The Quantum Storytelling Principle (Mar.19.2021)
on tragedy, electrons, and the conjured real.
Consider, beginning from philosophy, that we perceive and interact with the world through our ontological systems of thought. We have made the framework by which we interact with the world, and so it is a conjured real. Is there, then, any reality that is un-conjured? Is this a terrifying thought, or a freeing one?
Let us shrink down to the smallest units of the world. A word. A quark. The realm of quantum physics is as yet not fully plumbed, but what we know so far is an excellent parallel to the conjured real.
When electrons remain unobserved, they begin to “diffuse,” potentially occupying any number of spaces it is possible for them to occupy. Theoretically, this effect could scale up, and if a group of atoms were to be unobserved for a long enough time, a “solid” object could begin to diffuse and be in multiple places. This is very difficult, because at a certain point in scaling up, different forces begin to act on the atoms, and those forces do an amount of observing themselves, limiting diffusion.
It is very hard to be unobserved. There is always a force acting upon you, in some way. Not a visual observer, but a tactile one. A spatial observer. The container of the world.
When things are in motion, they are indefinite in certain qualities. This, too, is a quantum concept: the uncertainty principle. Certain qualities cannot be observed at the same time, because they are not definite at the same time, and observing one makes the other indefinite.
When a story is in motion, there can be a different ending. It does not matter if there will be a different ending, or if every single time the story ends the same. What matters is the motion of it, the space that this motion provides. The story’s indefinite quality is its ending, even if there is only one place for it to end, it can take different routes to get there. And there is always, always that chance for things to be different. While the story is in motion, the inevitable becomes uncertain. A quantum state of story.
Through ritual and sacrifice, humans apply this power of story to the physical world. We tell stories of connection, of resonance and equivalency. We keep telling stories of tragedy, as warning, yes, but as a chance to change them. In Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, there is the story of sacrificing the king so the sun will come up.
This is the story that is told. The power to make the sun rise is placed in the story—even if the sun must rise, based on some external metric of the universe, the sun will not if the story’s demands are unfulfilled. There is some uncertainty in the conjured reality of the sun, the story-told reality of sunrises. The sun must come up. The Hogfather must be sacrificed, and the sun must come up. We tell a lot of stories about blood.
The following passage from Hogfather is one of my favorite pieces of writing. It’s written with the understanding of human fictions, these stories we agree to tell one another, to make the world a place we can inhabit. To make things sensible. It’s written with such gentle love for those convictions.
“All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
"So we can believe the big ones?"
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
"They're not the same at all!"
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME...SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"
MY POINT EXACTLY.
We stay with storytelling because it is the way that we build up the world. It is the way we make sense of things, and stories, even stories of another-world, of somewhere-else, show us our own fictions, a mirrorthing. A microcosm. Stories hide and show the made-up-ness of all that we perceive, all that we understand. They can be kind about it, and that’s what we really want to hear, I think. Stories are an uncertain, twisting, inevitable thing. They are indefinite, they are destined. The easiest way to understand the shifting, moving, never-being way that is the world.
Prachett, Terry. Hogfather.