The philosophy of fiction

According to the author of this article about science fiction and philosophy, there is a strong link between Plato’s cave and the idea of allegory, which is used in many contemporary works of fiction. Every story we tell has a deeper meaning to unearth.

So why are philosophical questions so popular in fiction?

Why not leave them to academics to discuss in ivory towers while the rest of us just get on with the business of enjoying life? Surely novels are written, films, plays and TV series are made purely to entertain, nothing more?

Well, it seems that the opposite is true. People have always needed stories to help them make sense of the world. Even before the invention of the printing press and the relatively high levels of adult literacy we enjoy in today’s society, people would pass stories down the generations. If you’re lucky, even in today’s world you’ll remember having had stories told to you by the fire when you were little. As Lisa Cron says in her book, Wired for Story:

‘We think in story, which allows us to envision the future.’

Furthermore, I would argue that many stories have a philosophical element, and that all speculative stories do. There are many examples of where fiction, whether it be executed in a book, a film, a play or even a TV series (think Star Trek!) tackles philosophical questions in an accessible manner. My favourite philosophical themes in literature are:

  • Reality and illusion
  • Philosophy of the mind
  • Identity and the self
  • Free will and determinism
  • Metaphysics and the philosophy of time and space

Reality and illusion

Much of literature and art is devoted to the idea of reality and illusion.

In the recent compelling novel by Murakami, IQ84, the protagonist Anoname experiences a reality subtly different from the one she understands herself to be living in. The realisation only dawns on her gradually as little things, like a report on a political movement she has no recollection of, stack up to form a picture of an unfamiliar world.

In my novel, Split Symmetry, the protagonist, Elena, caught by a quantum rift in her world brought about by a freak weather incident and a scientific experiment, finds herself catapulted into a reality which doesn’t seem quite right.

‘It was like being in one of her dreams, like being stuck there, in the space between waking and sleeping. She could either wake up now, or experience a thousand alternatives, live a few lives over before dawn broke. A gate had been opened to endless possibilities, to a life where it hadn’t ended badly…’

Many of us dream of different decisions which, we believe, would have put us firmly back on track, or nightmares where we see our lucky escape from other scenarios we may have walked straight into, if only we hadn’t made this or that fortunate call.

Hindu philosophy

In his book The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism physicist Fritjof Capra explores what he believes are links between the Hindu tradition and quantum physics. Debunked as ‘New Age’ and ‘cult’, the ideas in the book nevertheless open new doors to old questions.

The idea of causation and its knock on effect within reincarnation is prevalent in the Hindu tradition. The idea of entanglement, key to quantum mechanics, can also be found within the idea of the universal soul, and it’s an idea which has become popular in contemporary fiction. Paulo Coelho’s hit novel (and one of the most best selling novels of all time) The Alchemist talks about the ‘Soul of the World’. The overwhelming popularity of the novel across the globe suggest the need within popular culture to access core philosophical questions about the nature of existence and how we are all, ultimately, linked to one another.

Virtual reality

Neo through Morpheus eyes

The 1999 film, The Matrix examines questions close to my heart, and I feel the questions posed are becoming more pertinent with time. In the age of virtual reality and online social networking, where does the self reside? Is it within the pseudo me who interacts with others purely online, or is within the physical me? What’s the difference?

‘You ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?’ Neo says to the drug pushers at the start of ‘The Matrix’ and it is a question posed by many philosophers. Descartes said, famously, ‘I think therefore I am’ (or rather, ‘I am thinking at this moment, therefore I am’).  Is our existence so virtual we can think ourselves into it? Or maybe out of it?

Where is the self in all of this?

Recently much has been made of the idea the universe is, in fact, a hologram, much as the Matrix is. Efforts of physicists to find common ground between Einstein’s theory of gravity and quantum physics seem to have produced a further theory that our universe as a projection of a reality elsewhere.

The idea we live in a holographic universe is not new, and it is no coincidence the word ‘consciousness’ often comes up in the same search results list as the words ‘holographic universe’.  Without a physical body, our conscious mind becomes a lot more important.

Philosophy of the mind

Furthermore, does it really matter where the physical self resides? Does a person’s physical self have to be inextricably linked with their mind, with their identity? Having worked extensively in the field of disability and the internet, I am greatly encouraged by the ability of online communications to free a person from the constraints society otherwise imposes upon them. To an extent, we all live with impairments of one kind or another. The degree to which we can access society (either on or offline) can help or hinder us in our intention to live the life we want to live. So is it a good or a bad thing that – theoretically – we can be whoever we want to be online?

In  John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690, Locke defined consciousness as:

the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind

Whilst the Macmillan Dictionary of Psychology defines consciousness as:

The having of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings; awareness

However, the so-called ‘mind-body’ problem, addressed comprehensively by Descartes with the concept of dualism, is one which is experimented with extensively in fiction.

Identity and the self

What is normal, what is human?

Then there is another question, related to the impossibly wide question of  what determines the self. It’s another area which is examined in fiction where an unreliable narrator is often used to throw the reader off course and lull them into a false sense of security: if you believe the narrator is a person just as you are, what happens to your perception of normality when you discover they are quite different? I was recently fascinated by the view of what it is to be human posed by Michel Faber in his novel Under the Skin. In this book the protagonist, Isserley, appears to have human thoughts, feelings and speech, and yet she is not human. At least, she isn’t human by our generally agreed parameters. But what are the agreed parameters? Peter Hoeg also poses this question in his novel The Woman and the Ape.

In his novels, Milan Kundera also plays with the idea of the relative unimportance of physical characteristics. His characters are built up from a series of gestures rather than fixed physical attributes. In his non-fiction work, The Art of the Novel, he says:

the reader’s imagination automatically completes the writer’s vision.

Looking at it from another perspective: if a person’s soul is what makes them human then what happens when distinctions are blurred between us and the rest of the animal kingdom? And who decides which species should reign supreme over the others? Where is the human, if not within a recognisably human body. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis looks at this conundrum too. There is no doubt the reader is supposed to empathise with the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, – turned overnight into a giant beetle-like creature – as a fellow human. His existentialist dilemma is expressed succinctly within a short story. As a reader you see how it is only when  he begin to develop a self-identity and understanding of the relationships around him.

This sense of what is ‘normal’ is something I touch upon in my thriller, Borderliners. My protagonist, Elena, could be said to have some issues with her mental health. Or maybe not. Either way, where is the dividing line between normal and abnormal and why is it important?

Free will and determinism?

Identity, consciousness and reality also have links to the course our lives take. Are we born we a certain identity or mind in order to fulfil a particular destiny? Or is there no fate, no luck or misfortune, and no predestined course of events for us to follow, just a chain reaction based on each decision we make as we stumble forwards through life?

In Split Symmetry, I examine the ideas of determinism and free will in a fictional context. My inspiration for this novel came from reading about advances in quantum mechanics which posed the idea of a multiverse. In other words, there are endless, eternal permutations of our universe – alternate universes – in which the decisions we might have made come to bear. In those realities, our alternate decisions lead to alternate lives. Therefore causation and fatalism are also themes I allude to in my book.

Cause and effect

Bertrand Russell said:

‘The law of causation, according to which later events can theoretically be predicted by means of earlier events, has often been held to be a priori, a necessity of thought, a category without which science would not be possible.’

(Russell, External World p.179).

Is this correct? Do all our actions cause predictable reactions? Can we change our fate with a different action? Can we change our fate at all?

In the hit American Sci Fi series, ‘Fringe’, similar themes are expounded. In one universe the protagonists look and act one way but in another they are slightly different as a result of their past actions and the actions of others. Olivia Dunham in ‘our’ universe is somewhat sad and lonely and unable to open up to others as a result of early childhood tragedy whereas the Olivia in the alternate universe is emotionally secure and confident: in her universe her mother did not die when she was child. Their DNA is identical but their experiences are not.


The literary form which lends itself best to the expression of metaphysical questions could be poetry. As a teenager I was fascinated by John Donne’s famous ‘compass conceit’ in his poem ‘A Valediction: forbidden mourning’ and the idea of people being joined spiritually as well as physically. The idea that a spiritual bond, once made, could not be broken, is a compelling one.

‘If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the’other doe.’

To take it one step further, and to dovetail the questions of reality and identity, could we all be linked in a metaphysical sense?

The philosophy of space and time

As T.S. Eliot sums up so perfectly in his work, ‘The Four Quartets':

‘Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.’

Backing up the more recently espoused view of some quantum physicists, that time is not linear, T.S.Eliot’s poem summarises the philosophical problems (or maybe solution) this creates. What do we make of determinism and free will in the face of ‘all time…eternally present’? Or identity and reality for that matter?

Who are we, what are we, where are we and why?

The big questions are:  who are we, what are we, where are we and why?

How can we determine our identity? Where did we come from? To debate the answers, look no further than fiction. Even in popular culture, within genre fiction, film and tv, these questions are prevalent.


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