The Underdetection of Fiction Logic

[Note: Spit-balling here.]

I think I’ve been perceiving fiction the wrong way.

In too many cases, I’ve been looking at it like I look at real life. What’s the difference? Well, for one, in real life, not everything means something. Not intuitively assuming that every moment and tiny event is pregnant with meaning and consequence means I often don’t pick up on foreshadowing and preparation for key plot points. Because in reality:

  • people often talk about things without it having any significance later
  • things don’t happen in order to achieve maximum dramatic effect and/or emotional satisfaction
  • that your attention is directed towards something at one time does not in any way mean that it is significant
  • if one possible turn of events would “raise the stakes” and/or set off a sequence of dramatic happenings, it isn’t virtually certain that this is indeed what will happen

When something is mentioned in the beginning of a movie, fiction-logic says that it will definitely come into play at some point. Also, a single event early on tells us what kind of person a character is or what kind of relationship two people have, as if you could or should judge such things based on only one observed occurrence.

Of course, what you see in a movie is not random, it is intentionally put there to tell you something. I realize that it’s actually obvious that when James Bond is given a pen grenade in the beginning of the movie, it means he will use it later. But for a long time this was not obvious to me on an instinctual level – in real life there is no such guarantee. Real life events are not structured to come together in thematically coherent ways. There are no real Chekov guns.

I guess it still isn’t obvious to me that fiction is different, since I have to think about it on purpose not to forget. Doing that has changed the way I consume fiction. I don’t mean I had a sudden epiphany, I just gradually learned that when you look at a narrative as something that was deliberately put together rather that process it as a slice of real life it looks and feels different. Movies, tv and books get a lot more predictable, and lots of things that seemed good to me before now looks trite and formulaic. Things that are obviously designed to make you react emotionally don’t really get to me any more (sometimes). It comes off as manipulative.

On the other hand, things that seemed bad before can actually get better, since you can laugh at their clichés and depthless transparency. My girlfriend and I enjoy watching rom-coms together and mocking them. Such fun.

So I’m predisposed to using reality-logic to process fiction, which doesn’t work that well. Maybe that’s what attracts me to absurdist or surreal stories—they’re easier to perceive as an artifice, meaning you’ll use the right type of logic effortlessly.

I don’t think it’s simply a matter of which logic you like best. I really like fiction-logic, it’s engaging and emotionally rewarding (I’m human, I promise!). It’s more a matter of which type of logic you’re likely to apply to cases that aren’t instinctively obvious. Maybe I just “misfire” and mentally process some fiction as if it were reality.

If underdetection of fiction-logic is a nerdy trait in general, which I suspect it might be, then we would expect nerdy people to be less attracted to fiction in general but more attracted to “unrealistic” types of fiction (less likely to be pattern-matched as real), like science fiction and fantasy. Or comic books. Or animation.

In general, however, overdetection of fiction-logic is more common. You see it in phrases like “everything happens for a reason”, “it wasn’t meant to be”, or anything involving the words “fate” or “destiny”. Or the idea that there is one single person out there that you’re “supposed” to be with. I’ve never understood if people who say things like that actually believe it, literally.

Applying fiction-logic to real life would make you think everything means something and that it’s somehow intentionally put there for you someone or something. This feels really weird to me but I guess I have to accept that this is apparently a normal way to think. If not the normal way to think.

If taken to extremes, it sounds something like paranoid schizophrenia. In lower, normal range doses it sounds like conspiracy theories, religion or general mysticism. I guess complete lack is what gets you autism.

That rings a bell. Is this just mentalistic and mechanistic cognition? One of the most useful and revelatory dichotomies I’ve ever come across? Stumbled upon from an unexpected direction? I think, sort of. Fiction-logic is mentalistic, it describes how a world run by intention works. Reality-logic is mechanistic, describes how a world run by causation works.

In short, in fiction there is a God – the writer – and in reality there isn’t. (Am I just assuming this? Not really, I’m just past taking religion seriously or caring about it at all. To me, all the really interesting philosophical issues arise only after you’ve accepted materialism.) This makes fiction and reality work differently; what helps you understand one doesn’t help you understand the other. And I like unrealistic fiction because it makes it easier to look at it the way I’m supposed to: “This is a world that works by different rules, it has a God.”

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3 thoughts on “The Underdetection of Fiction Logic

  1. I agree with your idea, but I’d like to see it grounded in some sort of more rigorous philosophical framework.

    I used to think that my opposition to religious belief stemmed from philosophical differences regarding the existence of a god. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that what really bothers me within the spectrum of common religious beliefs is the idea that everything happens for a purpose, in accordance with a cosmic plan, etc. I’ve only ever come up with the following vague outline of an argument against this type of thinking: We should interpret sensory data from the universe we live in through scientific induction (which I mean in a very general sense, and I can defend this part pretty well). Executed properly, this induction should yield explanatory models governed by the “lowest-order” mechanisms possible; to be “lower order” means to be based more directly on a simple set of axiomatic laws. Human behavior is only explicable by much higher-order mechanisms, since of course our brains are extremely complex. So humans have adapted by being able to interpret human actions and events in terms of useful shortcuts involving common emotions and motives, etc. The problem is that in attempting to understand other human phenomena, humans tend to resort to these ingrained shortcuts without realizing that they only actually point to explanations relying on higher-order mechanisms.

    Trying to make this more rigorous so that I can argue it better has been on my to-do list for some time. Your reference to academic notions of mentalism vs. mechanism might help here.


    1. I’d like to see it grounded too, but that’s a bit beyond my immediate ambitions. This was just meant to be a quick thought about fiction, like 200 words, but it ballooned a bit.

      My view of what my fundamental objection to religion is has followed a similar path to yours – it’s not about gods, but the whole mindset of which religion is only the most pure expression: applying mentalistic cognition on the natural world.

      I don’t think you can really argue about this, you need to clarify what’s going on first and that’s a big job.


  2. Leaving a comment here 2 years later just for the heck of it…

    I think this articulates pretty well why I’ve always had a problem with narrative non-fiction (biographies and the like). Writing fiction with a tidy narrative makes it more readable and enjoyable. Putting real life into a tidy narrative feels deceptive.

    Liked by 1 person

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