29 October 2015

Significant Digits, Bonus: Harry and the Centaurs Argue Philosophy

Significant Digits, Bonus: Harry and the Centaurs Argue Philosophy

Salor Sprig, The Forbidden Forest, Scotland
September 10th, 1995
Four years before the present

When a centaur is young, he immerses himself in knowledge and study.  The centaurs have an ancient culture, unified between the world’s seven great herds and stretching back in an unbroken chain into the distant past.  It has survived to this day only because it is a combination of one rigid precept and a yielding openness to new ideas.  There is no debate over the Unforked Path -- but that is the only thing not open to discussion.  Everything else -- life and death and everything in between -- is open to dispute and change.

The Unforked Path includes a strong education in all the gathered wisdom of centaurs from the ages, gleaned from the stars and the wizards and the Muggles, but each centaur eventually tends to find a framework that suits them best.  For practical purposes, in fact, each herd is often said to be divided into different naʼniłkaadí.  This Muggle word, which has been appropriated and exported to centaurs all over the world, actually means “herd” as well, confusingly enough.  The centaurs use it to describe particular schools of thought.

The Kachina herd, now gone, popularized the term when they first struggled to articulate what they considered wholesale errors in the fundamental worldview of their Muggle enemies, the Navajo.  But that is a sad tale for another time.

The young Harry Potter-Evans-Verres, only a few years into his power and stinging from the fresh defeat of the International Statute for Health and Life on the floor of the Confederation, has come to visit the Salor Sprig in the Forbidden Forest.  He has an important request.


“I need help,” said Harry.  The teenager had shaggy hair that he kept pushed to the side, and green eyes that were attentive and thoughtful, lingering on details.  Their contemplative care reflected the rapid workings of the mind behind them.

“You are unfair,” said Roonwit.  “You speak within a context which is extremely vast, old, firmly established, rooted in a network of conventions -- a clear statement that places demands on us by virtue of that context.  To speak of ‘need’ and ‘help’ -- we cannot separate such things from their primal origin, and it is unfair to rely on that privileging -- on that binary.  It makes demands on us separate from the merits of your arguments, by using language with deep implications from the usual context for those spoken words.”

Roonwit was a young centaur, and accounted small among his kind, yet he towered over Harry and every emphatic thump of his hoof reminded the wizard of the pure physical power of the creature.  It was an uncomfortable reminder of a past tragedy -- a tragedy he’d remedied, to be sure, but one with a lingering sting.

“Language has context like everything has context,” Harry replied, after taking a moment to parse the complicated accusation.  “I think trying to avoid a direct request would be a mistake, and only further rely on that unavoidable ‘primal’ context.”  He thought for a moment longer.  “It’s an appropriate context, anyway -- we are talking about life and death.”

I recognize some of this language… this is Muggle philosophy.  Harry glanced at the bark shacks that were set up in the clearing -- the only things here, in fact, beyond the sacred sapling in the center.  Where do they get Muggle books?  Do they have some sort of magic or artifacts that enable them to disguise themselves, or do they have intermediaries?  This must be known to someone in Magical Creatures, but Harry hadn’t known to ask.  He’d have to find out.  He wished he could spend the time to learn those things for himself, but just this single meeting had been difficult.  To make it happen, he’d needed to rely on some of the contacts Dumbledore had left him, as well as an outstanding blood debt.  He was fascinated: they seemed like an entire civilization of philosophers.  On the other hand, this conversation was proving that some strands of thought were a trifle too dense for pleasurable discourse.

“Roonwit holds you to an account that is perhaps overstated in terms of intention, but your intentions are irrelevant.  State your needs and ply your arguments, and let us make our choices,” rumbled Aosta.  The dark bay’s skin color was almost the same as her coat, which made her unusually unified in a crowd of centaurs (who were usually two-toned).  It suited the elder’s temperament, which was singularly calm.

Glenstorm, standing next to Aosta, nodded his agreement.  He had his worry beads in one hand, and had been idly rubbing them with a broad thumb since the beginning of the conversation.

“My needs…”  Harry rubbed his forehead in frustration, then remembered himself.  He cleared his throat.  “I need your assistance in locating some items of power that are hidden from all scrying or location, but not -- I think -- from divination and the implications of prophecy.  It’s the only way to keep the Dark Lord Voldemort imprisoned, and the world safe.”

“When something has an origin, its destruction is ordained at that moment, wizardling,” said Glenstorm.  “Even if the stars did not promise a coming recompense when the debt of creation is fulfilled, this would be true.  In the primal chaos, infinite worlds have been created and destroyed.  So it will continue to be.  But you should know better than to come before us in such a way: you are here only on the sufferance of Firenze and in acknowledgement of his own debt... to you.  Otherwise, we could not ignore that you are the one who will bring this about.  The stars scream at the future, and no centaur can ignore it.”  The centaur’s voice was mild, but there were brittle depths beneath it.

“Yes,” said Roonwit, glancing over at the two elders, and then back at Harry, nodding.  “We cannot deny you a hearing, not after learning of that shame or of your own nobility.  But destruction is not an exterior force.  The ending of a system predicated on inexactness, as with our world where idea and reality are eternally at odds, necessitates that destruction lies in an eccentric center of all things, in a corner whose eccentricity assures the solid concentration of the system, participating in the construction of what it, at the same time, threatens to deconstruct.”  The centaur’s tail flicked back and forth, thoughtfully.  He added, almost as an afterthought, “One might then be inclined to reach this conclusion: deconstruction is not an operation that supervenes afterwards, from the outside, one fine day. It is always already at work in a thing.”

“Muggles have discovered a similar sort of idea… a rule that nature seems to follow, called the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” said Harry.  “It states that any closed system tends towards chaos, eventually.  But,”  and here he held up a finger, “outside influence can sustain it.  Consider yourselves that outside influence, and sustain the world.”

Harry felt a moment’s unsettledness for abusing a scientific principle so badly as to twist it into metaphor.  It made him feel like he needed a bath.  But this isn’t real discussion of reality… this is argument by analogy and rhetoric, and we’re all secretly agreed on that.  Otherwise we’d be discussing facts, not… whatever you’d call this.  Framing, I suppose.  I think I can engage on these terms.  He took a moment to consider if that was a Voldemort thought, but decided it wasn’t.  They set the terms of debate, after all, so it was no evil to abide by them.

Aosta shook her head.  Her hair was in a beautiful, long ponytail tied back with jute twine, strikingly similar (certainly intentionally so?) to her tail.  Harry kept his eyes on it and on her face, which was difficult -- considering her height and the fact that centaurs go unclothed.  “We are not blind to the world, and it is plain enough that there is suffering everywhere.  We could not act to bring about that final chaos, especially not if it would yield a void for a time.  The lack of pain is preferable.”

Utilitarianism, sort of?  Some sort of consequentialism, anyway.  Harry felt like he had been dropped unprepared into a pit of rabid Philosophy 101 undergrads.  Okay, so how do I prove that there is more pleasure than pain in the world, making saving it a net good and ethical imperative?  Will they accept statistics?

“It would not even be the worst of fates,” agreed Roonwit.  “The worst violence occurs when the other,” he said, leaning on the word, to which one is related is completely appropriated to or completely in oneself.  It is this complete exclusion that makes this violence the worst violence -- there is no limit to it, since it makes reality and idea entirely subsumed in the other in sovereign unity.”

“You can’t mean that the world would be better destroyed.  If you did, and also thought helping me might hurry up that end, well… then you’d be obligated to help me for that reason, instead,” Harry said, adapting as best he could to the different strains of argument.  No, it was more than that… the outright different strains of language.  Different worldviews.  They didn’t agree with each other on fundamental principles -- virtue ethics or consequentialism -- so how could he convince them of anything?

“No, I don’t mean that,” said Roonwit.  “To take a direct hand in assisting you… we could not do that.  But the shape of civil society, the shape of the law, is always rooted in violence.  To help you would be to participate in that violence, or worse, be a motivating force behind it.  It is bad enough that we inhabit the decision and its context.  Neither do we oppose you, or endorse Firenze’s error.  We are obligated to assist or oppose you, but it is…”

“Undecidable?” Harry offered, hoping he was guessing wrong.

“Yes,” said Roonwit, smiling.  He clopped a hoof down, nodding.

Okay, time to try the other two.  It’s really more like trying to guess a code than making an argument.

Really, this was a good reminder of why policy debates in Parliament tended towards appeals to emotion, attacks on the messenger, and other fallacies.

“Would you agree, then,” he said to Glenstorm, “that the world is better off destroyed?  And that a virtuous being is the sort who would let that happen?”

“There is no real destruction,” replied the blue roan.  His worry beads clicked in one hand as he lowered them to his side.  “There are undoubtedly an infinite number of worlds, and we have a union with all of them.  But I will not hide in the Athenian solution.  No, it would not be a good thing, and the virtuous would oppose it.  But we return to the same issue, of which you have argued both sides like a confused coiner: assisting you would hasten stardeath and world-end, not prevent it.  Your kind has access to visions of the future, in your crude way -- do not your own people tell you this?”

No prophecies, not anymore.  Harry had entered the Hall of Prophecy, three years ago, only to find it ruined -- a chaos of shattered crystal, splintered shelves, and a thick haze of magically-suspended dust.  Dumbledore had been true to his word, and at some unknown point he had eradicated the facility... and had worked to hide that fact, ever since.  One of the greatest works of magic in the world had been undone, and the prophecies of Britain could no longer be hoarded and studied.  It had been one of the powers that made Britain dominant in the magical world for centuries, for no other nation had its like.  Its loss was a national tragedy.  Only the old works survived, locked in their special vault of obdurate slade from the Urist Quarry in Hungary: the hundred-odd prophecies that had been individually preserved by independent means.  Most of them were shockingly ancient, said to date back before Merlin’s era, but there were also some dozens of more modern imported prophecies, and a few British ones that had been doubly preserved, for whatever reason.  Scorpion and archer, locked beyond return...

“In a way.  But that makes it all the more important that the magical items I need be found, so that the ‘world-end’ can be of a qualitatively different sort,” said Harry.  “The world might end in many ways… one of them is by growing into something bigger and better.”

“There is something of everything in everything else, and so there is never any motion, and never any change,” said Glenstorm, shaking his head.  “Withall, a good creature must prevent suffering… but it is wisdom to remember that failure is no one’s fault.  Indeed, in the event that failure is certain -- and the stars speak only of what will happen, and give no conditions -- a good creature must vouchsafe his own virtue.  Firenze has rightly said that we cannot interfere with the philosopher-kings of wizardkind or else it will sully our own hooves.”  The centaur paused, shaking his head, and added, “Although he is late-come to this advice, as you know.”

I don’t even know whether or not that’s ingratitude.  “He’s a Platonic-style dictator I failed to murder and who brought me back to life with a fantastic cover story and who plans to defeat war, pain, and death, so maybe let’s not get in his way… but definitely don’t help him or anything.”

Harry glanced at Aosta and Roonwit, to see if they agreed.  If they had a common position in this outcome of their independent strains of reasoning -- that non-interference was ethically necessary to keep their hands clean from an inevitable evil -- then he could stop talking in circles and tackle that single idea.

“I agree with Elder Glenstorm,” said Roonwit.  “But I think that we should not fool ourselves, Elder, into thinking that the decision not to interfere is not itself a form of interference.  It will send signals, and it will cause consequences.  We make the decision within the structures of society -- world society, not wizarding -- that we are forced to inhabit.  We must do so, or else any decision is not possible or effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures.  Inhabiting them in a certain way, an aware way.  We strive for goodness by stepping back, but the very act of deciding makes us involved… there is an eternal gap that follows us.  The important thing is to know.  One always inhabits, and all the more when one does not suspect it.”

Aosta began to look mildly impatient by the end of this diatribe, but she was certainly used to it, and neither elder centaur looked inclined to interrupt their younger kinsman.  Debate is sacred.  Once he finished, though, she gave her own perspective with more practiced concision, restraining her kind’s natural garrulousness.

“The end of this world is certain, as Glenstorm says,” she said.  “We have good evidence for this.  I am unconvinced whether or not this is a good thing, or whether there can be a qualitative difference in that end, as you say, wizardling.  I do not know about ‘undecidable,’ but I know that there is no compelling reason to dedicate effort to the cause if it would reduce our appreciation of the time we have left.”

Harry felt like his brain was growing physically warm with exertion as he tried to track three independently-derived philosophical traditions and answer all of their objections simultaneously.  If he had still been articulating interior voices, this would be the moment when he promised his brain a cookie.

“So, if I understand correctly, then,” he finally said, rubbing his forehead again.  “You, sir,” he indicated Glenstorm with a gesture, “think that assisting me is wrong because the action wouldn’t be the sort of thing a good person does.  But may I suggest that this is simply displacing the real moment of assessment -- restating it?  The virtuous person is someone who does virtuous things.  Choosing not to do something that will improve the world -- make people happier, healthier, wealthier -- is not the act of a virtuous person.”

Glenstorm shook his head.  “Except to the extent that the stars speak, we can’t know the future.  That means that virtue must come from within, not from what occurs.  If I were to rescue a child from the tar, and then that child went on to commit murder later that day, I have still found virtue.”

“So then the pivotal question is whether or not your own knowledge would lead you to believe that it is a virtuous action?”  The centaur nodded, looking amused.

“Hold that thought,” said Harry.  He turned to Roonwit.  “And you, sir.  You believe that we can evaluate the world and decide on the ethical course of action, but that every action incorporates and stains us with the guilt of participating in systemic injustice.  You think it’s undecidable -- but you do make ethical decisions on some things, and the way you do that is by determining the most ethical course, yes?  If you agree that we’re always inhabiting the inherent injustice of the world, even if we do nothing, then you want to either help or not, depending on whether it’s the course that will improve the world?  Do you agree?”

Roonwit said, “Yes, that is so, although I would challenge your use of this broad binary of ‘agree.’  It’s a corruption of thought by language, since it commits one to the entire endorsement of an idea and eliminates all shade of question or doubt or uncertainty.”

“But there’s no way around the inherent injustice of language, including its privileged binaries, so at least we’re aware of it,” said Harry, hurriedly.  “Okay, so in both cases we’re at the question of fact.”

He turned to Aosta.  “You, madame.  You-”

“The question of fact is the important thing,” she said, interrupting him with a smile.  “Does the action improve the world... that is the question.”

May you live to be queen and rule them all, Harry thought, gratefully.  He smiled back at her.  Well, not queen… whatever the equivalent would be.  As he recalled, they’d adopted the Russian model of regional representatives with a figurehead military leader.  Hopefully Aosta’s naʼniłkaadí would gain disproportionate influence... that would be for the best.  He wondered if there was any way he could help that happen.  He made a mental note for later.

“Then we all agree,” Harry said, stepping back a pace so that he didn’t have to crane his neck so far, “that we’re at the question of whether or not helping me locate these items of power is the most important thing.  If it will improve the world, then you and yours should do it.  Otherwise, you should not.”  He had to resist the urge to be rigorous and suggest they define “improve” and “important” and the other vague words they were using.  That couldn’t conceivably help him make his case.

The three centaurs glanced at each other, and then all three nodded in agreement.

“Okay,” said Harry.  He smiled.  “Then I will explain.  There are three things I need to locate.  The Cup of Midnight, which can bind anyone who does not give the Cup their name, and which according to legend may actually already be broken.  I need to confirm that or not.  And the Cup of Dawn, also known as the Goblet of Fire, which can bind anyone whose name is cast within it.  And the Resurrection Stone, one of the Deathly Hollows of the three Peverell brothers, which can transcend any barrier.  The Goblet and the Stone were both in the possession of Lord Voldemort, and we haven’t been able to locate them.  They are very powerful, and too important to be left to chance.”

“We know of all three devices,” said Aosta.  She glanced at Roonwit for confirmation, and the centaur nodded.

“I will tell you my intentions, and we will settle the question of fact, if you are willing?”  Harry said.  He marshalled his knowledge and his arguments and his wits.  A lot is riding on this.  If I fail, I’ll have to approach someone like Aosta more privately.  And if that fails… well, I’ll just have to try something else.  The thought of compulsion occurred to him, but he quashed it.  That was a dark road to go down, and he wouldn’t begin planning last resorts until he’d run out of every other idea.

Glenstorm’s worry beads clicked.  Aosta folded her arms in front of her chest, stern but receptive.  And Roonwit listened eagerly.

“Well, then,” Harry said.  He cleared his throat, and checked the abacus in his pocket.  Seventeen of the beads had moved, one per minute of this conversation.  The hidden aurors ensuring the secrecy and privacy of this conversation were still on task and unmolested.  “Here is my plan -- or as much as I can tell you about it, anyway.”


  1. Philosophy, magic and meta-meta-debate at its finest.

  2. I've always felt virtue ethics is in fact just consequentialism with different value schema. Instead of valuing "ultimate good" it values the moral state of the actor. Glenstorm's position demonstrates this well. He cannot actually distinguish his assessment of the virtue of the act without considering the facts of the consequences.

  3. I've always felt virtue ethics is in fact just consequentialism with different value schema. Instead of valuing "ultimate good" it values the moral state of the actor. Glenstorm's position demonstrates this well. He cannot actually distinguish his assessment of the virtue of the act without considering the facts of the consequences.

  4. That was the most succinct philosophical argument I have ever seen.

    As everyone knows, arguing philosophy is not about coming to a consensus but instead finding clever ways to wiggle out of your opponents logic traps, and then watch them squirm within your traps. There is no such thing as capitulation or accepting defeat.

    1. At some schools kids are taught about coming to a consensus and even accepting defeat in arguing philosophy.

    2. Indeed, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language” (quoting from Ludwig Wittgenstein's "Philosophische Untersuchungen").

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. "Aosta shook her head. Her hair was in a beautiful, long ponytail tied back with jute twine, strikingly similar (certainly intentionally so?) to her tail. Harry kept his eyes on it and on her face, which was difficult -- considering her height and the fact that centaurs go unclothed." - This is the best line in the fic honestly (typo fixed)

  6. I love the contrast of the large centaur and worry beads

  7. "slade from the Urist Quarry"
    Is that a Dwarf Fortress reference I see before me?