Politics & Alternative Reality Fiction

First issue of Amazing Stories, art by Frank R...

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Since I am a philosopher, it is hardly surprisingly that I also like science fiction. On specific genre within science fiction is that of alternative reality. In this genre, a fictional world is created that is just like the actual world except for some key differences. In the case of alternative history fiction, the key differences arise due to some change in historical events—thus creating an alternative fictional timeline.

The idea that the world could have been different is not only a matter for science fiction, but is also a matter of considerable interest in philosophy and science. Philosophers have long written about possible worlds and scientists got into the game fairly recently. From a philosophical standpoint, writers who create alternative histories are making use of counterfactuals. That is, they are describing a world that is counter to fact.  For example, an author might explore what happened if the American Civil war ended, counter to fact, with the country permanently divided. As another example, an author might set her story in a world in which the Axis won the Second World War.  A recent example of this sort of counterfactual alternative history is the movie Inglourious Basterds.  This is a rather clever piece of science fiction in which Hitler is assassinated by Jewish soldiers. There are, of course, also more extreme versions that slide towards fantasy, such as the tale in which Lincoln hunts vampires.

In addition to liking science fiction, I also like politics. Interestingly enough, recent American politics seems to involve some interesting exercises in alternative reality fiction and counterfactual history.

While political narratives typically distort reality by including straw men, lies and partial truths, some narratives actually present entire counter factual worlds. In some cases the extent to which the reality of the speech differs from the actual world would seem to qualify the speech as science fiction. After all, it is describing a world somewhat like our own that does not exist, except in the imagination of the creator and those that share the creator’s vision.

In an earlier essay I discussed the extent to which facts have been rejected in favor of what could be regarded as counterfactual views of reality and this matter has been addressed by others. One interesting addition to politicians presenting limited counterfactuals is the creation of entire counterfactual narratives, some of which can be regarded as complete alternative histories and descriptions of alternative realities. For example, the Republican narrative of the Obama administration is that it is some sort of secret-Muslim socialist tyranny that is at once ineffective and a relentless destroyer of jobs and liberty. Paul Ryan’s speech is an excellent example of this sort of narrative. The world he describes is somewhat like our own and a version of Obama is president of that America. However, the world of Ryan’s speech differs from the actual world in many important ways, as presented by Sally Kohn over at Fox. The actor Clint Eastwood also nicely illustrated the counterfactual approach of the narrative by blaming Obama (or rather a chair standing in for Obama) for the invasion of Afghanistan—which happened long before he was president. Romney is, interestingly enough, creating his own counterfactual history regarding his past but also being targeted by the Democrats attempts to craft a narrative in which he is an uncaring oligarch who will take the country back to Bush’s policies. Political people also spin positive narratives, typically creating fictional pasts of an ideal world that never was and also of a wonderful world that never shall be. While I could list examples almost without end, to keep up with the latest truths, lies and distortions from politicians and pundits of all stripes, PolitiFact is an excellent source.

In the case of science fiction, the authors are aware they are creating fiction and, in general, the audience gets that the works are fictional. Of course, there can be some notable exceptions when fans lose the ability to properly distinguish counterfactuals and alternative histories from truth and history. William Gibson presents an innovative fictional example of reality failure in which a photographer assigned to take pictures of surviving 1930s futuristic architecture begins to slide into an alternative reality, the Gernsback Continuum, in which the world of 1930s pulp science fiction became real. This story can now serve as an interesting metaphor for what happens in the alternative realities crafted by the creative minds of political speech writers and political pundits. They are, indeed, engaged in works of creativity: changing facts to counterfactuals and presenting fictional narratives of a world that was not, a world that is not and a world that almost certainly will not be.  As in the “The Gernsback Continuum”, people can become drawn into these alternative realities and live in them, at least in their minds. This creates the fascinating idea of people living in fictional political worlds that are populated by fictional political characters. Naturally, it might be wondered how this would work.

One obvious explanation is that people who do not know better and who are not inclined to engage in even a modest amount of critical thinking (checking the facts, for example) can easily be deceived by such fiction and accept it as reality. These people will, in turn, attempt to convince others of the reality of these fictions and they will also make decisions, such as who to vote for, on the basis of these fictions. As might be imagined, such fiction based decision making is unlikely to result in wise choices. As I have argued in a previous essay, people tend to not be very rational when it comes to political matters. Even when a factual error is clearly shown to be an error, people who accepted the claim because it matches their ideology will tend to be more inclined to believe the claim because (and not in spite) of the correction. This has the effect of making true believers almost immune to corrections in the case of factual errors. While this is clearly a problem for those who are concerned about facts and truth, this supplies those who spin the counterfactual narratives with the perfect audiences: believers who will reject challenges to the narrative in which they dwell and thus are willful participants in their own political continuum, be that the Republican Continuum, the Democrat Continuum or another one. For these people, art does not imitate life nor does life imitate art. Life, at least the political life, is art—albeit science fiction.

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  1. Mike, isn’t it at least as possible that we ALL, to one extent or another, live in demonstrably counterfactual worlds? It is quite difficult to know the facts of the world in any great detail, as can be demonstrated by an exploration of the proliferation of beliefs outside specialties among the holders of Ph.D.s. It is also extremely difficult to find honest brokers for information about the world among even the best educated of us. There is simply too much to be gained for the person who can game reality for substantial populations.

    For this reason reality seems to be broken into camps for public consumption and very different ideas of reality become largely canonized around their ability to support (surprise!) powerful economic interests.

    The more polarized we become the fewer people there are willing to admit how tenuous ANYONE’S grasp of “reality” actually can be.

  2. Lee,

    Yes, it is probably even likely. After all, I am sure I have many false beliefs about the world-unfortunately I do not know which specific beliefs are false. There is also the fact that a person’s philosophy impacts how they interpret the world around them, leading to all sorts of counterfactual beliefs. But, philosophical folk (who need not be philosophers in the academic sense) do attempt to figure out what is true (that is, to get their beliefs to match reality). But, it is worth considering that philosophers actually lock themselves into counterfactual worlds, led into the shadows of reality by their clever theories.

    Living in counterfactual worlds also seems to occur on the personal level-I wrote an essay some years back called “Who Do You Love?” which looks at how people fall in (and out) of love with their ideas of other people.

  3. Our economies are sometimes counterfactual and are driven by counterfacts. Take the housing bubble of the last decade for instance.

    Some of us saw the counterfacts and the real facts, like ‘what goes up must come down’. Many people would not listen to the facts and kept driving the counterfacts until it all blew up.

  4. I would describe myself as a Sceptical Pragmatist. In accordance with the following definitions
    Pragmatist – a person who takes a practical approach to problems and is concerned primarily with the success or failure of their actions
    Sceptic a person who habitually doubts the authenticity of accepted beliefs.

    I tell myself that the view I have of the world has been fashioned by the Evolutionary process in such way that the view I have of it is currently the optimum for survival. This does not to my mind encompass the possibility that things and events in themselves are exactly as I think they are or might be. I was born basically to survive and reproduce not to comprehend the environment fully. That is how it all seems to me.
    Years ago I read all the science fiction I could lay hands on, these days much less. I can still return to my old favourites with interest and pleasure. Such fiction is of course highly dependent on counterfactuals “The what if” so to speak. I suppose say in Politics, we constantly live in a current “What if” which has been implemented. Currently the two big “What ifs” are; Obama re elected, and Romney elected.

  5. Philofra,

    True, there are also counterfactuals that can be considered as what really might have been as opposed to believing that what might have been is actually what is.

  6. In the case of Romney and Ryan, the term “science fiction” is a kind phrase for serial liars. And yes, their audience believes them because they want to believe…the operative word being “want.”

  7. Above, Lee mentioned something like the following thesis: that there is more than one counterfactual world, because it seems plausible to say that people live in counterfactual worlds. Mike’s initial post lent some credibility to this view by pointing out that people have all kinds of bizarre assumptions cooked into their belief-systems.

    Not too long ago, I thought this was a plausible way of talking about how imagination affects how we live. After all, it is true that people have false beliefs, and it is also true that each countable person has a set of false beliefs that have internal coherence, in such a way that it rolls off the tongue for someone to say “They are in their own world”. However, after receiving a constructive critique from the folks at Butterflies and Wheels (esp. Eric MacDonald), I abandoned this view. It just seems way too metaphysically extravagant.

    It seems to me that, if we think that people occupy a plurality of counterfactual worlds, then we should be committed to a few proposals.

    First: that each person is at least partially unreal. After all, you cannot be ‘part of’ a counterfactual world without yourself being, to some extent, counterfactual — otherwise, you’re just not a part of the counterfactual world at all!

    Second: that each person is able to access both the real world and the counterfactual one(s). One might think of each person as the custodian to their own personal doorway between the real and imaginary worlds.

    Third: that the real world and the counterfactual worlds are connected, in such a way that the access to counterfactual worlds is capable of distorting the individual’s perception of the actual world. That is the point of the OP, and of Lee’s remarks.

    Fourth: that the counterfactual world’s distortion of the actual world is, in principle, only restricted to how people perceive the world, and does not automatically generate distortions in the actual world. Otherwise, it would entail a kind of magical thinking, where Lovecraftian demons pour out of the counterfactual world and into the actual one — and this is patently insane. (Sorry, Alan Moore!)

    (1-4) are all delightfully weird ways of thinking. But do we really think these are proposals that fit how we stand in relation to things? Can we accept these proposals without ending up with a kind of spooky metaphysical dualism? Why should we talk about access to false worlds instead of talking about false access to the real one?

  8. This creates the fascinating idea of people living in fictional political worlds that are populated by fictional political characters. Naturally, it might be wondered how this would work.

    Look around, kid. Its working everywhere you look. Media and marketing have created a false world – or sets of worlds – within which most people in the West actually live, with only the odd inconvenient truth poking them in the ribs now and again, and the biggest lies are labelled inconvenient truths in a massively wonderful application of the Big Lie.

    Paraphrasing Tom Lehrer:

    They make careers of of telling people what they want to hear 🙄

  9. Leo,

    Good points. It is interesting to hear the pundits and spinions talk about how the conventions are used to shape how the voters see the candidates. What really got my attention was the talk of how the Republicans needed to “humanize” Mitt Romney-I had this sci-fi notion that they were going to either upgrade him or work on a way, as in They Live, to make him appear human.

    But, to be fair, politicians of all stripes work hard to create an alternative world in which they are better than they are . Of course, we all do that a bit. 🙂

  10. But it is the Changeling Obama that has intergalactic drone rocket power. Why call something that is so busy a drone? Every Tuesday is a super Tuesday for him, O Slayer of Jihadis, Great One.

    Philosophically you (Americans) are being asked to choose between a known and proven liar and a probable one. This is a modal war.

  11. PolitiFact seems to have established all the candidates as less than truthful (though the Republicans seem to be less truthful). However, Obama kept 37% of his promises and broke 16% while the Republicans kept 19% and broke 19%. So, the Democrats seem to have the honesty edge.

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