OT: Magisterius University and the Methods of ObstinancyAlexandra Erin on May 6, 2013 in Other Tales
This story is canon, except when it isn’t.
It was summer, my first summer at Magisterius University. The student union and some of the other buildings on campus had been covered with banners welcoming IPAC, the Inter-Planar Arcanists’ Conference, an organization whose conference was apparently being hosted by our world in this indeterminate cycle. The banners said it was the “2T7?th ????ual” conference, and I had a feeling that there were other characters that my brain couldn’t even discern enough to be sure it was missing them.
I didn’t know how many inter-planar arcanists a single conference could bring in, but the campus was empty enough during the summer session that any influx of people seemed like a crowd. Most of the people with IPAC badges could have passed as local, clothes and all… some were dressed in traditional wizard attire and some in modern clothes. There were some people who stood out, wearing things like form-fitting body suits or bulky armor, and there were some people who were clearly from another plane, like a group of robed mages who vaguely fit the model that my brain associated with “elf” but who didn’t look like any elf I knew. It was like someone had heard a description of an elf and tried to draw it. The ears were pointed, but they weren’t just larger than human ears, they were long and floppy. If they were elves, then wherever they came from, it was clear that their elves were different.
I could have called it a testament to my personal growth that I didn’t mind going to the student union for lunch when I knew it would be full of strange people who all knew each other, but really, it was more that I still felt like it was empty. The IPACers were a brief intrusion. They didn’t know me, I wasn’t wearing one of their badges. They would be forming into little cliques and discussion groups. I could just get my food and sit down at a table by myself on the edge of the room and read my book or sketch out enchantment ideas in my notebook, like I always did. I could block out the conversations happening around me easily enough… I’d always been able to turn off the world around me. The trick I’d been working on was not doing so, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t do it when I needed to.
…except when I couldn’t, because there were some topics I could never seem to ignore.
“I’m just saying, it doesn’t make any sense,” a young woman… well, probably a few years older than me, but not old enough that I didn’t want to reflexively think of her as a girl was saying. “I understand that magic forms the basis of the technology here and that somewhat lessens the need for scientific advances in physics and chemistry, but that doesn’t mean ‘science doesn’t work here’. It just means no one’s doing it, or doing it right.”
“Who cares?” another woman said. She was taller than the other… a bit taller than me, and skinny. Really skinny, like I’d been when I’d first left my grandmother’s house. Her hair was orange. The other woman’s was blonde, a kind of tawny blonde. Her build reminded me of Puddy’s, and her hair kind of did, too, though it lacked the strawberry notes that were common in Puddy’s family.
Even though the evidence suggested that she was not from around here, I couldn’t help wondering if she wasn’t another La Belle cousin… few people could annoy me in so few words. If I hadn’t just got a tray full of food and sat down, I would have walked out of the room. I couldn’t see any good coming of arguing with this person, but sitting there and listening to her seemed unbearable.
“I care,” she said. “The lack of intellectual curiosity here is criminal… and in a university. I get if the rules of magic are somewhat subjective, because you get that just about anywhere you go, but it seems like if somebody were to make an orderly investigation of the universe, they could at least figure out how to magic it better. Or how to do things without magic. Or how to use magic and science together.”
I shouldn’t have been listening… even if I couldn’t block them out, I shouldn’t have been actively listening. But I couldn’t help myself, and I also couldn’t help letting out a muffled snerk, because this woman sounded exactly like the villain in about half a dozen cheesy kids’ shows I could think of. Taking over the world by science? Talk about a tired fantasy trope.
The woman must have had ears like a cat, because they twitched and she turned around to look at me. I was kind of shocked to see how similar her face was to the other woman… I’d assumed they were friends, but now they looked like sisters.
“Something funny?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s just… you sound like you think you’re the first person who’s ever thought of this stuff.”
“Maybe not the first,” she said. “But there can’t be many people who’ve thought these things, or acted on any of them, because at this point it wouldn’t take much to significantly advance the state of scientific inquiry in your world. No offense intended.”
“None taken,” and I meant that, because I thought this might actually be fun. “We do have scientists… the ones who are still around don’t tend to be serious about it, because if they were, they would either figure out they’re barking up the wrong tree or they’re dead, because in this case, the tree is carnivorous, on fire, and doesn’t like being barked at.”
“Magic and active gods complicates things, I know,” she said. “You think this is the first universe I’ve ever been in? But that doesn’t meant here aren’t real, verifiable rules underlying how it all works, and the scientific method can still be used to determine them, and knowing more of them with more certainty allows you to do more. That’s what science is. Not… electricity and internal combustion engines.”
“I’ve heard this before,” I said. “You’re not saying anything new.”
“You’ve heard of ‘internal combustion engines’?”
“Five, six hundred years ago, people were making models of them,” I said. “They didn’t very well. The ‘combustion’ part usually went okay, but the ‘internal’ and ‘engine’ parts were iffier.”
“Okay,” she said. “So, some people have obviously understood the principle, they just lacked the know-how to actually do it. You bring in someone who understands the math… or how to work it out…”
“How do you work out the math if the math changes?” I asked.
“If the math changed, then the universe wouldn’t work,” she said. “I mean, there are going to be certain tolerances, and if this universe is a bit more chaotic then you might not get as much efficiency out of an engine, but it should be possible to improve it in ways that allow for that chaos… and if not, then you could at least figure out why, and come up with something that does work.”
“We do have something that works,” I said. “Carriages with animated wheel assemblies.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” she said. “You have magic, so you give up and never look for anything else.”
“Or we’ve spent more time… and lives… investigating other things than you know or want to acknowledge, and we went with what works,” I said. “I think that, crudely, that’s what your ‘scientific method’ says we should do.”
“So you’re using science,” she said.
“No,” I said. “We’re avoiding science, which doesn’t work, in a manner that happens to coincide with what smarter scientists would conclude is the best course of action.”
“Okay, but how about this?” she said, holding up a cupcake. “You’ve got open kitchens back there so I can see your food prep area and it doesn’t look that different from what I’d expect. That means someone probably baked this. They didn’t just wave a wand and say… ‘expecto patisserie’… they baked a muffin. From a recipe. That’s a replicable process. It was probably created by trial and error.”
“…yeah,” I said.
“So, we can expect a process arrived at through trial and error to be replicable,” she said.
“No, you can expect that process to,” I said. “Usually. And many other processes, especially simple and necessary ones like cooking.”
“Okay, so you’ve laid out two hypothetical rules that replicable processes must obey,” she said. “Simple and necessary. Those can be tested and refined…”
“Your funeral,” I said. “Baking works because it works, but it doesn’t have to work.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
“Okay, let’s do a little… philosophical investigation,” I said, thinking back to a book of brain puzzlers I’d found in the library. I could tweak one of them a little… well, okay, a lot… to demonstrate a point. I picked up my notebook and crossed the gap to their table.
“You mean an experiment?” she said.
“You can call it that,” I said. “It would be a thought experiment, so I guess it’s safe… but anyway, it’s more of a demonstration. Let’s play a game. Let’s say there’s a rule about the universe that I know and you don’t. It describes a relationship among sets of three numbers grouped in a particular order. ‘2, 4, 6,’ is one such set. You give me another set of numbers and I’ll tell you ‘yes’ if it fits the rule and ‘no’ if it doesn’t. You can do this as many times as you think you need to, in order to feel confident making a guess about the rule.”
“I’ve done this one before,” she said.
“I didn’t make it up, but I’m adding a twist,” I said. “So think carefully before you make your guess.”
“You’re not just going to lie, or change the rule in the middle?”
“No,” I said. “Take it as a rule that within the context of the game, including the statement of the rules, I can’t lie. And as another rule that the rules are immutable once stated.”
“Are there any other rules?”
“No,” I said. “And to keep it honest, I’ll write the rule down on a sheet of paper and give it to you, so you can verify it afterwards.”
“Okay,” she agreed.
I took out a piece of paper and thought about how to formulate the intended message in the shortest possible way. It took me a while to think of it.
“While we’re still canon, please,” the thin sister said.
“I want to make sure it’s worded right,” I said, and then it came to me, something better than what I’d been thinking of. I folded up the paper several times, and handed it to her. “Put this in your pocket or something.”
“Okay,” she said. “I know how this is supposed to go, and I know the actual solution, or the normal solution, but I don’t know what change you made, so I guess I’ll start by playing along. 10, 12, 14?”
“Yes,” I said.
“13, 15, 17.”
“So odd and even sequences numbers both satisfy the rule,” she said. “-2, 0, 2?”
“-2, -4, -6?”
“-6, -4, -2?”
“Yes,” I said.
“So here’s the part where I’m supposed to guess that each one is two more than the next one. -17, 32, and a million and six.”
“Yes,” I said.
“-17, 32, and 31.”
“2.5, 4.5, 6.5”
“3, pi, 4?”
“…yes,” I said.
“i… um… 10, 20?”
I had to stop and think about that. I hadn’t taken any of the math electives in high school, but I’d heard people griping about them.
“i as in the number i?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“That’s imaginary, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Then, no,” I said.
“Well… I could keep trying numbers, but you’ve said yes to everything that satisfies the rule that I’m thinking of and no to everything I’ve suggested that doesn’t, and if your shocking twist is that you added ‘except one very specific number I arbitrarily excluded’ then we could be here for millions of years without me finding out what it is by guessing, I’m going to guess the rule describes any real numbers in ascending order,” she said. “But I’m adding a secondary guess that if it’s not that, then it’s that with some such exclusion that I’m unlikely to hit without making millions of guesses. But don’t you see? That makes the rule difficult to know, not unknowable. It’s still possible to determine what it is through an orderly process, and it’s easy to rule out false possibilities.”
She looked pretty smug, to the point that I almost felt bad for what I was doing.
“No,” I said. “And no. Your description does not describe my twist.”
“Well, then, I give up,” she said. “Let me see what you wrote, and then I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.”
“That doesn’t sound very scientific,” I said.
She pulled the paper out, unfolded it, then scowled at it.
“Read it aloud for the class,” her sister said.
“’The rule describes any set of three numbers that I say it describes, when I say it describes them’,” she said. “That’s not fair.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. “I thought you’d like it better than my first idea, which was to just write, ‘It literally doesn’t matter what I write here because you can’t see this information while the game is in play, so the information effectively doesn’t exist until then. The rule is whatever I say it is, it doesn’t have to be the same each time, and I don’t have to tell you the truth.’ I just thought that writing something that long would make you suspicious.”
“But you said that you weren’t lying and the rules don’t change,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “And in my original plan I would have been lying to you and changing the rules. I figured out a way that I technically didn’t need to do that, but I still could have. It was always an option.”
“No it wasn’t!” she said. “You specifically excluded those possibilities.”
“Yes, while lying,” I said. “Don’t you see?”
“Okay, but you stated those rules first,” she said. “They should take precedence over any later, unstated rules that allow you to lie about them.”
“According to who?” I asked. “And who says there’s a rule that allows me to lie? Who says I need rules to lie? You can’t apply the logic of someone who is honest and bound by rules to someone… or something… that isn’t.”
“But you were giving me consistent, predictable results.”
“I was,” I said. “Because it served my interests to… but if you’d kept playing past your first guess, I would have started giving you results that were inconsistent with the former ones, and if you thought to repeat one of your sets of numbers I would have given you the opposite result.”
“This doesn’t prove anything,” she said hotly.
“I’m not trying to prove anything,” I said. “I’m demonstrating something.”
“Okay, but, the rule is that the rule describes anything you say it describes?” she said. “So it would still be possible to predict which numbers you will say the rule describes, it would just require someone to learn enough about your nature. If you’re a metaphor for the universe, then all you’ve done is describe how science works and why your world needs it more.”
“Okay, but does anyone in your world have the ability to learn that much about a human mind?” I asked. “Because in this world, people don’t even know themselves in that much detail… and if we’re talking about a mind the size of a world, then it’s that much bigger and more complicated. And if your only source of information about how a subject is to interrogate the subject…”
“This is where you tell me that the world can lie,” she said.
“No, this is where I say that your results depend entirely on the willingness of the subject to be interrogated,” I said. “And that’s going to change, moment-by-moment, because your subject is going to be reacting to your questions. Maybe at the start of a session, the subject is happy to answer your simple questions and likes the attention, but then it begins to find the whole thing tedious, then it gets suspicious of you, then it gets angry…”
“But even if it’s not answering the questions, those reactions tell us something,” she said.
“Yeah, but we’re not talking about like, an uncooperative murder suspect here,” I said. “We’re talking about a universe. Okay, let me back this up a bit. You ever played a roleplaying game before? I mean, the tabletop kind with rules and dice.”
I hadn’t… I’d done a small amount of tapestry roleplay back during my fanfic days, but I hadn’t had any kind of real-life social circle when I’d first been of an age to appreciate such things, and my grandmother would have approved of them even less than she did of most things in general, but I’d lived on the periphery of all things geeky for as long as I could remember, so I’d haunted some weave sites that were devoted to talking about them.
“Yes,” she said.
“Okay, so you know the District Manager has a screen to hide their dice behind…”
“Okay, General Manager, if you want to go generic,” I said. “So all the players are in theory bound by the rules of the game and have to roll their dice out in the open, but all the rules are actually interpreted and applied by the GM, who rolls dice behind the screen. You have to take the GM’s word for it that whatever result they call out has any relationship at all to the numbers on the dice, which you also don’t know.”
“But you can’t run a universe like that!”
“Says who?” I asked. “Obviously, people get through gaming sessions that way every week. Some GMs are more consistent about the rules and dice than others, some are open about their fudging and some lie, but they all get through it. I mean, you’ve played these games… do they become unplayable when the GM fudges things?”
“Yes,” she said. “Completely.”
“She’s not kidding,” her sister said. “Dude, you have no idea how lucky you are that she stopped playing your shitty number game before you started openly fucking with her, no idea. She will upend the whole card table if she thinks a GM isn’t playing fair. The only sessions she’s ever made it through were ones she ran herself.”
“And I suppose you followed the rules exactly as they were written when you ran things?” I asked.
“I made sensible departures where it didn’t undermine the fairness of the game, or the dramatic needs of the scene,” she said. “But if everything is up in the air all the time, then… well, if the rules say that a fighter with a great sword can hit a ghoul on a roll of 14 or higher, how’s the fighter’s player supposed to make an informed decision about what to do when the rule might not apply?”
“Because they can guess that it probably will, and that if it doesn’t, the made up rule that briefly takes its place will make some kind of sense in context, and hopefully that context will be ‘the GM thought this would be awesome’ rather than ‘the GM is a dick’,” I said. “The game doesn’t have to be perfectly consistent to be played all the way through, just consistent enough. And an inconsistent universe is capable of being consistent enough, in spots. According to our understanding of the universe, our world is a spot like that.”
I gestured up at the ceiling, but meaning the one above.
“The dome of the sky is a globe… which I guess sounds weird if you’re not from a round world… that keeps out the formless chaos outside, preserving what might otherwise have been a very brief random island of consistency,” I said. “That’s the closest thing we have to a consensus, anyway, drawn from the different myths we have available.”
“You’re drawing conclusions from myths?”
“What are we going to do, go up and tap on the sky?” I asked. “Try to bore a hole in it to see what’s on the other side? Apart from all the reasons that introducing a hole into our protection from the chaos would be a bad idea, it’s not possible, and if it were, it’s impossible to reach the sky.”
“You have magical technology,” she said. “I’ve seen airships. Is there an altitude limit?”
“No, there’s no limit on altitude,” I said. “Literally no limit, because no matter how high you go, the sky is farther than that.”
“So how do you know it’s a solid dome and not, say, an optical effect?”
“Because we’ve… not me, personally, it hasn’t happened in my lifetime… but we’ve seen things walking on it. Well, crawling. Well, swarming,” I said. “There have been breaks before.”
“How can you see them if they’re infinitely far away?”
“They aren’t infinitely far away,” I said. “They’re just farther away than you are, for any earthly definition of ‘you’.”
“But how can that possibly work?” she asked. “Perspective…”
“…is a matter of perspective,” I said. “Look, the people of this world have engaged invaders from outside the shell in aerial and ground combat before, so we know how big they were on the ground, how big they looked when they were up on the dome, and how big they looked when they were on the dome and we were in the air. And the results were mostly consistent: when they were on the dome, they looked the same size no matter how high up the observer was. Most of the time.”
“If the distance from the ground to the dome isn’t fixed, how can someone from the dome reach the ground?”
“By falling,” I said. “The distance from the ground to the dome isn’t fixed, but the distance from the dome to the ground might be. Or it might be variable, but not intraversable.”
“How could we even move and see and stuff in a universe where that’s possible? And what do you mean by ‘most of the time’?”
“Some people reported that the things on the dome got ‘bigger’ the ‘closer’ they got. It’s possible the people who reported that could have actually approached the dome, which has happened a few times in history.”
“You said it was impossible.”
“It is, except when it’s not,” I said. “That’s like, hero stuff. I don’t know if it’s this world, or the universe, or the gods who made this world what it is using their influence, but a couple of times when there was great need, mortals have ascended to the celestial dome.”
“So, this universe is subjective. It works on story logic.”
“It’s been described as subjective,” I said. “But the key point that gets drilled into the heads of people of an inquiring mind is that knowing that it appears to be subjective doesn’t tell you who or what it’s subject to, or how. Investigations of the idea that the universe works the way we think or expect or believe it should work tend to end… badly.”
“But still, you said ’when there’s great need…’ that implies that someone is making that determination. And you’re not the least bit curious about what constitutes great need?” she asked. “No one’s ever investigated what the cases where someone reached the dome had in common?”
“What’s the GM do when you try to look behind the screen?” I asked.
“You don’t, that would be cheating,” she said. “And you’d be justifiably kicked out of the group, or just be punished in game.”
“Right. And what happens when you start memorizing the rules and trying to use them to argue that the world must work a certain way, that you must be allowed to do something because of this, that, and the other thing? Or when the GM lets you do something once because they think it’s awesome or necessary for the story, but you turn around and try to turn that into the precedent for a general rule about how the game always works?”
“I don’t play that way.”
“No, but unless gaming culture is very different in our worlds, you’ve probably seen or read about it people who do,” I said. “Let’s stick with the last one. Imagine a gamer who is allowed to break the rules once because it’s cool and because the story will suck and the game will end if they don’t. They propose an exception and the GM grants it. But then the player acts like they’ve discovered a new superpower, instead of pulling off a once-in-a-lifetime miraculous feat. What’s the GM going to do?”
“Well, to use your logic, we can’t know what the GM will do and they’ll get pissed off if we try to guess,” she said.
“Now you’re getting into the spirit of it,” I said. “But at a bare minimum, doesn’t it seem likely that the GM is likely to think twice before granting that kind of exception again? Be more grudging about it, impose more restrictions, or even just flat out stop doing it?
“Okay, but by not investigating the ‘dome of the sky’, you’re making a prediction about what the ‘GM’ is likely to do, and acting on it,” she said.
“Okay, yes,” I said. “But there’s only so far you can take that before the GM notices that you’re playing them instead of playing the game, and no one likes to think they’re being studied or manipulated, especially when they’re supposed to be in control. It’s like the thing with recipes: baking a cupcake is fine. It’s… non-threatening.”
“The universe can be threatened?”
“Non-invasive, then,” I said. “And the universe… which is big, vast, complicated, and inscrutable, is the only arbiter of what is and isn’t invasive, and that determination can change depending on circumstances which are also big, vast, complicated, and inscrutable. And it can also fuck with you just because it’s noticed that you’re trying to figure something out.”
“Then no one would be able to figure out the recipes for cupcakes!”
“You’re demanding consistency of an inconsistent system,” I said. “And saying that it can’t be inconsistent unless it’s consistently so. I don’t know about where you’re from, but here order vs. chaos is kind of a big deal, and one of the constants is that order cannot be chaotic, but chaos can be orderly. That is, if I can find one inconsistency in universe, that proves it’s inconsistent, but finding instances of seeming consistency in an inconsistent universe don’t prove it’s consistent.”
“And pointing it out might make the universe angry,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“I take back what I said before when I said this universe must run on story logic,” she said. “Because there is no logic and this would all make a horrible story. If you ask me…”
“Um… better not,” her sister said in a warning tone.
“…if you ask me,” she repeated, “this whole world seems like it’s just a bunch of sloppy writing by an overly touching author.”
“Wasn’t me this time!” her sister bellowed up at the ceiling. “Dandy, not me!”
“Come on, Will,” the woman said, addressing another woman I hadn’t noticed who was slumped over another table, asleep under masses of curly dark hair. “I think I’ve had just about as much of this world as I can stand. Let’s just go to our next session.”
The dark-haired woman propped herself up, giving her sister… she had the same facial features as the others… a withering look, but then got to her feet and stretched. She moved slowly, but despite her really large size, with a surprising amount of grace. She reached into the pocket of her baggy jeans as she walked past the table and dropped something in front of me. It seemed so random that I had a hard time immediately processing what it was, but it was a worn, cheap black bra, exactly like the type I tended to wear. I felt like I’d just witnessed a bit of conjuring and had to reassure myself that I was still wearing the one I’d put on that morning, but if anything, the one in front of me would have been a bit small on me now. I’d gone up half a cup size since graduating high school.
Wherever she’d got the bra from and whatever it was supposed to mean to me, she slinked away on the heels of her already-departing bossy sister. The redhead was trailing after them, but she stopped and looked over her shoulder.
“For the record, I have no idea what she sees in you,” she said, and then she was gone.
What the hell was that about? I thought. Science universes must be weird.
Author’s Note: I was going to write a story very much like this one anyway, but it’s final form was drastically influenced by me reading half of “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” this morning, after finding out that the author had put in a plug for TOMU. The allusions to that story (in particular, chapter 8 of it) should not be taken as a critique or parody, but homage.
I’m sure if I didn’t say otherwise, some people would see this as an attempt to refute the way that other story works, but they’re different animals. My setting is supposed to be what happens when a D&D-style fantasy world reaches the modern age, his is what it means when a fantasy story happens in “the real world”.
I think I’d have to learn a lot more about a lot of things before I could set out to refute Less Wrong’s work if I wanted to, and it’s possible that his protagonist would have fared better in Dandy’s place.
The Hex Kittens grudgingly appear courtesy of me.