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Most of the Mind Can’t Tell Fact from Fiction (nautil.us)
79 points by dnetesn 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments

This article is ultimately a bit philosophically underwhelming because it doesn't delve deeper into the notions of "fact" and "fiction" and how (according to many philosophers, at least) they are ultimately messy linguistic concepts. There are many things considered facts which are really little more than fictions which have been accepted society-wide. Indeed the existence of a coherent continuing society seems almost dependent on a shared semi-fictional narrative. Jorge Luis Borges' Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is a fantastic short story on this idea. [1]

Very young children “can rationally deal with the make-believe aspects of stories,” distinguishing the actual, the possible, and the fantastical with sophistication, as Denis Dutton has written in The Art Instinct. “Not only does the artistic structure of stories speak to Darwinian sources: so does the intense pleasure taken in their universal themes of love, death, adventure, family conflict, justice, and overcoming adversity.”

An alternative view would be that children haven't been indoctrinated, for lack of a better word, into the socio-linguistic world of adults, which has privileged some fictions and relegated others.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tlön,_Uqbar,_Orbis_Tertius, http://art.yale.edu/file_columns/0000/0066/borges.pdf

> There are many things considered facts which are really little more than fictions which have been accepted society-wide.



‘All right,’ said Susan. ‘I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.’


‘Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little-’


‘So we can believe the big ones?’


‘They’re not the same at all!’


‘Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—’



— The personification of death, and his granddaughter Susan; Hogfather, Terry Pratchett, 1996

“What you are seeing and hearing right now is nothing but a dream. You are dreaming right now in this moment. You are dreaming with the brain awake. Dreaming is the main function of the mind, and the mind dreams twenty-four hours a day. It dreams when the brain is awake, and it also dreams when the brain is asleep. The difference is that when the brain is awake, there is a material frame that makes us perceive things in a linear way. When we go to sleep we do not have the frame, and the dream has the tendency to change constantly. Humans are dreaming all the time. Before we were born the humans before us created a big outside dream that we will call society's dream or the dream of the planet. The dream of the planet is the collective dream of billions of smaller, personal dreams, which together create a dream of a family, a dream of a community, a dream of a city, a dream of a country, and finally a dream of the whole humanity. The dream of the planet includes all of society's rules, its beliefs, its laws, its religions, its different cultures and ways to be, its governments, schools, social events, and holidays. We are born with the capacity to learn how to dream, and the humans who live before us teach us how to dream the way society dreams. The outside dream has so many rules that when a new human is born, we hook the child's attention and introduce these rules into his or her mind. The outside dream uses Mom and Dad, the schools, and religion to teach us how to dream. Attention is the ability we have to discriminate and to focus only on that which we want to perceive. We can perceive millions of things simultaneously, but using our attention, we can hold whatever we want to perceive in the foreground of our mind. The adults around us hooked our attention and put information into our minds through repetition. That is the way we learned everything we know. By using our attention we learned a whole reality, a whole dream. We learned how to behave in society: what to believe and what not to believe; what is acceptable and what is not acceptable; what is good and what is bad; what is beautiful and what is ugly; what is right and what is wrong.“

From a book called ‘The Four Agreements’

indeed, many things that we take as facts are really just theories that have been generally accepted. even for things like gravity, fact is only that masses somehow attract each other. how that actually works is a theory, and it's accepted until we find a better one.

This is something I often think about. What is the difference between me, accepting some scientific theories as fact, even though I have no physical means of testing all of them myself, and someone deeply religious who chooses to believe in some higher spiritual ideas? There are things I can be reasonably sure of, maybe because I see what the theory behind it says and predicts, and it agrees with what actually happens in real life, yet there are also things that I just have to take for granted (and I guess hope that the other knowledgeable people alive will make sure it's actually correct).

The difference is you get to choose what to verify.

Science says you can use electricity to turn water into oxygen and hydrogen and then burn them to get water again. It further says what the flame will look like and how much heat it will produce etc etc. Now, if any of that seems unlikely it’s fairly cheap to verify, if something else bothers you then verify that.

Sure, verification of every idea is impossible, but pick a few at random and that should logically give you more confidence in the others.

On the other hand with matters of faith you can’t verify any of it. Which should then give you some pause.

religion largely claims to make your life better by teaching you how to interact with each other. it uses believe and fear of an unprovable entity to do that, sure.

but you can verify if it does make your and everyone elses life better or not.

those that claim to be messengers of god should be recognized by their fruits, that is, by the effect they have on society.

This is a great way to frame the counterargument. I'm wary of the comparison between religious faith and scientific belief because it seems to sometimes trigger a cascade of irrational beliefs if it goes the wrong way.

The difference is usefulness. Scientific models are based on observed behaviour. The model tries to predict the behaviour. If it gets the prediction wrong, then it's not a good model to be using in that situation (but we might still use it in other situations where it does make good predictions). Whether you believe in the model or not is completely irrelevant. What matters is whether or not you can use the model to achieve some goal.

Religious people often asks me if I only believe in things that I can prove. I reply that I can prove nothing other than my own existence, and I can't even prove the nature of that existence. I accept things that are useful to me and abandon them when they are no longer useful. I may later come back to accept them if they return to being useful (as they are likely to do).

Like most other people in the world, I believe in lots of things. Life is pretty uncomfortable without belief. I don't happen to believe in the things that major religions believe in, but I don't see it as a problem. Believing something, or not believing something is neither here nor there. I am 100% OK with the idea that my beliefs may be wrong. In fact, I rather suspect they are. Why should that worry me?

How important is our belief of something vs the acceptance of something that appears to work? Are we invested in the unknowable truth? Does it matter to us if we are wrong?

I feel that it's the importance we assign to being right in our beliefs that defines our religions.

interestingly i just had this discussion a few weeks ago. contrasting belief in scientific "facts"/theories vs belief in religious claims.

in the end both depend on the absence of evidence contradicting the claims.

but that also means that science and religion can co-exist if they do not contradict each other.

we should accept on either side that anything with contradictory evidence can obviously not be true, and stop to pit one side against the other.

any contradictions we find on either side are a sign of misinterpretation of either the scientific evidence or of the religious claims. and on both sides we then need to make an effort to find a better interpretation.

i believe that doing that is possible. even if we remove everything from religions that contradicts current scientific theories there is still a whole lot left for a spiritual belief.

Sounds like what Harari called intersubjective truths, like: money, human rights, etc.

I don't really see any insights here. This entire thing is just saying "our brains make us believe fiction". We already know that. The mysteries, which are the parts that are actually interesting, surround the underlying nature and character of emotions. So fiction tricks our brain like an illusion. Of course it does, but so what? That doesn't explain why we are so obsessed with it. The Shepherd Tone is an auditory illusion, but we don't sit and listen to albums of Shepherd Tones for hours on end. What compells us about fiction? It is the emotions themselves that are mysterious and interesting, not the fact that fiction elicits them.

> This entire thing is just saying "our brains make us believe fiction". We already know that.

I'm not so sure about that. Go into any political thread here on HN and observe the amount of on polar opposites of an issue, while most everyone sincerely believes that they are arguing on "the facts".

Just one example:

U.S. to leave global postal union next month barring last-minute action


And this is conversations among smarter than average people, it's no wonder discourse is breaking down in the political realm resulting in massive polarization in the public.

I think there's something about the massive increase in information people are consuming due to 24 hour cable news and the internet that's at the root of the problem, is it perhaps overwhelming people's ability to think straight? Maybe we never even evolved to handle this much complexity.

I think it's something like.....the world is infinitely complex (infinite dimensions), so the mind must compress and simplify it to make sense of it. In doing so, it compresses it into a smaller set of dimensions, but with the increase in independent thinking due to members of societies having less in common (we don't go to the same church, we don't even watch the same TV shows, we don't watch the same evening news, etc), people are compressing things into different dimensions - two people consuming the same information will view it, store it, recall it, and discuss it completely differently from each other, while at the same time be under a completely transparent illusion that they each see "the truth". This has always been the case of course, but 30 years ago life was much simpler - lots of people barely followed the news back then, you had to make a serious effort, but nowadays it takes effort just to avoid it.

Oh wow, I was skeptical people would frame politics around debates of fact, but that word is really thrown around in that discussion.

I only wish I could believe more fiction. As I've grown older I have so much less patience for pointless fiction. I want there to be a cohesive story and compelling idea or unexpected consequence rather than random events happening to random subjects.

Netflix is the worst, there's no internal consistency or adherence to genre and the story goes out the window about a quarter way through. Dream logic is ok, no logic is not.

The original classic book "Psycho-Cybernetics" -Dr. Maxwell Maltz is based on the theory that our brains can't tell the difference between reality and a vivid imagining of an event. So true.

I urge you to buy and read the original--not the Dan Kennedy version.

I like the idea. But I always wondered to what extend this holds up. Rigorously followed wouldn't that imply the old argument that playing brutal games makes people more brutal in real life?

Watching movies makes people want to be like what they see, why isn't it true for video games? Because it is. Obviously not everyone is going to become violent just because they play realistic violent games but it certainly inspires a subset of people to do so. It puts the idea in their head and they begin to imagine doing it. From thoughts, to words, to action.

> Watching movies makes people want to be like what they see, why isn't it true for video games? Because it is.

Shouldn't we be banning slasher flicks then?

When I was watching A Nightmare on Elm Street as a kid, I never once thought "I wish I could murder people in their dreams with a glove full of knives."

Study after study refutes your unsubstantiated claim, so the burden of proof is on you here.

> playing brutal games makes people more brutal in real life?

After a fashion. I mean you would have to imagine that game as though it was IRL and it was actually you who were in it. Now add in what you saw, thought, smelled and tasted, mix in with that actual hatred of the enemy and the euphoria of victory... than yeah, that shit would work.

> > playing brutal games makes people more brutal in real life?

> After a fashion. I mean you would have to imagine that game as though it was IRL and it was actually you who were in it. Now add in what you saw, thought, smelled and tasted, mix in with that actual hatred of the enemy and the euphoria of victory... than yeah, that shit would work.

Or it self selects for people willing to "play" those games.

I just picked up the Hotline Miami collection for Switch and started playing for the first time. It's an ultra-violent top-down game that tries to have you question your own motivations.

It's a fun game with good mechanics, so I've been enjoying it. If it were 2060 level VR in first person with Smell-o-Vision and hyper-realistic graphics, I wouldn't be playing it at all.

> I just picked up the Hotline Miami collection for Switch

I just want to turn this 180 degrees for a second. Imagine yourself having created The App of 2020. It's a social site that has had so many downloads and signups that the web version went down in the third week. You've been front page on HN 4 times since your launch and techcrunch and Wired have been hounding the shit out of you for an interview. You actually had to buy a burner phone because your regular number is currently under siege. Wall Street is already talking about the IPO and Sequoia Capital has actually Sent People to You because they are dying to write you a 9 figure check.... Imagine that.

Are your palms sweating? ...because mine are as I type this.

I can confirm that in that case I would not pick up the phone and murder everyone at the address given.

Hypotheticals like this are always hard. An honest answer is that I don't believe I would, no. But until you're in that situation, you don't know for sure.

> I can confirm that in that case I would not pick up the phone

OIC, (lol) I don't play online games (my car is parked outside--so, I have no need for them), I get the connection now though. But you would take a call from Sequoia Capital I bet :)

We train pilots in flight simulators, with advancement in VR could we train soldiers in war simulators?

Not necessarily. There is always a balancing act done when looking at something like a game. How much of the game are you going to accept as "they are processing this as reality" and how much of it are you going to throw away and assume the player is not processing as reality? In most cases, those who want to see games as dangerous assume, with zero justification, that the player identifies all digital characters as full human beings - but every single aspect in which those characters differ from human beings is totally ignored. Why some aspects, like mortality, ability to feel pain, desire to retain property, would be assumed by the player to be identical to reality, yet the ability to respawn, the lack of friends, family, society, ability to speak, etc should be completely ignored is never explained. It seems entirely self-serving. Ignore the obvious profound flaws and disproofs of any actual claim in the argument, and simply rely on a dumb vague emotional association between concepts to trick people. It's a grossly unethical and intellectually bankrupt discussion in most cases.

If the player entirely buys into the reality of the game, then every character not killed was brought to life by the player. Creation of life must be given equal weight to ending of life, shouldn't it? And what lives are these? Mindless drones typically walking eternally in a loop. No family. No friends. No change. It is a desperate hell if considered reality. And the polygonal structure, the low resolution textures, all of those technical limitations, those have to be being processed as reality too, right? (If not, why not?) What consequences does that have? How about the altered physics of the game world? Shouldn't players have great difficulty simply getting around if they accept the physics in games and attempt to act in the real world in accordance with them?

Games draw an awful lot from film. Film is an artform that laces together absurd lies and unreality into an experience that the audience can accept as 'real.' It's a very fascinating subject. If you take a camera, and you point it at two people having a fightfight, do you know what the response of the audience will be? 'Meh. Doesn't seem real.' But instead add a musical track that didn't exist in reality, add cuts in perspective that are impossible for any body/brain/eyes combo to accomplish, take out the meat-slapping sounds of landing hits and substitute in recordings of snapping celery and carrots, and blammo, the audience is on the edge of their seat saying "now that was a REAL fight." Except, of course, no, it wasn't. It is precisely because it bore so little resemblance to actual reality that it worked and the audience were able to maintain their willful suspension of disbelief. The audience is engaging conceptually, but not viscerally.

Games crank that up even further. And they do such a good job of it that is causes us language problems. When people talk about games, they talk about the concepts as if they are real. It is primarily the analysts of games that are least capable of dealing with them in any capacity aside from accepting the concepts as real, while ignoring the real material facts of them. It's like they're so totally un-real and there is so obviously no question at all of their unreality that people just ignore it and proceed on a level of "but what if their CONCEPTS were real and people couldn't tell the difference? Not people like me, of course, but maybe worse people, like young people!"

this also plays into memory and why we can have false memory about events that never happened. because we can't tell the difference.

We have a powerful heuristic which is “believe what people tell you”. If someone says “quick, run! There's a lion coming!” Or “Don’t eat these berries: you’ll get sick” it’s best to believe them by default. Likewise, “Hey, I think you just dropped your wallet”.

Because this heuristic is so powerful it’s of course easy to subvert. But if we did a deep epistemological analysis of every symbolic input we’d probably be eaten before we had time to starve to death.

> At the same time, very young children “can rationally deal with the make-believe aspects of stories,” distinguishing the actual, the possible, and the fantastical with sophistication, as Denis Dutton has written in The Art Instinct.

One of my favorite quotes comes to mind:

“Man's most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.” — Euripides

> The answer is that most of our mind does not even realize that fiction is fiction, so we react to it almost as though it were real.

Yes, we are dreamers and believers. And that is also the reason why we are so easy to manipulate. I consider it a weakness that leads to stupidity. Most of our opinions are 'fiction', we think we're 'right' but the truth is that most often we're just dreaming. It's our minds favorite activity because it doesn't require any effort. It just happens, like most things in life.

I think humans who didn't find fiction compelling would be incredibly uninspired. How could it be compelling unless the brain mostly reacted to it like it were real?

Would science exist without alchemy? Or cell phones without Star Trek? Civilization without religion?

> "Our brains can’t help but believe."

It would seem we'd be wired to believe that which is believable. We have context, we compare, and we decide. Simple enough.

The questions then become:

1) Why do we believe (read: value) that which is unbelievable (e.g., Wizard of Oz)?

2) Why don't we believe what which is believable even when presented with crystal clear facts? Why do we insist on clinging to what amounts to fiction?

The brain is exceptionally excellent at distinguishing between and dealing differently between fiction and reality. Consider an actor. Either on a stage, or on the set of a film. They walk into frame, and another person, a real human being, is present. The actor raises a real gun, sneers with an acted hatred which must be presented externally as realistically as possible (and emotions are almost entirely composed of their external expression and biofeedback from same), and points it at the other person. That other person wilts in acted fear, irises expanding, eyes going wide, mouth dropping open, again all the outward expressions matching actual mortal fear. Both actors have the intellectual knowledge, SOLELY intellectual, that the gun is loaded with a blank. The approaching actor pulls the trigger. The gun explodes with its loud retort, the 'shot' actor crumples to the ground, wails in 'pain', whines, and 'dies'. The brain of the shooter is receiving every sensory input that tells them what is happening is real. Great effort is expended in trying to 'sell' the scene, so there is gunsmoke in the room that burns the nostrils, there is 'blood' leaking from the victim, etc. The shooter intellectually knows it's not real. But that is the sole indicator to his brain - an intellectual knowledge that he is an actor participating in a scene and what is being experienced is not real.

In the case where this scene was real, the shooters brain would be scarred. Their neurology would be branded by PTSD, their psychology would be turn apart with regret, guilt, etc. And the only distinction between the two situations is knowing it's not real. Clearly, knowing something is not real isn't just a slight thing. It is tremendously strong (maybe impenetrable) armor against the consequences that assail the brain of a person having a real experience.

The whole brain doesn't need to "tell fact from fiction". Only the one tiny piece that holds the "reality" flag seems to be the only thing needed.

There is now a technology which can mess with this flag, and it freaks me out a bit. It's something which feasibly could be done already in a consumer space, but it's not being used, and probably shouldn't ever be except under strict controls. It is usually referred to as "virtual embodiment" and involves using VR in a particular way that tricks the brain into dissociating from your physical body and identifying very profoundly and deeply with a virtual body. It could be done by anyone with a VR headset and separate webcam with the right software. Research is currently being done using the technique for therapeutic uses, and it seems to have some efficacy. Those experimenting with it, though, have realized its power. It could potentially do real, profound, and potentially long-lasting damage to the internal mental 'model' people have of their selves. It could get weird. Like imagine a 15 minute experience that could afflict you with 'phantom limb syndrome' making you feel like you have a painfully tightened fist on a third arm growing out of the center of your chest. They've obviously not experimented with doing anything like that, it would be tremendously unethical to do so, but the therapeutic uses they have had success with being turned, even accidentally, to 'the dark side', could be pretty harmful it seems.

A year or so back I read an article about virtual embodiment and the researchers involved calling for a 'Code of VR Ethics'. They were considering a much more general case which I disagreed with (and still do) and didn't seem to be considering the situation like I described earlier of the actor. The actor has more "immersion" than any VR scenario will ever be capable of having. The actor knows the person they're pointing the gun at is a real human being - a human being they have a personal relationship with - and the scene is 'rendered' is infinite fidelity across all the senses including smell, hearing, touch, proprioception, absolutely everything is dead on exactly what an actual murderer would experience with only the one intellectual fact cluing the brain in to the unreality. I reached out to Dr. Metzinger, the leader in the field of research on virtual embodiment (I didn't realize who he was at the time, I just dug up his email after the article and was surprised he took the time out to carry on a discussion with me for awhile), and asked for his thoughts, but he hadn't considered the situation before. At a first blush he supposed that because it would be easier for the actor to turn their head and see all the cameras, crew, etc, that might factor into it as it would be easier than 'escaping' a VR situation, but that might be balanced with the lack of fidelity in VR, the weight of the headset, etc.

It's really very fascinating that this intellectual knowledge about the fact of the reality of a situation is so powerful. Intellectual knowledge is usually not very effective at all in influencing how the brain responds to things. Consider the situation where you are a person who was not raised in a nudist/naturist body-positive environment (as statistics would suggest you probably are), and one day you come to the rational conclusion that it is both nonsensical and harmful to you for it to bother you if other people see you naked. You can convince yourself of this totally and fully with perfect rational consistency (because it is perfectly rational). Then imagine you get 'pantsed.' Your intellectual knowledge would not protect you from the automatic emotional response and trauma. To change that would require repeated exposure around others with conscious effort expended to alter your emotional response, something which could take years to have a real effect on the trained response that is your emotional system. Your intellectual knowledge can guide that, but it's nowhere near the nearly impenetrable armor of knowing something is not real. That distinction is, to me, very strange.

Isn't this just a tautology? Fiction is by definition something which mimics reality, that is to say, something that looks like reality to humans (= the human brain).

I find these kinds of articles fascinating

It reminds me when I read that ee can only dream of faces we've seen in the past, whether we actively remember them or not. The brain cannot invent these.

> It reminds me when I read that ee can only dream of faces we've seen in the past, whether we actively remember them or not. The brain cannot invent these.

Do you have a source for this, it looks very suspicious

1) The memory is highly compressed. We remember only some interesting details and then fill the gaps. It's easy to add false information in the gaps, for example the experiment with the inexistent stop sign https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misinformation_effect

2) Even if it where true: How did they test it?!

I think "cannot" is a bit too strong a claim. The brain literally invents faces when it interprets the signals from our eyes. Are you saying that it can't make up signals that don't exist? I don't see any reason to assume that it couldn't.

I think it is reasonable to expect that the brain will dream up faces based on what it has seen before, but it's not like you've never seen anything other than faces.

> We can only dream of faces we've seen in the past, whether we actively remember them or not. The brain cannot invent these.

How would anyone test this claim?

Fact is a proven fiction. Fiction is yet to be proved to be fact.

Both fact and fiction are the same.

Title of the article doesn't make much sense

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