If I’m just a fictional character, can I be Elle Woods?

According to Nick Chater, we know nothing about anything, even ourselves. I suppose that’s an oversimplification. But in an excerpt from his book The Mind is Flat* over at BigThink, he lays out the evidence to show that we make up everything we think about ourselves, especially about our motivations for doing things and our reasons for believing things.

This is the (at times) extraordinarily handsome Rutherford B. Hayes
19th President of the United States (also sometimes attractive)

We’re just fictional characters in our own heads, apparently.

And my first reaction is…so what?

The human organism is so complex why would anybody think their thoughts, memories, and beliefs are rooted in something solid? Think about it…there are articles all over the Tubes about people who suffered for years and years with some affliction or other and finally doctors figured out what was wrong with them. Just recently they discovered what they’re calling a new organ in the lungs (it’s really just some cells with a specific function, but let’s not get pedantic…

Oh, hell, let’s get pedantic…

Hubs complained about the phrase “body part,” because the article’s title is, “Scientists Have Discovered a New Part of the Body Hiding in the Lungs.” Hubs says, “If somebody tells you the police found body parts in the street, what are you thinking of? Arms and legs, right? Not cells, and not even organs. Arms and legs! It’s the alligator all over again!!**”

The point being that scientists and doctors don’t know everything there is to know about the body. Throw the mind into the mix and we know even less. Why would we think that the mind isn’t affected by the body? In fact, we know it is. Chater points to studies that show how adrenaline affects the way we view the world.

I once saw a spider in the garage that I swear was six inches in diameter. That thing was HUGE! But hubs didn’t believe me, probably because he saw a much smaller spider a little later. He says the sight of the spider scared me, so I exaggerated its size in my mind. I say there had to be dozens of spiders in the garage so what does he know?

But what does it matter? Nothing. I could have caught the spider and measured it, and then I’d know how big it actually was. Maybe. Because spiders can curl up their legs…you know…stand up a bit, and look smaller. And honestly, if I managed to catch it, it would probably be because I killed it (which is not something I tend to do to spiders) so it’d be even more curled up. Anyway, this one’s legs were spread out as it clung to the side of a cardboard box. But I didn’t catch it, so I’ll never know and who cares?

The thing about us is that we learn (most of us) and we doubt ourselves (most of us) so just because I might think Rutherford B. Hayes was good looking after I hike part of the Appalachian Trail, doesn’t mean I won’t come back to a picture of him at some later point and wonder what the hell I was thinking. (Read the BigThink excerpt, it’ll all make sense.)

The whole reason I started this post was to say that the title of the article, “We are Fictional Characters of Our Own Creation,” is bullshit. I don’t know if Chater wrote the title, it’s not listed as a chapter title in his book. But it’s just dumb.

Yes, my ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and explanations about my own motives, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are impacted and dependent on my own body, my psychological and physical history, and how I’m perceiving the world around me. But that doesn’t make me a liar. It doesn’t mean that everything I think about myself, or say about myself, is fiction.

I’m not a fictional character. I’m just a human being. Incredibly complex and regularly irrational.

But, if I were a fictional character, if I do say so myself, I’m a rather great one. (Oh, hush and let me have my little moment!)

*You can take Chater’s course The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology at FutureLearn.

It’s a tad odd that the title of the course is one word off from the title of Chater’s book: The Mind is Flat: The Remarkable Shallowness of Human Psychology.

And odder still that the book mentioned in the course description is The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind.

I’d love to hear Nick Chater’s creative defense of all that… (Again, read the article.)

**The alligator…

Well, it drives hubs mad when there’s an article in the paper about an alligator (we’re in Flori-duh) terrorizing a neighborhood or some such and it turns out the thing is a tiny little reptile. An alligator, hubs says, is at minimum 8-feet long. Anything less and it’s not newsworthy. He has a point. And he has a similar theory about plane crashes, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

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