Friday, July 6, 2007

Was he really evil? Reification

This fallacy, one I hear so frequently in arguments—especially Lincoln-Douglass debate style—as to make me want to shake my head and throw in the towel. Let me offer you all a quick definition, and then I will move on to discuss its role in literature and the problem it presents in making a plot valid (does the plot makes logical sense?).

Reification is the logic fallacy where an abstraction is treated as a concrete, real, physical, and discrete entity. To rephrase, it is the error of treating something as a "real thing" that is not real. For example, let us look quickly at the concept of ultimate truth. Where is it? Who owns it? What about freedom, liberty, good, bad, right, wrong?

*Now let me quickly note before I get swooped down on for this, let me say that reification can be acceptable in literature when it is used as a metaphor. To use it in a logical argument, however, is a fallacy.*

So what the problem here? Well, let’s examine the concept of evil in speculative fiction. If you are going to say that evil exists in your writing, you have to prove it. Some of your characters could believe that, say, vampires are evil and say as much, but if you want me to really believe that as an axiom, tell me where the evil is in the body. The thing is, you could have a vampire story in which the vampires never kill anyone. It could be just a biological need to drink blood, but it doesn’t have to be human, and they don’t have to kill to get it; they could just “sip” on something for a bit. Thus, you’ll need to prove to me that they are evil if you going to use it as an axiom.

In the show, Buffy, for instance, vampires are demons in human suits. They prove demons are evil; they are totally bent on killing all humans and retaking this realm for their own. Ok, I buy it; they’re evil. To expand, if two life forms are wholly incompatible to the point of needing to destroy each other so the other may exist, fine. If a race of creatures landed on earth and needed to change the atmosphere so that their nitrogen-breathing race could live here, and well, that does away with us, and it’s an irreconcilable problem that easily lends itself to the concept of this race as “evil.”

I am not claiming that I need to know exactly what part of the brain is enlarged to make a man “evil” (although that would make an excellent story; the discovery of the homicide gene and how society would deal with it), but I want to know that this is backed up by something real.

When does it drive me crazy? When the author of a book has one of the characters explain that they cannot work with character X, because they are evil and everyone is just fine with that as a reason despite the fact that if character X were brought in, the heroes would then have the subject-matter expert they needed to solve the problem. As a reader, character x seems like a totally fine person, if a bit odd, and I mostly feel like the author didn’t want to have to come up with a good reason to omit that character from the situation.

“But sir, if we just talk to Igor, we can get that information,” said Walt, the loyal right-hand man.

“No, Walt, we won’t lower ourselves to work with people like him; he’s a mercenary,” responded Dick, the terribly heroic boss.

“If we don’t, it could take days to track down the information,” said Walt.

“Well, that’s the path we must tread then as honorable men,” said Dick.

Oh please! Give me a good reason like:

“If we go to Igor, he’ll know that we are looking into the theft of the Golden Almond, and he’ll try for it himself.”


“Igor buys and sells information. If we buy the information about who last had the map to the Golden Almond, then he’ll sell that information to the next sot who wants to know who’s looking into the map. That could include our thief!”

See, not so hard to justify why the characters were precluded from an activity without having to treat evil as a concrete thing. You know, show us why instead of just telling us why.


writtenwyrdd said...

Good points! As in any worldbuilding exercise, if the author makes a 'statement' of any kind (description, assumptions, etc. to include laws of nature) she needs to back it up, justify it. And that's not to say that if magic is real you can't just say that, but the world must abide by its internal logic, which, by its function and fit in that world, proves itself to be true. (I hope I just made sense there; seemed a bit circuitous.)

Anyhow, the point about backing up a statement is so important. One more thing to add to the revisions list for when looking at logic holes!

pacatrue said...

OK, this might be better as a comment on the qualification post, but I'm going to do it here. Anyway, I thought it might interest you to know about languages which have evidence as a grammatical particle. In these languages, just like English has grammatical bits that tell you if the subject is singular or plural, or if the verb's action is completed or ongoing, many languages are obliged to say what the source of the information being conveyed is. So one grammatical particle is used if the information was observed directly, while another must be used if it was hearsay. I wonder if people who speak languages like this fall for bad arguments less.

writtenwyrdd said...

Now that's interesting, paca! Maybe I'd never heard that before. I would say that the embarrassment of being caught lying by use of the incorrect form (I'm assuming verb case?) would be enough to keep most folks honest... *stashes factoid for later use*