Friday, July 29, 2016

The Intuitive Reader

I am in a unique position, training professionally to be a scientist, and privately to be a novelist. As a science student, I’ve been trained to think analytically, and I almost exclusively interact with others who think the same way. This is great for understanding how the world works, but not so much for communicating with people. I’ve discovered that most people think heuristically, cutting corners with the details to save time and avoid indecision. I notice this, for example, when I go visit my family and the community around them. But I especially notice it in the comments sections of YouTube videos.

A few months ago, I found a YouTube video titled “How Logical Are You? (Psychology of Reasoning).” The narrator presents four cards, A, K, 2, and 7, as well as a rule: “If a card has a vowel on one side, it must have an even number on the other.” The narrator then gives the challenge, “Which card(s) must be turned over to determine whether or not the rule has been followed?” Give it a try yourself. The answer is hidden below.

In the comments, people were saying things like, “I got the answer wrong because the instructions weren’t clear.” Nonsense! The rule is simple, and clear as crystal in its detail. Not wanting to have to face his own illogical thinking, the commenter tried to shift the blame to the rules of the game.

I also found a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson giving a speech about ordinary phrases that people say, but that are wrong. For the statement, “days get longer in the summer and shorter in the winter,” Neil explained enthusiastically how if the shortest day of the year is the first day of winter, then the days can only get longer, and if the longest day of the year is the first day of summer, the subsequent days can only get shorter.

In the comments, though, people said things like, “that one about the seasons and the days isn’t wrong.” Below that, someone would say, “yes it is. If you read the sentence for what it says, it’s claiming that in the summer, every day is longer than the one before it.” And below that, the first person would reply, “that’s just semantics. When someone says ‘days get longer in the summer and shorter in the winter,’ it’s implied to mean the days are longer in the summer than in the winter, like everyone knows.”

This person is appealing to common sense to override the sloppiness in wording. What they don’t realize is that there is no such thing as common knowledge. Everyone learned about the length of the days in summer and winter from somewhere, and some people learn it for the first time from people who word it wrong. These people then go about their lives with an inaccurate picture of the world in their heads, and then repeat the false knowledge to their children, family, and friends. One or two words can make a huge difference.

It may seem like I’m saying people are stupid. Not at all. The central aim of a writer is to evoke feelings and direct the thoughts of the readers. To do this well, the writer needs to understand how the readers think. For most people, intuition will get them through their day just fine, so they don’t have much practice thinking in terms of logic and details. As an analytical thinker, I have to keep in mind that most of the people who read my stories will be intuitive thinkers, and I should write so that both types of people will understand and enjoy it.

Maybe you’re not a scientist. Maybe you already think like an average person. In that case, writing for intuitive thinkers will come naturally to you, and you might instead have to work at understanding analytical thinkers. Novel writing is an exercise in empathy, and no matter where you’re coming from, it’s always a good idea to try to understand someone who thinks in a different way from you.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Inspiration and Motivation

It happens all the time to me; I’ll be inspired in the moment to start a big project, think about nothing else for a few days, get all the tools and materials together, and then spend maybe one hour on it before abandoning it forever. If I could show you my computer stash, you would see volumes of ideas for books, video games, TV shows, comic books, YouTube channels, and more. But of course I can’t write all of them. The seeds of ideas keep coming to me, and I plant them in digital soil so that out of the garden something might flourish and grow high above the weeds.

I’ve started plenty of projects, but most of the time before I can make any significant progress on one, I tire of it and start another. As a result, it took me ten years to get a full first draft of Raiders of the Forsaken Archives, and fourteen years to finish an outline of Moebius. Even in my twenties, I have to take into consideration that life is far too short for my work to creep along at this rate. If I want to achieve my dream of building myself a library of literary legacy, I need to focus on getting something done. If you don’t follow through with your goals, it’s no better than if you never had those ideas in the first place.

Right now, I’ve settled on three writing projects to see through: this blog, my Bionicle fan fiction, and Moebius. I have favorites among my other ideas, and I hope to write some of them eventually, but for now I’m committed to these. I have also made a list of priorities to focus my free time on, including things other than writing. Nonetheless, the first thing on the list is Raiders, so that I can keep the edge sharp, and build up my skills to a level where I can write for a publisher.

Recently, I’ve been at a motivational low. It’s been a few weeks since I last posted, not because I’ve been too busy, but because I couldn’t make myself follow through. I started a few discussions, but didn’t get past the word vomit phase. I’d sit with the document open, the ideas would refusing to coalesce into meaningful paragraphs. This lack of impetus happens to me often. It’s why my post rate dwindled to one per month last fall. It’s why it has taken me so long to get my current books to where they are.

However, it’s encouraging to look at my draft of Raiders and realize that I wrote the entire second half of the first draft within the past two years. With this in mind, I can go back and see how my drive to write has improved over time. Way back in my first post, I mentioned that one of my reasons for starting this blog was to push myself to write more. Well, it’s worked; ever since then, I’ve been building momentum. I can look back over the past year and have confidence that if I keep at it, I can get to where I want to be.

I owe thanks to YouTuber Satchell Drakes for making this video, which motivated me to write this discussion and put it out, even knowing it wouldn’t turn out to be my best. Sometimes you just have to do something to keep the flow going, even if the best you can do at the moment is below your usual standards.

Friday, July 1, 2016

What Makes Us Human?

Moral thought has come a long way in the course of history, and has now settled mainly on humanitarianism, the idea that all humans are equal, priceless, and deserve a helping hand. But moral philosophy is far from finished. For example, if we find intelligent alien civilizations, we will have to extend our humanitarian values to include them as well. Possibilities like this raise the question, what makes humanity special?

On the surface, we might think it obvious. There are many things we can do that no other living thing on earth can. The philosopher Aristotle said that man is the rational animal. We can reason. We can write poetry. We can paint pictures. Perhaps it is a combination of all these things. In the sci-fi novel Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis, there are three intelligent species, developing side-by-side with each other. Because of this, they came up with a word to call themselves, to differentiate them from the animals: hnau.

But while there may be obvious differences in our everyday life, there is no guarantee that there will always be. In fact, there was a time in the past when it was not. Around 50,000 years ago, the line was blurry when Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis shared the planet. Before that, there were other species of proto-humans, who used tools and had advanced social structures. And before that, there were only creatures of the level that we now consider to be animals. The transitions between these stages were astronomically slow, taking much longer than our entire recorded history. In light of this, we must face the fact that humanitarianism is unstable.

There was a time when a few proto-humans began to speak, and eventually language spread over all people and became the norm. Similarly, throughout the past several thousand years, we see a few humans learning not from tradition but from logic and observation. And now, such thought is spreading around the world. It is theoretically possible for those of us who think more sophisticatedly to separate from the others and evolve into a new, more intelligent human species. Would they, then, have the right to subjugate the others? Absolutely not! But why? If not because we are the same species, then what?

And with species not being the boundary, do we have obligations regarding the treatment of animals, as philosopher Peter Singer claims? If so, how far down the animal ladder should we go? We obviously cannot worry about accidentally stepping on insects, and we kill bacteria every time we sneeze. Almost everything we eat was alive at some time. If we thought it wrong to harm any life at all, the least evil thing we could do would be to kill ourselves!

We also need to face the fact that, even when it comes to human intelligence, there is plenty of room for improvement. There could easily be races out there that are as far beyond us as we are beyond the smartest animals. Popular science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson has a hypothetical scenario, based on the fact that we can teach chimpanzees a few rudimentary words in sign language, and to do tasks at about the level of a four-year-old human. Suppose we meet an alien race advanced enough to find and visit us. We want to show off our achievement as a species, so we bring our smartest, Stephen Hawking, before them. The aliens say, “he can do astrophysical calculations in his head? That’s cute, just like our little Timmy.”

An ant has no quarrel with a boot.

How is the value of a life defined so that we don't have to feel bad stepping on insects, but it would be wrong for god-like aliens to tread on us? Though species can’t be the only condition, it must be important, or else it would be possible that not all humans would count. One additional condition might be that a creature deserves humanitarian treatment if one or more of its species has the capability of contemplating its own death. This would mean it has sufficient rationality to understand how it is being treated, and become indignant if a more intelligent race comes along and wants to use it as a beast of burden, raise it for food, or exterminate it.

And no conversation about the essence of humanity would be complete without mentioning artificial intelligence. Would an intelligent being created by scientists, such as Star Trek’s Data or holographic doctor, warrant ethical treatment? It would seem to me that it shouldn’t matter how someone comes into existence if they have the capabilities to make decisions and have conscious experiences, but how would we know if such a being is actually alive, or if it is just well-programmed to mimic life?

The question of why humans are special is deeply important to every part of our existence. I don’t know the answer. Perhaps as science continues to probe the mystery of consciousness, it will unearth more clues to solving this puzzle. It is a topic I find fascinating, and you can bet I will explore it in the novels I write.