Friday, November 12, 2010

What Kind of Chemical Could You Spray on My Novel To Fix Its Predictable Conclusion?



What kind of chemical could you spray on my novel to fix its predictable conclusion?

Sounds like a stupid question, but let me argue for a moment that it's not.

My novel (printed out) is made of ink. The ink is printed on paper. Both things are chemical. Ultimately, everything about the novel (the characters, the mood, the genre, the plot) is a function of a chemical combination. Therefore, the plot problems in the novel are chemical problems. 


So let's get to work finding a chemical to fix plot holes.

Okay, this sounds stupid. But think for a minute about why it's stupid.

I mean it. Before I explain to you why it's stupid, I really want you to think about why on your own. When you're done, look below the picture of the breaching orca and I'll tell you what I think.

The argument makes sense in its own sort of way. The problem is, plot problems are not ink-level problems. The plot problem would be the same if the book were on an e-reader, or on a CD audio book, etc. They have to do with the meaning of the words that the ink represents. Fixing a plot problem requires thinking about the novel at a level of organization more abstract than the physical. The vocabulary needed to reason about it involves things like character arcs, and world consistency, and character motivation and history.  Even the word level is probably too fine-grained. You could probably re-write the novel using different words and keep the same plot problem.

Even if, ultimately, the changes made to the plot are reflected in changes to ink and paper, this does not mean that we need to think about ink changes to understand or fix the novel.

Now I'll present an analogous argument.

What kind of chemical could a person ingest to fix a problem with their mind?

My mind (in a physical body) is made of neurons and other cells. These are chemical entities. Ultimately, everything about the mind (beliefs, desires, emotions, ideas) is a function of a chemical combination. Therefore the problems with a given mind are chemical problems.


So let's get to work finding a chemical to fix mental problems.

I'm not being completely fair here: lots of psychoactive drugs are very effective and I'm not trying to knock them. There's even an paper out there arguing that these drugs (such as anti-depressants) caused the great crime reduction of the 1990s.
http://www.bakadesuyo.com/you-know-why-the-crime-rate-is-down-drugs

So I'm not saying that looking for psychoactive drugs is a fool's errand. I'm more expressing reason for skepticism that neuroscience will, by itself, reveal an understanding of our entire mind and what we're interested in about it. Some things are, in my opinion, unlikely to make sense when looked at at a neural level.

Trying to understand a complex concept like our conception of our personal identity in terms of neurons will be like trying to describe a character in a book by only talking about ink.

Pictured: Prozac

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