Why We Argue About Fiction

02 November 2020

In my last blog, I continued my tradition (hopefully a temporary one) of presenting philosophical puzzles in order to take your mind off the Corona crisis. We’re now up to solving Puzzle 4.


Puzzle 4 was about why humans argue with each other about fictional stories. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s puzzling that humans consume fiction at all. Why waste valuable cognitive resources on information we know is unreal? But it is even more puzzling that we argue about such fictions! My parade example was the arguing people do over Emma Bovary’s psychological condition in Madame Bovary. Flaubert never specifies a diagnosis in the novel—and there isn’t enough other information for there to be a fact of the matter—but many people are intent on convincing each other of what was ‘really’ going on in Emma’s mind. Why?


Part of the solution, of course, is to say that we enjoy arguing about fiction. I often think that people don’t go to theatre (fictional plays, musicals) because they enjoy watching theatre; people go because they enjoy arguing about it afterwards. But as I noted before, saying we enjoy it just pushes the question back: why are we so constituted as to enjoy this apparently useless activity? If you heard about someone who spent seven hours each day counting banana peels in compost piles, you’d wonder why. And just hearing “He enjoys it!” would be unsatisfying, because you still wouldn’t know what makes that enjoyable to him. At first glance, arguing over fiction appears about as useful as counting composted banana peels.


When I posted this puzzle on Facebook, I got some great suggested solutions from other philosophers. 


Luke Roelofs made the following suggestion in the comments thread: 

…it seems to me that this behaviour [arguing about fiction] becomes unsurprising if we think of it as an instance of ‘play at using evolved capacities in low-stakes ways’, which lots of animals do and which humans seem especially prone to. Kittens play-fight; humans play-argue. 

The idea here is that it makes evolutionary sense for creatures to enjoy play versions of activities that actually do affect fitness in other contexts. Roughhousing is adaptive because it makes us more likely to fare well in a real fight, which increases likelihood of survival. Similarly, arguments we make in high-stakes contexts about the social realities around us can make a big difference to our standing in society, which in turn often impacts survival and reproduction. So it makes sense to have a built-in tendency to enjoy low-stakes practice. 


Another great suggestion came from my new colleague at Georgia State, Juan Piñeros Glasscock

…it seems it would be advantageous when you think about a would-be situation (what would happen if p), if one not just assessed what would happen relative to one’s immediate interests (e.g. if I jump, will I fall?), but rather to build a model that would allow one to assess and prepare for a variety of situations…if I jump, would x happen for a pretty wide range of x’s…So it would be advantageous to enjoy making fuller models that allow for a bunch of further predictions, and to argue about them if someone else disagreed on their predictions given their models.

The basic idea here is that humans benefit from having highly general mental models of the world that are useful for making predictions in a wide range of situations. And when we consume and argue about fictions, what we’re doing is not just learning about that particular fiction—but updating our internal mental models of how a certain kind of situation unfolds, which can be useful for many real things too. On this view, when we watch and argue about a romantic comedy about a father who won’t let his charming younger daughter date until his shrewd older daughter dates—what we’re really doing is updating our general internal models (and their predictions) of the social realities of heteronormative patriarchal fathers and the teenagers who subvert them. 


It may, of course, be very doubtful whether such a practice actually is—given current fictional offerings—a useful way of updating one’s internal models. But Juan is right to suggest that a widespread tendency (one that ropes in arguing about fiction) to be inclined to update internal models through arguing would make sense.


So we have two ideas on the table for solving Puzzle 4: play-for-practice and general mental model updating. They are not mutually exclusive either, since it is quite common in nature for one phenotypic trait to be adaptive in more than one way.


But I still feel like Luke’s and Juan’s suggestions leave something out, something I can only state in a vague way that will raise cackles among the more hard-nosed philosophers and cognitive scientists who might be reading this. So be it.


It’s this: when we become emotionally engaged with a fiction, the part of us that falls in love with the characters doesn’t know that they’re not real. That is not to say that we are temporarily confused at a higher cognitive level about whether the fictional characters exist—unless you’re crazy, you know they don’t. Humans from a young age are generally good at keeping track of what’s real and what pretend, as numerous studies in developmental psychology show. But that fact is consistent with my idea that our emotional centers that are activated by representations of various sorts may not really have a handle on whether the representations of characters they are fed through cognition of narratives are of real or unreal beings. 


For lack of a better term, let’s call this the existential ignorance of emotions: our emotional centers get worked up about things that at a higher cognitive level we know don’t exist (or no longer do, or never will), because they respond quickly and powerfully to the percepts and ideas that confront them—without having their own way of representing existence or non-existence.


And so, given the feelings we have about fictional characters, given our emotional centers’ ignorance that they are not real, and given the role that emotions play in motivating defensive or aggressive or other behaviors (which often involve arguing with other humans), we find ourselves in the strange position of being motivated to argue about characters we know are not real. 


And being viscerally motivated, we act, which in this case means arguing about fiction with one another, while being ever bemused at a higher cognitive level at the absurdity of what we feel compelled to do.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Comments (4)

elderrhody444's picture


Monday, November 9, 2020 -- 7:36 PM

I spent my entire childhood

I spent my entire childhood reading fiction and not school books. I spent my young and middle adult years working, and therefore being unhappy living in the world I perceived as real. I am now spending my elder years playing computer strategy games and reading fiction. The point is, "reality," (or the illusion thereof); (or the simulation we are supposedly living within), exposes us to injustice, pain, cruelty, stupidity, foolishness, greed, and all the other undesirable and despicable conditions of humanity. Thus, I chose a fictional bubble for the periods of my life during which I was able to exercise some choice of activities. In the "real world" I was appalled. Fiction has been an enormous gift for me. I laud all creators of fiction. "Reality?" My favorite passage is from Ecclesiastes, the only secular portion of the Old Testament, (p.s., I am not religious in the least): "For he who would gaineth knowledge would also gaineth sorrow." I was born a zebra (IQ over 140.) Without fiction in which to escape, life is simply too irrational and painful for me.

Neil Van Leeuwen's picture

Neil Van Leeuwen

Wednesday, November 11, 2020 -- 2:57 PM

Thank you for sharing. I'm

Thank you for sharing. I'm glad fiction has brought you some measure of joy, however fleeting. Also, I share your appreciation for Ecclesiastes!

LukeRoelofs's picture


Thursday, November 12, 2020 -- 7:56 PM

I like your proposal, though

I like your proposal, though I think it must be missing something, because the thing is that the unreality of fiction does make a difference to our emotions - pratfalls that would make me wince sympathetically if I thought they were real are just funny, dangers that would be unpleasantly frightening are instead exhillirating, and our moral emotions towards fictional villains often diverge, in various directions, from how we would feel about them if they were real. So although I think it’s right that our emotional centres don’t funda mentally distinguish real from unreal scenarios, there is some sort of emotional shift accompanying the knowledge that something is fiction.

(My inclination would be to say that it has something to do with attention: our cognitive recognition of unreality changes which aspects of a situation we attend to, often allowing us to disregard aspects which would be unpleasant or dissonant to attend to.)

(Also, you write “I still feel like Luke’s and Juan’s suggestions leave something out” - well of course they do, aren’t we just addressing different questions? You seem to answering “what is it about our brains that makes us argue about fictions?”, while we were answering “why have we evolved brains that make us argue about fictions?” So I think all our suggestions are complementary!)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, January 1, 2021 -- 3:04 PM

This is not a pipe. I don't

This is not a pipe. I don't speak or more importantly read french but I think I understand that statement, Madame Bovary not so much and fiction not at all. For the sake of argument let's suppose I do however.

Madame Bovary is a great book to make an emotional oblivion, mental model or play therapy argument for a reader to take it's subject seriously to the point of fanatic or realistic argument. Emma Bovary would have done better to have not read at all. She lives in a romantic fantasy and that life is the readers as well. That is what is realistic about the book. It is a book of thought, ideas and emotion.

More to my taste and proximity - I just read Blindsight by Peter Watts. That is one of the best books I have read - though, honestly, if I don't say that when I finish a book - I don't finish it. To my own taste, fiction needs to challenge the reader from first sentence to final passage to a question of interest that is 'real' to the reader. There is no fiction in that question.

Madame Bovary is one of the first books to do this with a tone that carries from different characters and viewpoints. To express a psychological model of Emma is to understand that point of view.

Blindsight is one of the first books to address consciousness in a satisfyingly complete and compelling argument for it's own parasitic provenance.

Fiction is not a pipe - it is fact. What is real to you. Your thoughts? Your memories? Fiction is as real as your work (which may currently be done in a virtual office) or your garden. You can't wash your hands of it without dreaming of a project gone bad or your first home grown tomato soup.

Suppose I knew what a pipe was... I could write a story about it.