Monday, November 23, 2009

Not Evil, Just Misguided

Me: "I don't think that I think that fictional characters are real, after all."

Headfinger: "Imaginary people are no less 'real' or 'true' than real people like you and me."

Is this a disagreement (this is an important question because Headfinger is someone I intellectually respect quite a lot and with whom, consequently, I would, in general, rather not disagree)? I am not really worried about this, as there are several of levels on which this is clearly not a disagreement. For one thing, Headfinger's statement is an assertion about the world. Mine is an assertion about my thought patterns. Both of our statements could clearly be true without any contradiction whatsoever. Moving up a level, Headfinger's statement is one of certainty - mine clearly is rather tentative. "I don't think that I think. . .?" This sounds alarmingly like that time that I told someone that I didn't think I was a solipsist. Thus, it seems to me that my statement makes it fairly clear that I'm not fully certain about my stance on this issue and thus could potentially be persuaded to Headfinger's side, even if it's not my initial intuition (all of which is true). On yet another level, Headfinger himself qualifies his assertion in his next sentence as follows: "Imaginary people are (or represent in our models, if you feel more comfortable with that) people in alternate universes (AKA independent causal domains)." Since I do, in fact, feel much more comfortable with that, I find this reassuring. Headfinger starts out his comments on this topic by stating: "Imaginary people are like imaginary numbers in a lot of ways." Therefore, just as one can take a realist or non-realist view of math, so one can take a realist or non-realist view of fiction.

The question is whether the nonexistent factual disagreement in fact masks a significant moral disagreement. Because if Headfinger believes that it really is legitimate to call fictional characters real, then isn't he calling me a demiurge? And if Headfinger is calling me a demiurge, then this is one of the rudest things I have ever encountered in my life. I don't particularly find it comforting that he is also calling himself and almost everyone else a demiurge too - that actually kind of makes the problem worse, rather than better. But Headfinger seems to see his theory as uplifting and positive, not hopeless and dismaying.

Luckily, I think I am able to resolve this dispute, as well. Because to the degree that I am extremely bizarre given my complete obsession with theodicy despite having been raised in an atheist family, it's theodicy in a specifically Christian context (despite having been raised in an atheist Jewish family). And by a Christian context, I mean that I am most interested in theodicy in the context of assertions that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. If I tend to think that demiurges are deeply morally faulty, my main reason for believing this is the idea that they are omnipotent and omniscient, and therefore evil must be caused by their not being omnibenevolent. If the demiurges are not omnipotent, or not omniscient, then, on the one hand, I wouldn't say that I can comfortably call them God, but, on the other hand, I feel far less inclined to blame someone who is not omnipotent, or not omniscient, for causing suffering. After all, if you're not omnipotent, you might not be able to prevent suffering from happening. If you're not omniscient, you might not be aware of suffering that happens, or you might discount as insignificant suffering that is in fact significant. Therefore, if either or both of these characteristics apply, perhaps you should think twice before you create people, but you're not directly to blame for being the sole reason for those people's pain, which it would be easy for you not to have caused. In other words, sufficiently advanced aliens are not evil, just misguided. God, otoh, has to be evil.

Now, it's possible that Headfinger is saying that I am God, in which case he is still calling me evil. However, although Headfinger may feel comfortable calling the sufficiently advanced aliens God, coming as I do from my weird Christian theodicy background, I am not comfortable with this terminology. In other words, whenever I start out with my theodicy argument, I accept by definition that God is omnipotent and omniscient. Someone who is not omnipotent and omniscient must, therefore, not be God (maybe they are a god, but they are not God). And, given that I am not omnipotent and not omniscient (and, well, not omnibenevolent, either, but I'd prefer to believe that I'm not actively evil), I am therefore not God, and thus misguided at worst, certainly not evil.

As comforting as I find this, I realize that I need to support my assertion that I am not omnipotent or omniscient (I probably don't need to support my assertion that I am not omnibenevolent). It is obvious that I am not omnipotent or omniscient in my present universe. However, if I create an alternate universe, isn't it potentially true that I might be omnipotent and omniscient in that one? Look at what I've already written: "This seems to be even more true of the characters I make up - in an odd sort of way, the very way they "come to life" in my brain, the way I have to check the actions I posit for them against the actions I can actually accept them performing, the way I don't even have to make up the plots for their stories because they make them up themselves, seems to underline their lack of independent existence from me - I think it's the way they exist so fully within the confines of my brain. They can't possibly have independent consciousnesses of their own - they don't need them! Real people can surprise me - the characters in my brain never can, because I only ever can expect them to do exactly what they would do." This seems to highlight the problem. If I know all there is to know about these people, then, to the extent that they are real, doesn't that mean that I am omniscient insofar as they, in a separate universe from my own, exist? As for omnipotence, if the things that these characters do, the obstacles they face, etc., are entirely determined by me, doesn't that make me omnipotent in their universe?

Okay, so here goes my response to those questions: the reason why it would be fair to call me omnipotent in my fictional universe is because the limits to my abilities, manifold as they are, are completely irrelevant to my fictional characters. This is despite the fact that these limitations strongly shape my fictional universes - for example, if I am unable to imagine certain possibilities, even very logical ones, I cannot create those possibilities in my universes. Nonetheless, if my limitations exist on a different metaphysical plane from my characters, they therefore cannot prove them. From a Positivist standpoint, as there is no possible experiment they could do outside the universe to test these limitations, the very concept is meaningless for them.

Okay. Now, imagine that my fictional characters develop the ability to transcend their universe (that, by the way, is what I'd call a consummation devoutly to be wished). Were this to happen, obviously they would see that I was not in fact omnipotent in my universe. But it would also change the meaning of the boundary between the two universes. Two places are metaphysically distinct only if there isn't a route from one to the other. Thus, it would no longer be meaningful to speak of their universe as one separate from mine. Instead, it would be more accurate to speak of their universe as a subset of mine, in the same way that the solar system is a subset of the visible universe. However, in this case, I am only locally omnipotent in a subset of this universe, which doesn't really count as genuinely omnipotent. After all, while one can legitimately say, "Planets are common in the solar system," this intrinsically does not equate to "Planets are common everywhere" - the solar system is not everywhere. Thus, common planets simply isn't an omnipresent phenomenon - it's just a phenomenon that's present in one particular place. Similarly, "Grace has complete power over Dogville [to give a fictional universe a name]" does not equate to "Grace has complete power over everything" - Dogville is not everything, and, not only do I know this, but the Dogvillains [ed: not a typo, just a. . . joke] are also capable of knowing this, so I simply am not an omnipotent person - I'm just a person with total power over one particular place. Thus, if suffering exists in their universe, although I may well have been misguided in choosing to create a universe, I am not evil for creating one with suffering when the alternative was in my power - because it may well be legitimate to say that, as the product of suffering myself, I am unable to create a universe untainted by suffering.

Okay, so what if, then, my characters cannot transcend their universe? Then that universe really is metaphysically distinct, and I really am omnipotent! But, in that case, I think it's meaningless/contentless to say that they are actually real. For Positivist reasons, as explored in David Deutsch's Fabric of Reality, I actually am not a solipsist - if it seems as though there are other people who are separate from myself performing various actions, then we might as well call them other people who are separate from myself performing various actions. The only way I could possibly prove that they were all in my head would be to do a little transcending of my own, wake up, and realize that it was all a dream. But the only way I could do that is if there were something outside of myself to transcend to - thus, the only times that it's meaningful to make a distinction between other people being in my head and other people being outside of my head are the times that I wake up to something outside of my head anyway, and there must be something outside of my head. If there is nothing outside of my head, then I might as well use the term "universe" to mean my head - it has basically the same meaning. But for these same Positivist reasons, if my fictional characters can't come out and interact with me, if they have no reality outside of my omnipotence, then we take away the obvious pragmatic distinction between "real" and "fictional" when we describe them as real. We might as well call characters who are in the self-contained, metaphysically distinct minor universe "fictional" and the characters in my universe "real," since there is a genuine difference between the two - whereas calling the minor universe characters "real" needlessly erases this pragmatic distinction. If we want to describe the evident and meaningful similarity between the fictional characters and the real ones, rather than erasing this distinction, we might as well just call both kinds of people "people." I think this clarifies the ways in which they're the same, but keeping the binary between "fictional" and "real" clarifies the way in which they're different.

This is important because I don't believe in philosophical zombies, and, in consequence, I think that anything that acts enough like a real person to convince me that it is real does experience suffering. However, I am more skeptical about things that don't convince me that they are real people. For example, I have nearly 100% confidence that my father is capable of experiencing suffering. I have nearly 100% confidence that my rabbit is capable of experiencing suffering. I have, although Headfinger may disagree with me, a lot less confidence that my cell phone is capable of experiencing suffering - though this is not to say that I am 100% confident that it isn't! If I created a computer program that, no matter what you typed into the prompt, simply responded, "I am full of overwhelming suffering at the sorrow of the universe," I might think it was acting like a person, but it certainly wouldn't be acting like a real person, and I would be similarly uncertain as to whether the program was genuinely experiencing suffering. As described above, if there is an inviolable metaphysical barrier between my universe and that of my fictional characters, then I do not think it is meaningful to call them real people, although they are people. This does not mean that I therefore believe that they don't experience suffering - they may. However, it does mean that I am at least skeptical about it. But if I am skeptical about their capacity for suffering, this means that I do not know whether or not they suffer, any more than I know whether or not my cell phone suffers. And this means that I am not omniscient in their universe, even if I am omnipotent. Thus, I am perhaps misguided for creating people who I believe may suffer, but I am not evil for knowingly creating people who I am certain will suffer.

But have I just proven that, by my definition, there is no God - that God, at least as I define It, is in fact logically impossible? I don't think so, but I have made an interesting discovery about my own theology - evidently I believe that God must be immanent somewhere, by definition. Any purely transcendent God would just be a god/alien to me. I can believe in the existence of a being that knows everything there is to know about everything it controls, and has complete power over everything it knows about. This being, who is omnipotent and omniscient in every universe of which it is aware, would count as God to me. Now, you could consider that God to be transcendent to some universes - for example, if there are gods in God's universe, these gods might well create other universes that are subsets of God's universe. But It has to be immanent in the most inclusive universe. If It knew about a universe where It didn't have power, or had power over a universe It don't know about, then It is not God by my definition. I suppose I can't speak to anyone else's.


Anonymous said...


headfinger said...

"From a Positivist standpoint, as there is no possible experiment they could do outside the universe to test these limitations, the very concept is meaningless for them."

Hum I agree with your logic but I don't think this is correct. You haven't sufficiently defended the assertion that "there is no possible experiment to test these limitations" here.

You say "if my limitations exist on a different metaphysical plane from my characters, they therefore cannot prove them" -- I don't have a coherent rebuttal (I'm not sure I even want one, or if I'm just agnostic on the point and want to focus on it in detail) -- but I think possible counterarguments look like:

* that Xanth book
* dreams, lucid dreaming
* something about butterflies and the pages of a book and Godel Escher Bach and The Fabric of Reality

Anonymous said...

I haven't finished reading the post BTW and I think you may start to address these points in the later paragraph about your characters not transcending their reality and/or you transcending your own reality.

Grace Mulligan said...

Yeah, I think maybe you should read the rest. But even in the part you've already read, "if my limitations exist on a different metaphysical plane from my characters," is the key phrase - note the conditional. My argument later on is that if my characters are capable of transcending their metaphysical plane, then I can't define this as a true metaphysical barrier between our planes, and their metaphysical plane is in fact merely a subset of mine, in the same way that the solar system is not on a different metaphysical plane from the galaxy/universe but is in fact only a subset of the galaxy/universe. Ergo, in this case, even for my characters, I would not be able to be considered omnipotent.

Grace Mulligan said...

In case this is too long and you're having trouble following the argument, the other point I'm trying to make is that if I am omnipotent than I must not be omniscient.

Lonin said...
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Lonin said...
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Lonin said...

Okay -- I've come back to this after a long time, and here's what I think: your statement "the way I have to check the actions I posit for them against the actions I can actually accept them performing, the way I don't even have to make up the plots for their stories because they make them up themselves, seems to underline their lack of independent existence from me" strikes me as strange. I would be much more comfortable accepting their lack of independent existence from you if you *did* have to make up the plots for their stories. If it's the characters who make up the plots themselves, I wouldn't be certain that you have enough *control* over their lives to call yourself "omnipotent" even in their universe. Maybe whatever forces it is that *do* have power over their universe are acting *through* you instead.

It's like the dream I had that I call my "fake lucid dream" -- a couple weeks after a long discussion about lucid dreaming, I had a dream where I figured out somehow I could do anything and so I decided to fly, latch onto the outside corner of a building (and bite off a piece of it!), and walk on the surface of a pool of water on the roof of the building. I went around after that talking about the great lucid dream I had had, believe me! But eventually, it hit me: that wasn't *really* a lucid dream: the actions that I was "deciding" to take weren't really decisions of my own, I was still just following the script of the dream, which involved me suddenly performing these lucid-dream-seeming actions and then, once I realized I was doing them, rationalizing the fact that I had done them by thinking that I had "decided" to do them. I had just been dreaming that it was a lucid dream!

Actually, when I put it this way, it sounds like the revelation of someone who realizes all their actions have been controlled by God their whole life, and then all of a sudden has a beautiful awakening of giving-in....

Lonin said...

Oh, and another reason you might not be omnipotent even in the real imaginary people's universe is that it could be that imaginary people in your head just, in Headfinger's words, "represent" people in other universes, right? I do like that -- it makes it sound like they're kind of ambassadors for people in other universes. But maybe you have total control only over these ambassadors, these avatars, these projections into our universe. Somehow, in the other universe, the actual beings that live out there always manage to wrest some freedom away from your total control of their shadows.

Grace Mulligan said...

Maybe whatever forces it is that *do* have power over their universe are acting *through* you instead.

Oh, ick, that sounds just like what bothers me about The Sandman.

Anyway, I guess if I take a step back from it, I can understand you finding this counter-intuitive. But let me try to get a little more closely at what I mean - let's make a distinction between my experience of myself and my experience of other people. Given a situation, I don't have to ask, What would I do in that situation? I just know. That's because I'm me. I've read Daniel Dennett and grown up around people with interesting ideas about consciousness - I firmly believe that my consciousness is not the solid, impregnable Thing-In-Itself that I perceive it as. Nonetheless, I very much perceive my consciousness as a solid, impregnable Thing-In-Itself (probably far more so than most other people I've discussed this with, including Headfinger). I have a strong narrative of my consciousness, and it means that, well, being myself just means being myself. I don't need to take actions to make up stories about myself. Making up my story about myself is what I do naturally.

This is not true of other people. In fact, I'm extremely hesitant to make up stories about other (real) people. I don't feel like I understand what goes on in their minds or that I can reliably predict what they'd do in hypothetical situations. Making up stories about them takes a lot of effort, so much so that I generally try to avoid doing it whenever possible and actively stop myself if I find myself doing it by accident.

My experience of my fictional characters is far closer to my experience of myself than it is to my experience of other (real) people. I don't have to put effort into guessing what they'd do in hypothetical situations; I just know. When I say they make up the plot for their stories themselves, I more or less mean the same thing that I mean when I say I know how I act in every situation I find myself in. My characters are in situations; they act in them, in my head, in exactly the way that is right for that character, without me having to guess or make up some potentially wrong story about it. This is not even remotely similar to the way I interact with consciousnesses I believe to be outside myself. It is more or less exactly the way I interact with my own consciousness. Therefore, I experience my characters as facets of my own consciousness.

I hope that explanation helps you make a little more sense of what I mean!

I'm not sure I believe that any decisions we make, waking or sleeping, are "really decisions of our own"!

As for my characters being merely representatives of characters in other universes, sure. My private personal utopian fantasies that I've mentioned elsewhere actually hinge on this possibility - or, rather, the idea that the characters I've made up in my head, just completely coincidentally, happen to match up with real people in other universes who, amused by the coincidence, come seek me out to take me on a magical journey. But it's funny how adamant I am and have always been about the idea that it's a complete coincidence. The story would be completely ruined if those characters' independent existence was actually caused by my creating them! No, it has to be just a weird coincidence for the dream fantasy utopian journey to be any good.