Greg (gmalivuk) wrote in michiphilosophy,
Greg
gmalivuk
michiphilosophy

Fact and Fiction

As some of you may have seen on the Daily Show, Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at UM Ann Arbor, ran into some trouble with Electronic Arts' "The Sims Online". The first widely-read article about it is here, but he's also been written about in the New York Times and, by now, numerous other news sources.

Well, last night he talked to the philosophy club about blurring the "distinction" between fact and fiction, and some interesting points were brought up.

When the Daily Show interviewed a guy from EA, he said that if Ludlow was a real journalist, he was a railroad tycoon every time he played Monopoly. Ignoring (1) the fact that Ludlow was in reality writing about the interactions of other real live people, just like any other real journalist, whereas the EA guy has never owned what we'd call a real live railroad company in his entire life (I'm assuming), and (2) the fact that to actually be any good at Monopoly you've got to have way more of a hotel chain owner than a railroad tycoon, we discussed how this statement might actually be true. Why, Ludlow wonders, can't we say that the utterance, "Anthony Hopkins is a psycho killer", is on its face a true statement by the standards of some contexts which are more limited in scope than our everyday life?* (The alternative would be to say that it's only true in virtue of the fact that what the utterer *means* is, "Anthony Hopkins is a psycho killer (within the fiction of a series of movies in which Hopkins represents a cannibal serial killer).")

This contextualism would, in some cases, make certain apparent crossovers between fact and fiction less difficult, philosophically, to deal with. For instance, the statement, "Klingon is a language," was once only true in a very limited context. Rather than saying a fake language suddenly became real when real people started learning and further developing Klingon, might it be simpler to simply say the context in which it's true to say "Klingon is a language" is now wider than it was initially? Or that "I am a railroad tycoon" can be truly uttered by someone who's never even seen a full-sized train whenever he's playing Monopoly? An example Ludlow brought up to illustrate this had to do with water and tea. If someone at the water treatment poured tons of tea leaves into the water right before it went out into the city's pipes, and you turned on your faucet to get a brownish liquid, it is true to say that liquid is dirty water, and to complain to the city that your water isn't treated properly. However, if you ordered a glass of water in a restaurant, and the exact same mixture of substances was brought out to you, that liquid would be truly called tea, and your complaint would likely not be that your water was dirty but that they brought you the wrong drink altogether. (Sure, we know that it could still be technically true, in a wider sense, that tea is always just dirty water. But this is the sense in which it's also true that "My glass is empty" is never true, because technically there's always air in it.)

I think one particularly interesting area that sort of lies between what we'd typically call fact and what we'd typically call fiction is economics. It's something in which everyone partakes, so in a typical conversational context, a statement like "this diamond costs more than that cabbage patch doll" will be true. But the economy is a great example of consensus-based reality. If everyone, or even just a large enough group of people, agreed that cabbage patch dolls were more valuable than diamonds, then the cost inequality would suddenly switch, based not on anything as concrete as a physical change, but rather just one of opinion. Many of the same things can be said about the economies of multiplayer online role-playing games. Because people with more money in the game world can be more entertained when playing the game, they are often willing to pay "real" money in exchange for "fake" money, which they can then exchange for "fake" objects in the "fake" world of the game. But the supposedly fake objects are software subroutines, and as we all know the richest man in the world has gotten most of his wealth from the sale of computer programs. And if you exchange American dollars for some currency that can only be used in a game, and that game has a million players, then how is that really different than if you exchanged American dollars for some currency that can only be used in a country with a million citizens?

*As it happens, Ludlow has a friend (or maybe it was actually his sister?) who's worked with Hopkins, and in asking him this question, Hopkins agreed that, certainly, he's not just *representing* a character when making a movie, he actually *is* that character in the context of moviemaking. Which, considering some of the roles he's played, is perhaps a bit concerning...
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