Why Do People Argue About Fiction? — Part 2

by Neil Van Leeuwen

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.



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