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Mimesis as Make-Believe

A pair of parallel serials based on the work of Professor Kendall Walton ran from March 15th to May 27th 2010, here and over at The main serial here at Only a Game, entitled Mimesis as Make-Believe, concerned Walton's make-believe theory of representations and presents in something of a digest form the principal elements of this model for understanding art. The parallel serial, entitled Game Design as Make-Believe, adapted the make-believe theory to the design of videogames and boardgames. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read either of the serials, simply click on the first link for the serial you want to follow below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.

Here are the seven parts of Mimesis as Make-Believe:

  1. Imagination
  2. Props
  3. Principles of Generation
  4. Fictional Worlds
  5. Participation
  6. Depiction vs Narration
  7. Truth vs Fiction

Here are the six parallel parts of Game Design as Make-Believe, which share the same titles and begin with links to the source material:

  1. Imagination
  2. Props
  3. Principles of Generation
  4. Fictional Worlds
  5. Participation
  6. Depiction vs Narration

If you enjoyed these serials, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Mimesis as Make-Believe (7): Truth vs Fiction

Kafka bug For the most part Walton is careful to avoid exploring questions concerning reality in the main body of Mimesis as Make-Believe, but in the final chapter he allow these ontological issues some careful consideration. Since the reader must grasp the core of Walton's theory in order to appreciate its wider implications, this is a prudent measure. Nonetheless, no philosopher writing a book can resist hinting at more than they can directly address, and early in the work Walton comments:

I suspect that make-believe may be crucially involved as well in certain religious practices, in the role of sports in our culture, in the institution of morality, in the postulation of “theoretical entities” in science, and in other areas in which issues of metaphysical “realism” are prominent, although I will offer only the barest hints or less of how my theory might be applied in these directions.

Furthermore, he finds it necessary to address at least in passing certain questions concerning the distinction between truth and fiction, whilst preferring to “remain neutral as to how truth and reality are to be understood”. He gives a passing nod to the work of Stanley Fish, however, and in particular the idea that “it is discourse itself which creates our 'reality',” a concept which clearly has some appeal to Walton. Neither Fish nor Walton deny that there are such things as facts, it is rather a case (as Fish writes) of “raising a question as to their status.” Fish suggests that what counts as “reality” is specified by whichever stories are “standard”, while non-standard stories are “non-authorised”. The connection with Walton's concept of an authorised game is apparent, whether or not one wishes the join the dots in this regard.

One should not think, however, that Walton wishes to dismiss the importance of questions of reality. He writes that “truth and reality, whatever they are, obviously do matter” making the comparison with the movie Dr. Strangelove, in which a nuclear war destroys the world, and stating: “We fervently hope that this will not turn out to be true. The difference is enormous and nothing could matter more.” At the same time, he is keen to observe that “not all cultures are as constantly preoccupied with truth and falsity as ours”, pointing to the relationship many Hindus have in respect of their epics the Mahabarata and Ramayana, such that for the most part there is no need to decide if these stories are true, or even to ask if they are. The insight and stimulation offered is independent of any claim to their veracity.

For his final subject in the book, Walton explores the ontological status of fictional entities, and bemoans the “voodoo metaphysics” that other philosophers have deployed in order to try and wiggle out of some of the problems posed by fiction. King Lear is an archetypal figure in this regard. As Walton says, “we all know that there is no King Lear, that Shakespeare’s play is mere fiction”,  but if we ask if there is such a character as King Lear, our instinct is to agree that this is so.

Walton's solution to problems of these kinds is to identify a specific kind of pretense, such that one pretends to describe the real world while actually describing a fictional one. Outing these kinds of construals allows us to distinguish ontological commitment (“reality”) from the pretense of referring to fictions, which become distorted in part because of the intense interest we often have in such pretenses. Walton suggests that many philosophical attempts to understand fictional entities fall down because of a failure to distinguish these two situations, quipping: “We are so deeply immersed in make-believe that it infects even theorising itself.”

In fact, this issue cuts both ways, since sometimes we pretend to talk about the real world as a means of talking about a fictional world, as when (say) a critic recounts fictional events as if they actually happened. A person saying “Tom Sawyer attended his own funeral” need not be prescribed to imagine there was a person named Tom Sawyer who attended his own funeral, even though someone listening may indeed be prescribed to do so. Thus: “Insofar as statements appearing to be about fictional entities are uttered in pretense, they introduce no metaphysical mysteries.”

Walton proposes the term ordinary statement to refer to claims uttered in pretense in connection with the authorised games of make-believe for a particular work. The above claim concerning Mark Twain's famous hero can be considered one such ordinary statement. Philosophers tie themselves into ontological knots when they mistake the acceptability or appropriateness of an ordinary statement for a claim to truth or falsity. We need not explore whether such assertions are true or false in assessing their acceptability with respect to the work world being alluded to – indeed, this seems to be the root of much confusion concerning the status of fictional entities. It is enough to say that assertions made of fiction are true provided it is fictional in the (authorised) games played with such fiction that the claim agrees with the fictional truths of that game.

Sometimes, we expressly betray the pretense involved in ordinary statements concerning fiction, usually in order to avoid the misunderstanding that would result were it not for explicit betrayal of the pretense. This is the role of phrases such as “in the story” or “in the world of the picture”. Beyond this we can go as far as to disavow what is pretended, that is, we declare that if one were to really assert in the manner pretended, one could not be asserting a truth. Such a disavowal can be found in statements such as “it is only in Kafka’s Metamorphosis that someone was transformed into an insect” (an event pictured above). This makes clear not only that no-one was actually transformed into an insect, but that nobody ever was transformed into an insect.

Practical examples of betrayal or disavowal can be construed as implying games of particular kinds. For instance, using one of Walton's examples, if we say “mythical beasts are not very dangerous,” the listener is intended to infer a game in which there are both “mythical” and “real” creatures – it is only via such a game that a claim of this nature can be reasonably considered. Why do we need such a game? Because there are no mythical beasts in the real world; mythical, as a property, implies non-existence. It can only be fictional that predicates such as “mythical” – or indeed “real” – come to express properties. (This is not a denial of reality; in Walton's perspective everything that can genuinely possess a logical property is by definition “real”, therefore in its role of distinguishing from “fake” or “illusory”, the term “real” must be construed as having meaning only in fiction).

This account connects with existence claims in general. How do we assess a statement such as “dragons do not exist”? By considering the fictional game the sentence produces when it is used as a prop, and seeing how it refers (or how we believe it refers) to the world we live in. Thus if one excludes the Komodo dragon, it is fictional that one speaks truly in saying “dragons do not exist”. And conversely, it is fictional that one speaks truly in uttering “Komodo dragons exist”. This may seem strange, since we would not normally mention fiction in our consideration of what seems like a perfectly normal existence claim. Yet in deploying Walton's make-believe theory such an approach becomes strangely natural. It is not that Komodo dragons are fictional in the real world, but rather that the attempt to assert their existence can be considered to do so via comparing the game of make-believe the previous sentence prescribes in its role as a prop to our understanding of the real world.

Walton thus suggests that this approach uncovers “an unexpected continuity between existence claims... and the predicative statements they resemble so closely”, both in the context of statements that genuinely attribute properties to whatever we consider actual, and those that appear to attribute such properties to fictitious things. Claims to existence, in Walton's view, can best be understood via our faculty of imagination, even though such claims need not directly involve pretense or make-believe in the case of entities that have nothing to do with works of fiction. How else are we to understand a concept like “exists” if not by comparison to its alternative, which can only be considered via fiction? (This point may become clearer if you consider the proposition “you do not exist”).

Regardless of what one makes of Walton's attempts to unravel the philosophical problems concerning fictional entities and existence claims that comprises the finale of Mimesis as Make-Believe, the make-believe theory of representation remains a comprehensive and satisfying system for understanding the institution of fiction. Wittgenstein wrote: “Don’t take it as a matter of course, but as a remarkable fact, that pictures and fictitious narratives give us pleasure, occupy our minds,” one of many quotes from Philosophical Investigations that Walton includes in his own work. In certain respects, this book picks up some of the tantalising strands left hanging in Wittgenstein's later work and fleshes them out with remarkable care and attention. One can only hope that future philosophers pay the same courtesy to the equally intriguing loose ends that dangle from Walton's remarkable philosophy.

A new serial begins later this year.

The Activist's Argument (Everything is Political)

Fox in the Dustbin We quite frequently hear the argument that everything is political. Director Mike Leigh summed up this viewpoint neatly when he stated: “You can't not be political. It's like asking if I consider myself a human being.” I call this claim the Activist's Argument, because it is so often advanced to encourage people to be politically active. But in this role, it seems counter-productive – for if everything is political, why take political action? I argue here that the Activist Argument confuses political topics with politics and political action, and is fundamentally mistaken.

The idea that everything is political stems from the assumption that no matter what we do – or, for that matter, do not do – we make a political statement, and thus take political action of some kind. One aspect of this claim is certainly correct: anything at all can be a political topic, that is, a subject for political discussion. But qualifying as a topic for politics under this rubric, which is thoroughly all-inclusive and thus excludes nothing, cannot usefully lead to the conclusion that 'everything is political', for this would reduce the word 'political' to an empty tautology.

It's easy to show where this argument unravels. By the claim that everything is political, if I rummage around in the dustbins in my street I am taking a political action i.e. searching the trash is political. But foxes in my neighbourhood search through the rubbish for food quite often – so are foxes political? No-one advances this claim, but it follows logically from the Activist's Argument. We can therefore see, as Mike Leigh intimates in the quote above, that there is another tacit assumption in the argument, and that in full the Activist's Argument would have to be everything a human does is political.

But this surely gets us no further: what can a comatose woman in a persistent vegetative state, a man in the advanced stages of dementia or a sixth-month old foetus do that can plausibly be considered political? All of these we might reasonably consider human, but nothing they do is likely to qualify as political. Any one of these could be a political topic – in terms of living wills, euthanasia and abortion, all are certainly political topics. But anything at all can be a political topic – even flagrantly absurd things, like a Flat Earth or a circular triangle. If we conflate political topics and politics we shall be in a very confused space.

Hannah Arendt wrote that “politics is based on the fact of human plurality,” and saw politics as something that occurred in the public space between people living together. Politics in her eyes afforded, by its very nature, the possibility of action – and action, which includes speech, was to Arendt the incredible power of politics. The meaning of politics, she asserted, was freedom, and observed that (as a result of various distorting influences) it was hard to be sure in the modern world that politics had any meaning left at all. She noted with some despair that “the meaninglessness in which politics finds itself is evident from the fact that all individual political questions now end in an impasse.”

Speaking of the Greek polis as a political realm, she wrote that in this unique (albeit flawed) first attempt at politics as freedom: gained the ability to truly see topics from various sides – that is, politically – with the result that people understood how to assume the many possible perspectives provided by the real world, from which one and the same topic can be regarded and in which each topic, despite its oneness, appears in a great diversity of views.

Seen in this way, the fact that anything could be a political topic no longer seems enough to render everything as political. Rather, only when the capacity to see those topics from a diversity of perspectives has been engaged can we reasonably consider politics to be competently in play. It is not enough for you to think or act in private for you to be considered political, you must share your views (or support other people's) in the public spaces, as it is only within these which politics as such can take place.

As for political action, Arendt held the mere possibility of action (that is, collective action) as something quite miraculous:

If, then, we expect miracles as a consequence of the impasse in which our world finds itself, such an expectation in no way banishes us from the political realm in its original sense. If the meaning of politics is freedom, that means that in this realm – and in no other – we do indeed have the right to expect miracles. Not because we superstitiously believe in miracles, but because human beings, whether or not they know it, as long as they can act, are capable of achieving, and constantly do achieve, the improbable and unpredictable.

What the activist hoping to spur people into politics might consider offering is not the empty circularity that “everything is political”, but rather the hopeful proposal that “everything political is achievable if we can agree to act together”. Let this be the new Activist's Argument. I for one hope for the miracle that I might actually hear this idea seriously advanced, rather than facing endless squabbles in the conspicuous absence of the open-minded discussion in public spaces that should be absolutely necessary for any political topic to meaningfully qualify as politics.

For Sheila.

Mimesis as Make-Believe (6): Depiction vs Narration

Watermill with the Great Red Roof In considering the tremendous diversity among representational art, Walton identifies two principal divisions: depictive representations, which are sensory in nature, and verbal representations, which are presented in language and often involve or imply a narrator. This week, we examine the nature of props of these distinct kinds.

Let us begin with depictive representations. Rather than providing a formal definition of what constitutes a depiction, Walton frames the issue via the example of a Dutch landscape painter (pictured above):

The viewer of Meindert Hobbema’s Water Mill with the Great Red Roof plays a game in which it is fictional that he sees a red-roofed mill. As a participant in the game, he imagines this from the inside. And this self-imagining is done in a first-person manner: he imagines seeing a mill, not just that he sees one, and he imagines this from the inside. Moreover, his actual act of looking at the painting is what makes it fictional that he looks at a mill... he imagines of his looking that its object is a mill. We might sum this up by saying that in seeing the canvas he imaginatively sees a mill. Let’s say provisionally that to be a “depiction” is to have the function of serving as a prop in visual games of this sort.

Walton asserts that “the phenomenal character of the perception is inseparable from the imagining which takes it as an object.” This is to say that one who looks at something like Hobbema's painting does not first see paint on canvas and only then interpret it as a watermill via imagining, but that seeing and interpreting the painting is one mental process. The same idea can be found in the philosophy of both Heidegger and Wittgenstein, and Walton in fact makes reference via a footnote to Philosophical Investigations, where Wittgenstein talks of “seeing as” as being an “amalgam” of seeing and thinking, noting that “the flashing of an aspect on us seems half visual experience, half thought”.

Sharpening the boundaries of what constitutes a depiction, Walton suggests that it is not enough merely for a representation to have the function of serving a prop in a visual game of make-believe. If it were, clouds would qualify as depictions when we imagine them as dragons and so forth. Rather, the games to be played with a depiction “must be sufficiently rich and vivid visually.” By rich, Walton refers to the extent a representation allows “for the fictional performance of a large variety of visual actions”, and by vivacity he refers to the intensity with which a participant is able to imagine “performing the visual actions which fictionally he performs”. In other words, a depictive representation in Walton's terms must support fictional worlds that are something more than trivial in nature, otherwise they may still qualify as props (recall Gregory and Eric's tree-stump bears) but they will not qualify as a depiction in the way he means the term to be understood.

Inherent to depictions appears to be the process of translation, thus three dimensional objects are shown in two-dimensions in a picture, and both sketches and sculpture render colourful subject matter monochromatically. Size, motion, time... all these elements can be altered in the process of depiction, which at its heart seems to be involved not in perfect reproduction (although some modern art has leaned in this direction) but in a kind of planned distortion of the world. This idea is, in many respects, tied up with the term mimesis, which since the ancient Greek philosophers has meant imitation not duplication. If a craftsman produces a perfect copy of Michelangelo's David it is a forgery of (or tribute to) the original. But if they produce a lithograph of the same artwork, it is a depiction of the original rendered in ink in the same way that the statue itself is a depiction of an ancient king of Israel rendered in marble, regardless of what the historical king may have looked like.

In mentioning that depictions were sensory, I alluded to Walton's willingness to extend the notion of a depictive representation beyond the merely visual. He writes:

Let us broaden our understanding of “depiction” to include representations that are auditory or tactile or otherwise perceptual in the way paintings are visual. A depiction, then, is a representation whose function is to serve as a prop in reasonably rich and vivid perceptual games of make-believe.

But this may at first seem strange, since it is clear that – sound effects not withstanding – representation via sound is not a great deal akin to painting, and certainly music does not generate fictional truths in anything like the manner of visual props. Walton makes the point that while a visual representation prescribes visual imaginings, representational music generally doesn't depict auditory imaginings. He suggests that music involves not imagined perceptions, per se, but rather imagined experiences: “The listener imagines experiencing excitement, passion, fervour, despair, conflict, feelings of exuberance, of striving, of determination, of well-being, of trepidation, of repose.” Walton suggests this music is well suited to this kind of  “fictional introspection... because introspecting is in some way more like hearing than seeing.” As a result, musical depiction may generate game worlds, but it does not obviously have a work world, or if it does, it will be much harder for us to agree as to its contents.

Let us move onto the use of words to create props. Like the sensory representations Walton terms depictions, verbal representations also involve a translation – but here the transition is from words into specific sensory and experiential imaginings. It may well be the case that 'a picture is worth a thousand words', as the saying goes, but using just a thousand different words we are able to imagine almost infinite numbers of different things. Walton notes that “words are well suited for use in make-believe” precisely because their combination is so versatile in what can be prescribed to imagine. But of course, not all written words are representations, and Walton suggests that the boundary of qualification in the case of language is that any collection of words that appears to issue prescriptions to imagine qualifies as a prop, and thus “if it is its function to be a prop, it is a representation in our sense.”

Note that this concept of verbal representation does not extend to the words spoken by actors of stage or screen:

Words uttered by actors are depictive. In hearing words pronounced on stage by Sir Laurence Olivier, the playgoer fictionally hears Hamlet speaking. In these cases the utterances or marks are reflexive depictions; they depict themselves.

(This makes, for the most part, plays and movies into depictions and not verbal representations, except where a verbal representation is embedded within the story – as in the opening crawl of a Star Wars movie, for instance).

Although Walton concedes that verbal representations have nothing in common but their use of words, he notes that there is one particular form that is especially central to the form: narration. He suggests this is the “historical ancestor” of many other forms of verbal representation, and even goes so far as to suggest there may be utility in treating almost all verbal representations as forms of narration, distinguishing between those works with an explicit narrator (such as all first person novels) and those in which the narrator has been effaced or de-emphasised (such as most third person novels). He acknowledges that this is a step of convenience, but pragmatically one cannot avoid the fact that all words have been written by someone and as such imply at the very least a situation which is a close analogue to narration.

Of course, talking of a single narrator is itself a simplification:

There need by no such thing as the narrator of a narrated work. Different narrators can replace one another in quick succession. In most plays (written or performed) there is a new narrator for every several lines of text; each of the speaking characters is the narrator, in our sense, of the lines attributed to it. Novels which, in representing conversation, omit the “he said”s (and perhaps some which do not as well) can be understood similarly...

Whether there are one or many narrators, the role of the narrator is to mediate our access to the events of the story being told, usually presented indirectly. When the narrator has been effaced, omniscience comes into play to soften this mediating effect and provide “immediacy” to a degree which approaches the norm for depictions. The use of omniscience can be misleading, however, for in a third person story it is generally not fictional that the narrator is supposed to be literally omniscient (nor “godlike or telepathic or clairvoyant or disincarnated or supernatural” – at least, not in the work world nor in any authorised game). It is simply a convention to enable access to every aspect of the fictional world for the smoother presentation of the story.

Walton's concept of the role of a narrator is thus that:

...fictionally, the narrator speaks as though he himself were, in many respects, in the epistemological position he attributes to the character, reporting what he takes the character to know and remaining silent about what he takes the character not to know.

We are dependent upon the narrator (whether literal or effaced) for all our information concerning the fictional world – and this is true even when the narrator is unreliable, and we disbelieve what the narrator says. In the games we play with a verbal representation as a prop, it is even fictional that our access to what happens comes via the narrator, a situation which is markedly different from depictions. The artist creates the depiction, but thereafter we do not generally need to include the artist in the fictional world we enter into with the work as a prop.

Walton goes on to explore many of the complexities of written narrative, using a great many novel examples that sadly are too detailed to explore in such a brief serial. Interested readers must take up the book itself if they wish to learn more of this. For now, we have seen in broad strokes the elements of the make-believe theory of representation – props, fictional worlds, principles of generation, quasi-emotions and lastly distinctions between depictive and narrative representational forms. All that remains is to see how Walton's theory can be applied beyond the world of art, to the interpretation of reality itself.

Next week, the final part: Truth vs Fiction

Heidegger's Time vs Spacetime

Spacetime Martin Heidegger, the most celebrated continental philosopher of the twentieth century, places at the centre of his thoughts the notion of “being in time” - indeed, his magnum opus is called Being and Time (Sein und Zeit). For Heidegger, time was more important to our existence than space. But how should Heidegger's idea be understood in connection with Einstein's theory of spacetime?

The contents of Being and Time are notoriously difficult to appreciate, and doubly so for non-German speakers since Heidegger draws frequently upon grammatical features of his native language that don't always translate into other languages. The centrepiece of his ideas is Dasein (often translated as “being-there”, although Heidegger denied this was accurate). A shorthand for understanding Dasein is that it means the experience of being aware of time, of the consequences and the circumstances of being positioned in a history we can look back upon, and aware of our death ahead of us. We think of this kind of perspective as being uniquely human – while other animals are certainly beings, only humans are Dasein as far as we know. It is vital to Heidegger's idea that Dasein is always already embodied in time – there is no question of considering human consciousness as a separate subject for him. We humans are thrown into time as Dasein, and it is thoroughly fruitless to doubt external reality, we simply must attend to our 'throwness' as it comes.

For the purpose of this discussion, the key point to raise is that for Heidegger time was more important to Dasein than space. Where we are born in the world can become quite irrelevant as we move through our lives, as we can relocate, learn from other cultures and so forth. But we cannot move through time in this way – when we are born is of critical importance both to who we are and whom we can become. If we were born in ancient Greece we could not possibly become an astronaut, for instance, whereas if we were born into an Amazonian tribe we could still potentially become an astronaut (however unlikely) as long as we were born in this time.

A challenge the physicist may want to raise is that this separating out of time and space is misleading, since what we are really existing within is spacetime, a four dimensional continuum in which treating time and space as separate is misleading. But it is the physicist here who is misled – they have mistaken a mathematical model as having precedence over the actual terms of our existence (or our Dasein, in Heidegger's term), mistaking a scientific model as being necessarily of higher importance. It's the same kind of error a theist makes when they mistake their concept of God for truth – one may very well claim that God has access to universal truth, but that does not warrant any claim by the believer in God to any such access; to do so is tantamount to blasphemy in conventional religious terms. The physicist's prioritising of the spacetime model over humanity itself engages in a similar kind of immodesty.

Recall Hannah Arendt's commentary on Heisenberg's notes as to how quantum physics changed our understanding of science: the experiment remains a “question put before nature”, and as such the answers of science always remain questions asked by people. We are confused over what is “objective” when we assume that there can be answers without questions and a question-asking being – a Dasein, in Heidegger's terms. Dasein comes first and it alone is primordial to our experiences and knowledge. Science is a set of tools for thought and action that depend first and foremost upon Dasein, upon our being in time. There can be no science without thinking beings to conduct it.

Spacetime, then, is a tool that can be at hand for us to use as Dasein (in understanding the nature of the universe as we observe it, for instance) but it does not mean that the concept of spacetime is more fundamental than the notion of time in the context of being and existence. We all too frequently mistake our scientific tools for objective truth because the modern paradigms of science trick us into thinking that our experimental results, and the theories that organise these, are meaningful independent of humanity. But this is far from the case: they are a product of our being, our Dasein. Another kind of being would not necessarily derive the same theories. A hypothetical entity whose awareness was embodied within spacetime (rather than time) could not arrive at anything like Einstein's theory of general relativity, which has its sense precisely because space and time are separately measurable for us.

Yet Heidegger may yet have spoken too soon when he said that time was more important to Dasein than space, for this assumption rests securely on the idea that when we talk of spatial separation we are talking solely of distances upon our world. Heidegger never entertained the possibility of sentient beings elsewhere in the universe – of non-terrestrial Dasein. And if this is allowed, then spatial separation could be far more radical than temporality in changing the nature of how Dasein is thrown into the world...

But perhaps we would be wise to heed Daniel Dennett's caution to be wary of science fiction thought experiments, because the strong intuitions they form may be illusory (a warning also hinted at by Wittgenstein). Whether or not there is alien Dasein doesn't matter for us at the moment because there is no question or possibility of our being thrown into their world – we are always already thrown into this one. And for all of us, as Dasein here on Earth at this time, the question of when we live has truly become vastly more important than where.

Mimesis as Make-Believe (5): Participation

The Blog In 1978, Walton published his paper “Fearing Fictions”, in which he first explored the groundwork for the make-believe theory of representations. An expanded version of the paper appears in Mimesis as Make-Believe, but the core of his argument remains unchanged. This week, we look at participation in games of make-believe through Walton's eyes and sift through some of the responses to his ideas from the philosophical community, which remains for the most part strangely resolute in its resistance to the idea of fiction and art as founded upon the power of imagination.

Walton's paper was the first significant attempt to address what has been called the Paradox of Fiction, following an argument presented in a paper by Colin Radford that had been published three years earlier. In “How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?” Radford addressed the question of how we are able to feel genuine emotions for characters that are not real, and concluded that our behaviour in this regard is essentially irrational. Walton had not seen Radford's paper, since it was published by the London-based Aristotelian Society and not widely distributed until many years later, but between these two papers a rich seam of philosophical debate was set in motion.

Radford lays down the problem succinctly: if we hear a story that moves us to tears, and then discover it is a falsehood we are offended, angered. This implies that existence beliefs are required to be emotionally moved. Yet if we watch a play or read a book, we can be moved to tears despite the absence of existence beliefs. Radford says this is a contradiction, and one that is not easily eliminated, claiming that we are clearly irrational in respect of fictions. Walton's solution to the Paradox of Fiction attacks the claim that the emotions we feel in respect of fiction are genuine, arguing that they are better understood as quasi-emotions (a term we will explore shortly). It is worth noting, however, that Walton does not answer Radford's challenge directly since he does not dispute the irrationality involved: as he noted to me recently: “People are irrational in all kinds of ways, so it is hardly surprising if their responses to fiction are irrational.”

Walton's paper “Fearing Fictions” begins as follows, with what must surely be an allusion to the 1958 movie The Blob (pictured above):

Charles is watching a horror movie about a terrible green slime. He cringes in his seat as the slime oozes slowly but relentlessly over the earth destroying everything in its path. Soon a greasy head emerges from the undulating mass, and two beady eyes roll around, finally fixing on the camera. The slime, picking up speed, oozes on a new course straight toward the viewers. Charles emits a shriek and clutches desperately at his chair. Afterwards, still shaken, Charles confesses that he was “terrified” of the slime. Was he?

Walton denies the validity of considering the emotions experienced in respect of fiction as genuine, admitting that we become “caught up” and “emotionally involved” but claiming that “to construe this involvement as consisting of our having psychological attitudes toward fictional entities is to tolerate mystery and court confusion.” He notes that if Charles were genuinely afraid of the slime we would expect him to flee the cinema, to call the police, or behave in other ways displaying clear evidence of his terror. But of course, he does not. He continues to watch the film. Walton states: “Fear emasculated by subtracting its distinctive motivational force is not fear at all.” He proposes to consider it instead quasi-fear – a biological analogue of genuine terror, to be sure, but psychologically distinct.

The concept of quasi-emotions extends to any feelings we may have in respect of fiction. Walton suggests that rather than speaking of actually experiencing the emotions evoked by a representation, we can claim that it is fictional that we experience the emotion in question. Charles actually experiences “fictional fear”, although Walton cautions we should not mistake this quasi-fear (i.e. fictional fear) for a special kind of fear, noting that Charles “does actually experience something that, fictionally, is an experience of fear.” The relationship between an emotion and a quasi-emotion is much like the link between our common notion of truth and fictional truth in Walton's system.

There are essentially two ways that one can relate to a representation. On the one hand, one can be a mere onlooker to a game of make-believe – as with an usher at a cinema who watches the audience and not the movie, say, or a person looking at someone admiring a painting, or watching the players of a tabletop role-playing game. Onlookers “do not think of themselves as subject to [a game's] rules; the fictionality of a proposition is not taken to be a reason for them to imagine it.” Conversely, the participants in a game of make-believe must be considered “constrained to imagine the propositions that are fictional in it.” The rules of the game of make-believe are tacitly consented to by any participant, such that they apply principles of generation that prescribe what they must imagine.

Walton asserts that the appreciation of works of art is “primarily a matter of participation,” and participants are “reflexive props in these games.” Participants do more than imagine representations objectively – they themselves imagine that they see or experience the fictional content a given prop implies in a first-person manner: “they imagine, from the inside, doing things and undergoing experiences.” The participants are “props, objects and imaginers all three...” who prescribe imaginings to themselves and about themselves, and they do so (for the most part) alone. Even when participants enjoy a representation together, as in a cinema, “it is usually best to understand each individual spectator of a movie as engaging in his own private game.” Walton notes that the darkness of the cinema helps encourages this sense of privacy.

What's more – unlike the child whose game of make-believe is closely related – the participant avoids “blatantly displaying the fact that they are just pretending”. Nonetheless, the games involved in appreciating representations are “truncated variants of children’s games of make-believe”. The child's game is effectively limitless, while the appreciator is more constrained, but these limitations provide certain benefits. Where the child's game tends to be physical, with art we are “more reflective, more contemplative.” Furthermore, the artist is permitted a far bigger role than, say, the toy designer, in the games we play with an artwork. There is communication between the creator of a representation and its appreciator, albeit only in one direction, and we count on the artist to help us imagine – which is perhaps why so many people feel cheated when a movie deploys what they judge to be substandard special effects.

One final observation in respect of participation: although the prescribed imagining associated with a prop are experienced in first-person, it is not normally an authorised game that the fictional truths generated are about the appreciator. Walton gives the following example:

What is it for a spectator of King Lear to identify with Lear in his disappointment and disillusion at Goneril and Regan’s betrayal? ... I suggest that the spectator engages in imaginings that are not part of his authorised game but occur along with it. He imagines himself to be in Lear’s shoes, to have been deceived by his daughters and to feel the intense pain of betrayal... Of course we identify with real people as well as with fictional characters. My not very surprising suggestion is that this too involves imagining oneself in the shoes of the person identified with.

This brings us back to Radford's Paradox of Fiction. Radford, you recall, suggests (following a line that dates back at least as far as Aristotle) that existence beliefs are a necessary condition for genuine emotional responses. Many of the attempts to solve the fiction paradox rely upon attempts to show independence between emotions and beliefs; Walton criticises these as all too often being “distressingly question begging.” In the context of Charles, he reconstructs the form of such arguments as follows:

Charles is afraid, it is assumed, and he does not think he is in danger. So fear does not require such a belief. One then cooks up a weaker requirement so as to protect the initial assumption: Fear requires only imagining danger, it is said, or the idea of danger vividly presented. (The fuzziness of the line between imagining and believing adds to the confusion.)

Peter Lamarque offers one of the more famous approaches to the fiction paradox in this style, and one that was specifically written contra Walton's theory. Lamarque suggests that Charles does not fear the slime, as such, but rather the thought of the slime. This is an attempt to shift the interpretation away from make-believe and into a more conventionally causal space. Walton notes in Mimesis as Make-Believe that Lamarque is abandoning the original intuition that the slime is the object of Charles' fear, but does not recognise the reasons (Walton states) we should deny it, namely that it is not fear, per se, Charles experience at all, but rather quasi-fear, for reasons we have already seen. Whether one follows Lamarque or Walton on this becomes something of a question of interpretation, but it's not immediately clear that shifting the focus to thoughts adds any clarity to the issue.

Glenn Hartz takes this kind of objection even further, arguing that our emotional responses to fiction are pre-conscious, and that real but subconscious beliefs are automatically generated by our cognitive apparatus in the cases of certain stimuli. Hartz denies the make-believe theory, claiming “how could anything as cerebral and out-of-the-loop as ‘make believe’ make adrenaline and cortisol flow?” But this kind of explanation has the same kind of problem as Lamarque's: Hartz is suggesting that a biological description of make-believe has superior explanatory power. He is not cogently arguing against Walton's theory at all, but rather falling into the common mistake of affording primacy to scientific explanations. As someone who has studied neurobiology very closely in the context of games, I can confidently report that Hartz's objection that make-believe cannot make adrenaline flow is wildly mistaken. Anyone who has become excited by the fictional events of a novel knows this all too well.

In fact, the philosophical community has been almost entirely united in opposing the make-believe theory of representation – although far from of one mind as to how to construct a coherent alternative. Noel Carroll strenuously objects to the idea that we could be both unaware of the rules of the game we are playing but also “completely unaware of playing a game,” claiming that to play such a game must require the intention to pretend. On this point Alex Neill offers a rare (partial) defence of Walton's theory, claiming that opponents such as Harz and Carroll are failing to recognise a key point: “the fact that Charles is genuinely moved by the horror movie is precisely what motivates Walton’s account.” Walton accedes that we are genuinely moved by fiction, what he denies is the claim that the emotions we are moved to are the same as those we experience in normal life. It is not make-believe that our feelings are stirred, this is factual, it is simply fictional that the emotion Charles is moved to is fear.

The debate on this issue among philosophers remains, unsurprisingly, far from settled. Nonetheless, I can find no reason to reject Walton's model on any of the grounds that have been raised so far. Neurobiology may describe what goes on in the brain during make-believe, but nonetheless no-one can deny that imagination is the faculty in play in the context of fiction. Objections thus far have focussed excessively upon movies, and rarely considered novels or games, all of which hold an important part of the puzzle. Philosophy, as both Wittgenstein and Heidegger believed, should not be unduly distracted by scientific descriptions of our experiences, but can and should explore those experiences on its own terms. Walton's theory does precisely this.

Next week: Depiction vs Narration

Hawking's Fear of Aliens

Hawking, Kang & Kodos

In a recent interview, Stephen Hawking suggested that making contact with alien species was likely to be a bad thing for humanity, saying:

We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.... If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans.

What a strange set of beliefs must motivate these claims... In the first place, the idea that we wouldn't want to meet a species like ourselves is close to incoherent. I for one have enjoyed meeting Africans, Americans, Europeans, Japanese and Chinese people, all of who belong to a genetic and cultural lineage quite distinct from my own. Yet I not only wanted to meet them, I enjoyed meeting them. Hawking's observation seems to rest on the assumption that we judge international relations by its worst historical instances. If we judge his own field of physics by a similar rubric, it is a murderous slayer of innocents and a poisoner of worlds. Surely a more balanced perspective is called for.

Furthermore, Hawking seems to believe that the ability to colonise interstellar space could be something accessible to creatures who might have used up all the resources at home. This, as Lynn Margulis has hinted at, is a rather odd perspective. Surely, any species which is going to survive long enough to develop the awesome technologies required to explore a galaxy must first master the problem of managing the resources of its home planet sensibly? Any species that does not has very little chance of making it further afield. Mary Midgley makes a similar point in more poetic terms, as she dismisses fears of “alien demons” as a preposterous distraction:

...the idea of space travel itself acts as a symbol for the storming of Heaven. Man, having “conquered” his own world, is supposed to rise up and conquer the sky as well, thus putting down all his rivals, divine as well as terrestrial. But if God is alive, will ray guns bother him? And if he is dead, why dress up in his clothes?

Hawking says if aliens reach us the result would be a colonial invasion... It is difficult to understand the huge tangled knot of assumptions that underlie this conclusion. The only thing we can say with any confidence about intelligent alien life is that we cannot know anything about it. We do not know if its chemistry would be carbon-based, and if so if it would be encoded upon DNA, or if it would be based on a different chemical substrate (or for that matter, a non-chemical substrate). We cannot even know if it could visit our planet and live, let alone if it might be interested in this world or could enter into any kind of relationship with us, colonial or otherwise.

We cannot rule out Hawking's claim. But neither can we rule out the possibility that the species best adapted to interstellar exploration is the one who perfects social or spiritual harmony, a claim I personally find marginally more plausible than the idea of successful intergalactic marauders who somehow manage to develop the ultra high tech equipment requisite for the job despite carelessly exhausting their homeworld. And in either case, the vastly more likely proposition is that we aren't going to meet alien life in anything like a time scale that could matter to us as this time, and that it might be more prudent to focus on the real problems we face right here, right now, on our own planet.

All that we know about alien life is that we know nothing at all about it. We know far more about life upon our own world, and our ability to remain here as inhabitants is far more urgently threatened by our own appalling attitudes than by putative alien raiders. Rather than being afraid of unstoppable space invaders, perhaps we should instead be concerned by what we will do to ourselves if we do not find a way to rein in our worst excesses.

With apologies to Dr. Hawking who was, after all, just giving his opinions in an interview.