Peter Cave has an entertaining new book of philosophical puzzles, Can a Robot be Human?. The pieces are cross-referenced; one interesting pairing is of a chapter (2) on the way we feel real emotion about fictional characters and their situations, and another (8) on love, what selves are, what stories we tell ourselves about people we love.

It is very odd, and even somewhat mysterious, what powerful emotions we can feel about fictional characters. The oddity becomes more obvious if you try to imagine animals doing it. The idea is absurd – yet we’re so used to doing it ourselves that we forget how odd it is. What’s that about, do you suppose? Other minds, probably. Right? Must be. The social animal thing. Our brains would have been too expensive to have evolved if they didn’t have a huge payoff; the payoff is social collaboration; for that we need a working theory of mind. So we have this hypertrophied faculty of thinking and feeling about the interior worlds of other people – so hypertrophied that it works even (or especially) on people who don’t actually exist. Page 9:

The most rational of people can be moved by fictions yet, even when moved, know full well that they are seated in a theatre, reading a book, or watching television. Or do they? Perhaps, one way or another, they suspend their belief in the stagy surroundings, suspend their memories of the tickets they purchased or block out the sound of the book’s rustling pages. Perhaps they fall for what is being represented as real, as being, indeed, all for real. Remember, though, they cannot be taken in that much; if they were, they would be warning of danger…

It is a peculiar mental state. Peculiar and delicate. It is easy to be jostled out of it – to be deeply in it one moment and the next to remember that you’re sitting in a chair holding and looking at a rectangular box-shaped object packed with slices of paper with black marks on them in rows. But then it’s easy to jump right back into it again. Story-telling seems to work that way. Peter Cave suggests that romantic love does too. Page 44:

When we attend a play, we can lose ourselves within the action. Despite awareness of the theatrical surroundings, we cannot help being moved by the characters on stage. My suggestion is that such fictionalism spills over those in love, generating an erotic fictionalism. When in love, we often cannot help feeling, and believing in, the eternity of that love, despite knowing that, transient and fickle creatures that we are, things may be so very, very different later on; even as early on as the following morning.

Indeed. You’re so wonderful. Oh wait, no you’re not. Human life in eight words.

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