Receptor Theory: Why Fiction is “True”

Audio version here

This is a continuation of the last article on The Universal Lens. But only two claims from that article are needed.

-All life must in some way be a statistical response model to its environment. This is because for life to continue, it must fulfill the dual mandates of gathering energy from the outside environment and not have its internal organization disrupted. This is true of blood cells and bacteria. But it is equally true of you and me.

-Other humans are the most important part of the human environment. Humans can live everywhere but not alone.

A typical human can hear noises from 20-16,00 Hz. Rabbits can hear up to 42,000 Hz. Why? You might point out we have different ears, but once again, why? Why can bees see in UV while our eyes cannot?

There is a common mistake where we observe the world around us as if it is as it has to be, rather than the result of a deliberate, if unconscious, reason. If you answered we have different ears than rabbits and eyes than bees, you would be technically right but missing out on the larger picture. Why did we develop different eyes and ears?

This is a similar question to why humans are not twice as strong or insects twice as intelligent[1]. They could be, of course, there is no physical limitation preventing either. Just remember that for each benefit, there is a cost that must be paid, if this additional cost exceeds the benefit of the advantage, it won’t be selected for. Extra muscles might help, extra brain power might help, but they require energy. If those advantages don’t help enough, they simply won’t happen. This is also true of receptors. There are practically limitless things that could be observed. What is observed then must be a subset, the subset that is useful enough to compensate for their disadvantages in a given eco-niche. If you are a hawk, keen eyesight is a must. If you are a cave fish, energy spent on eyes are nothing but a drain and distraction.

So what does this all have to do with the title of the piece? What do rabbits having better hearing have to do with fiction being true?

Every one of us has (hopefully) had meaningful fictional experiences. Ones that filled us with warmth, with feelings of beauty. Seeing seemingly impossible love, loyalty, kindness. There are, of course, cultural differences, yet the wide success of Western and Japanese cultural exports prove this is not essential[2]. Though some complicated books and films or those featuring highly contentious cultural issues may divide feelings, moments from cultural touchstones usually elicit the same feelings in everyone. Disney has made billions of dollars perfecting playing our collective sentiments. Music does this, good books as well. Sometimes these presentations can be rather shallow, and we are left feeling fooled or cheated after the initial rush of feelings that compelled our attention subsided. Other times we are left desperately wanting more. Often real-life pales to fiction. Many of us retreat to the 2D world or are tempted to.

For some of us, those I am specifically writing this article for, we have become jaded with reality. Love, loyalty, fine sentiments, but one has to be realistic. They doubt the reality of these feelings and deem those evoking them as someone trying to sell them something[3]. Not saying that this isn’t too often the case. But if you are in the aforementioned group, don’t you think you might be capable of those feelings? Wouldn’t you at least want to feel them “for real”? Isn’t it perhaps true that you still fill yourself with these beautiful worlds while denying the hole even exists?

The hole, at least, is real.

What is meant by love anyway? Like anything else complicated it has infinite possible definitions, so I will just define it by what is broadly meant when lumping together all of the cheesy, sappy stuff previously mentioned, loyalty, kindness, and the like. Love is the opposite of narrow maximization. It is taking actions not out of some particular selfish objective but instead out of some genuine feeling, often leading to behaviors that seemingly contradict our own direct selfish objectives. What do bees seeing UV have to do with love? Why is fiction real?

The logic is simple if you agree with these general points

-Receptors are to give us appropriate response to our environment and only exist if their use justifies their cost

-Other humans are the most important part of the human environment

-Fiction can make you feel things deeply like love, loyalty, and kindness. There are similar emotional chords shared between people.

Then the conclusion is obvious and inescapable. Love must be real. All the sappy unrealistic stuff in stories are real.

They at least had to be, in some genuine form and we have to be capable of performing them in the real world. Simply put, we have the machinery for it. Why would we ever develop receptors for things that are not real? A thing that leaves us vulnerable to have, a thing about the most important part of our environment, other people?

In some ways, this is an extension of  the article are True Altruists Monsters? Don’t take human feelings as a given. They exist for a reason, the same reason everything else exists. It isn’t by accident we find babies cute and want to care and protect for them. It is because if we didn’t, those needy and useless crying things would not likely receive proper care, meaning the bearer of that behavior would be wiped from history along with their neglected progeny. Our precious feelings of love are important. I would even argue they are the only thing that really does matter (in a future article). But they exist for a reason. Where does all of this nice machinery come from? Why do we think of these things as nice instead of simply foolish?

How can Optimization not be Optimal?

In economics, my main field of expertise, there is an idea of ‘optimal’ behavior. This usually takes the form of people doing a lot of calculus before deciding to buy two bananas and one apple. Game theory and math models based on this kind of thinking allow for all kinds of selfish justifications for being cooperative and doing the right thing, reputation effects, expectations of future cooperation, etc. But these miss the mark. Despite the number of additional layers of sophistication, we might add to it, the general way of framing the problem is far too shallow to capture the most meaningful interactions between humans.

Humans by ourselves are weak. We might be smart but are otherwise fairly unimpressive creatures. Our true strength lies in our relationships. We might be willing to deal with a person when our pragmatic self-interest is in line, but isn’t it nicer to interact with someone we genuinely like and who genuinely likes us? Imagine you could have one of two friends, Pragmatic Paul or Caring Carl. Paul, as the name suggests, deals with you, but purely out of self-interest, he will be your friend so long as it stays profitable. Carl, on the other hand, helps you out because he cares about you. When he sees you are in trouble, maybe in a way that even makes it unprofitable for him to help, he still will. Who would you choose?

When you need people the most is when things are going badly, not well. But only feelings can actually make it believable that people would be there even and especially when it doesn’t make sense for them to. In this way, our feelings allow us to credibly commit to actions in the future we would not otherwise choose[4].

In this way, especially in small groups, a Carl can outcompete a Paul. We search out hints from people about which of the two they are, though most are at least some mixture. We deal with the Pauls, but especially for things that feel personal(gifts, parties, conversations, sex), it doesn’t tend to feel particularly good. In nature, wherever there is an advantage to it, you will see mimicry. Venomless animals might mimic those that have venom. In this case, it is those with the venom who seek to conceal their true nature. Pauls usually hide their self-interest behind a mask of caring and good intentions, consciously or unconsciously. If the mask slips and you realize you were dealing with a Paul all along, it might make you feel betrayed or even sick. You want to interact with people who want to interact with you, not because of what you can provide but because of who you are.

The thing to remember is that mimicry needs something real with which to mimic, making the case that true caring exists more concrete. Why have receptors for things that, if observed, will just hurt you?

Instumentalization and the Modern World: Why the World Often Feels Icky

Instrumentalization is where we interact with others with a specific selfish goal in mind instead of doing the action out of the desire itself. It is using others as a means to an end and being used as a means to others’ ends. Helping others can be instrumental, being helped can be. It can also not be. Sex can be instrumental. Sex can not be. Studying can be instrumental. It can also not be. These things might not always differ overly much in observation, but they certainly do in the way we feel about them both during and after. The modern world is a place of wealth, wonder, sadness, loneliness, and depression.

It is easy to live a life now without close and truly meaningful bonds. You could easily survive and be successful with nothing other than pure practicality. Being genuine and trusting probably won’t kill us, but it is likely to hurt us badly and more than once. The false signal of goodness seems much more common than the true signal, all while most people deep down just hope for the real thing. People have been false since there were people. It just makes sense that some will copy a useful signal. But in the modern world, it often feels like the instrumental outstrips the real.

Lies often sparkle more brightly than the truth, especially at a surface glance. No longer do we spend most of our time in voluntary groupings of a few people we will know for our lives. The world is a much bigger place now, a necessary part of wealth. It also means relationships tend to be more shallow, that due to the sheer scale, we must rely on a few standard signals when meeting someone, often some combination of their education, wealth, career, and political opinions. Anything easily measured is also rife for direct optimization. Lies erode with time and proximity. In many cases, the returns of focusing on the signal more than the real seem far higher. Focusing on the real then seems a risky strategy, so even those who hate behaving falsely will do it anyway. Given the absence of a sort of universally accepted value system, unthinking status-seeking materialism becomes the default measurement and goal.

It creates a functional rich world, but one where even those at the top might feel the hole acutely.

I confess I wrote this article and developed this idea for the many softhearted cynics I have met[5]. The point isn’t that the world is sunshine and rainbows (though those also exist), just don’t give up hope that the finer sentiments of humans must be just as true as all the crappy parts. The people around you also (very likely but not universally) have the same machinery as you. They are also trapped in the same world with the same incentive set towards narrow status-seeking. Genuine relationships, fraught as they are, are essential. Try to have at least a few. You might be surprised just how many people were waiting for someone to make the first move. If that is too much to ask, I leave with these parting words.

Just remember

It isn’t all shit

Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.

[1] Intelligence is a lot like strength. Costly, from an energy perspective, there is no real biological reason why humans are not twice as strong as we are. For us, it just isn’t worth the extra energy. Bacteria, slime molds, ants, woodlice, and even viruses act as if they are intelligent given the tasks that they need to perform despite being entirely unintelligent in the usual sense. Our brains consume an enormous amount of energy, roughly 20% of total energy. If your eco-niche happens to be digesting rotting wood, there is simply no way increased intelligence would provide enough extra energy to make up for the additional expenditure. Insects, in particular, tend to be almost entirely algorithmic in their behavior which in cases like the Sphex can lead to fairly absurd behavioral loops in the evolutionarily unlikely case of human researchers messing with them. Indeed there are countless examples of animals behaving in bizarre manners when faced with an environment much unlike that which they were sculpted to with the slow hand of evolution(male hamsters will kill their own children most social animals such as rats can be manipulated by their environment to show highly maladaptive behavior (see Rat Utopia)). Humans are another such animal.

[2] A Japanese studio produces a Japanese television show about a carefree pirate driven to become king of the pirates, set in a purely fictional world with fantastical rules. Yet I defy you, regardless of background, to watch that fictional pirate take the extremely reckless action of declaring war against the entire world government just to free his friend and show his support, and not feel your eyes water slightly and your heart fill with genuine emotion. Yes, I am talking about One Piece episode 231. Yes, my eyes watered slightly while watching it. I used to call this idea in this article the Luffy principle. I originally articulated versions of this idea helping out some fellow One Piece fans who had often with reason had lost faith in human goodness. Luffy is a perfect example of a character who acts out of nothing but genuine sentiment which is what makes him near universally lovable.

[3] This is probably at least partially reflected in the growth in desire for more “realistic” stories where those genuine and pure are met with harsh realities and anti-sitcoms featuring casts of transparently selfish casts held together with ineffable co-dependence.

[4] Another example of feelings making noncredible promises credible is revenge. While with love, we can credibly commit to helping in the future even when it does us no good, with revenge, we can credibly commit to doing damage to those who have harmed us, even though revenge rarely works out from a cost/benefit perspective. These classes of problems where you want to credibly commit to a future action that you wouldn’t actually want to take in the future are known as time-inconsistency problems in economics. They are very important problems to solve as without being able to solve them, trade/cooperation becomes much harder.

[5] Perhaps even including a younger version of myself

5 thoughts on “Receptor Theory: Why Fiction is “True””

  1. We tell fictions because we want them to be true. Yes, we are trapped in the same world with the same machinery geared towards narrow status-seeking, but this is precisely why the world feels like all shit and why we feel the need to tell fictions–supposedly, to fool ourselves that the world might be better than what it actually feels like so that we are able to continuously boosting our bravery out of thin air in order to live on–to keep making up this world as it is.


    1. The general point of the article is the question of why it is that such nice tales in fiction feel good to begin with. If we really were nothing but selfish status-seeking automatons then we wouldn’t think of such things as nice, we would see them as some combination of inexplicable and foolish. The fact we find comfort in such fictions is the proof that such fictions hold some truth. It can be a cold world out there, hope you manage to keep yourself warm.


      1. Things can exist by contrast and with relativity. Fictions are nice because the reality is otherwise; I can feel a sense of warmth when it gets less cold 🙂


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