Fiction Considered Harmful

by abramdemski3 min read8th Oct 201582 comments

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Narrative Fallacy
Personal Blog

Epistemic status: playing devil's advocate.

I wrote the following a couple of weeks back for a meet-up post, and Gunnar_Zarncke suggested I should turn it into a discussion post:

Fiction is not a lie, but it is a variety of untruth. It absorbs time and energy which could be spent on fact. Although we make a conscious distinction between fictional worlds and reality, we will often use fictional examples when evaluating real-life situations. It has been argued that we should learn to take joy in the world we actually live in. Why should we allow fiction to warp our view of reality?

Perhaps fiction offers a fun, relaxing break. I can understand this claim in two different ways. The first version is that reading fiction gives us a rest from serious thinking, restoring us in some way. So, is this really true? Often when we feel tired of thinking, we're really tired of thinking about some particular thing. We gain new mental energy when we switch to something else. We think this means we're unable to do productive work, and need to take a break; but often, we could continue to be productive on a sufficiently different task, which gave us the same variety as a "break" would. (This is anecdotal. I recall seeing a discussion of this in a lesswrong post, but didn't figure out which one.) Alternatively, if we really are exhausted, reading fiction might not be restoring our energy as much as taking a nap or perhaps meditating. In either case, the pro-fiction argument seems murky. Answering this question is difficult, because it's far from obvious why certain types of thinking seem to take "mental effort" and leave us feeling drained. (It seems it might be a mechanism for sensing high opportunity cost, or it might be due to depleting a physical resource in the brain.)

A second way to interpret this is that consuming fiction is closer to being an end, rather than a means. The joy which fiction creates, or the rich inner experience, may be a good in and of itself. Whether it's useful for restorative purposes or not, it's good that society keeps churning the fiction mill, because it's one of the things which makes lifeworthwhile. Some people will readily agree with this, while others will feel it's very close to advocating wireheading. At a recent LW meetup here in LA, one person argued that if you're going to enjoy living in some universe, it might as well be the real one. I suppose the idea is that we should seek to make the enjoyable aspects of fiction into a reality, rather than exercising shallow escapism. I'm not sure this view can be defended, however. If you've got something like a computational theory of mind, and believe that uploading yourself into a virtual world is OK, how do you draw a firm line between "reality" and "fiction" to say which kinds of experiences are really valuable and in which you're just fooling yourself? Is it a matter of a sufficiently detailed simulation, which includes other conscious beings rather than puppets, and so on?

Maybe...

Robin Hanson discusses the social value of stories: those who read fiction are more empathetic toward others, seemingly fooled by story logic into acting as if good behavior is always rewarded and bad behavior punished. Although clearly valuable, this gives me the uneasy sense that stories are manipulative control directives. I mayenjoy the story, but does that make me comfortable accepting control directives from this particular author? Or should we examine the moral character of the author, before reading?

To make our arguments stick, we've got to compare fiction to relevant alternatives. It seems to me that we can havealmost as much fun reading biographies, memoirs, and (entertainingly written) history as we can reading fiction... and all with the advantage of being real facts about the real world, which seems at least a little useful.

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Whether it's useful for restorative purposes or not, it's good that society keeps churning the fiction mill, because it's one of the things which makes life worthwhile. Some people will readily agree with this, while others will feel it's very close to advocating wireheading. At a recent LW meetup here in LA, one person argued that if you're going to enjoy living in some universe, it might as well be the real one.

The consumption of fiction is a way to produce a pleasurable experience. We act in a certain way to induce a desirable state of mind and body. How is fiction different from eating tasty food, listening to moving music, going on a nature trip with pretty views, or having sex? These other things also use time and energy that could be "spent on fact".

I suppose the idea is that we should seek to make the enjoyable aspects of fiction into a reality, rather than exercising shallow escapism.

What's wrong with "escapism", and why do you call it "shallow"?

If you argue that we should spend more resources (time, attention, money, etc) on improving this world rather than "escaping" into a fictional one. Then why would you not also argue ... (read more)

1Gunnar_Zarncke6yI think abramdemski doesn't construe this as a either/or-dichotomy but as a continuous dimention from max-productive to wireheading. And he seems to argue that fiction is more on the wireheading side: You ask for other aspects like listening to music and sex: And I think you can place these also somewhere on the space. For music in particular there is not a single place but a range from jolly music song and laughter in a community to passive listening to random music during a commute. Hm, I guess the same range can be shown for sex.
4DanArmak6yThen, what places fiction further along the axis than these other things? What makes it less "productive"? How do you define "productive" in the first place - productive towards what goals? What is special about those goals (whatever they are) that is different from consuming fiction as a goal, or a means towards the goal of experiencing the kinds of thoughts and emotions fiction produces? Sex, music, ice cream and mountain climbing are also "merely" means towards brain states.
4abramdemski6yAs I inticated in this [http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/mus/fiction_considered_harmful/ct6f] reply, I think the wireheading claim is separate from the productivity question. Fiction being productive (as a means of relaxing or stretching the imagination or such) is something that could save it from the wireheading complaint, because then it would not have to be justified as an end-in-itself. The way I see it, wireheading is a complaint about things which produce counterfeit value. If the complaint is valid, wirehead-like things are things which fool the brain into thinking there is value where there is none. In the case of a literal wirehead, this is by direct stimulation of the value-detecting brain-bits. In the case of fiction, it's by a kind of superstimulus for social interaction and other human values. No actual social interaction takes place, but you feel as if you are getting to know people (usually important, sexy people) and getting caught up in an important chain of events. The question is: is this counterfeit value, or real value?
1DanArmak6yThanks for the explanation. This lets me get back to my original point: why focus on fiction? What makes fiction more like wireheading or more 'counterfeit' than the great majority of the things we do that aren't immediately necessary for survival? Compare the following: * We read fiction to produce pleasurable experiences. Outside our brains, the effect is mostly to shape culture and the market (with various second order effects), and pay a bunch of people to produce and distribute fiction. * We eat ice cream to produce pleasurable experiences. Outside our brains, the effect is mostly to raise cane sugar and dairy cows (who might be suffering a lot), and pay a bunch of people to distribute components and make ice cream. * We take trips to beautiful natural sites to produce pleasurable experiences. Outside our brains, the effect is mostly the tourism market. * We have casual sex to produce pleasurable experiences. Outside our brains, the effect is mostly nil. * We listen to music (the kind without words, so it doesn't count as fiction) to produce pleasurable experiences. Outside our brains, the effect is mostly to shape culture in various ways, and pay some people to make music. All these activities also contribute to various forms of social bonding and of mental health, but that's just as true for fiction. These are intended as a few random examples out of many others. Other than working to earn money, maintaining social relations, and a few necessary maintenance activities like shopping, almost all our actions are intended to create pleasurable experiences internal to our brains. What makes fiction different from any other such activity, and the value it creates more 'counterfeit' or wireheading-like?
2abramdemski6yI feel confused, and am likely missing some bad assumption. For the purpose of working through the assumptions, I'll keep arguing the anti-fiction side... The part of me that feels like doing away with fiction could be a good idea also would be OK with doing away with many of those other things you mentioned. Eating ice cream is bad as a matter of fact (this doesn't seem to require much argument). It's just a superstimulus for "good food", and furthermore, negatively impacts health. Noticing this (consciously noticing it on a repeated basis) can in fact move preferences away from ice cream and toward healthier food, to the point where ice cream doesn't even feel tempting except socially. (My actual motivational state is not like this, but rather flips back and forth between finding ice cream appealing and not. I have not decided to adjust my emotional state entirely toward the reality, largely because this change in motivational state would have some negative social consequences.) Trips to beautiful natural sites do seem kind of silly to me. Looking at nice scenery is nice, but on the order of nice things, it seems like something I'm willing to pay significantly less for than what most people are. That's neither here nor there for the debate, though. The part of me that is interested in doing away with fiction says that at least this experience is fact-oriented. There is something valuable about going and seeing real scenery -- historical sites of importance, and things like that -- which is not there when the scenery is entirely simulated. The part of me concerned with wireheading says that this is enough to distinguish between the kind of pleasure produced by visiting real places vs simulating pleasant scenery. The difference between real and simulated scenery in this respect can easily be blurred. A natural landscape is very different from a landscape specifically optimized by human hands to be pleasant. The part of me concerned with wireheading starts to be
3RichardKennaway6ySo fiction was just an example of a more general proposition: enjoyment is bad. Sensual pleasure of any sort is bad. These things are a snare and a delusion. What are they a distraction from, that should be pursued instead?
4abramdemski6yThere's a big difference between saying wireheading and superstimulus are bad and saying enjoyment is bad. The way I'm framing it, that's roughly like the difference between saying that counterfeit money is bad and saying money is bad.
4RichardKennaway6yIn the view that you're devils-advocating, fiction is fake, admiring nature is silly, casual sex is meaningless, and music is empty. If these are counterfeits, what are they counterfeits of? And what's the thing about ice-cream?
5abramdemski6yI'd better climb out of the devil's advocate position before I dig myself too deep a hole. gjm's reply is perfect in terms of describing the position being outlined. I really do want to make a distinction between pleasurable things and terminally-valuable things, though. At least I think I do. The way you're reacting makes me think that you don't -- that you find it puzzling that I want to differentiate between superstimulus and actually good things at all, regardless of questions about fiction and such. I think it would be unfortunate if future civilizations decided maximum wireheading was the greatest ethical good. I think it would also be unfortunate (but less so) if future civilizations decided that finely crafted full sensory experiences, akin to movies, were the ultimate good. I furthermore think it would be unfortunate (but significantly less so) if future civilizations decided that finely crafted interactive experiences, akin to 1-player games with only non-sentient NPCs, were the ultimate good. (With significantly more uncertainty, I think it would be much worse if all of the movies or interactive experiences were identical. The image of billions or more identical clones (human-optimal in whatever sense) watching identical recordings of a single extremely well-crafted thousand-year movie does not appeal very much to me. I'm not sure it's more preferable than a single human experiencing this best-of-all-possible-movies. Similarly, but less so, for interactive experiences.) The ideal case seems much more like a massively multiplayer one, despite the fact that players will tend to clash with one another and it's much harder to optimize properly (will have to be worse in other respects as a result). Applying the intuitions from these rather distant scenarios to more everyday matters, the enjoyment from ice cream does fall rather far toward the beginning of the spectrum I've just outlined. It seems rather like a small dose of wireheading (except when en
1RichardKennaway6yI'm missing a description of what those terminally-valuable goals might be, though. I agree. But the fundamental question: what is the good of Man? is going unanswered. As it mostly has done on LessWrong, even in the Sequences. We spend our whole lives on two things: overcoming problems, and enjoying ourselves. Bread (the struggle to procure it) and circuses. In Paradise, the problems are gone, the bread is free; is anything left but lotus-eating? I don't have an answer to that either. One can talk about "eudaimonia", or "flourishing", or as Eliezer does, "fun", but those are just names for whatever it is. But casting this in terms of Paradise, whether the transhuman one or a religious one, removes the problem from the world around us and too easily leads into empty speculation. When you leave aside the irksome chores of keeping your body fed, clothed, and housed, and the rejected pleasures listed previously, what purposes should get someone out of bed in the morning? And when they are achieved, what then? Is there, in fact, such a thing as a terminal goal? gjm said that it's "basically sugar and fat, neither of which is very good for your health when consumed in large quantities". But the dose makes the poison; fat is an essential macronutrient, and carbohydrates all but. I'm sceptical of the whole superstimulus idea, based partly on personal experience and partly on an understanding of control systems. I hinted at the former in speaking of having had an ice-cream "as recently as a month ago". People speak of chocolate as another superstimulus. There's usually a 200g block of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut in my store cupboard. A block lasts about a month and is only there for quasi-medicinal purposes, to alleviate low blood sugar crashes (of causes unknown). From the point of view of control systems, if your satiety-sensing system is in order, you will never overeat. The "attractiveness" of food is irrelevant. I don't care how "enjoyable" something is to eat, if I'm
2abramdemski6yYeah, that's true. In terms of it going unanswered in the Sequences or wider lesswrong, I somewhat disagree. The sequences specifically argue that good is complex and fragile -- complex meaning it would take a long time to write down all the details and they can't just be summarized with a pattern that gives rise to them; fragile meaning that we need to get all the details right. This means, specifically, that Eliezer did not expect anyone to be able to write everything humans value down and get it right in one shot, even given considerable effort. Instead, some aspects were addressed which were particularly important to illustrate one point or another. As for me, I also was not expecting to be able to fully articulate what it is that I, or humans, value. I'm trying to articulate my intuitions about this particular issue. I think the reason that you're asking is because you think I'm pushing everything off the table, in trying to make a distinction between pleasurable things and actually-valuable things. At times in this conversation, under varying degrees of devil's-advocacy, I've pushed things ranging from fiction to taking a walk in the park off the table. I can see why you're concerned. My intuition tends to say that nothing is very valuable in isolation. Things gain meaning by their connection to each other (beyond just instrumental value of being able to physically cause more value down the line). This is because value comes from patterns of things, and systems of interconnected structure. A thing like an ice cream cone is not totally devoid of this kind of beauty; it's a matter of degree.
4gjm6yFiction is counterfeit learning or counterfeit human relationships. Admiring nature is a side-effect of preferences that evolved to help us find good places to live or stay. Casual sex is a counterfeit of not-so-casual sex, which helps to make families (in at least two ways). Music is counterfeit pattern-spotting. Ice cream is basically sugar and fat, neither of which is very good for your health when consumed in large quantities. Something along those lines, anyway. (Full disclosure: I read fiction, admire nature, have not-so-casual sex because I'm married, spend an appreciable fraction of my life on music, and make my own ice cream.)
0RichardKennaway6yThat's a fine just-so story, but if this [https://www.facebook.com/AkademikPerspektif/videos/vl.1404926389800915/686146851458838/?type=1] (13 minute video of nature's beauty, in the form of uninhabited and mostly uninhabitable places) isn't a counterexample, it's not clear what could be.
0gjm6yThey're all just-so stories. Any of them might turn out to be wrong. (But I don't think there's any contradiction between "some very beautiful places are utterly uninhabitable" and "the tastes that make us find some places more beautiful than others evolved to help us find good places to live". There can be natural as well as artificial superstimuli.)
2gjm6yThat looks to me like a very uncharitable reading of (or extrapolation from) what abramdemski has said. I take it to be, rather: enjoyment is (to abramdemski , at least) less valuable than we are apt to think it and enjoyment of things that harm us is a snare and a delusion; the existence of superstimuli (and especially the fact that superstimuli can be engineered by others who don't necessarily have our best interests in view) makes it more dangerous.
2DanArmak6yThe ice cream example aside, I think it would be wrong to say fiction is something that harms us even as we enjoy it, except in the sense of opportunity costs, which is what abramdemski seems to be arguing. Fiction can use superstimuli to manipulate people, but so can lots of other things.
0RichardKennaway6yWhat is it about ice-cream? I had one as recently as a month ago, and, well, what?
0DanArmak6yThere's nothing especially wrong with ice cream, that I know of. But abramdemsky disagrees [http://lesswrong.com/lw/mus/fiction_considered_harmful/ct6z]:
2DanArmak6yIf you did away with all those things and everything like them, what would be left? It feels like so little would be left you should be able to give a pretty complete list. A popular piece of fiction that many people enjoy creates bonds and shared experiences and ideas. It's connected to a lot of things many people think and do, and it helps give meaning to their lives. I feel I could replace "fiction" with "culture" here and the argument would be much the same. What is it you want human activities to be connected to? Fiction is very well connected to other human activities. You seem to be saying sex in a prolonged relationship is a good thing. That's sex that builds on and reinforces the relationship. But shared experience of fiction can also build on and reinforce a relationship. People watch movies together, they talk about books they've read, they share their opinions and bond over shared opinions. What's the difference between sex and fiction as relationship tools? What's special about a relationship in the first place that makes it "less like wireheading" and "more connected" (to what)?
2abramdemski6yYes, my actual position on this is much closer to "fiction is bad if it's not a social activity" rather than "fiction is bad". This does not work as an argument against the extremist position, however. Continuing the devil's-advocate line of thought, I say: if fiction is just good as a social activity because I have friends who like fiction, isn't that just me being the elephant tied with a chain [http://lesswrong.com/lw/99t/can_the_chain_still_hold_you/] to a non-optimal social situation? I am not saying you're wrong -- in fact I think you are right. What concerns me is that I think we should be striving for something better, not justifying the status quo. That's why I think this is a useful exercise. I'm very skeptical that our current behavior here would just happen to be anywhere near the best we can do. In fact I think fiction is very often more like the ice cream. Our motives for binge-watching an entire series or such are more often self-defeating than good, in any plausible interpretation of the word "good". As for the final question -- what makes fiction feel more like wireheading than a relationship -- my answer is that there's a real person as opposed to the projected image of a non-real person. The difference is somewhat analogous to the difference between visiting your bank's website and seeing a large sum of money in the account, and visiting a fake banking website whose sole purpose is to simulate the experience of seeing a large sum of money in your account. The actual relationship with an actual person is good in that it not only creates a sequence of feelings and impressions in the brains of both people, but furthermore creates a richly interconnected dance between the two people which is lacking in fiction.
2DanArmak6yThat's begging the question: what's better and why? Many good things are best consumed in moderation. Very few things have no upper limit on 'more is better'. The very name binge-watching labels it as an injurious behavior akin to binge drinking. That doesn't say anything much about fiction generally. (And I think the same applies to ice cream.) That seems like a fully general argument against any solitary activity, and even some activities that are done together (like watching movies) that aren't about complex interpersonal interaction. (Well, it's not an argument, it's a value statement.) You're free of course to have such values in your own life, but why do you recommend them to others? Plenty of people, like me, enjoy some time apart from others. And there is no social activity which produces the experience of consuming fiction, which I value. "Fiction considered harmful" sounds like it should mean more than "I, the poster, enjoy / prefer other things to fiction". There are good arguments that we wouldn't want everyone to wirehead. But I don't see a good argument why we wouldn't want everyone to consume some fiction, as indeed most people do.
2abramdemski6yIt's not begging that particular question... the implicit assumption is that the current state of affairs is far from optimal, not that my particular definition of optimal is correct. In fact part of the point is to explore what values we might hold (and still hold after reflection on those values) that would value fiction. I feel this is a valuable exercise largely because when I do reflect on it, arguments to the effect that fiction is something I reflectively value are rather difficult to make. If I were to discover that I don't in fact value fiction on reflection, that would be good news: easy life improvement by no longer acting as if I value fiction. True. The point I was trying to make is that when I talk to people about this, they tend to give rather high-minded justifications of the value of fiction (usually as a means to other ends, not as an end in itself). While these high-minded justifications may in fact be correct, they seem very different from the motivation which actually causes people to consume fiction. The result of this difference is that the kind of fiction which is readily available on the market is more often "potato chip fiction" as opposed to "baked potato fiction": still food, but awfully greasy. This point may not be that relevant to the overall set of questions. I feel like this remark ignores the part before the text you quote ("there's an actual person") which is very much not a fully general argument, but rather an argument against solitary activities which are misleading superstimulus telling system 1 it's achieving things it's not. There's also a big difference between creative activities (spending solitary time writing a book, say) and consumptive activities. It's certainly possible to spend alone time without the activity being "isolated" in the sense that I mean. It's also possible for someone to be entirely creative and not engage in fiction at all while still being "isolated" in the sense I mean. When I imagine a version o
3DanArmak6yAgain, this doesn't feel like it relies on any attribute specific to fiction. You could say about almost any aspect of the world or our activities that it's unlikely to be optimal (whatever your goals may be), and so it's useful to question things - I agree with that. But the rest of your argument does try to be specific to fiction. Speaking for myself, I like consuming (reading, watching) fiction because it's enjoyable in the moment. I'm quite sure I reflectively endorse this as a positive value; that doesn't mean there aren't other things I could be doing with even greater value, but I don't know what they are, and I don't think I can find out by questioning the value of fiction. Thanks for the correction. Why or how do you think fiction misleads system 1? When I read a book, I don't feel like I'm imagining being one of the characters, it feels like I'm watching them from the side. When I suffer from loneliness or sadness or depression, it doesn't help to read or watch fiction about happy socially fulfilled people; on the contrary, it sometimes causes me pain because it forcibly reminds me about my problems, and the disconnect between me and the heroes is too great. I do enjoy "escapism" in the sense that fiction can help me forget, while I'm reading it, about my cares and troubles (except in cases like the above). This simply feels like focusing intently on one thing prevents me from thinking about the other in the background. It's a similar experience, in that sense, to playing a game, holding a mentally challenging conversation, or focusing on a programming problem. I realize, of course, that I'm describing my personal experiences, nothing more. Yours are different. A friend of mine really enjoys drawing. From a young age, whenever she had a minute free she'd sketch something, and she's gotten very good at it by now. She doesn't care much about giving drawings to people, or keeping most of them; she enjoys the process of drawing, composition, etc. Is th
0[anonymous]6ySo fiction was just an example of a more general proposition: enjoyment is bad. What do you want instead?
0[anonymous]6yIt sounds like you don't want enjoyment. What do you value?
0Gunnar_Zarncke6yIn the absence of a suitable definition of (human) value I (or abramdemski) can only appeal to you intuition of this. You apparently agree that there is a range between the extremes and that the example fall in between. But you seem to refuse to compare these. That could imply that it a) measuring it to sufficient precision is impossible/impractical or b) might not be possible to find a continuous range where all activities can be compared (at least in principle) and instead a more abstract like a lattice has to be used. I could agree to that.
2DanArmak6yNo, I don't. I'm asking for your definition of the extremes and the measure of what falls where on the range, because I don't share whatever intuition you're using. ETA: Wireheading is a single thing with arguments for and against it. Part of your (or OP's) argument seems to be "wireheading is bad so let's avoid things that are sufficiently like it". In that case I'm asking, what makes fiction more like wireheading than those other things?
2abramdemski6yActually, I think it's not a continuum from "productive" to "wireheading". I think there's a continuum from "immediate end-in-itself" to "delayed gratification" to "doing what's best for the future societies" (let's call this the fun vs productive continuum), and then there's a continuum in what you consider to be an end-in-itself which ranges from wireheading (max-happiness utilitarianism; good/bad is exclusively about good/bad mental state) to preference utilitarianism (what's good is defined in terms of minds, but involves stuff outside of minds) to something like "the divine aesthetic" (maximize some fully external-to-minds notion of beauty in the universe, so things like dead planets with beautiful clouds count as positive, even if they are never observed by a conscious entity). This second spectrum is the one I'm pointing at when I say fiction is further toward wireheading.

There are different dimensions of fiction. Fiction can be used to teach lessons in science (hard science fiction), history (historical novels), logic and attention (some who-dunnits) and of course literature. But fiction can also be optimized solely for consumption by engaging our curiosity with surprise without depth, our empathy with crime without reason and our happiness with humor without relation.

I tell my sons nighttime stories that secretly teach ideas and I prefer fiction that does so too.

See also http://lesswrong.com/lw/jnv/brainstorming_childrens_stories/

Fiction is just imagination set to words.

Are you willing to argue against imagination?

2abramdemski6yIn my mind, at least, there is a fairly large distinction between fact-oriented imagination and fictive imagination. In fact-oriented imagination, I'm imagining things that could be true in the real world (including future/past, alien planets, etc). In fictive imagination, deviations are allowed. Am I willing to argue against non-fact-oriented imagination? Probably not, but let's consider it. What would it look like if rationalists/rationalism steered toward a future society in which fictive discourse was in a similar category to lying? I'm imagining that the society would still have something like entertainment. This may not be the case, of course, since a society very much in the future is rather difficult to imagine. The entertainment would be more fact-based, like sports, biographies and documentaries. Speculative (imaginative) conversations between friends are fact-oriented; people prefer to talk about hard-science-fiction style speculation rather than soft, and dislike fantastical ideas which are not trying to be plausible. Is something essential missing? My feeling is that fiction provides some kind of release that fact does not -- it feels more restful to me. I'm suspicious of this feeling, because I don't think I'm actually more rested after reading fiction, but it's hard to say. Highly fact-oriented discussions can be a lot of fun (especially in situations where discussion is typically not fact-oriented), but it feels "heavy"; there's this big web of constraints to deal with.
1Lumifer6y"Could be true in the real world" -- given how you mention alien planets -- is a very low bar. Tolkien could be true on some alien planet (especially if you're a fan of MWI). And don't forget Clarke's Third Law. Ah, here is an interesting word: "plausible". Notice how it's not a limit of what could actually be -- it's a limit on what a person can imagine :-/ I would guess that if imagining is frowned upon, the boundaries of "plausible" will contract. I think it would look like stagnation.
0abramdemski6yI take this as a statement that the distinction does not seem so clear in your mental processes. Which is interesting. Yeah... I am now of this position as well.
0Lumifer6yWell, in certain ways it exists. If I'm trying to figure out how to fix a broken thingy, my imagination tends to stick within the realm of the plausible. But in other ways, not necessarily -- for example, I don't see much, if any, difference between imagining a deer standing in the middle of a forest meadow and imagining a unicorn in the same place. I guess you can even conceptualize progress as movement of "things" from the realm of the fantastical into the realm of the plausible.
0abramdemski6yFor me, there is a big difference. It's something like a mode of thinking -- "is it plausible? could it happen? push toward the real" vs "is it interesting? is it exciting? freely explore the space". The first mode of thinking sees the unicorn and starts thinking: This does not seem very plausible as a genetic modification. Is the horn grafted on, perhaps? Does that work with the skull structure of a horse, or is there not enough foundation to stick it to? What about the skin healing, next to the horn? How does that work? Would it heal over properly, or remain like an open wound? The second mode says -- just how magical is this unicorn? There are a lot of levels to this. It could be anything from a horse with a horn to a godlike thing which can zap stuff in and out of existence. If it's the godlike thing, it probably isn't very smart or goal-driven; otherwise it would reshape everything to its whim. Maybe it only uses the powers in defense, and occasionally on a whim.
0Lumifer6yGiven narwhals, I don't see much in the way of biological problems with unicorns.
0abramdemski6yI think it's implausible with current or near-future genetic engineering. I am far from an expert on this, but I believe we can transfer chemical/metabolic capabilities between organisms, and I believe we can transfer many trats haphazardly, but to put a horn in a specific place and leave everything else untouched? This would involve designing a whole new growth point ("growth point" may not be quite the right concept). You'd have genes that activate only when on the forehead, in a very specific pattern which does not presently exist. Sure, if we could manipulate genes like code we could take the code for this from another animal -- all the activation patterns needed to grow a horn. But then we'd need to find a way to turn them on only at the specific point desired. The easiest way might be to try and cross in rhino genes. This could produce a hybrid animal with some horse features and some rhino features. It would have many aspects of the rhino shape all throughout the body, and eliminating these without reducing the horn would be difficult. And a rhino horn isn't really like a unicorn horn. Perhaps narwal genes, but that sounds even more haphazard.
3Lumifer6yCurrent genetic engineering, yes, but 50 or 100 years from now? Remember, we're talking not about what's viable now, but rather what's plausible and a unicorn is very plausible biologically -- it's merely technical difficulties which prevent us from creating one.
0abramdemski6yTouché! It seems worth considering that I might benefit from specifically practicing being imaginative, or otherwise modifying my "two modes" thought pattern.
0ChristianKl6yA hundred years ago a future of people watching porn on the internet wasn't plausible for most people. Good stories simplify concepts. The future in 2100 will differ in many aspects from today's world. It's quite reasonable that a sci-fi author focuses on one aspect to explore while at the same time leaving the world in other aspects without the change that's likely going to happen in the timeframe.
-2VoiceOfRa6yWell, it was actually rather recently that this distinction was developed.
0btrettel6yI disagree with this, though it could merely be semantics. Imagination is content-neutral. abramdemski is arguing that we should bias our time towards things more useful than fiction, if I understand him correctly.
2Lumifer6yWhat does that mean? "Useful" is very fuzzy word. If you treat it as e.g. "something that advanced me towards my goals", I don't see why fiction can't do that -- depending on the goals, of course.
0btrettel6yBy "imagination is content-neutral", I mean that you can imagine both fictional and non-fictional things. An inventor might imagine a new technology just like a writer could imagine a story. I'll also agree that "useful" is a fuzzy word. More precisely, it's much easier to make something which advances many more goals (not necessarily just your own) by not reading fiction. Reading fiction generally would only serve to make yourself transiently happy, and maybe indirectly could make the writer happy (by paying them, or letting them know that you enjoyed the story).
3Lumifer6yOh, I see. To clarify, by "imagination" I mean not just all kinds of mental imagery, but imagining things with an implication that these things are not real. Are you making a general argument against any kind of leisure, then?
1btrettel6yIn a strict sense, no. But I absolutely do believe that many people spend their time poorly, by having way too much "leisure", and by choosing inefficient leisure activities. I tend to agree with abramdemski that switching contexts often is the barrier to productivity, not necessarily doing "leisure" activities. If you enjoy your work then there is no substantial difference between leisure and non-leisure. This is of little help to people with boring work, but you can usually change your job. And not all leisure activities are equal. When I visit my parents, I'm amazed by how much TV and movies they watch. I don't think they are worse than average in this regard, in fact, they probably watch less than your average American. Strangely, they seem annoyed when I don't want to watch movies with them. I was told to "take a break". It's not that I chose against leisure, as many times I was doing something I consider leisure. Rather, there are many activities which completely dominate watching movies or TV to me, and I chose one of those instead. I'd say reading fiction is not much better than watching TV.
0Lumifer6yDo you think it's just your personal opinion or something more than that? In other words, people have preferences (e.g. white wine vs red wine) with which you could disagree, but about which you can't say that they are "right" or "wrong". All you can say is that your preferences are similar or different. Some people, of course, add "and those with preferences unlike mine are moral degenerates who will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes", but those tend to be not very reasonable people. So, do you think the attiudes to leisure and how to spend it are mere preferences which can be tut-tutted but tolerated -- or are they a blight upon humanity which needs to be fixed?
0btrettel6yNowhere did I say that people who use their time inefficiently are a blight. I'd really only call people who are actively being harmful a blight. I recommend that people evaluate whether reading fiction, watching TV, or whatnot, is the best use of their time. If they think these activities are acceptable, I see no reason to argue further with them. I might believe they are mistaken, which I think is perfectly reasonable.
0Lumifer6yDo you believe they are mistaken instrumentally (it's not a good use of their time for their goals) or they are mistaken about what goals to pursue?
0btrettel6yThe former. Whenever someone complains to me that they don't have time to do something they (claim to) enjoy greatly (let's call it activity X), but I know that they spend a lot of time watching TV, reading books, etc., and I'm confident that they enjoy TV, etc. less than activity X, it's pretty easy to conclude they use their time poorly. And I don't think I'm unjustified in that belief.
0Lumifer6yWell, there is the issue of revealed preferences...
0btrettel6yIt's certainly possible that they don't actually prefer what they claim to. I don't see any reason to argue with people about that.

Neil Gaiman on the value of fiction.

We all - adults and children, writers and readers - have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Reading fiction seems to improve empathy and theory of mind; see e.g. Mar et al. 2009, Kidd & Castano 2013, Bal & Veltkamp 2013, Dijkic et al. 2013, Oatley 2012, to name just the ones that I could find with a very basic search.

Not all genres are necessarily equally useful for this purpose, though; Fong et al. 2013 note that out of four genres investigated in their study (Domestic Fiction, Romance, Science-Fiction/Fantasy, and Suspense/Thriller), only Romance and Suspense/Thriller were significant predictors of interpersonal sensitivity; which makes... (read more)

Fiction is practice.

9Viliam6yWe could probably find better ways [http://lesswrong.com/lw/hu/the_third_alternative/] to practice.
2OrphanWilde6yYour observation doesn't depend upon the subject; it is true regardless what word you substitute in for "practice". Deep wisdom, indeed.
1DanArmak6yMost fiction is far enough removed from reality that I question what it might be practice for. But that may just be a selection effect of the kind of fiction I like. I don't consume much fiction about perfectly ordinary people doing ordinary-but-exciting things, but I'm aware a lot of it exists.
0OrphanWilde6yMental flexibility. How many fictional answers can you give to this question? What's the common theme among them?

It's easy to tell a misleading narrative by adding real facts about history together. It's quite possible for a good science fiction novel to contain more information than than a history book where every fact is true but the narrative is misleading.

1DanArmak6yIf I understand your argument, you're saying that given a sufficiently bad history book, some fiction will be better. The answer to that isn't "read fiction to understand history", it's "find a really good history book whose narrative isn't misleading". (Not that I agree with OP's point, but I think your rebuttal doesn't work.)
2ChristianKl6yThe problem is that if you read a history book or a newspaper you are more likely to think that the narrative is true than when you read a fiction novel. A lot of people quite uncritically accept narratives when the news tells them the SAP rose today because XYZ when those kind of statements quite often lack good causal evidence.
2entirelyuseless6yIt is also extremely common that the news will simply make a factual claim which is outright false.
4ChristianKl6yYes, but that's not the only person. A lot of people think that crime increased in the last year because newspaper reports of individual crimes increased. Most of those newspaper reports contain mostly true facts but the overall narrative is still false. Crime did decrease. Hans Rosling frequently makes the point that the knowledge of the average person about Africa is worse than that of a chimp ( https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world [https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world] ). That's not due to wrong facts reported in the media but due to misleading narratives.
3DanArmak6yFor people who consume a lot of fiction, it can also create or reinforce narratives. The average person consumes much more fiction (books and movies) about e.g. Ancient Rome than they read history books about it, and gathers a lot of wrong facts and misleading narratives through them. History books can have false narratives, but fiction books are much more likely to simply have false facts.
0abramdemski6yExactly. The mindset that says twisting the truth is a basically bad thing doesn't then conclude that fiction is OK because it's sometimes less twisty than (well-manipulated) fact.

There are two options: Either we have terminal goals that include "having a good time" and "living enjoyable lives", so that a pleasant life is good in itself. Or else we have terminal goals that are finitely achievable, and when we've achieved them we should shut down humanity as useless. In the latter case, we can throw out anything that doesn't advance us towards those finite goals; not in the former.

I think one may hold the first belief without advocating wireheading, in that our terminal goal may be "enjoy a wide variety of pleasant things that exist outside your skull".

0DanArmak6yIt is possible to have 'infinite' goals that don't include "having a good time". Although speaking for myself, my goals certainly do include that.

If anything, fiction is one of the best ways to manipulate people's beliefs, because people believe that they are not being asked to believe things about the real world, but they are.

They are, because all fiction is based on selecting a common background with the real world, and then adding some unreal elements to that background. So for example you have historical fiction, where the background includes many real world historical events, or facts about a certain period. Or you have contemporary fiction, where includes facts about how the world happens to b... (read more)

3DanArmak6yIn other words, fiction shapes culture, which is a lot of power. Very popular fiction like e.g. Star Wars or Harry Potter has significantly influenced history, even if we're not sure in what direction. Not to mention religious fiction like Pilgrim's Progress.

Fiction is not a lie, but it is a variety of untruth. [...] Why should we allow fiction to warp our view of reality?

Congratulations, you have discovered Plato.

I'm going to make the argument that fiction is as much grounded in this reality as a biography or textbook it is just referencing a different facet of that reality. Fiction is not an honest appeal for the reader to accept an alternate reality as fact. None of the events are considered real by writer or reader and thus do not enter into future decision making. It is instead a reflection of the mind of the writer. Because of this there is real world information to be gleaned from fiction.

Primarily fiction is a teaching tool. Metaphor and analogy allow the w... (read more)

2[anonymous]6yI mostly agree with you, and would also point out that people (some, at least) enjoy poetry. I think one of the functions of poetry is developing the language; adding new 'seen things', as opposed to 'understood things' we get from common speech. 'Rosemary is for remembrance' was never about rosemary, but it has some meaning, and it conveys the sheer tragedy without forcing the reader to stand up for Ophelia. Fiction reminds people of generalized possibilities and reasons for helping others, much more enticing than real life can offer. My mom is a psychologist, and when people began arriving (to Kyiv) from the East of Ukraine she switched her volunteering activities to primarily help those people. There used to be lots of volunteers, more than there is. And when they met their charges, it turned out that up close and personal volunteering is not such a rewarding thing! The kids played with food which was bought by someone else on someone else's money. The moms took perambulators (a rare commodity) for themselves and to send to their friends back East. (Staying back was mostly seen as a signal of either 'I don't want to move' or 'I can't move', but in any case sending perambulators there was not considered efficient use of money.) There were men of more than twenty years old trying to register as boys. ...and nothing of it is a reason not to help them, but when there are few helpers and many in need - there will come fewer new helpers with time, not in the least because of rumour mills. (And if I remember correctly, in the first months after Maidan at least six volunteers of psychological service died of heart attacks.) So I'd rather have future volunteers start with Ophelia - and maybe dog pounds, they offer a stab at physical work + making a fool of oneself - than with real humans. Builds tolerance.

It could be that, like sleep, the benefits of reading fiction aren't obvious and aren't on the surface. IOW, escapism might be like dreaming - a waste from one point of view (time spent) but still something without which we couldn't function properly, so therefore not a waste, but a necessary part of maintenance, or summat.

0abramdemski6yYeah, I'd be very interested in evidence concerning these things.

The truth value of biographies and memoirs is highly questionable. These things are hardly just a step by step recital of facts.

But the idea that we just let books take a toll on us without vetting them first is an interesting one. It occurred to me recently that my point of view on many things was highly consistent with Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, which was assigned to me by an English teacher when I was 15 years old. How different would the last 43 years have been had I read different books when I was 15?

Fiction is written from inside the head of the characters. Fiction books are books about making choices, about taking actions and seeing how they play out, and the characters don't already know the answers when they're making their decisions. Fiction books often seem to most closely resemble the problems that I face in my life.

Books that have people succeed for the wrong reasons I can put down, but watching people make good choices over and over and over again seems like a really useful thing. Books are a really cheap way to get some of the intuitive adva... (read more)

Good post. I've argued along similar lines before.

One thing that's worth mentioning is that reading a lot of fiction generally makes one a pretty fast reader. Or at least that's been my impression. It could be that fast readers are more likely to enjoy fiction. While I'm sure that has some element of truth, in most things you get better with practice, so it seems likely to me that reading a lot makes one a better reader. I don't think that reading a lot of fiction is preferable to reading a lot of textbooks in useful fields, but it's better than many other... (read more)

From what I've read, the proposed mechanism behind literary fiction enhancing empathy is that it describes the emotions of the characters in a vague or indirect way, and working out their actual psychological character becomes plot-relevant. This was distinct from genre fiction, where the results were less obvious. So the 'good guys are always rewarded' bit, which is prevalent in genre fiction, doesn't seem like the best explanation for the effect. It could be compared to an extended story problem about empathy - at least as far as predicting motives and emotions.

I will point out that fiction gives us compressed references to complex concepts. Explaining a concept can be often done quicker and easier when able to use terms like "The Matrix".

Fiction is not a lie, but it is a variety of untruth

It's also a variety of truth, since it is impossible to invent something entirely unrelated to the reality you know. To say that fiction is enjoyable is half an answer to questions about why people engage with it..why did we evolve to enjoy it? Fiction is enjoyable,because we are wired to enjoy it, because it encapsulates and distills useful lessons, it is a means by which information is passed down generations. Likewise, we are wired up to enjoy play because it is a way of self-teaching practical s... (read more)