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Bad Horse

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Human nature and other bullshit · 3:51am Jun 6th, 2014

When writers talk about what good stories should do, they almost inevitably conclude something like, "Good stories say something about what it means to be human."

The words vary little. Stories should "tells us what it means to be human," or "describe the human condition." Stories "are, in the end, always about humans."


What does that even mean? There is such a thing as human nature, even a constant core of human nature that has remained for thousands of years. You can approach any story, from any time period, by looking for what you have in common with the people in it. There will always be something. It certainly helps engage you with a story if you can identify with its characters. But to say a story is "about" human nature is usually a cop-out. Stories are about differences built on top of similarities.

It outlaws science fiction

I've always disliked this claim, because I used to want to write science fiction, and what I wanted most was to write about what it might be like not to be human. I read all of Asimov's robot stories, and watched every episode of Star Trek with Data in it, in the hope that one of them might try to understand what it would be like to be a robot. I read science fiction hoping to find conceptions of what other, nonhuman life forms might exist. I was generally disappointed. The robot stories were almost inevitably about what it meant to be human, and the best that writers could do to envision non-human intelligent life was to ask "what if there were three sexes?", "what if people could change sexes?", or "what if people were like insects?" They never came up with anything as strange as wolves, or even as strange as the Japanese.

It's escapist bullshit

I have another reason for disliking it: It's escapist bullshit. I wrote before (with help from some of you) that the distinctive characteristic of classic fantasy is that it posits a world where the moral rules that we want to believe are universally true, really are universally true.

Fans of "literary" fiction scoff at fantasy's "escapism" and "childishness" for encouraging people to believe in beautiful lies. Yet those same people pile in on top of each other in their rush to claim that stories bring all people of all races and creeds and cultures together, because there is a universal human nature joining us all together, and literature, the art of mining and purifying that eau de l'homme, will lead us into a future of universal peace and love.

Escapism much?

It forces you to miss the point of stories

We don't put on Greek tragedies much, or read 18th-century English novels, because we don't care about what their audiences cared about, and can't and don't want to relate to those people.

To the ancient Greeks, killing, enslaving, and raping people wasn't just not bad, it was the essence of cool. He who killed, enslaved, and raped the most people was the greatest hero. But there was a competing morality, one which was essential to the Greek city-state: Personal honor. Greek poems and plays were often attempts to refine this concept of personal honor, and show when it was and was not appropriate, and when it took priority over other things, even killing, enslaving, and raping. They were also very concerned with fate and the roles of the Gods in the lives of men.

We can imagine ourselves suffering from what happened to Oedipus Rex, but the story has lost much of its meaning because its obsession with fate versus free will is not relevant to us. To try to read Greek drama as expressions of human universals is a desperate attempt to restore a relevance that has passed.

When I read excerpts from a bunch of popular 18th-century English novels for our speech tags experiment, I was repulsed by their obsession with religious rules. As we're talking about what good fiction should do, I should be careful generalizing from novels that struck me as very bad. But whatever issues people had on their minds in England in the 18th century, they examined through the blinders of a strict and pious Christianity. It was embedded in them deeper than their conscious thoughts; it was part of their nature.

I've seen people praise Voltaire's Candide as the perfect satiric novel, but personally I find it boring when it isn't stomach-churning. It isn't funny anymore, because the central idea it makes fun of, the idea that we're living in the best of all possible worlds, is dead. Candide is flogging a dead horse. You can't bring Candide back to life by working up sympathy for its poor abused characters; in fact, that will just make the novel even more sickening. We no longer have the necessary callousness to really laugh heartily at the suffering in Candide.

The stories of past eras are sometimes like the story of a rabbi concerned about whether it's permissible to use an elevator on the Sabbath. I can imagine an enjoyable story about the funny foibles of human nature that could lead someone to worry about operating an elevator on the Sabbath. But that doesn't mean that it is wrong to write a story that is actually about whether it is a sin to press an elevator button on the Sabbath. We will miss most of what the author intended if we insist that the story can't be about what the author meant for it to be about.

(Don't whine about the intentional fallacy here. If we deliberately rule out the interpretation that the author intended, we're going to miss stuff.)

We can imagine ourselves in their shoes. We can see, in a good work of fiction, how we ourselves might have come to feel the same feelings. That isn't because the stories are about what we all have in common. A character in a story must have motivations that are possible for a human, in the same way that a rock in a story must fall in ways that are possible for rocks. That doesn't mean that the story is about the universal psychology of humans any more than it's about the physics of rocks.

Novels aren't just written about the universality of human nature. A "great literary novel" is more likely to be written about how human behavior is currently changing. Henry James wrote about the difficulties in navigating between the rules of the upper class in England and in America in the 19th century. We can still read them, kind of, but they don't mean as much to us.

If you write a novel set in the 16th century, with a main character who thinks and acts as people did in the 16th century, you will not sell it. Your editor will make you rewrite it so that the main character thinks like someone from the 20th or 21st century.

It is an insult to humanity

I have one final, overriding reason for disliking the claim that literature is about the human experience. It's deeply insulting to human achievements and culture. The claim that all humans from all cultures are the same, deep down, is the claim that nothing we do matters.

Humans have 10,000 years of cultural achievements. I can't say that it is all progress. There are pluses and minuses to all cultural components. But the things that we struggle with and argue about, like justice, the distribution of wealth, the purpose of government, our attitude towards women and gays and old people and animals, and the relative claims of individual freedom versus social cohesion — I like to believe that these things matter. They change us. Back in the 19th century, people believed in progress. Whether or not they were right, we can at least recognize that they believed humans could become better than they had been. The idea that the universal and timeless is the most-important, and the idea that it makes sense to talk about human progress, are incompatible.

I don't know about progress, but I believe in the ingenuity and capability of humans to re-create themselves, to mold their societies and themselves into something new. Literature is one of the key tools they have to do this. This is the final reason that I'm not overly fond of reducing all literature to "the human experience".

As I said, we can still find things that almost all humans have had in common (though not as many as one might have found three thousand years ago), and those things will be in any good story. Those things are the backdrop to a story. Stories are about differences. Saying all stories are about human nature is like saying that shadows are about sunlight, or that playing with Legos is about Lego blocks. It's true, in a way, but it misses part of the picture.

Report Bad Horse · 2,177 views · #writing #philosophy
Comments ( 76 )

I don't really have much to say about this besides the following:


The reason people cling to the idea of a universal human experience is that rejecting the possibility of such a thing undermines the concept of free will to a degree which they find uncomfortable, or possibly downright dangerous. Part of 'The Human Experience' in this sense is the way people interact with each other and their world--how they behave, how they make decisions, how they arrive at values.

If The Human Experience is dependent on its environment, then so are those things. The choices people make, to shake hands or stab backs, become at least in part a function of the environment, and you cannot pin the responsibility entirely on the individual anymore. Once you are faced with that, then so many moral and ethical questions about judgement, crime and punishment, and so on suddenly take on very uncomfortable new shades of grey for some people.

It is much simpler to believe in universal ideas.

The only sci-fi stories I have read that genuinely try to portray alien consciousness in alien terms are terrible in my opinion. Such alienness is facinating to contemplate but frustrating to accomodate in anything resembling perspective.

Even when we view nature, our generalized understanding of it and the way we relate is based on anthropmorphization.

We cannot comprehend in any meaningful way anything we cannot color with our own perspective. We can concieve, contemplate, consider things outside of our perspectives/frames of reference but we cannot comprehend them.

My take on literature conveying "human nature" is very different from the norm. I believe that when a human creates a completely discretionary existence where anything and everything is possible and nothing is limited, whatever remains as recognizably human (from setting, character, event, tone, theme, or even the emotions it conveys) is, in essence, an anthropmorphization of an entire universe. And what elements of humanity are attributed to said universe are possibly (it depends on the writer's intent and motivation) those elements of humanity that the writer truly finds meaningful, true, or immutable.

2179653 I believe that when a human creates a completely discretionary existence where anything and everything is possible and nothing is limited, whatever remains as recognizably human (from setting, character, event, tone, theme, or even the emotions it conveys) is, in essence, an anthropmorphization of an entire universe. And what elements of humanity are attributed to said universe are possibly (it depends on the writer's intent and motivation) those elements of humanity that the writer truly finds meaningful, true, or immutable.

Can you give an example?


This is how I view all fiction to a degree.

Not to get in a long and boring discussion, but:

The idea that there is a universal human nature, and the idea that it makes sense to talk about human progress, are incompatible.

On the contrary. I cannot understand "progress" except as "progress toward a goal". Otherwise it's not progress but only motion. But if there is no human nature, then there is no way to perfect human nature, and hence no ultimate goal of human existence. As I see it, then, the idea of human progress requires the idea of human nature.

2179668 This comment made me flash back to The Exam that I once read in the 80s that had the most difficult questions imaginable. One was : Define the Universe. Give three examples. :pinkiehappy:

"If you write a novel set in the 16th century..." Sadly this somewhat applies to me, except my never-to-be-finished novel is set in the 14th/15th century during The Great Schism, but it does give me hope. I was having the dickens of a time writing characters who correctly fit into that era, and your comment implies that my difficulty is actually a bonus. Yea?

I can't define what makes a good story, but I can define what I think makes a good story. It's that feeling you get when reading it where this world fades into the background and that world becomes real. When Harry Potter gets his letter. When Dresden gets double-crossed. When Belgarion takes one more step into his destiny. When a dragonrider impresses their dragon. When you say "The answering machine will get that" or "I've got some leave built up at work" when in the middle of a riveting chapter.

My writing is much like that. I've actually written sections where I've said "I can hardly wait to find out what happens." All the good stuff happens between "Once upon a time" and "They lived happily ever after," and sometimes that good stuff just builds up inside until you have to put it on paper or go crazy. er. :pinkiehappy:

I agree that the idea that stories are always about humans is false. Honestly, it really is one of those things which is meant to sound really profound, to make you think that the person saying it is Wise, but in the end it is pretty dumb. And worse still, they probably enjoy numerous stories which have nothing to do with humans.

Heck, I enjoy reading scientific stuff which has nothing to do with humans. Of course, that isn't literature per se, but it is hard to say that, say, how living creatures evolved isn't a story of sorts. It isn't one by nature, but you can tell it like one and interest people in it.

As for the last thing: I think it is pretty hard to claim we haven't made progress. I mean, from the point of view of the Universe, sure, it doesn't care if we exist or not.

But I think from the human perspective it is pretty safe to say that humans are vastly better off today than they ever were in the past. I mean, the internet alone probably is better than the entire history of humanity up until its advent combined. Economists would probably say it is ridiculous to suggest that we aren't better off today than we were in the past.

I find most such quandaries come from people not really fully thinking it out. The existence of free will is profoundly meaningless, because if free will DOES exist, then we are acknowledging it, and if free will DOESN'T exist, then we don't have any choices to make anyway so it shouldn't influence our actions. There's absolutely no reason whatsoever to act as if free will does not exist, because either it does, and you're right in acting like it does, or it doesn't, and you don't have any choice in how you act so you're acting the way you have to act anyway.

People do SEEM to have individual agency, even if they don't always use it. Having free will is certainly advantageous from an evolutionary perspective, as it allows for behavioral flexibility.

You don't need a goal to progress. If I make computers faster, there is progression, regardless of the absence of a goal.

"what if there were three sexes?",

Before this sentence the only one i could think of was the book "the gods themselves" about humans on one end of a wormhole and rocks/goo/goo#2 going at it. That one was kind of different.

I don't know if I agree with your conclusions to the degree you put them, but it definitely adds context that was missing in school. A lot of the mythological stories we read just rolled right over me, and it wasn't until we read that one puritan era essay about how all of humanity is hanging by a thread over eternal damnation just for the literary techniques that any teacher made an attempt to put our reading into historical context. No teacher has really convinced me that arguments over, say, the sacrement, were such a big deal to justify all the schisms and turmoil that came from those disputes. This makes the literature of the time even more unapproachable. We really need to treat reading the classics as more of an archaeological dig, because otherwise trying to relate to any character in Great Expectations will result in murder.


What if I make computers slower? Is that, too, progress?

If not, then you ought to recognize that fast computers are a goal by which you're measuring whether a change is a progression or a regression.


Agreed. A goal is not the same as a reason.


Well, no, that's the sticky bit. If you undermine free will entirely, that poses no quandaries, as you point out. The part that gets people in a twist is the part when we halfway undermine it.

The understanding most people have of our institutions starts from the base principle that people have free will and are completely responsible for what they're doing once they reach the age of majority. That is the black and white world view that many people start with. They understand the workings of a courtroom not as a mechanism that we use to create and enforce the society we decide we want to live in, but as the place where we find out if someone has done something Wrong, and are therefore automatically responsible for that Wrong.

This only works logically if you assume that the person was capable of reasoning out that what they were doing was wrong, and in control of themselves enough to not do it. The easiest way for this to always be true is if there is a Universal Human living in everybody, having a Universal Human Experience, and therefore automatically granting everyone those capabilities.

If you admit that the Universal Human Experience does not exist, you can't start the process with the automatic assumption that a person is completely responsible and in control. You have to figure out if that is the case, and it turns out that the human mind is a minefield of cognitive biases and vulnerabilities, many of which we cannot actually control even when we know we possess them. This opens up a vast field of grey areas where people argue where, exactly, the line should be drawn between 'responsible' and 'not responsible', what factors should be considered in that argument, and how to construct something that they can recognize as justice in light of those lines.

Unfortunately for the people who crave a clear answer to their moral questions, usually both sides any given argument in that field have compelling points. The thing to do if you want a clear and concise answer is to go back to, or cling stubbornly to, assuming the simple scenario.

I don't think humans really intended for most of the world to end up the way it is with much planning and forethought, and yet we're still way better off than we were in past times.

I don't think that progress actually requires any sort of conscious goal.

Ah, this particular issue. Honestly, I think the issue goes away if you look at outcomes. Our goal, ultimately, should be to make our society the best it can be. The justice system exists in part to help ensure this.

If you do something against the law, the system should punish you to show that it is bad and to reinforce the rules of society, as well as try and rehabilitate you, in order to encourage you to do good in the future. In some cases, the punishment is enough. In other cases, imprisonment is necessary. In other cases, forced rehabilitation can serve as both.

I think most of these issues simply go away if you do this. We punish you for breaking the rules, and we try to fix you. Being more prone to breaking the rules does NOT excuse you - many people in the same situation (or highly similar ones, anyway) don't choose to engage in criminal activity. When someone is literally holding a gun to your head or whatever, yeah, obviously, you aren't responsible because they're forcing you to do something, that would be stupid, you have no agency in that situation and punishing you would be pointless. If someone is just in a bad situation, though, they still have choices - and they should make the right one, and we shouldn't just say "well, that's understandable" when they make the wrong one, because it encourages people to make the wrong choice and weakens our rules against them. If you commit a crime, and then are told you'll be turned in to the police if you don't murder someone, you should go to the police, not murder that person.

If we're talking about capacity, I think it is asking the wrong question to begin with.

Obviously, if you're voluntarily intoxicated, we should treat you as being at full capacity, and generally speaking, the courts do this - you chose to diminish your personal capacity. If you choose to do something dangerous, and it hurts others, you have made the choice to do that dangerous thing, and said that whatever consequences are yours to bear. We should endeavor to avoid moral hazards.

If we talk about involuntary intoxication - say, someone deliberately drugged you - that's more legitimate as an excuse, though if you stab someone to death without realizing you're drunk, I still have to question how much you didn't make that choice - people don't usually murder people or otherwise do very bad things while drunk, and it is obvious that people still retain self control while drunk, they just exercise it a lot less. Stuff where you're actively hallucinating is more unclear, but even then, there's obviously some culpability because most people don't kill people when they're under the effects of LSD or shrooms. Arguing for diminished capacity here is the most clear cut, but diminished is not the same as none.

When we talk about things which are more persistent issues, as far as I'm concerned the issue is fixability. If we can fix someone, then our goal should be to fix them. We want them to become useful, contributing members of society. If they can be fully fixed, then we gain no benefits from keeping them in the penal system indefinitely - though we should involve them with it in some way, even if it is just probation, to show that it is bad as well as to make sure we're right about them. Someone who sleepwalks and commits crimes can simply be placed in a situation where they are unable to commit said crimes while sleepwalking, and the problem is solved; society gains nothing by locking them away forever, and we can make them safe for everyone else. Likewise, if someone is a drug addict or whatever and burgles homes to feed their habit, maybe we can put them in jail for a while and rehabilitate them and make them a useful member of society again, though keeping a closer eye on them is reasonable because they were committing crimes because they didn't value the rules of society and other people enough. People who have anger issues might be able to be counselled and fixed...

But some people might never really be safe for society again. Having controlled environments for such folk - semi-freedom, less controlled, but still monitored to some extent - might be useful for such, if they are only safe in controlled environments, but safe in those environments.

Some folks might just be too sociopathic or untrustworthy to ever let out of prison, but can be kept in safety behind bars - I don't think Charles Manson can ever really be let out of jail, but I don't think he is really a danger to his fellow inmates or wardens either. I don't know that killing people like Charles Manson or the Unabomber is really necessary.

If someone is never really going to be safe again, though, under any human circumstances, and if we can't fix them at all - well, then, what's the point? If they just don't care about other people, if they are violent and stupid and unwilling to get better, if they are too dangerous to try and help... well, why should their "diminished capacity" help them in any way? If they truly are unable to get better, then they're no better than animals, aren't they? And we euthanize dogs which attack people willy-nilly. This is why I don't like the idea of not executing people who are retarded - if they really are too stupid to know any better, then we're basically saying they are no better than mad dogs, and there's no danger to expose people to persistent danger by dealing with them. I'm not saying that the death penalty is definitely a good thing, but I think not applying it to such people selectively is the exact opposite of being sensible and fair - punishing someone more for being a more whole person is wrong.

I don't think that things like growing up in a poor environment should excuse your behavior in any way, and indeed, may well make it worse - someone who has no skills but being a violent thug isn't really someone who is a valuable part of society, and as such, why should we care if they have "diminished capacity" if it isn't going to make the world any better? The people who beat up and robbed that driver in Detroit were acting like pack animals. They were from poor environments and poor upbringings, but how does that mitigate what they did in any way? It doesn't matter if they were more likely to make that decision in that environment, any more than someone being beaten by their mother excuses them growing up to be a serial killer. If such things really do break people, then the only question is whether or not they're fixable - and it seems to me like it would be harder to fix said people than it would be to fix people who have the skills of being in civilization and merely have gone astray, and can be brought back into the fold.

Does it mean we shouldn't try? Of course not. But arguing "Well, he's poor, he's stupid, he grew up in the ghetto, he never knew his father, his mother never loved him, he dropped out of school..." Yeah, people like that ARE more likely to do really terrible things. But the question we need to ask ourselves is "why do we care?" If the person is likely to continue to make poor choices forever, then lessening their sentence because of their poor upbringing is counterproductive - our goal, after all, is to make our society a better place and to show that violating the rules of our society is wrong. Punishing people like this LESS is unhelpful for using justice to help reinforce our social rules, and it is less useful for using justice to help society, and it probably doesn't really help the person either, as they go out and commit another crime and then end up back in the justice system with another victim (or victims). It also can reinforce racism and classism - if someone from the ghettos who murders their wife gets a lesser sentence than someone from suburbia, the suburbanites are likely to feel like the system is discriminating against them. And let's face it - it would be, if we followed such logic.

So why should we? The fact that they are predisposed towards such is far from definitive; many people grow up in terrible environments and don't become criminals, so it isn't really an excuse. Our system should try and help these people become better, but if someone is uninterested in becoming a better person, there's really little reason to keep throwing good money after bad at them when we could be spending it more productively elsewhere. If we can prevent two people from entering into the justice system in the first place with the same money we'd spend on one person already in it, it seems like we should spend money on preventing rather than the cure until it is more equal. Moreover, the people on the fringes of our society really are less valuable to our society than people in the heart of it, so why would we punish them less?

I think some people feel uncomfortable because they don't like the idea that people are not created equal. But they're not, and that's the way the world is. Some people have the deck stacked in their favor; some against. But our outcomes are not pure chance - people can, and do, choose to react differently. Sometimes people run out in front of tanks, and the tank driver stops. Sometimes a black pastor threatened by a group of Klansman, told that they'll do to him whatever he does to his turkey dinner, kisses it, and the Klansmen, rather than getting angry, all break out into laughter and leave. Sometimes a leading Nazi decides to make things better and circumvent orders to turn all of Germany into a grave for the Fuhrer, even after doing many terrible things, even though it may well have resulted in him being executed for disloyalty. People CAN make different choices. The fact that many people fail to - that many people will electrocute someone to death just because they're told to - doesn't mean that we cannot aspire for better, and that we should not punish those who fail to be better.


Okay, that's rather far afield of what I was actually trying to point out. Leaving aside the immense grey area you're glossing over using words like 'fixable' (a grey area that is nearly the size of the entire issue), and also leaving aside the deep, almost painful irony of the fact that you're responding to my posts about grey areas and how people don't like them by detailing the black-and-white dichotomies you've decided on to deal with them...

Every day, people come home from a courtroom, or read about a case in the news, and the way they understand the story is through the lens of their own, personal inner experience. They don't comprehend how someone could do a thing like that, because they can't see themselves doing it. They're using a set of universal judgements, and what they do is write the person off as 'evil' or 'broken'.

They make that judgement because that is how they've been taught to view the world--as populated by people with complete free will, making rational actions--and if that were true, someone who made the choice to hurt other people anyway would clearly be simply a sociopath.

Human will doesn't work that way, though. Human will is rational thought with a monkey on its back, that's endlessly distracted by butts, sweets, and shiny things. This is just neurochemistry--things like hunger and fat regulating hormones being produced by fat, or the dopamine rush that comes from food or drugs or scratching a bad itch. When you couple that with something like decision fatigue, you've got a killer one-two punch to the gut of a person's willpower.

Rational thought is in large part the ability to receive and then ignore the physical signals coming into the brain, and let me tell you something: nobody is as good at is as they think they are, and nobody is even conscious of all the signals pushing their train of thought around. People think, though, that their thoughts are completely their own, that they are under conscious control, as they grab a muffin off the counter without thinking about it because their leptin is high. Meanwhile, other people manage to sit quietly through their own self-immolation. Every last one of us is operating in a state of partially-impaired judgement all the time, because we are doing a rodeo ride on tens of millions of years of instinct and deterministic chemical responses.

The point is, it matters how we think about the people who commit crimes. The why matters, because we're not a dispassionate optimizing function, and what we think about the why deeply influences how we choose to construct society going forward. When people think of criminals as rational actors that choose to 'be evil', they believe that the job is done when that person is caught, tried, and imprisoned, and they're wrong. This is the entire thought process behind the enormous retributive impulse that the US justice system is currently in the clutches of--every letter to the editor calling for more jail beds and more police patrols, calling for more toughness on crime has this chain of thought behind it.

On the other hand, when people think of criminals as broken people who are products of their environment, they see that the job is not done when whatever appropriate consequence is doled out. They see systematic problems that lead people disproportionately down unproductive paths, places where society needs to change if they want crime to go down.

So yes, it matters what people think about free will. It matters what they think about moral relativism, and it matters what they think about criminals, because society is not only a machine for enforcing itself, it also has to think about itself, direct itself, and choose how it will proceed in the future.

I'm going to be wishy-washy and point out that it could be said that there is a certain core human experience, a set of place's we've all been, one way or another, and with which we can sympathize. Sure, that core is embedded in a diffuse cloud of what our society has made of us and what our thinking and experience has made of us, but it is there.

You say that old stories are alien to us and to a certain extent you are correct. But I've read the epic of Gilgamesh and while it is embedded in a mythology so alien it resembles nothing more than the dreams of a febrile child, there's bits in that story that ring true, even all this time later. We grieve for fallen friends. We all wish that death was not a part of this world.

Or Shakespeare, say. We don't carry rapiers around with us to resolve issues of personal honor, nor do we use religious symbolism to flirt, but we all experience conflict between what we want and what society says we should want, and kids still do monumentally stupid things when they are young and in love with being in love.

Some things are universal. Humans are creatures of empathy, curiosity, tribalism, and fear. That's our savannah legacy, that's what being a primate gave us.

What we do with that? Well, that's an entirely different thing. We can do many wonders with what we were given, but we cannot escape the bedrock of our natures. We can't define away biology.


Give us time.

This is not to say that certain stories aren't about things that are alien to us. Of course they are. And that might make them interesting, though not in the way they were originally interesting. Understanding such a story lets us understand the people of its time much better, on a far more personal level than a history text might. And that is a worthy goal, surely? It's also interesting and kind of fun, too.

That all said, I would like to point out that I do agree with the main thrust of your post: Not all good stories are about the eternal verities of human nature, such as they are. I am not convinced there is a succinct way to define the 'good' story, but if I were called upon to make a new aphorism to replace the one we both dislike I'd say something like: "The fruit of a good story is a wisdom in two parts: it should teach you something about yourself, and something about what it's like to be someone else."

I still don't think it is true, but it says what the 'human condition' malarkey probably thought it was saying a bit better. It puts fiction somewhere between imagining others complexly and γνῶθι σεαυτόν. As it were.

I think we have have entirely derailed on this blog post and that this is not actually relevant at all to what the blog post is actually about. Would you mind if I PMed you about it? I probably should have sent the last one in PM as well; I just wasn't thinking.

I don't think I'm understanding what you mean when you say that stories shouldn't have to be about "say something about what it means to be human." Could you give a few examples (whether they're good stories or not) of non-informational narratives that don't say ANYTHING about human experience?

2179670 I meant that I didn't understand what you said.

2180290 I don't mean that they don't have anything to say about human experience. I mean that we shouldn't approach them assuming that's their purpose. It's a seductive approach because you always can relate a story to human experience.

2179735 I believe in progress, but I think the notion of perfection is incoherent. Speaking of the perfect person or the perfect society makes no more sense than speaking about the perfect chair or the perfect hairdo.

I've always assumed that literature was about what someone believed, that good literature would be those things which told us something of what we believe.

I'd think that you would say literature was good if it told us something true, rather than if it told us something false that we already believed.

Maybe that's only because I come from a different perspective, of credulity—of being optimistic and believing in things like inherent human natures.

What's optimistic about believing in inherent human nature? That strikes me as a limiting and pessimistic idea.

Of course you can take the class of all humans, find things that they have in common, and call it human nature. What does it mean to call it human nature rather than things humans have in common? I think it implies that they are things that humans should have in common, and that any deviation from them is impossible, or wrong.

2180015 There's absolutely no reason whatsoever to act as if free will does not exist, because either it does, and you're right in acting like it does, or it doesn't, and you don't have any choice in how you act so you're acting the way you have to act anyway.

I've tried to explain that to people so many times. :twilightangry2: The more interested they are in the question, the more its obvious dissolution bounces off them.

2180048 It's possible instead to make a utilitarian law system, which seeks not justice, but the greatest common good.

I think it is because it seems like such a deep question, the answer being so simple seems like a trite dismissal, rather than the question simply not actually being nearly as clever as it seems like it is at first blush.

Ouch, man. That's, like, my motto.

And I'll disagree that it outlaws science fiction, or fantasy, for that matter. I think when we write about aliens or vampires or world-spanning AIs, we're still writing about being human. We're writing about our fears, about our desires, about how we can never know what's truly going on in the minds of other humans, of our essential aloneness in the world and how we manage to conquer it with love.

I don't think writing about humanity is limiting. I think humanity encompasses everything; I am vast, I contain multitudes.


Free will doesn't need to "exist". It just needs to be a consistent universal illusion. It's supernatural. If it does exist, we still (for now) can only see the mirage.

A utilitarian law system? Useful for who, then? Society, the state, the city, each individual person?

What makes you think that people have a choice to believe in free will? :ajsmug:

IMO "mainstream" fiction is a subgenre of "speculative fiction." What's more, literary mainstream fiction is one of the smallest and most specialized subgeneres of all.

"Speculative fiction" is actually almost redundant, because by definition ALL fiction is "speculative." If I write a story about a whiney wannabe writer named John Weenie Clicheberg who lives in Greenwich Village (New York, NY) in 2010 and agonizes about his place in life, this is "speculative" because no such person of that name actually exists, nor do his friends, family, etc. exist in objective reality. This is true even though Greenwich Village is real and we already know what happened in 2010. Fiction is by definition about unreal people, and our recounting of their imaginary deeds are therefore speculative.

Literary mainstream fiction is an especially limited genre because it disallows any portrayal of anyone save for (1) middle-class Westerners of our own or the last couple of generations, or (2) the fantasies of middle-class Westerners about what Third Worlders are like (which generally has little or no connection to the realities of any actual non-Western society). It explicitly excludes not only fantasy and science fiction, but also historical fiction, adventure fiction, and so on. (This is because it adopted the doctrine of "realism" over 100 years ago, which has by now completely paralyzed the imaginations of most writers).

Science fiction and fantasy can explore the possibilties of life from a nonhuman perspective. Some authors do and have done so -- for instance Poul Anderson was and Stephen Baxter is extremely good at doing this sort of thing (the last-named is particularly good at creating some pretty alien human cultures as well). The reason it's rare is because good "xenofiction" is difficult to accomplish -- we are human and find it difficult to imagine how something with a different evolutionary history might think. (What's more, to be plausible the aliens must also have workable modes of thought -- creatures whose culture and psychology are obviously impractical are unbelievable -- how did they survive up to the point of the story?).

I wouldn't give up on fantasy and science fiction if I were you. I would instead realize that, as Theodore Sturgeon said: "90 percent of science fiction is crap. But then 90 percent of everything is crap." :twilightsmile:


"Free will" is the name we give to the decisions of any sapient-grade information processing system. It's not supernatural, it's simply an emergent property of the system.

I don't think that stories have to be about humans, or say something about the human experience. However, I think that a story simply can't not be about humans, specially when it makes a explicit point to the contrary. When people write about alien races, the focus will always be on what aspects that make them not-human, or in how far we can stretch our cultural assumptions before they stop being humans.

I also think that there is something universal about the human experience, that may be found in the intersection between different cultures. As bizarre as ancient Greek, Roman, or Japanese values may be for "western" sensibilities, there are also many things in common, such as caring for the ingroup, reverence for the past, or pattern seeking.

2180524 We're writing about our fears, about our desires, about how we can never know what's truly going on in the minds of other humans, of our essential aloneness in the world and how we manage to conquer it with love.

We write about specific people with specific fears and desires. It is more important for them to be different from us than to be like us; most of us would not bother reading stories about people just like us doing things just like we do.

Take Bruce Sterling's story about a mid-eastern terrorist, "We see things differently." You could look at that story as an attempt to explain how the actions of a fanatical terrorist can be explained in ways that we understand. Or you could look at it as an attempt to show how the mindset of one such, though alien to us, is self-consistent. I think the latter is more true to the story.

Choosing to always prioritize how the characters are like us as more important than how they are different from us is an ideological commitment, an insistence that all fiction always ought to bring all people closer together. Sometimes this produces disturbing results, like Flannery O'Connor's story "A good man is hard to find". Its intent is to say that a brutal and senseless serial killer is really just like the rest of us. I don't find that to be a positive, life-affirming message.

In some contexts, yes. The process of civilization is a gradual process of getting people to accept more and more other people as their neighbors. That's great. But I refuse to make my fiction strictly subservient to this process, or to any other social agenda.

And doing so makes us say things that aren't really true, or meaningful, like talking about our essential aloneness. I could also talk about our essential sociality. Talk about our essential anything usually doesn't have a clear and concrete meaning.

The purpose of essays is to make abstractions from reality; the purpose of fiction is to look at things without making abstractions. Casting fiction in terms of gross abstractions of human nature strips it of its own essential, concrete, situated, non-abstract nature.


I think I understand, then. While I'm inclined to say that a good story will, by definition, say something about the human experience (ponies are people, as CiG likes to say, and the same goes for anyone or anything else which isn't explicitly un-human), to say that this means that all good stories must, by definition, be ABOUT the human experience is to confuse relation with causation.

2180262 One truth I've taken away from anthropology: the universal human constant is our struggles. There are not less than 7 billion solutions being tried at the moment.


Well, it appears to be in principle, anyway. People have certainly devoted vast amounts of effort to creating such systems. In practice, that discussion gets mired in the grey areas: what constitutes the greatest good, how heavily we weight certain goods and certain evils, what utility values we assign, and what we value.

I don't mean to be discussing things like specific punishments when I bring up impaired free will, though. That's outside of my concern in this instance, and is more amenable to analysis-based solutions like you suggest. You can conclude both that someone is partially or even entirely not at fault for their actions and at the same time conclude that the best thing for society (and maybe for them) is to keep them locked up. These are not incompatible. What I mean to be bringing up is the way in which people approach and understand other actors in society in a broader sense.

I am arguing that the absolutist view that includes ideas like the Universal Human Experience leads people to judge other people as complete, self-contained systems in isolation, and discourages people from thinking systematically, and about deeper causes and effects. That view of human nature, as having some universal component, implicitly posits that there is a part of a person that is capable of acting independently of the context of that person's life--otherwise it wouldn't be universal. It's basically saying that there is a tiny Prime Mover, capable of causing things without itself being caused by something, inside every person.

That makes life very simple to live. You can observe the decision that a person made, and stop there with satisfactory understanding of the situation. Judgement is easy, and very amenable to simple consequentialism. Our legal system often tries to go beyond that, but normal, everyday people don't.

So, if you have your concept of free will partially undermined by admitting that there isn't a universal human component, the understanding that was previously satisfactory no longer is. This is the part I was getting at in my very first comment, the thing that people are so uncomfortable with which causes them to stick with the absolutist view. They find themselves having to learn a lot more about a situation, and apply much more of their own judgement, in order to reach the same feeling of satisfactory understanding. Worse, one of the things that their judgement used to rely on is looking shaky, so they can't feel as confident in it. It robs people of certainty they had previously possessed, and people don't like that.

I think an interesting example comes from the battles over abortion. If you talk to doctors and nurses involved in the field, you'll soon hear a story about the time an anti-abortion advocate brought in their daughter or came in themselves for a procedure, and left without having their minds changed about abortion in general, even after having one done. That's because they know and understand their reasons and justifications for having it done, but they're treating other folks as taking isolated actions stripped of context, because that is the kind of thinking that we as a society encourage people to engage in when we decline to discuss the complete context of the actions of criminals, foreign powers, or even just domestic 'outgroups'.

Most people don't actually think about this stuff hard enough to notice the contradiction they're living, so when something manages to get through to them to undermine the idea that they can judge other folks in isolation*, it raises very uncomfortable questions about whether they've been living their life 'correctly'. A lot of people handle that uncertainty by seeking certainty by the most direct route: they grab harder onto the certainty of absolutism wherever they can find it (such as by thinking they see a Universal Human Experience in a piece of literature), and they defend it as hard as they can.

So to put my first comment another way, I think people want to see a Universal Human Experience in literature because not seeing one knocks over so many dominoes that they face a terrifyingly huge re-evaluation of how they've been conducting their life. Worse, they often wouldn't even know how to begin rebuilding from there because they don't have any grounding in the ways people have approached attempting to answer these questions.

*This seems to be a battle that has been being fought for millennia now--see Matthew 7:1-3. Maybe the universal human experience is that of not being capable of sufficient empathy to properly deal with the full contexts of everyone in our lives. :ajbemused:


Take what 2180524 says here

I don't think writing about humanity is limiting. I think humanity encompasses everything; I am vast, I contain multitudes.

and invert it.

It is impossible for us to not write humans and express concepts of human nature in a fictional world of human design because humanity is all we are, all we know, the only frame of reference we have is our own so we are completely incapable of interpreting, and therefor expressing, anything without the context of our own perceptions.

Even if we create some fiction that has nothing to do with humans or humanity, the way it is presented will reflect human concepts and contain attributes of "human nature" that

the writer truly finds meaningful, true, or immutable.

(Also I don't view "human nature" as some universal archetype that is held as true. I view it as the combined nature of every human who has ever lived, colored by how humanity's response to said natures have contributed to changing values over time. Human nature is a combination of what we have been, what we are, what we could be, and what we believe we should be.)

One of the things I use to illustrate how impossible it is for us to actually not write about/for humans, the human condition, and human nature because of how incredibly specialized our own perceptions are, is the conceit that to imagine something truly alien and outside human frame of reference we must define it as, to a degree, incomprehensible.


Why would an alien perspective need to be incomprehensible to be truly different? Why couldn't an alien perspective be completely "alien" to us but make sense. Perhaps even make more sense than our own. Why can't something be completely alien and outside our frame of reference while also being completely understandable from inside our frame of reference?

This is why I don't like that sci-fi which tries to portray truly alien perspectives. Because it is a human conceit to portray "alien-ness" as "incomprehensible". Of course the only alternative is anthropomorphization. To infuse the alien with the recognizable. Either way, both are so entrenched in the human perspective that the only difference is how annoying one is to read and how unoriginal the other is.

All fiction is already about human and human nature because it literally can't not be.

Since fictional worlds are completely arbitrary, I feel that those elements of "human nature" a writer emphasizes

are possibly (it depends on the writer's intent and motivation) those elements of humanity that the writer truly finds meaningful, true, or immutable.

This is why I dislike stories that revel in the aspects of human nature I dislike, and I like stories that revel in those aspects I like. Part of human nature is what we want our natures to me, and I disagree with those who show the parts I wish to cast off as intrinsic or important or, worse, right.

I read science fiction hoping to find conceptions of what other, nonhuman life forms might exist. I was generally disappointed.

We don't put on Greek tragedies much, or read 18th-century English novels, because we don't care about what their audiences cared about, and can't and don't want to relate to those people.

It seems you:

a) finally did find your aliens, and
b) didn't much like them once you found them.

Not that I blame you. I've ridden my personal hobby-horse over a fair bit of Western history and its literature. This is what I've found.

On the eternally important issues--love, death and food--people from past times can be amazingly wise and sympathetic. You can learn a lot from a few hours in their company and it's enjoyable company. But get them on to the issues of the day--law, religion, foreigners, art--and they turn horrid. That kindly, witty person disappears and this bloodthirsty troll comes and sits in their place. That's what people from those times are like.

Know who else is like that? People from these times. All of us. Even me. Especially me. You know.

We're all like that, and we've always been like that, and...well, there's your human nature for you.

That is, by a considerable margin, the best description of The Gods Themselves (which I used to think was seriously great) I've ever seen.

2181140 So, if you have your concept of free will partially undermined by admitting that there isn't a universal human component, the understanding that was previously satisfactory no longer is. This is the part I was getting at in my very first comment, the thing that people are so uncomfortable with which causes them to stick with the absolutist view. They find themselves having to learn a lot more about a situation, and apply much more of their own judgement, in order to reach the same feeling of satisfactory understanding.

To be fair, though, I think that's what most people mean when they say that literature is about human nature-- that the business of literature is to show the reader enough of a situation, and engage enough of their judgment, to reach that understanding, despite large differences.

2181716 It seems you:
a) finally did find your aliens, and
b) didn't much like them once you found them.

That's an insightful observation, but it happens not to be true. I love reading about how people really thought hundreds of years ago, or anthropological texts about difficult-to-understand cultures. But I've heard many writers caution would-be writers against writing faithful representations of people from other time periods. The wisdom of publishers says that will lose money.

Yes, people have things in common. But literature explores what strange, wonderful, and different lives can be built on that common foundation. Treating all stories as treasure hunts to root out that commonality is one-sided.


I am vast, I contain multitudes.

Yeah, I feel that way too.

But only after the #3 Special at Don Pablo's.

2182500 I think you're right, and I think you hit on exactly where the mistake is made, too. They decide they understand the character because of some ineffable unversal humanness, rather than because they've been given enough context to understand that character.


Treating all stories as treasure hunts to root out that commonality is one-sided.

So what's the other side, and more to the point, how can we present it to the readers so as to get them to sign on the line which is dotted?

Well, if you believe it's possible, why not try writing a (good) story that has no connection with humans or humanity or human nature whatsoever? Prove you're right, ya know?

Okay, I actually really enjoyed most of this and I don't want my point of disagreement to overshadow that. Human nature doesn't have to be the be-all-and-end-all of good story-telling.


We no longer have the necessary callousness to really laugh heartily at the suffering in Candide.

You... Uh... Seem to be really out of touch with modern comedy.
It makes me want to look up some of the darker Robot Chicken sketches, among other things, because fairly large segments of society don't line up with your opinions of them there.

Now, don't get me wrong, you're right that the central conceit of Candide is refuting an argument that no one is making, so it's lost relevance, but claiming that modern audiences no longer have the stomach for the darkness of it's humor, is frankly a baffling stance to me for you to take. I've seen arguably worse that was popular recently.

Actually on a side note, as far as imaging alien minds go, ever read Blindsight by Peter(?) Watts? It makes an interesting argument against the relevance of sapience to intelligent life. Not that I necessarily agree with it but it was interesting.

But it does require a yardstick. That was his point.

Now, what the yardstick is can be an interesting argument. You could even argue that there isn't one, but I'd expect that to be kinda depressing.

(If you make a faster computer, you call that progress. Fair enough. If I make a slower computer, is that also progress? No? Okay, you believe that faster computers are better. That's your yardstick. Ah, but what if my slower computer can hold ten times as much information as each of the original computer yours is faster than, or your faster computer? Would that be progress?)

(Sorry, necessary nitpick. I haven't read Jordanis' reply as of this writing.)

But is it moral to re-write someone's consciousness, necessarily making them a different person, via this rehabilitation?

Yes, yes, degrees of re-writing some of them are morally okay and others aren't, and all that stuff. Just pointing out that if we take rewriting or overriding someone's consciousness as morally wrong [1], then forced rehabilitation at best explodes into a grey area.

[1] And seriously. Hivemind fics? Anything where breaking free from the hivemind is presented as a good thing? Mind control? Basically always presented as a bad thing, except that one time in Bionicle which was super-temporary anyways? Possessions, ie demonic possession?

Later, I notice that Jordanis flagged you on this, but I felt it worth pointing out specifically.



Ponies are people. They're four-legged magic people who come in pastel colors, but they're essentially human beneath all that. All those attributes that we think are non-human are really just literary short-hands for us to describe some aspect of human experience. Some ponies have magic? Some humans have talents! Some ponies can fly? Some humans are more free than others.

Sometimes there are monsters in the Everfree forest? Sometimes there are monsters outside your door. We read about them in the news all the time.

2183534 Yes, ponies are people. Take this one: :pinkiesmile:

Pinkie is very unlike me. How do I think about her stories?

The "stories are about human nature" approach would be to try to find what I had in common with her, and conclude that I'm really not that different from her, because X.

The "stories are about particular people" approach might be to focus on how she's different from me, and ask myself whether I'd like to be more like her, and how I could make that happen.

The former accomplishes nothing; the latter might.

Free will is the ability to make choices.

The choices we make are informed by the world around us.

Indeed, if the choices we made were not informed by the world around us, they wouldn't be choices in the first place.

Say I offer you the choice of calling heads or tails on a fair coin toss; this isn't actually a choice at all, because your odds of winning are the same either way. If your choices have identical outcomes, then they aren't actually choices.

Yes, of course the decisions we make are affected by the world around us. This is utterly irrelevant to the question of whether or not we have free will.

You talk about "impaired free will", but you're not talking about impaired free will. You are confusing free will with good judgement; these two things have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with each other. Free will isn't about making good decisions; it is about being able to make decisions at all. If someone is drunk, you haven't impaired their free will one whit; what you have done is impaired their judgement. A drunk person is as capable as a sober person of making decisions; what they are less capable of doing is exhibiting good judgement in doing so. The same is true of someone being angry; they don't lose their free will in that situation at all, and indeed, being upset is itself a choice that people subconsciously make. The fact that they fail to behave rationally has nothing at all to do with whether or not they have free will; they're still making choices.

I think this is where your entire thought process is derailing. You conflate free will with good judgement, when in fact the two are entirely separate - something without free will can show good judgement, and something with free will can show very poor judgement. Indeed, you appear to be one of those people who don't understand that an essential component of freedom is the ability for the person to make mistakes.

The reason why it is impossible to tell if free will exists or not is that even if we ran the same scenario a hundred times, and they made the same choice a hundred times, we still wouldn't be able to distinguish between the behavior being deterministic (that is to say, they had no choice) and free will (that is to say, they COULD have done something else, but chose not to). Free will is about the ability to change the future; it is about individual agency. I don't think you can actually prove it exists, because by its very nature, it is defined by the fact that we could have done something different. It is the ability to do other things. But by the very nature of reality, we only ever make a decision once; it becomes fixed once we make it. Thus we have no way of observing whether or not our behavior is truly deterministic or if we really are making decisions, and indeed, it may not even be possible to discriminate between the two.

People making bad decisions are exercising as much free will as people who are making good decisions are. Someone who decides to start murdering people is exercising their free will. The fact that they are making a very poor decision is really irrelevant to the question of free will and the impairment thereof.


Know who else is like that? People from these times. All of us. Even me. Especially me. You know.

We're all like that, and we've always been like that, and...well, there's your human nature for you.

This is something I often hear from liberal arts folks.

It also happens to be wrong.

The problem is that it assumes that people haven't changed over time, but the reality is that people today aren't the same as people back then; we're more intelligent, more knowledgable, less violent, more well-nourished, less disease ridden... the list goes on.

There was a time when people believed the world was flat. Later on, people discovered it was a sphere. Still later, we discovered that it was bulged at the equator.

But the people who believed that the earth was a sphere were vastly closer to correct than the people who thought the world was flat, even though they were wrong about the shape of the planet.

So it is with people today. Sure, we still are flawed, but we're not as flawed as the people in the past were.

People in the future will likely be less flawed than we are, given that has been the long term historical trend. We will still appear alien to them in some ways, but we will appear to be less alien to them than the Ancient Greeks.

Well, there's only two possibilities here:

1) People lack free will. There's no reason to worry about overwriting their consciousness, then, because there's no choices being made to begin with and you're merely trying to optimize a deterministic system.

2) People have free will. Changes in their behavior are the result of them making different decisions because you have given them new tools to analyze their decision making with.

In both cases, rehabilitation is about improving outcomes. If your rehabilitation does not result in better outcomes, then your rehabilitation sucks.

Thus the ethical question only really exists when you're talking about poor rehabilitation, which is already bad for other reasons beyond moral ones.

2184001 Indeed, you appear to be one of those people who don't understand that <X>

If you say "You're not accounting for X", that sounds like you don't like his argument.

If you say "You appear to be one of those people who don't understand X", that sounds like you don't like him.

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