Science and Fiction: Analysing the Concept of Fiction in Science and its Limits

Abstract

A recent and growing discussion in philosophy addresses the construction of models and their use in scientific reasoning by comparison with fiction. This comparison helps to explore the problem of mediated observation and, hence, the lack of an unambiguous reference of representations. Examining the usefulness of the concept of fiction for a comparison with non-denoting elements in science, the aim of this paper is to present reasonable grounds for drawing a distinction between these two kinds of representation. In particular, my account will suggest a demarcation between fictional and non-fictional discourse as involving two different ways of interpreting representations. This demarcation, leading me to distinguish between fictional and non-fictional forms of enquiry, will provide a useful tool to explore to what extent the descriptions given by a model can be justified as making claims about the world and to what degree they are a consequence of the model’s particular construction.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This concerns propositions such as “Sherlock Holmes is a detective” versus “Sherlock Holmes is the fifth member of the Sign of Four”.

  2. 2.

    Existence here means the physical existence of entities, that is their concrete being in space and time, and does not involve any possible metaphysical existence of fictional entities (Frigg 2010, 247).

  3. 3.

    A question arising here is whether fiction might be said to be accidentally true. Consider, for instance, the possibility that we find a real person that matches every description of a fictional character’s biography without the author’s knowledge. Is the fictional character now a true description of the real person? A discussion of such an example can be found in (Ryle 1933): “Now suppose by sheer chance, without any knowledge of Dickens, one person had existed, such that the Pickwick Papers were in fact faithful biography. […] it seems obvious that we could not say of the real Mr. Pickwick> Oh, he is not identical with the hero of the story <.” An alternative answer is given in (Danneberg 2006a) Cited is the extended online version: (Danneberg 2006b, 14). I agree with Danneberg that the reason why we intuitively suggest the fictional character is a faithful depiction of a real person only rests on intuition based on a structural similarity by coincidence. There is, however, no causal connection that would allow for the justification of this inference. Therefore, fiction might seem accidentally true, but still lacks argumentative justification for the truthfulness of its claims.

  4. 4.

    Note Eco's own quotation marks.

  5. 5.

    The hermeneutic rules that regulate the reference to general knowledge are the so-called reality principle and the more restrictive mutual belief principle. The principle of reality states that the interpretation of a representation is guided by the assumption of its closest resemblance to the external world. This means that unless there are descriptions suggesting otherwise, for instance, by leading to a contradiction or formulating explicit differences, a representation depends on the same language conventions and truths as the real world. A contextually and historically restrictive version of the reality principle is the mutual belief principle; closest resemblance here is characterised by the norms and conventions that had been held true at the time of the creation of the representation. (Walton 1990, 144–161; Margolin 1991, 109–110).

  6. 6.

    By virtue of their similarity to fiction yet their different epistemic function, examples such as thought experiments, counterfactuals and ceteris paribus clauses have been characterised as ‘Neighbouring Notions’ elsewhere (Albrecht and Danneberg 2011). An analysis of idealisations and theoretical models in comparison with thought experiments, counterfactuals or ceteris paribus clauses might thereby be insightful. Sudgen (2000), for instance, nicely explores theoretical models in economy in this context), yet these do not necessarily describe cases of ‘fiction’ and an analysis of them would, unfortunately, go beyond the scope of this paper.

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Barwich, A. Science and Fiction: Analysing the Concept of Fiction in Science and its Limits. J Gen Philos Sci 44, 357–373 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-013-9228-2

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Keywords

  • Fiction
  • Representation
  • Denoting
  • Reference
  • Philosophy of science