Category Archives: Mind

On Strangeness

The expression “truth is stranger than fiction”, or at least the overuse of it, is a prime example of lazy thinking. The truth is, truth is only stranger than fiction by virtue of its being true. Reality has an unfair advantage over fiction in this regard. If an outlandish piece of fiction, whose strangeness does not otherwise particularly strike any reader, were to occur in real life, people would still say that truth is stranger than fiction. But if it followed the fiction to the letter, how can it be stranger?

When an extremely strange series of events takes place in reality, a quite natural reaction is to comment that “you couldn’t make it up”. If it is truly strange, it is unlikely that someone would have made it up (simply statistically speaking), but it is certain that someone could have made it up. After all, most strange occurrences are the results of human thought and action, and fiction is no less (in fact even more) the product of these things.

Perhaps, then, we should ask: “what do we mean by strangeness?” It seems certain that this is different for reality than for fiction. Perhaps strangeness is simply the feeling that arises when we perceive that something has gone beyond its “natural bounds”. Reality is bounded by many laws—of physics, of psychology—and so if something appears to go beyond these bounds it will give the feeling of strangeness. But the bounds of fiction are much harder to gauge. Ostensibly they are at the whim of the author, and so can be absolutely anything. There are of course the rules that come from narrative convention, but most readers will be aware of a wide enough variety that nothing in this regard will be surprising, at least not surprising enough to engender the feeling of strangeness.

I would submit that the overriding boundary of fiction is that, for the most part, we just don’t believe it. If fiction can make us believe (however different the nature of this belief is to that of real things), then it creates the feeling of strangeness. Reality is the opposite: if it makes us doubt, if it makes us think that it’s a fiction, then it has become strange.

What’s So Good About Optimism?

Why is it good to be an optimist and bad to be a pessimist? An incurable optimist, as has been observed, really is just insecure about his pessimism. A pessimist, on the other hand, might be said to be a true optimist, since she at least doesn’t cower from the truth, and, accepting it as it is, endeavours to go on strongly despite it. These, no doubt, are sweeping statements, but the point that underlies them is that it is very difficult to tell objectively just how optimistic or pessimistic someone truly is; we have to take them at their word—but the very definitions of the words are so slippery that any self-professing of one’s stance is prone more to self-sophistry than anything approaching truth. To give an example: what makes a suicidal person pessimistic? Are they not in fact optimistic, given that they think suicide is a solution—that is, they actually seek a solution? Surely, if we define the optimist as someone who strives for and expects the best, then the suicidal person must be the most irrational optimist of all. More pessimistic is the one who considers suicide, but decides that it is worthless.

All this implies that the suicidal person gives a certain amount of reasonably logical thought to their decision. This is not always true, but if the act itself occurs in a moment of utter despair, or pure irrationality, then surely we can have neither optimism nor pessimism. In that case, even though we can say that the action itself is not one or the other, the person overall is more likely to be an optimist, since an optimist is more likely to be an idealist, and an idealist is less likely to be able to handle eventualities turning out far from ideal.

On another note, it has occurred to me that if to be an optimist is to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, then a theist, assuming that he believes in heaven and that heaven is a possible world, must be a pessimist, despite his apparent optimism about going to heaven.