Something I write about a lot in my philosophical work is emotional responses to fictions. Why do I cry at the end of Terms of Endearment? I know it’s not real. Why do I root for Matthew and Lady Mary to get together on Downton Abbey? They don’t exist!
Philosophers have generally set the question up as a paradox (known, rather uncreatively, as the paradox of fiction). There are three statements that each seem plausible but are mutually contradictory. So one must be denied. They are:
- One has emotional responses to fictional characters and events.
- Emotions presuppose belief in the existence of the object of the emotion. (So, for example, the emotion of ‘fear of a dog’ includes both a bodily response and a judgment that the dog is dangerous to you. So you can’t be genuinely afraid of something if you don’t actually think it exists, because you can’t judge it as posing a danger to you.)
- One does not believe in the existence of fictional characters and objects.
I bring this question up with my students before we’ve read anything on it. I ask them why they respond emotionally to fictions. 9 out of 10 of them will say “suspension of disbelief.” In other words, they deny 3. They think that for the duration of engagement with a fiction, one believes the events are occurring.
I think this is actually the least plausible response. Obviously, you don’t believe what’s going on. You don’t even have to pry into anybody’s mental states to see that. You don’t behave remotely like you would if you believed the events were occurring. Why wouldn’t you call 911 when the killer enters the house where the woman lies innocently sleeping? Why don’t you run out of the theater the instant you see a zombie lumbering toward the screen? Why does it make sense to turn to the person next to you and say, “Why is Brad Pitt so angry at that guy?” i.e., using the actor name instead of the character name?
Some people then say you half-believe it. But you don’t even think of reaching for your phone and dialing 911. Not only that, your emotional responses are often not what you would have if you half-believed the situation to be true. I’ve just gotten done plowing through Agatha Christies, and you don’t get particularly sad or scared or unsettled at the appearance of a corpse. In Independence Day the Empire State Building gets blown up, and it’s fun and exciting. It doesn’t remotely resemble the reaction most of us had when we really did see New York skyscrapers get blown up.
One of my students just asked why so many people believe in the suspension of disbelief. And honestly, I don’t know why this view has become the common sense view. On almost every other issue I write on, I think the common ense view at least has a lot going for it. But I don’t know why people persist in believing in the suspension of disbelief.
(BTW, I deny 2.)