What Does Art Mean?

In her video “Is Art Meaningless?”, Abigail Thorn discusses the various things that a piece of art might mean. As with most PhilosophyTube videos, it doesn’t quite come to a conclusion per se, but does leave off on the suggestion that interpretation of art is a matter of utility. This raises a question that I hope she might cover in a future video: utility to whom? I think there are three possible answers, all bad:

  • Utility to the artist: this goes back to the question of the significance of authorial intent, which is in theory distinct from the value to the artist but functionally very similar. You’re free to invoke as much of it as you like, of course, but most serious critics would agree you don’t have to; that interpretations that discard or contradict authorial intent are Valid (whatever that means).
  • Utility to the audience: this goes back to the point raised throughout the video, referring to Pale Fire (or to The Beginner’s Guide, since this is a Gamer Blog): what if the audience gets the most utility out of interpretations that are just… obviously wrong?
  • Utility to society: well, this defers the question. There are numerous ways to measure utility to society! One approach would be economic – “everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it” – which is also covered in the video. The other would be to say that there is cultural value beyond that, but this becomes perilous. There are some comparisons one can make regarding those who would try to determine what “cultural value to society” art has!

So, if all theories of the meaning of art are wrong, what’s right? Well, the question seems unanswerable, but highly soluble. The kind of question you’d lose half of if you dipped it in tea. One approach is to ask “why do we think art has meaning?” This leads into a discussion of the human tendency to see agency everywhere. Art is then “agentic” in the mind even when the real agent (the artist) is absent; I recall an argument that this was the point of The Beginner’s Guide. But that’s a bit meta even for me. Nevertheless, this approach puts the question roughly in the same category as “what is the meaning of a sunrise” or “what is the meaning of life” – questions that can’t be answered because they arise from the human tendency to see things in terms of other human-like beings acting in the world even when there’s no such being. Of course, there is a creative intent behind art (…usually?), so in some senses this passes back to authorial intent; this merely helps to address why we continue to look for “agency” even after we disregard the actual agent (or so we claim).

Another approach would be to say that asking “what’s this piece about” is a question that needs to be substituted. What are you really asking? The reason for the confusion is that the “meaning” node on a blegg graph combines objective and subjective exterior nodes, like:

  • What’s a brief summary of the plot, or the inciting elements thereof, eg what would the blurb be if it were a book?
  • What tropes or database elements does it contain? What would the ingredients list be if it were a food, with special note to common “allergens”?
  • How does it make you personally feel?
  • What are some of the things it commonly makes people feel? What has been said about it by critics and by the wider audience?
  • What were the real creator’s ideas and goals in creating it?
  • What’s the creator’s life story? What parts of that seem relevant to you? What parts of that have been claimed to be relevant by others?
  • What techniques of creation were applied? Do you think they were used well?
  • What history has the piece had during and after creation?

And likely others that I’ve missed, too (though “what are the themes of the work” is deliberately absent, as it just passes the buck to the question of what a theme is and how you determine them, which itself requires dissolving). In this case, the question goes in the category with “what is the meaning of ‘[any contentious word here]'” – questions that can be answered in various ways depending on what sub-questions are relevant, either locally or in broader political scope.

The power of this approach really shines when you turn it on questions that shouldn’t, in some sense, be answerable. Alright, fine, I’ll bring up the meme: what is Goncharov (1973) about? In such a broken-down framework, we can say that while some parts of the question are truly unanswerable (eg what were the creator’s ideas and goals – well, there isn’t one, so there aren’t any), other parts do have a loosely-agreed-upon answer. You’d be “wrong” to say it’s a story about a zombie apocalypse – that’s not an element of its plot; even if that plot is in some senses fictitious, it’s not (any longer) much more fictitious than the plot of, say, Jaws. Or you could ask, what are the lyrics to Penkin’s “Old Stories” about? We’re told they’re invented, not even in the same conlang as other songs from the same soundtrack. They sound linguistic, which is a testament to the skill of the creator, and that’s the kind of question we can answer. But in the inverse of Goncharov, we can’t really say what the plot is or what elements it contains. It likely has none!

The lesson is the same old good one: if you find yourself in arguments over what something was “about,” there are a lot of things you might actually be disagreeing over. Remove the word, and try to find those things instead.

What Does Art Mean?

Is K-On fascist?

(Note: this is somewhat tongue in cheek – for those not familiar with Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, the answer is:

don’t be stupid, of course not,

nevertheless, this post is as dumb as it is inflammatory. Though interestingly, reading it through, Betteridge’s Law seems to actually not hold at all)

A year ago, I’d have had to have a whole section justifying the question as being only 99% pointless. But the “you can tell a nazi by their Yui avi” meme became very popular this last year – while there have always been both “wouldn’t it be funny if the cute anime girl was a dictator” memes and “I can tell this person is Bad from their anime girl avatar” memes, and we could discuss both of those some other time, nevertheless the focus on this one show as the locus of far-right anime watchers seems more recent. So, why? Let’s take a look at some arguments:

The most likely argument: That’s just a meme
Sure it is. We all know that jokes never mean anything, after all. Look, if it helps, remember that this post is just a meme. Don’t take it too seriously.

The moderately good argument: K-On is class-collaborationist
To make a long and boring story short, class-collaborationism is when you argue that the rich and poor of a country have more in common with each other by virtue of being fellow countrymen than they do with those of similar economic class in other countries. K-On does sort of do this – Mugi and Ritsu share a club together and this makes them closer than their economic class makes them distant. But this requires viewing the club as a metaphor for the state in way that just. Isn’t supported? Furthermore, if you’re reaching this far, I don’t see how you could refute the claim that it does have Mugi steal that strawberry. The rich get richer at the expense of the rest! Class warfare!

It’s also worth noting that this is part of fascism, but it’s also part of all other nationalist ideologies. In fact it’s a very common sentiment! Contrary to what some on the left would like to be true, it is not overly-nuanced to distinguish fascism from liberalism.

I should note that I’ve never actually seen anyone make this argument, probably because doing so requires watching the show and the kind of person who argues this unironically (or “ironically”) hasn’t done that. I’m making it here because it’s the strongest I can think of.

A funny argument: Fascism is when you have a cult of action, and Yui joins the LMC just to Do Something, and those are the same basically.
Yeah yeah, okay. Tell me more about that Yoda and his “Do or Do Not, there is no Try.” Little green fascist scum.

The rhetorical-minefield argument: K-On has poor minority representation
What, an entirely-lesbian cast not good enough or something yeah no. Minefield, remember. So, I think there is validity to this in some senses, but it’s really tough for me to say what an anime in this setting with good representation should look like! Is it colourist? The darkest skin tone seems to be a background character, who is still paler than tanned Azusa. Is counting Mugi as an immigrant meaningful, or a naked deflection? I really don’t know! It’s worth noting that when they visit London in the movie, we see a wider range of people, but I’m not sure this really counts – the idea of representation is not necessarily to merely reflect reality.

A really stupid argument: It’s the fanbase that’s fascist, actually
No it isn’t? What’s meant is “I saw some annoying people on twitter dot com and think confirmation bias is something only other people have.” Try coping.

The absolutely insane argument: K-On is fascist because it’s cheerful
This one goes like: since the characters in the show face no serious hardship – especially along the lines of identity – this must be because their world has been purged of Undesirables, which is then supposed to lead to utopia (it’s not clear if it’s the author or the audience who is imagined to think like this). A lot of it seems to be based on this one post. I must emphasise that I have seen people make this argument! It’s surprisingly common!

There is also a closely related argument that K-On is nostalgic, and fascism is about an imagined idyllic past, and that makes them the same if you squint really hard. I’m sorry to say I know people make this argument because I used to do so myself, in broader all-CGDCT-is-inherently-trash terms.

So, a proper rebuttal must bring up that this is nonsense. None of what’s being said relates to the show or to fascism! K-On isn’t about purifying the ethnostate, and it uses “nostalgia” as part of pointing towards temporality – the passing-ness of things, and not actually a prelapsarian position. That we only have the word “nostalgia” to cover two different emotional states is a flaw of language, nothing more. Contrariwise, fascism is about an eternal state of struggle to prove one’s strength (and masculinity), hence cult-of-action not cult-of-teatime. It’s hard to argue against such an incoherent position.

But… look at that one 4chan post again. Does it sound like the reasoning of a stable mind, to you? Likewise, do you think someone would read that and go “yeah, checks out, that must be why I don’t like K-On, I’m picking up the Fashy Vibes” if they were in the best place, mentally? Frankly, I don’t. When I read anon’s post, I’m struck by a terrible sense of pity. When he describes the CGDCT world, he describes it in positive social terms – “safety, security, happy homes.” Is it not heartbreaking that such simple wishes are so often so far away? Is it really so surprising that someone like this would be sold on any ideology that claims to offer that, even if blatantly only as a front that has no logical connection to what it demands be done to achieve such? Is it not damning that the left, one would hope the political wing of Material Conditions, was not able to make such an offer more convincingly?

And likewise, to say that good politics means reifying one’s depression, that you can’t imagine yourself being represented in a work if the characters in it are happy, is a needless and foolish concession to evil. I speak from the heart here: when I held that cute girls doing cute things was not merely not to my taste but actively Bad Fiction, it was not because I was happy. It was because I was unhappy, and wanted to vindicate my suffering as at least being noble, being art. But never forget: we’re in this to make the world better. To do that, we must be able to imagine it. We must remember what we’re building.

Fun things are fun.

Is K-On fascist?

The Thermian Argument Argument (it’s bad and I don’t like it)

Dan Olson argues in his video from 2015 that it’s not permissible to defend “problematic” content in a piece of fiction on the basis of verisimilitude – that is, on the grounds that it would make sense diegetically. The Thermian Argument Argument (ThAArg, like the sound I make when people use it) has the following structure:

  1. Suppose we have a criticism of the form “in this media piece, XYZ was problematic. [Optionally, including info on what’s problematic about XYZ].”
  2. Further suppose someone responds with: “in that media piece, XYZ is justified – it’s part of the story’s universe.” This is the ‘Thermian Argument.’
  3. We should decide that the response is a non-sequitur. There’s no reason that diegetic justification makes XYZ not problematic, because we are always able to ask “then why did the creator create a universe that justifies XYZ?” This gotcha-type statement is the core of the ThAArg.

I really do not like this argument. The problems with it that I see include logical ones, but are mostly problems of context, usage and implicature. I’m just going to list them out.

No sequiturs at all: While accusing the respondant of non-sequitur, the ThAArg also commits the same fallacy. There’s actually no reason to bring in authorial intent, either. It shifts the discussion up a meta-level, but this isn’t justified. The go-to justification is to assert that the original criticism was already on the level of authorial intent, which introduces its own problems: if the person making the initial criticism is the same as the person making the ThAArg, the problem is one of communication – you should make it clear in the first criticism that what you’re doing is creator-intent-divination, not textual analysis. If not, the problem is one of inferrence (see below). If it seems contradictory to say that both the ThArg and the ThAArg are non-sequiturs, don’t worry, we’ll get to that.

Proves too much: The ThAArg would, if valid, be destructive to enjoyment of fiction on a broad level. An example is helpful to illustrate this. A friend was reading The Way of Kings and asked me: look, Sanderson goes over this list of metaethics to discuss them. But he misses virtue ethics! Isn’t that a big problem? It’s a major ethical system (despite being in many ways terrible). Now as it turns out, there is a diegetic reason for this*, and quite an elegant one at that, but to the ThAArg that’s irrelevant. We should instead ask why Sanderson created a world where virtue ethics is excluded. Does he personally hate it or something? This comes down to a massive lack of specificity. The ThAArg has no reason to be exclusive to “problematic” X, Y or Z: its structure applies equally to everything in a story, and only selective application of the argument gives it the illusion of a use-case.

Simultaneously, proves too little, aka “Alright, so what?” After the arguer drops the gotcha of “why did the creator make the story that way?” there’s no possible response to “because they wanted to, so what?” – or at least, none that stays on the level(s) of the actual argument. Rhetorically, there are plenty of good attacks on the creator’s character that this opens up, but if we imagine for a moment that the arguer isn’t interested in doing that (though see below), the discussion has ended very uninterestingly.

Inferred intent requirement, aka “I’m an Empath. Sometimes I know what people are thinking simply by making it up in my own head and then instantly believing it.” The ThAArg may assert that it knows what the original critic thought better than the first respondant does, if the arguer and the original critic are different people. It has no firm basis for doing so. Furthermore, it always asserts that it knows what the creator’s intent was based on a (usually fairly uncharitable) reading of the text. This is not a firm basis either; the belief that creators “encode” meaning into their work, consciously or unconsciously, and that reading the work thereby gives you insight into their mind, is generally unsubstantiated.

Use in a strategy of deliberate ambiguity: This answers a lingering question from above: how is it that both diegetic and non-diegetic responses to the criticism can be non-sequiturs? At least one would surely be relevant? Well, it would be, if the original critic had defined the level at which their argument takes place! If they were always questioning the internal logic of the story, the diegetic response would make sense. If they were always questioning the creator’s person on the basis of inference from the story, the respondant might have instead pointed out that this is presumptuous and uncharitable and contributes to an incredibly toxic cultural milieu. But there’s a way to avoid both these sequiturious responses: never make it clear what the original intent of the criticism was, and simply respond with the ThAArg in the one case, and a general “I’m talking about the story, not every criticism of a work of fiction is an attack on the creator” in the other.

Use as cudgel against speculative fiction: While the argument does not have any in-built guarantee of being used only for problematic content, it does have an in-built tendency to be used against stories that have speculative bases, since they have more points on which to ask “why did the creator choose that?” But more importantly, the ThAArg has a requirement for a moralistic limit on what’s “okay to suppose” if it’s to be used at all discriminately. I really dislike the way this plays out; for example, I’ve seen the ThAArg used to defend calling the creator of Wonder Egg Priority misogynist on the basis that… the (a?) villain of the story behaves in a misogynist way**. And that’s specific to this argument because of its “gotcha” structure. In theory, as discussed above, one should always be able to respond to the ThAArg with “it’s my world and the reason it works that way is because I thought it was an interesting idea to explore.” But the Thermian Argument Argument is only useful if, and he implicit statement of it as it is actually used therefore is: It doesn’t matter what you do with the idea, sweatie, it’s bad for you to be having those thoughts at all.

Excuse for attacks on real-life creators: And yeah, most of the time, the ThAArg-uer is interested in attacking the creator. In fact, it’s the whole reason they’re using the argument in the first place: they want to Call someone Out, and only have easy access to the person’s creative works. So, they need some kind of bridge across the authorial-intent gap. Now, as discussed above, the ThAArg does not offer such a bridge, but it does offer the opportunity to say there is a bridge, that everyone sophisticated enough to be involved in this conversation knows it, god, haven’t you even watched Olsen’s video? People deserve better than such bad faith twitter-brained response to their creations. My opinion is simple: if you wish to take a bridge from creation to creator, you can only do so if you hold the best intentions. Are you trying to see the creator as a person that’s trying to express something important to them? Or are you trying to build an attack on a person that starts with “well, I didn’t like it when they wrote a story I don’t like”?

* Expand for further explanation, spoilers for Stormlight: Virtue ethics would bring a philosopher propounding it close to the oaths/ideals of the Radiants. Nale kills people who are close to swearing the ideals, therefore he kills anyone who writes up the basics of virtue ethics, therefore no philosophy of VE on Roshar.

** So, will I explain this spoiler too? Oh, fine, but is it worth the effort? People ask whether WEP is misogynist and transphobic on the basis that the story seemingly has a (metaphysical?) distinction between male and female suicides, and classes Kaworu’s as female despite his identity as a boy. This, it turns out, is because an evil robot (possibly the Literal Manifestation Of Twitter, which, take note people who make this argument, I know you all live on that accursed site 24/7) is sexist and transphobic about who she picks on.

Alright, that’s all I have to say about this frustrating rhetorical maneuver. What kind of responses might someone make? I think the big response would be that you need something to say to people who (and then the argument branches):

  • … try to defend absolute filth like [pick whatever example that surely no one would defend]. This is itself a rhetorical strategy built around getting people to bite ever larger bullets in the defense of their principles, or to admit to making unprincipled exceptions. As there’s no reason to do this outside of debate-stage theatrics, it can be dismissed.
  • … make the original response themselves in bad faith, to muddy the water on serious discussion of [issue that Problematicness touches on], or to generally be a well-actually guy. This is a more sincere response and merits discussion.

Firstly, let’s note that expressing a general issue through a specific critique of a particular work is often a poor idea. Saying “we need more queer characters in space opera” can be true without making every aspiring writer in the genre obliged to make their character queer. If it could, we’d run into problems, since there are simply too many things that We Need fiction as a whole to do.

But taking it as a given that we’re merely using a specific work as an example, I do think it merits some thought. What do you say to the bad-faith troll who just wants to intrude into a high-level argument with their encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars minutiae and plot-hole-filling retcons? Well, I think the first option would be “huh, maybe that’s a point, perhaps this isn’t the best example to illustrate what I was saying.” I mean, what’s even the basis for calling this hypothetical person a troll? That they disagreed, and that they brought up a detail you’d missed or deliberately avoided? So what, are you embarrassed, or disingenuous yourself? I think this Guy We Made Up deserves charitable reading, too!

Secondly, and in similar vein, you can qualify your statement. We can create a “Thermian Argument Argument With Encapsulation:”

  1. Suppose we have a criticism of the form “in this interpretation of this media piece, XYZ was problematic. Here’s why that interpretation fits well. [Optionally, including info on what’s problematic about XYZ].”
  2. Further suppose someone responds with: “in that media piece, XYZ is justified – it’s part of the story’s universe. The justification doesn’t fit your interpretation.”
  3. We may point out that this weakens, but does not refute, the interpretation. No fit is ever completely perfect. Furthermore, we may ask: “if the writer had this interpretation in mind then did they feel the need to add this in-universe justification to weaken it, and if so what would the story have looked like if they’d made bigger changes to avoid this interpretation instead.” The encapsulation allows us to ask a more interesting hypothetical.

An example might help here. Suppose we’d started by saying “One interpretation of Batman is that he’s quite fascistic – a billionaire beating up the mentally ill and proclaiming it the triumph of society” and someone had responded “You have to look at why he does that. It’s not because they’re mentally ill – it’s because they keep trying to do mass murders.” We could say the interpretation is still valid despite being imperfect, though we do have to admit the interpretation is imperfect – and that we either missed that (quite important) detail out, or deliberately excluded it to make the interpretation seem stronger. Note also that we could still not argue that trying to frame fascist-y actions as “justified” is fascism; that would be trying to pull a similar meta-level-bait-and-switch to the original ThAArg.

Of course, the ThAAWE still isn’t perfect. Firstly, nothing this nuanced would ever see usage. And also, we are still leaving a dangling threat, an implication of “you better have a good answer when we ask whether you thought of our interpretation and why you chose to leave it in.” It’s better though – asking someone why they didn’t write a story that could only possibly be interpreted in the Secondly, one could reasonably say that subjectivity is implied: the original ThAArg was only ever meant to invoke the ThAAWE! That strikes me as dishonest, as I simply don’t think it is considering the circumstances in which it actually sees use.

There is one more response one can give to the (possible) troll, and it’s the best one. “YMMV,” you say. “One girl’s squick is another girl’s squee.” You can even be rude and dismissive, if you want! You can go “ugh, fine, I guess 🙄.” You’re never obliged to engage with anything. I think the discourse might be a lot better if we could hold that more in mind.

The Thermian Argument Argument (it’s bad and I don’t like it)

Revisiting the past: Outer Wilds, and…

This will not be a spoiler-free review. However, I am also not going to tell you “you must go play Outer Wilds right now!” as so many reviews/discussions of it do. I find myself divided on whether you should. As a work of interactive fiction, it’s an excellent one, and well worth the time and money. As a game, it has problems, and is at times one of the most needlessly frustrating games I’ve played. You will have to decide for yourself whether to play it or not before reading on. This will also go over some thoughts on my previous double-review of The Witness and The Northern Caves, and spoilers for them too (if anyone still cares). Alright? Alright.

Outer Wilds, by Mobius Digital, is The Witness done right and it still kinda sucks. A lot of people really love it, though, and having forced myself through the latter half of it, I can see why for once. The story is amazing, the thematic elements at play are coherent and beautiful (we’ll get to them later), the soundtrack is (ha) stellar, and the gameplay will give you at least some “aha! oh I’m so clever” moments to remember. But that’s the key thing, because it’s a game that’s so much better in memory than experience. It’s easy to forget the miserable frustration of actually playing it. And before you say “oh well maybe you’re just bad, fnrr fnrrr,” I went to the trouble of watching some Let’s Plays as well (hey, I said it’s a really good story), and if anything watching other people get stuck on both the same things and others was even more infuriating. They usually express several of the same frustrations, even, when in the moment.

Let’s talk about a central mechanic. When you fail in Outer Wilds, you will quite frequently die. Say, by falling into the sun. Then, because the game is a time loop, you go back to the start, armed (hopefully) with the knowledge of what didn’t work and ready to try again. In three or four minutes, that is, because the actual punishment for failure in Outer Wilds is that you have to get back in your spaceship, blast off, orient yourself, travel to a planet, land, find your way back into whatever ruin or cave you were in the middle of, and navigate back to the failure point, at which point we get to the second big problem.

When you fail at something in Outer Wilds, you have very little reference frame as to whether you were supposed to do that (but do better), or do something else entirely. On top of that, there’s the various things that change states over the course of each loop, so you in fact need to approach each challenge from at least four angles: am I understanding it right, but at the wrong time? Understanding wrong? Understanding wrong, but it would be clear later or earlier? Understanding right and at the right time, but executing poorly? Puzzle games are, I find, at their best when checking off incorrect ideas and confirmation of correct ideas is quick. The universally-made comparison for this design philosophy is Celeste, another fairly challenging game, but where mistakes are punished by being set back seconds, not minutes. You will make a lot of mistakes. You will misunderstand what the game wants from you. And then you will learn.

These are, of course, largely all problems with The Witness as well, though it doesn’t have true failure states unless you count the end of the game as one big one, which frankly I do. I don’t care that it’s a fake-out. Don’t put a big “lmao all your progress is gone” fakeout at the end of your annoying puzzle marathon if you don’t want people to feel like it’s the most setback-y of all possible failures. So why, then, do I consider Outer Wilds to be essentially a strict improvement? Well, as I’ve said before, I don’t consider gameplay to be the holy centre of the gaming universe so much, and on every other axis, Outer Wilds blows The Witness out of the solar system of open-ended puzzle-exploration-moodvibe games. There’s easy stuff, like how The Witness sullenly refuses to have a soundtrack because it wants to have a handful of sound-based puzzles which no one even likes, or how there aren’t a bunch of puzzles in Outer Wilds that seem to be there mostly just to pump up the total, or how Outer Wilds has a seamless environment where every puzzle fits in organically rather than a series of iPads stapled to trees, or how you actually can go anywhere at the start in Outer Wilds and find puzzles of roughly equal difficulty as opposed to wandering into what’s supposed to be a hub/high-level challenge zone and assuming that, since you’re here, and the game’s supposed to have Figuring Things Out Yourself as a core feature and every puzzle so far has taught you how to solve it, you must just be the stupidest idiot ever to play it since this all seems completely impossible. That’s a long list of easy beatings to dish out, and we haven’t even gotten to the good one.

Outer Wilds is about something. That may seem unfair. Outer Wilds is about perspective, among other things. The Witness is about perspective. But here’s what I’ve realised, and what motivated this post: you need to go further. Firstly, how is Outer Wilds about perspective? Well, for most of the game, your only point of interaction with the environment is looking. The clever use of reverse-telekinetic objects that move when looked at as a replacement for more common levers and switches really drives this home. On top of that, there are the various “quantum” objects that move when you’re not looking, Antichamber style. Then there are all the many, many ways the writing and iconography focuses on eyes, Eyes, looking, listening, taking pictures, perceiving, understanding. Writing to be translated, astral projection pools to look through. Even the time loop is explained as a form of transferred memory/perspective, though as the game points out, the difference may be academic. It saturates the whole game. Now, how is The Witness about perspective? Many of its puzzles use objects from the background to clue you in to the solution. Some, plus a whole category of special puzzles, require you to be standing in just the right spot to see the solution. Not bad, but that’s kind of it. Already not looking so great.

But now the real question. What do these games say about perspective? Outer Wilds says a whole lot. It says that observation collapses the possible into the real, and I don’t think it means that in a literal, we-believe-in-a-consciousness-based-interpretation-of-quantum-mechanics sense (because those are obviously, hilariously wrong). Rather I’d say it’s about all the possibilities that we imagine might be true being just vague possibilities, waiting to be collapsed by observation into something tangible. It says that we share this universe – very textually, I mean, with the mysterious Quantum Moon being a symbol of the unity of a divided people looking up to the same sky, and more with the different species of aliens being called to explore, investigate, and to wonder at the same marvels. And it says that our perspective should – inherently does, perhaps – include a deep appreciation of the beauty of it all. The stars are so very beautiful, in the end.

And, ah, what does The Witness say about perspective? That, it’s, like, a thing, I guess? The first movie clip I found (the easiest to find) opens with “well that’s no better a solution than any other, is it?” and I can’t imagine that’s even close to an accident. Perhaps I could be more generous than to say The Witness has nothing more to say than “uh, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” Perhaps one could say that it wants to convey that if you can adopt many perspectives, you can understand many things. But really, that all just feels like rephrasings of the same point: The Witness has nothing to say. It wants to be about something, without offering any comment on the thing. And this I think gets back to the problem I had with The Northern Caves but struggled to articulate: what’s it about? Well, fandom culture, among some other things, especially a particular kind of 00’s forum fandom culture. How is it about it? Very straightforwardly. What does it say about it? Ummmm… That it Sure Was A Thing, I guess?

All that together clarifies for me some of my abiding problems with what I’m calling Postmodernism in fiction. It’s the feeling of insincerity to it, that it wants to play at being ‘about’ something that it has no actual position on, no true feelings for, and no intention of developing into anything. The Lucy-holding-the-ball of philosophies, smugly confident that it’s the clever one, while really missing out on the fun of playing the game.

Which is ironic, because playing Outer Wilds is the least fun part of it.

Revisiting the past: Outer Wilds, and…

Suffering, or, Book Review: What Lies Dreaming

Content Note: spoiler-heavy review. If you haven’t read it yet and just want to know if you should: if you like the horror genre, particularly Lovecraft or Wildbow, this ought to be great for you. Otherwise, probably not.

Part One: The First Part

There’s a thing about first albums and first seasons and first novels. Ideas are generated gradually, and then they sit in the back of the mind, waiting to be released through creation. So when one looks at a creator’s career, one often sees that their best work was their earliest, containing all the wildest ideas they’d had in the years before they started creating. But when one looks at first works, they’re not dominated by bests. Instead, they seem. Messy, confused. They become victims of their potential: too many ideas vying for limited space and attention.

But what if you wrote a first novel with lots of ideas, where the confusion and disorientation is part of the point?

First, let’s consider what the story is. Very crudely, it could be called “WH40K, but in the actual Roman Empire not the Space Roman Empire, meets that one overrated XKCD, apologies for the boring reference that everyone inevitably has to make when discussing this book: unfortunately it’s the law, you have to mention it.” More specifically, it’s a kind of Lovecraftian horror story, full of twisted monsters that Don’t Belong In Our World, set in Imperial Rome. This is a really good premise, and the way the story hints at the hideous details of the setting through the first few chapters is nicely done.

The narrative conceit is that the perspective switches between three ‘tagonists: a slave animal-keeper, a soldier and a senator. The first has a lot of trouble justifying being in the story, in my opinion, and it doesn’t help that the first chapter opens very weakly, following him. The third, on the other hand, feels like he’s meant to be a villain protagonist, but what I think was supposed to be “evil for The Greater Good, actually caused by madness and grief, to show the flaws of humans trying to be utilitarians” ends up feeling more like an indecisive back-and-forth between the two archetypes. I’m not sure what would improve this. The second person, then, is the most interesting character: tormented by having a conscience, apparently a unique or at least rare thing in this world. Well, alright, I think we’re supposed to agree with him that it’s literally some gods whispering to him. Which is also funny – in other worlds, the outer gods try to corrupt you by telling you to commit evil acts, but since the world we’re exploring is so incredibly dark, the twisted forces of darkness try to corrupt you into “helping people” and “being nice.” I like that.

What makes this different from other split-perspective fiction is that each character also has an associated narrative person. Writing in second-person is notoriously difficult/unwise, but actually works pretty well here. Admittedly I’m biased by years of video games into just liking second-person. The more typical first and third person chapters are usually fairly solid. But for most of the story, the rotation comes across as more of a gimmick than a necessary part of the story. But not all.

Part Two: I Met A Fictional Man

The best chapter in What Lies Dreaming is by far the denouement, where the triple-narrative breaks down and shifts grammatical person seemlessly and constantly, giving the impression of a surreal conversation between the author and reader as partially represented by characters in the story. It seems like the conceit of the narration was always meant to give rise to this, although it also awkwardly comes out of nowhere in a sense. It would have been nice if the shifting of perspective had sped up beforehand rather than accelerating so jerkily into it? That said, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m the kind of snob who poo-poohs ending-oriented narratives. I actually love it when an ending outshines the rest of the work – at least something shone, and if it’s the part that most needs to be important and memorable, that’s good.

No, what’s really interesting here is the metafiction. Throughout the story, it’s built up to that the big horror we’re dealing with might be the biggest of Lovecraft’s big weirds: Azathoth the Dreamer, who answers the titular question with burbles and eldritch piping. Our waking world is its sleeping madness, and indeed I think the story was supposed to mix dream and reality more as it progressed, but it never really reached a point where I wasn’t sure which was which. That or I never noticed the switch, which is a different issue. Anyway, if it wakes, our world vanishes. Lucky our “heroes” are here to stop that!

Except, as the story seems to use its split-person narrative to point out, this is in fact exactly what will happen when the book ends, regardless of anything the characters do. The author and the reader, dual gods of the dream, possessed of all the strange and alien motives of Azathoth itself, go on to do other things, and the fiction evaporates. So it’s a bit disappointing to have the characters apparently succeed a few pages before they inevitably fail. It feels like a double-waste: inside the story, wasted effort to avert the book’s very ending; outside the story, a wasted opportunity to end on the total failure and annihilation of all of it at exactly the same time as that happens anyway.

You could, of course, view it as a gamble. The story asks: am I great enough to live on in the reader’s thoughts even after they put the books down, thereby letting the upbeat ending escape the metafictional trap? And if it were, well that’d be absolutely superb. But I felt it wasn’t quite on that level. Partly as a matter of the confused and messy ideas pulling in too many directions, but mostly because of:

Part Three: Suffering

So let’s talk flavour. What does the story taste like? And the answer is so very bitter. Not bittersweet like dark chocolate or Girls’ Last Tour, nor bitter-smooth like coffee or Robin Hobb’s books. I’d like to be able to use my final justification for suffering-fic:


But while it seemed like it might have been meant to be, the swing towards upbeat at the end was far too little, far too late. If the story was meant to leave you agreeing with the negative-utilitarianism-sounding logic of the revolutionary girl, then I guess it succeeded? Or perhaps it’s just that I’m starting off from a relatively radical position politically, and just couldn’t see the maintenance of a terrible status quo as a positive ending? But most likely of all is that it was meant to be exactly as chokingly bitter as it is.

There’s a thing about suffering in fiction: it’s really strongly encouraged to include as much of it as possible. I found this most notable in The Fifth Season – alright, I should probably note that criticising something for being too like The Fifth Season is not exactly going to win World’s Harshest Critic Award – where the narration suddenly cuts in to tell us outright that only bad things are allowed, time to cut past anything nice and get back to everything being horrible and cruel. At the time I was merely startled by the bold-facedness of it, though.

So in the end, what What Lies Dreaming mostly made me question is my commitment to suffering-fic to begin with. For a long time I’ve stuck by the writing-101 maxim that Characters Should Suffer. But I’ve become corrupted – I blame them japanese cartoons fer girls – and have ended up liking softer stories. Or maybe gone in a circle; Lord of the Rings is in many senses a story about the comfy rural life of hobbits, intermittently interrupted by a quest to save the world. Either way, the requirement that fiction have ‘down-time’ has risen in my priorities in a big way, and the attempted sucker-punch of addressing the reader to point out that they’re the mad god who wants to see the characters suffer merely made me think “no? Not like this? This is just perverse.” Ultimately, then it’s not this book’s fault I didn’t love it – I’m just no longer the person who would have. But at least it made me aware of that.

Overall: A lot of great ideas, but didn’t arrange them in a way that would appeal to me all that much. Nonetheless, Brodski will be an author to follow.

Cross-recs: TwigMawaru PenguindrumPapers, Please

See also: The author’s blog


Suffering, or, Book Review: What Lies Dreaming

Celandine Part 2: Sweet Heavens This Is Difficult Let’s Just Copy Someone Else’s Method

Hiatus? What hiatus?


So, when we last left Celandine, the Julia-based computational chemistry diversion, I was stuck looking through PyQuante and wondering how it works when it seems like it shouldn’t. Since then:

All of these are excellent resources, huge thanks to their creators. If, heaven help you, you are following along with this in order to improve your own understanding, I would suggest having a crack at the worked example project in the last link before looking through the “solution” below.

Continue reading “Celandine Part 2: Sweet Heavens This Is Difficult Let’s Just Copy Someone Else’s Method”

Celandine Part 2: Sweet Heavens This Is Difficult Let’s Just Copy Someone Else’s Method

A series of somewhat-negative thoughts not individually deserving blog posts of their own

It annoys me when people come up with evolutionary psychology “Just-So stories” to justify their politics. Well, obviously. Because it’s really annoying. But there’s a smaller mistake hiding inside the larger one, which is that when they start talking about the Ancestral Environment, it’s always the same sort of Tribal Savannah thing. Or if they’re big into HBD, a very similar Tribal Deciduous Forest kind of thing. But actually, we should expect most evolution-shaped psychological features to pre-date humans entirely, in much the same way pretty much every other biological thing did. Parental instincts, group dynamics, even apparently cognitive biases (so cool). It all came before humans, and if your Just-So story begins “hunter-gatherers would have…” you can know immediately that it’s probably not how things actually happened, just because of that.

(If your story would have begun “tribes in Africa would have…”, it is beyond saving).

((The whole subject area is thronging with transparent attempts to revive teleological arguments for why Liking Things I Don’t Like is objectively wrong, but now with a scientific rather than religious gloss. Sigh.))

There is fundamentally no way to reconcile collectivism and individualism. It’s the simplest possible clash of terminal values. This is what some people are grasping towards when they advocate that we “bash the fash” – that fundamentally it’s impossible for collectivists to be happy in an individualist society and vice-versa. The increasing popularity of collectivist ideologies leaves individualists with the choice of being miserable or making others miserable. Or dead. Everyone (well, everyone as smart or smarter than me that I’ve discussed this with or seen writing about it – sample size ~5) invents Archipelago as an attempt to solve this, but notice how even Scott, possibly the smartest of the sample, has to sneak “but fundamentally individualist” in at the lowest level. Individuals can choose to join collectivist groups or leave them – not a solution that is acceptable to collectivists!

This is a facet of the fundamental difficulty of creating a Good World. I do not think it can be resolved for humans as they currently are, let alone by them.

Doki Doki Literature Club would be decent if it didn’t warn you so strenuously about being Spooky. As-is, it just comes across as trying too hard. It’s quite unfortunate, because some decent ideas are buried in there among with the gimmicks and the necessities of playing along with the conventions of a terrible genre. For instance, the antagonist(?)’s total lack of personality beyond “totally loves the player character” is definitely making a point about dating sims in general (the fact that people like her says much the same thing and to much the same effect as people liking Asuka and Rei). But ultimately, it spends too much time knocking on your skull and asking if you’re scared yet, putting up flashing neon signs around all the foreshadowing, and sort of nudging the audience in an expectant way like “hey that was a cool trick I just pulled, right?” While I continue to strongly support the idea of content warnings, this really highlighted that they need to be “need-to-know” information, something you wouldn’t see if you’re not looking actively.

Keats wrote about “Negative Capability.” Normally I hate this kind of thing – logical consistency is very important to me in fiction and ‘just turn your brain off’ is not an acceptable answer to such criticism, mysterious answers are a contradiction in terms, handwaving can’t save metarationality, that kind of thing. But when it comes to them chinese cartoons for girls, a small handful put me into this state so effortlessly and unobjectionably I didn’t even notice until now – “Girls’ Last Tour” was what made me notice the experience, but looking back it’s a common factor between a lot of things I’ve loved, like Mushishi, Kino’s Journey, and all-time favourite Haibane Renmei. The defining emotional feature of such works is usually “mono no aware,” though, another kind of mystery-feeling that’s very hard to describe. It’s a little hard to say whether these are attempts to grasp after the same concept, since mental states are so horribly non-transferable, but they might be. The upshot being that a tranquil awareness of mystery: actually quite pleasant if you can achieve it.

What would a philosophical Experience Machine that provides the experience of “exiting the experience-machine that is our reality” (as in the films) be like? People want to have an effect on “actual reality,” which is why they reject EMs, but what makes reality, reality? If you’re too desperate to avoid being caught in simulation, do you end up too easily tricked into entering Matrices that are labelled “Matrix Exit”?

I feel like there’s an important principle here. Natalie Ferno’s Reality Is Where You’re Standing Principle. Something like that.

From my perspective, the America I see in things like Stranger Things (or Life is Strange, or etc etc) exists only in that context. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not depicting a Normal Small Town with weird stuff happening – it’s depicting that bizarre almost-modern fantasy world where weird stuff happens all the time. This rather dampens the effect, I think?

Or maybe it’s the other way around, and actually it seems that way to most people in the USA too. And it’s the Normal Small Town people who have the weird experience of perceiving the fundamental wrongness of what’s happening. That would seem unlikely, though. Surely that’s the feeling you want most of the audience to have?

Figure/Ground effects.

I’m honestly pretty proud of the discussion around the Lootbox Issue. I was expecting a lot of “nuh uh, it’s not gambling because you always get something,” and while I’ve seen that a great many times in the context of “legally it’s not considered gambling because…,” mostly people seem to have a good grasp of what the central aspects of each are and how they’re the same. Maybe people are finally developing cognitive tools against the noncentral fallacy and relatives?

People almost all have a sense of the Zeitgeist, a Zeitgeistbewusstsein perhaps (I do not speak German). A feel that “these days everything’s so PC” or “the far-right is becoming normalised” or “NASA and the CIA are tricking everyone into thinking the world is round” (explaining how this third belief is of the same type as the first two might be a bit tricky, so I’ll elide doing so). These are, I am more and more convinced, almost universally wrong. The whole notion of a Zeitgeist increasingly strikes me as purely a reification of the availability heuristic. Good for spinning stories out of, but not a useful factor in any real, predictive explanation of anything.

A series of somewhat-negative thoughts not individually deserving blog posts of their own

Trails in the Sky

Minor spoilers only.

It has become common, even cliche, to say that games should be about the mechanical element, the “gameplay aspect.” For instance:

Well then, dear game creators: Play to your strengths! You can do much more than merely aping movies. Maybe concentrate on your gameplay for example. Trust in your audience being intelligent enough to transfer abstract outcomes into emergent stories and learn from those. You might hand them a few incentives in the form of dynamically integrated narrative legos on the way. And even if you want to present a self-contained narrative, always incorporate your players. Take them seriously and do not be afraid of challenging them. Don’t just use your engine as a meaningless mediator, but as a tool of collaborative storytelling between author and recipient. After all, that is what makes your medium special and grants it its unique potential.

You’d get the impression that nothing is worse than a game that is a ‘film with playable parts,’ so to speak. That telling a simple-ish story in the obvious way is doing something wrong, is aping another medium rather than developing a true “video game style” of storytelling.

(Alright, let’s be clear that this a big old debate with a lot of arguments on both sides. I’m cherry-picking one person making an actually quite reasonable and balanced point, as a framing device. But also because I can’t remember the last time I heard someone ask for more narrative-driven games. Saying gameplay is more important just seems like the cooler position for smart media critics)

On an intellectual level, I agree with all this. It’s hard to argue that games should be something other than games, after all. But fundamentally, my heart belongs to narrative. Some games weave their story into the game itself in rich and compelling ways, and those are wonderful, but a lot of games – particularly JRPGs – go more for “series of plot-advancing cutscenes mixed up with plot-irrelevant gameplay.” The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is one of this category, mixing a turn-and-grid-based RPG (one can hardly call it a tactical RPG with a party size of 4, but that would be the right way to think about it) with a narrative that ranks among the best in games. And I loved it. Here are some reasons that you could use to judge whether you ought to give it a try.

Slow start: In my opinion, the best fantasy fiction isn’t terribly grim and dark. The Lord of the Rings is one of my absolute favourites, and fans agree that it’s not so much an epic story about kings and battles (such as shown in the films), as a story about wholesome hobbits doing comfy things, occasionally interrupted by a quest to save the world. Trails in the Sky takes this to an extreme degree: the first half of the first game could easily be from the iyashikei genre. Sure, there are events going on, but they fit the scope of “wandering do-gooder private police trainees doing good deeds of minor consequence.” You help with a school play, for crying out loud. It’s just a really pleasant intro to the series that makes it easy to get invested in the characters since they’re not angsting or struggling in some cosmic battle or anything. By drawing it out longer than normal, the game is able to have a larger main cast, a more endearing world, and a stronger central relationship than is common.

Admittedly, this comes at the cost of discouraging people who will be waiting impatiently for the plot to get going. Therefore my advice is: play this if you want a fluffier kind of game – think along the lines of, say, Stardew Valley, but as an RPG.


Smart characters: There are at least two ways characters can be smart – well, two that I like to see; “his IQ is 400!” and the such are not actually a kind of smartness. The first is to be smartly chosen; Doylian smartness. This is the kind of smartness that made Estelle rather than Joshua the point-of-view character of Trails in the Sky. He’s the more typical JRPG protagonist, but just less fun to spend time with – it’d be harder to maintain the story’s key mysterious elements, and harder to appreciate the optimistic tone, if the protagonist weren’t the character who’d be “the energetic sidekick girl” in any other game. The choice to switch the two feels like a touch of genius, an apparently-small change that cascades to alter the entire game in a positive way.

The second is to have characters that make intelligent decisions. An important part of this is that non-central characters make plans and develop actions off-screen, but the central aspect is not doing stupid things. There are one or two cases where they do, but for the most part, the characters in Trails in the Sky make sensible decisions, are able to make deductions as successfully as the player does, and so forth. They’re also clear on the fact that the in-combat magic is an actually real thing used in pretty much the same way the game presents it, which is nice. Admittedly you do sometimes beat giant robots to death with knives, but hey, JRPG.

Free will ain’t all that: My position on choices in games is that if you can’t offer meaningful choices, you shouldn’t offer meaningless ones. Trails in the Sky doesn’t screw around with any pick-your-hair-style character design, pick-your-waifu romance, or pick-your-palette-swap endings. This doesn’t mean you have no choices. You still have choices to make in the actual gameplay, choices about who to talk to and what sidequests to undertake, that kind of thing. If “meaningful” means “altering the story,” then no, nothing you do matters. But that’s not really the kind of meaning that makes good narrative or good gameplay – a choose-your-own-adventure book lets you determine the ending, but the gameplay is awful. And if you have to make every NPC only connect in any depth to the main character – because they need to be available as a romantic path, or because you don’t know which NPCs the player will interact with, that kind of thing – you miss out on a massive amount of potential interactions that deepen the game world and strengthen immersion.

This is to say, I’m perfectly happy to have a linear story. Multiple paths tend to lack depth for any one path.

Liber’l conspiracy: I’ve said before that I’m not above admitting when I like or dislike the political aspect of a work. And these games were out to pander to me from the very start. Not only that, but it seriously discusses some of the difficulties of such a political position, look:
Sure, it could go further, but it’s a game, not a debate. And Estelle can hardly be expected to have as well-developed a political philosophy as a queen, after all.

This is a stark distinction from the typical prelapsarian narrative of fantasy fiction in general. Liberl is a constitutional monarchy, sure, but it actually explains how it’s functionally different from just a monarchy. Compare, say, Final Fantasy XII, where it’s not really clear why the monarchy you’re in is really any better than the monarchy you’re being invaded by. I suppose the reactionary argument would be that you don’t need a reason to love your country except that it’s yours, but tough luck, I do actually.

This isn’t even to say it’s completely unfair to the Empire or the Parliamentary Democracy that comprise the other major political factions involved in the story, though. All the nations’ governance systems seem to have some merits and some drawbacks, and if the game is including some distortion in favour of the point-of-view state, well, that’s only to be expected. Can one have an “unreliable cultural narrator”? In short, the story’s ideas are thought through in a way that’s not all that common, and that I don’t think you could do with sprawling multi-narratives or subtle emergent narratives.

Worldbuilder: This is the really big one, the thing everyone praises the broader Trails series for in general. The world is vivid beyond the scope of most video games to attempt. NPCs that wouldn’t even merit a name in a lot of games have complicated on-going stories; historical events are explained in depth; there are some surprisingly lengthy stories found in books in libraries that are relevant not in some abstract literary sense but in the everyday sense of “people in the world reference having read the books, or having written them.” There are port towns being hollowed out by increasing air trade, side-quests that introduce you to important metaphysical concepts, even more NPC stories to follow. The whole world feels alive and dynamic, as opposed to the “timeless” atmosphere that a lot of fantasy RPGs aim for even when they’re in the middle of similar magi-industrial revolutions.

It’s really hard to describe the sheer scope of it – it’s something that games can do better, even linear narrative-driven games, because you can freely include irrelevant details and side-stories without alienating the audience so much, when people can just ignore it if they prefer. That said, your enjoyment of the game is going to be much higher if you do prefer to explore the world to the fullest – the game isn’t pretending like it’s just as good if you don’t.


Not even a bad game: And you know what? It’s not even like it’s a bad game held up by good writing, for all that the writing is stellar. It’s a good game! The combat mechanics are easy to grasp but allow a lot of depth. Figuring out different magitek configurations to access different spells is surprisingly fun, if somewhat annoying to interface with at times. Party members have substantial mechanical differences, while still giving you plenty of freedom to arrange your strategy as you like. The soundtrack – is that part of the game, or part of the narrative? Either way, it is amazing. The aesthetic style as well works amazingly well for capturing the cosy and the epic alike while keeping it clear what’s going on.

All that said, none of this is unique to this game at all. You can find comparable gameplay elsewhere. But are games about gameplay? Yes, in some sense that’s true. But they have a lot of other stuff going on as well, and it’s important not to get so caught up in horticultural analysis that you forget to smell the roses. Trails in the Sky is without doubt one of my favorite games of all time not because of the okay gameplay, but because of the everything else. Recommended without reservation.

Trails in the Sky


Why’re we teaching teenagers about safe sexual practice, when we could just try to treat the underlying psychological issues that make them want to have sex?

Wait, no, that’s stupid [1]. Why’re we allowing people to buy make-up or cosmetic surgery, when we could just try to treat the underlying psychological issues that make people unhappy with their appearance?

Wait, that’s stupid [2]. Why’re we supporting people transitioning to the appropriate gender when we could just try to treat the underlying psychological issues that cause dysphoria?

Wait, that’s also stupid [3]. Why’re we using exercise regimes and gastric bands when the solution to obesity is to treat the underlying psychological issues that make people want to be thin?

Wait, still stupid [4]. Why’re we suggesting improvements to societal structure when clearly we could just treat the underlying psychological issues that make people in modern societies unhappy?

That’s probably stupid.

I’ve seen all of those five arguments made in varying contexts. The point of this selection was to maximise the number of people who have at least one issue on each side, so as to frame the discussion more neutrally. But if you’d have guessed that the origin of the discussion was the highly-contentious third, well, I wouldn’t call your guess wrong. But equally, the aim is to skirt around the highly-abstract last one, which is by far the most important.

Seeing these five side-by-side makes it prudent to start by examining the most common argument that’s made in favour of each of them – a slippery slope argument of the form “but if we accept people getting their noses shrunk, how can we say it’s wrong for them to turn themselves into freakish monstrosities of chitin and tentacles that should be cleansed from the world with fire?” Well, we can’t, same as there’s nothing wrong with people removing their limbs if it’ll make them more comfortable with their body, or people trying to find fulfillment in life rather than altering themselves to find their current circumstances fulfilling. Sure, maybe they’d be better off following Buddha’s advice and trying to become perfectly phlegmatic about things, but that’s ultimately a demand for people to change in an unlikely way.

Now, perhaps with sufficient enlightenment or technological advancement, we could make it less unlikely. We could find drugs that treat gender dysphoria or autism or being unhappy about being overweight. That’d certainly be a start. Why not go further? We could have a pill to cure ennui, a surgical procedure to make Mondays seem less horrible, or a vaccine to prevent liking Nickelback! Wait, is this starting to sound familiar?

The well-read will recognize this as an argument fundamentally about wireheading. Well, perhaps it is not such a good mark of entry into the elite once it has a wiki page. The foresighted will note that I am also constructing a slippery slope argument in the opposite direction: if the answer to the question “how much wireheading do we support” is not “none,” or “only as much as people want to do to themselves,” then how much? If people want to be thin, rather than accept being fat and become happy with it, why should we tell them that correcting their psyche is the better option?

This isn’t exactly the same thing as wireheading on every level, of course. But it certainly seems like any argument that proves that it’s right to alter people’s minds in the listed ways ought to be strong enough to also prove that it’s more generally right to alter minds in any number of unlisted ways. And if we take it as given that we don’t want to just alter ourselves to be permanently blissed out by everything, it follows that any particular argument for why certain people should alter themselves to be happy with any particular thing is in need of justification beyond “it would make them happier.”

There are a handful of such justifications that get seen fairly often. Appeals to Nature or God are of little interest to me; if you wish to make such an appeal, I suppose that’s your prerogative. Sometimes people make appeals to unfair competition – “some people are more attractive, and given the demands of competition, this amounts to a kind of tax on unattractiveness, which would be better off removed.” While I kind of agree, pushing back against the existence of options to alter the environment in favour of altering the individual just seems like a poor way to resolve this. If there are any good ways, I don’t know of them, though.

To go back to an earlier point – in Buddhism, there is a story of a farmer with 83 problems [5]. The story goes that the farmer went to see Buddha, who was known to be wise beyond wisdom, to seek counsel on how to rein in his errant son. Buddha said he could not help with that. Well, said the farmer, maybe you could advise me on how to mend my leaky roof. Buddha said he could not help with that. Okay, said the farmer, maybe you could teach me how to mend shoes. Buddha said he could not help with that. And so on through the farmer’s entire list of problems. At the end of the list, the farmer scowled and said “is there anything you can do?” And Buddha said he could solve the farmer’s 84th problem: that the farmer wanted to not have problems.

This must have made Buddha feel extremely clever, except that I’m pretty sure he was above that. But the farmer’s son was still errant; his roof still leaked; his shoes still tattered. One might even argue – given that Buddha could not wirehead anyone, and could only suggest decades of meditation and self-doubt – that he gave the farmer the 84th problem of feeling like caring about all those other problems was his fault for not being phlegmatic enough. Now, maybe the farmer attained enlightenment and was happy – or whatever positive-affect adjective you use to describe enlightened beings, anyway – and if so, good, but did Buddha really do all that he should in this story? Was it okay for him to sit back, content with having provided only the option to remove the perception of there being any problems?

As with the list of examples above, there’s one simple answer: that if someone prefers not to alter their preferences, then we should not say that having provided the option of doing so fulfills all moral obligations to alleviate their suffering. There are lines to be drawn on how far it is acceptable to go in pursuit of such, but the line is not here unless we want to say that in every case listed so far and many others besides the correct approach is “just don’t care about it.”

Well, I hope I’ve explained a bit about why I think wireheading is the wrong sort of approach to the, hah, problem of having an imperfect world. If people want to alter themselves, sure, but the mere existence of that as an option would not be enough to dismiss unhappiness.

[1] – Because that sounds completely impossible.
[2] – Because self-esteem can only get you so far; attractiveness isn’t going to be purely socio-cultural.
[3] – Again, that also sounds pretty much impossible.
[4] – Again, social norms aren’t so loose that people can expect to do equally well by following or by defying them.

The important note here at the foot is this: these arguments are constructed without reference to what the patient wants, i.e. no “but they probably don’t want to be cured of that desire.” And if you’re asking some of the questions but in other cases using answers similar to the footnotes, note that these are pretty interchangeable. For instance, obesity kills as surely as cancer does – and so does gender dysphoria, if you accept that “just have them not commit suicide after we insist they live a life that will make them want to” is not a valid method of engineering solutions, in the same way that “adopt the NAP” is not a useful solution to propose for gun violence.

[5] – It’s not clear why that number in particular, but I did remember the number perfectly despite having heard the story only once. Maybe there’s someting to it!


Why can’t we skip all these tedious intermediate steps and just succeed already?

Suppose you had a discussion like this:

A: Choristers are terrible! They keep singing things all the time, and it gets on my nerves!
B: Have you tried earplugs?
A: Of course! They’re worthless! Uncomfortable, constantly in need of replacement, hardly block the awful singing but do somehow always make me miss important phone calls…
B: Okay, not that then. Have you tried asking them to stop?
A: Only every day for the last eternity. Why won’t they stop? Argh.
B: Maybe try asking them to sing something different, that you’ll like?
A: I don’t want them to sing something else, I want them to stop.
B: Or maybe you could offer to help them find a more soundproof room somewhere?
A: Why should I help them?! They’re torturing me! Why can’t they just stop doing it?
B: Perhaps some kind of rotating schedule, so you can be elsewhere when they sing…
A: Argh! No! They need to just not do it!

We could definitely accuse B of being unsympathetic. But A is also being unsympathetic, and so are the choristers, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. The point is that B is trying to be pragmatic – find a workable solution that makes A less unhappy. But A doesn’t seem all that interested in the workarounds – their only plan is to hope for the simpler solution of everyone abiding by A’s own preferences.

Let’s briefly consider some real-world examples:

And so on through a hundred other tedious culture-wars-by-proxy, “why can’t people just diet and stick to it,” “why can’t people just have more feminist sexual preferences,” “why can’t people just get jobs,”… All different in their exact causes but all containing a trace of the same error. Now that everyone is at least a little bit angry and considering leaving a comment about how their pet issue is totally different (hey! Just like mine!), we can move on.

Hopefully the idea is now clear. Someone has some extremely precious value like pro-choice, free speech, having guns, etc. That value gets questioned by other people who have different values. The person wishes other people would stop doing that. The problem is that, no matter how important it is (to the requester) that the value be respected, it’s not enough to make people actually do it. And emphasising that importance by repeated injunction does nothing.

Which is to say, there’s a tendency to try to object to a proposed solution by saying “but the real problem is that people are causing a problem. People just need to stop doing that.” Essentially, asking for people to change in an unlikely way as a substitute for discussing the proposed solution on a deeper level and gaining understanding of why it’s not satisfactory that can be used to refine the solution and so on.

I’ve made this mistake over and over again, on issues from environmentalism to electoral reform to foreign policy. It’s ludicrously hard to debate ideas without ever asking for the impossible. It could be seen as a kind of fallacy of perfectionism, but I prefer to think of it as its own thing, a kind of cognitive failure mode based around the fear that one’s values won’t be respected and the tendency to stop looking for a solution once someone else can be blamed.

The objection is obvious: but isn’t asking for less “asking for other people to change in unlikely ways” asking for people to change in an unlikely way? Yes, it kind of is. Therefore, here are some proposed practical workarounds:

  • Express the sentiment as “just to check, we agree that it would be best if … ?” – The aim here is to placate the part of the mind that is worried that the other participants won’t respect your highly regarded value.
  • Emphasize not wanting to be dragged off-topic when mentioning that it would be nice if whatever optimal path could be taken instead of compromising. This seems prone to failure. No amount of “let’s not get off topic, but…” has ever prevented discussions getting off-topic.
  • Resist the temptation to respond to “why can’t X just V?” with disagreement about whether it would be good if X just V. It is sometimes possible to find a way to express the idea that the principle is sound but an unhelpful way of looking at the original question; but if not, you’re usually allowed to just drop the line of discussion.
  • Ignore the discussions themselves. Then, write a long meta-level rant on your blog about it. This solves the problem forever.
Why can’t we skip all these tedious intermediate steps and just succeed already?