Deus Ex Machina.
“God From Machine”: the worst possible literary device a writer can employ. A phrase referring to events which could not possibly be predicted beforehand, viewed as the Author exercising his powers to manipulate the story to his pleasing in an ungraceful manner. In any story, the audience should be able to see events coming: at any crisis or opportunity, the characters and world should only act in a certain probabilistic manner, one which correlates to the audience’s understanding of the trend of the world beforehand. If the Creator writes such that events seem to be predestined, the audience is not likely to be interested. If, instead, the Creator writes such that possibilities have great variation, or such that what he makes reality is not what he appeared to heading towards, then the audience will be outraged. “How were we supposed to see this coming?”, is the sentiment; “This was never mentioned”, it is said. It is true that the nature of Acts of God means that there were no visible signs beforehand.
Is it therefore also true that because it was not predicted, it should not appear?
If it should not appear, does that mean it will not appear?
Isn’t it interesting that for every story, at any given point in time, the characters the audience are familiar with always have enough information or time to respond to the situation? How are they always in these kinds of situations? Those of wealthy and connected backgrounds can explain it away by saying that their organization or group has hands in every pocket and ears in every room, but what of the commoners? How do they always happen to hear, see, or remember a most useful thing at the exact time and place? What sort of rituals do they perform to have Fortuna’s favor in such a consistent manner? We assume, no, demand that this is true for fictional worlds. That every outcome of the important type will, due to perfect information, be a 100% direct result of a character’s morality, intelligence, and action. Any act which breaks this holy promise from audience to character is blasphemy.
But there is no such promise from God to the World. Indeed, there is no difference between them: the characters do not exist independent of “the events” which appear to constitute the story. Their every action, reaction, their tendencies and emotions, history and memory – all of these were dictated to them. They are puppets in a show, pieces on a board. They move and do as the Creator pleases. If the Creator wills them to die, they will die. Perhaps the lack of an intricate method of death removes the possibility of the Creator being a benevolent one. If the Creator desires an event to occur, it will occur. Maybe the character will “respond” in a manner which is “statistically significant”. This may make the Creator appear whimsical, or malevolent. No matter. The character’s and audience’s opinions are not really relevant, not in terms of truth. Their expectations of what should be in a Creator does not mean that it is there. This is true in the worlds we create, and the world we were created in:
We are not guaranteed grounds sufficient for divine judgement.
“Oh yeah, let’s just introduce another fudge factor.”
In [the college of] engineering, we learned plenty of formulas in lower division. Indeed, calculus and physics seemed to mesh together in the sense that one taught how formulas could interact with each other, and the other taught us what were the actual formulas which described the world. Heading into upper division, however, the balance of information shifted. It was acceptable to most that there were certain universal constants that happened to be there (ex: g, R), and the annoyance of conversions between metric and imperial was probably only something Americans had to deal with, but once the modified formulas and tables were introduced into regular usage, views dimmed. Where once it was expected that all necessary information was given by the problem (save for those constants and annoyances), now it’s a given that you had to look up values yourself. Some have justified this to themselves by saying this is what real engineers do, nobody will so conveniently give the values you happen to need to you, but they’re not too happy about it. The big tests were once always about whether they “understood” the formula and could recognize that the situation called for certain combinations in certain orders; minor errors were “whatever, I’ll get most of the points”. Now, the accident of an incorrect sign here and the wrong value read off of the table of a thousand values there costs the grade.
But the greatest intellectual concern is the modified formulas. In quantum physics, we learned what the “cutting edge” of science really meant – the jamming in of arbitrary combinations of constants and mathematical forms until it fit the data. In thermodynamics the great ideal gas equation was struck down, replaced with modified versions, citing that we need “more accurate” models of how gasses work. At that point, it didn’t really matter that the reasons behind the new models included the attraction of gas molecules and the fact that they take up space. “More accurate”? That’s equivalent to saying that the previous model was at worst a lie and at best a toy, something for us to play with until we grew up and truly were capable of seeing how the world worked. If it’s truth, we should be able to see all the factors beforehand and make the model off of that. And above all, we should be using a model.
Why is it suddenly accepted that solving with a formula and givens is equivalent to just using some table?
About this “love at first sight” thing… it happened in Aoyama on May 22nd, didn’t it, Misa?
Yes. (was crying)
Why did you go to Aoyama on that day? What did you wear?
I told you, I just happened to go there. How many times have I told you? I don’t really remember how I felt that day or what I wore! Is it so wrong for me to be hanging out in Aoyama without a reason? (defiant)
So when you came back from Aoyama, you were in love with Light and knew his name.
You don’t even know how you knew his name.
Yes, that’s right. (increasingly defiant)
Then, how would you feel if Light was Kira?
Huh? If Light was Kira?
That would be wonderful~! I’ve always been grateful to Kira for punishing the man who murdered my parents. If Light were Kira, I’d love him more… though I love him so much already!
We’re talking about Kira here. You’d love him even more? Don’t you feel afraid at all?
That’s supposing if Light is Kira, right? He’s not scary at all. I’m one of those people who accept Kira. I’d think of ways I could help him.
You’d probably get in his way rather than help him… according to this, there’s no mistake that you are the Second Kira, but it’s so clear-cut that I don’t want to believe it.
– L to Amane Misa, Death Note
I got hit by a car.
That is correct English, I think. The car was in the wrong, therefore “I got hit”.
A car turned right into me. Turned right, into me. I was thinking about how I was about to get run over when I saw a black plane angling into my line of motion, and was facing the sky when my brain returned to my eyes. A couple of bystanders helped me get up and sit to the side, and the driver got out. Five things were deformed: my saddle, my left brake, my rear wheel, my glasses, and her passenger mirror. I had apparently sheared it off. She apologized, and said she’d do what she could for me. I asked for her name and phone number. We parted ways.
After telling a friend about what happened, he recommended that I file a police report. I better do it before she does it and claims I was at fault, and soon so I can get the CCTV footage from the stores nearby. My dad gave a similar recommendation, though he was more focused on how I lacked all the “most basic” information: drivers license, license plate, insurance information. How could I track her if I only had a cell phone number and a first name? Cell phones mean nothing these days, drop one and pick up another like it’s change on the sidewalk. Other friends suggested I start a case on this, pointing that it’s not only negligence but also a hate crime. She also took up my time, didn’t she? Job searching, training, the race I was planning on going to that weekend, study time – this stuff can be valued at least at the minimum unemployed wage. Extort, extort, extort! was the theme. You can’t trust people in this world. You have to take precautions. And at this point, your best option is to screw her for all she’s got. You missed your best chance – “I went from 15mph to 0 in 1 second, do you really expect me to be thinking straight?” – but do everything you can.
But when I called the number, she picked up. Every time I called, she picked up. She gave more information, as I asked for it. The next day, I told her an estimate of the total damages – not taking into account repair costs, since I knew how to fix it and I had free access to the necessary tools. She wanted to keep this off the record, and I said it was fine as long as I get what’s reasonable. Then, the next week, she paid it. When we met, outside of not being able to form a tight fist with my right hand (middle knuckle), all other visible body evidence had healed.
Everyone seemed half-disappointed, but also half-relieved.
This is called the Baconian linear model, after the philosopher of science Francis Bacon; I am adapting its representation by the scientist Terence Kealey (who, crucially, as a biochemist, is a practicing scientist, not a historian of science) as follows:
Academia -> Applied Science and Technology -> Practice
While this model may be valid in some very narrow (but highly advertised instances), such as building the atomic bomb, the exact reverse seems to be true in most of the domains I’ve examined. Or, at least, this model is not guaranteed to be true, and, what is shocking, we have no rigorous evidence that it is true. It may be that academia helps science and technology, which in turn help practice, but in unintended, non-teleological ways, as we will see later (in other words, it is directed research that may well be an illusion).
Let us return to the metaphor of the birds. Think of the following event: A collection of hieratic persons (from Harvard or some such place) lecture birds on how to fly. Imagine bald males in their sixties, dressed in black robes, officiating in a form of English that is full of jargon, with equations here and there for good measure. The bird flies. Wonderful confirmation! They rush to the department of ornithology to write books, articles, and reports saying that the bird has obeyed them, an impeccable causal reference. The Harvard Department of Ornithology is now indispensable for bird flying. It will get government research funds for its contribution.
Mathematics -> Ornithological navigation and wing-flapping technologies -> (ungrateful) birds fly
It also happens that birds write no such paper and books, conceivably because they are just birds, so we never get their side of the story. Meanwhile, the priests keep broadcasting theirs to the new generation of humans who are completely unaware of the conditions of the pre-Harvard lecturing days. Nobody discusses the possibility of the birds’ not needing lectures – and nobody has any incentive to look at the number of birds that fly without such help from the great scientific establishment.
The problem is that what I wrote above looks ridiculous, but a change of domain makes it look reasonable. Clearly, we never think that it is thanks to ornithologists that birds learn to fly – and if some people do hold such a belief, it would be hard for them to convince the birds. But why is it that when we anthropomorphize and replace “birds” with “men,” the idea that people learn to do things thanks to lectures becomes plausible? When it comes to human agency, matters suddenly become confusing to us.
“Yeah, I thought it was simple too. What did you do?”
“Well, it asked for yield stress at that point, which has a formula we all know already. The only thing different from the things we’ve seen before is that this time, he added a weight of the tank or capsule on top. So obviously, yield pressure is just the normal thing from internal pressure plus the pressure created by the weight, which is weight divided by the area.”
“That’s what I did, but he said it was wrong.”
“And how is that?”
“If you draw a force diagram of everything above the point, you’ll note that there are two forces: there’s the internal pressure pushing up, and the weight pushing down. So while there is a second term, it’s not as simple as weight divided by area. It’s integral of internal pressure pushing up on that hemisphere minus that weight.”
“Interesting. I guess that’s reasonable too.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you understand. It doesn’t matter if you were there at the right time and the right place, that you chose using dice, that you chose having access to all of the world’s collected information and had no disturbances with all needs provided for and half a decade’s time, that you wanted the other guy to die, that you were going to your wife giving birth, that you were drunk, that you had so many other things planned. It doesn’t, in the strictest sense, and thus the most true sense, matter whether you are able to articulate your ideas to some arbitrary level of clarity or to some arbitrary group of people, or whether you’re able to use language at all.
It only matters whether you win.
Personally, I believe the most important thing in life is being able to take advantage of an opportunity whenever it may come. If one manages that, one can bring about positive results through later effort. However, effort alone is not guaranteed to bring about such opportunities. Those opportunities will not wait for people to be ready. If you want to accomplish something… there will be times when you must make decisions, whether or not you are prepared for them.
-Tsukuyomi Mana, Muv-Luv
They let me pick, did I ever tell you that? Choose whichever Spartan I wanted. You know me. I did my research. Watched as you became the soldier we needed you to be. Like the others, you were strong and swift and brave. A natural leader. But you had something they didn’t. Something no one saw… but me. Can you guess?
-Cortana, Halo 3