At the beginning of Genesis, God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
In her magisterial new novel The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie continues with this simple premise: a god is an entity whose words are true.
A god might say, “The sky is green.” Well, personally I remember it being blue, but I am not a god. Within the world of The Raven Tower, after the god announces that the sky is green, the sky will become green. If the god is sufficiently powerful, that is. If the god is too weak, then the sky will stay blue, which means the statement is not true, which means that the thing who said “The sky is green” is not a god. It was a god, sure, but now it’s dead.
And so the deities learn to be very cautious with their language, enumerating cases and provisions with the precision of a contemporary lawyer drafting contractual agreements (like the many “individual arbitration” agreements that you’ve no doubt assented to, which allow corporations to strip away your legal rights as a citizen of this country. But, hey, I’m not trying to judge – I have signed those lousy documents, too. It’s difficult to navigate the modern world without stumbling across them).
A careless sentence could doom a god.
But if a god were sufficiently powerful, it could say anything, trusting that its words would reshape the fabric of the universe. And so the gods yearn to become stronger — for their own safety in addition to all the other reasons that people seek power.
In The Raven Tower, the only way for gods to gain strength is through human faith. When a human prays or conducts a ritual sacrifice, a deity grows stronger. But human attention is finite (which is true in our own world, too, as demonstrated so painfully by our attention-sapping telephones and our attention-monopolizing president).
And so, like pre-monopoly corporations vying for market share, the gods battle. By conquering vast kingdoms, a dominant god could receive the prayers of more people, allowing it to grow even stronger … and so be able to speak more freely, inured from the risk that it will not have enough power to make its statements true.
If you haven’t yet read The Raven Tower, you should. The theological underpinnings are brilliant, the characters compelling, and the plot so craftily constructed that both my spouse and I stayed awake much, much too late while reading it.
In The Raven Tower, only human faith feeds gods. The rest of the natural world is both treated with reverence – after all, that bird, or rock, or snake might be a god – and yet also objectified. There is little difference between a bird and a rock, either of which might provide a fitting receptacle for a god but neither of which can consciously pray to empower a god.
Although our own world hosts several species that communicate in ways that resemble human language, in The Raven Tower the boundary between human and non-human is absolute. Within The Raven Tower, this distinction feels totally sensible – after all, that entire world was conjured through Ann Leckie’s assiduous use of human language.
But many people mistakenly believe that they are living in that fantasy world.
In the recent philosophical treatise Thinking and Being, for example, Irad Kimhi attempts to describe what is special about thought, particularly thoughts expressed in a metaphorical language like English, German, or Greek. (Kimhi neglects mathematical languages, which is at times unfortunate. I’ve written previously about how hard it is to translate certain concepts from mathematics into metaphorical languages like we speak with, and Kimhi fills many pages attempting to precisely articulate the concept of “compliments” from set theory, which you could probably understand within moments by glancing at a Wikipedia page.)
Kimhi does use English assiduously, but I’m dubious that a metaphorical language was the optimal tool for the task he set himself. And his approach was further undermined by flawed assumptions. Kimhi begins with a “Law of Contradiction,” in which he asserts, following Aristotle, that it is impossible for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be, and that no one can simultaneously believe a thing to be and not to be.
Maybe these assumptions seemed reasonable during the time of Aristotle, but we now know that they are false.
Many research findings in quantum mechanics have shown that it is possible for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be. An electron can have both up spin and down spin at the same moment, even though these two spin states are mutually exclusive (the states are “absolute compliments” in the terminology of set theory). This seemingly contradictory state of both being and not being is what allows quantum computing to solve certain types of problems much faster than standard computers.
And, as a rebuttal for the psychological formulation, we have the case of free will. Our brains, which generate consciousness, are composed of ordinary matter. Ordinary matter evolves through time according to a set of known, predictable rules. If the matter composing your brain was non-destructively scanned at sufficient resolution, your future behavior could be predicted. Accurate prediction would demonstrate that you do not have free will.
And yet it feels impossible not to believe in the existence of free will. After all, we make decisions. I perceive myself to be choosing the words that I type.
I sincerely, simultaneously believe that humans both do and do not have free will. And I assume that most other scientists who have pondered this question hold the same pair of seemingly contradictory beliefs.
The “Law of Contradiction” is not a great assumption to begin with. Kimhi also objectifies nearly all conscious life upon our planet:
The consciousness of one’s thinking must involve the identification of its syncategorematic difference, and hence is essentially tied up with the use of language.
A human thinker is also a determinable being. This book presents us with the task of trying to understand our being, the being of human beings, as that of determinable thinkers.
The Raven Tower is a fantasy novel. Within that world, it was reasonable that there would be a sharp border separating humans from all other animals. There are also warring gods, magical spells, and sacred objects like a spear that never misses or an amulet that makes people invisible.
But Kimhi purports to be writing about our world.
In Mama’s Last Hug, biologist Frans de Waal discusses many more instances of human thinkers brazenly touting their uniqueness. If I jabbed a sharp piece of metal through your cheek, it would hurt. But many humans claimed that this wouldn’t hurt a fish.
The fish will bleed. And writhe. Its body will produce stress hormones. But humans claimed that the fish was not actually in pain.
They were wrong.
de Waal writes that:
… The consensus view is now that fish do feel pain.
Readers may well ask why it has taken so long to reach this conclusion, but a parallel case is even more baffling. For the longest time, science felt the same about human babies. Infants were considered sub-human organisms that produced “random sounds,” smiles simply as a result of “gas,” and couldn’t feel pain.
Serious scientists conducted torturous experiments on human infants with needle pricks, hot and cold water, and head restraints, to make the point that they feel nothing. The babies’ reactions were considered emotion-free reflexes. As a result, doctors routinely hurt infants (such as during circumcision or invasive surgery) without the benefit of pain-killing anesthesia. They only gave them curare, a muscle relaxant, which conveniently kept the infants from resisting what was being done to them.
Only in the 1980s did medical procedures change, when it was revealed that babies have a full-blown pain response with grimacing and crying. Today we read about these experiments with disbelief. One wonders if their pain response couldn’t have been noticed earlier!
Scientific skepticism about pain applies not just to animals, therefore, but to any organism that fails to talk. It is as if science pays attention to feelings only if they come with an explicit verbal statement, such as “I felt a sharp pain when you did that!” The importance we attach to language is just ridiculous. It has given us more than a century of agnosticism with regard to wordless pain and consciousness.
As a parent, I found it extremely difficult to read the lecture de Waal cites, David Chamberlain’s “Babies Don’t Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine.”
From this lecture, I also learned that I was probably circumcised without anesthesia as a newborn. Luckily, I don’t remember this procedure, but some people do. Chamberlain describes several such patients, and, with my own kids, I too have been surprised by how commonly they’ve remembered and asked about things that happened before they had learned to talk.
Vaccination is painful, too, but there’s a difference – vaccination has a clear medical benefit, both for the individual and a community. Our children have been fully vaccinated for their ages. They cried for a moment, but we comforted them right away.
But we didn’t subject them to any elective surgical procedures, anesthesia or no.
In our world, even creatures that don’t speak with metaphorical language have feelings.
But Leckie does include a bridge between the world of The Raven Tower and our own. Although language does not re-shape reality, words can create empathy. We validate other lives as meaningful when we listen to their stories.
The narrator of The Raven Tower chooses to speak in the second person to a character in the book, a man who was born with a body that did not match his mind. Although human thinkers have not always recognized this truth, he too has a story worth sharing.