While doing research for my upcoming lecture at the Drexel University Libraries’ Scholarly Commmunication Symposium, I ran across this excellent book by Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: Free Press, 1997). Dr. Murray at that time was a professor at MIT and is now at Georgia Tech.

One of the interesting things that Dr. Murray discusses is the necessary element of what she calls “moral physics” in narrative worlds. She writes, “Stories have to have an equivalent ‘moral physics,’ which indicates what consequences attach to actions, who is rewarded, who is punished, how fair the world is. By moral physics I mean not only right and wrong but also what kinds of stories make sense in this world, how bad a loss characters are allowed to suffer, and what weight is attached to those losses.”

This observation reminds me of Agent Smith’s speech to Morpheus in the first installment of the Matrix trilogy. While rhapsodizing about the origins of the Matrix, Smith relates this tale:

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.

I think Murray’s analysis is reflected in Smith’s character, and that this is a representation of the moral realities that objectively exist in our world.

The moral order is, after all, objectively real. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory.”

There are normative limits then to the imaginative creation of fictional narratives. In the same way that even an anti-metaphysician is still a metaphysician of a kind, attempts to create amoral or anti-moral worlds are still grounded in the moral order.

This is in part because, as Murray rightly notes, “When we enter a fictional world, we do not merely ‘suspend’ a critical faculty; we also exercise a creative faculty. We do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief. Because of our desire to experience immersion, we focus our attention on the enveloping world and we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience.” The creative faculty, the active imagination, is not insulated and cannot be isolated from human moral faculties.

Related items:

Jordan Ballor, “The Matrix Anthrophology,” Acton Institute PowerBlog (August 26, 2005).

John Bolt, “The Necessity of Narrative Imagination for Preaching,” in Reading and Hearing the Word: From Text to Sermon: Essays in Honor of John H. Stek, ed. Arie C. Leder (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary/CRC Publications, 1998), pp. 203-217.

Vigen Guroian, Rallying The Really Human Things: Moral Imagination In Politics, Literature & Everyday Life (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2005).

Peter J. Schakel, “Irrigating Deserts with Moral Imagination,” Religion & Liberty (Winter 2006).