The New Godwin’s

Charles Stross recently revealed that he uses a software package called “Scrivener” to keep track of the complicated plots of novels he’s writing. His disclosure prompted an interesting discussion about the functions of literature, the uses of software, and Tolstoy.

One bright bulb, however, took umbrage at all of this talk of literature, and tossed a stink bomb:

What you think of Tolstoy (or pretty much any “classic”) depends on your relationship to the modern world and modern learning. If you think that fact-free noodling about the nature of man, society, god, nature, and so on is just awesome, you may find something of value in them. On the other hand, if your attitude to the world is “we’ve had 5000 years of people making shit up; how about we concentrate a little more on what can actually be establish factually rather than the opinion’s of some dude whose primary qualification is that he can write well?” then you’re likely to be rather less impressed.

To take an apparently trivial example, which is nonetheless easily understood, IS it in fact the case that all happy families are alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way? Should we accept this as true just because Tolstoy says so? Or should we look into the matter rather more scientifically?

You see people using essentially the same template, only slightly reworded, to respond to a surprising variety of discussion topics. I think of it as the new variant of Godwin’s Law. The moment this argument comes into play, you know that all rational discussion has ended.

Trolling people by comparing them to Hitler is so cliched, it’s practically ironic. But you can still catch people off-guard by accusing them of superstitious thinking, and you score extra troll points by insinuating that their “superstitious thinking” is backed up by an appeal to authority. When the hapless victim protests, “I was talking about poetry/metaphor/love/art/beauty or whatever, you know they’ve swallowed your bait, hook, line, and sinker. Just feign ignorance, presuppose that their goal was to make testable hypotheses (isn’t that the goal of all poetry and romance?), then continue berating them for “making shit up”.

Mark my words: this is the new Godwin’s, and it’s catching on fast. It will soon be bigger than Hitler.

Reverse Solipsism

In the previous post, you were challenged to convince yourself that real people are imaginary. But most people would rather do the opposite. Most people spend a lot of time convincing themselves that imaginary people are real.

The imaginer mistakenly imagines that his imagination is fully under his control, so he assumes that imaginary people will be more pliable and pleasing than the pesky people of the real world. Even if he knows the imaginary people aren’t real, he wants the imaginary people to seem as real as possible, because he can get almost the same feeling as if they were real.

This is the basis of Harlequin romance novels, porn, and all sorts of other fantasy. But for at least 4,500 years, we have realized that reverse solipsism is self-destructive. The Epic of Gilgamesh introduces Lilu and Lilitu, who symbolize the temptation and consequences of replacing real human relationships with the imaginary. The very best modern telling of this story, in my opinion, is “Descent Into Hell“, by Charles Williams.

Of course, for people with means and a modicum of wits, there is a way out. You simply need to imagine the sort of people you want in your life, and then find an efficient way to filter through the 6 billion candidates on the planet to surround yourself with real people who do exactly what your imagination wants them to do. You want them to have the same hobbies as you? No problem. You want them to be supportive of almost everything you do? No problem. The numbers are large, so it’s simply an assortative matching game.

Everyone plays this game. If you’re in relationships with people who do mostly what you would have wanted imaginary people to do, then you’re probably skilled at the assortative matching game. And if you’re not, you’re probably playing the assortative matching game, but just not winning.

There is something repugnant about this game, though. Is it really any less self-destructive to seek out and use real people, rather than imaginary, to incarnate your fantasies? In fact, it seems that this game is just as self-destructive, and commits double harm by harming the other person. It’s reverse solipsism with massive collateral damage.

Some amount (maybe a very small amount) of assortative matching reverse solipsism is healthy and defensible. But my intuition is that excess and harmful assortative matching is endemic to human nature, and that it is worthwhile to consider countermeasures to guard yourself from falling into the trap. When it comes to countermeasures, I don’t have the answers. One tactic is to sabotage your own assortative matching process at times, so that you’re left to deal with people who most definitely do not incarnate your imaginary ideal. Another tactic is to fix your imagination so that it doesn’t require you to filter out so many people. But who knows?