Fiction, knowledge, reality

Anyone who asks that humans forsake stories for mere scientific statements of ‘fact’ * demonstrates little understanding of what it means to be human, even on the most basic biological level. Why not ask that we forsake sex, or eating, or breathing? None of these are necessary to scientistic ‘knowledge,’ are they? We’re just brains in a vat, after all?

But if not, we will be telling stories as long as we exist as human. And that is a quandary to anyone who thinks knowledge is reducible to sentences, and reality to neurological impulses.

Fiction is a great puzzlement to philosophy, and always has been. Socrates never did understand why it simply doesn’t matter that Homer cannot teach one to be a great general or a great sailor; that isn’t what either fiction or poetry are for.

Epistemic domains – or schemas, or frameworks – form the ground of any knowledge of any reality, and are inextricable from such. Fictions – intentionally constructed domains with no empirical claim beyond the media of construction – are not exceptions, but the rule.

It was Charles Peirce who noticed that sentences concerning unicorns could not be ‘nonsense’ simply because unicorns don’t physically exist, because then we should be unable to say what it is not physically existing. Thus unicorns could have a mental reality, and sentences describing one – ‘it’s equine, it’s horned’ – would have truth value concerning its mental reality. The implications of this for speculative or experimental science – the science of discovery – were clear to Peirce. Two hundred years ago, the sentence ‘there is a material entity smaller than an atom’ would have been held to be nonsense, so that speculative hypothetical sentences, like ‘there may be a material entity smaller than an atom,’ would have been dismissed. Yet physics did progress as scientists allowed themselves to speculate on such questions as, ‘these readings make no sense unless we suppose that there are material entities smaller than atoms; what might their properties be?’

One thing fiction can help us do is imaginatively consider the realm of possibilities; it cannot do this on the presumption that what we know of our fictions is not really knowledge. In a convention of Star Wars fans, there’s considerable amount of knowledge of that fictional universe one must have, in order to converse with other members of that community. We want those fans to admit that the characters in that universe do not exist in our shared physical universe; but it’s churlish to demand of them to abjure the data as ‘not knowledge,’ and their conversations ‘nonsense.’

What this may mean for religions or other systematic ideologies – which may be rife with entities not physically existing – should be clear, but I’ve no space to elucidate.

However, note that I’ve made little reference to sensations, empirical experience, neurological events, or similar concerns; strictly speaking, such are tangential to how ‘knowledge’ of a ‘reality’ is constituted.

Reality as a whole – if there is a whole – is composed of the ground under our feet and the people we communicate with. Communication is the harder part of it, but perhaps the more necessary part. Hermits don’t have any reality beyond the ground under their feet – and the memories they have of others – parents, other children, and such. If they have some religious dedication, then they may also have a text or texts to inform or broaden that reality. If their texts are fiction – how would they know?

The human animal craves others like itself. Communication with such – even second hand, by way of a text – is a psychological necessity – it reassures us of our own existence; it tells us we are in a universe that is ‘real,’ and not mere pathology.

Reality is always a ‘we,’ not an ‘I.’

—–

* I’m thinking here of the near-pathological distrust of stories and histories expressed by Alex Rosenberg: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/on-the-human/2009/11/the-disenchanted-naturalists-guide-to-reality/ ; there are unfortunately many such pathologies inhabiting the Academy these days.  Of course, such ‘thought’ has a long history among Positivists, reaching at least back to Comte.

I think Modernity’s worst sin, is that it seems to have replaced the self-loathing of those professing to be ‘spirits in a material body,’ with that of those professing to be ‘computation in an organic machine.’ Both stories have had their uses; but both end in a denial of what is most intrinsically human – more fantastic, and less credible, than any story told that is explicitly fictional.

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