Thursday, June 9, 2011

A wonderful fiction

Imagine you're watching your favorite movie, right now. And suppose I can push a button and alter the plot, killing off the characters you most care about.

You probably wouldn't like that one bit. In fact you probably value their life at a positive amount, and they don't even "exist."

Well, I mean, they do exist, in your mind. Just like real people exist in your mind. Real people exist in the real world, too, and while that fact about them can influence how you think about them in your mind, it's clearly not a necessary condition for caring seriously about them. It seems that real people do not get magical "lexicographic" priority over fictional people.

To some extent everyone recognizes this, but I think there's a generally unspoken tension here. I mean, how much would it bother you if I killed hundreds of your favorite characters? It starts to add up to something significant, an amount that could actually do some real world good towards saving the life of a real person whom you evidently aren't willing to save for that price (since, after all, you aren't).

Now, if it bothers you that you could care more about a bunch of fictional characters than you care about a particular real person, maybe I can help. But only if you're looking for it to stop bothering you...if you want to stop caring about them, you're in the wrong place.  (At Economonomics we don't condemn people for not donating their emergency don't-press-the-button fund to starving-kids-in-Africa).

Okay then. Instead of trying to make any sort of an airtight case, why don't I just say what makes sense to me, and you can push back if something bothers you. Here goes:
  1. First of all, it doesn't matter what state the universe is in, if there don't exist agents who have preferences over those states. There is no "meaning," no "better or worse," before conditioning on the preferences of some agent or agents. But given agents with preferences, we can start to talk about configurations of reality that make them better or worse off. Then, and only then, do we have an up and a down.
  2. Where do preferences live? In minds. Ultimately, all value, all meaning, is created in the mind. That's not to say that the real world doesn't provide inputs into our mental production functions. But utility payoffs are realized in our heads, and there is no value realized outside of a (generalized) "head".
  3. The point is that external reality is not the point. Whether something hails from fiction or reality, it must pass into a mind to be of any value, and inside the mind the playing field is leveled. Inside the mind, nothing is anything but a thought.

The value of a relationship, for example, is not to be found in some intervening feature of the real world between the people involved. The value of a relationship is realized in their minds. It is made of the thoughts that pass through their minds, not something inherent in the fact that they are currently standing close together.

And what if one of the parties is a fictional character? That is, what if there is just one mind in the relationship? The point is, that's more like dividing by 2 than by infinity. And to varying degrees, the same answer applies to the relationship between you and your dog, or perhaps someday, your non-sentient robotic counterpart that behaves as if it were actually realizing value on the other side of the relationship. Therefore it does not bother me, the idea of caring more about fictional people who are passing through one's mind than real people who aren't. And I am not disturbed by the idea of being friends with robots who will seem like humans but never really be "the same."

Now before I go any farther with this, let me just be open about the following. It's easy to start with you caring about a fictional character, and get a very different result about the "value" of that relationship. All we have to do is
  1. Take an external observer, like a next-door neighbor, say, or perhaps someone like this guy.
  2. Endow his own preferences with some degree of importance.
  3. Assert that he cares an awful lot about external reality.
The broad point, though, is that you will find no argument for the lexicographic importance of external reality in reality itself. To get it, you always have to assume it into someone's preferences. If that's your cup of tea, fine, although for what it's worth, my personal feeling is that we're entitled to our own preferences, that other preferences are just as arbitrary and no more valid, whether they belong to neighbors or kings or anyone else. (Incidentally, this is the general professional attitude of economists, the idea of taking preferences as given, without judgment. It does not universally characterize their private attitudes, but due to the exposure, privately they tend to be much less judgmental about preferences than the average person, which many people find refreshing.  It does have a tendency to frustrate the judgy-judgers though).

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Besides being tired of studying for an exam, I wrote this post to kill a few birds with one stone. Some of the carnage is postponed to the future, but here are at least a couple other topics it opens the gateway to:
  • Why one might not be overly obsessed with usefulness, which is usually taken to mean something like "real-world practical significance."
  • Making sense of emotional reactions towards events that we aren't sure happened.
I cannot promise to get to these soon, but they're going in The Urn.

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