I wrote this essay after a scary incident in December of 2016.
When we find ourselves in unbelievable situations, the need to justify our feelings of uneasiness can be soothed through depersonalization.
When I say to myself, for example: I feel like I am living in a movie, I am actually saying, more precisely: I feel as if my experiences have been crafted and contrived by someone other than myself, for entertainment purposes. The events in my life could entertain an audience.
Why then, do we justify the same unbelievable situations with an apparently contradictory statement:
The truth is often stranger than fiction.
This trite phrase can be flipped around to the similar (but by no means semantically equivalent) sentiment:
If I read this in a book, I wouldn’t believe it.
This one is an odd statement indeed, but it can be translated as follows:
If an author had concocted this bizarre series of events from her twisted brain and written it out in story form, the work wouldn’t sell because no audience would find it believable. It would feel too contrived.
What does it even mean for an author to come up with a story that does not even sound like a story? Further, what does it mean to say that an audience would not find a made-up story believable? And finally, how could a real life event be too bizarre for reality? Though these questions are daunting at first, the answer is not so complex. We look to fiction to take us out of — but also to reflect — our everyday lives. We care a great deal about the believability of stories. For any author, that’s a tall order, to be sure.
Of course, if audiences are so demanding, we may wonder how anyone knows how to write good stories in the first place. This consideration leads us to another important question:
How do we determine which stories are lively enough to entertain yet believable enough to engage an audience?
In real life, after a disruption occurs, things begin to fade back to normal. Time passes. We adapt ourselves to the best of our abilities, we return to our old routines and habits, life continues.
Memories are notoriously inaccurate, and so we may deceive ourselves, or selectively forget, in an effort regain a sense of control.
But we never forget entirely. We may reflect now and then about our crazy experience that had a “one-in-a-million” chance of happening. We may wonder how our experience changed us, or taught us something, or made us into a better person. Our thoughts might go something like this:
Gee that really was a once in a lifetime experience. If only X hadn’t happened, and Y hadn’t been there at precisely that moment, Z1 could have happened instead of Z!
We often fail (or choose not) to realize that things could not have been otherwise — or at least, we might as well assume that they couldn’t because, in point of fact, X did happen, and Y was there, which caused Z and not Z1 (or the infinite set of possibilities that comprises not-Z). At the same time, most of us don’t want to view our lives in this way, and for an important reason: we like the idea of free will and choice. Luck and chance — all of the external circumstances that cause us to fail or to succeed — are conveniently swept under the rug.
Sometimes, we choose to act in ways consistent with a belief in free will because that very belief empowers us and allows us to make positive changes in our lives and in the lives of others. If we all walked around believing that the world was ending and nothing that anyone did could change that, or that we only existed in order to die, then no one would produce art or care about mountain views, or bother with much of anything that makes life so worthwhile — so human — in the first place.
Call this motivation to “perform humanity” what you will. If you are living an interesting, productive and helpful life (as in, you are not walking around killing people for fun and you mostly get along with others) then the reasons that you have for living your life as you do are yours. Who cares what you need to believe in order to do that?
Unfortunately, an unwavering dedication to the idea of free will may lead us down a path toward a conclusion that is far too extreme; namely, that the beliefs we hold should not matter as long as we live a positive, healthy life (whatever that may be).
I’m a good person, you might think, I help others in my community, my friends and colleagues seem to like me well enough, I love my family, I don’t harm anyone.
You continue to justify your way of life:
As long as I continue this way, it’s nobody’s business what my beliefs are. Nothing rides on the question of my beliefs because they are personal and confidential.
The only thing that matters are my actions, you conclude. It’s best if others view me favorably, and it’s an added bonus if I like myself more or less.
Here is where this line of thinking goes awry. Our beliefs can be harmful, both to ourselves and to others. It is dangerous to assume that we are responsible for everything that goes right, or wrong, in our lives. Our failure to acknowledge the influence of outside circumstances beyond our control — some call it luck, some call it fate — disallows us from forgiving ourselves and avoiding regret. At this point, the infinite black hole of regret opens beneath our feet. There’s no turning back. We fall for the tragic illusion that every event could have unfolded differently from how it actually did.
An inordinate amount of movies, it seems, are premised on this idea.
The premise is effective with audiences because it elicits a special kind of sadness that can only come from regret. Those of us who are fans of the Back to the Future trilogy have all cringed at the idea that we could fall for our opposite- sex parent if we had the ability to travel into the past before we were born. We accept the misleading idea that if things aren’t perfect now, we could have or should have done something differently in the past.
In the recent movie La La Land, toward the end of the film, Ryan Gosling plays a piano solo for Emma Stone. As he is playing, Stone’s character reflects on the turning points in the history of her relationship with Gosling’s character — and she changes every outcome in her mind. For example, at the beginning of the film, when she first encounters Gosling’s character at the hole-in-the-wall bar, he rudely ignores her. Now, in her imagination, he pulls her close and and kisses her passionately.
The sequence ends where it began: Stone’s character and her “alternate universe” husband have stumbled into her old flame’s piano bar by accident. Or, to put it another way: her fantasy carries her back to the beginning of the movie and ends up where it began: at her old flame’s piano bar. The entire sequence is incredibly sad. Heartbreaking even. Even a cold-hearted determinist might have to grab a Kleenex.
Oh look! It’s the actors who play those characters in that movie.
But how could this be? Why should anyone be saddened by such an obvious cinematic manipulation? We do not personally know these people. We’ve never met them because they are fictional. Not only do we know perfectly well that these characters do not and never did exist, we also know that even if they did, they couldn’t change their own pasts. What’s the point of getting sad over a couple of fictional people lamenting their own fictionally fictional pasts? It’s one thing to wonder why we care about fictional lives at all, and quite another to care about a story that exists within the mind of a character of a story. This scenario represents a double departure from reality and forward jump into a mise en abyme of possible fictional worlds.
These questions quickly become less mysterious when we take a step back and clarify our usage of the verb to know. We do not know these people, in the sense that we have never met — nor will we ever meet — fictional characters. We are not familiar with them through our own experiences in the real world. We also know that these people do not exist in the real world and never will.
The definition of knowledge as justified true belief (JTF) dates back to Plato. But the traditional account of knowledge has two fatal problems:
it does not capture the relationship between to know and to believe and
it does not make the necessary distinction between the two meanings of to know (familiarity versus fact).
Let’s look at the first problem, the relationship between knowing and believing. From the syntax and semantics of this definition, it appears that “belief” is an ingredient in the overall recipe that leads to knowledge. Further, the question “what is knowledge?” assumes that knowledge, broadly conceived, is the ultimate object of knowledge. But why should this be so?
Further, how do we answer the question: “what is belief?” Do we believe things because we know them or do we believe things based on intuition (or induction, which is a loaded term) and then come to know them when they are confirmed? If the latter, how do we come to hold beliefs in the first place? One can see already that the direction of the inquiry is easily reversible.
Over the course of our lives we hold a large number of beliefs, some of them turn out to be true, some turn out to be false. Some of these beliefs are based on real world facts, and those mistakes are easy to reverse.
Oh, so Mary’s not in the garden? She’s in the kitchen. Got it.
This false belief transforms into a new belief — aka knowledge. We are justified in believing things that we know to be true.
Some of our beliefs, however, are less easy to reverse. In particular, those pertaining to attitudes and notions of the self. When we are shown that our attitude about something is not justified, we may understand it, we may think that we accept it, but there is no way to know for sure that we believe it — especially if we were not prone to believe it before. Psychologically, it is difficult to extricate ourselves from false beliefs when we already have a script in place.
As it turns out, we do not tend to assess stories in terms of truth or falsity. We know that certain details of stories can be true or false, of course. Either the events within the story occurred, or they did not. This can be verified. But “believability” is not the same as “true”. Either the events within the story ring true for an audience, or they do not. This takes time to assess.
If a fictional story does not ring true for us, we can simply leave the theater or close the book. If a true story does not ring true for us, well then it may be time to reassess our beliefs.