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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Fictional Stories as Thought Experiments

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

According to James Robert Brown’s article in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, thought experiments are “devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things.” (This definition makes fiction itself a grand and complex thought experiment, we may argue.) Among the more famous of such experiments are “Newton’s bucket, Maxwell’s demon, Einstein’s elevator, Heisenberg’s gamma-ray microscope, and Shrodinger’s cat”:


Schrödinger's cat. . . does not show that quantum theory (as interpreted by Bohr) is internally inconsistent. Rather it shows that it is conflict with some very powerful common sense beliefs we have about macro-sized objects such as cats. The bizarreness of superpositions in the atomic world is worrisome enough, says Schrödinger, but when it implies that same bizarreness at an everyday level, it is intolerable. . . . Einstein's elevator showed that light will bend in a gravitational field; Maxwell's demon showed that entropy could be decreased. . . . Newton's bucket showed that space is a thing in its own right; Parfit's splitting persons showed that survival is a more important notion than identity when considering personhood (“Thought Experiments”).

Thought experiments are just as important to philosophy, Brown observes, as they have proven to be to science: “Much of ethics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind is based firmly on the results of thought experiments,” and, to illustrate his observation, he identifies several of the more important philosophical thought experiments: “Thompson's violinist, Searle's Chinese room, Putnam's twin earth, Parfit's people who split like an amoeba.” (We might add the example of the philosophical zombie, discussed in a previous post, as well.)

Describing an early thought experiment, which appears in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Brown identifies three “common features of thought experiments”: “We visualize some situation; we carry out an operation; we see what happens.”


Like special effects, thought experiments can be conducted even when actual conditions or moral considerations make an actual experiment impossible or objectionable.

Occasionally, thought experiments might help to revolutionize scientific theory as well, according to Thomas Kuhn: “a well-conceived thought experiment can bring on a crisis or at least create an anomaly in the reigning theory and so contribute to paradigm change” (Brown). For additional benefits from, and some objections that scientists and philosophers have advanced concerning the use of thought experiments, those which were conducted by the likes of Newton and Einstein notwithstanding, check out Brown’s article (liked above).

We suggest that, before science, there were also thought experiments, called fiction (or, before fiction was recognized as invented rather than of an inspired or an empirical origin), as myths, folktales, and legends. Ancient Greek (and Egyptian and Norse) myths were of special significance in establishing the ways by which storytellers and their audiences (pretty much all of any society of the time) understood, thought about, and interpreted themselves and the world around them. Such stories, from time to time, also sought to investigate the possibilities of human existence and of nature. At such times as these, the myths became what we could call narrative or dramatic thought experiments. Even today, stories, especially in the fantasy and science fiction genres, continue to pose and conduct thought experiments about all aspects of human existence and nature itself. Horror fiction also conducts such experiments on occasion (as the popularity of the mad scientist, for example, suggests).

Brown’s analysis of Lucretius’ thought experiment led him to posit three features characteristic of all thought experiments: “We visualize some situation; we carry out an operation; we see what happens.” The what-if mode of envisioning stories (an abbreviated way of saying “What might happen if”), common, once again, to fantasy and science fiction (and to alternate history stories) virtually demands such an approach, at least at times, but horror fiction and literature in other genres can do so, too. In horror fiction, we might ask, “What if a chemical compound could, when ingested, cause abnormally large growth in the animals that had consumed it?” The result of this visualization of a specific situation, carried out by the telling of the tale, might be H. G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, in which the result is shown to be an imminent war between the haves (the “Children of the Food” and the have-nots (the “Pygmies”) to determine whether growth shall win out over the non-growth of the status quo.

Unhampered by modern science’s knowledge of natural laws, Greek myths (as well as those of other ancient nations) asked what-if questions with the abandonment that can result only from the naiveté of the abysmally ignorant:

  • What if a person (or maybe a demon) could assume whatever shape it chose, for as long as it chose to do so?
  • What if a person were of gigantic size and had a single eye in the middle of his forehead?
  • What if a creature were half-man and half-horse?What if a creature were half-woman and half-fish?
  • What if a horse, having wings, could fly?
  • What if men and women lived forever and could rule over various aspects of nature?
  • What if one man had the strength of twenty men?
  • What if women could fight as good as--no, better than--men?
  • What if a woman had a baby after being raped by the devil?
  • What if God mated with a mortal woman?
  • What if a house were haunted by a vengeful ghost?

Horror fiction asks similar (or, indeed, on occasion, identical) questions, but with an emphasis on the horrific:
  • What if a person (or maybe a demon) could assume whatever shape it chose, for as long as it chose to do so? (It)
  • What if a demon could animate a corpse? (Dracula)
  • What if the spirits of the dead exist in some shadowy manner and can interact with humans? (The Turn of the Screw)
  • What if a scientist could cause a body constructed of parts from corpses to live again? (Frankenstein)
  • What if a man could change into a wolf and back again into a man? (The Howling)
  • What if a woman, raped by the devil, gave birth to a son? (Rosemary’s Baby)
  • What if a child abuser, torched by his victims’ parents, returned as a vengeful bogeyman? (Nightmare on Elm Street) \
  • What if an extraterrestrial female came to earth, seeking a mate? (Species)
  • What if vampires came to a small town in modern America? (‘Salem’s Lot)
  • What if a modern-day Cinderella with telekinetic powers had a terrible time at the ball? (Carrie)
  • What if myths were based upon true incidents or creatures? (Dominion)
  • What if the earth were invaded by a Martian military force (The War of the Worlds)
  • What if a scientist tried to create an intelligent, hybrid human-animal species? (The Island of Dr. Moreau)
  • What if a brain could survive inside a decapitated head on life-support? (The Brain That Wouldn’t Die)
  • What if an extraterrestrial creature, trapped in a block of ice, were thawed out by a group of scientists operating an arctic research laboratory? (The Thing)

These and countless other what-if questions allow writers to envision a situation that is improbable or impossible in nature or because of moral concerns, carry out a thought experiment (writing or reading the resulting story), and see what happens. Different genres appeal to different concerns and respond to different issues:

  • Adventure appeals to the desire to escape and to explore new worlds.
  • Detective and mystery stories appeal to the desire to solve a puzzle and to see that justice is served.
  • Fantasy appeals to the desire for experience wonder and awe.
  • Horror appeals to the desire to survive against seemingly impossible odds and to endure great losses and suffering.
  • Science fiction appeals to one’s innate curiosity about the world and the desire to discern the realities behind appearances.
  • Romance appeals to the desire to meet and marry Mr. Right.
  • Westerns appeal to the desire for law, order, and justice, especially for the underdog.

Each genre of fiction is apt to pose imaginary (and imaginative) situations that, peculiarly appropriate to their own purposes, allow writers and readers to “carry out an operation” and “see what happens” with regard to the genres’ own special interests and concerns. As much as the myths, legends, and folktales of yesteryear, contemporary fiction, including horror stories, remains a vast and complex series of never-ending thought experiments that can draw upon not only science and philosophy but also theology, art, and all other cultural realms and practical aspects of human existence.

Source cited

Brown, James Robert. "Thought Experiments.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2007.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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