We sometimes are repulsed by movies that seem too contrived, too dramatic, or too far-fetched. Fiction writers can create a world beyond our imagination, but sometimes they go too far. A subject (reader of a fiction or a viewer of a movie) might enjoy a fiction including hypothetical inventions or mythical creatures and yet disbelieve some aspect of a fiction because it was unrealistic. Hence, the subject may not reject the entire fiction, but only a specific part. This sort of rejection is certainly subjective, so it will have something to do with the viewer’s individual beliefs. This paper attempts to discover what exactly the subject rejects when judging that a movie or other fiction has gone too far. This paper also examines how the boundary of believable fiction is defined. My thesis is that when a fiction implies facts that disagree with a subject’s principles for entertaining possible worlds, the subject will reject that part of the fiction. An author of a fiction may be unaware of these implied facts, nevertheless I will refer to them as the claims of the fiction.
Fiction is an attempt to create an illusion of a possible world. Section 1 discusses how the world of a fiction is created and why we should view this world as an illusion. This illusion created by fiction is easiest to see in film. Here, I will address Noël Carrol’s argument against regarding film as an illusion. I will then supplement my argument that film is an illusion by arguing that other forms of fiction create a similar illusion. Section 2 attempts to establish a sufficient similarity between thought experiments and the events of a fiction. This similarity will justify analyzing events in fiction in the same way we can analyze thought experiments: as counterfactuals. When discussing thought experiments and fictional worlds, the principles whereby that world was created are referred to as claims. Section 3 looks at how answering a thought experiment necessarily reveals whether the subject believes the claim of the thought experiment. The same method will be applied to fiction to find it’s claim. A disparity between a fictions claims and a subjects beliefs about possible world will cause the subject to reject the fiction.
1 Film as illusion of a possible world
Philosophers and literary critics often talk about the ‘world’ of a particular fiction. Fictional worlds work similarly across their several modes of presentation; films, novels, etc. The subject is required to visualize the world and manipulate their mental image as the fiction directs. Film provides this visualization for the viewer. Other forms of fiction require the subject to construct the visualization from scratch. Film Theorists André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer write that film has an air of credibility due to the natural way in which it is produced. Through photography, “an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man” (Bazin, 13). Kracauer thought that photography has an affinity with nature because it appears to us as though it captures “nature as it appears independent of us” (18). Both Bazin and Kracauer thought that photography objectively portrays reality because the film passively captures whatever photons pass through its lens. Film, for them, is an extension of photography, so film inherits this objective quality. Further, they thought that the realistic nature of film gives it realistic obligations as to what it portrays. “Film is equipped to record and reveal physical reality and, hence, gravitates toward it” (Kracauer, 28). As a result they judged movies based on how realistic their stories were. The lesson here is that we at least expect a certain realism of film. We see the images in a film as a continuous portrayal of a consistent world. This world may operate as far away from our world as the author can imagine provided a camera is still able to capture the events.
The credibility of film is particularly powerful. Bazin noticed that we are unable to disregard the illusion.
This production by automatic means has radically affected our psychology of the image. The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making. In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space. (Bazin, 13-14)
Our experience of film is much like that of the Müller-Lyer optical illusion. Two parallel line segments of equal length are shown with arrow shaped fins pointing inward on the first and outward on the second. Even if we know and consciously tell ourselves the lines are the same length, they still appear as though one is longer. Even if we tell ourselves the monster in the movie isn’t real, we are still afraid.
The reason we don’t run out of the theatre is usually referred to as the “willing suspension of disbelief.” As Bazin showed, in film, the suspension of disbelief is not so much willing as it is automatic. Film effectively creates the illusion for us without much work on our part. With other fictional mediums the author bears that much more of the burden of creating the illusion. Kendall Walton writes of a fictional ego which we allocate to witness and react to the fictional discourse. Thereby the inequality between reality and fiction is leveled “not by promoting fictions to our level, but by descending to theirs. More accurately, we extend ourselves to their level, since we do not stop actually existing when it becomes fictional that we exist” (Kendall, 15. Quoted in Pavey, 86). The mirror double of us with our fictional ego is seen in the cowboy at the end of The Big Lebowski. His character projects a “realistic ego” which seems to have watched the movie just like we have. He comments on the movie as a whole, “Things seem to have worked out pretty good for the dude and Walter. And it was a pretty good story,” and on specific events his character would not have known about, “I didn’t like seeing Donnie go.” He obviously inhabits the fictional world, but also seems to have watched, from outside, that very world unfold. We exist outside but experience the fictional world from the inside.
Noël Carroll cautions us concerning the expectation of reality in film as he attempts to refute what he calls “the transparency thesis.” The idea is that film gives us indirect access to the objects in them much like how the curved mirror in a parking lot helps us to “really see” the cars around the corner. He fully defines transparency as follows: “x is a transparent image iff (1) x puts us in mechanical contact with its object in such a way that the visible output in x is counterfactually dependent upon its visible input, and (2) x preserves genuine or real similarity relations between objects and events presented by it” (97). He concedes that photographs are transparent, but maintains that not all cinematic images inherit transparency. The transparency can be distorted by CGI, for example. If we include things like CGI and photoshop, the transparency of photographs are just as liable to distortion. Film passively captures whatever is in front of it, so we expect anything that looks like it was captured photographically (i.e. CGI movies) to be realistic. Although some images are transparent in Carroll’s sense, not all are. This expectation can easily lead us into being deceived about the contents of a film. However, we still experience the CGI movie as an illusion of a coherent world created by the fiction.
Carroll also attacks the illusion thesis by arguing that cinematic images create “response-dependent” movement rather than the illusion of movement. By this, he means that we interact with the movement in movies just as we react to seeing actual movement. He then differentiates this from actual illusions by arguing that illusions can be easily checked without special equipment to find out what’s really going on. Optical illusions are full illusions, in his theory, because we can cover up part of the image or use a ruler to see that we’ve been duped. Movement in film is like the solidity in a desk; there are actually very small gaps between the atoms of the desk but we just call it solid because we interact with it like it is fully solid and we can’t easily tell otherwise. For example, when watching To Kill A Mockingbird, we say “Atticus Finch just walked across the courtroom” rather than “There was no movement, just a succession of projected, still frames” (89-91).
Even if Carrol’s argument succeeds, seeing film as an illusion is still possible. The first problem with Carroll’s reasoning is that the meanings of “easily checked” and “special equipment” are ambiguous. But, even if this distinction prevails, we can check the movie to see that the objects in them are not really there. Atticus Finch cannot walk across the room if there is no room and no Atticus Finch. Carroll misdirected his attack toward the illusion of movement. Films create the illusion of physical objects which then are able to move around in their illusionary world. So, even if the movement is real is a “response-dependent” way, we are presented with the illusion of objects and people moving before us.
The fictional world of a novel works just like that of a film. Fiction requires visualization. It is impossible to understand fiction, as fiction, without visualizing a possible world in which the fiction can take place. Our experience with fiction is reducible manipulation of mental objects. In order to understand the events of a fiction as events, we must have some visualization of objects which we then manipulate.
With any fiction, the subject is required to flesh out more detail of the possible world than is explicitly given. Peter Lamarque writes “Reading fiction is an exercise in supplementing what is explicitly ‘given’. … All fictional narrative invites supplementation” (197). We take the explicit events of the text or film and supplement them with what would have to have happened in the background, off the screen. For example, in the whodunnit type of fiction there is some explanation for how all the murders were carried out which is usually revealed later, but the actual murders themselves are assumed to take place in the fictional world without description by the author. Marie-Luare Ryan formulates the principle of minimal departure by which we supplement the text or film. “We construe the world of fiction and of counterfactuals as being the closest possible to the reality we know. This means that we will project upon the world of the statement everything we know about the real world, and that we will make only those adjustments which we cannot avoid.” (Ryan, 406. Quoted in Pavey, 87). Ryan suggests fiction functions similar to counterfactuals; which suggestion we will take up later. For now, we can see that fiction works by the author or film suggesting a possible world and the subject building upon that world with her knowledge of the real world and expectations of the fiction.
2 Thought Experiments’ similarity to fiction
From the definition of fiction as an attempt to create the illusion of a possible world I will list a few properties. This will set us up for a comparison of fiction to thought experiments.
1. Fiction begins with the presentation of a hypothetical situation, of which the subject lacks control. Among the similarities between the experience of dreams and the experience of film listed in Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies is the passive/active symmetry. Films, like dreams, present a scenario or chain of events of which the audience is generally out of control (dreamers’ attempts to alter a situation are often ineffectual). Yet they are both are active experiences in that the subject is racing to figure out what is going on trying to interpret what will happen next.
2. The subject is expected to interpret what’s going on. Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “To avoid enemies, or to attack them with success, to capture wild animals, and to invent and fashion weapons, requires the aid of higher mental faculties, namely, observation, reason, invention, or imagination.” Swirski comments on the previous quote, ‘The reference to imagination points again to literature and its genius for weaving fictions – fictions that help us contemplate imagined actions and their consequences’ (Both taken from Swirsky, 75). We have a highly developed ability to imagine and predict events in the world. Fiction plays with this tendency, thereby creating suspense and surprise.
3. As a possible world, the fiction must work according to realistic laws. If the subject must attempt to predict what will happen, the events must be predictable to be accepted. These laws are even out of the control of the author of the possible world. This is manifest in the frequent comment made by fiction authors to the effect that fictions can sometimes write itself. Writer/reporter Laura Bruewer says “Writing becomes more like stage directing once the characters develop a life of their own…A word of caution here – they will argue with you. They will develop their own agenda, and will take you down side roads you least expect” (Quoted in Swirski, 45). Stanislaw Lem wrote that when writing Solaris, he “had no idea” what would happen in his story, “but I was soon to find out because the writing went on” (Also quoted in Swirski, 45).
4. Writers often intend to teach the reader something about the real world. Due to the close relationship between any possible fictional world and the real world, fiction is said to symbolically represent the real world. After we make those adjustments we cannot avoid, as Marie-Luare Ryan puts it, the rest of the fictional world functions like the real world. So, possibilities that are not affected by our adjustments are taken to be full fledged possibilities within our world as well. Peter Swirski deals at great length with the problem of learning about the real world from a fictional world. “[The] belief-modifying potential is the grail of storytellers. … fiction deftly manipulates the way we see the world.” Whether one can learn something about the world is up for debate. Nevertheless, at the very least the subject may learn something about herself. Steven Pinker compares fiction to “those books of famous chess games that serious players study so they will be prepared if they ever find themselves in similar straits” (Pinker, 542). The subject can obviously learn what she values and decide how she wants to make decisions in the future. In talking about Winston Smith’s capitulation to Big Brother in 1984, Swirski writes “Brought face to face with the belief system of the protagonist, readers respond on an emotional, sometimes even a visceral, level by examining the validity or fallacy of their own” (89). It may turn out that readers are only able to learn about themselves, or even less yet only be convinced more of what they already believed before.
This list is not meant to be sufficient conditions for a fiction, nor are they necessary. Even when rejecting a book as poorly written, we can agree, it is still a work of fiction. Without meeting these conditions we may say a fiction is bad or has failed, but conversely applying all of these conditions will not make a fiction good. A fiction must meet these conditions and also be interesting. The interesting is a topic with which I am not prepared to deal. This list shall then serve only as a meager yet substantive analysis of fiction whereby we may compare fiction to thought experiments. Even the most basic thought experiment shares all of these characteristics. Simply described, when we do a thought experiment, “We visualize some situation; we carry out an operation; we see what happens” (SEP). From this definition alone 1-3 apply. The author gives us a hypothetical situation to visualize and outlines how the visualization should be manipulated. The subject is then expected to predict the outcome based on those laws which are still intact within the thought experiment. When designing a thought experiment the laws necessitating the desired result must remain functional. The experimenter is not free to imagine any situation at will. Thomas Kuhn notes, “The thought experiment … is subject to only one condition of verisimilitude. The imagined situation must be one to which the scientist can apply his concepts in the way he has normally employed them before” (242). Likewise, the subject is not free to imagine any outcome at will. The outcome of the thought experiment follows from those the laws the experimenter left undisturbed. This is why we ‘see’ what happens rather than imagining what happens.
Thought experiments are almost always used as an argumentative tool which aligns nicely with condition 4. As a result thought experiments are faced with the same difficulty of informativeness. Thomas Kuhn explains that “Because it embodies no new information about the world, a thought experiment can teach nothing that was not known before. Or, rather, it can teach nothing about the world. Instead, it teaches the scientist about his mental apparatus” (252). If learning about the world requires new information from the world, thought experiments cannot teach us anything about the world. Kuhn goes on to retract his claim, arguing that after revising an incoherent theoretical model, one can then reinterpret previously confused experience. Under his own interpretation, the thought experiment simply points out a contradiction in concepts; the subject is then able to reinterpret experience. These are two separate events. We can easily imagine a scientist becoming convinced of a contradiction in his concepts, but then not reinterpreting experience. Regardless, thought experiments are very persuasive. In the least, the reader is often convinced of the experimenter’s point of view.
Alasdair MacIntyre begins After Virtue with a thought experiment that exemplifies the close relationship between fiction and thought experiments. Imagine a catastrophic destruction of the natural sciences. Science is blamed for a series of environmental disasters. All records and memory of the natural sciences are eradicated. Eventually, interest in science reemerges and intellectuals try to revive the theories of the past. They “argue about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory.” About halfway through the experiment he comments that “Nobody, or almost nobody, realises that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all” (1). MacIntyre goes on with the thought experiment to make a point about the state of ethical discussion. The experiment reads much like a short story. In fact, this thought experiment shares all the essential qualities of fiction listed above. First, the hypothetical situation is the collapse of the natural sciences. Second, MacIntyre expects we will see that discussing the merits of scientific theories is not actually natural science. Third, the situation involves details that plausibly explain how the situation could happen. Society blaming science for natural disasters is more believable than, say, a discovery that all the sciences are self contradictory. Fourth, MacIntyre expects us to learn what the state of ethical discussion is like.
The line about not doing natural science makes the thought experiment qualify as a fiction as well. It is presented as a stipulation within the experiment, but we could easily stop right there and ask “Would anybody be doing natural science?” This would make for a full fledged thought experiment by itself. MacIntyre has already begun interpretation about the experiment. What would normally be considered an intermediary claim becomes part of the fictional world. Fiction, then, can also be described as a chain of predictions or counterfactuals made by the author. When we watch or read fiction, our predictions run parallel to those of the author and we constantly compare the two. A mismatch in prediction causes the subject to reject that part of the fiction. However, the subject is not in control. Regardless of whether the subject disagrees, the story continues. In MacIntyre’s thought experiment, whether discussion of scientific paradigms is science proper is taken as an obvious point needing no discussion itself. The experiment indifferently continues on anyway.
3 Finding the claim
By using the symmetry between the basic functioning and structure of fiction and thought experiments, we can analyze fiction just like thought experiments. As previously mentioned, thought experiments are almost always used as argumentative tools. They are used to prove or convince of some claim. The claim in this kind thought experiment is easy to find, because the philosopher says what it is outright. Fiction falls under a category of thought experiments in which claims are not overtly stated. In any thought experiment, judging as possible any interpretation of the given situation commits the subject of the experiment to certain beliefs. Philosophers structure their thought experiments with scenarios that commit the subject to their beliefs. When the subject responds that the scenario is possible, the philosopher replies ‘simply by the necessary entailments of your intuitive interpretation of the scenario, I have shown that you have implicitly agreed with me all along.’
The Molyneaux problem is one such thought experiment without an overt claim. This example clearly shows how thought experiments commit the subject to a position. In 1688, William Molyneax sent an interesting problem to John Locke. The problem set up a scenario with a man born blind. The man can distinguish a sphere and a cube by touch. The question is whether he could distinguish the those same objects by sight alone should he gain his sight. The experiment does not deal with intuition at all as argumentative thought experiments do. Molyneux was not asking for Locke’s intuition, but for his reasoned opinion. Locke included the problem and his solution (to the negative) in his 1694 edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Leibniz later presented the problem (to himself, in a dialogue) as having been solved by Molyneux and Locke. Once again the experiment was not used to argue a point. At this point the experiment was devoid of any pumping capability and became a mere issue for discussion. In general, rationalists answer in the affirmative to Molyneux’s problem while empiricists answer in the negative. The interpretation of perception at the base of this experiment is so intrinsic to the rationalist/empiricist distinction that the answer a certain philosopher gave to the problem can effectively tell us the broader position of that philosopher. Also, more importantly, the problem itself becomes a litmus test to discern or bring forth the position of anyone asked to interpret the problem.
Thought experiments of this sort are sometimes mistaken for paradoxes. A great example is that of the cartoon where an engineer responds to a thought experiment involving atom-for-atom duplication of his body. He quickly responds “Clone’s the second one.” His philosopher buddy tries to find the source of his confidence, “Who’s to say which came first?” Again, the engineer promptly replies, “The guy who came first,” to which he smugly adds “Man, that was easy. You guys have any harder ones?” The comic ends with an announcement on the ban of all engineers from future philosophy conventions.
What the cartoonist misses is that any answer to the thought experiment will reveal the ontological commitments of he who answers. The engineer in this comic reveals, possibly against his overt opinion, an immaterial interpretation of human metaphysics. A materialist could never respond this way because if the composition of the brain accounted for all conscious phenomena, the clone would claim with equal vigor and sincerity that he came first.
David Lewis’s theory of assessing counterfactuals aids us in finding the commitments of a fiction, which itself is a chain of counterfactuals.
A counterfactual of the form ‘If it were that φ, then it would be that ψ’ is non-vacuously true iff some possible world where both φand ψare true differs less from our actual world, on balance, then does any world where φis true but ψis not true. (Lewis, 269)
A counterfactual is false if we have to change too many facts about our world to accommodate for it. As the principle of minimal departure (mentioned in section 1) states, the appropriate world to imagine for a fiction is the world with the least number of facts changed, but all parts of the fiction are true. For any counterfactual C (if X, then Y) we can identify the commitments of C (P) as facts which must be true for a possible world to be considered when checking the truth value of C. The claims of a fiction are those facts which, if changed disqualify the fictional world as possible. Counterfactuals then can be represented as (X & P) → Y, with the added claim that P is necessarily true. The worlds considered when evaluating counterfactual claims in fiction are compared to actual reality, rather than the fictional world, because that is how we determine a possible world.
We know that we must employ the principle of minimal departure to construct the world of a fiction, but that will only allow us to see the fictional world the author intended. We may figure out who murdered all those people, but that someone was the murderer and how is all the construction of the author. We must now ask: Based on what principle did the author construct the world of which the fiction is meant to be a description? Aristotle taught that the parts of a plot must follow from what happened previously. “The job of an author is to write … about what might or should happen given a certain set of circumstances” (Aristotle, 13). Under this analysis, a fiction is simply a set of counterfactual claims. The antecedent is chosen by the author, and each following event is a claim about what might happen (causal claim) or what should happen (moral or aesthetic claim). To relate this back once again to Lewis’s analysis of counterfactuals, the claims made by an author are those facts which, if changed, would make a possible world so dissimilar from ours we could rule it out of consideration of a counterfactual.
For example, In Casablanca Rick decides to send Ilsa on the plane to Lisbon. This event in the movie can be structured as the counterfactual (call it C) “If there were a guy named Rick who had all the experiences outlined in Casablanca leading up to the airport scene, then Rick would decide to send Ilsa on the plane out of the country.” The principle of constructing the counterfactual is the psychological makeup attributed to Rick. C is true because any possible world where Rick doesn’t send Ilsa on the plane would have to modify Rick’s psychological make up in order to be possible at all. Such a modification renders that possible world too dissimilar to reality to be considered in evaluating C. So the claim, in this example, is the psychological state of Rick. The author must be committed to Rick being that kind of person. We accept this part of Casablanca because we have to change very few, if any, facts about our world in order to incorporate an individual with the psychological state Rick exhibits.
The claim about Rick is trivial because it is about a character, who exists entirely within the fictional world. Nontrivial fictional claims are those that refer to some principle outside the fiction. In G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, G.I. Joe forces infiltrate the underwater arctic base of the Cobra organization. Having abandoned the base, the leader of the Cobras initiates the base’s self destruct mechanism attached to the sheet of ice above. Huge chunks of ice to fall upon the base, destroying it. Viewers of G.I. Joe often laugh at such a silly idea. They know that should the layer of ice on the top of a body of water be broken up, the ice will still float. Viewers reject this part of the movie because the fictional world has changed fundamental laws of physics.
Another example is seen in The Prestige and requires some explanation. Robert Angier and Alfred Borden are rival magicians in early 20th century London. In an attempt to outperform Borden, Angier seeks the help of Nicola Tesla to make a device that will transport his body across the stage. The machine, instead of simply transporting the subject, makes a duplicate which appears a short distance away. He sets up the machine on the stage and so that the duplicate on the stage falls through a trap door out of sight and the other duplicate appears up on the balcony among the audience. Angier also sets up a water tank below the stage to dispose of the duplicate and conceal his secret. Angier comments about the experience of being duplicated. “It took courage to climb into that machine every night, not knowing if I would be the Prestige [the duplicate that emerges in the audience] or the man in the box [the duplicate which is drowned].” Sometimes Angier was the prestige and sometimes he was the man in the box. Whichever duplicate survived, it continued to be Angier, with all of his thoughts, memories and psychological makeup. When Angier first used the machine he killed the duplicate (or the duplicate killed him and then continued to be him). The Angier who was about to die tried to get the Angier with the gun to spare him by saying “I’m the…” He was cut of before saying the words “real Angier.” So, much like the cartoonist who revealed his metaphysical position by interpreting a thought experiment, The Prestige reveals the position of the Nolan Brothers who added these lines of dialogue to the story they adapted into the movie. The event can be abstracted as the counterfactual “If a man were to be cloned atom-for-atom, he would not know whether he was the original or the clone.” The claim is a materialistic interpretation of human metaphysics. Within the fictional world of The Prestige, human existence must be must be reducible to physical events. Acceptance of this part of The Prestige depends on acceptance of mind-body materialism.
This paper has been my attempt at analyzing and describing a fairly frequent yet specific phenomenon: when some’unrealistic’ part in a piece of fiction which disengages the viewer or reader. Fiction is an attempt to construct the illusion of a possible world. Much like an optical illusion, we cannot experience fiction as such without imagining the fictional world, though we can check to see that the world is not actual. We the readers or viewers will reject the fiction if the fictional world does not function according to certain beliefs about the real world. We reject the implicit, if unintentional, claims of the fiction. Specifically, we can find the claims that a fiction makes by analyzing them in the way thought experiments can be analyzed: as counterfactuals. A claim in fiction is then a state of affairs that must obtain for a given counterfactual to be true.
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