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.