(Originally published in Druid's Progress 12)
Most people assume, that if you can touch an object, taste it, or hit something with it, it must be real, and their knowledge of its reality is based on the direct apprehension of the facts at hand. Fiction, on the other hand, because it is made up by us, is not a fact we can apprehend directly, and is thus either false or unreal. I am arguing that the reverse is true: that our access to reality is based on fiction rather than fact, that we understand something only insofar as we tell ourselves a story about it. By this I mean that fiction is inherently more 'true' than fact, and that what we call facts are actually nothing more than good fictions- ones which we deem most reasonable to accept.
Many people might say 'I am sitting on a chair. I know it is a chair because it IS a chair- it is objectively real. I know it because I can feel it, and if I could I would throw it at you.' First, our knowledge of this as a chair is available because a long time ago some adult pointed and said 'chair,' and when later we asked what's a chair, he/she said 'something made for you to sit in or on.' We understand this as a chair because we have a story about what a chair is and we tell ourselves that this fits our story. Its objective reality doesn't tell us that it is a chair; we recognize it is as a chair because of our concept of chair. It is through the concepts, not the external facts, that we know objects to be the kinds of things which they are.
'Fine', you might say, 'but what about the object itself, without the name. I still know it exists and is hard even before I can speak or understand words.' Kant answered this by arguing that you only see through the instruments of your eyes. Things could appear very differently if we could see them directly, without any limitations. But just as we can't see anything without our eyes, so too can we not apprehend anything without categories of understanding. As an example, we say that striking a match causes it to flame. But how do we know that? Perhaps through experience: I notice that every time I strike a match, it then flames. David Hume pointed out that all this shows is that in the past we have a constant conjunction of two events: the strike, and the flame. There is nothing in this constant conjunction which gives evidence of necessity, or that it will continue in the future. We don't have evidence of cause, but of co-incidence. He concluded that since our belief in necessity can't derive from perception of events in the world, it is no more than a fiction - a bad habit, in fact. Kant responded that necessity can't come from the external world, but it can come from us. It is because we order things as cause and effect that we have any concept of cause, or of necessity. In our chair example, it is because we have a category of understanding of 'substance' which enables us to process a sensation into a something, an object.
The second response I have, following directly from the first, is that though there may be an objective world, we have no direct access to it, only a mediated one. That mediation is subjective, or based in the subject. Our perception, our very concept of reality is at heart subjective. What is most real to us is not 'raw reality' but the assumptions which underlie any judgment we can make, including the assumption that things exist, that there is an external world, etc.
My claim that fiction is more basic than fact in no way implies that every fiction is worthy of acceptance. We have many criteria to distinguish good fiction from bad. In science, for example, in order to be accepted it must be testable, it must be the best explanation, and meet all of the other criteria scientists have for good theories. Or, if it is a claim about the physical world rather than a theory, then in order for the story to be good it must be consistent with the best theories available. (It is extremely bad fiction, evaluated by the criteria of science, to think that if you just believe a bullet call do you no harm, then it won't.)
In the subject of history, for example, some of the criteria of good fiction is how well our story fits with the evidence we have, with the goal being to determine what really happened. Since we have no direct access to history, but only tile accounts under evaluation, historians ask a variety of questions to determine what was most likely: which sources were least motivated to lie, which were most thorough, which were closest to the event bring described, what is the consensus on ally given event, etc.
Now, to turn to my second argument, I believe we are using the wrong criteria to evaluate religious fiction. Most people seem to believe that the issue with religion is whether the gods, or god, etc. exist, and they evaluate religions according to how each one answers that question. But religion originally was not about a commitment to metaphysical beliefs, but a set of practices. (Religion has to do with performing rites in the proper manner.) In fact, one of the main difficulties of scholars is that in many cases, they can't connect known behaviors with beliefs. Religion, more than any other field, tells us what kinds of activities to perform. (Ethics tells us what to do in particular situations, where religion tells us what ritual behaviors to perform on a regular basis.) Therefore the yardstick of good fiction in religion shouldn't be how well it answers the question, 'do the gods exist' but how well it answers the question, 'what are the gods like, what practices do they demand?' Their existence is utterly irrelevant to religion; it's their attributes which are essential. If people judged the religion by the values it espouses, the place it gives them in the universe, the image of divinity it upholds, then no one would choose a religion which made him hate himself or whose values were impoverished.
I am not claiming that the issue of whether or not the gods are real is irrelevant, but that their reality is based not on existence, but on attributes. The verb 'to be' has three uses: the existential, predicative and veridical. According to the existential, 'to be' means to exist; in the predicative, to be some property; and in the veridical, to be the case, or to be true. The gods are real if they 'are.' But though they are, that doesn't mean they must exist. Instead the gods are real in the predicative sense, or insofar as they have properties we accept as real. I, for example, don't believe that omnipotence makes any sense whatsoever. Because I don't accept omnipotence as meaningful, or exemplifiable, the Hebrew God is less real to me.
You might argue that if something has a property, it must also exist. But many people are willing to grant that Pegasus has wings without also agreeing that Pegasus must therefore exist. I'm not suggesting that the gods don't exist, but that religion doesn't provide the answer to that question, nor should it. That is a personal choice, while religion is providing a public basis for action, a consensus about values, etc. We can all have access to what the gods represent, and have that be meaningful in our thoughts, actions, decisions, etc., without taking the added step of affirming that the gods exist in some particular form. Since religion is about the practices the gods demand, we can follow the religion just by following the demands.
But how can we follow the demands unless we believe that there are gods out there making those demands, and that we can perceive them in some way? This question religion must answer. While we may not have direct access to metaphysical entities, we must have some kind of epistemic basis on which we all agree if we are to practice the same religion. So one criterion for good religious fiction will be how well its epistemic basis transmits the demands of its gods to its adherents. Religions of the book have the advantage of a very clear common basis of rules, but the disadvantage of less responsiveness to particular circumstances. Religions based on divination may be very responsive to particular questions and problems, while providing less of a common base of agreed-upon norms. Regardless of the nature of the epistemic basis, however, each religion will have to provide an answer to that question, and how well it answers that question will partly determine how good that religious fiction is.
One advantage in the shift in criteria from claims about which gods truly exist to what values they represent, what practices they demand, etc. is that it better fits our intuitions about how to judge religion. If the criterion is about existence, whichever religion best answers the question about which gods exist would be objectively true, and everyone should follow it. Because the criteria of values must satisfy us each individually, no one religion could possibly be right for everyone. Religions whose fictions are richer are likely to satisfy more people, but just as long as we have different views of the world, different values, etc. no one path can claim objective truth.
In conclusion, the concepts which make reality real are in us rather than out there. And what makes them real has to do with the web of beliefs which allows us to interpret our experiences, so we in fact experience them rather than numbly undergo a barrage of sensations. It is that web of beliefs which constitutes our reality. Because the beliefs are in us, they are subjective. Since they are more true of us and the way we must see the world than they are of the world itself they more closely resemble what we call fiction than what we think of as fact. This is really only to say that what is meaningful does not derive from what is true, but the other way around. Truth is a subcategory of meaning, the fictions which constitute all of what we call reality.