Four Values of Information

Copyright 2016 by Paul Connelly

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Why Do Religions Persist?
Premodern, Modern, and Postmodern Eras
The Old Religion

Is It True?

The brave hobbit Frodo brought the magical ring of the evil Sauron into the heart of Sauron's blighted realm, Mordor, and there cast it into a volcano, destroying Sauron's power forever.

True or false?

The lack of context for the preceding two paragraphs may be vexatious to some, while others are likely to find the subject trivial and annoying. Let's pretend I put quotation marks around both paragraphs, to mitigate the first problem very slightly.

Then we can assume it's two people speaking. At which point maybe a third person can chime in, properly irritated and a bit condescending, “Of course it's false, because Frodo and hobbits only exist in fiction, and fiction is false by definition.”

From past experience we likely know that any argument with “by definition” in it is supposed to foreclose all further discussion by fiat. But a fourth person, tone-deaf to this nuance, interjects, “Fiction has truthful statements that can be made about it in its own context. The problem with the original statement is that's it's not even true about a fictional context, because Frodo does not in fact cast the ring into the volcano and destroy it, although that was what he set out to do in Tolkien's epic.”

That might leave the third and fourth person to argue about whether fiction can be truthful or not, but now the original speaker retorts loudly, “Well, I'm writing fanfic, and that's what Frodo does in my version of the scene, which is how Tolkien should have written it!” Obviously Tolkien's ending was too downbeat for this person.

So are we talking about a real event, an event that really occurred in a work of fiction, an event that didn't occur in a work of fiction, an event that occurred in a derivative work based on another work of fiction, or something else altogether?

In the normal course of human interactions, people quickly navigate their way through shifting contexts like this, as long as they understand that they're employing compatible modes of discourse. The fanfic author might be indulged, but if the original speaker claimed that she was disclosing the contents of a divine revelation about a real event, one which the writer Tolkien repeated in a garbled and inaccurate way, the other speakers would most probably be backing away and making their excuses to leave.

When truth or falsehood are mentioned, most of us intuitively understand that those are concepts that can be applied to some but not all communications (oral or written statements and certain non-verbal types of representations). For something to be true, we must know that it definitely has happened, or is definitely happening now, or must be the case by virtue of logical proofs. For us to say that something is false, we must know that it definitely has not happened in the past and that it definitely is not happening now, or that it must not be the case according to logical proofs. Many statements can be resolved to one of these values, especially mathematical theorems and formulae, as well as a large number of statements about the past and the present moment. But a much larger number cannot.

For example, many statements are fictive, not knowably true but taken as if true within an unreal context. The fictive includes fictional events and situations, as might be expected, but it also includes other types of constructed narratives (including many of our memories and our descriptions of who we are), as well as predictions, what if contingencies (which form the bulk of most programming language logic), speculations, and the kind of works that heavily use allusion or symbolism to convey their ideas.

The common characteristics of the fictive are a temporal sequence of events, one or more agents or witnesses whose actions or reactions are themselves part of the sequence described, and one or more contexts in which the sequence of events and the characters can be seen as part of a pattern that is significant and/or memorable. This is obviously a very general statement.

In particular cases, the events may be related as having happened in the past, as being experienced by characters in a timeless present, or as potential happenings in various future situations, and the sequence can be straightforwardly linear from past to future, or cyclical, or jumbled in a way that the reader/listener will need to unravel.

The agents or witnesses may be personalized or abstract, may have a singular or multiple points of view, may or may not include an explicit narrator (whose presence may be overt or barely noticeable), and they may be changed or remain much as they were at the beginning once the sequence of events has run its course. They could be humans, animals, impersonal forces, the author, or even the reader/listener.

The pattern found in the narrative may be readily familiar or (in highly original narratives) may be established by the memorability of this narrative itself, and readers and listeners may perceive very different patterns when applying different contexts.

In addition, some fictive works contain embedded smaller fictive works, which may in turn contain other embedded fictive works, etc. So the fictive extends from extremely terse to exceedingly long and complex works. Even an aphorism, in its familiar context, can encapsulate a narrative or imply its own encapsulation by one. The Arabian Nights and The Saragossa Manuscript are well-known long narratives constructed by stringing together many shorter narratives within a “framing” story. Even very long narratives like Ulysses and The Lord of the Rings include various types of shorter narratives, as scenes, chapters, sub-plots, character arcs, embedded dramas or poetry, discrete incidents, etc. In some cases the shorter segments fold in on themselves or recur in multiple variations, as in The Arabian Nightmare or La Maison de Rendez-vous.

While the term fictive brings to mind fiction novels and short stories, other types of statements and representations that are not definitely true or false can be treated as fictive—for instance, a nonfiction book predicting future events, a scientist's theory purporting to explain past events from fossils or archeological artifacts, the campaigning politician's “true” anecdotes, the stock market analyst's recommendations, interpretive recountings of historical events, even the instruction manual for assembling a DIY kit and the computer program someone wrote that applies interest charges to your credit card balance.

In addition, some communications that were fictive may now be either true or false. That seems counterintuitive, but only if we imagine statements and representations existing in isolation, without context. In its original context, based on the knowledge and evidence available at that time, a communication may be “provisional”, taken as true until we have definite evidence saying that it's true or false. Over time what is provisional may be accepted as true (which often requires a high standard of evidence) or rejected as false (which usually is a simpler affair). This transformation is not magical—some of the things we “know” are true may turn out to be false in light of new evidence. And much of what we believe and many of the beliefs that we encounter are fictive for us, until later events change their status.

The more a message, a story or any similar work takes your mind away from calculations of mathematics and logic, the more it involves you in a world other than the present inputs of your sensory organs, the more likely it is you'll be experiencing a fictive work. There doesn't need to be an explicit “what if” or “suppose that” or “once upon a time” to trigger your recognition of the fictive—it's too large a part of most people's communications, plans and reveries to require that kind of marker.

But there is another alternative. Besides the fictive, you could also be encountering the incoherent—in other words, nonsense, gibberish, random words or images placed together, logical contradiction loops, non sequiturs, static, and other forms of communication “noise”. In human conversations, a certain (by no means small) amount of what's said is simply incoherent: sentences or phrases that are interrupted, that trail off unfinished, that change direction in midstream or lose their point partway through, or that are so syntactically mangled that no meaning can be extracted from them. What we experience as our “train of thought” or “stream of consciousness” can also be afflicted by the same incoherence on a fairly regular basis.

Even when syntax is formally correct, sentences like the famous “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” convey nothing understandable. The incoherent is “not even wrong”, because there is no context in which we can make sense of it sufficiently to say that it's false. And if your everyday speech or writing is too often incoherent, other people are likely to suspect that you are intoxicated, psychotic or suffering from incipient dementia.

But even the incoherent can be employed in communication. It can be startling in a context where one is expecting the continuation of a logical argument or a narrative, and its violation of expectations makes it useful in some types of humor, as well as in iconoclastic genres of art such as dada and surrealism. It can also be used to represent an intoxicated or deteriorating state of mind in a character in a fictive work—notable since conversation in fictive works is usually far more coherent and cleansed of noise than what we encounter in our own lives. Repeated incoherent statements can be used to implant annoying catchphrases or trigger subconscious associations in the minds of listeners (as obviously occurs in much political rhetoric, where even the pretense of making sense is extremely shallow, and—of course—advertising). And the incoherent can be used as a “disruptor”: as a way of breaking out of a well-worn mental or verbal rut by doing violence (in effect) to the meaning of language, as a sword to cut through one's own Gordian (or Laingian) knots, or as a stimulus to “think outside the box.”

Creativity does not begin ex nihilo but by taking existing elements or patterns and recombining or redrawing them in novel ways. The creative act proceeds through stages of incoherence, new combinations and patterns that are nonsensical or pointless but that serve as steppingstones to the final created work. If we feared and detested the incoherent to the extreme of trying to banish it from our lives, we would eliminate all of our creativity and much of our appreciation of the creative works of others by doing so.

Novelty and novel sensations and situations acquire some of their frisson from the suspense one experiences while attempting to find a pattern into which the feeling or event can be subsumed, within one's familiar contexts. When all one's attempts end in incoherence, the truly novel is recognized. And, often, the next moment is the start of one's attempts to construct a fictive scenario into which the novel event can be situated. Some individuals value the initial state of suspense and would rather prolong and heighten it, and some works of art have that as an aim. Critical arguments about genre works often revolve around whether a work is doing something “original” (novel) or just reworking the familiar tropes in a shoddy and partly incoherent way, where the value placed on the work may hinge on this judgment, although the actual content would be the same either way. But for all that we may sometimes tire of the familiar and crave novelty, our brains quickly attempt to make the novel a part of our body of familiar experiences and knowledge.

The neurons in our brains which utilize the neurotransmitter dopamine are heavily involved in this “patterning” activity, from recognizing (or constructing) patterns in the experienced world around us to creating patterns of behavior such as habits and other repetitious sequences of thoughts, speech and bodily movement. When these neurons become hyper-stimulated we can experience a range of symptoms such as paranoia (excessive perception of patterns centered around ourselves) and obsessive-compulsive behaviors (ritualized repetitive actions). But clearly the normal functioning of the human brain includes what could be called a “fictive response” to the data that it processes, and this is intimately connected with the subsystems responsible for learned behaviors.

In our ongoing interaction with the world and processing of experience, there is always a low background level of incoherent data, a level that becomes higher when other humans occupy the center of our interaction. Much of this data is simply discarded or at least disregarded, a fact which all professional magicians know well and rely on in their sleights of hand. But at least some of it stimulates our creative impulse. We also have an intermittent but fairly frequent amount of fictive response taking place as we move through the day, including plans, schedules, daydreams, fantasies, scenario building, nostalgic recollections, expectations, as well as involvement with “entertainment” and communications media. At times we have to evaluate whether something is true or false, but usually we “know” the answer based on past learning, irrational conviction, or simple probabilistic determination. When these are insufficient we fall back on relatively simple heuristics. Logic and reasoning, especially as they are required to deal with more abstract categories, situations and principles, unduly tax the energetic capacities of the brain. This is why humans, as Needham observes, “do not reason often; they do not reason for long at a time; and when they do reason they are not very good at it.”

So, in real life, and at the most basic level of our thought processes, it's uncommon for us to ask: True or false? If there is any question, it's: True, false, incoherent or fictive? Certain modes of discourse and interaction privilege subsets of these four values, such as the restricted choice of true or false as answers on a standardized test. But it's extremely rare for people to restrict themselves to only those modes in their communication, and probably debilitating for them to do so. In the normal course of affairs, we know that statements about the sum of a list of numbers or statements about the date an event is scheduled to occur are different from statements about Frodo or Scheherazade or Molly Bloom, and, more importantly, we know in an intuitive way why they are different. Only in a culture with extremely rigid social interactions and very flattened modes of discourse would this difference be problematic.

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