Why Fiction?

Question: What is the point of reading fiction, watching movies, listening to stories? Why do we need an Iliad that is 500 pages when its plot summary is 20? Why do we care to even know the plot, if we know that it has never happened?

Answer: I argue that fiction (in the sense of something with a narrative and selectively represents facets of reality, thus representing most non-fiction books too) is a psychotechnology, which enhances collective and individual cognition. Psychologist John Vervaeke points to 5 features of Psychotechnologies: 1. Society-generated 2. Extends and empowers cognition 3. Internalizable 4. Domain-general. Linked together: Psychotechnology is a society-generated, internalizable technology that extends and empowers cognition in a domain-general manner. Fiction fits the definition perfectly.

Society-generated: Stories are used only in a collective, I to you, a mother to her son, or a lover to his beloved. There are even stories that I tell myself—again, fiction can only be used when I split into two. It serves a function of creating identities across different human levels: the nation is supported by a story, the family, and also the self. This empowers distributive cognition as it helps each in a collective to form a collective intentionality (we are doing…, rather than I am doing…), which enables efficient parallel processing as well as division of labor, avoiding the tragedy of the commons. It also serves as a neat way to package information, which explains part of its ability to empower cognition.

Extends and empowers cognition: Fiction packages information in such a way as to cross the is-ought divide. (I often think that the naturalistic fallacy has become such a big thing in Philosophy because a lot of philosophers are boring dudes who don’t listen to stories.) The facts in a good story is not merely a fact, as in, lets say, the death of Father Zosima or Alyosha’s kissing Ivan are not merely two things that happened some time in a fictional world, but are situated in such a way as to be immediately relevant (in Heideggerian jargon, shining forth in Truth)—it may take some time to puzzle out what all these events mean to us in our own lives, but what does not happen in a good piece of fiction is that events and details are deemed by us as irrelevant. What this new ways of presenting facts do, we can preliminarily say, is to provide us examples to follow in our own lives when facing difficult decisions by allowing us to internalize those examples. And what internalization does is to allow us to imitate in a domain-general way, wherein, once I’ve internalized Father Zosima, I can act like him—imitate him—not only when I am in an 19th century Russian church, but also in 21st century America, akin to how the Greek Gods inhabited their heroes in times of crisis.

Above, I answered the second question posed: Why do we bother knowing the plot?—because it allows for a unique and useful way of information packaging that crosses the is-ought divide, affording us examples for our own lives in an internalized and domain-general fashion in a way that is scalable to the collective level. The answer to the second question of, “Why the real, thick, book rather than the plot summary?”, has been hinted at in the concept of identity-creation, and this is the other side of fiction’s ability to empower cognition.

We can perhaps make a distinction between information and experience, experience being the specific form of situated information that a story represents. We signal this type of information using words like “full”, “whole”, “deep”, and create them by the piling of a group of relevant details on top of each other, and call it “experience” because it brings one into the immediacy of the moment from which new possibilities can emerge. It sends one into a controlled disorder which breaks down psychological defenses of the self in order to build it anew. Thus, it has the capacity of forging new identities and instilling new values, new things that I care about, into me, transforming my value landscape (phenomenal field, to use Marleau-Ponty’s jargon), which is why narrative therapy is effective in healing patients.

Fiction is not fiction, but immanently real in its powers. Narrative is no joke, but the technology on which human beings flourish.

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