I hope you are all doing very well.
I once found myself in line to buy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on the day of its release. I didn't camp or anything – I just wake up early. It wasn't that long, but others cosplaying as various characters. I told myself I was just cosplaying as a muggle and doing it perfectly.
The book I mentioned last week Conscious finally arrived, but alas I am not yet able to read it. I'm part-way through The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch. In it, he posits that the key to understanding reality lies in seeing that there are in fact other universes. He synthesises the theories of quantum physics, evolution, epistemology and computation to develop an understanding of what is fundamental in reality.
He begins with a tale from his childhood about how he was told that it is impossible for anyone one person to hold the full sum of human knowledge. In the past, we knew little so an expert could know all that is known, but not any more. He questions this notion and points to how as we progress, it seems we seem to be able to explain more and more with increasingly simple and elegant theories.
I have started writing up my next piece which will be called How we know what we know.
For those of you unfamiliar, the theory of what knowledge is and how it is attained is called epistemology.
Basically, it is a field trying to answer this question.
In my quest to find out how we know things, I have uncovered quite the gem. The Brilliant Elizier Yudowsky who founded the website Less Wrong was also in the fan-fiction writing business. In order to communicate what it means to think critically and uncover truths about the world, he wrote up an entire series worth of stories set in an alternate Harry Potter Universe.
"Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality"
Rather than marrying Vernon Dursley, Petunia begs her sister Lily to use her magic to make her prettier and is able to date the eminent professor Michael Verres-Evans. The two get married and raise Harry as their own.
Unlike in the canon, Harry grows up in a loving household and is enthusiastically taught the all about the scientific method and the values of reason, skepticism and humanism by his stepfather. He is given the freedom to pursue his own interests from a young age and spared no expense for his education. It is discovered that he is a prodigy excelling in both mathematics and the sciences.
One day a certain letter arrives in the mail and everything changes. As it turns out magic is real, Harry is a wizard and everything he once knew about the world was actually false.
All that he had learned was useless... or was it?
One of the major reasons that Eliezer wrote what is essentially a novel is simple. People don't understand what rationality is. It is not about what you think, a matter of believing or not believing certain things. But rather how you think.
Even if the world as we knew it was not as it seemed and magical societies were hidden in its every corner, the methods of science and rationality would still hold.
We would still be capable of:
- Forming explanations of what was happening
- Testing these explanations against reality through observation and experiment
Even the wizarding world would be subject to the methods of analysis that we mere muggles use!
I will leave you with two snippets...
Harry took a deep breath. "Mum, your parents didn't have magic, did they?"
"No," Petunia said, looking puzzled.
"Then no one in your family knew about magic when Lily got her letter. How did they get convinced?"
"Ah..." Petunia said. "They didn't just send a letter. They sent a professor from Hogwarts. He -" Petunia's eyes flicked to Michael. "He showed us some magic."
"Then you don't have to fight over this," Harry said firmly. Hoping against hope that this time, just this once, they would listen to him. "If it's true, we can just get a Hogwarts professor here and see the magic for ourselves, and Dad will admit that it's true. And if not, then Mum will admit that it's false. That's what the experimental method is for, so that we don't have to resolve things just by arguing."
"Are you really Harry Potter?" whispered the old man, one huge tear sliding down his cheek. "You wouldn't lie about that, would you? Only I'd heard rumours that you didn't really survive the Killing curse and that's why no one ever heard from you again"
Harry considered the question. Was he really Harry Potter?
"I only know what other people have told me," Harry said. "It's not like I remember being born." His hand brushed his forehead. "I've had this scar as long as I remember, and I've been told my name was Harry Potter as long as I remember. But," Harry said thoughtfully, "if there's already sufficient cause to postulate a conspiracy, there's no reason why they wouldn't just find another orphan and raise him to believe that he was Harry Potter-"
Professor McGonagall drew her hand over her face in exasperation. "You look just about exactly like your father, James, the year he first attended Hogwarts. And I can attest on the basis of personality alone that you are related to the Scourge of Gryffindor."
"She could be in on it too," Harry observed.
"No," quavered the old man. "She's right. You have your mother's eyes."
"Hmm," Harry frowned. "I suppose you could be in on it too -"
"Enough, Mr Potter."
To read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality:
There are a hundred chapters but they aren't long at all. Also, they are all written to hold out on their own as a short story.
I have also started reading Elizier's series of essays Highly Advanced Epistemology 101 for Beginners which has been remarkably enlightening. My aim is to have finished and published the next article on this topic by the end of the month.
That's all from me this week, I hope you enjoyed it.