, fiction isn’t nonsensical or meaningless. Common sense would tend to tell us that, because if the nature of fiction were nonsensical we wouldn’t engage with fictional materials; not because we would be wasting time, but because we simply wouldn’t be able to comprehend them. In fact, the potential meanings carried in fiction have been a concern of philosophy going back to its “official” beginnings.

Plato, in his Republic, goes off on a digression about the hypothetical ideal city. He blathers about the various castes that will make up the city, and other details that have made the Republic the only book to ever put me to sleep twice in the same day. However, among his natterings there is one class of folks that Plato is quite clear will have no involvement with the ideal city: poets. Plato was not fond of poets and artists, because he was terrified by the possibilities of mimesis; those naughty, fictional doings, and reproductions of objects could very well lead us deeper into the cave so that we never saw the light of Plato’s imaginary forms. If fiction was incapable of conveying meaning, and meaning beyond that which it takes to simply be comprehensible, but rather the kind of meaning that informs and shapes our way of being in the world, why would Plato be so worried about? And if fiction is incapable of conveying deeper meanings, why did Plato choose to present his work as fictional dialogues?*

Clearly, fiction is not nonsensical, and is capable of conveying meanings on a level beyond a surface engagement of entertainment. Part of it is that we are beings of abstract thought and imagination, and we can be affected by things that are not “real,” an idea which I have talked about previously. If you didn’t believe me there, it turns out that neuroscience is (finally) catching on to what some philosophers have been saying for at least a few hundred years. Yet I don’t think that this capacity fully explains the ways in which we can, and often do engage with fiction. I suspect that it is not only our capacity for abstract thought and imagination, our ability to dream as it were, but also our capacity for empathy that allows us to immerse ourselves into fictions as we do. I don’t agree with everything in this video. I don’t think that our capacity for empathy comes from an understanding of mortality, particularly since some animals do seem to display empathy, or something similar, and as of yet we’ve no reason to presume that they understand/conceive of death in the same way that humans do. I also have a few other quibbles with the information presented, but again I digress.

When we willingly suspend our disbelief and engage with a work of fiction we connect with the worlds and characters we experience. Much as with dreams, visions, etc. they in way become real to us. Even without visual triggering of mirror neurons these fictional characters and events can make us laugh or cry; they share part of their lives with us, and in doing so evoke our emotions. While it’s by no means a good thing, it’s small wonder then that some people might come to confuse an actor for the character they portray; to those of us who experience the results of their work at home the actor him or herself is a cypher. We do not know this person. Yet the character they portray, or portrayed in the past, is someone with whom we have established a rapport. In activating our capacity for empathy these characters have become part of the narrative of our own lives, all without ever being “real.”

Fiction also has another great power; it can tell us unpleasant truths, while hiding from us that it is telling unpleasant truths. By moving things into the realm of fiction, we can deal with them a step or more removed. If I simply tell someone that religion is a lie, or that they are embedded in a racist society whether they consider themselves racist or behave in an overtly racist manner, there is a fairly good chance that this person is going to feel as if I am attacking them and respond defensively. While it is certainly not a foolproof method, and it is entirely possible this person (and others) would miss the point I was making, or would still feel as if I was attacking, by wrapping this issue in a fictional coating I can present to them the same argument, the same truths in such a manner that it is perhaps not such a bitter pill to swallow.

Trying to dismiss something as just being fiction is, at best, disingenuous. Fiction might well not have a single grain of fact in it, but that does not mean that it is “false.” Plato certainly knew this, and knew that the ideal city would have to ban poets for fear that the fictions they told might undermine the tyrannical party line. Like our dreams, fiction is capable of touching us in the same manner as the “real” world; it can be as much a part of the intersubjective web in which we are immersed as other people, or the physical objects we interact with on a daily basis.

The things I talk about in this blog and elsewhere are examples of that; artifacts of popular culture that are also artifacts that enable philosophical engagement. Perhaps it is time that more philosophers follow in the footsteps of Camus, Sartre, even Nietzsche, as well as such primarily “literary” personalities such as Hesse, and understand that we needn’t speak a convoluted language of dead white guys to speak philosophically about, and to, the world. There is no reason that we could not speak a language of lies that tells the truth.

*(I have heard some make a great deal of the fact that one of Plato’s statements in his Republic is that the philosopher ruler is “…a lover of truth and a hater of lies,” yet at several points the philosopher ruler lies to the people. Also, if Plato was so down on poets and tellers of tales, isn’t he contradicting himself by using fiction? The answer is no, because he clearly admits to the acceptability of fables; fictions that might not be true in fact, but that teach an important moral truth. The lies of the philosopher ruler, and the fictions of Plato, were not deceptions of malice or mimesis, they were the kind of moral instruction one might offer to a child. What that might say about Plato’s opinion of others is for you to decide, dear readers, but there is no contradiction in respect to this particular point.)

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Comics, Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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