Tag Archives: rationalist

Interlude 1B – The Absurdist

By Menachem had one irrational hatred.

It was a group of individuals whom she despised on instinct, worms of the lowest caliber, the dirtiest, sickest minds one could ever make the mistake of encountering online. They made up a particular subculture that had enveloped her life, surrounded her almost against her will, infecting everything she’d created and pushing her to depths she despised having been forced to travel towards. The worst of the worst, in all aspects.

The rationalists.

How had they been created? How was it that they’d arrived to ruin her life? Had she been speaking to someone ignorant to what a contemporary, internet-style rationalist was, she might have given them the following short history lesson of how they first came to be.

  1. Early during the course of history, a tribe of primitive humans sat around a fire in a cave somewhere, eating dinner.
  2. As they ate, Udd, the resident storyteller of the group, decided to tell everyone his newest tale in order to entertain them. As a whole, the tribe was quite fond of Udd’s stories, so they listened in with great eagerness.
  3. The story, as they soon discovered, was his best yet. It was interesting and original, doing a fantastic job of hitting a wide variety of emotional lows and highs. The characters in it felt like real people, the dialogue managed to be both captivating and even humorous on occasion, practically bursting with creativity at every turn. The tribe had never heard anything even nearly as good, and they laughed and cried along with the beats of his tale, not a single one uninterested in hearing it out until the end.
  4. After the story concluded, everyone cheered and clapped uproariously for Udd, who had outdone himself. As reward for his triumph, the leader of the tribe offered him both an extra large serving of lizard meat and his pick of any of the leader’s beautiful daughters to take as mate, but the humble Udd politely refused both.
  5. Instead, he spoke to the crowd, making a small request. He wanted feedback. The audience was initially surprised to hear this, as all thought the story was excellent, but Udd pointed out that it couldn’t have possibly been perfect, as no such tale existed. If his audience was able to provide constructive criticism on problems they might have thought to have heard within the story, it would’ve helped him to make his next one even better.
  6. Satisfied with the explanation, the audience happily agreed to his request, working hard to state things they thought might be improved upon.
  7. First, Grud commented on the grunts themselves, pointing out how there were a few notable occasions when Udd could have phrased a grunt better, and one in particular where he had used the wrong grunt entirely, another option having been much more appropriate.
  8. Krud, on the other hand, said that there was a minor plot discrepancy near the middle of the story involving the history of a minor character. It wasn’t particularly important and certainly didn’t ruin the story for him, but he said that it might’ve been something to change for the next time he told it.
  9. Lastly, Nudd stated that there were issues near the start of the story regarding the pacing. He thought it was strange that the story started with lengthy character introductions and odd metafictional commentary prior to any real action happening, even if he did find it slightly funny that the story had chosen to make fun of itself for doing so. He suggested shortening it down for the future or moving some of it to later in the story.
  10. Very happy for having gotten so much helpful criticism from his audience, Udd thanked them and began to sit down to work on his next story. However, before he could do so, he was interrupted, one particular member of the tribe pointing his finger at him and demanding that everyone give him their full attention.
  11. It was Yud.
  12. Yud, furious, told everyone that he’d seen a problem so egregious that it ruined the whole story. Everyone briefly went silent, including Udd, who was very surprised and saddened to hear that such a flaw existed.
  13. With a smug grin, Yud explained himself. As he pointed out, there was in the story, not only one, but multiple occasions in which the main character did not act in the most rational way possible.
  14. There was a brief pause, and Udd did not reply, unsure of exactly how he could. After a moment, someone else in the crowd asked Yud if that was all he’d had to say. He confirmed that it was.
  15. Yud was dragged outside and beaten to death with many rocks.
  16. In a just world, that would have been the end of things, but unfortunately Yud had earlier that same day managed to pass on his genes, convincing a woman in his tribe to mate with him on the basis of his exceptionally high intelligence. (As he told her, he watched ample amounts of Rock and Moldy, which certainly should have sufficed as evidence.)
  17. The woman soon bore Yud’s son, who was born only shortly before Udd’s first daughter.
  18. Eventually, after some time had passed, the daughter of Udd began telling stories herself, and the son of Yud began to see the same flaws present in her works that his father had in Udd’s. He tried to keep his extremely intelligent opinions to himself, but eventually failed, meeting a similar fate at the end of a large pile of rocks. Like his father, however, he had also managed to procreate.
  19. The cycle continued over the course of many centuries, the descendants of Udd telling their stories, the general public listening and providing positive and negative criticism, and the descendants of Yud pointing out the many ways in which the story’s characters failed to maximize utility. Many rocks were thrown.
  20. As civilization progressed, the world changed the nature of the stories, developments in philosophy and art and morality and technology affecting the way that the tales were told and received. (Methods of execution were also improved in the same way, rocks becoming spears and Brazen Bulls and Iron Maidens and even really big rocks which a person could be crushed completely with — much to the displeasure of the Yudians.)
  21. However, around a certain point, it became out of fashion in many places to have the children of Yud slaughtered simply for their obnoxious opinions. Instead, they were simply banished, usually after a small but fair bout of torture. Even further along, they only found themselves excluded socially, first from schools and places of work but then just from parties and good book clubs.
  22. The descendants of Yud celebrated their good fortune, even if they still found most people to have a strong distaste for their views. Still, they resented almost all the creations of Udd’s offspring and the popularity they received. Why, they wondered, couldn’t media be more rational? They knew the power of fiction, after all! If they were to shape the world in their image, it would require sufficiently rational fiction to guide it to that point.
  23. Someone unrelated, presumably regretting it later, created the Internet. Suddenly, the Yudians were connected, collected together, having been given a safe place where they could discuss all the various ways in which art failed to be suitably utilitarian.
  24. One of Yud’s many descendants, perhaps sicker than them all, wished to find a way to use this new tool to promote his twisted, rationally-minded worldview. In order to do this, he took a very popular book that he found to be especially irrational, and committing perhaps the greatest sin an author could ever have chosen to do, began to rewrite it himself.
  25. In this new version, the main character of the story acted not as had most of the protagonists of stories written by Uddians, but instead as a Yudian. They were absurdly rational, and the book worked to without any subtlety promote the author’s revoltingly empirically-driven worldview as much as possible.
  26. Despite the inherently horrific nature of such a concept, beyond all explanation, his plan worked. Although they had yet to reach anything close to the power they aspired to, the ideas of the Yudians — the modern day Internet rationalists — had begun to take root in the public consciousness. Many other rationalists, both new and old, began to write similar stories, both based on previous works written by Uddians and their own original fiction. They spread out, becoming bolder in their criticism, their agenda only strengthening with time.
  27. By Menachem started writing serials, and they all bothered her in the comments section about how dumb her characters were.

That’s really how it all happened. (Probably, anyway.)

Now, in fairness, By didn’t actually hate rationalists. Not really. As a general rule, what many rationalists claimed to want was very much in line with what she wanted. They were people who had a certain opinion of the world and a special methodology of thought, and she agreed with more than a fair bit of it, at least when it came to the basic stuff.

In a lot of ways, By was a rationalist, even if she purposely tried squirming around the formal title. The epistemic system she’d built her life around was very rationalist-esque, to an extent. She liked intelligent media — heck, she tried writing intelligent media. She didn’t like when people told her to watch a dumb shitty movie and “turn her brain off”. As a writer of fair-play whodunnits, a good chunk of her fans were rationalists or at least floated around that camp, and she was cool with that. When being a rationalist meant sometimes wanting intelligent characters or plots or settings or good explanations for why things within a story happened, By had no problem with them. She wanted those things herself, most of the time.

But within any group that existed on the Internet, there was a percentage of them far more vocal and extreme than the rest, and those individuals would invariably provide those who interacted with them with far more issues than the rest of the group combined.

For the rationalists, those were the ultra-rationalists.

If asked to explain the ultra-rationalist subgroup further, there was another hypothetical example By would have given a stranger.

She’d say, for the sake of things, that a person wrote a lengthy story about a girl with an unconventional superpower. Hypothetically, she would assume the girl had the power to control vegetables. Using only her mind, the girl could make vegetables move and dance like puppets to her heart’s content, altering their biology and combining them together to form giant vegetable monsters she could use to beat down her enemies with.

There were three types of stories a person could form from such a concept.

The first was simple. The girl, using vegetables, beat up evil people because they did things that were evil. Sometimes those evil people got powers, like some nutcase who could control fungus, but she beat him because her vegetables were bigger and stronger than his mushrooms and because she wanted it more. She believed in herself. She wished she could win. She got angry when he hurt her friends, so she made giant vegetable robots for herself and punched her problems until they were no longer an issue. She always won, because of will and hope and love and everything good in the world.

The second was complex. The girl, having the same set of vegetable-based powers as in the first version, also had an assortment of evil enemies who came to challenge her, many of whom had complex motivations and clever ways of achieving their goals. In this version, her will — as important as it might’ve been thematically — wasn’t enough to stop them. Brute force and chucking extra veggies at them after long-winded speeches about hope and friendship wasn’t enough to take her to her goal; if she wanted to save the day, she had to get creative, and she did so by whatever means necessary. If there was an invincible woman shielding her body with the power of titanium-grade tree bark, the girl couldn’t simply throw a truckload of onions on her; instead, she’d send carrot seeds up her nose, sprouting them inside her lungs and blocking off her air supply. A large part of the story revolved around using powers in innovative ways, the inherent limitations of her abilities demanding extreme creativity if she was to reach victory. Intellect was key.

The third was insane. The girl, despite having an assortment of villains threatening her way of existence, would instead go home and read a book about utilitarianism, eventually coming to the conclusion that she should use her powers only in the way that best maximizes utility. Instead of fighting crime, she would deduce, she should produce the most good by using and strengthening her vegetable powers in order to end world hunger. There’d be no mention of fighting evil beyond the girl’s mild disappointment in that she wouldn’t get to be a hero early on, but all such talk would be quickly replaced by her inner dialogue as she attended college for genetic engineering and managed to manipulate the world’s food supply in such a way to permanently cure all diseases and mental illness, thus ending the vast majority of future villains from ever needing to turn to evil in the first place. The girl’s actions would transcend so far past the normal boundaries of creative and intelligent solutions that anything resembling a story structure could not ever logically come to exist.

In By’s opinion, if someone did have vegetable powers in a similar real life scenario, that third route (or a superior approximation of it) would’ve been almost objectively the correct way to approach the situation. In real life, at least to her, it made sense to try to maximize good in the most intelligent way possible, so that would’ve been the right thing to do.

It also would have made for a dogshit story.

By was of the strong opinion that good fiction — well, really just most of the fiction she wanted to write — belonged primarily in camp two. Camp one was fine, and she’d read and experienced endless amounts of phenomenal media that’d fit into it, but camp two got her excited in a way that nothing else could.

That fact went especially so for mysteries; a mystery that was solved through anti-rational means tended to bother the audience greatly, and for fairly good reason. A mystery where the solution could not have been predicted beforehand was not one worth reading. (Generally — she was sure a person could’ve found a few exceptions somewhere, if they looked hard enough.)

The majority of fictional stories landed somewhere between one and two, with rationalists pushing towards category two as much as possible and idealists pulling back towards one. By tried sticking to something in the 1.75 to 2.5 range herself, usually. She didn’t have a problem with stories that ran close to three, maybe even not with ones that dipped inside it a tad, but that was as far as she wanted to go.

Ultra-rationalists, however — her greatest enemies — existed in perpetual agony with the knowledge that every story couldn’t be a category three.

Why, they demanded to know, couldn’t every character in her story have the intellect and snappy judgement skills of a general AI? In that most recent chapter of Ionia of Illumination, why did Ionia spend those fifteen minutes having an emotional conversation with her best friend? Didn’t she know she could have been spending that time learning computer science? Why didn’t all the villains just get therapy?

It’s a story, she’d always wanted to say back. Fiction. Flawed individuals were more interesting than perfectly logical robots, something those goddamn losers never seemed to be able to understand. Sometimes people didn’t make optimal decisions because of emotional or situational reasons, and sometimes that was fine, because interesting and thematically relevant stuff happened because of it. Sometimes systems weren’t perfectly optimized. Sometimes people found solutions and workarounds to problems that were more complicated than they needed to be, really just because it ended up making things cooler.

Regular people understood that. Almost all the rationalists understood that. Why couldn’t they? What was wrong with people like that? What drove a person to criticize a given story sheerly on the basis that one or more of its characters weren’t optimal? What the fuck was wrong with being suboptimal, from time to time? Things in the real world made a lot of sense, but they were also absurd and ridiculous and stupid, so why couldn’t fiction reflect that? Wasn’t it just as fun — wasn’t it just as correct — to embrace absurdity as it was to embrace rationality

Flaws aside, By liked idealists. They encouraged her to make stories with a focus on wonder. To be positive. To be empathetic. To be happy.

She liked some rationalists, too. They encouraged her to write scenarios with intellectual depth. To be smart. To be consistent. To be real.

But she loathed them for comments like the ones they made, those ultra-rationalists. It was more annoying than anything else she thought she’d ever dealt with as a serial writer, and she’d been doing it for awhile. She had no evidence to support the claim, but she’d always secretly suspected that DM was one, if not for any other reason than to further legitimize her hatred. It was more of a jokey hatred than anything else, but still. They were annoying. Any group that identified themselves solely by the methodology they used to obtain knowledge would invariably produce at least a few weirdos.

By didn’t know if Caroline Plite fit into that category, but if she did…

“Yo, By? You okay?”

ZB Popsicle tapped By on the shoulder. She blinked.  

The circle had broken up again at some point, the groups split up more or less like they had been before, with Strait and Caroline having joined Zeezrom, Polycarp, and Dot. Martha was still alone, reading, and Quote, Dent, and Corn had reformed their trio from earlier.

Looking at the clock, it was 10:56. Over three hours since By had first met ZB, and even more horrifyingly, about twenty minutes since they’d finished Caroline’s icebreaker. She’d spaced out for quite a while.

“…Huh?”

ZB itched her nose with her flipper, looking off to the side.

“Yeah, you just kinda… froze, a little right after Caroline came in. You had a super serious expression on your face, like you were really thinking hard about something, so I figured I wasn’t supposed to bug you.”

“I, um. Shit.”

“It’s okay, By. We all have those moments when we completely disregard reality to partake in long internal monologues about how much we wanna fuck total strangers. I mean, not really, but you do you, y’know? I’m sure Caroline would reciprocate, if that’s what you’re aiming for. I know she looks like the type to shy away from romance, but I’m sure that’ll all change once you warm the icy cockles of her frozen heart.”

She giggled.

“Heh. Cockles.

“That isn’t what-”

By shook her head. Wiping her hair back with one hand, she took the other and held it out for ZB to see.

“Look, I’m engaged, you dork.”

“Engaged in mental adultery!”

ZB winked, snapping both hands and pointing two finger guns directly towards By. She fired without mercy.

“Just stick to the ice puns. Please. They suit you.”

“Seriously, though. I don’t know if you’re the type to zone out like that often, but you should really think about trying to think less. This is a murder game, By. If you wanted to spend time pondering whatever bullshit floats into your head, this probably isn’t the best place for you to be. At least wait until the first person gets bumped off, god. You don’t want to get thrown out of the game early just ‘cause you were trying to be a smart asshole.”

“I’ll be fine. I think you’re the one we need to be concerned about.”

She laughed.

“Now, now. There’s no need to project your fears onto me, By. How’bout this — you give me one good ice pun, and I promise to protect you whenever your mind decides to wander through the vast fields of sexual degeneracy. Sound like a plan?”

“…I’ll take my chances, thanks.”

“Oh, come on. You never know when you’ll need somebody on your side, By.”

I’ll take my chances.

ZB snorted, and then got another half a sentence out, although she stopped at the sound of another person entering. Door nine.

In walked a faceless man.