Saturday, October 01, 2005

Virtual Worlds Conquer Reality


Story-tellers, social theorists, and theologians all create — narratives — that we inhabit through our .

Such imaginary worlds interact with the . They give you and phantoms that affect you physiologically, causing your hair to stand on end, or your tears to flow, or your to mellow you up. There are and ethical consequences as well. The characters in a story show you how to live, or sometimes how not to live, though you may not necessarily draw the message that the creator intended.

Real and imaginary worlds affect each other. To get into a story we have to “” by going along with some plots that may violate common sense. Thus for the moment we may accept the premise that can fly and that sucks human blood and is terrified of garlic.

We may also accept implausible narratives in a deeper sense, developing the conviction for example that water has been turned into wine or that workers can seize control of factories and transform them into idyllic regimes of efficiency and freedom. The relaxing of everyday standards of may allow us to revise our lives and surmount hardship with perfect faith. We carry selected stories around with us, drawing upon them to restore our flagging spirits as each new need arises. is the enduring suspension of disbelief.

Yet there are limits. No psychologist has, to my knowledge, studied the principles by which we decide whether to go along with a story or slam the book shut in disgust. Certainly, however, our decision must depend on whether the plot jibes with our deeper values, at least when we are uncertain whether to suspend disbelief in a serious way. To accept stories about the or is only playful and need not be integrated with our everyday working theories. But if a serious story’s protagonist behaves immorally, we experience an inner conflict: Shall I go along with the character and give him a chance to straighten out, or shall I reject the whole plot as indecent? Our empathy for a character somehow depends on our approval of him. But the relationship between morality and empathy is reciprocal. It is through empathizing that our own views of reality and our own ethical standards undergo change.

Stories do influence us, for good or ill, when the author wins us over, persuading us to with his character and suspend disbelief. If the disbelief remains suspended permanently our world view is changed. The transformation reveals the power, both magical and the insidious, of virtual worlds to alter real ones.

2 Comments:

Anonymous rex said...

I don't think I ever suspend my 'reality testing'! Whether reading fiction or non-fiction, I've got my antenas out to pick up the author's point of view about reality. It's a great way to augment my own very limited point of view. If it is not a cozy fit with my own world view, I try to ponder carefully to decide whether I should alter my viewpoint or stick with it. My main hope is that if I stay open to other posibilities, I can always keep refining my understandings of reality.
I generally assume that when I am moved to tears by an idea, that idea is likely very close to the truth about reality, but I still try to stay open!
When I read fantasies, I still look for the reality (if any) that is underneath. I don't trust an author who has a full moon appear early in the morning, but I enjoy fanciful worlds that have inner consistency. Stories can't alter my world view; only I can do that through a conscious decision.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

I don't say you suspend your reality testing. I think you know what is real and what is not, but you will temporarily accept the unreal more or less as if it were real, and in doing so, you experience things that you might not otherwise. And that influences you.

2:32 AM  

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