Fictionalism – or: Vaihinger, Scheffler, and Kübler-Ross at the End of the World

In 1911 the now almost forgotten German philosopher Hans Vaihinger published Die Philosophie des Als Ob (The Philosophy of ‘As if’) in which he argued for something approaching global fictionalism.1 In the preface to the second English edition of his book he wrote:

The principle of Fictionalism . . . is as follows: “An idea whose theoretical untruth or incorrectness, and therewith its falsity, is admitted, is not for that reason practically valueless and useless; for such an idea, in spite of its theoretical nullity may have great practical importance.”2

Fictionalism is the view that claims in some area of discourse are – despite contrary appearance – not really aiming at truth (or truthful description), but are “fictions”. Or to put it somewhat differently, fictionalism with regards to some domain of knowledge holds that at least some of the most basic claims of/within that domain of knowledge are known to be false, but should be accepted as if they were true because it is useful to do so.3 An early example of something like fictionalism is Voltaire’s famous statement that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”.4

Vaihinger’s fictionalism was extremely broad – he was a fictionalist about mathematics, free will, physics, psychology, religion, and a whole lot more. This contrasts his fictionalism with more recent adoptions of that label. Contemporary fictionalism is (nearly?) always local rather than global – it only applies to one narrowly defined area of knowledge. For example, Bas van Fraassen argues for something like fictionalism about theories in the natural sciences, Hartry Field is a well known advocate of fictionalism about mathematics, Gideon Rosen argued for fictionalism about possible worlds, and there is a long list of philosophers that are (something like) fictionalists about moral discourse or free will. I’m not going to discuss any of those local fictionalisms here (nor will I say more about Vaihinger’s global fictionalism). Rather, I have an addition to the list of local fictionalisms.5

Fictionalism about the Future

Recall that fictionalism has two components: (1) it accepts some claim as false, but (2) recommends “pretending” that claim to be true anyway because it is useful (or even necessary in some sense) to do so. Hence, fictionalism about the future would hold that (1) there is no future, but (2) we should pretend there is a future anyway. Of course, both claims require clarifications as well as some supporting evidence or argument. Let’s start with the first.

An unqualified claim that there is no future is obvious nonsense (unless one holds that time is an illusion, perhaps, which may be defensible on metaphysical or physical grounds, but which is largely irrelevant here). The solar system has a future. The galaxy has a future. The universe has a future. What I mean with the claim that there is no future is that – in some sense – we don’t. Or not a very long one, at least.

As I tried to explain in the Crisis and Inertia series, it is quite likely that humanity will go extinct due to climate change, but even if we manage to prevent that, Earth’s climate will become so hostile and unstable that the number of humans will be significantly reduced and nothing like civilization will be possible.6 We are heading for a state of continuous disaster, hunger, war, and refugee flows. In the best case scenario this lasts for a few thousand years after which the climate stabilizes and within another couple of thousands of years a new civilization can be built up. In the worst case scenario, Earth will enter a pathway to “Hothouse” conditions and most life on Earth will go extinct. (In theory there is another scenario: if we very rapidly stop CO₂ emissions (within a time frame of years) and develop technology to reduce atmospheric CO₂ while simultaneously developing new ways of feeding the world’s population, something like the world we know may continue. However, this is politically unfeasible and technologically impossible, so this is an Utopian fantasy rather than a real scenario.)

Civilization will probably collapse within this century, and there is a good chance that humanity will go extinct some time in the next couple of thousands of years (and possibly quite soon within that period). This is what I meant when I wrote that “there is no future”.

Accepting that we have no future – that we are collectively committing suicide, in a sense – creates a problem, however, which brings us to the second claim. As Samuel Scheffler has forcefully argued, “the actual value of our activities depends on their place in an ongoing human history” and “humanity itself as an ongoing historical project provides the implicit frame of reference for most of our judgments about what matters”.7 Scheffler argues convincingly that in a doomed or dying world “people would lose confidence in the value of many sorts of activities, would cease to see reason to engage in many familiar sorts of pursuits, and would become emotionally detached from many of those activities and pursuits”.8

What’s the point of writing a book or article, or composing a piece of music, if civilization is collapsing? A few people might read it or listen to it in the next couple of decades, but before the end of the century it will almost certainly be lost. What’s the point of raising and educating children if their education only prepares them for a society that will collapse at some point during their lifetime, and if they are likely to be subjected to (neofascist) repression, violence, war, and poverty? It’s not difficult to give other examples. The point is that without a future, very little matters. Without a future for mankind, almost everything that matters to us loses its value. It is for this reason that Scheffler asserts that “the collective afterlife [i.e. the survival of mankind] matters more to people than the personal afterlife”.9

The belief that everything is pointless, that nothing matters, that nothing we (or I) can do makes a (substantial) difference is a kind of extreme fatalism bordering on depression. Fatalism is an undesirable response to a crisis because even if something bad cannot be avoided, there may be different paths between the present and that inevitable end. The equivalent of such fatalism in case of a patient with a terminal disease would be depression. A depressed terminal patient suffers more and is likely to die faster than a terminal patient who isn’t depressed. Something similar may be the case for terminally diseased civilizations and fatalism: a fatalistic civilization is likely to collapse faster and with greater suffering.

Scheffler’s argument about “the collective afterlife” appeals to the importance of the audience of our products and actions and similar notions that restrict the size of the relevant population. Although he assumes that it is the survival of mankind in general that gives value to our activities, most of his argument only suggests that it is the survival of people that are sufficiently like us that matters.10 There is a certain blindness permeating his argument, a blindness that is rather common among Western philosophers. The nature of this blindness is a lack of recognition of the fact that Western civilization is not universal – that there are other civilizations or cultures, other ways of seeing things, other communities and frames of reference that give meaning (in different ways) to the actions of their members/adherents.11 If Scheffler’s argument is adjusted for this oversight, however, we end up with something very similar to what Ernest Becker argued more than 40 years ago in his The Denial of Death,12 and much of which has been empirically confirmed by psychologists working on Terror Management Theory (TMT). Oddly, Scheffler refers neither to Becker, not to Terror Management Theory.

According to Becker, much of civilization (religion especially) is a defense mechanism against the fear (or “terror”) of death. A civilization is an “immortality project” that allows me to become part of and contribute to something that survives my biological death and thereby offers some kind of symbolic survival or eternal life. TMT operationalized, tested, and confirmed many of Becker’s ideas. According to the main theorists behind TMT, “the awareness of death gives rise to potentially debilitating terror that humans manage by perceiving themselves to be significant contributors to an ongoing cultural drama”, and “reminders of death increase devotion to one’s cultural scheme of things”.13 In other words, many of our activities and many of our beliefs are motivated by “terror management”, controlling the fear of death, and “effective terror management is faith in a meaning providing cultural worldview and the belief that one is a valuable contributor to that meaningful world”,14 and conversely, our ability to fend of the potentially debilitating fear of death depends on our confidence in the value and survival of the worldview and civilization to which we subscribe.

Hence, we need to believe in a future for mankind or some subjectively important part thereof to avoid debilitating fear and/or depression. This is the main reason why it is necessary to believe in a future for human civilization or mankind – or to act as if one believes, at least. It is not the only reason, however – we may also need fictionalism in some of our social interactions. Personally, I need fictionalism to be able to face my students, for example, or to talk with my daughter. And I suspect something similar will be the case for many others.

So this is what I mean with “fictionalism about the future”: acknowledgment of the lack of a future for human civilization (and possibly even mankind) while simultaneously acting “as if” we do have a real future. For further clarification it may be helpful to contrast such fictionalism with other attitudes to our impending demise.

Stages of Grief

In 1969 Elisabeth Kübler-Ross suggested that terminally ill patients go through a number of stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.15 This idea was popularized as “the five stages of grief”. The theory has since be decisively refuted, however – people do not go through these stages in this order. Rather, there are no stages or fixed patterns, and dying patients may have a variety of emotional responses in a variety of orders and/or combinations. Kübler-Ross’s “stages” are useful as archetypal responses to approaching death, however, and as such may also be a helpful tool to classify attitudes towards our collective death.

Denial and Despair

Fatalism was already mentioned above as the equivalent of depression. Fatalism and depression (as a response to dying) are characterized by despair. The fatalist accepts that there is no future and responds to this by giving up – not just by giving up on the future we don’t have, but by giving up on the little bit of future we still do have. In the fatalist perspective everything is pointless and futile. There is no point of doing anything and nothing matters. As mentioned above, depression increases the patient’s suffering and hastens their death, and most likely the same is true for fatalism: it only increases human suffering and hastens our demise. Hence, if suffering is to be avoided or minimized, then fatalism is to be avoided.

Contrary to fatalism and fictionalism, “denialism” rejects the claim that there is no future for human civilization. Denialism responds to catastrophic climate change by denying it. Like fictionalism, denialism is an attempt to remain sane in the face of impending doom, but contrary to fictionalism it does so by denying that doom. (And because of that it is debatable whether denial really is sane.) Denialism is like standing on a railway crossing facing an approaching train and stubbornly denying that there is a train.

There may seem to be little difference in practice between denialism and fictionalism, but that conclusion would be a mistake. The difference between denialism and fictionalism in the above example is that the fictionalist only pretends that there is no train because it is impossible to get off the track and this pretense is the only way to stay sane. This difference matters because outside religion any claim is only accepted provisionally – any claim can in principle be proven wrong. This includes the claim that there is no future for human civilization and the claims of climate science on which it is based. Perhaps, the fictionalist will be proven wrong and there actually is a way to get off the railway track. Then the fictionalist would survive. The denialist, on the other hand, won’t even look for a way to get off the track and will be hit by the train.16

Bargaining really is a variety of denial. Supposedly, in the bargaining stage the patient tries to avoid – or at least postpone – her death by (promising to) changing her life style: healthier food, more exercise, and so forth. This is a form of denial because it refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of the patient’s condition. The equivalent of bargaining in the climate crisis would be to promise to reduce CO₂ emissions, cut plastics, and so forth. The patient might have avoided her disease if she would have adopted a healthier life style much earlier and the same applies to us: we should have reduced CO₂ emissions a long time ago. There is a dis-analogy here, however. The patient cannot save herself anymore with a healthier life style, but we can – in principle – still save ourselves. If we stop CO₂ emissions now, completely overhaul our economies and social systems, seriously commit to adaptation and mitigation, and try to repair as much damage as possible, then we can probably survive. But none of this is going to happen as long as we are ruled by a social class that is only concerned with their own short-term financial interests and with maintaining the status quo.17


If you’re dying of cancer, getting angry is probably not going to do you much good. Moreover, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to get angry either, unless, of course, your cancer is caused by someone else. If you got cancer from using Monsanto’s products (which you believed to be safe), then you have good reason to get angry at Monsanto. It still won’t help you though. The climate crisis isn’t really like a disease, however, and perhaps that is sufficient reason to look at anger differently.

Imagine that you are in a small windowless room with two other people. One of them turns out to be a sadistic psychopathic. He locks the door from the inside and breaks the key to make sure that you cannot escape. Then, while his friend holds you down, he starts torturing you. He slowly strangles you while inflicting all kinds of horrific pain. The psychopath’s friend tells you that this is all perfectly normal, that it cannot be helped, and that protesting or even dreaming of something else (i.e. of not getting tortured and killed) is madness. If the psychopath would loosen his grip on your throat for a bit, and his friend hasn’t managed to convince you yet, then you might try to reason with them – explain them that you should work together trying to get out of the room, because they too will die in that room if they don’t find a way to escape. But it would be pointless. The psychopath enjoys torturing and strangling you too much to care, and his friend has managed to convince himself that there is no alternative, that this is best for everyone, and won’t do anything either (and will do everything in his power to prevent you from doing anything). So you die. And some time later, being unable to escape, the psychopath and his friend also die of thirst and/or exhaustion.

This rather gruesome story is much more similar to the climate crisis than a disease is. Earth and humanity are not dying of some kind of disease, but are being strangled.18 (And by implication, we’re not really “collectively committing suicide” as I suggested above.) The sadistic psychopath is analogous to the financial and industrial elite: bankers, CEOs, the rich, and so forth.19 And the psychopath’s friend is analogous to the mass media (i.e. the mainstream press), mainstream economists, centrist and conservative politicians, the police, and others propagandists and henchmen of the status quo.20

So how would anger help? In case of the analogy, if you would get angry and kill your murderer (and his friend)21 you’d still die of thirst or exhaustion (because you’re locked in the room), but at least you would no longer be tortured. That seems a considerable improvement. This doesn’t necessarily imply that the same is true in the climate crisis, however – the analogy may break down here – but anger might help. Getting rid of our collective torturers would at least alleviate some of the suffering in the time we have left on this planet.22 Furthermore, if there still is a way out, you won’t be able to find it as long as you’re continued to be tortured and strangled.23 But even if anger would not help in any way and wouldn’t even help to improve your immediate situation – because the psychopath and his friend are too strong to overpower, for example – it is still a very understandable response. Getting angry at a disease makes no sense, but getting angry at someone who is torturing and strangling you (and/or at the friend helping him) seems perfectly normal. If anything, the absence of anger would be abnormal.

Anger, then, is an appropriate response, but it may not be an appropriate guide. In the analogy you’d be perfectly justified to kill your murderer (and his friend) if you had a chance, but I’m not sure whether it is equally justified to start a murderous rampage against bankers, mainstream economists, centrist politicians, the rich, and so forth. Violence is a complex issue and I won’t make an attempt here to figure out when violence is justified and when it is not.24 But regardless of whether violence against the “psychopathic murderers” that are strangling and torturing Earth and its inhabitants is morally justified, it would be quite understandable.


Acceptance is the last of Kübler-Ross’s stages suggesting that it is the healthiest, but also the hardest to achieve. Something like that may be true in case of the climate crisis as well. One of the most interesting attempts at coming to terms with our demise is Ray Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.

The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, whether we should put up sea walls to protect Manhattan, or when we should abandon Miami. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, turning off the air conditioning, or signing a treaty. The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.25

Acceptance is the realization that “there is nothing we can do to save ourselves” and adaption to that “new reality”. Acceptance focuses on what’s ahead of us – recognizing that it isn’t much – and tries to make the best of it. Acceptance is changing the stories we tell about ourselves, such as the stories of progress, confidence in the future, and faith in technology and (economic) growth that pervade our culture. Those stories are no longer applicable and have become part of the problem. We need new stories, but no (useful/appropriate) new stories can be written if we don’t accept the reality we’re facing first.26 Acceptance is – again – trying to make the best of what little future we still have, and this requires a radically different ethics, political philosophy, and economics. Acceptance stresses the importance of the humanities, because only those can change our stories, our ethics, and our views on what must (and still can) be done.

But such acceptance is hard; much harder, in fact, than the kind of acceptance Kübler-Ross is suggesting. According to Becker, accepting my own death is largely dependent on my belief that the civilization I belong to (in at least some relevant respect) lives on. And as Scheffler pointed out, the “collective afterlife” – that is, the survival of mankind – is much more important than my own survival (because almost everything we value depends on the “collective afterlife”). Or to phrase this negatively: the extinction of mankind is infinitely more difficult to accept than it is to accept my own death. For this reason, while acceptance of one’s own approaching death may be achievable for many terminal patients,27 accepting the extinction of mankind is psychologically nearly impossible. If Becker and Scheffler are right, we just can’t live while accepting that.

Acceptance, then, is probably inherently instable. It leads to despair, and thus fatalism, and/or to anger.28 And fictionalism is needed to “cure” those, to calm down or regain one’s sanity, to enable another attempt at acceptance. If this is right, then the best we can achieve is a kind of cycle: acceptance leading to anger and despair, which are countered with fictionalism, enabling a return to acceptance, which starts the cycle all over again. Hence, while acceptance may be the “healthiest” or most desirable attitude to our collective doom, we need fictionalism to make that attitude possible. Without fictionalism we cannot face what little is left of our future at all. Or in other words, we need to pretend at times that we still have a future to be able to accept that we really don’t.

If you found this article and/or other articles in this blog useful or valuable, please consider making a small financial contribution to support this blog 𝐹=𝑚𝑎 and its author. You can find 𝐹=𝑚𝑎’s Patreon page here.


  1. For a good review of Vaihinger’s philosophy, see: Arthur Fine (1993), “Fictionalism”, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 18: 1-18.
  2. Hans Vaihinger (1935). The Philosophy of ‘As if’: A System of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind, Second Edition (London: Kegan Paul), p. vii.
  3. Fictionalism is similar to instrumentalism and pragmatism – all three hold that theories should be accepted if (and only if) they are useful – but there are fundamental differences between the three. Somewhat simplifying the main differences, it can be said that fictionalism holds that claims in the relevant discourse are (known to be) false, that instrumentalism holds that they are neither true nor false (or that it is unknowable whether they are true or false), and that some varieties of pragmatism redefine truth such that usefullness implies that they are true.
  4. “Something like”, because this statement doesn’t actually state that God does not exist.
  5. I doubt that this is really a new kind of fictionalism, however, so someone may have “added it to the list” before.
  6. And since I wrote that post it seems that even the IPCC is (albeit still somewhat hesitatingly) moving towards admitting this.
  7. Samuel Scheffler (2013). Death and the Afterlife (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pages 54 and 60, respectively.
  8. Idem, p. 44.
  9. Idem, p. 72.
  10. And he more or less acknowledges this in a footnote on page 49.
  11. Bryan van Norden recently published an interesting book about this blind spot in contemporary Western philosophy. See: Bryan van Norden (2017). Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (New York: Columbia University Press).
  12. Ernest Becker (1973). The Denial of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster).
  13. Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, & Tom Pyszczynski (2015). The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life (New York: Random House), p. 211.
  14. Jeff Greenberg & Jamie Arndt (2012). “Terror Management Theory.” In: P.A.M. van Lange, A.W. Kruglanski, & E.T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, Volume one (London: Sage): 398-415, p. 403.
  15. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1969). On Death and Dying (Routledge).
  16. If we add the fatalist to the analogy, then the fatalist, like the fictionalist recognizes the train and that there is no way to get off the track, but unlike the fictionalist, the fatalist won’t look for a way off.
  17. See also part 4 and part 5 in the “Crisis and Inertia” series.
  18. In the first draft of this post the sadistic psychopath was a psychopathic rapist instead. However, although I think it is more fitting to say that Earth is getting raped than tortured, I’m abhorred by rape too much to be comfortable with a rape analogy, even if in this context such an analogy might be a better fit.
  19. On the link between torture, our predicament, and the role of the ruling elite therein, see also: Naomi Klein (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Holt). On the link with psychopathy, see also: Lajos Brons (2017). The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm)
  20. On the role of this friend, see my The Hegemony of Psychopathy and/or the various articles on hegemony at this blog (such as part 4 in the “Crisis and Inertia” series).
  21. You may have to kill the friend first, actually, considering that that friend will do anything in his power to prevent you from resisting your torture and murder.
  22. Even if it would lead to other kinds of suffering.
  23. If you’ve been paying attention you have noticed an inconsistency here: above I suggested that the psychopath would surely die in that room, but now there suddenly might be a way out. This is inconsistent indeed. But if there still is a chance for a sole survivor to find a way out, then I’d prefer that sole survivor to be the victim rather than the sadistic murderer.
  24. But this is a topic that I hope to return to some time in the future in this blog.
  25. Roy Scranton (2016). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights), p. 23.
  26. See also “Armageddon and Utopia”.
  27. I have no idea to what extent it actually is, but that doesn’t really matter here.
  28. For reasons explained above, anger is probably preferable to fatalistic despair.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *