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October 4th, 2004

Six Objections to the Westphall Hypothesis

Atrios linked to this discussion of the rather odd claim that in 164 different TV shows, what we’re seeing is not what is really happening in the fiction, but what happens in the mind of a small character from St. Elsewhere called Tommy Westphall.

The argument for this claim, what I’ll call the Westphall Hypothesis, is based around a rather impressive bit of research about crossovers in TV-land. (The site seems to be based in Victoria, so I have some natural fondness for it.) The reasoning is as follows. The last episode of St. Elsewhere revealed that the entire storyline of that show hadn’t really (i.e. really in the fiction) happened but had all been a dream of Tommy Westphall. So by extension any story involving a character from St. Elsewhere is really (in the fiction) part of Tommy’s dream. And any story involving a character from one of those shows is also part of Tommy’s dream, etc. So all 164 shows that are connected to St. Elsewhere in virtue of character sharing are part of Tommy’s dream.

It’s a nice little idea, but there are half a dozen things wrong with it.

To categorise these, let’s formalise the argument.

P1. All of St. Elsewhere (except the last scene) takes place in Tommy Westphall’s mind.
P2. If all of St. Elsewhere (except the last scene) takes place in Tommy Westphall’s mind, then any show that bears the ancestral of the sharing a character relation with St. Elsewhere takes place in Tommy Westphall’s mind.
C. So all shows on this grid take place in Tommy Westphall’s mind.

As mentioned in the title, I have six objections to this little argument. (Overkill, I know, but there are some moderately interesting questions about truth in fiction that come up.) Two to P1, two to the overall argument, and two to P2.

Objection One – Dreaming Never Works
I’m generally suspicious of the effectiveness of the “It was all a dream” move. I think it was true in the Wizard of Oz movie that the scarecrow didn’t have a brain and the tinman didn’t have a heart. It wasn’t true that the scarecrow didn’t have a heart and the tinman didn’t have a brain. If we take the movie seriously to the end then neither of these are really true, they are only true in Dorothy’s dream. So we should, for purposes of working out what is true in the story, not take the final scenes too seriously.

I don’t want to rest too much weight on this, since it is possible that our inclination to say that the scarecrow didn’t have a brain and the tinman didn’t have a heart is because we couldn’t be bothered always prefixing “According to Dorothy’s dream…”

Objection Two – This Dream Sequence Doesn’t Work
I know the St. Elsewhere characters intended the final scene to make it true in the fiction that the entire storyline took place in Tommy Westphall’s head. But I’m not sure they succeeded. There are way too many alternative interpretations of the final scene to bed down that interpretation. For one thing, we could interpret it as a dream of the real Tommy Westphall, the child of Dr Westphall. Maybe he wishes his father really was a construction worker. As people on numerous comment boards have argued, it would be very implausible a child his age could imagine everything that happened in the show’s run. So these alternative explanations are somewhat to be preferred, especially given the show’s preference for realism.

Objection Three – The One from Moore
I reckon nobody will believe this argument, but I thought it was worth making.

P3. Some of the things that (fictionally) happen in Friends happen in a different city to some of the things that (fictionally) happen in Joey.
P4. If the Westphall hypothesis is true, then all of the things that (fictionally) happen in Friends happen in the same city as all of the things that (fictionally) happen in Joey, namely the city that Tommy lives in.
C2. The Westphall hypothesis is not true.

Obviously anyone who believes the Westphall Hypothesis will not believe P3. But I think most of us have better reason to believe P3 than we have to believe any complicated argument to the contrary. Indeed, I think we know P3 to be true, so we can use it in arguments. (What else could we need in order to use a premise in an argument?)

Objection Four – Charity
Maybe you don’t think the previous argument is conclusive. (I do, but contemporary philosophers are specially trained to let known facts override complicated arguments.) Still, that kind of consideration should be an important part of our overall interpretation. We get an interpretation of TV-land generally that is simpler, more realistic, and more in keeping with the authors’ wishes if we don’t include the Westphall hypothesis than if we do. It would be very odd to override all of those points on the strengths of a few ambiguous minutes at the end of St Elsewhere.

Put another way, even if we accept that the story writers for, say, Cheers wanted their show to be set in the same world as the world of St Elsewhere, it doesn’t follow that they wanted their show to be set in a child’s dream. In fact it is clear they didn’t. Now since St Elsewhere is set in a child’s dream, it follows the writers for Cheers had inconsistent intentions. But from that nothing much follows. It may be (indeed it is) true that the best way to resolve the inconsistency is by denying that Cheers really takes place in the same world as St Elsewhere.

All that is basically skirmishing to clear the ground. The next two objections are the really decisive ones.

Objection Five – De Re Dreams
The argument for P2 seems rather weak to me. It seems to involve the following inference.

P5. Show X included character Y.
P6. Character Y is part of Tommy Westphall’s dream.
C3. So show X is part of Tommy Westphall’s dream.

But this inference is clearly bad. Tommy could be dreaming about people who really (or really in the fiction) exist.

For instance, I could have a dream where I’m spending a lazy Sunday strolling along St Kilda esplanade. That Sunday and St Kilda esplanade are in my dream doesn’t prevent them being real.

Or I could have a dream where I’m catching Pedro Martinez as he strikes out 22 Yankees to clinch the ALCS. Again, that wouldn’t mean Pedro Martinez, or the New York Yankees, or the American League are not real.

The same thing is going on here. Just because Tommy Westphall had a dream in which some character from St Elsewhere appears, it doesn’t mean that character doesn’t really exist in Tommy’s world. Indeed, most of the characters that appear in our dreams are real people. So the inference that gets the argument off the ground fails.

Objection Six – De Re Fictions
This is related to the previous objection. From the fact that a character appears in two different TV shows, it doesn’t follow automatically that those shows take place in the same fictional world.

We can see the logical point here by simply noting that the fact that a city appears in two different fictions doesn’t mean those fictions take place in the same world. For instance, recently I saw two romantic comedies set in London, one with tennis (Wimbledon) and one with zombies (Shaun of the Dead). The presence of London in both movies doesn’t mean they take place in the same fictional world. And if cities can be cross-fictional so, logically, can people.

To make the point more vivid, note that the massive list of crossovers misses one very important crossover. Michael Bloomberg plays the Mayor of New York both in Law and Order and in the real world. So by the logic used here, the real world (taken to be either what we’re in or the MTV show of the same name) is part of the giant St Elsewhere fiction. This is clearly false. (Or at least it was last I checked.) Similarly it is possible that the same character can appear in two different fictional worlds. That doesn’t mean that every time a character appears on two different shows they are different fictional worlds. Cheers and Frasier clearly are part of the same world, as are Friends and Joey. But it doesn’t mean that interpretation is forced on us by the common appearance of a character. So the Westphall Hypothesis is not forced on us by the existence of crossovers. And since it is a crashingly bad interpretative hypothesis as applied to any show except St Elsewhere, we shouldn’t accept it.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

10 Comments »

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10 Responses to “Six Objections to the Westphall Hypothesis”

  1. Istvan Aranyosi says:

    I think there is a way for the argument to kindda work. What I have in mind is related to the last objection, the one from de re fictions, namely, one can say that since there is a fiction – the St. Elsewhere in our case- according to which all events involving the characters that played some role till the latest show are part of Westphall’s dream, considering this the true fiction, according to this true fiction all other fictions sharing some of the characters with this one are either false fictions (they don’t take place in the true fictional world) or there is no fact of the matter whether these are true fictions or not, unless they involve at some point reference to what this fiction, St. Elsewhere, prescribes.

    For instance, if in some other fiction, F, sharing a character, C, with St. Elsewhere someone says “we are part of W’s dream”, then if St. Elsewhere is the true fiction (the fiction considered the true one), F is true, and of course part of W’s dream. The no fact of the matter view would come from the fact that there is no proper sanctioning of other stories according to St. Elsewhere, since they are not present in the St. Elsewhere story. In the same fashion, if I write some story involving Snow White, but different from the story Snow White, then if Snow White is the true fiction, according to it my story’s extent of realness is indeterminate: maybe the things that I write about Snow White (the person) happened to her, maybe not, supposing there is no reference in Snow White to the things that happen to her according to my story. Of course, if I claim that my story is Snow White, this is false. So my story is the false fiction.

    I would change premiss 2 to this one:

    “If all of St. Elsewhere (except the last scene) takes place in Tommy Westphall’s mind, then according to St. Elsewhere any show that (1) bears the ancestral of the sharing a character relation with St. Elsewhere and (2) presents events that are different from what St. Elsewhere presents, and (3) does not contain reference to what St. Elsewhere sanctions as correct, either takes place in Tommy Westphall’s mind or otherwise there is no fact of the matter about whether it takes place or not in W’s mind.”

    Does this sound better?

  2. Jonathan says:

    I like this. I think that your fifth and sixth points are right on. I have a question each about the third and sixth points.

    Your third point has to do with the authors’ intentions. What’s your general outlook on what determines truth in a fiction? I’m guessing you’re following a Lewis sort of line about a nearby possible world where the story is told as known fact… I read a nice account by Gregorie Currie last year (The Nature of Fiction, 1991, I think) according to which truth in fiction is what it is reasonable to infer that the fictional narrator believes. If you adopt this view, which I find attractive for many reasons, it’s a very short step from “the authors didn’t intend this to be a dream” to “there’s no reason to suppose that the fictional narrator believes this to be a dream” to “it is not true in the fiction that this is a dream”.

    Ok, I guess that one ended up not being so much of a question, although it involved one.

    My other question is this: You say:

    So by the logic used here, the real world … is part of the giant St Elsewhere fiction. This is clearly false. (Or at least it was last I checked.)

    Have you really checked? How?

    (When I first thought of this question, I thought I was being flippant and cute, but on further reflection, I do think there really may be a serious skeptical worry lurking about.)

  3. Andy says:

    I have that same dream about Pedro. So since Pedro appears both in the real world and our 22-strikeout ALCS-clinching dreams, that means it’s really gonna happen, right? Right?

  4. P.D. says:

    I think you’re right that the deductive argument for the Westphall Hypothesis fails. Is that really surprising?

    I am inclined to except that— on the interpretation that St Elsewhere was Tommy’s dream— Cheers, Frazier, and all the rest were also part of his dream. I am not inclined to believe this because of a deductive argument, but rather because it has an ineffable quality that I’ll call interpretive coolness.

    As you point out in Objection 5, this does not mean that the show Cheers chronicled Tommy’s dream. Rather, there are events in the world of Tommy’s dream which match those chronicled in the show Cheers.

    To pick another example: It is true in Through the Looking Glass that Alice dreamt of the Red King. In her dream, he was dreaming of her. This does not entail that she was merely his dream, although (we can imagine) he dreamt of her doing all the things that she actually did.

  5. Lewis Powell says:

    It seems as though, if we accept your objection 5, all we are entitled to is that it may be the case that Cheers was not a part of Tommy Westphall’s dream. Just because Tommy could have been dreaming of a doctor who was also a real doctor that appears in an episode of Law and Order does not make it that case that Tommy was, merely that the Westphall hypothesis is not decidedly the case.

    As to objection six, it seems clear that the character of Mayor Bloomberg has different properties than the man himself has. (For instance, the fictional one has the property of indirectly employing some characters from the show that to which the real one bears no similar relation). Therefore, as they are not identical, they are not the same entity. Dissimilarly, when Kramer appears on “Mad About You,” we may be inclined to believe that both Kramers are identical.

  6. Brian Weatherson says:

    Jonathan, I didn’t mean to commit myself to any theory of truth in fiction here. My main premise is that it’s a Moorean fact that Friends is set in a different city to Joey. Any argument for that is bound to be less persuasive than the Moorean fact itself.

    Lewis, sure I don’t have a knock-down argument that these Moorean facts are all really facts. But since there’s only one argument against this, and it is provably invalid, we don’t have any reason to doubt our initial inclinations.

    By the way, this argument that Bloomberg in the show is not identical to Bloomberg in the real world doesn’t work. It’s consistent that Bloomberg has the property not employing Jack McCoy in @ while also having the property employing Jack McCoy in wLaw & Order. Maybe in every one of these cases the creators intended them to be the same character in the same world. (I doubt that in some of the intended crossover cases like Hi, Honey I’m Home but let’s grant it.) But they also intend their stories to be really happening, not part of Tommy’s dream, and when intentions clash that one should take precedence.

  7. Lewis Powell says:

    I am unsure as to why they can think that they have access to characters from a fiction within a fiction without setting their worlds in that fiction. Let us presume that, according to the St. Elsewhere creators there is no real character corresponding to the doctor who was tried on law and order. And let us also presume that the Law and Order creators wanted to be trying the very same character from St. Elsewhere. It seems as though they are committed to either featuring a real character who is not from St. Elsewhere, or, having their fiction be inside the mind of Tommy Westphall. Now, one may be inclined towards the first option, but it is possible that they were intending the second option, and thus, unintentionally, intending the doubly fictional nature of their own story.

  8. Brian Weatherson says:

    I am unsure as to why they can think that they have access to characters from a fiction within a fiction without setting their worlds in that fiction.

    For just the same reason as we can have characters from the real world without setting our stories in the real world. If the very Mayor Bloomberg can be in the real world and Law and Order, the very same Jack McCoy can be in two different fictional worlds. You seem to be assuming the fictional world a character is in is essential to the character, and I don’t know what possible reason there is to believe that.

  9. Lewis Powell says:

    I guess I am inclined to think that character crossover functions similarly to spin-off, which, to me, seems to be setting the characters in the same world.

    Do you think its the case that “Frasier” is in the same universe as “Cheers”? And if so, does that lend any credence to the Westphall hypothesis?

  10. Joshua says:

    Here are two principles:

    Fictional Composition (FC): If fiction x and fiction y are related by the crossover relation, then there is a fiction z that encompasses fiction x and fiction y.

    Truth Condition (TC): If fiction x is encompassed by fiction z, then everything that is true according to fiction z is true according to fiction x.

    With these two principles we can generate our problem.

    1. Law and Order and St. Elsewhere are related by the crossover relation.
    2. So, there is a fiction, call it ‘Tommy’, that encompasses Law and Order. [1, FC]
    3. It is true according to Tommy that everything, except the last scene of St. Elsewhere, is a figment of Tommy Westphall’s imagination.
    4. So, it is true according to Law and Order that everything, except the last scene of St. Elsewhere, is a figment of Tommy Westphall’s imagination. [2, 3, TC]

    I don’t find objection 6 to be decisive against this argument. Here is why. The principle of Fictional Composition is not satisfied by the real world. This is because the real world is not a fiction. So, we cannot derive by parity of reasoning that Mayor Bloomberg, the real mayor of NY, is part of Tommy Westphall’s imagination. I also believe that objection 5 may also be a bit less persuasive with respect to this argument.

    I do believe that there is a decisive objection to this argument though. I have left the crossover relation and the encompassing relation uninterpreted. I wish to leave the crossover relation as a primitive and but interpret the encompassing relation as something like the following (I’m not entirely happy with this interpretation):

    If z encompasses x =df The representations of fiction x contribute to the truths of fiction z.

    It seems that Fictional Composition is Okay on this interpretation of the encompassing relation, but Truth Condition is not. This seems clearly false:

    Truth Condition (TC): If the representations of fiction x contribute to the truths of fiction z, then everything that is true according to fiction z is true according to fiction x.

    I think that something like objection 5, but more like P.D.’s example of Through the Looking Glass, shows that this principle is false. Maybe though, there is another interpretation of the encompassing relation that makes (TC) more plausible.

    I think that talk about fictional worlds is confusing things a bit. But I can make my point with this talk as well. There is a fictional world where everything takes place in Tommy Wetphall’s mind. This is a world that closely corresponds to the fiction Tommy that I introduced above. However, there is another fictional world where a doctor from St Elsewhere is tried. This is a world that closely corresponds with the fiction of Law and Order.