Category Archives: Philosophy of Literature

Science fiction as science

While accidentally coming across a popular science-and-technology magazine recently, I was struck by how much the articles on science and technology weren’t about the actual achievements of the scientists and engineers, but about what those achievements might be in the future. This is something echoed in many other journalistic accounts of science. I.e., much ‘science’ reporting is actually a kind of science fiction, where the hopes and beliefs of the writers are projected onto what has actually been achieved in the science.

The basic projected narrative is: “We are constantly making significant scientific and technological breakthroughs, which are continually transforming society. This is just the latest one.”

That this is a fiction can easily be seen retroactively – almost always, what is reported doesn’t happen. The supposed achievements fade away, to be replaced with other breathless accounts of breakthroughs, and so on.

Of course, sometimes significant breakthroughs do happen, but it is difficult to sort these out a priori. Indeed, my sense is often these changes occur more quietly – they just arrive one day, and work, and change (albeit often in minor ways) some aspect of everyday society.

The Case of the Missing Category Error

Much discussion about fictional literature implicitly invokes a category error. A category error is where you apply a concept that has developed to work with one kind of thing and instead apply it to another kind of thing, where there might be important differences. In this case, most of the concepts discussed in literature have been developed to apply to biological entities (i.e., humans) or real situations, but they are being applied to fictional ones.

For example, in a fictional murder mystery, did suspect so-and-so really murder so-and-so? This question has no answer. You can answer: what the author intended, what fictional ‘facts’ presented cohere better with one hypothesis or another, and so on. Yet, there is no answer to the question, because ‘murder’ is meant to apply to a real-world situation, and this is fiction.

Debates like these are like a joke. The setup is a debate about some part of a fictional book or play and so on, and the punch-line is the realization that one is making a category error.

Being aware of category errors could be useful in thinking about various thought-experiments in philosophy, because thought-experiments are fiction.