Willpower Sorcery as Science


A thought about science, willpower, and fiction.

One of the most basic premises of science -- perhaps the most basic -- is that the world operates according to strict, consistent rules. "That's the good thing about science: It's true whether or not you believe in it. That's why it works. The rules (whatever they might be) are always the same. In a sense, the universe plays fair.

I have noticed something in some stories. Mostly science fiction stories, but I think that that is because it shows up more clearly there.

There are some stories where the world is not consistent. Instead, it changes based on what people believe. For example, medicine might only work if mixed up by someone (ideally a doctor) who wants to cure people. But if chemically-identical medicine is made by an impersonal industrial process, it won't work. Intention is key.

Somehow, the authors always manager to treat this as simultaneously revolutionary and self-evidently true, although I don't understand how. There may be some gloss about how the modern world (improperly) teaches people to focus on how things happen instead of people's intentions.

Generalizing this idea, I arrive at what I think of as willpower sorcery. (For some reason, the term "willpower magic" doesn't work for me.) You believe something very strongly, and that belief changes the world to make it so. Growing in magical power is equivalent to cultivating a stronger ability to believe things you know are currently false. Lewis Carroll's White Queen puts it well: "I daresay you haven't had much practice, When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

So what happens when you actually work out the implications of this? Obviously, this would be a disaster if it happened on a large scale (especially because of insane people), so lets assume that it;s more limited.

By far the most complete working-out I have seen of this is The Name of the Wind (etc.) by Patrick Rothfuss, where the most common kind of magic (there are several) works on exactly this principle. Of course, it's hard, so they have a University that teaches it. And it's limited in other ways too (notably the Law of Conservation of Energy). And some ways of doing things work better than others, and the University teaches which ones they are.

In the end, willpower sorcery becomes... science. A false science, admittedly, but science all the same. I think this is because science isn't a set of beliefs. It isn't even a way of thinking. It's just good thinking itself on a large scale. Actually, that's not quite true. You also have to try things, pay attention to what happens, and try to fit it together. So it's thinking about reality, but on a large scale.

Somehow, I don't think this is what the pro-intentions authors had in mind. They wanted less science in the world, not more. To not have to play by universe's unbending laws. A world where good intentions and enough to ensure good outcomes. I am not sure if this is a desire to replace thinking with feeling, but, if not, in comes close. And all will be well in the world.

"All will be well". That's the other part of this: no one ever uses intention-makes-it-so for evil. At least in the pro-intuition authors' stories. Not only does malice not exist, but nobody's desires ever harm anyone else. Of course, the authors who take the idea more seriously do have villains, but they aren't trying to convince you that these rules are better. (I suspect Patrick Rothfuss wants to show they make things worse.)

Actually, I thinks it's more that the pro-intention authors don't use it for causes that they think of as evil. In one story, a schoolgirl turned the class bully into a rock (specifically, a scared rock) and left the teacher to sort it out. In another one, the human race was divided into "worthy" and "unworthy", with the strong implication that the "unworthies" were supposed to die out. It's like they want to have the power to remake the world as they see fit.

To look at it another way, there is actually a touch of egalitarianism in this. Right now, improving the world requires good intentions and good thinking (or a fortunate coincidence). They want to simplify it so that the intentions are enough. And since intelligence is not equally distributed, that would arguably make things more fair. On the other hand, very little else is equally distributed either, so why are intelligence, education, experience, and similar being singled out singled out? Take those away, and the people who had them are going to feel cheated (especially if they got them at the cost of other things).

I don't think I really have a conclusion here. I'm a great believer in reality-as-it-is, and the more I learn about it, the more of it seems like it has to be as it is. Or at least that changing things would make them worse. Consistency is a nasty thing: it forbids so much we could like. "Every prayer reduces itself to this: Great God, grant that twice two be not four." I wonder if, much as we wish otherwise, Leibniz will turn out to be right in the end, and this is the best of all possible worlds.

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