|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Sunday, April 01, 2012
Twenty-first century science has caught up with my grandmothers. Fiction is indeed nothing but lies, and the best that can be said for it is that it is a harmless if unprofitable diversion. It keeps us out of mischief and passes the time.
The one thing it cannot do is help us to understand human nature and the motivations of other people. If it did, the work done in Departments of English (etc) Literature would be of enormous interest to Departments of (e.g.) Business Studies, Politics, and Sociology. Oddly enough it is not.
For real insight into human behaviour, practical people turn to science.
Psychology has, over the past century, moved from misty speculation and hazy introspection to hard, repeatable laboratory and field experiment. Neuroscience is a hair's-breadth from tracking our thoughts in real time. The dismal truth the convergent sciences of the brain and behaviour have delivered is that our own spontaneous understanding of these matters is specious.
'Folk psychology' and introspection give us no insight at all into our own minds, let alone those of others. The most it can give us is a rough-and-ready 'Theory of Mind' that enables us, with notorious unreliability, to predict the day-to-day actions of our fellows.
How, then, could literary or genre fiction, based as they are - at best - on folk psychology, give us any insight into the human condition? Reading the greatest works of literature will no more help you to understand human behaviour than watching Star Trek will help you discover a method of reaching superluminal velocities. The most it will give you is a selective and partial (in every sense) understanding of the author's own folk psychology.
Reading Jane Austen will certainly help you to understand the mind and heart of a young woman: Jane Austen. It may give you a limited insight in that particular young woman's Theory of Mind. But this is not a great deal of use to you, because you will never meet Jane Austen, who is dead.
And Elizabeth Bennett never existed, except as a figment of Jane Austen's Theory of Mind. Not matter how deeply you think you understand Elizabeth Bennett, it won't help you to overcome pride and prejudice to find the love of your life. Finding the love of your life must be surprisingly easy, considering how often it happens, but this truth is far from universally acknowledged.
[Note, added 2 April, the day after posting: the most significant line in this post is the date-stamp.]