“Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” Podcast

There’s a free audiobook podcast available, which is a professional-level recording of “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” by Eliezer Yudkowsky. The reading is done by Jack Voraces, and he does a darned good job.

I’ve read this fanfic before, although I think I got sick of it at some point and stopped.

First, it’s not convincing as the story of a kid of HP’s age, even if HP had been a prodigy (which he wasn’t, in JKR’s book). There’s some fairly insightful stuff about Hermione’s level and type of intelligence, and about the fanfic HP’s level and type of intelligence. But this is not an elementary school kid’s story. Occasionally the fanfic author corrects for this, but not often.

Second, it’s culturally unconvincing. As bad as the Malfoys are, in JKR’s book, the idea that Draco, as an elementary school kid, would casually float the idea of the future rape of a young witch of his own age, is ridiculous. If wizarding Britain really were a Dark Ages or Bronze Age type society, Draco would have been restrained by the fact that she was a witch of good family and wide reputation, and was very likely to be a close relative of his.

Almost everyone in wizarding Britain, except Muggles, must be a close relative of everyone else, such that I suspect cousin marriage is almost unavoidable. So raping almost anyone would be raping a cousin, which would offend your own Noble House and every other Noble House; and the whole Bronze Age argument collapses. “We don’t talk about what happened” is an option, I suppose, but that’s hardly an issue of the rule of law. It’s the application of law.

There are places in Europe where a rich or noble young man might have been able to Do Bad Things without fear of law, but it’s not an Enlightenment issue in the UK. (And holy crud, the Enlightenment worship in this fanfic, without much knowledge of what was going on besides science. Or what happened to scientists who fell afoul of Enlightenment-era rulers.)

The rule of law goes quite far back in the UK. The Bayeux Tapestry seems to argue that because Saxon law enforcement had collapsed in England on some important cases, therefore it was righteous for William I to take it over (beyond his claim to having had the kingship bequeathed to him, in a matter that was of course illegal under Saxon law). The Plantagenets made the rule of law and a court system their priority, and we already see rich and noble men being prosecuted for rape and murder by the kings of England. (Scotland was under brehon law and various other law systems, so I don’t know much about it; but it wasn’t lawless.)

The fanfic seems to think that a rape trial in the Wizengamot would necessarily be a joke; but the historic analogy, being brought before a jury of peers, was extremely serious. Even if you had the votes, even if you had the blackmail, the practical upshot would be that Draco would be ruined socially. International wizard society would shun him, if nobody else; and being a criminal was historically not good for your credit rating at banks.

Who would marry him? How would you get heirs for House Malfoy? Obviously these things would concern Lucius Malfoy. Draco might go under house arrest for the rest of Lucius’ life, at that point, or be confined at some other Malfoy property. All sorts of things happen to bad heirs, if you really live in a lawless society. And frankly, there are tons of cousins whom Lucius could adopt as heirs. He’d be sad, but the Malfoy name would continue.

I suppose that one could argue that the “modern” features of wizarding Britain’s society would cushion Draco’s fate somewhat. But the whole thing is just over the top, and unbalances the story early on.

Of course, one could also argue that this was some sort of intuitive response to the current rule-by-corruption and separate rules of law, in the UK, US, and most European countries. But the HP books are set in the past, so it’s still a bad fanfic feature.

The rule of law, and fairness for members of society of every status, was of course a project that goes back to pagan times, and even back to Sumer. But it was God’s laws given to Moses, and the Gospel message, that really gave the project a solid basis of natural law. “All men are created equal” is hard to argue off.

But yes, let’s talk about the Enlightenment worship. A fair number of scientists got the guillotine in the French Revolution, so how’s that part of the Enlightenment helping you?

Now, you could argue that the compromises of civil society that had been negotiated by the end of the Enlightenment were beneficial. But most of that was built on the ideals of medieval academia and religion. And compromises do come with trade-offs.

But there are science errors also. The bit about linguistics is ridiculous. Of course there were early studies in childhood language acquisition, pretty much every time a king or noble went off his head and wasn’t stopped in time. They just weren’t ethical, because the control group was “lock a kid in a room and don’t talk to him.” But yup, that stuff did become vastly more common in the Enlightenment, so it was best to avoid being an orphan baby in the area of such “investigators.”

There are reasons why linguistics is primarily observational, when it comes to science.

Beyond that, of course Yudkowsky is ignoring every other facet of linguistics and philology, which were fairly fertile subjects for study from classical times onward. There’s no time when people weren’t delving into the study and philosophy of language. I just want to slap the author sometimes, which helps me remember why I stopped reading the fanfic way back when.

I did find one period detail of the book convincing — that a little kid had read Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

Look, I was there. GEB was a bestseller. Tons of people with no interest in science or math had that book around the house, right next to Jonathan Livingston Seagull and other period pieces. So yup, probably lots of elementary school kids read that sucker when bored. It’s not proof of any kind of intelligence, though it does go for tenacity.

Antoine Lavoisier, guillotined in the French Revolution. Who taught Lavoisier? A Catholic deacon/abbe, of course, who was the man who named Halley’s Comet and fourteen constellations.

In 1793, all the learned and scientific societies were suppressed by the revolutionary government of France. More Enlightenment, eh?

Lavoisier was falsely accused of defrauding the state and of selling adulterated tobacco, whereas he had prided himself on producing a better and longer-lasting quality of tobacco than had been available before. After unsuccessfully defending himself against these trumped-up charges, he begged to be allowed to finish some important experiments before his execution. But the judge denied his plea, saying, “The Republic needs neither scholars nor chemists.”

Lagrange, who had previously been spared through Lavoisier’s influence, lamented that “It took them only an moment to cut off his head, but a hundred years might not be enough to produce his like.”

Other scientists executed during the French Revolution include the astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly (who has a Moon crater named after him), the mineralogist Philippe-Frederic de Dietrich, the astronomer Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Bochart de Saron (who collaborated with Messier and Cassini, and funded Laplace), the botanist Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, and the chemist Louis-Guillaume Le Veillard (a friend of Benjamin Franklin).

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One response to ““Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” Podcast

  1. French Enlightenment was not Scottish Enlightenment was not Enlightenment as we consider it today. Today we make it a monolith. We forget all too easily (and to our detriment) that there were *factions* in the Enlightenment movement. And the French faction was the bloodiest by far.

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