In a recent post, I gave as an example of an obviously wrongheaded conception of God’s relationship to the world the idea that we are literally fictional characters in a story He has authored – though I also allowed that as a mere analogy the idea may have its uses. Vincent Torley wonders whether there might not be something more to the idea, though, citing the use Hugh McCann makes of it in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Divine Providence” (see especially section 6 of the article).
So, let's examine the idea. Torley writes:
One obvious objection to McCann's "storybook" analogy is that we are real, but the characters in a story are not. But what does "real" mean here? The characters in a story are real to each other; while the author exists at another, higher level of reality. We can make stories, but it is certainly conceivable that we ourselves are characters in a story written by God, who, as the Ultimate Reality, exists in a level of reality beyond our own.
Another objection to McCann's "storybook" metaphor is that the characters in a story do not interact with their author, as we do when we pray to God. However, there seems to be no logical reason why an author of a book could not write a story in which the characters interacted with him or her. I believe some computer games already incorporate this feature…
Now it seems to me from the passage Torley cites that McCann himself does not take the view that we are really just fictional characters; he appeals to the notion only as an analogy useful for helping us to understand why divine causality is not incompatible with human freedom. The idea is that God’s causality is not like that of one character, object, or event in a story among others; it is more like that of the author of the story. Hence to say that God is the ultimate source of all causality is not like saying that He is comparable to a hypnotist in a story who brainwashes people to do his bidding, or a mad scientist who controls them via some electronic device implanted in their brains. He is more like the writer who decides that the characters will interact in such-and-such a way. And so His being the ultimate source of all causality is no more incompatible with human freedom than the fact that an author decides that, as part of a mystery story, a character will freely choose to commit a murder, is incompatible with the claim that the character in question really committed the murder freely.
In fact this is precisely the sort of thing for which I think the analogy is useful. It is also useful as a way of illustrating the difference between the classical theist’s conception of God and other conceptions. Just as the author of a story is not one character among others but transcends the story altogether as its source, so too the God of classical theism is not “a being” among others but Being Itself. (As Ralph McInerny put it in the title of one of his books, we are like “characters in search of their Author.”)
All the same, the world is not literally a mere story and we are not literally fictional characters (comparable, say, to the protagonists of the famous Twilight Zone episode "Five Characters In Search of An Exit"). There are at least two problems with the idea that we are, one philosophical and one theological. The philosophical problem is that there is an obvious difference between us and fictional characters: we exist and they don’t. Metaphysically speaking, we can understand the difference in terms of Aquinas’s famous distinction between essence and existence. To borrow an example from his On Being and Essence, a phoenix, unlike a human being, has no “act of existence” conjoined with its essence (if there is such a thing as the essence of a phoenix). That’s why there are no phoenixes – they are fictional creatures – while there are human beings. You exist because God conjoins your essence to an act of existence; phoenixes do not exist because God does not conjoin the essence of any phoenix with an act of existence. To regard ourselves as fictional characters in a story God has written would be to deny this obvious difference, and to make it mysterious what it could mean to say that God has created human beings but not phoenixes. (See Aquinas for discussion and defense of Aquinas’s doctrine of essence and existence.)
But what of Torley’s suggestion that “the characters in a story are real to each other; while the author exists at another, higher level of reality,” and that this is comparable to our relationship to God as a divine Author? The answer is that while both we and God are real – we have acts of existence conjoined with our essences and God just is Being Itself – the characters in a story are not real at all precisely because (being merely fictional) none of them has an act of existence conjoined with an essence. When we say that “they are real to each other,” all this can mean is that the author has written the story in such a way that the characters say the sorts of things to each other that normal human beings would, and do not say things like “We are mere fictional characters.” For the same reason, the characters in a story do not literally “interact” with the author (contrary to Torley’s suggestion) for the simple reason that they do not exist and thus cannot interact with anything. Rather, an author may write a story in such a way that some of the characters’ dialogue makes reference to the author himself.
You might say that precisely because the characters do not exist but are purely fictional, they are not true causes the way real things are. Everything they seem to do is really done by their author: We say that Spider-Man punched out the guy who shot his uncle, but all that happened in the real world is that Steve Ditko (in collaboration with writer Stan Lee) first drew a panel in which Spider-Man punches the guy and then drew a panel in which the guy is unconscious. Strictly speaking, Spider-Man didn’t do anything, because there is no Spider-Man. By contrast, when we think we bring about effects, we (usually) really do. Of course, God, as the First Cause of the world, is the source of all the causal power anything else has, and apart from Him nothing in the world could generate any effect even for an instant. (This is the thrust of the Aristotelian-Thomistic argument from motion.) But (from a Thomistic point of view, anyway) created things are nevertheless true causes, even if only “secondary causes.” Their causal power is entirely derived from God, but it is still real. To say that we are fictional characters would, it seems, be implicitly to deny this, and to adopt the occasionalist view that there are no secondary causes and that God is the only true cause of anything.
As the Catholic Encyclopedia article on occasionalism notes, “Nicolas Malebranche developed Occasionalism to its uttermost limit, approaching so near to Pantheism that he himself remarked that the difference between himself and Spinoza was that he taught that the universe was in God and that Spinoza said that God was in the universe.” And something similar could be said of the suggestion that we are fictional characters: If we and everything else in the universe are, in effect, mere ideas in the mind of a divine Author, then the distinction between God and the world collapses. The universe would be “in” God in the same way that the story an author has come up with is “in” the author’s mind. But pantheism is unacceptable both from the point of view of philosophical theology (since the traditional arguments for God’s existence entail that the First Cause is utterly distinct from the world) and from the point of view of dogmatic theology (since pantheism is unorthodox). Hence any view that entails pantheism – as the suggestion that we are fictional characters arguably does – is doubly objectionable. And in this case, pretty odd in any event!