Thursday, December 31, 2009

Suspended disbelief – why?

One of the questions I asked in my first post on this subject is why we can suspend disbelief for fiction. Oddly, I think it may be connected to how we process reality.

Philosophers have wrestled forever with the problem of solipsism. How do we know that our individual consciousness is not all there is, that everything we experience isn't just a figment of our imaginations? I think the odds are against it – if my consciousness is the only intelligence in the universe, how did that intelligence come into being? (Is it just you and me, God?) But there is no logical requirement that the universe consist of more than our own minds.

What makes solipsistic speculation possible is the fact that we do have to put the entire universe as we know it through our consciousness in order to be conscious of it. That doesn’t mean it’s not out there, but it does mean that what we see is our version of what’s out there, not really what is out there. I don’t mean to make too big a deal of the idiosyncratic nature of this translation. It’s not interesting to me, today anyway, whether you see “blue” differently from me. On many days we can agree that the sky is blue; we perceive such things similarly enough to do business, and that makes language and, therefore, civilization possible. So the differences can wait.

I recently ate at a restaurant where the menu stated “Substitutions are not allowed, but additions are welcome.” Adding is easier than substituting, and nowhere is that more so than in nature and, especially, evolution. I suspect that how we process reality differs from how a hamster or a fish or a puppy processes it only in added complexity. Thus, I think that our ability to process events is an extension of our ability to process things, that the machinery we use to see that an event is more than a series of random motions, or a process more than a series of random events, is really the same machinery that we use to determine that a chair is not a random assemblage of material.

Applying machinery powerful enough to construct narratives to figure out that a chair is a chair seems wasteful, so we probably do use neural shortcuts for such things, but those shortcuts seem to me to be derivatives, memories of the larger machine’s earlier workings. Nature creates machinery and derivative shortcuts rather than direct alternatives – additions, not substitutions – like Jack Nicholson’s famous order of toast in Five Easy Pieces. “Now, just hold the chicken.” (A case of “addition” by subtraction: Jack adds to the concept of a chicken sandwich the concept of absent chicken. In logical terms, adding mayo and removing chicken are analogous processes – amendments to the chicken sandwich template.)

How, though, do we know, for example, that a side order of toast is “like” a chicken sandwich without the chicken? To make that connection, we must be able to recognize patterns. There are lots of surfaces we can sit on besides chairs, and we know instantly that something is sufficiently “chair-like” either be called a chair or, at the very least to be sat upon. Categorization is about analogy – we make decisions based on our perception that something is like something else. Otherwise, how can we learn anything useful? Unless what we encounter strikes us as like something we have learned, how do education and experience help us cope?

If we are to be able to recognize things, we need to be able to recognize patterns, and if we can recognize things and patterns, we should be able to apply the same mental gear to recognize events and common narratives.

Which brings us to fiction. Nature abhors excess capacity as much as she does a vacuum. If we can learn by analogy to events, why should we be limited to events that actually happened? (Assuming for the moment that history, as Napoleon said, isn’t just lies agreed upon.) Maybe there are fictions that, if we could internalize them – if we could make them equivalent in teaching power to actual experience – would teach us common lessons, especially the cautionary ones, that are useful to know.

How, then, from an evolutionary standpoint, do we imbue fiction with the power to teach? Can we most profitably listen to a story, always aware that it’s just something some guy made up, something that didn’t really happen? Wouldn’t it be great, if, just while the story is being told, we could immerse ourselves in it as if it were really happening? Could any other posture elicit a greater dose of education from the story?

In other words, it seems to me that if we didn’t suspend our disbelief toward stories, we could not learn from them, at least not as well. We wouldn’t enjoy them as much, wouldn’t seek them out, tell them (to a bored audience), or, given the dull response, even bother to make them up. What I’m saying is that we have fiction precisely because we are willing to be a good audience for it, that is, to suspend our disbelief. And given the pedagogical power of stories, the idea that we could not come up with fiction as a way to deliver more of them just seems foolish. Of course, we have fiction, so, of course, we have learned to suspend our disbelief to accommodate it. Otherwise a race of story-tellers would have taken our natural selection lunch long ago.

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