Stories Are Like Religion

Small children (age 4-6) who were exposed to a large number of children’s books and films had a significantly stronger ability to read the mental and emotional states of other people. … The more absorbed subjects were in the story, the more empathy they felt, and the more empathy they felt, the more likely the subjects were to help when the experimenter “accidentally” dropped a handful of pens… Reading narrative fiction … fosters empathic growth and prosocial behavior. …

Fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place. (more)

People who mainly watched drama and comedy on TV — as opposed to heavy viewers of news programs and documentaries — had substantially stronger “just-world” beliefs. … Fiction, by constantly exposing us to the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place. (more)

Psychologists have found that people who watch less TV are actually more accurate judges of life’s risks and rewards than those who subject themselves to the tales of crime, tragedy, and death that appear night after night on the ten o’clock news. That’s because these people are less likely to see sensationalized or one-sided sources of information, and thus see reality more clearly. (more)

Imagine that all you know about someone is that they have zero interest in stories. Not movies, not novels, not nothing. They prefer instead to stay focused on the real world. The only “stories” they want are accurate histories of representative people. What do you think of this person?

You might want to hire this person. But would you trust them to be loyal? Would you date them? Marry them? Most people feel a little wary of such story-less people, just as they are wary of atheists. People fear that atheists will violate social norms because they do not fear punishment from gods and spirits. Similarly, people fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying.

Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. This is similar to how people have long been encouraged to be religious, so that they could similarly be liked more by others.

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

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  • MPS

    Your question turns on what it means to “become” religious.

    I enjoy stories but I don’t believe the stories are true. The bible contains interesting stories too. I think the stories of Jesus, at times, provide a compelling model. But I don’t believe he actually came back alive after being dead, etc.

    I think the false analogy you are drawing has some relation to a comparison between engaging in fantasy, and praying / believing in afterlife. I fantasize a lot, and a fantasy-like tool I sometimes use is to imagine writing a note to a person that I never intend to send it to. This has some similarity with prayer. Except the prayerful person believes he is actually talking to someone, whereas I realize I am simply engaging a tool for developing perspective and understanding my emotions.

    • Scott Messick

      Good point! The fact that religious stories are literally believed is an important difference and makes it reasonable, for a lover of truth, to dislike religion but like stories.

      That said, I think Robin is right to suggest that even if we think we don’t believe a story, psychologically, we are likely to believe its moral message at least a little bit. Even for people to try very hard to be critical, how effective are we at analyzing conclusions our subconscious may be drawing from a story, below our awareness?

      • MPS

        I think there is a danger of digging too deep here. At the deepest level everything is deterministic and we’re all just responding to environment in an ultimately predictable way and in this context this issue has to be described in totally different terms.

        It’s true, if I go to church and the pastor says to sympathize with the poor, or if I watch a movie that creates sympathy for the poor, in both cases I am being manipulated. But let’s not let the subtle similarities distract us from the big differences. Religion assumes a certain authority and wields certain coercive power based on that. It is manipulative in that it asserts you should think or behave a certain way or else suffer consequences meted by God. Story-telling doesn’t do this. Because story-telling openly admits to being fiction, it is manipulative only insofar as it presents a compelling (if inaccurate) representation of reality.

        I think this issue is confusing because story-telling is a very effective tool for attempting to change behavior, and so religion avails itself of this tool and uses it heavily. The point is that religion adds other stuff too, and its this other stuff that is distinctly religious. I don’t think story-telling is so effective because it’s nefariously manipulative; I suspect it’s effective because it models the primary way in which we learn about the world: by experiencing events and observing the consequences of actions.

      • CDB

        Robin, I think your blog is great and thanks for making us think! My wife and I found this post thought provoking and so we discussed it for a bit. Where we landed is that there is more teasing out to be done between stories and religion, and that is where we believe your logic falls apart. Yes, I think of myself as a truth-seeker. No, that does not mean non-truth (fiction) does not have a beneficial place in my life. Stories of all kinds help us visualize dreams, fantasies, better worlds, etc. Assuming we agree on the benefits of stories, we can agree that someone who is religious but who 100% keeps that religion to themselves is no problem to me. My problem with religion is that the vast majority of people do not live this way. Religions are powerful, they are rich, they are influential and I can visibly see how they affect my life every day. And for the most part, in 2015, I see them doing more harm than good. Perhaps they are doing lots of good, too, but I don’t feel that. I feel the negative. I see the negative. The violence and hatred, the non-flexible political views in the US. The condemnation of other people for alternative lifestyles. Yet, I don’t see that same negativity from lovers of stories. If 200 million Harry Potter fans formed a political party demanding we live according to Hogwarts rules, you’re damn right I’d have problems with stories, but only Harry Potter. I have a problem with any story that I feel affects my life negatively. Religious stories are simply the most obvious cases, and so it is easy to finger them as the bad guy.

      • So you don’t think stories are like religion because you like people who are really into stories but you don’t like people who are really into religion? If you were into a particular religion, mightn’t you say something similar about other religions, that they aren’t true religions because you don’t like those sort of people?

      • CDB

        I don’t believe that’s what I’m saying. I believe what I’m saying is that religious stories are types of story, obviously. Where they diverge from non-religious stories is how they are interpreted. While fictional stories are interpreted as fiction, religious stories are often interpreted as fact. This leads to different behaviors and different end results stemming from the influence of these stories. In my experience, I look around and see the influence of religion causing great negativity in the world, and I think most of us do. Meanwhile, I don’t see the same from non-religious stories (either because it’s more difficult to link to negative outcomes or because it doesn’t cause them). In addition, my experience with non-religious stories is that they cause a significant plus in my own life and my interactions with others indicate these stories cause a similar plus in theirs, as well. Thus at the very end I guess I’m saying it’s not illogical for me to find non-religious stories as a plus and religious stories as a negative simply because I love stories that bring a benefit to my life, and not because I am seeking status.

      • CDB

        *I should also clarify that when I say “non-religious stories…cause a significant plus in my own life” I mean that I believe I would enjoy reading and delighting in them even if (if not especially in the case of) I was locked in solitary confinement in prison and had nobody to impress with my knowledge of all the great stories I was reading

    • I think the larger problem here is that stories are being treated for what corporations have turned them into.

      Art, and stories, serve a very specific goal: A citizen’s response to society. Within the last 50-100 years however, art has taken on a new goal: To earn money. This has distorted the citizen’s response. No longer is art a critical take on a society, providing the medicine we need, but it is providing the anesthesia we desire.

      Another quote from Robin’s second link: “Stories are key to meaning, happiness and unity. They can also misrepresent and distort. It’s no surprise that dictators burn books, create propaganda, ban religion and fear artists.” Similarly, it should be no surprise that our media industry has co-opted narratives to pacify audiences.

      Don’t reject stories: Consume intelligent, counterculture stories. Learn. Grow. Respond.

      • “Within the last 50-100 years however, art has taken on a new goal: To earn money”
        “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” – Samuel Johnson, 1776.

        One of the most highly regarded writers in history was William Shakespeare. As the name “King’s Men” suggests, his patrons were the Powers That Be and he did not set out to present a countercultural critique of the status quo. He entertained people and felt free to include plenty of dirty jokes.

        Just when do you think the golden era of subversive non-commercial art was?

      • That’s a fair point, although I never claimed there was a golden era. There have long been populist entertainers, and there have long been subversive entertainers. My timeline was more about mass culture and perhaps I should have used that term.

        My frustration is when people reject storytelling and art on the basis of mass culture (and that’s what this post has discussed–the only examples being dramas and comedies on TV). I’m frustrated because I believe art can provide many useful qualities, but a lot of them are shunted by mass culture / consumerism.

        I don’t fault all people who write populist stories–some of them legitimately want to and that’s fine. I don’t fault everyone who reads them–not everything should be an intellectual battle. I don’t fault people who watch wrestling or listen to Creed.

        But these are not our only forms of recreation and expression and I resent it when people treat them as if they are. Underground art is always relevant, and with the Internet it is more accessible than ever. Don’t quit stories, find better stories.

      • Sam, with a few notable exceptions like van Gogh, almost every piece of art, literature and music that survived from centuries ago to be known to us today survived because it was part of its era’s “mass culture”.

        Your target doesn’t seem to be “mass culture” but TV, and a specific type of TV programming at that. A couple hundred years hence, will critics be making a qualitative distinction between the works of Thomas Hardy and David Chase?

  • Life without stories is unlivable. Death is preferable. As I think you’re asserting, religion and stories are essentially different words for the same thing.

    Stories are lies, they conflict with rationality, but they’re necessary to make life feel worth living and to make us act in socially desirable ways.

    Are there nice implications that come out of this that I’m not seeing? It seems pretty dark.

    • IlyaShpitser

      I don’t think you really believe that.

      • Do you mean some part of it seems insincere (which part?), or that a human brain is incapable of genuinely updating on the truth of the statements?

      • IlyaShpitser

        To qualify: I don’t think you will literally choose death over “no stories.”

      • On the contrary, I live in a storyless condition and literally want to die. It’s been a kind of hobby of mine for years (I’m great at parties). I don’t recommend that an individual enter a storyless condition – it’s extremely uncomfortable, Here Be Dragons! – but on the other hand, public policy is informed by stories, to all of our detriment. I don’t have a super-great solution to this problem (it sucks to live without stories but stories make us hurt each other), other than the obvious voluntary mass extinction, but it’s nice to see the problem being taken seriously by non-crankypantses.

        As Flannery O’Connor’s mean little character says, “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”

      • V

        I tend to think that people who whine about killing themselves but not being able to do so or having tried and failed are not serious about it and are just fishing for sympathy.

        Killing yourself is, indeed, easy:

      • While I agree that suicide threats are often cries for attention, I’m not comfortable with daring specific people here to kill themselves. Sometimes dares do induce people to action.

      • I am not in favor of any taboos on talking about suicide. What is the difference between a “suicide threat” and talking openly about the fact that life is not objectively worth living (though many are convinced that it is subjectively worth living)?

        I’m really more interested in the story/meaning connection to the perceived value of life than about suicide specifically in this case – only mentioned it because my sincerity was personally challenged.

        “Suicide is easy” = illusion of control

      • V

        I wasn’t daring that person to kill herself, I provided that link in order to prove my point.

        @Sister Y
        I’m not sure I understand what do you mean by “objectively worth living”, and what meaning of life you might possibly get from fictional stories.

        Anyway, “Suicide is hard” = delusion of helplessness

      • V, you have no idea what you are talking about.

        Depression is a state where one does feel so terrible that anticipating being dead does feel better than staying alive. These are feelings. People can act on those feelings and be dead, or not act on those feelings and stay alive.

        Usually people try to hide how depressed they feel because being depressed attracts bullies who try to make it worse. Usually when someone who is bullied kills themselves, bullies act surprised and always suggest that “no one could have predicted” that their victims would kill themselves.

        Commenting on and denigrating a person’s feelings without understanding them only shows how ignorant and lacking in empathy you are. It is also demeaning and is a form of bullying.

        Comments like yours are why depressed people try to hide their depression.

      • V


        Depression is a state where one does feel so terrible that anticipating being dead does feel better than staying alive. These are feelings. People can act on those feelings and be dead, or not act on those feelings and stay alive.

        Fantasising about killing oneself without having any real intention to do so is delusional thinking, which is unproductive an unhealthy, possibly leading to an outright psychotic disease.

        If you believe that suicide is the best course of action, and you are confident that your reasoning is rational, possibly after receiving professional medical evaluation, then you should probably kill yourself. Otherwise you should try to suppress your suicidal fantasies as irrational thoughts, with medical assistance if necessary.

        Commenting on and denigrating a person’s feelings without understanding them only shows how ignorant and lacking in empathy you are. It is also demeaning and is a form of bullying.

        Comments like yours are why depressed people try to hide their depression.

        I didn’t mean to bully that person, I was just trying to keep the discussion rational. If that person is depressed, I suggest she seeks medical assistance.

      • No, it is not “delusional thinking”, it is depressed thinking.

        You said

        I tend to think that people who whine about killing themselves but not being able to do so or having tried and failed are not serious about it and are just fishing for sympathy.

        So how many people have you known who have “whined” about killing themselves, or have “tried and failed”? And were you so “helpful” to them as to give them a link to methods of suicide too, so as to keep them “rational”? Did they thank you before they used those methods? Or was their “fishing for sympathy” with you successful in that you offered them sympathy?

        What is the matter, don’t you have the integrity to own up to your bullying when you are called on it?

        Typical bullying behavior, always claim “plausible deniability” when someone other than the victim notices the bullying behavior.

        If you didn’t mean to bully, then why did you respond at all? Why did you respond with a link to suicide methods and discuss how easy suicide actually is?

        Even Robin noticed that you were bullying and called you on it, but not as specifically as I am. Robin is concerned with all kinds of signaling, including signaling to bullies, and (likely) doesn’t want to signal to bullies that he sees what they are doing (so much). That is because Robin is not and is very unlikely to become a victim of bullies and he wants to keep it that way. Robin is also more aware of depression and suicide, working at a major university where suicide of students is always something to be concerned about. Robin probably does know people who have been affected by suicide.

        If you were actually concerned about Sister Y, you would have linked to ways to get mental health assistance, not to methods of suicide. For example something like this, which George Mason University participates in.

      • V

        I recognize that the tone of my post was confrontational, and could be interpreted as daring that person to kill herself, but I think I’ve made clear that that was not my intention.

        I’ve provided that link as evidence that suicide is easy, hence the argument put forward by Sister Y was incorrect. My goal was not to encourage her to kill herself, but to think about the issue clearly.

  • Ely

    Most people I know tend to believe that fictional stories are essential for teaching us far truth.

    You need a mechanism for distinguishing bad stories from good stories, distinguishing stories that lead to destructive behaviors, contain internal contradictions, or so blatantly failing to correspond to reality that it is dangerous to hold them. A scientific worldview is such a mechanism and it comes with its own understanding of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stories. Religious worldviews offer a different mechanism.

    After all, what is scientific explanation other than mythology with a particular choice of how to evaluate correctness of stories? You’re constantly making up new plausible, yet always wrong, stories and waiting to see them refuted.

    I’ve personally derived what I consider to be “far truth” from fiction stories: for example, hashing out views on addiction and entertainment in Infinite Jest, hashing out views of self-improving progress in Player Piano.

    I know there is certainly an element of status in taking far truth cues from certain fictions, but I don’t think stories are as generically incompatible with love of far truth as this post suggests. I might be saying this very sentence out of mindless status love, but I’m trying to be sincere (as much as I can) when I say that’s not it. I definitely want to distinguish between crappy stories and non-crappy ones, and in my decision scheme, most religious stories are crappy ones, some have practical lessons, most have no value at all. But plenty of other stories have genuine far truth value. There are a lot of things that we cannot yet approach very scientifically, and hallucinating samples from some distribution over those things (e.g. creating works of fiction about them) is the best option we have, until science tells us more.

    My own view of why fiction matters is taken largely from this interview with David Foster Wallace. I wanted to just put a few quotes from it here, but I can’t find a small enough sample that captures why I think it matters. I totally submit that this could be purely signaling/self-righteousness/status, but if so, I am self-deluded into thinking that the depiction of fiction in that interview makes it worthwhile because of its correlation with far truth, not in spite of.

  • What about when you watch a movie or read a book, then launch in to a near-mode critique of everything wrong and unrealistic about it? Are anti-fandoms more rationality-promoting than fandoms? Think of the popularity of Twilight-hating. There’s kind of a backlash tendency to think these are just hissy people with too much time on their hands, but maybe being a hater is actually useful mental exercise and a way to develop real discernment skills.

    As an example, after watching WALL-E, I had all kinds of objections to it as a supremely unrealistic (if fun to watch) picture of the future. To me it was a cautionary tale in bad futurism. The same went to a lesser extent for Avatar…

    • I doubt that a mild level of criticism is enough to counter the effects.

  • One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

    Could your closing remark also be interpreted to say that the reason why people wouldn’t become religious is because the culture has programmed them to think that no religion has any truth, and they are just a bunch of stories?

  • mjgeddes

    Narrative is fundamental to the structure of the conscious-mind (see Dennettt). Delete all narrative from your thoughts and you would no longer be sentient.

    Given that narrative is fundamental, we seek good narratives which accurately capable the categorizations needed for far truth. The cognitive technique at the heart of narrative is categorization/analogical inference, that’s why far truth is closely linked to creative metaphor. Where as much of religion doesn’t contain precise or accurate metaphors, good literature does, and that’s the difference.

    Kant theorized long ago that all humans (and by extension all working general intelligences) have a set of in-built in a-priori categories neccessery for rational thought (these categories introduce the neccessery inductive biases for effective real-time intelligence in our actual region of the multiverse).

    The biases introduced by these universal categories could also give to rise to universal terminal values, and explain the common themes and motifs that recur in literaure. The morality plays so prelevant in literature could be recursions and elabaorations of the basic a priori categories. That explains why narrative/far truth is closely associated with theory of mind and value. (‘creative intelligence’ or ‘theory of mind’).

    I’m ready to afirm a bold assertion 😉

    “for every X except x0, it is mysteriously impossible to build any computational system which generates a range of actions, predicts the consequences of those actions relative to some ontology and world-model, and then selects among probable consequences using criterion X”

    I’m standing by the assertion and holding firm in my claim of universal terminal values. I agree that understanding the nature of far mode/religion/literature and the things Hanson talks about is the key to getting to the truth of this matter.

  • Ben S

    I have been reading much less fiction (and much more nonfiction) since I started reading LessWrong and Overcoming Bias, but probably because knowing useful skills and knowledge is higher status than stories.

  • Religion is low status. Being spiritual but not religious is neutral. In fact simply using biblical stories as positive examples is low status. Using stories from other religions (Islam, Judaism, Buddhism) is neutral or high status depending on how the stories are used.

    Of course this is all in the metropolitan/academic/upper-income world.

    • V

      using biblical stories as positive examples is low status. Using stories from other religions (Islam, Judaism, Buddhism)

      Most of the Jewish Torah is literally contained in the Christian Bible, and although the exact wording differs, there is substantial overlap between the stories in the Bible and the Quran.

  • V

    The fundamental difference between fiction and mythology is that people believe that fiction they enjoy is factually false, while the mythology they subscribe to is factually true.
    (at least they believe so at an explicit verbal level, it could be argued that at some sub-verbal level they know that mythology is false)

    There are indeed people who don’t enjoy fiction, or even find it absurd. IIRC, this seems to be correlated with being a professional mathematician and/or having an autistic-spectrum personality.
    I suppose that’s due to the nature of classical mathematical logic where the ex falso quodlibet principle makes any formal system useless as soon as one single contradiction is found.

    If I’d to speculate an evolutionary psychology hypothesis for why (most) people enjoy fiction, I’d say that it stimulates counter-factual thinking.
    Counter-factual thinking may be beneficial for at least two reasons:
    – The world is full of unpredictability, and our believes can never be certain, thus, when planning, it is useful to consider multiple possible scenarios, even those which conflict with some of our believes.
    – According to the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis, primate, and particularly human intelligence evolved largely under a selective pressure to improve political manoeuvring ability. Telling convincing lies and detecting lies are thus valuable skills.

    Given its evolutionary value, engaging in conterfactual reasoning might be an intrinsically rewarding activity.
    Successful fictional stories are conterfactual scenarios carefully constructed to optimally elicit this type of reward. Some of them are probably just parasitic memes, others may provide adaptive value by provoking thoughts that have real-life applications.

  • JPB

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t buy the ‘status’ bit. Perhaps this is because my non-belief was, for so many years, a relatively private thing–living in the Midwest, it wasn’t a popular belief (or lack thereof). Now that I live in DC, religion seems to be more publicly rejected–but that is not at all universal, even among the hyper-rational libertarian set with which I spend a good deal of my social time.

    Stories provide alternate context and, on a more ethereal level, can provide beauty if told well. I prefer non-fiction to fiction generally, but rejection of stories is a rejection of language qua language on one hand, and on the other, an assumption that imagination isn’t useful.

    I reject both of those.

  • Vaniver

    I guess I don’t get any points for my private prediction of “this advocacy for religion is going to become a status parable.” Next time, the prediction will be public!

  • “but I know stories are false” – true, a difference. But if you grant a little causation from the observed correlation (suppose that enjoying a story distorts your beliefs slightly), then Robin’s argument holds (why not sacrifice even more comfort for truth?).

    Being a story-glutton is slightly low status (depending on your circles).

    • V

      The distortions caused by fiction operates at subconscious level, hence it may be small and/or difficult to detect. The distortions caused by superstition are overt.

      • Hook

        There is no good reason to say that an effect on the subconscious is small or difficult to detect. For one example among many, the anchoring effect happens to the subconscious and its effects are large and easy to measure in experiments.

      • V

        I meant to self-detect.

  • Someone from the other side

    “Most people feel a little wary of such story-less people, just as they are wary of atheists. People fear that atheists will violate social norms because they do not fear punishment from gods and spirits.”

    Must be an American thing. Personally I feel wary of religious people more than anything else (they lack humur and have a tendency to take jokes in bad faith, for one)

  • Nastav

    I see a fundamental difference between religion+associated mythology, and fiction.

    They are similar in the sense that they skew truths into falsehoods in ways that are subtle and hard to catch – esp. when far truths are involved. (This is obvious, and i’m not stating anything new here that hasn’t been said before).

    An important difference between the two is akin to the difference between shall/must(religion) and could/might(fiction). Religion (and related stuff) tells us stories under the auspices of a command and control structure, whereas general fiction does no such thing.

    Accepting religion (and stuff) for it’s benefits is functionally identical to tacitly accepting it’s command and control philosophy. Accepting the benefits of regular fiction merely implies accepting it’s benefits, but contains no fine-print of subjugation that goes along with it.

    I think when it comes down to it, freedom is the one thing that is necessary to pave a sure path out of all other kinds of difficulties, and falsehoods. Freedom allows us the option of exercising rationality, and reasoning our way out of falsehoods towards truth. If we accept skewing of far truths through regular fiction, then we still remain capable of re-evaluating our knowledge and recalibrate (perhaps based on other information sources). But if we accept some form of corruption of truths through religion AND accept the implied loss of freedom, where is the way out?

    I think this is why I can not accept religion and associated stuff even though they have benefits, whereas I find no real difficulty in accepting stories as a valuable and important part of my life.

  • The first link does not appear to contain the phrase “Small children. . .” Is that study in one of the subsidiary links?

  • steve

    The difference between partaking of stories and of religion is the distinction between visiting Fiction and living there. The old saw about nice place to visit but not wanting to live there applies.

    People fear that atheists will violate social norms because they do not fear punishment from gods and spirits.

    Nowadays we have the increasingly panopticon State in that role — and a lot of people seem to have transferred their worship there as well.

    • nazgulnarsil
    • I think that fear comes after the fact to justify the tribal hatred of people who are different.

    • Ilya Shpitser

      I always thought it was amusing that what we have now is a kind of inverse panopticon State: everyone has cell phones with cameras, and CEOs and cops fear being filmed with their pants down.

  • Echows

    Seems like some commenters are missing the point. As far as I understand Hanson’s quote, stories warp your picture of reality regardless of 1) whether you believe the stories to be true or not and 2) whether the story actually is true or not (cf. the last paragraph about watching news).

    I think 1) is because on some level our monkey brains still believe the story even if we know it’s not true (especially if the morale of the story supports our current world view). 2) Is because there is no such thing as unbiased information. For an event to make it in the news there has to be something special about it and if you watch/read news every day, you become to think that these rare special events are more common than they actually are.

    • This is correct. Fictional stories warp our world view in ways that are difficult to appreciate, especially when they espouse a world-view that the is perceived to be appropriate.

      People do that all the time when they reference (or infer from) fiction as evidence of how systems or people work. Atlas shrugged is fiction. The moon is a harsh mistress is fiction. Death of a salesman is fiction.

      Stories are not data. At best (when verbatim truth of actual events) they are anecdotes.

      But the monkey-brain idea is correct. That is how our brains do generate the neuroanatomy that does stuff such as invoke feelings and language. The neuroanatomy is built from the bottom-up by weaving together the data-streams that our senses produce. The processes that weave that data together into neuroanatomy that does stuff is not conscious. The only “goal” it has is the one(s) that evolution configured it to have.

    • mjgeddes

      I understand Robin’s point just fine. Yes, stories warp our perception of reality, but the point I was making was that not all biases are bad. In fact, I suggested in my other post (see above), that far truth is actually equivalent to good biases, in the form of a-priori cognitive categories. Far truths are truths about minds.

      Rather than harming the quest for far truth, good stories are actually indispensible . Stories operate via metaphors representating our ideals.

      Whilst religion and stories are in the same general class , where religion often goes wrong is (1) the use of false metaphors, and (2) listeners/readers that mistake these metaphors for external reality. Good literature does not suffer from these faults.

  • RobS

    This is far too sweeping. If we agree that falsehood is at the heart of religion, then “I love far truth therefore I reject religion” follows. However to agree with “I love far truth, therefore I reject stories” requires that all stories reduce our ability to see far truth. But this simply hasn’t been established. There are millions of kinds of stories with millions of conflicting morals, or none at all. Maybe it is correct that we should avoid glutting on certain kinds of stories to avoid being made to think that the world is more just than it is. But avoiding stories altogether (not just reruns of Law and Order) is a very different conclusion.

    • Hook

      It doesn’t require “that all stories reduce our ability to see far truth”. It just requires that we can’t tell the difference between stories that do reduce such an ability and those that don’t, and that on average stories reduce such an ability.

      • RobS

        Granted, but those things still haven’t been established.

        This discussion also ignores the possibility that reading fiction helps us to gain deep truths about other people and how they think and feel. After all, reading a novel is one of the closest engagements you can have with another human’s mind — that of the author.

  • I try to treat narrative fiction the same way I treat alcohol. I recognize its importance for social bonding, and the human mind’s innate desire for it, but also its potential for addiction, destruction, and dissipation. Just as I am always self-monitoring when I consume alcohol, I always try to keep in mind that any fiction I consume is a vivid lie.

    I would prefer to live in a world where both of these things were not so prevalent, but that is probably not going to happen in my lifetime, so I make the necessary adjustments.

    I really do enjoy narrative fiction, but when I enjoy it, I always tell myself that what I am doing is the equivalent of getting drunk. After I successfully defended my dissertation, I ‘went on a bender’ by opening my parents’ Netflix account and watching a couple seasons of a show. That was safer and cheaper than alcohol, and had roughly the same effect.

  • ChristianKl

    Nonfiction is also about telling stories. You can’t live as a human being without telling yourself stories about the world around you.
    The kind of person who doesn’t read any fiction often believes too much in the stories that the person tells himself about nonfiction reality.

    Nassim Taleb writes in The Black Swan about the issue. The narrative of your usual newspaper article might screw a lot more with your accurate perception of reality than a well written fiction text.

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  • londenio

    A story is a model. Or it encapsulates a model. And as we know, models are useful even if wrong (i.e. fictitious). As a model, the story summarizes information about actions, decisions, etc. As such, they can change or reinforce some views of the world.

  • Real Truth is a gift best given to those in power. If objectionable, they can change the condition. Likewise, if the truth is virtuous they can build upon that as well.

    Robin Hanson

    Imagine that all you know about someone is that they have zero interest in stories. Not movies, not novels, not nothing.

    What does THAT say about the 21st century alternative – blogging.

  • rrb

    I have considered stopping reading stories. I don’t like it when I’m in a real situation and I am reminded of a work of fiction – it’s a waste of a thought, and it happens often.
    I have never made a serious attempt to stop reading stories, though. It is something I enjoy very much. Maybe I should infer that I like stories more than I like thinking accurately. Or maybe I should think of it as more like procrastination or a substance addiction – not optimally fulfilling my desires, but fulfilling immediate desires at the expense of longer-term ones. The downsides to reading a story don’t occur immediately.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Stories embody our search for meaning in an otherwise cold and indifferent world, or search for the rapture of being alive. Myths and stories are clues for the spiritual potentialities of lives, little examples of successful journeys in creating a higher level of understanding, purpose, acheivement.

    I find most fiction boring to read, because there’s so much interesting non-fiction out there, but I still like to hear about a new story.

  • kirk

    Take my favorite story, Huck Finn. Huck’s voice is authentic but not real. That is, I enter another person’s subjective experience. Short of connecting Steven Hawking to an fMRI and connecting my fMRI and comparing the two while I read A Brief History of Time, what true account transports me to Hawking’s subjective state? The subjective state of mutual knowledge of the math may be there but is my subjective state of the ‘meaning’ of time the same as Hawking? I think not – I simply do not have equal math/physics competence to become ‘the same’. What’s going on in Huck (or Ismael’s) head? It’s on the page. Also, is “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” true? Can I get inside HST’s head without mescaline?

  • Richard Dice

    I think truth is highly valuable. I enjoy reading (or otherwise consuming) stories.

    I think “Dune” is a great book. I don’t think it’s a true book, but it doesn’t have to be.

    I’ve read the Bible and I was impressed with how readable much of it was as a story. I think “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a fantastic musical, and I’m fond of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” I enjoy the stories. Again, I don’t think they’re true.

    I am uncomfortable with people who can’t tell the difference between “enjoyable story” and “true.” With reference to religion, I have heard the phrase: “it doesn’t work because it’s true; it’s true because it works!” And I have some sympathy for this way of looking at things. But I think a word other than “true” needs to be used. They’re using the word wrong, or using the wrong word.

    Get a new word for whatever “it” is that they’re using “true” for now, and then I’m much more comfortable. It’s like there’s some whacked-out syllogism involved…

    a) Truth is highly valuable
    b) I find my religion to be highly valuable to me
    c) Therefore my religion is true.


  • Stephen P

    Defining “truth” solely as verifiable facts is still popular today among the sophisticated, but it has been shown to be fatally flawed even by its originatorsew. Read some about the rise and fall of verificationism/ logical positivism if you have the time and patience.

    If this phenomenon that you’re discussing is correct—that being raised on stories makes you a better person—then I would suggest that this gives us some grounds to think that stories touch on more complex aspects of truth, moral truth, for example.

  • What aspects of a fictional story are believable is in the eye of the beholder. Apparently the US Military didn’t assist with the filming of The Avengers movie because the plot line was too unbelievable. In other words, the idea that there was some international agency that protected the Earth was too unreal.

    Moviegoers and comic fans know that S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Samuel L. Jackson’s super-spy Nick Fury, is an international peacekeeping/global surveillance/crisis response/quasi-military organization. But its relationship with the United States is murky. And that basically stopped the U.S. military, which is normally eager to cooperate with the film industry on blockbuster movies, from teaming up with the Avengers.

    “We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it,” Phil Strub, the Defense Department’s Hollywood liaison, tells Danger Room. “To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything” with the film.

    Those flying guys in tights? Totally believable. An international agency working for peace, justice and the welfare of all humanity? Totally not believable.

  • Misha Gurevich

    Simple answer: stories are fun. I would not become religious because the experience would be horrifically unfun, and I won’t give up stories for the same reason.

  • It’s also important to think on the margin here. Stories are everywhere, so you can’t stop, but it’s probably beneficial to cut down. Mix in ted talks and documentaries with your Mad Men.

  • Assume that stories are generally composed of misleading information. Does it follow that they make people less aware of the truth, overall? Well, scientists know more truth about the world (in their respective fields at least) than others, and many of them claim to have been inspired by science fiction.

    Thus it could be argued that while stories may be “locally” misleading in the short term (take the majority of people’s laughable notions of cryonics which are based largely on what makes a good story), they can still be helpful to the learning *process* by establishing reward loops in formative minds which cause people to continue seeking information in given categories. In turn this increases the available truth as a general commodity.

    It could also be argued that stories are “easily unlearnable” lies which substitute for “hard to unlearn” delusions. This harks back to what I was saying about “hating on” or analyzing stories as a form of rationality training. By seeing what is wrong with a story you are less likely to form a similar delusion about reality. In the absence of the story’s existence you might lack the attention span for such details.

  • Molly

    Interesting. (For lack of space I will skip the social status implications raised and jump straight into apologetics.)

    One of the reasons I am a Christian is because I find the stories so potent. As a multi-cultural library of oral histories, the Bible is littered with resonant stories. Deliciously, later writers reference what has come before, casting meaning through the lens of their own contemporary experience. We add an additional layer by reading these parables in the present tense. Conversely, today’s fiction and television generally disappoint. Contemporary narratives often lack the prismatic quality of religious texts, perhaps as a result of being worked over by fewer writers.

    Being “faithful” does not require a suspension of disbelief. While I, as a devout, church-going, Christian do not believe in the literal truth of someone becoming un-dead, the metaphor of resurrection is in itself truthful and compelling. (E.g.: resurrection as a comment about how our ideas and actions can flourish beyond our own mortality; resurrection as a reminder that things sometimes change radically for the better just as we give up hope.) Similarly, the horn blows that sent the walls of Jericho tumbling down reveal the truth of the transcendent power of collective action- be it genocidal or philanthropic. Religiosity is not an abdication of reason, it is an embrace of the power of parable.

  • M.

    I’m sorry, but this is one of the most stupid questions I’ve ever read. It suggests that economists invent problems out of nowhere just so that they can give an “economic” answer to them, no matter how artificial & shallow.

    Those who reject religion because they think it false but enjoy fictional stories are not being inconsistent. They think stories false as well. They just find thinking about hypothetical worlds & scenarios entertaining for many reasons & these same people could appreciate biblical stories as fiction as well. Note that building scientific models & coming up with theories about the world involves hypotheticals as well. What these people object to is accepting that the body of propositions that comprises a religious doctrine are literal truths without there being any evidence in favor of that.

    As to the question of why a person who dislikes stories would be seen as suspect, well, what if you met a person who disliked all music, or all art & science, philosophy, etc. It might be that they’re fine people but an inability to appreciate such cultural products often speaks of a lack of intelligence/sensibility or both since these products are actually interesting.

    • Nan

      Thank goodness — a comment based on sanity. I am bewildered by this whole discussion.

      Who reads fiction but doesn’t understand it is a virtual world through which we think about the real world? Kids figure out what fictionality is by the time they are 3 or 4. Although there has always been narrative story-telling, the idea of fiction per se only emerged in modernity, where counter-factual thinking of all kinds became everyday mental habits.

  • Chris Oakes

    As I’m sure many have pointed out, there is a greater truth than facts. To live a life based on research conducted over the past few decades, and eliminate millenia of real human existence, is to live a decidedly selfish and closed life. Stories have been – and always will be – the impetus for a better society. (And, yes, sometimes bad stories create worse societies, but those stories have – so far – always been eventually eradicated by the better and good stories.)

  • Lord

    Do stories make us less able to see reality or make us more want to alter reality? Do we believe the world more just, or that the world ought to be more just? Do we believe the world more just, or in our power to make it more just? Does believing the world less just, make us less able to believe we can change and less willing to try?

  • I did in fact give up reading fiction, for some of the same reasons mentioned. I can’t say I gave up all stories (I don’t watch movies that often, nor do I own a tv though). One of the reasons I was willing to give up reading fiction is that I became more interested in reading non-fiction and there was clear competition/substitution between the two. Not so much for other media (documentaries exist but are relatively scarcer and don’t seem to match non-fiction books).

  • Derek Scruggs

    I personally make an effort not to view my life as a narrative and believe I am happier as a result. About three years ago, around the time I was getting divorced, I had the realization that I was too attached a “script” for my life. Once I let go of that life seemed to get a lot easier.

    • Sternhammer

      “In a period of struggle and suffering, the protagonist made a wise (even heroic) choice and that led to a happy(er) ending.” Dude, that is SO a narrative.

  • Derek Scruggs

    Also, I didn’t give up fiction, but I’m less tolerant of fake exoticism. For example, I think Game of Thrones would be a lot less popular if the characters had names like Bob and Jessica. Presumably in its universe a name like Daenerys Targaryen is commonplace. And it if weren’t, the characters would say something about it.

    • Careless

      All those wacky names like Rob, Ed, Jon, and Rick, eh? And the Targyrean names are exotic, they’re invaders to the land.

  • arch1

    A loaded question for those commenters who avowedly avoid stories:

    Do you sometimes consciously consider the consequences of your own alternative courses of action?

    If No, I’d really like to hear more about how you get through your day. If Yes, I’d be interested in the principled value distinction you are apparently drawing between such conscious consideration on the one hand, and “stories” on the other.

  • Brian

    Can’t believe you bring up stories without mentioning Tyler’s wonderful and hilarious story about the danger of stories.

  • Kith

    I think stories are way more important than anybody has really hit on yet. A story, any fiction, is the result of a counterfactual of the form “if the world was like {specification}, with {people} in {situation}, then {result}”. But that form could also be used to describe our entire decision-making process with the particulars of our present decision and available options substituted for the variables.
    Without our ability to process counterfactuals in this way, our brains would require a completely different capacity to select actions in any (new) situation. This isn’t just different from religion, we’ve moved on to questioning a core process of our minds! You can’t live without stories because your brain is producing them continuously as part of its decision-making process! Our tendency to generate fiction for entertainment, I expect, either helps to train or exercise this function of the brain, or comes (originally) largely from individuals in whom this facility is exaggerated in some way.
    And if, as I have suggested, fiction is found to be a function of the hardware, then (at least at some point in our collective history) storytelling must help us to be a more successful animal.

    As for religion, that seems like a case of believing some of our older stories to be true just because they’ve been around for a long time. I, for one, reject this: older ideas are at least as suspect as new ones, and as subject to criticism, skepticism and, ultimately, as subject to disbelief on appropriate grounds.

  • Robert Hagedorn

    Google First Scandal.

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  • arch1

    if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth?

    Well, for starters..

    1) That subset of fiction which calls itself religion seems to have, on average, much smaller and often even negative benefits (wrt entertainment, instruction, moral growth, etc.) and much higher costs (.don’t get me started) than fiction generally.

    2) Religion tends to be bundled with meta-beliefs (the virtues of uncritical belief, the virtues of all-or-nothing belief, the suffering in store for nonbelievers or apostates, the importance of attacking or ostracising or being wary of nonbelievers, etc, etc) which I find odious and in some cases actively destructive.

    3) Religion tends to be bundled with practices and appurtenances which I find uninspiringly tedious on average, and at worst life-demeaning or mind-numbingly stultifying. (I do like a good stained glass window, though, and the music can be really cool).

    I could go on.

  • you blow my mind, always!

  • Doji Star

    Is the suggestion here really that we should just have no mental models at all and just, uh, objectively observe sensory data without trying to interpret? Because, you know, we could be wrong every time we do that. Probably consistently.

    Good luck with that.

    Also, how is non-fiction somehow more true than actual “stories”? I’ve rarely read non-fiction works without biases, axes to grind, or statements to make — and they’re not presented as obviously not true. And the rare “collections of data” works out there are not only boring but seem to have little point, except perhaps to experts in those fields (who know how to fit them into their existing mental models).

  • rosa

    RH: ‘The only “stories” they want are accurate histories of representative people.’

    There is no such thing as a perfectly accurate history. Histories – like ANY body of data – leave things out. In that way, they are just like stories.

    What is a representative person? We’d have to make a judgment about which features we care about before we can judge whether someone is “statistically” representative of them.

    Also, social norms shape the social world. If today’s delusion that the world is more just than it really is results in tomorrow’s world actually being more just, then that might be a worthwhile trade-off. (Especially once I note that I myself don’t need to be one of the deluded for this to work … )

    I wouldn’t give up stories because – as several commenters have already pointed out – stories are like models. False models are a good way (perhaps our only way?) of getting closer to the truth. In examining how and where they fail, we see make better models — which are still just stories.

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  • I’d just like to point out that it is possible to enjoy art and meaning without narrative. Any abstract work. Or just something transparently nonsensical but still very visceral, like Mulholland Drive. Someone in a comment on this page mentioned “getting into a character’s head”. This does not require narrative if all you care about were their feelings and sensations, which does not require you to actually know the stories they tell about their own lives. Not in the usual great detail we expect from something we would call a “story” in any case. When you inquire as to the source of a friend’s sadness, all you need is the immediate context, not the entire story of their lives they situate that in.

  • I am an atheist, but not an a-mythicist, nor an a-religionist.
    Religions which exclude and kill stories are my beef.
    So I guess I am PRO-story: Let’s see, “prostorist” — hmm, sounds good.

  • valter

    The point of the post seems that a truth-seeker should avoid stories because (even if known as false) they introduce/increase some kinds of subconscious biases that would later take the truth-seeker further away from truth.

    I guess that similarly a truth-seeker should exercise, eat healthily, sleep well and generally keep its brain in tip-top shape to reduce the chance of future errors.

    But truth-seekers are typically not monomaniacal; they may also crave for unhealthy foods eaten on a comfortable armchair while reading a good (fiction) book until very late at night. So they may well take a gamble on corrupting their brain with stories (assuming it is indeed such a gamble), but justly bulk at forcing themselves to swallow a whole load of nonsense for some unclear practical gain in the future (since any such gain seems to have too high a price in terms of truth-distance).

    In sum, pleasure-seeking/lazyness/high discount factors seem (to me) simpler and more likely explanations than status-seeking.

    • valter

      Just to clarify: I think the explanation (e.g., laziness/high discount factors/status seeking, etc.) is needed only if the “price” (in terms of some kind of disutility from distance to truth) of reaping the benefits from falsely believing in religion is lower than the “price” of letting oneself misled by pleasurable stories.

      Btw, I take (from introspection) disutility from falsehood to be a primitive value, not just instrumentally derived from other benefits of having true beliefs – that is why I am commenting here and not in the “What Use Far Truth” post.

  • John Thacker

    What I find particularly strange is the writings of Phillip Pullman, where in his plot he basically accuses religion of being hostile to stories and imagination in general. It always struck me as an odd tact to take. (I could see criticizing religion as competing, inferior stories.)

  • Philo

    “They prefer instead to stay focused on the real world.” Of course, *real-life* stories are played out in the real world. But counterfactual stories can also tell us a lot about the real world, about the hidden aspects of the world that would reveal themselves if certain events or situations occurred which, as it happens, never do actually occur. A lot of what we want to know about the world concerns what would happen if such-and-such happened or were the case, though it may well be that such-and-such will never, in fact, happen or be the case. Good fiction tells us how certain combinations of real-world elements would play out, though these elements may never actually be combined.

    It is so obvious that this can be important information that the story-incurious person you describe is really hard to imagine.

    (Confusingly, you seem to equate *stories* with *stories that describe a world characterized by poetic justice*.)

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  • I’ve noticed recently that religion and stories are tightly linked. I went to what I think is my first Catholic Mass ever (a memorial service in San Francisco) and was struck by how much of the service is a collective affirmation of the congregant’s “belief” in a certain set of stories. Jewish holidays as well tend to revolve around them. A religion is essentially a community built around a set of narratives that people hold in common and regularly meet to reaffirm.

    Also, this article on “Narrababble” seems relevant.

  • RJ

    I’m sure someone has pointed this out already, but isn’t religion just a collection of stories from which we derive values? I’m a culturally Hindu atheist, but I have a lot of fondness for my religion, particularly because of the rich and instructive mythology. The lessons I learn from those stories still have a significant bearing on my life, despite the fact that I don’t believe that those stories actually happened.

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  • gtcostello

    1) Stories are entertaining. Religion is boring.
    2) The author of a story does not demand that you believe the story is true. Religion makes this demand.
    3) A story can be “true” in terms of an idea or an emotion conveyed without being “real”. Religion at its best has some of this as well, but insists on be taken all of a piece, encrusted in superstitious, hateful nonsense

  • theod

    Let’s also believe in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Batman (not Robin), and the monsters under my bed. Where does one stop? There’s nothing wrong with stories as long as one doesn’t conflate fiction with fact. It’s an adult thing to do. Religion is mostly an adults’ response to a random and chaotic universe and the resultant need to reduce the anxiety that results with some sort of overarching order and management. It’s infantilization at the emotional level.

  • Julian Ginos

    No, you are incorrect. Stories are just how most humans understand the world. All religions are stories, not all stories are religion.

    Your argument is the highbrow version of pointing out that bullets have carbon, and pencils have carbon, so what kind hypocrite am I with my fancy pencil? I AM JUST AS MUCH A MURDERER AS A MUJAHADEEN!

    If this is just you getting off on having friends who are too stupid to rebut you properly, have at it.

    I reject religion not merely because it is untrue (which as you have perceptively noted is a characteristic shared by The Wire) but because religion is/ religions are lies about vastly more important things than what The Wire lies about. They lie about the creation of the fucking universe, the proper social order, how we should conduct ourselves, who it’s okay to fucking kill.

    Now obviously, one could make a religion out of a story – I could watch lots of “24” and decide I’m empowered to run around torturing people to stop terrorists, even though I’m a twit in a bathrobe. But the problem isn’t indulging in a story, it’s in the taking it fucking seriously enough to BAN GAY PEOPLE FROM GETTING MARRIED. OR EXECUTE WOMEN WHO GOT RAPED.

    Enjoy your pageviews.

  • Ken Pidcock

    I have never been asked to stand and assert that I believe a particular fictional account to actually be true. Hanson seems to see religion as something much more tame than what is lived by most religious people, suggesting rather limited experience with it.

  • Josh

    This is an interesting question, but it’s worth pointing out that of the three posts linked to up top, two excerpts refer to the same research, and the third might too. And the researcher focused first solely on TV, and then on the effects of kids’ books and films on kids. So I wonder how firm the broad conclusion really is (that stories warp our perspectives), and I wonder even more whether it really tells us anything about, say, reading “adult” literature that doesn’t automatically deliver happy or thematically consonant endings, as opposed to watching Law & Order.

  • TStacy

    Simply put, this is one of the dumbest things I’ve read in the past year. Wow.

  • Daniel

    Stories are just a version of a gedankenexperiment. I can read a story and live a life that I will never do in my reality, either because of inclination or ability. But you are asking me to instead change my real life to the experiment. To intentionally live my real life in the experiment. But then it is no longer an experiment, it is just my life.

  • John D.

    To fully engage in a fictional story, one does not need to believe that it’s true; in fact, you could say that you’d always know it is “just a story.” But to -fully- engage in a religious faith, it’s essential to believe that it’s true. There are those, in various religions, who only go “so far” in their beliefs (in terms of accepting whatever precepts / dogma is required), but those people are not 100% engaged in their religion without having that faith.

  • Michael

    Strange question. Shows how believers and unbelievers seem to miss each other even on the most basic assumptions.

    Fiction is a cultural artifact that makes no claim to truth.

    Religious scriptures of various sorts claim the status of indivisible universal truth on the basis of revelation, faith, tradition, and the evidence of the material world before us. Despite the fact that there’s a bunch of them and they can’t all be true, although believers usually retreat to deism in the face of that argument. My view is religion is simply a cultural artifact not much different to fiction.

    Science is our closest approximation to truth.

  • Jim Slark

    The author is a christianist and as such has an obligation to convert others, which turns the process into a power struggle. Atheists have no place in the narrative because they resist conversion, as such their trust is questioned.
    It’s not a matter of ‘far truth’. The only truth in the matter is that god doesn’t exist, and nothing the author and his brethern can do will change that fact. If they could then god will be a fact, which can never happen. So they write articles like this, to keep the charade going. When the process gets strong enough then theocracy happens, and truth disappears. It is a power thing. Coat it any way you want, but this truth is simple.

  • Misaki

    Fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.

    Not all fiction has happy endings, and not everyone is interested in stories that always have a happy ending.

    As for the middle part, and this bit…

    Fiction, by constantly exposing us to the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place.

    The short answer to that is a quote by Machiavelli:

    It was the verdict of ancient writers that men afflict themselves in evil and weary themselves in the good, and that the same effects result from both of these passions. For whenever men are not obliged to fight from necessity, they fight from ambition; which is so powerful in human breasts, that it never leaves them no matter to what rank they rise. . . .

    Is that “affliction from evil” the same as justice? Some people may feel it is.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

    Because there’s a lot of examples of people from all walks of life living happily and successfully without religion. Not so for living without stories.

  • Dan

    It’s interesting that I before identifying with atheists I began to lose my interest in fiction of all kinds. Fake stories tend to be boring, unless they successfully attempt to reflect some aspect of reality that may be difficult to see when presented in a more straight forward manner. (which is difficult to achieve and therefore rare)

    There are still ‘stories’ that interest me, but there are the ones that try to reflect reality as much as possible.

    I do see that many people find this threatening in some way. I used to think that it was because of WHAT I was thinking, but too often I find it is THAT I am thinking.

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  • Raven

    What religious myths and stories intended as fiction have in common is that when they serve a purpose, it is to illuminate some truth about the human condition, regardless of whether the actual events spelled out on the page are literally true. Or to put it another way:

    “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
    ― G.K. Chesterton

    Where religion falls short is exactly where any other claim falls short: at the point where it tries to proclaim as true something that is in fact false. The Bible does that on the first page, as surely as an account of an alien abduction or a bigfoot sighting.

    The author of this piece also seems to be committing one very fundamental error that the religious sometimes make, which is the fallacy of assuming that because someone is an atheist and lacks a belief in the supernatural, it follows that they must be missing some other part of the human experience. This is not true, and never has been.

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  • Andrew

    Man this is a beach ball set on a tee, so allow me to knock it off vigorously: Religious faith is predicated on believing the “stories” are at least mostly true. When one watches a fictional film or reads a fictional book, they do so EXPLICITLY KNOWING that it is indeed fiction and that they shouldn’t take it as truth. To turn your questions around, what would you think of someone who walked around saying that “The Avengers” is real, or that he hopes to meet Dorian Gray one day? Would you hire that person? Would you want to be their friend?

    • Ben Southwood

      Do you not think people’s view of the world is affected by the fictional stories they read & enjoy?

      • Pavel Beidyk

        Yes, but no in the way religion does. Realigion affects reality. Fiction only is manifestation of people’s believes formed into stories. It’s pourpouse is to share a point, not to enforce it.

  • Betty

    I personally feel like there is nothing wrong in reading a good fiction novel every now and then. Sometimes that is just what I need to stop thinking about all of the troubles in my life. I have been having a lot of stress in my life lately and I have to say that my latest read, “SportsFan Chronicles” by Kurt Weichert was just what I needed to get my sanity back- humorous books usually do.

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  • Stargirl

    need more infor but it sing good

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  • Philip Goetz

    It’s depressing that few of the commentators appear to have understood your point. Most object that enjoying fiction is very different from believing a religion. But it isn’t. These people, who think there is a qualitative distinction between enjoying a story and believing it to be factually true, have no understanding of how human minds work.

    The research and common sense both suggest that reading fiction actively gives people less-realistic views of the world. Now, this depends on what fiction you read! Popular fiction makes people feel good by telling them that they’re good and the accepted social norms are good. But some fiction can help you become sensitive to or understand other viewpoints. It’s always a mix, though; no one ever really writes truth. But I think there is fiction that does more good than harm to its readers.

    The bottom line is that rationalists usually fetishize truth. Learning how to pursue truth objectively is both so general-purpose and so difficult that the instrumental goal of being rational is responsible for more rewards and reinforcement than any of the end goals it is used for, and eventually it displaces them in the organism’s value system.

    • Pavel Beidyk

      You don’t know how human mind works eighter. Fiction is no different from religion? What? The fiction is just people telling stories, that may be based on reality, but are not true. But religion was created to indoctrinate human being. For that matter, we have fiction that is realistic and is create in such way so that it can be as close as to truth as possible.
      Fiction that does more good than harm? I agree. The Bible or other religious books.

      • Philip Goetz

        You’re right that I don’t know how the mind works well enough to assert fiction is no different from religion. I don’t remember now why I said that.

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  • rrobbymiller

    Kirkus Reviews sums up one piece of atheist fiction, “Death and other Taxes” with the words, “In his often disturbing yet
    oddly endearing first novel, Miller creates a kind of
    “Jabberwocky”-style story in
    which fans of strange, Seuss-ian characters… will feel right at
    home… Yet the story is so whimsically told that the Through the
    Looking Glass frivolity starts to make a strange sort of sense.”

    Hurt, a full-time freelance writer who specializes in literature,
    health and science journalism says, “This book seemed to me like The
    Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy meets Dante… Joan Didion wrote that
    “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Miller is telling himself,
    and us, stories to help us deal with death. As [the boy] eventually
    comes to accept and understand his death, the reader comes to accept the
    deaths of us all.”

    This fant-sci novel
    (fantasy rooted in footnotes) fills a niche between atheist apologetics and pure imagination. It is
    designed to question popular notions of eternity through telling a new
    story in order for us to to live with the reality of Death – who,
    incidentally, is characterised as you’ve never seen her before.

    The point of the discussion is that fictions helps us come to grips with fact, which the study demonstrates. Religion is the inability to tell fact from fiction – but the study does not explore the denial of facts and what that does to a person’s moral compass –

  • Nick M

    This is an interesting question, because it seems to assume that I can give up story.

    Yes, I suppose I can stop reading fantasy novels bordering on chic-lit and watching sit-coms, but those are only invented story forms and can therefore be avoided. The acts of storytelling and storylistening seems to be unavoidable and intrinsic parts of being a human animal; they seem to be my modus operandi for organizing my experience.

    Nearly every waking moment, my mind is flooded with a stream of comments, images, judgements and the like, all bubbling and congealing into stories I believe accurately reflect my experience—what I believed happened today, why I chose to do what I did, that the physical world is as it appears to be through the lens of my human body, who I am, the nature of ultimate reality, and so on. Then, when I come home to my girlfriend, meet with friends, or call my family for a chat, I also tell stories about these things for the same reasons, only this time I receive feedback (their stories about my experience and their own) to keep myself accurate or even to convince them to adopt my version of reality. I tell stories to myself and others and I seek out stories from others to understand myself, the world, and our relationship.

    I may also mix symbols into these stories to better express my abstract mental experience. Or, perhaps I tell purely fictional stories using symbolism to communicate my experience in ways that pure facts cannot.

    Your question is, “if I give up the benefits of religion, because I love far truth, why not also give up stories to gain even more far truth?”

    My response is that I do have a love of Truth (though, aspire to be present in the moment to moment rather than the past and future) and I have given up the benefits of religion to quell my uncertainties. However, I cannot seems to give up stories, because they are how I organize my experience. Without stories—telling and listening to my own and the stories of others—is what allows me to operate at all.


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  • Good question. I wouldn’t say that stories are necessarily misleading.

    I would compare them to nuclear power. They are powerful and can be used for good and bad things. Obviously, the more the story tells you something about reality the better.

    The problem with news, TV and most movies is that they drift too far away from reality. You already named some good examples like the all to common happy endings, just world assumptions, fear spreading, etc.

    But what if stories are used as a medium to tell us something about reality? The book “Atlas Shrugged”, although it some flaws, told me about the problems of communism and why true altruism (putting the goals of others before your own) would never work. “The Wolf of Wall Street” tells us something about the hedonic treadmill and that money will never be enough.

    I think we shouldn’t abandon stories altogether. Only cut out the ones that distort reality.

  • Jeff Palmer

    Stories based on religion yes, I am a Journilst at the cnn center also a poet & author. Stories or truth is a broad spectrum to narrow it down to make your case. I am not religious, yet soirtitual as well as literal case in point; string theory is based on a holographic principle. That at our furthest point of our comsos relaying information that we perceive in our 3-D perception viewed everyday. Quantum brain never dies, that within itself is a story of fantasy/reality conundrum.

  • wordwar

    Storytelling is part of human life. Every communicative, social human does it. “What did you do today?” …”Well, first…” and there you have it, a story. Some stories recount historical events. Even those “real” stories are going to be told in the most interesting and engaging way possible, otherwise the audience will walk away. But then this begins to skew and distort the “truth”. The story about your business trip will probably just cover the highlights. The fact that you spent most of your trip sitting on a plane, in a cab, or in a waiting room isn’t interesting so it is filtered out of the story.
    We also create stories in our minds to role-play imagined scenarios, some of which are planned and expected to actually take place, while others are imagined only as contingency. Most people will try to imagine some of the most likely events, questions, and “good” answers in preparation for job interview. The guy who imagines all sorts of ways to impress a desirable woman he meets by happenchance is more likely to succeed at getting somewhere with such a women should a real life encounter take place.
    A variety of fiction helps us prepare for realities we have yet to encounter. Good fiction should help us to question our pre-conceived notions of right and wrong, good and bad, desirable and undesirable. But fiction is just the imagination of our peers, some of whom develop insights that spread virally until they come to be known as “great” or “classic”. At the end of the day, absorbing and relying too much on gleaming “truth” from fictional stories can only take us so far and can in fact be detrimental.
    Classic Western tall tales told us how you shouldn’t draw your weapon unless the bad guy draws first, that good guys wear white hats and never shoot an unarmed man, and certainly never shoot a man in the back. But such tales just cloud our collective minds when confronted with the reality of using violence in self defense. Is it wrong for me to shoot the terrorist in the back when he is wearing a suicide vest and running toward a school shouting violent threats? If I own a gun am I wrong to use it in self defense when an angry gang chases me with clubs?
    Fundamentally, literature tends to make an argument through the telling of a parable, which is also done with religion. The fatal mistake we make is to never challenge the presumptions of the story. Many stories will have you convinced that as long as you don’t give up you will be the winner eventually. But how many people have racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt pursuing a law degree they simply don’t have the ability to complete. The key is to enjoy stories and imagine role-play scenarios, but don’t allow yourself to be lead into a delusion from an over-indulgence in fiction. Keep it balanced with rational thought and reason as well as a news feed of factual information from the real world, both the good and the bad. Learn to recognize and accept reality. Refusing to accept reality leads to the invention of religions.

  • Rationalist

    There is a clear difference in choosing to be religious and choosing to partake in a story. By being religious, you profess belief in some set of ideas on the nature of the world. If you read a fictional story, there is no belief. Religions are supposed to be taken as fact. It is non-fiction, whether it’s true or not. Fictional stories are known to not be true. You don’t sacrifice any of a love for truth as you’ve put it by digesting the contents of a fictional story, because none of the events of the story are taken as fact, whereas religious texts are to be taken as fact. Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” When reading fictional stories, you know that the events aren’t real, but entertain the circumstances created in the story to be able to increase our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. This is the point of the stories, and they thereby aid in the search for truth, as we have to ask ourselves questions about how we would relate in similar situations. The authors own ideas shown in the story may not be what you personally believe in, but the educated mind can entertain the ideas and not believe in them, increasing our knowledge of the truth by opening ourselves up to others viewpoints. Religions are made to be believed without any real semblance of proof, there is no entertaining the idea, only acceptance of it. This is where truth falls out the window, as where there is no proof, the truth cannot be ascertained.

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