What follows is a guest post by Roy T. Cook. Roy is an extremely nerdy associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, a resident fellow of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, and an associate fellow of the Northern Institute of Philosophy – Aberdeen, Scotland. He has published over fifty articles and book chapters on logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of art (especially popular art). He co-edited The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012) with Aaron Meskin, and his monograph on the Yablo Paradox is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He is also a co-founder of the interdisciplinary comics studies blog PencilPanelPage, which recently took up residence at the Hooded Utilitarian, and hopes to someday write a book about the Sensational She-Hulk. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife, two cats (Freckles and Mr. Prickley), and approximately 2.5 million LEGO bricks.
Standard approaches to the interpretation and evaluation of a work of fiction have it that some claims are true-in-the-fiction, such as “Sherlock Holmes lives on Baker Street”, and other claims, such as “Sherlock Holmes is a Martian”, are false-in-the-fiction. Put simply, they adopt an alethic approach to fiction. In this post I want to challenge that assumption, and propose an alternate, probabilistic account.
Consider “The Final Problem”, the 1893 Arthur Conan Doyle story where Holmes is killed while battling Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. This story was followed by the Great Hiatus, a ten-year period during which Conan Doyle published no new Holmes stories and the great detective remained dead. In 1903, however, due to pressure from the public, his publishers, and his creditors, Doyle returned to write “The Adventure of the Empty House”, which details the shocking survival and return of the world’s most famous detective.
Now, the critical question here is the semantic status of the sentence “Holmes is dead”, uttered by a reader – let us call her Betty – between 1893 and 1903 who has read all of the relevant stories up to the Great Hiatus. Clearly, Betty is correct in some sense when she utters “Holmes is dead” during this period. Not only does the fiction clearly indicate that Holmes died, but Doyle himself wrote this story with the intention of definitively killing off Holmes so that he could concentrate on his ‘serious’ writing – the historical novels that he thought would be his true literary legacy (insert ironic comment here!). Further, on most accounts of fictional truth, the claim “Holmes is dead” is true-in-the-fiction during the Great Hiatus (for example, on a Waltonian account, the Holmes story as it existed at that point clearly prescribes that we make-believe that Holmes died). But, as we learn in 1903, Holmes isn’t dead! So Betty’s utterance of “Holmes is dead” during the Great Hiatus is (apparently) somehow faulty, since the same utterance is false-in-the-fiction in 1903, despite the fact that her interpretative and evaluative actions were beyond reproach during the Great Hiatus.
So what is the status of “Holmes is dead” in 1893, and in 1903? If we wish to retain an alethic semantics for fiction that adheres to the true/false dichotomy (which is in-and-of-itself compatible with the plausible thought that some claims are indeterminate-in-the-fiction), then there seem to be a limited number of options:
Option (1) is unattractive for obvious reasons: it requires that facts about what is true-in-the-fiction in 1893 depend on contingent events that occurred in 1903 – in short, we would be faced with something very akin to backwards causation.
Options (2) makes better sense of Betty’s puzzle, since she would be correct in asserting “Holmes is dead” in 1893, but it is unattractive for other reasons: it entails that truth- and falsity-in-the-fiction behave very differently than truth and falsity simpliciter. On this sort of account, Holmes is the sort of beast that can be dead, but later come back to life. One of the reasons we value fiction is that it provides a means to reflect on the nature of our own world and our own lives. If the logic of standard fictions were this different from the logic of the actual world, then it would be mysterious how and why reading such stories could have any lessons to teach us.
Option (3) is a sophisticated sort of relativism, and this solution (or something much like it) is defended by Andrew McGonigal in “Truth, Relativism, and Serial Fiction” (British Journal of Aesthetics 2014). The problem with this view, however, is that it seems somewhat metaphysically excessive: If Holmes is dead in the up-to-1893 fiction, but alive in the up-to-1903 fiction, then the Holmes that appears in the first fiction is a distinct character from the Holmes that appears in the 1903 fiction (since they have incompatible properties). But surely if Betty says “Holmes is dead” in 1893 and “Holmes is alive” in 1903, she is speaking of the same character (regardless of whether her utterances about that character are correct).
(1), (2), and (3) above are probably not the only options, and variations on these themes of various sorts have been explored by Ross Cameron and Ben Caplan as well. But all of these approaches proceed by retaining a broadly alethic approach to fiction, and then attempting to solve puzzles raised by serial fiction (and other, related puzzles) by adopting some specific kind of account of truth (e.g. relativist, contextualist, etc.)
Here I want to suggest a much more radical approach: that we reject the idea that claims are true-in-fiction, or false-in-fiction, altogether. Instead, claims are more-or-less-likely-in-fiction. To motivate this move, consider a variation on the example given above: it is now 1903, but Betty has only read the Holmes stories up to “The Final Solution”. She then utters “Holmes is alive” (assume this is meant to be a sincere report regarding the content of the Holmes fiction, and not a wishful thinking, “I believe in Sherlock” sort of claim). It would be perverse to respond to Betty by saying “You are correct.” Clearly, even though stories detailing Holmes survival have been published by this point, Betty is clearly making some sort of interpretative mistake if she makes this utterance before reading the post-Great Hiatus stories. A better response might be “You have guessed wisely.” But the best response, it seems, would be something along the lines of “You haven’t got evidence for that (yet).”
Compare the following situation: You and I both roll a single die, each of which is hidden under a cup. The higher roll wins. At 2PM the referee, who can peek under the cup, informs us that we rolled different numbers. I can now justifiably utter “The probability that I will win is ½.” At 3PM the referee informs us that I rolled an even number. I now (again, correctly) utter “The probability that I will win is 3/5.” Note that the truth-value of the claim “I will win” did not change between 2PM and 3PM (that claim is already determined, and the referee knows its truth-value) – what changed is the evidence that I have with regard to this claim. If, however, I utter “The probability that I will win is 3/5” before the referee’s second pronouncement, it is unlikely that the referee would say (or merely say) “You are correct”. Instead, he might point out that I have no evidence for that claim (keeping in the mind that the referee, who has seen the dice, might already know that I have lost).
My suggestion is that, in one respect, fiction works similarly to this: Betty has very good evidence for the claim “Holmes is dead” in 1893. As a result, the probability that Holmes is (fictionally) dead is (relative to the evidence Betty has to hand in 1893) high. But reading the 1903 story provides her with conflicting evidence, which significantly lowers the (fictional) probability of the claim “Holmes is dead” (but does not make it definitely false, since Doyle could have written a story in 1913 in which the 1903 story was merely a dream!) Thus, Betty’s utterance of “Holmes is dead” is correct in 1893 (since exceedingly likely given the evidence she has), correct in 1903 if she has not read the 1903 story (for the same reason), and incorrect in 1903 if she has read the 1903 story (since the new evidence cancels out the old).
Notice, however, that unlike the dice example, there is no independently existing reality (corresponding to the dice) against which these probabilities are to be compared. All we have is the evidence, in the form of claims asserted (or depicted, in comics, films, etc.) within the fiction. In short, with fiction all we have to go on, and the only grounds available to support the objective correctness of assertions like “Holmes is dead”, is the (defeasible) evidence provided by the text (film, etc.) itself.
If this is right, then fictional ‘objectivity’ is more like (subjective) probability than it is like (bivalent) truth – new evidence, in the form of new installments to the story, can increase or decrease our commitment to particular statements in the fiction (and should do so, in rule-governed and predictable ways). Further, no statement is completely-true-in-the-fiction, or completely-false-in-the-fiction (i.e. no statement ever has probability 0 or probability 1), since any statement whatsoever (including mathematical and logical statements – consider Graham Priest’s Sylvan’s Box) is probabilistically hostage to the possibility of countervailing evidence in future installments, sequels, or related works (a good example: consider the modal and psychological claims one is tempted to make regarding Frank L. Baum’s Dorothy before and after reading Gregory McGuire’s Wicked).
Of course, for those of us (like myself) who ascribe to a broadly Waltonian account of fiction, where fictions are games whose rules prescribe what we are to make-believe regarding the characters, objects, locations, and events described in the fiction, all of this shouldn’t be all that surprising. It is widely (although not universally) accepted within epistemological circles that belief is a matter of degree. Thus, it seems natural to think that make-belief is also analog rather than digital, and that when experiencing and evaluating fictions, we do not make-believe that certain claims are definitively and determinately true, or definitively and determinately false, but rather (implicitly) assign higher or lower probabilities to claims as new evidence (in the form of new installments, or chapters, or paragraphs, or even individual sentences) come to light – that is, we assign degrees-of-make-belief to various claims in or relevant to the fiction.
Of course, the above isn’t a fully worked out account of a degrees-of-make-belief based probabilistic semantics for fiction. But the basic framework promises to have important applications to a number of interesting issues in the philosophy of fiction, including: unreliable narrators (indications of unreliable narrators are prescriptions to assign uniformly lower degrees-of-make-belief to the relevant assertions), contradictions in fiction (there is nothing incoherent about conflicting pieces of probabilistic evidence), the phenomenology of appreciation (reading a novel involves an ongoing process of revising assigned degrees-of-make-belief in light of new evidence), and pluralism regarding interpretation (there need be no single correct way to coherently ‘balance’ degrees-of-make-belief given a particular body of evidence). Working these ideas out will have to wait for another day, however.