Excursus: on Possible Worlds

The concept of Possible Worlds originates in the fields of philosophy and logic, as a tool to work with truth statements under counterfactual or hypothetical conditions (“if x were to happen, y would follow”); by postulating an infinite number of possible worlds, we can conceive of one which differs from our only by the hypothetical we are interested in. This approach allows propositions to be grouped based on their truth condition across multiple possible worlds: from true in all possible worlds, to possible (true in at least one world), to impossible (false in all possible worlds), etc.

Two views have emerged as to how to determine which is the true, actual world. The first, absolutist and probably more intuitive, is that the actual world is the one we find ourselves in, and that all other worlds are a product of our minds – be it through dreaming, or writing, or any other form of creative undertaking. The second view is more relativist, and states that “actual world” is not an absolute term, but rather an indexical property with variable reference; according to this view, the actual world is not fixed, but rather depends on the viewer, for whom the actual world is the one they are currently inhabiting. The flexibility afforded by this second view is obviously of interest for literary criticism, eg. in understanding the motivations of characters within a work of fiction.

The basics of this concept have been appropriated by literary criticism, and adopted as a theory applicable to the analysis of fictional literature; fiction is often a depiction of a world – perhaps “reality” would be a better suited term – that shares most characterstics with our own, but is different in a few, crucial aspects: those can be anything from alternative historical outcomes, to placing imaginary characters into historical contexts, to changing some of the laws of physics, and the list goes on and on. A theoretical framework allowing us to formally disentangle the relative truths of propositions offered to us in a fictional work is quite obviously a very powerful analytical tool.

A critical aspect of possible worlds created by fiction is the so-called principal of minimal departure: readers (a term which I use here loosely, and which is meant to encompass all forms of reception, such as by watching a movie, playing a game, and so on) will attempt to fill in all details left unmentioned by using imagery from their own actual world. This has a few important consequences; what the author decides to mention explicitly or keep in the background becomes of vital importance; details which deviate from our actual world need to be explicated – whether they would fit into the economy of the plot of not – lest the reader might misinterpret them; conversely, trying to flesh out a world too much, by providing too many unnecessary details, might drown the plot out, disrupting the narrative flow. The role of the reader is highlighted by this approach; not only they actively co-participate with the author in the world-building process, but their willingness to accept any possible world in its ensemble hinges on maintaining their belief that possible world they are exploring is the closest to our, given the original counterfactual proposition. As long as this belief holds, readers will employ willing suspension of disbelief, the contract between author and reader through which the basic fictional premises of the work are accepted and maintained throughout its development – this is an important enough concept to deserve its own future post.

Umberto Eco has postulated that a text (again, I use this term loosely) is akin to a universe made up of galaxies of possible worlds, a “machine to produce possible worlds”. It is limiting to only consider the interaction between author and reader: in fact, within the possible world created by the text, there are clusters of further possible worlds: the ideas, goals, mental depictions of the different characters that exist within a text: a character will only have a partial view of the world it lives in, which might be subordinate, or only partly overlapping with the knowledge of the reader (or even that of the author!). These additional possible worlds are not only important in maintaining the internal coherence of the work and its plot, but they are also very important in creating the mental images of the characters that will impress themselves within the readers. Characters within a work are not just words on a page; from that most basic level, we build an increasingly complex mental image of them; this is critically important in making the text vivid and engaging to us, and it does so by tapping into what many scholars consider the basis for our sociality, the so-called theory of mind: the capacity to project thinking capabilities of similar power but different motivation from our own onto other beings, then attempting to simulate and predict their reactions to different stimuli. Fiction, then, seems to elicit responses from our most basic human nature, challenging us to accept new challenges to our views, and building bridges to people and situations we might never encounter within our actual world.

One final note: video games, especially those involving role-playing through long, intricate plots, provide exquisite possibilities for this kind of thought-provoking excercises – and it bears mentioning that science fiction is often employed as a springboard for socio-cultural scrutiny and critique (as opposed to works of fantasy, which are more interested in power and wish fulfilment). After all, when playing video games, we are given great power over the outcome of plots, and we can explore with great breadth both ourselves, as well as the intentions of the authors within the confines they have set; we are, in other words, invited to play around with the controls of the interpretational machine in a way that is impossible in more traditional, unidirectional media; in doing so, we can learn more about the possible world we have dived in, but also about ourselves, and about the authors, and about the actual world within which we reside.

I will not go into a detailed analysis of Mass Effect here (that’s what the rest of the series is for, after all!); however, I believe it is important to notice how the most important possible proposition (true in the Mass Effect universe, but not in our actual world) is the existance of the eponymous mass effect; all other possible propositions are contingent upon this one: the social evolution of mankind, that of the other races, the current political situation in the galaxy, the events that will unfold over the course of the plot;. That is to say, as long as we hold the so-called mass effect as plausible, we can accept any (and hopefully all!) of the subsequent possible truths – propositions true in the game’s world but false in our own; however, none of those would be acceptable to us without first postulating the mass effect. We could then say that the mass effect is the axiomatic possible proposition, upon which all other turn.

Most of the background for this post has been based on the excellent article “Possible Worlds” from the living handbook of narratology:

Ryan, Marie-Laure: “Possible Worlds”, Paragraph 5. In: Hühn, Peter et al. (eds.): the living handbook of narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University. URL = http://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/article/possible-worlds
[view date:1 Jun 2017]

see references therein for more information on specific points.


One thought on “Excursus: on Possible Worlds

  1. Pingback: To play or not to play Mass Effect 1.III – First time on the Citadel, Council Hearing – Hamletic Tortoise

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