A Short Piece

Story Is The Structure of Life and Fiction

Problematically, we conflate “fiction” with “false,” and yet life is more like a story than a premise.

Reality is more like a story than a collection of facts, and yet when someone claims something is like a story, we tend to associate it with being fictitious. Paradoxically, we associate “raw facts” with depicting reality accurately, when none of us live in a world of “just facts.” Subjectivity is very real in our experience, so unless I’m going to live in a world without the very subjectivity that makes my awareness of facts possible, then subjectivity must be included in my depiction of reality if that depiction is to be accurate. And yet the moment I do so, I can be accused of making my depiction inaccurate, and indeed, maybe I am: in subjectivity not being as “solid” as facts, it can be much harder to know if I’m giving subjectivity the right treatment and incorporating it properly. This can increase anxiety, which can increase a temptation to escape that anxiety by removing subjectivity again (as I will likely be encouraged to do).

Strangely, though we associate “facts” with what’s concreate, there’s a sense in which facts are abstractions, while subjective entities like thoughts and emotions aren’t abstractions but concrete (for we live more in a world of our thoughts and emotions than we do of raw information). Granted, I know what people mean when they say, “facts are concrete” — they mean facts are reliable and not depended upon a single person’s account and perspective — facts seem to “transcend” personal orientations for something more universal and certain. And please don’t mistake me as saying that “facts don’t matter” — what concerns me is the need to stop conflating “subjectivity” with “false” and “objectivity” with “true.” I can be subjective about x and still be right about x, as I can be objective about y and still wrong. Similarly, x can be structured like a story and still be something true and/or something that happened.

Strangely, the more we “fictionalize” reality and make it like a story, the more realistic we make it relative to our experience, and yet the more we’re likely to associate that depiction as “fiction.” Today, there is an extremely problematic conflation of the terms “story,” “fiction,” and “falsity.” Yes, fiction can be “something that didn’t really happen,” but that doesn’t mean everything that is structured like a story or fiction is likewise “something that didn’t really happen.” Furthermore, just because something “didn’t happen,” it doesn’t follow that it “couldn’t happen” or that there is nothing true about it. Additionally, if the story centers around a person’s personal experience and life, how can we know the story “never happened’ unless we lived in the heads of every person who ever lived and ever will live? If the story involves technologies that don’t exist, can we be so sure they never will?

The conflation of “fiction” and “false” contributes to a devaluing of subjectivity in considering “what’s true,” which can contribute to us thinking a “true account” of the world leaves out the subjectivity which makes that “true account” possible.

This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the terms “true” and “facts” weren’t conflated: by all means, there should be available “factual accounts” of the world that “bracket out” subjectivity (say in news), but we shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking that by learning the facts we access a “true account.” And yet at the same time, we can’t treat everyone’s personal experiences as “knowledge,” even if they are true, because personal experiences cannot be easily tested or equally experienced by different people beyond the original experiencer. For more, I think Jonathan Rauch makes very useful distinctions between “belief,” “truth,” and “knowledge” in his amazing Kindly Inquisitors.

The more we understand life in terms of fiction, the more real we make it, and yet the more likely that account is to be associated with something unreal. Now, we certainly should treat the potential truth of a story as different from the truth of 2 +2 = 4, and I don’t mean to suggest there are no meaningful epistemological distinctions between “subjective” and “objective” and the like (and indeed, we should all try to be more objective and dispassionate when appropriate). My point is that automatically assuming x is false because it is a “story” or “subjective” hinders our ability to know what’s really happening out there; additionally, it can contribute to us devaluing our own stories and life experiences. No, we shouldn’t think our life experiences are automatically reliable or something everyone should treat as universal knowledge, but at the same time, we also shouldn’t think our life experiences don’t matter because they can’t be tested in a laboratory.

In conclusion, we shouldn’t assume the validity of an idea or premise from its structure or based on the means through which it is recognized and known. How much easier identifying truth would be if we could though, and thus the temptation to give into the fallacy of assuming validity from structure. But more work is required of us than a glance.

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