A Philosopher's Blog

Politics & Alternative Realities

Posted in Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 10, 2012
First issue of Amazing Stories, art by Frank R...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I am a philosopher, it is hardly surprisingly that I also like science fiction. On specific genre within science fiction is that of alternative reality. In this genre, a fictional world is created that is just like the actual world except for some key differences. In the case of alternative history fiction, the key differences arise due to some change in historical events—thus creating an alternative fictional timeline.

The idea that the world could have been different is not only a matter for science fiction, but is also a matter of considerable interest in philosophy and science. Philosophers have long written about possible worlds and scientists got into the game fairly recently. From a philosophical standpoint, writers who create alternative histories are making use of counterfactuals. That is, they are describing a world that is counter to fact.  For example, an author might explore what happened if the American Civil war ended, counter to fact, with the country permanently divided. As another example, an author might set her story in a world in which the Axis won the Second World War.  A recent example of this sort of counterfactual alternative history is the movie Inglourious Basterds.  This is a rather clever piece of science fiction in which Hitler is assassinated by Jewish soldiers. There are, of course, also more extreme versions that slide towards fantasy, such as the tale in which Lincoln hunts vampires.

In addition to liking science fiction, I also like politics. Interestingly enough, recent American politics seems to involve some interesting exercises in alternative reality fiction and counterfactual history.

While political narratives typically distort reality by including straw men, lies and partial truths, some narratives actually present entire counter factual worlds. In some cases the extent to which the reality of the speech differs from the actual world would seem to qualify the speech as science fiction. After all, it is describing a world somewhat like our own that does not exist, except in the imagination of the creator and those that share the creator’s vision.

In an earlier essay I discussed the extent to which facts have been rejected in favor of what could be regarded as counterfactual views of reality and this matter has been addressed by others. One interesting addition to politicians presenting limited counterfactuals is the creation of entire counterfactual narratives, some of which can be regarded as complete alternative histories and descriptions of alternative realities. For example, the Republican narrative of the Obama administration is that it is some sort of secret-Muslim socialist tyranny that is at once ineffective and a relentless destroyer of jobs and liberty. Paul Ryan’s speech is an excellent example of this sort of narrative. The world he describes is somewhat like our own and a version of Obama is president of that America. However, the world of Ryan’s speech differs from the actual world in many important ways, as presented by Sally Kohn over at Fox. The actor Clint Eastwood also nicely illustrated the counterfactual approach of the narrative by blaming Obama (or rather a chair standing in for Obama) for the invasion of Afghanistan—which happened long before he was president. Romney is, interestingly enough, creating his own counterfactual history regarding his past but also being targeted by the Democrats attempts to craft a narrative in which he is an uncaring oligarch who will take the country back to Bush’s policies. Political people also spin positive narratives, typically creating fictional pasts of an ideal world that never was and also of a wonderful world that never shall be. While I could list examples almost without end, to keep up with the latest truths, lies and distortions from politicians and pundits of all stripes, PolitiFact is an excellent source.

In the case of science fiction, the authors are aware they are creating fiction and, in general, the audience gets that the works are fictional. Of course, there can be some notable exceptions when fans lose the ability to properly distinguish counterfactuals and alternative histories from truth and history. William Gibson presents an innovative fictional example of reality failure in which a photographer assigned to take pictures of surviving 1930s futuristic architecture begins to slide into an alternative reality, the Gernsback Continuum, in which the world of 1930s pulp science fiction became real. This story can now serve as an interesting metaphor for what happens in the alternative realities crafted by the creative minds of political speech writers and political pundits. They are, indeed, engaged in works of creativity: changing facts to counterfactuals and presenting fictional narratives of a world that was not, a world that is not and a world that almost certainly will not be.  As in the “The Gernsback Continuum”, people can become drawn into these alternative realities and live in them, at least in their minds. This creates the fascinating idea of people living in fictional political worlds that are populated by fictional political characters. Naturally, it might be wondered how this would work.

One obvious explanation is that people who do not know better and who are not inclined to engage in even a modest amount of critical thinking (checking the facts, for example) can easily be deceived by such fiction and accept it as reality. These people will, in turn, attempt to convince others of the reality of these fictions and they will also make decisions, such as who to vote for, on the basis of these fictions. As might be imagined, such fiction based decision making is unlikely to result in wise choices. As I have argued in a previous essay, people tend to not be very rational when it comes to political matters. Even when a factual error is clearly shown to be an error, people who accepted the claim because it matches their ideology will tend to be more inclined to believe the claim because (and not in spite) of the correction. This has the effect of making true believers almost immune to corrections in the case of factual errors. While this is clearly a problem for those who are concerned about facts and truth, this supplies those who spin the counterfactual narratives with the perfect audiences: believers who will reject challenges to the narrative in which they dwell and thus are willful participants in their own political continuum, be that the Republican Continuum, the Democrat Continuum or another one. For these people, art does not imitate life nor does life imitate art. Life, at least the political life, is art—albeit science fiction.

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on September 10, 2012 at 7:47 am

    Eastwood’s remarks in the speech at the RNC on Afghanistan. I don’t see how “you thought that was something worth doing” is interpreted as “you authorized the invasion.” Can you explain your interpretation, Mike?

    I know you were against the war in Iraq, and that’s okay. But you thought the war in Afghanistan was OK. You know, I mean — you thought that was something worth doing. We didn’t check with the Russians to see how did it — they did there for 10 years.

    But we did it, and it is something to be thought about, and I think that, when we get to maybe — I think you’ve mentioned something about having a target date for bringing everybody home. You gave that target date, and I think Mr. Romney asked the only sensible question, you know, he says, “Why are you giving the date out now? Why don’t you just bring them home tomorrow morning?”


    Also, Mike, more than twice as many Americans have died in Afghanistan under Obama than under Bush. Doesn’t this fact count for anything?

    1324 of those Deaths have occurred in less than 3 1/2 years under Obama while only 630 of those deaths occurred in 8 years under George W. Bush


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 10, 2012 at 1:41 pm

      Well, it would be odd to say to Obama that he should have learned from the Russians unless he was indicating that Obama should not have gotten involved there. But, I suppose he could be taken as saying “you should have learned from the Russians and removed the troops that had been there for years as soon as you became president.”

      So, if you take Clint to be saying that Obama is to blame for not removing the troops in 2009, then that would have some merit-although we’d have to look back in detail at the history of the decision making process and the influences of those involved. As I recall, there was some push from the right to keep the troops there.

      Sure, the fact counts for something. But what do you take it as showing? Is it that Obama is causing the deaths by some failure on his part? Is it that the opposition has stepped up operations? Are you claiming that we should pack up and go home?

  2. T. J. Babson said, on September 10, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Why isn’t linking vaccines with autism as nutty as what Aikin said about rape?

    The Democratic Party has long made common cause with prominent people who thought vaccines caused autism, two in particular who stand out among the rest.

    The first person is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who published an influential article in Rolling Stone and the progressive website Salon back in 2005 tying vaccines to autism. It was so inaccurate that both publications retracted it several years later. But the damage had already been done. Because of widespread misinformation from celebrities like him, to this day, millions of Americans falsely believe that vaccines cause autism.

    The second person is President Barack Obama. On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama said , “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”

    Wrong. The science was settled in 2002, if not earlier. In truth, the biomedical community never accepted this link, even as the myth gained wider acceptance among the general public. Obama was either severely uninformed about basic medical science or he was playing politics with people’s fears.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm

      Linking vaccines with autism is nutty, given the fact that the evidence cited has been thoroughly discredited and the contrary evidence is rather conclusive. Since this is inductive causal reasoning, it could turn out that the results are in error-but this is very unlikely.

      Akin’s remark is somewhat nuttier in that there are not even the most tenuous grounds to claim that women have shut down mechanisms. In the case of vaccines, one could claim that there is a minute chance that the studies are in error. However, that would still be somewhat “nutty.”

      Yeah, the vaccine thing is a unfortunate and dangerous bit of anti-science and seems mostly to be coming from the left. I’ve written critically about this in an earlier post.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on September 10, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    Here is an alternate reality:

    Nationwide, public school teachers are almost twice as likely as other parents to choose private schools for their own children, the study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found. More than 1 in 5 public school teachers said their children attend private schools.

    In Philadelphia, 44 percent of the teachers put their children in private schools; in Cincinnati, 41 percent; Chicago, 39 percent; Rochester, N.Y., 38 percent.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      While interesting, there are two points of concern. The first is that it is a single study being noted and the second is tat the study comes from the Thomas B. Fordham institute which is well known as right leaning institute. As such, there is a need for additional (and preferably politically neutral) sources.

      Also, even if it is assumed that the numbers are accurate, a good question is what does that prove? That is, what is the issue you are addressing and what impact does this factual claim have on the issue?

  4. T. J. Babson said, on September 10, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    I stand before you as a slut:

    • T. J. Babson said, on September 10, 2012 at 10:32 pm

      So why can’t we call her a slut?

      • biomass2 said, on September 11, 2012 at 9:40 am

        You may. It’s your constitutional right. So. More on sluts.

        From a longish article about the Limbaugh/Fluke controversy.
        RL: “I acted too much like the leftists who despise me. I descended to their level, using names and exaggerations. It’s what we’ve come to expect from them, but it’s way beneath me.[50]”
        We’d call this deep irony coming from any other source, but for irony to succeed there must be a base in truth, my little feminazi.
        Rush is obviously using what he calls humor to defuse a situation he created that was getting out of hand and costing him money. His audience was convinced.

        • T. J. Babson said, on September 11, 2012 at 10:45 am

          Does biomass2 have upgraded firmware compared to the original biomass?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm

        Why would you want to?

        • T. J. Babson said, on September 11, 2012 at 2:11 pm

          I don’t, but I’d like to know if the term is OK to use in polite speech.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm

            I generally don’t use it, but I am hardly Mister Manners. However, I’d go with “no.” But maybe things have changed and the kids refer to each other as “sluts” as in “what is up my slutty slut sluts?” or “I’m posting the photo on Facebook so that all my sluts can see it.”

            • biomass2 said, on September 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm

              “maybe things have changed”
              I agree with the general implication there. The concept of what is polite and what is not has clearly changed over the centuries. The change can clearly be identified between generations. Granny is often mortified by here grandchild’s “language” At the same time, her grandchild wonders what the hell “mortified” means.

              Your choice as to whether you would employ the word would seem to depend on many factors. How do you define “polite”. What group do you run with? Do you think using the word can help you make a point? Do you know what “slut” means? Are you a bombastic talk radio host who seeks to incite rather than to inform?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 11, 2012 at 3:28 pm

              As you note, what words are polite or rude can vary by generation. Based on my 46 years, what would have been very rude 10 or 20 years ago might be normal today (although the reverse might also be true, such as calling a woman “honey” at work). Anecdotally, I do notice that the younger folks seem to swear a great deal, even in normal conversation. I even hear students using “f@ck” and “sh@t” when talking with faculty-not in anger, but just normally, like “I’m not sure what this equation sh@t is or exactly how the f@ck to work out the formula. Can you help me?” I suppose that what were once swear words have simply become conversational dressing. Of course, I do recall being chastised by fellow students for using “damn” and “hell” in a speech as a freshman-and I thought they were being prissy squares.

              I know I have hit the age that my students are a radically different generation. I still sort of “get” them, thanks to my connection to gaming and running (where the old and young can mix in non-creepy ways). But, it is just a matter of time before even that fades into history.

  5. biomass2 said, on September 11, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Google “spaghetti-armed metrosexuals”. The top two entries show a few of the many versions of biomass2.
    I particularly like the entries in

    I wasn’t originally biomass on here, as you’re well aware. Iwas “biomass2” —ex: see 9/6/2009—and made only the most cosmetic changes—new names— freddiek, frk, (Anon)freddiek, erik, dhammett as I evolved to my current role —-biomass2 !

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm

      Good to see that my blog is the top hit for that search. I assume this gets me into some sort of government file somewhere…

      • biomass2 said, on September 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm

        Blame magus, the creator of the infamous “spaghetti-armed metrosexual” phrase.
        He is/was in Army intelligence, no? Maybe you should ask him.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm

          It is probably a code designation for targets to be verbally terminated via conservative wit.

          • biomass2 said, on September 11, 2012 at 6:32 pm

            The drone drones drone endlessly.

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