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Why Fiction Can Be a Poor Teacher of Reality (And When It Does Teach Us Well) -- The Philosophy of Media

Updated: Apr 3

A beautiful girl.

Introduction: Exploring Fictional Worlds

Fiction is a type of imagination in which a narrated realm of reality exists in both our collective minds and the media on which the narration is told.

What makes it separate from reality is the fact that the events described in the story never happened but were rather imagined to happen. It's like a trick, but one where we already know it's a trick, so it's not really deceiving anyone who can distinguish reality from fiction.

We see fiction through the lenses of the characters in action, presented by actors whose moves are dictated by a director and by those who wrote the plot. If it's a story in a book, then we watch the happenings through the writer's narration, who might as well be narrating a character's voice instead.

The Creator's Influence and Picking the Right Source

It does not matter in that sense if the narration is in third person or otherwise, because that story cannot exist without its creator. Therefore, the fictional universe depends on its creator and cannot exist without the perspective he or she has placed on it. Therefore, all fiction is biased.

The line between fictional information and factual accuracy can be blurry. While fiction offers valuable insights that spark discussion and contemplation, it's crucial to distinguish it from attempts to mimic real life.

In a way, fiction can tell a lot about reality on the macro level, but not necessarily on the micro level. In other words, fiction can teach us a lot about existence, but not necessarily about specific contexts. Star Wars, for example, can teach us about politics and the human spirit that can be strong enough to bring down even the direst of oppression. However it does provide not an accurate representation of how space works, as the setting is not that important in Star Wars as what it can actually teach us about human society.

As such, given that all fiction creators are ignorant to an extent (like all of us) learning about autism from a TV show focused on entertainment might not be the most reliable source.

Maybe it can teach us a thing or two on life, like with the Big Bang Theory, but informative articles like these exist for a reason. As such, learning about autism from fictional characters like Sheldon Cooper isn't as effective as taking the time to read on it.

Similarly, a fictionalized historical film, though inspired by a specific era, shouldn't be mistaken for a factual account. If you wish therefore to learn on history, rely on historic documents.

As a former teenage author of three Hebrew novellas, I enjoyed the creative process, but even then, I questioned the real-world impact of fiction. Philosophy articles, I believed, offered a greater contribution to readers.

As a bookworm, I often finished stories feeling intellectually unfulfilled. The narratives rarely encouraged independent thought, leading me to favor nonfiction as both a reader and writer. The virtue of nonfiction allows us to study reality both on the micro and macro levels, without the need to craft elaborate stories just to convey an otherwise direct insights.

The Fallacy of Fictional "Facts"

Some might believe fictional details mirror reality because they feel "true" and resonate with us. Some may even go far and claim that they can teach us "the art of being human" by nurturing social and emotional skills.

However, while some elements, like tables, exist in both realms, fictional "facts" requiring verification can be mistaken for truth because they resonate with us. And pure intuition is not enough to verify facts on reality, both on the micro and macro levels. As such, making good decisions require both understanding of data and intuition.

Philosophy, unlike pure fact-based disciplines, explores possibilities, leading to shared discourse and experimentation. Plato's theory of perfect forms, for example, is a valid theory based on reasoning, but not a verifiable fact. We can contemplate it without accepting it as absolute truth, leading to contributions in our understanding of metaphysics.

Fiction, however, might not offer the same clear distinction between its presented information and verifiable facts. That at least goes for historic fiction, and to people who generally don't research information. They might see a show where a character says, "Geniuses need to eat more", and believe it's true. However, in reality, while challenging thinking does consume more calories, it isn't that significant that you'll need to eat more.

The Misunderstood Power of Fiction

The purpose of fiction is mainly to entertain. Video games, for example, immerse us in fantastical worlds, and very few of them are educational, as there are far more popular genres. We can extract interesting ideas and concepts from them, but mistaking them for verified facts without verification is a common pitfall. It's like saying they can teach you how to drive or shoot a gun strategically.

This blurring-of-lines between fiction and reality extends beyond video games. Consider pornography – its purpose is to create a sexual fantasy, not replicate real-life encounters. The actors involved are playing roles, just like characters in a movie.

Don't expect pornography to teach you what women truly want. Thus, viewers may unconsciously treat these experiences as windows into real life, blurring the lines between entertainment and reality.

The Fallacy of Fictional Facts

So, why do people fall prey to this fallacy? Often, there's an absence of disclaimers within fictional media and in content in general. That is even though using disclaimers can be beneficial for your readers to trust you and see you as credible. Without clear boundaries, viewers may misinterpret fictional traits as factual.

It's a human tendency – we sometimes struggle to reach seemingly obvious conclusions that could help us in our goals. We might crave a guiding hand, an authorial voice shaping our understanding, making education not entirely forced. After all, being more educated can lead to a better life in general and of course to a better understanding. Without specific ways to understand the author, a misinterpretation of the author's intent might delude us.

Deconstructing Narratives

Why do people need to be told what to think? Why can't they reach the correct conclusions based on the information presented? The answer lies in the power of narratives. Fiction, even when presented as pure entertainment, can shape our perception of reality.

We often fail to recognize the inherent subjectivity embedded into seemingly objective narrative. After all, every story is ultimately crafted by one or a few creators, who are of course biased by default in one way or another.

Propaganda in Disguise: The Case of Minorities

This confusion extends beyond pure entertainment. Even well-meaning fiction can be a form of propaganda, shaping our understanding of specific groups, like minorities. While such portrayals might seem positive on the surface, they may reinforce stereotypes or fail to capture the full complexity of a group's experience. This good intention can ironically lead to prejudice, negative self-image and even under-achievement when the representation is stereotypical and not realistic.

Again, why not learn from the real example, as presented with the study of history?

Conclusion: Precision as a Tool for Clarity

As a writer, striving for precision is crucial. By dissecting narratives and recognizing their inherent biases, we can become more discerning consumers of information, both factual and fictional.

Ultimately, clear communication can allow critical thinking, allowing us to move beyond the surface better, and grasp the deeper messages of any media, both fictional and non-fictional. We should strive for a better communication even beyond media, as that can eliminate delusions of subtext and improve our relationships with others by understanding them better.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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