In Defense of the Illogical

By Jin-yeong Yi 

“Where is reality? Can you show it to me?”

—Heinz von Foerster

Early this year, I wrote in “The Magic of Fiction”

…I find that fiction makes the most sense when I view it as a dream. From this perspective, plotholes, as well as realism and plausibility in general, aren’t exactly of earth-shattering importance. It’s imaginative fiction. It’s a dream, not a documentary. Dreams are often logically inconsistent and are not infrequently downright absurd, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be enjoyable or edifying, or even enlightening and life-changing. Why must fantasy be brought down to the level of reality? Is not the fundamental goal of fiction to convey an experience, which is something that can be appreciated with or without the element of realism?

When it comes to objective reality, probabilities trump possibilities. But when it comes to subjective fantasy, possibilities far and away trump probabilities.

PZ Myers does a rather fine job of illustrating my point with his critical blog post on Man of Steel:

The falling woman trope. It’s everywhere. The poor woman is plummeting to her doom at the terminal velocity of 200 km/hr, and superhero swoops upwards at even greater speed and catches her. This doesn’t work. At that speed, invulnerable super-strong arms are like blunt blades and are going to messily trisect the victim.

Slugfests. In every case, bad guy meets good guy and you know that shortly they’ll start throwing roundhouse blows at each other. This is not how people interact with each other, except when they’re very drunk and stupid. These are supposed to be super-intelligent, powerful beings, and their standard response to any challenge is to punch someone in the nose.

There has to be a witness. This is a corollary to the absence of deaths. A couple of the secondary human characters face the most traumatic event ever — one of them is stuck under a pile of rebar and concrete (don’t worry, they pry her out and she’s completely uninjured!) so they can stand around and gawp as the superclowns rampage all over their city. Titanic forces are shattering whole buildings, but they stand there getting a little dust in their faces, and that’s it. (Emphasis mine) 

It’s understandable that someone so firmly grounded in the hard sciences as Professor Myers is would view fiction in this light. It’s not “right” or “wrong,” but I simply don’t think that the laws that govern the prison of the real need to encroach upon the free lands of the unreal. If the tyranny of logic is absent in the realm of the imagination by default, why must we go out of our way to voluntarily enforce it? I render unto reality the things which are reality’s, but when it comes to fantasy, I embrace the illogical–and the impossible.      

As James Cameron put it, “[T]he beauty of movies is that they don’t have to be logical. They just have to have plausibility.”

I would go a step further and say that the content of movies, and fantasy in general, doesn’t even need to be plausible–just imaginable. If something can be conceived, be imagined, that is enough. For what matters is the experience. 

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The Magic of Fiction

By Jin-yeong Yi

“A true story, or one taken as true, doesn’t need embellishment and it doesn’t need artistic interpretation. Its truth gives it an intrinsic interest, and that’s enough.
Fiction, on the other hand, is offered as an invention—a lie. The fiction writer’s task is not to tell the literal truth, but to lie artfully—to lie so well that the reader’s interest is engaged as if he were reading the truth.”

—Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction

“Art is precisely the means by which man makes sense of, and transcends, his own limitations and flaws. Without art—or the arts—there is only flux.”

—Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What’s Left Of It

“Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination.”

—Bertrand Russell

“‘What is there?’ It can be answered, moreover, in a word—‘Everything’—and everyone will accept this answer as true.”

—W. V. Quine

The power of fiction continues to amaze me. While I’m aware of the brain’s propensity for misinterpreting data and generating illusions[1], I still can’t help but find it remarkable how one can have real emotions about imaginary people and events while being fully aware that they are not real. A fictional story is essentially one big lie from start to finish, and yet we often have no trouble swallowing one whole. Yes, there is a difference between facts and truths, and fiction can illustrate truths, but that’s beside the point. Again, what I find astonishing is that we treat imaginary people as if they are real, even when we know that they are not real. We can react to them in any number of ways. We can get angry with them. We can get annoyed by them. We can share their disappointments and elations, their joys and sorrows. We can fall in love with them. We can even envy them (yes, envy people who don’t exist!). And surely most of us can think of at least one fictional person that our world would be poorer without.

We treat the worlds of novels and movies as if they were parallel universes that actually exist. Of course, imaginary people can “exist” independently of novels and movies; they don’t need a world of their own in order for us to perceive them as “real.” (That’s why virtual pop singer Hatsune Miku has fans from around the world who go to her concerts when they get the chance.)

Also, I find that fiction makes the most sense when I view it as a dream. From this perspective, plotholes, as well as realism and plausibility in general, aren’t exactly of earth-shattering importance. It’s imaginative fiction. It’s a dream, not a documentary. Dreams are often logically inconsistent and are not infrequently downright absurd, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be enjoyable or edifying, or even enlightening and life-changing. Why must fantasy be brought down to the level of reality? Is not the fundamental goal of fiction to convey an experience, which is something that can be appreciated with or without the element of realism?

When it comes to objective reality, probabilities trump possibilities. But when it comes to subjective fantasy, possibilities far and away trump probabilities.

Notes

[1] See You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself by David McRaney and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman