Truth Based on Fiction

Posted: October 13, 2010 in Consciousness, Culture, Idle Nonsense, Philosophy

Everyone is familiar with the claim “based on a true story” used to add supposed authenticity or authority to some fictionalized account drawn from real life, but what about cases where truth flows from some kind of fiction, misrepresentation, or subterfuge? For instance, it’s been established as true (though many yet fail to subscribe to the truth) that the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq based on a pack of lies. Similarly, we respond emotionally to stories told in novels and movies, but are those emotions in any sense untrue even if their causes are pure fiction?

Perhaps the most commonplace truth based on fiction is the attraction, ambivalence, or repulsion we feel for the way others present and/or project themselves publicly. Hairstyles, fashionable clothing, make-up, and being on best behavior are probably fair means of dressing up one’s attributes or rockin’ what ya got, but it’s also fair to say that many have pitched well past the edge of the precipice with more invasive and questionable methods such as tattoos and piercings, cosmetic surgery, and the now-routine Photoshopping of images of people beyond what even exists in nature. The sickness of such fictions is obvious when the desire to obtain such appeal becomes neurotic or the procedures themselves go horribly awry, but the lesser forms are still sick, escaping luridness and condemnation only by the smaller degree by which they diverge from truth. These fictions also interfere with normal social interaction when people are conditioned to expect unrealistic standards of perfection.

Aside: One of the central messages of feminism — that women should not be treated as objects of the slavering attentions of men — seems to have been lost considering how many women are lined up asking to be objectified in rather humiliating ways. For instance, it’s scarcely possible anymore to market popular music based predominantly on musical merit. Instead, a very high quotient of salacious sexual material accounts for the popularity of Lady Gaga and nude or near-nude photo shoots of Avril Lavigne and Liz Phair, among many others. The preoccupation with image is affecting men these days, too, but the worst effects of this particular scourge will always be visited upon women.

Lying about credentials on a résumé or spreading false information about oneself is a tried-and-true method of getting a leg up, but in the world of electronic social networking and virtual identities, I suspect finding honest statements in a personal profile is far less likely when spinning a fictionalized version of oneself carries so few consequences — even after being exposed. Differing again only in degree, some have gone to the extreme of devoting most of their waking hours to virtual worlds such as Second Life and Utherverse. Stories abound of folks spending considerable real-world time on virtual relationships and marriages and spending considerable real-world money to furnish their virtual homes. While not as sick perhaps as extreme body alteration, the very real response to sensual immersion in virtual experience causes some to forsake or lose touch with the real world. Getting lost in the imagined worlds of video games, comic books, and graphics novels also fits well in this category.

The deepest fiction we experience as truth is undoubtedly consciousness. Few have the circumspection and detachment to appreciate just how powerful is the illusion of consciousness. From the perspective of neuroscience, the mind is an emergent property of the brain and nervous system, constructing a narrative or stream of consciousness as a means of processing and organizing external reality. If this is true, and it’s further true that internal mental experience is reducible to material and cognitive processes still too complex to understand, then the “self” residing somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears (or the noncorporeal “soul” if one is theistic) is nothing more than the ongoing story we tell ourselves as we go through life. Two decades ago in his book Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett called this the “benign user illusion.” Ironically, if in fact there is no one there in there or we are merely our bodies, there is little actionable information based on that truth, much like the related argument that free will doesn’t exist. We continue to experience life as conscious agents of free will because the alternative is so … unthinkable.

  1. “From the perspective of neuroscience, the mind is an emergent property of the brain”

    I suspect that in an environment where your audience is more active (such as YouTube), that would be a high point of criticism.

    • Brutus says:

      I expect it would be a point of contention for anyone who hasn’t studied the mind and consciousness. Why would the activity of a YouTube audience change that? BTW, I may have readers (very few at that), but I wouldn’t really say I have an audience.

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