Magical Narrative Thinking

Before I begin, this focuses on a very specific example – so, if you have time, have a think about how it generalises. There are countless examples out there, in fiction especially, but where it bleeds over into real life we can run into serious problems.

Yes, it’s a post dedicated to Ken Ham, the dumbest person on the planet not named Ray Comfort, who recently said this in “celebration” of the same-sex marriage ruling in the United States:


Specifically, I want to look the part that says “Well, the president did not invent the rainbow; God invented it.” (emphasis added)

I’m sure many Christians out there think God is the de facto inventor of the rainbow by virtue of being the creator of the universe, but I’m not talking about that. That’s actually fairly self-consistent, and I can’t really fault it much. This is different. Remember: Ken Ham is a literal Biblical creationist.

He genuinely, literally believes the Bible is the historical book of record for all of history. And by extension, all of physics, too.

He honestly, really, genuinely doesn’t believe in any science that contradicts the Bible, never mind any historical fact that contradicts it.

He literally, actually, genuinely, really believes that the Book of Genesis is correct that the atmospheric phenomenon we call a “rainbow” is a sign from God, an apology for taking his anger management issues out on the entire population of the world in the single biggest act of genocide in “recorded” history.

Ken Ham literally, really, honestly, actually, literally, genuinely, properly, really, actually thinks that the rainbow was invented by God after the flood.

It didn’t, therefore, exist before the flood.

This is what Ken Ham actually believes – otherwise his entire world collapses in on itself faster than the rectal prolapse suffered by a homophobic televangelist after too much anal sex with gay hookers on speed.(That’s quite enough of that, Ed.)

Now to cut a long-winded pseudo-intellectual story short; we simply cannot build a universe where a rainbow cannot exist.

Well, we can, but we have to understand its wider effects. I’m perfectly okay with God Almightly clicking his non-corporeal fingers and altering physics in such a way that one moment there was no optical phenomenon in the sky and then suddenly there was… but we have to follow those changes to their logical conclusion. In stories, with their narratives, you can get away with changing one thing, but in real life you can’t.

There are three things you can change in order to stop a rainbow from being physically possible: the light, the principles of optics, and the source (I suppose one could call it the “material cause”?) of the refraction. Remove one of those components, and no rainbow is physically possible.

The details makes a fun and entertaining thought-experiment: what would happen if we stopped a rainbow from happening?

  1. Remove the light – No light, no rainbow. But then we can no longer see, either. Our vision requires light, so any antediluvian civilisation would be blind and incapable of sight. It doesn’t stop there, though. Without photons, chemical reactions that are sensitised by photons or that emit photons wouldn’t happen. Energy level changes at the quantum level would all have to take place non-radiatively. There would be no mechanism to masslessly transfer energy about the universe. Quantum mechanics breaks at the seams as it can’t shed energy around as photons. At the very least, the Earth would freeze solid as the sun was no longer capable of warming it from across the void of space with a massive influx of solar radiation.
  2. Remove the optical effects –  Now we’re cooking! We can keep the light, but let’s kill the concept of refraction. Okay… now we can’t see either, since our (allegedly “intelligently” designed) eyes have to bend light twice in order to focus. Once through the main cornea and then through our squishier lens. Antediluvian civilisation is still blind. Light now travels at the same speed through all media, not slowing down or altering. Light is no longer interacting with matter in the way it should. Quantum mechanics as we know it again shatters into a thousand pieces, the universe dies of entropic heat death before it is even born.
  3. Remove the water – Okay… let’s keep all the physics behind the rainbow! The universe exists, light interacts with matter, let’s just kill the rainbow at its source – the condensed water droplets in the atmosphere. Immediately we all die of thirst and starvation as there’s no water, so let’s put the water back. Oh, wait, the hydrogen bonding between water molecules, as well as the mass of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom give bulk water very specific properties such as its vapour pressure, and its melting/boiling points – that means if we put the water back we’ll have water vapour, and it’ll condense around any particulate matter in the atmosphere… back to the drawing board, let’s alter conditions so that water vapour can’t condense! Aha! Let’s lower the pressure of the atmosphere, that should keep it in the gas phase… oh, wait, now people can’t breathe because the partial pressure of oxygen is too low for haemoglobin to work properly. Let’s up the molar proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere so the partial pressure is still ca.0.2 atm as it is now…. oh great, now not enough nitrogen for nitrogen-fixing bacteria to work with and we all die of starvation and let’s not even start with what the lower pressure does to the boiling point of the oceans and the gases dissolved in them… okay, so let’s boost the temperature above the dew point of water… bah, we’re all dead again… quantum mechanics remains in tact, but chemistry explodes in fireball of icy self-contradicting death and destruction that renders the planet inhospitable to everything that isn’t a self-contained abstract concept.

That’s consistency for you. There isn’t a world where you can’t have a rainbow yet let it still work exactly as it does today. You can’t pick it apart from the rest of the universe and treat it as a narrative block, a piece of magic with its own separate rules. If you change one rule, it changes for everything.

White Bear

This was inspired by Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. In case anyone hasn’t seen it, spoiler alert.

If you were to wipe the memory of an event from your mind, has it still happened? Clearly, yes, because there’s (assuming you’re not a total nihilist) still an objective world out there in which events are recorded. Other people continue to have the experiences in their own memory and will behave accordingly.The record of the event is engrained on the world in terms of physical evidence and will manifest in the physical world accordingly. Even if you wipe out the physical evidence, in principle the chain of causality exists and can be traced back to show an event happening.

But, did it happen to you?

One might naively say “yes” for the same reasons above. Except, consider who you are. How do you want to define “you” in this sense. Is it the physical atoms that compose your body, or the emergent patterns that compose your mind? These aren’t the same thing, that much is obvious.

If it’s just the atoms, then it would suffice to trim someone’s finger nails and place these cuttings in prison for their crime of theft. If it’s just atoms, with no emergent properties, then we would string a handgun up with a noose and hang it, not the person who pulled the trigger, for murder. If it as just the atoms, then even if we wanted to imprison a human body, we would let them out at most a year or two later when every cell in their body had cycled through and the original molecules had decomposed and been replaced. Red blood cells last three months at least, taste buds on the order of days. A life in prison wouldn’t last long under these parameters.

If you, like most sensible people, accept that the mind is the pattern caused independently of the material, then from the perspective of justice, it makes no sense to punish just the material itself. Hence why we don’t release people from prison after they’ve scrubbed a certain number of dead epidermal cells from their skin and we don’t punish firearms for shooting.

So, if you erase an event from someone’s memory, does it make sense to punish them for it?

In White Bear, our (initially nameless) main character is revealed to not really be inhabiting a weird world where everyone is brainwashed (well, they are, but that’s a different point), but is actually living out a form of punishment. Her memory is erased each night and she’s made to relive an episode based on the experience child murder victim that she filmed on a camera phone. This is only revealed at the end, after her confusing day being chased and tormented. Her entire experience is reduced to being an amusement park, and the people following her are actually visitors wanting to see this odd form of justice up close. Her mind is wiped at the end of the day and the whole thing starts fresh once more with no clue of the revelation of what she had previously done until it was all over.

But with her memory erased, is justice even being served? Is the person who was complicit in a murder actually being punished? Such a thing, as strange a sci-fi concept as it is, might sound desirable to some people – wouldn’t they all like a punishment to fit the crime like the rhetoric-spewing table-thumpers they are? – but your memories are a key part of your personality, your experience and your mental state. Without those memories, or with different memories in place, you’re not the same person. What happens in White Bear is that the people all geared up to punish a murderer were, in reality, only punishing an empty shell. Using the proper terms, they’d explicitly removed the mens rea prior to punishment. That makes the punishment unjust. It makes it pointless. I’m pretty sure Charlie Brooker is smart enough to know that this is the feeling people should take from it, but probably don’t.

If anything, considering the inferences she made (and behaviour exhibited) upon waking up with no memory, they’re punishing a very caring person and a very good person – not an evil person or a maniac. There’s no sense of teaching anyone anything, or making them learn. There’s no sense of improvement made anywhere. Only a sense of sating an animalistic inability to separate the emergent mind from the shell that carries it.

You start White Bear thinking that people have been brainwashed into voyeurs by a mysterious alien force. But really, they’ve been brainwashed by their own bloodlust for punishment at all costs – even if that cost is the entire point of punishment and repentance. It’s the people who watch White Bear and think “I wish we could really do that to people” that the episode takes a long, firm, judgemental stare at.

Who am I?

A while back, someone down the pub asked me if I had figured out who I was before I got married – the silent implication, of course, being that they had a particular cynicism towards long-term relationships and so viewed it as something I clearly rushed into and will inevitably regret (or maybe that’s projection, I dunno, but it’s a reasonable inference when you meet a twenty-something divorcee). I made a fairly wry reply along the lines of “yes, I did”, something about the internet, and moved on. I’d never really given much thought to the question of “who I am” up to that point.

More recently, I have given it some thought. And that thought has lead me to the conclusion that it is a totally bullshit question.

Really, what is it even asking? If you don’t know this, you can’t really generate an answer. At least give me a sample paper with some relevant answers here. Who am I? Is it my name – no, that’s just a label. Is it my occupation – no, because you’re not your job (unless you are, or whatever). It’s not my gender, sex, race, sexuality – those are just random attributes associated with yourself, they’re not “yourself”. It’s not my hobbies, clubs I’m involved with, political opinions – those are things I “do”, not “am”. Scratch those off the list of reasonable answers and you’re not left with much.

Now, at this point I could just say “E-Prime” and have done with it, but really that’s something else entirely. After all, we’d still want to figure out what the question is asking by phrasing it in E-Prime. As pointed out above, the question certainly isn’t asking for a list of attributes. E-Prime could help us tell when a casual “Who are you?” can easily be answered with “Agents Mulder and Scully, FBI”, but that oh-so-deep-and-meaningful version renders out less well in it.

So what could it mean? Does it ask you to describe your “essence”? Perhaps, but even then you’ve replaced bullshit with more bullshit. What the hell does “essence” even mean? It’s like some form of dualism, but more abstract and more full of itself. It’s asking for something more detailed than just a list of attributes and more qualitative than quantitative, requiring some thought and discussion rather than some box ticking, and yet it has to be simple and fundamental to you, and you alone. It’s supposed to capture the thing that makes you “you”, and not someone else. In this respect, the question is more like “who are you?”, not “who are you?”. Still, this doesn’t help us answer it.

In truth, there is no one right answer to it and there’s no one right interpretation of the question. The best we can do is say that who I “am” is really a big detailed description of my attitudes, behaviours, thoughts, opinions, all across a range of subjects, that aren’t just regurgitating what someone else has told you to think, that describes how I act and react and what I will think at any given moment for any given situation because that’s certainly going to be at least consistent. This is what people are asking for; and answering this is the only response that makes sense because all of that sort of stuff satisfactorily describes who you are.

This brings me back to the original point of someone hoping that I “discovered who I am” before a fairly arbitrary marker in my life – and it brings up why the question is full of even more bullshit than it appears at first sight.

Nothing in that list of opinions, ideas, attitudes or behaviours is fixed any more than the atoms in my body are fixed and unchanging. I “am” not the same person I was when I got married. I “am” not the same person I was when I was asked that by some randomer in a bar somewhere a year and a bit later. I hardly consider an opinion or attitude of mine valid if it was written more than a few months ago. I’m happy with this constant change. If I was going to have the same opinion of myself a year from now, there would be absolutely no point in living. I may as well consider myself at the peak of personal development and throw myself under a train because there’d be literally nothing else to do.

So why would I ever need to figure out “who I am” at any one point in time? Why would I even consider that even a valid thing to attempt? Who I am is whatever is sitting in front of you right now. It’s what I do, it’s what I think, it’s how I behave and how I react. Check back in five minutes to see if there’s been any improvement.