Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fiction and Skepticism

Regular Splintered Mind readers will notice that I've started posting short speculative fiction about once a month (labeled science fiction, but sometimes more fantasy or thought experiment). I seem to be increasingly drawn to write that sort of thing. It's fun to write, and I have tenure, and a few people seem to like it, so why not?

But I've been thinking about whether I can defend this new behavior of mine from a philosophical perspective. Is there something one can do, philosophically, with fiction that one can't, or can't as easily, do with expository prose? I think of all the great philosophers who have tried their hand at fiction or who have integrated fictions into their philosophical work -- Plato, Voltaire, Boethius, Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, Zhuangzi, Rousseau, Unamuno, Kierkegaard... -- and I think there must be something to it. (I think too of fiction writers who develop philosophical themes, such as Borges.) It is not, I'm inclined to think, merely a secondary pursuit, unconnected to their philosophy, or a pretty but inessential way of costuming philosophy that could equally well be conveyed in a more conventional manner.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi has long been a favorite of mine, and my first published paper was on his use of language toward skeptical ends, including his use of absurd stories and strange dialogues. Zhuangzi used absurd stories, I think, partly to undercut his own authority, and partly to present possibilities for the reader to consider -- possibilities that he wanted to put forward, but not to endorse. For similar ends, I think, he used dialogues in which it was not clear which of the interlocutors was right, or which interlocutor represented his own view.

Zhuangzi could have said "here's a possibility, but I don't know whether to endorse it; here's one position, here's another, but I don't know which is right" -- writing in expository prose rather than fiction; and indeed sometimes that is exactly what he did. But fiction engages the reader's mind somewhat differently; and if Zhuangzi is aiming to unseat the reader's confidence in her presuppositions, perhaps it's best to have a diverse toolbox. Fiction engages the imagination and the emotions more vividly, perhaps; it's also less threatening in a way -- "just" fiction, not advertised truth, an invitation more than a demand. Perhaps, too, it differs in content: Even saying "I don't know" or "Both of these options seem like live possibilities" is to make an assertion, whereas fiction does not assert, or does not assert in the usual way -- a deeper divergence from the norms of expository writing, and perhaps a way to avoid the skeptical paradox of asserting the truth of skepticism....

I think now, too, of Plato. In those dialogues where Socrates is the authority and clearly the voice of Plato, and the interlocutor is reduced to "It is so, Socrates" and presents only objections that can easily be addressed, it is not really dialogue, not really fiction. But elsewhere, Socrates stumbles into confusion, and the interlocutor might be right. Plato, too, uses parable (most famously, the allegory of the cave). Sometimes parables are just exposition in a tutu; but at their best, parables borrow some of the ambiguous richness of reality, with competing layers of meaning beyond what the author could express in prose. The author makes intuitive choices that she cannot explain but which add depth; those choices sometimes resonate with the reader, in a communication that no one fully understands.

I trust my sense of fun. There are parts of psychology I find fun, and I chase them to philosophical ends; there are experiments I thought it would fun to run, and I've found that they tangle around into more philosophy than I at first thought; and now that I've begun to think more seriously about fundamental metaphysics and the nature of value, I'm enjoying exploring these ideas, with the skeptic's hesitation to commit, through the medium of the thought experiment that merges into the parable that merges into a piece of science fiction or fantasy.


  1. Fiction serves, as a former mentor of mine once said, much like Descartes did once for science - a hero and a goat. It moves part of truth forward in an acceptable way when the world is not quite ready, and unfortunately, sets aside another truth that is desperately needed as that - truth, rather than mockery. It does truly involve the brain in perceptions of possibility, and leaves a possible world quite viable. But, in essence of claiming itself to be fiction, it eradicates the real possibility of thinking beyond bounds, as Einstein taught us all we must do. Fiction is what it is - a beginning.

  2. Fiction grounds intellectualism in what we care about. It's like the difference between showing a very complicated equation and telling a story of a nuked city - the equation is what's involved with the incredible burst of energy. But what we care about is not really there in the equation, is it?

  3. Thanks for the comments, Anon & Callan.

    Anon: I'm inclined to agree with some of that -- especially about it's being a beginning, a way into think about possibilities one isn't quite ready to take fully seriously in expository prose. But I'm inclined to think that rather than "eradicat[ing] the possibility of thinking beyond bounds", it starts to enable it. For the skeptic, too, I'm inclined to think, it's very difficult to press forward *past* the beginning.

    Callan: That seems clearly right. And yet if that were the only thing fiction could do for philosophy, I would be disappointed!

  4. "It's fun to write, and I have tenure"

    This made my day.

  5. For what it's worth: I enjoy most of your short fiction pieces much more than any Borge piece I have yet to read. I hope you compile them someday.

  6. Eric, you'd be disappointed? Why? You leave me very curious!?

  7. Thanks for the kind comment, Nick.

    Callan: I'd be disappointed because I'd like to think that fiction doesn't simply stand to exposition as showing does to telling, and that it does more than show how intellectual material connects to things we care about. For example, for the skeptic, fiction might be a way of evading the paradox of skeptical assertion; and maybe it does some opening up of possibilities that exposition cannot as easily do....