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#610 Are We Characters in a Book?

December 23, 2018

Dr. Craig, (much thanks for all of what you do grin )

A great deal of talking about the big bang and the origin of the universe seems to be done lately. It seems superfluous to me since I take the perspective that all of us are actually characters in a non-fictional "book" that we live in, Authored by not only by the Writer of the universe but also the rules of behavior he has put into place there. It seems to me that talk about what happened before "Once upon a time" (the big bang) is really quite irrelevant. It seems obvious to me that the Author has created substance for the universe and has and continues to inject form into it, guiding the "plot" as it runs along. He can even write himself personally into his own story as so many human authors also do. I guess what I'm asking is how compatible this is with scripture in your mind and if I'm wise in taking this perspective.

Much, thanks.


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Dr. craig’s response


In the course of my study of God and abstract objects, I spent a good deal of time reading and reflecting on the nature of fiction and on pretense theory, the view that abstract objects are akin to characters in a novel, such as Sherlock Holmes. As a result of my study, I think that while abstract objects may, indeed, be fictional entities, it is theologically and philosophically unacceptable to hold that we ourselves are characters in a story or, on the more contemporary version of the same idea, objects in a computer simulation or a hologram.

For we are persons, whereas fictional characters, if they exist at all, are abstract objects. Certainly, in the Conan Doyle stories Sherlock Holmes is a person. But that is just a way of saying that it is fictional that “Sherlock Holmes is a person,” just as it is fictional that “Sherlock Holmes lives at 22B Baker Street in London.” Neither of these sentences is actually true; they are true merely in the world of the fiction created by Conan Doyle. By contrast it is not fictional that “Sherlock Holmes is a dog” or that “Sherlock Holmes lives in Toledo,” for those sentences are not true in the fictional world of the Conan Doyle stories. Sherlock Holmes either does not exist at all or, at most it [nota bene!] is an abstract object of which true statements can be made, like “Sherlock Holmes is more popular than Hercule Poirot.”

Moreover, characters in a story do not have free will, for everything they think and do in the story is determined by the author of the story. To be sure, in the story they may be persons endowed with free will, but that is just like saying that in the story Holmes lives in London. He doesn’t really live in London, nor does he have free will. Thus, fictional characters have no moral responsibility, as do real persons.

Moreover, fictional characters are radically incomplete. Did Holmes wear a size nine shoe? That is neither true nor false in the world of the fiction. Thus, in contrast to real persons, fictional characters are largely indeterminate.  Perhaps one could escape this unwelcome implication by saying that since God is omniscient, He could make the characters in His story fully determinate. But then why think that God has gone to that much trouble? Who’s supposed to read this book anyway?

But wait! You might protest. My suggestion is that we are characters in a non-fictional book. That makes no difference. Even if the book is composed of true sentences, the characters in the story are not the real persons which the story is about. This is obvious in the case that the real persons which the story is about are dead! Literary characters in a true story are still at best abstract objects, not flesh and blood persons. So, yes, God could write Himself into the story, just as human authors sometimes do. But God is a concrete entity, not an abstract object, and therefore not identical to the character called “God” in the story. In fact, if the story is true, then the proper names of characters in the story must refer to real persons who exist outside the story. So who are they if not us?  We have not escaped a real world outside the story after all. So it is philosophically and theologically impossible that we are literary characters, even in a true story.

Moreover, such a view is utterly unwarranted. Our apprehensions of ourselves and the world around us as concrete realities are properly basic beliefs grounded in our experience and therefore entirely rational to hold. It would take a defeater of unimaginable power to undercut the belief that I am a person. Any such defeater will be overwhelmed by the warrant that I have that I am a person. Moreover, any sceptical arguments for the conclusion that I am a character in a story will tend to be self-defeating, since we cannot trust any of the deliverances of our cognitive faculties if we are just characters in a story. The author determines everything that we think, and none of our perceptions is reliable.

So as to the point that motivated your question, Rustin, while it may be pointless to ask what preceded the “Once upon a time” in the story (since that is as indeterminate as Sherlock Holmes’ shoe size), it is hugely relevant in the real world whether the universe began to exist and, if it did, why it came into being. This is the driving question of contemporary cosmology and one that is pregnant with theological significance.

- William Lane Craig