snap-cover-smallThere is a fanfiction by Eliezer Yudkowsky called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which reimagines JK Rowling’s books with Harry as a scientific prodigy and rationalist.

It’s quite long, and many people who start reading it don’t finish it. What’s interesting is that you can detect the exact moment someone bails on HPMOR based on their criticisms.

People who give up after the first few chapters complain that it’s smug and annoying, with Harry (the author stand-in) running circles around irrational wizards because he knows what a Fermi estimate is and they don’t.

But the people who quit 30-40 chapters in seem to have the opposite criticism: that the book isn’t delivering on its promise of a rational Harry Potter universe. JK Rowling’s world spins on nonsense instead of cogs and gears (as a feature, not a bug), and although you can temporarily restore order, entropy eventually reigns. Harry’s vaunted rationality doesn’t actually help him much – even when he wins, its usually by luck (eg, he happens to know a spell or possess a certain artifact.)

I wonder if HPMOR’s rationalism extends very far past the first layer of packaging. Blizzards of scientific buzzwords swarm the page (sometimes to soporific effect) but we’re still stuck in a world designed to be whimsical. The writing vacillates between an optimistic “science will solve our problems!” Neil deGrasse Tyson tone, and dark and angsty ruminations that read like the diary of a bullied schoolchild. It’s easy to suspect Harry is a stand-in for Yudkowsky himself – a guy with a fork in a world full of soup. Harry’s defiant rationalism is mocked and scorned by many of the wizards around him, and there’s a real sense of frustration and obstruction that can’t just be attributed to the feelings of the character.

One large frustration Yudkowsky has with the world is that people die in it. Read this monument to a deceased younger brother.

“I watched Yehuda’s coffin lowered into the ground and cried, and then I sat through the eulogy and heard rabbis tell comforting lies. If I had spoken Yehuda’s eulogy I would not have comforted the mourners in their loss. I would have told the mourners that Yehuda had been absolutely annihilated, that there was nothing left of him. I would have told them they were right to be angry, that they had been robbed, that something precious and irreplaceable was taken from them, for no reason at all, taken from them and shattered, and they are never getting it back.”

An ancillary frustration is with “deathists”, people who (he says) think death is part of the natural order, and indirectly enabled the death of Yehuda by various means (not financing biotech, not making cryonics a public service, etc). In HPMOR, this culminates with Harry reading (deathist) Dumbledore the riot act in ch.39.

“Uh huh,” Harry said. “See, there’s this little thing called cognitive dissonance, or in plainer English, sour grapes. If people were hit on the heads with truncheons once a month, and no one could do anything about it, pretty soon there’d be all sorts of philosophers, pretending to be wise as you put it, who found all sorts of amazing benefits to being hit on the head with a truncheon once a month. Like, it makes you tougher, or it makes you happier on the days when you’re not getting hit with a truncheon. But if you went up to someone who wasn’t getting hit, and you asked them if they wanted to start, in exchange for those amazing benefits, they’d say no. And if you didn’t have to die, if you came from somewhere that no one had ever even heard of death, and I suggested to you that it would be an amazing wonderful great idea for people to get wrinkled and old and eventually cease to exist, why, you’d have me hauled right off to a lunatic asylum! So why would anyone possibly think any thought so silly as that death is a good thing?”

I am a deathist. My logic is this: the train has already left the station, it’s moving fast as fuck, and we are all standing a mile from the platform. It makes no difference if you run furiously after the train, screaming and flapping your arms, or sit down and have a picnic. We’re all going to die, I’m 99% sure of this. I don’t worship death, or think death is a good thing. I just understand and accept its inevitability.

I read a few things on transhumanist sites, and my reaction was and remains “This is all dogshit. Nobody can do anything to stop us dying. If this is the state of the art, we’re doomed.” We don’t have ways of vitrifying brains without damaging them. Drexler style repair nanobots probably can’t exist. I’ve read things by Yudkowsky where he invokes a quasi-Pascal’s Wager, saying something like “even if it’s a long shot, isn’t doing something better than doing nothing?”…as if “doing something” is even in the same rhetorical ballpark as cashing in your retirement so Alcor can freeze your brain. There’s something to be said for relaxing and having a picnic instead of exhausting yourself chasing that departed train. As for “scanning” the human brain, here’s PZ Myers on his difficulties scanning tiny zebrafish brains. We don’t have the technology. Maybe we never will have the technology.

I think CS Lewis hits closer to the mark than Yudkowsky in Out of the Silent Planet, where the godlike Martian being Oyarsa explains how he taught the Martians to accept death.

“[…] Bent counsels would soon have risen among them. They were well able to have made sky-ships. By me Maleldil stopped them. Some I cured, some I unbodied——’

‘And see what come!’ interrupted Weston, ‘you now very few—shut up in handramits—soon all die.’

‘Yes,’ said Oyarsa, ‘but one thing we left behind us on the harandra: fear. And with fear, murder and rebellion. The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace.’

Weston writhed in the exasperation born of his desire to speak and his ignorance of the language.

‘Trash! Defeatist trash!’ he shouted at Oyarsa in English.”

Yudkowsky would no doubt join Weston in his jeers. But as Lewis said elsewhere, you cannot dim the sun by writing “it is dark” in the wall of your prison cell. HPMOR is an entertaining story, or at least the parts of it I’ve read. And I hope Yudkowsky is happy to share in Harry Potter’s quasi-immortality, because he’ll never get his own.

No Comments »

Comments are moderated and may take up to 24 hours to appear.

No comments yet.

RSS TrackBack URL

Leave a comment