Aand, we're back.
Chapter 2: Everything I Believe Is False
Including that belief?
Anyway, we start with "#include "stddisclaimer.h"". Because Yudkowsky can write code, and we've got to know it!
We start for real with another unrelated tidbit. Wait, are these supposed to be quotes? If so, they're really random, because at least the one from last chapter didn't have anything to do with the chapter's events, or indeed, anything that's ever happened in the fic.
After this bit of pointlessness, we cut to Harry adjudicating between his parents on the conditions of the experiment. It's not said at first, but in order to make my recap of the scene more consistent I'll give away that McGonagall is there. She has agreed to levitate Prof. Dawkins, to prove to him magic is real. Harry is trying to set up the conditions of the experiment, so that there will be no loopholes the losing advocate can claim to preserve his position. So, Dawkins cannot claim that he was being raised by invisible wires, while Petunia cannot claim that magic does not work on 'unbelievers'.
This... is actually pretty good, though once again, it goes against what he stated earlier, that "the only rule is that the final arbiter is observation." Clearly, that is not the case, otherwise we wouldn't need these sorts of pre-experience condition setting. I reiterate: what is being taught here is an important lesson, it's only too bad the author undermines it at every turn. I would have placed a greater emphasis on falsifiability, to show how the experience is directed at, and by, the theoretical constructs that it seeks to test - it doesn't exist in a vacuum of unbiased, neutral observation.
McGonagall watches the proceedings indulgently, before finally asking whether Harry is quite finished. He replies that nothing he does will probably be enough, but he's given it due diligence, and gives her the go signal.
She complies, performing the charm that lifts Dawkins two feet into the air.
Everyone seems rather nonplussed when this works, including Dawkins, who quickly tells her to put him down.
Harry voices the feelings of readers everywhere by noting that was rather anticlimatic. Of course, there was no reason for it to be; Harry thinks that the reason he felt to nonchalant about the whole thing was because in his heart of hearts, he already believed magic to be true, but I find this a little implausible. There is a difference between intellectually believing something to be possible and actually experiencing it; I bet the Wright brothers were still pretty damn amazed when their plane actually flew, regardless of the fact that they knew it probably would.
He then says one of those lines that really must be repeated:
"You'd think there'd be some kind of more dramatic mental event associated with executing a Bayesian update on an observation of infinitesimal probability[.]"
First, what does this have to do with what happened? For those not in the know, Bayesian updating is taking the initial probabilities of an event, throw in another one, and calculate the probabilities of the former knowing given that we know the latter happens. Yudkowsky makes this sound really arcane, despite the fact that I learned how to do it in 12th grade; some of you readers may have done it earlier.
But the point is, what update is he doing. He is not considering the probability of another event - the only event that was being talked about was his dad floating. He's already seen it, so what is this "observation of infinitesimal probability" he's talking about? It may be that it's implied somewhere and I'm just too dumb to see it, but I don't think the text makes it clear at all. Maybe there is some sort of use of Bayesian updating I'm not familiar with, but that just makes the following point more relevant.
Second, there is no point in couching this in deliberately arcane language to make it sound impressive to the hoi polloi, except to showcase how brilliant Yudkowsky thinks he is. This is made all the more clear when everyone looks at Harry with, and I quote, "that look". He cuts off his impromptu lecture and sums it up for the uninitiated, "I mean, with finding out that everything I believe is false[,]" which is not only not true (I'd wager at least a majority of the things he believes, such as that he lives in... wherever the hell it is he lives anyway, he has no reason to doubt), but has nothing to do with the jargon used earlier.
The feeling of anticlimax becomes more understandable, though, when Harry thinks that he expected his brain to be discarding the hypotheses it had about the universe, which of course conflicted with the possibility of magic levitation. If that was what he was expecting, then I don't blame him for finding it anticlimactic - I think it would take time for a person's worldview to perform such a tectonic shift, and to be honest I have no idea why he would expect it to be otherwise.
He's starting to wonder what to do next when McGonagall finally segues into asking him if he needs any further demonstration. Harry protests he doesn't need it, since they already did one experiment (replication? what's that?). However, his curiosity wins out over his notions of rigueur, and he prods McG to show them another trick.
Of course, she turns into a cat, and this is described by writing just that. It's seriously unbelievable, the deadpan way in which this is described, just like he had written - 'she took out the trash'. Even the pureblood kids, who had been surrounded by magic all their lives, were impressed by this when she did it in her class in PoA. And to his credit, Harry does stumble backward and performs some slapstick routine, but there is no description of what he's experiencing, so the whole thing feels out of place. Indeed, one of the biggest problems through the entirety of this fic is how bipolar it seems, especially because the moods it conveys seem so inappropriate at times considering what is happening. But I am getting ahead of myself here. We'll see a lot of this later on anyway, much more flagrantly.
McGonagall apologizes for startling him, though in her way, she seems smugly satisfied at doing so.
Then, we are informed that Harry was "Harry was breathing in short pants.". I have to admit, I spend a bit trying to figure out why he was breathing a piece of clothing, before I realized this meant to convey he was panting. The phrasing seems awkward to me, but perhaps it's just because I'm not a native speaker, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt here.
Harry goes from emotional detachment to sounding like someone suffering from a panic attack, protesting at McG, in a choked voice, that she just can't do that. Now this seems more plausible, but just leaves us wondering why it didn't happen before. What's so different about now?
McGonagall says it's all child's play for her, but Harry just blazes ahead with a lecture about how it violates conservation of energy, and by implication quantum mechanics and general relativity, since it allows for FTL (written like this, presumably 'spoken' like this also) signaling. Like I said, I haven't had physics since the 9th grade, so I'll take Yudkowsky's word for all this. Harry also expresses puzzlement at being able to replicate all of a cat's [biological] complexity, and going on thinking with the brain of a cat.
Now, doesn't floating unaided also break tons of laws of physics? Granted, the wider implications may be smaller, but still, it's a difference of degree, not kind, so why didn't all this come out earlier? And why wasn't there a description of Harry feeling the enormity of this, rather than the deadpan "[she] turned into a cat[?]"
McGonagall, getting even smugger, says it's just magic, to which Harry protests that magic isn't enough for that - she'd have to be a god. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me. God appears with a small g, so I take it Harry is referring to the limited gods of, say, Greek religion. But if he is, once again, it's kind of hard to draw a line. Transfiguration, even self transfiguration, is one of the most prevalent abilities of wizards in folklore, and believers in those religions could tell them apart from the gods well enough. One might perhaps say that, once again, gods are just more powerful than humans, even human wizards, in this type of theology, and that does seem to be a difference of degree like what Harry has in mind here, but it wasn't really thought that transfiguration was this type of divine ability (I welcome readers to prove me wrong with the ancient religion of the natives of some obscure pacific island), so why draw the line here? Gods were also probably distinguished more by the positions of responsibility they held, in governing the universe, but that seems inapposite here. Also, gods were still held to some sort of external higher law - if that is what Harry has in mind here, when he says wizards shouldn't be able to do it because of all those physics related things, then being gods would not necessarily get them out of the pickle.
If, on the other hand, he has in mind the all-powerful, transcendent God of Abrahamic religions, then this seems a really inappropriate comparison. Having created the universe and established its laws to begin with, and having the perfect knowledge of everything that ever was, is or will be, is completely above creation and different in kind, and obviously free to work above the laws He created, but by definition He's only One, so He wouldn't be proposing to teach Harry how to turn into a cat, and wouldn't be performing tricks like that in the first place, for no discernible purpose.
Either way, McG does some faux modesty act, and Harry goes through some sort of weird rhapsodic flashback through the history of western civilization, at least as it pertains to scientific discoveries, which he sees as being thrown out because a woman turned into a cat. I really don't see how this is so - most of the physics still apply, in the specific circumstances where magic is not involved, kind of like how classical mechanics still apply at high dimensions and low speeds. All you'd need is a general theory for where magic is involved. Sure, this is easier said than done, but my point is that you wouldn't need to trash everything else. Not to mention, social sciences would go on more or less undisturbed, but I guess he does not consider them sciences, so that's that.
There's also an hilarious attempt to tack on identity theory, which is a specific philosophy of mind, a subtype of physicalism, to be more precise, and pass it off as one of the scientific theories magic discards. I'll quote:
"[T]he mind was the brain and the brain was made of neurons and if you damaged the brain the mind lost the corresponding ability, destroy the hippocampus and the person lost the ability to form new memories, a brain was what a person was[.]"
The level of gamesmanship present here would be impressive if it wasn't so disgusting. The subtlety of inserting this at the end of a string of bona fide scientific theories, to give the impression that this philosophical position is science, and therefore completely objective and true, unlike philosophy, is incredible. It's because of these things that I write this blog. This may seem just like an inoffensive fic, but it's plainly an indoctrination tool, sending these subliminal messages to drag uninformed people, who don't know any better, into the author's worldview.
There is nothing wrong with doing philosophy of mind - it's a subject I happen to enjoy - but there is something wrong about dressing a particular position as science and using the moniker as a battering ram against the opposition.
Besides, I thought Yudkowsky's crew were all functionalists, anyway.
Harry randomly segues into the incantation for the levitation charm, which he finds childish. McGonagall tartly replies that if he wants to find out more, he must sign up for Hogwarts.
Harry rhapsodizes some more about ancient Greek philosophers who knew nothing, but started questioning things (oh, the irony), and fancies himself some "rationalist" Saint George, ready to "face the dragon Unknown and slay it." I kid you not, that's what he says. This drives him to finally steeling himself and asking how to get to Hogwarts.
McGonagall laughs at his abrupt change of demeanor, but Dawkins intervenes. He questions if Harry should really be attending a boarding school, magic notwithstanding, given his "medical condition."
This is of course him having a 26 hour sleep cycle, but I prefer to call it Plot's Disease, since it is only there to move the plot along, as we'll see later.
Harry explains to McG that this is the reason why he's not attending a normal school, but his mother interjects, saying that's only one of the reasons.
McGonagall basically tells them she'll get back to them on the sleep issue, before inquiring about those other reasons.
Harry then delivers a lecture about how he objects to compulsory education and public schooling. I would harp on this, but I really agree with it, even if not with the sanctimonious way it is presented. The one size fits all public education system is really a huge disaster that fails children who for some reason don't conform to the norm and rewards mediocrity. For a primer on this, check out David Friedman's essay, The Weak Case for Public Schooling. This is just my opinion, of course, and I really doubt a lot of people who aren't already libertarians/economic conservatives will agree with me, or change their minds after reading that essay. The only reason I'm mentioning this is to explain why I'm not harping more on the substance of this. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, but let's try to keep political discussions out of the comments, please.
That said, given that Harry's father teaches at Oxford, which is a state university, I don't see why he should be so merry when he notes that that explains why Harry bit his third grade teacher, for not knowing what a logarithm was. Now leaving aside the sheer implausibility of this - I learned about logarithms in high school, there is no reason a school teacher, even primary school, would not know about them. The blasé way everybody - at least Harry's family - acts about this, suggests a rather disturbing attitude towards people who happen to know less. Sure, they pay lip service to the idea that it was wrong - well, actually, all they really say was that it was immature, not even wrong - to do it, but they don't seem very concerned about these random acts of violence.
After they tease him a bit, Harry turns to McG and commiserates with her, which is so hilarious it makes Petunia run out the door into the front porch, screaming with laughter[!]. This is really beyond belief, and I have to wonder if Yudkowsky is ever around real people; if he is, and they behave this way, well, let's just say the genesis of this story becomes a lot more understandable.
McGonnagal apparently also has trouble controlling her mirth, but manages to let out that he won't be doing any biting in Hogwarts, if knows what's good for him.
Harry agrees, but reserves the right to bite anyone who doesn't bite him first, after which Dawkins also runs out of the room, laughing like a maniac! I have to wonder, do they think something will happen to them if they laugh inside the house? In front of a witch? What? Why are they behaving like this? Does Yudkowsky really think this is normal human behavior? EXPLAIN FIC! EXPLAIN!
Anyway, McG tells Harry that she will delay taking him to buy his school supplies until a couple of days before the departure to Hogwarts. He protests, but she just tells him she basically thinks he's too curious and questioning to be let alone with his magic textbooks and a wand for two months. Even his defects are qualities. What do you usually call a character like this?
Apparently, his parents have returned (it was
mentioned Dawkins had only left the room briefly, but nothing was said about Petunia), and they nod in agreement. Harry protests in what I guess is supposed to be an endearing manner, and with this our chapter comes to an end.
This one is almost perfect microcosm of what is wrong with this fic. We have characters acting sanctimonious and browbeating the reader with their superior wisdom, attempts at brainwashing the reader with propaganda disguised as neutral exposition, characters acting in ways no sane human being would act, and "humor" that is not funny at all. The little good bit about setting conditions prior to experiments really is too little to be able to redeem it.