Within creative counterfactuality, the term "realism" is most often used in the context of Geofiction and Conworlds. In that context it is usually opposed to fantasy and science fiction. In such distinctions of genre, the term "realism" can be understood as meaning no more than 'creative counterfactuality without elements of fantasy or science fiction', but counterfactual realism (or realism in creative counterfactuality) is much more than just a genre label.
The term "realism" refers to a number of ideas about the relationship between certain products of the human mind and reality. This includes the following "realisms":
- Realism in (the various specializations within) philosophy means that something really exists. A realist about numbers beliefs that numbers (really) exists, and a moral realists beliefs that there are moral facts.
- According to scientific realism, scientific theories accurately describe the real world. The opposing point of view, instrumentalism, holds that scientific theories are just useful tools for explaining and predicting.
- Realism in the arts (painting, theater, literature) aims at depicting its subject matter 'true to life'.
- Common sense realism is an adaption of goals and aims to what is possible or obtainable according to common sense.
For Counterfactuality as art form, realism in the arts seems most applicable, but of the four varieties mentioned here, scientific realism and common sense realism also have affinities with counterfactual realism (or vice versa). Philosophical realism, on the other hand, seems mostly irrelevant, as counterfactual creations are, by definition, not real.
The main theory of realism in counterfactuality is "plausibilism".
Counterfactual realism is plausibilism. A description of a fact or event is realistic if it is plausible. There are (at least) two arguments why this is the case: a shorter and a longer one.
the shorter argument
Of the following two propositions, (1) is factual, and (2) is counterfactual. In both cases, the proposition is accompanied by an assertion "B is the case". The question is: When (or under what conditions) is such an assertion "B is the case" 'realistic'.
|(1)||If A is the case, then B is the case.|
|(2)||If A would be the case, then B would be the case.|
In case of (1), the assertion "B is the case" is 'realistic' if B is actually the case, which can be assessed empirically.
In case of (2), however, there is no fact of the matter: B is not actually the case.
There is a complication in case of (1), if B is not actually observed (for whatever reason). Nevertheless, even in such cases the assertion "B is the case" may be 'realistic' under certain circumstances, and this creates possibilities in the case of (2) as well. A and B are obejcts, events, or facts of certain types, and these types of events may known to be somehow related. This known relation provides the link between A and B necessary for making 'realistic' assertions.
Thus we add:
|(3)||A is an object, event, or fact of type X, and B is object etc. of type Y, and it is known from experience that objects etc. of types X and Y always come together or in succession.|
If in (1) B is unobserved, the assertion "B is the case" is nevertheless 'realistic' because of (3). Although it is not known with absolute certainty that B is actually the case, because of (3), B is plausibly the case.
The same applies to (2), however. The only difference is that now both A and B are hypothetical, but it is still true that would A be the case, then given (3), plausibly B would be the case.
Therefore, (in both the factual and counterfactual cases) an unobserved object, event, or fact B is 'realistic' if it is plausible.
the longer argument: realism in the arts
Realism in the arts can be defined as follows:
|(def. 0)||Realism in the arts attempts to depict its subject matter as it is considered to exist in the observer's objective reality, without interpretation or alteration, and in accordance with empirical knowledge.|
From this definition of realism in the arts (def. 0), a first definition of counterfactual realism (that is, realism in creative counterfactuality as art form) can be derived, although with some difficulty. The following changes need to made to (def. 0) to adapt it to creative counterfactuality:
|realism in the arts (def. 0)||counterfactual realism (def. 1)||explanation of differences|
|Realism in the arts attempts to||Counterfactual realism attempts to||(Or "is the attempt to".)|
|depict its subject matter||create, and describe that creation,||The subject matter of counterfactuality is non-existent and thus cannot be 'depicted'. Rather, it is created and simultaneously described.|
|as it is considered to exist in the observer's objective reality,||as it is believed to be if it would exist in the observer's objective reality,||The counterfactual creation does not exist.|
|without interpretation or alteration,||without fantastic or utopian embellishment,||There is no real subject to be interpreted or altered, but rather there is a fiction that is supposed to be based on reality without interpretation and embellishment, and that therefore does avoid fantastic and utopian embellishments.|
|and in accordance with empirical knowledge.||and in accordance with empirical, scientific knowledge.||Generally, the most important category of background knowledge for counterfactual creation is scientific knowledge.|
This results in:
|(def. 1)||Counterfactual realism is the attempt to create, and describe that creation, as it is believed to be if it would exist in the observer's objective reality, without fantastic or utopian embellishment, and in accordance with empirical, scientific knowledge.|
This definition, in its last clause, has scientific realism built in, but that seems unavoidable. If it is not assumed that science correctly describes the real world, then there is nothing to go on when making counterfactual 'additions' to that real world. It is important to realize, however, that an implication of this definition is that what is realistic is relative to the development of science, and thus, that with the growth or change of scientific knowledge, a 'realistic' counterfactual creation may suddenly become unrealistic (or the other way around, although that seems rather improbable).
A more fundamental problem is that many counterfactual creations involve highly complex systems. This means that a prediction of what something would be like based on the best scientific knowledge may still significantly deviate from what it really would be like because of oversights such as unexpected interactions between various aspects of the model/creation, or because minute variations in initial conditions radically change the outcome. Because of this, for any counterfactual creation that does involve some complexity (and arguably, that is always the case in creative counterfactuality)), it is fundamentally impossible to say what it really would be like. It is fundamentally impossible to say what, for example, a tiny country in between Albania and Italy would be like if it existed, even if we had perfect scientific knowledge, because the tiniest detail at some point in the history of that country could have resulted in significantly different results. Because we cannot know every tiny detail and what effect it would have on the outcome (especially not if taking the interactions between tiny details into account), there are infinite many (apparently) 'possible' outcomes, and no way to know which of those would be real.
The phrase "as it is believed to be if it would exist" in (def. 1) makes counterfactual realism a form of realistic prediction, but because of the (often extreme) complexity of (most) counterfactual creations (which can hardly be overestimated), those are fundamentally unpredictable. Therefore, a more appropriate aim than (accurate) prediction would be plausible explanation. Amending (def. 1) accordingly results in:
|(def. 2)||Counterfactual realism is the attempt to create, and describe that creation, as it is believed to plausibly explainably be like if it would exist in the observer's objective reality, without fantastic or utopian embellishment, and in accordance with empirical, scientific knowledge.|
With amendments, the definition becomes increasingly incomprehensible unfortunately. A shorter version expressing more or less the same as (def. 2) could be:
|(def. 3)||Counterfactual realism is the attempt to create and describe something in such a way that all described aspects of the creation can be plausibly explained on the basis of current scientific knowledge.|
varieties of plausibilism
Both the shorter and longer argument lead to the conclusion that realism in counterfactuality is 'plausibilism'. There are subtle differences between the arguments, however. According to the shorter argument, realism is plausibilism; according to the longer argument, realism can only be plausibilism. Nevertheless, in either case, the conclusion that plausibility is the test for realism leads to a further problem.
In the longer argument, there are two obvious, and important ambiguities in definitions 1 and 2:
- "believed to be" by whom? and
- who is the observer?
And a similar ambiguity is present in the shorter argument and in the abbreviated definition 3 in the longer argument:
- plausible to whom?
Objective plausibilism is the ideal case. What exactly would make plausibility objective is not completely clear, however. Of the competing theories, most relevant in the present context are the following:
- Plausibility of X is objective if no unhindered observer can reasonably deny the plausibility of X.
- Plausibility of X is objective if absolutely everyone agrees that X is plausible.
It should be obvious, that such objective plausibility is unobtainable, if not in theory, then most certainly in practice. Nevertheless, it may be possible to get close.
knowledge, abilities, and observer involvement
An attempt at answering the above questions about 'plausibility to whom?' leads to two further issues: limits to knowledge and cognitive abilities; and the relationship between creator and observer. A 'realistic' approach to plausibilism (in real applications) has to take these issues into account. Objective plausibilism is an unobtainable ideal, and thus not a 'realistic' approach to a useful concept of 'realism'.
The creator has limited knowledge of relevant science, and limited abilities to process and combine this knowledge. Because of this, any creation and description involves oversights. (In addition to the complexity issue mentioned above.) By definition, the creator is not aware of these, but an observer may be, which leads to the second issue. In many cases of creative counterfactuality, the creator is also the observer, there is no other audience, or at least no audience/observer with a significant role. Consequently, what is considered "plausible", or what is "believed" is entirely subjective, it is that what is plausible according to the creator, that what is believed by the creator, regardless of any observer/audience opinion. This leads to subjective plausibilism. Alternatively, it is also possible that one or more observers (or an audience) are somehow involved in determining what is plausible, which may result in intersubjective plausibilism.
In subjective plausibilism, plausibility is determined subjectively by the creator: "plausible" means 'plausible to the creator'. Subjective plausibilism is by far the most common variant of counterfactual realism, and implicitly adhered to by almost everyone with creative counterfactuality as a hobby. Based on (def. 3), it can be defined as follows:
|(def. 4)||Counterfactual realism is the attempt to create and describe something in such a way that, in the opinion of the creator, all described aspects of the creation can be plausibly explained on the basis of current scientific knowledge.|
However, subjective plausibilism is as far away from objective plausibilism as one possibly can get: subjective plausibility is not plausibility at all. And consequently, assigning the status 'realism' to counterfactual creations that are merely subjectively plausible is dubious at best.
In intersubjective plausibilism, plausibility is determined intersubjectively by all those involved either as creator or as observer. The creator is not the sole judge of realism, but the communicating collective of creators and observers is. Anyone who observes the creation subjectively judges its plausibility, and it this judgment is communicated to the other observers and creators, it becomes part of the (debate leading towards) intersubjective judgment.
Amending (def. 3), intersubjective counterfactual realism can be defined as follows:
|(def. 5)||Counterfactual realism is the attempt to create and describe something in such a way that, in the opinion of the communicating collective of creator and (participating) observers, all described aspects of the creation can be plausibly explained on the basis of current scientific knowledge.|
Intersubjective plausibilism comes in two further varieties, however: open and closed; where openness and closure are attributes of the communicating collective of creators and observers.
open intersubjective plausibilism
In open intersubjective plausibilism, the communicating collective of creators and observers is open. There is no preset collection of members, and anyone can join in the debate. If indeed many (knowledgeable) observers join in the debate, such open intersubjective plausibilism asymptotically develops towards objective plausibilism. By implication, this is the closest counterfactuality can get to (perfect) 'realism'. Because of various limitations mentioned above, there are no certainties, and "objectivity" is inapplicable to what is - by definition - not objectively real. Any individual creator has limited knowledge of relevant science and limited abilities to process and combine this knowledge, and because of this, any creation and description involves oversights, but by combining knowledge and abilities, some oversights can be avoided or corrected. The observers (or audience) are (is) both test of realism, and generator of feedback for correction and improvement. This is not much different from debate in the non-empirical sciences, where ideas and theories are submitted to the audience for scrutiny. It is that audience (of which the author/creator is a member) that decides on plausibility; it is the audience which decides what is 'real'.
Of course, this implies communication and participation in the debate. An observer only matters if it is a participating observer. Furthermore, it is not bare observer opinion that matters, but informed and argued opinion: only through debate between informed and argued opinion intersubjectivity can be reached. The intersubjective judgment is the result of such a debate, but not all debates are decidable, which means that judgments realism (or unrealism) may have to be withheld in some (perhaps even many) cases.
closed intersubjective plausibilism
In closed intersubjective plausibilism, the communicating collective of creators and observers is closed: there is a fixed set of members that participate in the debate about what is plausible (i.e. 'realistic') and what is not. Although this is much farther removed from the ideal of objective plausibilism than the open variant, it is an obvious step up from subjective plausibilism, which involves no testing or (critical) feedback whatsoever.
Closed intersubjective plausibilism is the most appropriate interpretation of realism in collective or interactive counterfactual creation, such as interactive geofiction and other game-like variants of counterfactual creation.
problems and misconceptions
Realism does not mean that the counterfactual creation is as it would be if it were real. As explained above: that cannot be known. Rather, because of various limitations, there necessarily always are errors and oversights. So many errors and oversights in fact, that - especially taking complexity into account - the probability of the description being as if it were real is 1 divided by infinite: 0. In other words: counterfactual creations are always unreal, impossible even. 'Realism' cannot be more than intersubjective agreement about plausibility.
One of the most common problems in forms of collective or interactive counterfactual creation, such as interactive geofiction and other game-like variants of counterfactual creation, is that realism is effectively understood as subjective plausibilism, while in such cases there actually are participating observers that may have different opinions, and whose creations may be affected by the creations of others. The problem is the conflict between a creator deciding that (some aspect of) his/her creation is realistic, and one ore more observers who perceive it as unrealistic, while there is some kind of interaction between the creator and those observers involving the creation. The mistake here, is the idea that a creator in his/her own can judge realism, regardless of limits on knowledge, cognitive abilities, and so forth. It is explained above that 'realism' cannot be more than intersubjective agreement about plausibility, but if observer opinion somehow matters, it cannot be less either. Consequently, game-like variants of counterfactual creation need rules to collectively decide what is 'real' (or realistic) and what not: it is the collective that decides what is realistic, and thus the collective needs the right to correct the creation/description of any of its members.
Intersubjective plausibilism is, however, not some kind of game itself; it is the closest to realism that counterfactuality can get. In any case of counterfactuality, only the communicating collective of well-informed observers can decide what is realistic and what not.
threats to realism
There are a number of threats to realism in creative counterfactuality, some more obvious than others. Most obvious are the limits to cognitive abilities and knowledge of the creator. Less immediately obvious, but following from the above (and already pointed at a few times) is the threat of the Autonomy of the Creator, the common principle in creative counterfactuality that determines that the creator has final say in every aspect of the creation. This, often leads to subjective plausibilism, especially if observer opinion is lacking or ignored. Combined with the necessary limited knowledge and abilities, the autonomy of the creator leads away from realism.
other theories of counterfactual realism
There are a few other theories of realism in creative counterfactuality, but on closer scrutiny, those either turn out to be incoherent, or to lead to (a variant of) plausibilism.
Most common is the idea that realism is conformity to scientific insights about the real world. That this leads to plausibilism was already shown above.
A few other theories seek support from constructivist theories of knowledge. According to such theories, knowledge is constructed, and if realism is conformity to constructed knowledge about reality, then realism is constructed as well. Constructivism is nearly always social constructivism, however: knowledge is socially constructed, and conformity with socially constructed knowledge is plausibilism. The alternative would be individual constructivism, but that is a variant of solipsism in which realism irrelevant: there is no room for realism in the idea that knowledge and reality are (ultimately) my individual constructions.
A further variant theory is based on the idea of multiple realities. There are - according to this idea - many different possible or actual realities, and realism is conformity to the laws of one of those realities. Aside from the question whether there are and can be multiple realities (many philosophers deny this), let alone alternate realities with different laws of nature, it seems fundamentally impossible to know the laws of any other reality than our own (and perhaps even those), which makes it impossible to say whether some creation conforms to some reality and is thus 'realistic'. Consequently, this theory would make the 'realistic' predicate unattributable and thus useless.
According to a variant of this theory, there are infinite realities, and any coherent counterfactual creation corresponds to one of those, and is thus in that sense 'real'. However, because of limits of knowledge and cognitive abilities of the creator, and because even with perfect knowledge and perfect abilities, complexity makes accurate prediction fundamentally impossible, it is effectively impossible that any counterfactual creation is coherent in the sense required. Even if there are infinitely many realities, no counterfactual creation will correspond to any of those. Any counterfactual creation is unreal.
Alternatively, a counterfactual creation can be considered 'realistic' not if it corresponds to an actual alternate reality, but to a possible reality (or possible world). However, this does not solve the coherence problem (no counterfactual creation is sufficiently coherent to be 'possible'), and it raises the question of what actually is 'possible'. If the answer to that question involves a reference to scientific knowledge, then - like any theory of realism that is ultimately based on scientific knowledge - this leads to the conclusion that to be realistic is to be plausible.
notes and links
- ↑ For more on this problem, see for example, the Wikipedia pages on complexity and chaos.
- ↑ See also the Wikipedia pages on objectivity in philosophy and in science, on epistemology, and on intersubjectivity.
- ↑ More philosophical arguments for intersubjectivity as objectivity have been proposed most prominently by Donald Davidson.