WP: Red Strings Extending Past the Sky (feat. Free Will)

Another writing prompt (with responses):

Image may contain: text

Off the bat, I have a little bit of a problem with the premise given it entails fate, but that’s okay, it opens the door to talking about the interplay of free will and fate. I’ll talk about that first. Then I’ll get into the possibilities of what an upward-going string could mean, be it aliens, celestial bodies, or (as I initially read it) the dead.

Fate and Free Will

I don’t imagine I need to spend much time showing how these two at least appear to clash. If you’re fated to something, that just means you’re unfree to avoid that something, at least using a fairly standard meaning of “fate”. Again, I’ll delineate several possibilities and then discuss the interesting options:

  1. You are bound to end up with the person you are fated to. Let’s bring back Ally and Bella and say now rather than twins they’re fated lovers. There’s no way they can go through life without ending up together.
  2. You’re bound to not end up successfully with anyone except whom you are fated to. Ally may date Carly for awhile, but they’ll never work out because Carly isn’t Bella.
  3. Fate influences events to steer you and your fated lover together, but ultimately you are free to choose. Ally and Carly could work out, but the scales are tipped towards her ending up with Bella.
  4. Fate is an impotent prophecy. The string between Ally and Bella does nothing and means only as much as they let it.

My first question here: In which of these possibilities is free will still an option?

What exactly fate is supposed to be is another question, but it doesn’t muddy the waters too much. The three options I see are some sort of divine power, causal determination, and a social story. By divine power I mean anything from what God set up for us to do in advance to a mystical energy that guides the universe. By causal determination, I mean if we live in a world where some sort of deterministic laws govern everything that happens, then in some sense we are fated. While it might sound silly to say when I knock the cup off my desk it’s fated to hit the floor, if complete knowledge of the particles in the universe could let you tell the life story of a newborn, “fate” seems like an alright word to use. These first two options work essentially the same, and fit quite nicely with 1. The third option, a social story, is more along the lines of 4. If your family has sold oranges for seven generations and they hope you continue, in some sense it’s your fate to sell oranges. However, this is totally compatible with you having a real option not to sell oranges.

What kind of fate fits with 2 and 3, then? Well, 2 could go with either of the first two options easily. Just because Ally is fated to not end up with anyone besides Bella doesn’t mean she has a fate to end up with Bella. She might just be forever alone. Looking at 3 requires a bit more because it demands some real possibility. It still works with the first two options if we modify them to be merely probabilistic or “leaning” in nature. On the divine end, God (or the universal spirit or whatever — I’ll say “God” from here on out) may not want to control but merely help you make certain decisions. A salesperson can’t make you buy something, but she can certainly try loading the deck in her favor. Likewise, God might not force Ally and Bella together, but nature may be set up so they’ll have all the best reasons to end up together. Likewise, if deterministic forces govern most of the world but leave freedom for people, those forces may overwhelmingly be lined up for Ally and Bella to have all the best reasons to choose each other. They may in their freedom betray their reasons, but nonetheless, the reasons were setup for them.

The compatibilist may here object that even with 1 Ally and Bella are still free. Even if the laws of nature or preordained story of the world demands they end up together, it is still they who choose to be together. That they are determined in their action does not change the fact that they chose what they did for some reasons. So when I say they have no choice, I’m mistaken. They totally have a choice, and they will choose each other.

I think these options illustrate the divide between libertarianism and compatibilism nicely. The libertarian simply cannot have 1, short of Ally and Bella ending up together by force and every other possible ending being taken away. Short of that, at the very least the two have the option to, say, kill themselves. They may choose to remain single. If the strings of fate only demand some societal role of togetherness be fulfilled, the mob may coerce them together as children, but if any choice of theirs is demanded, it must remain with no fact of the matter until they choose it, and what they choose must have no fact of the matter until they choose. That is, if they aren’t together yet, the statement “They end up together” must be neither true nor false.

I want to return to the loophole enabling the libertarian to have 1. Generally speaking, the libertarian requires free will and multiple actual possibilities for what choices may happen. (Contra the compatibilist who does not have this second requirement.) However, the choices don’t actually have to have any potency. Perhaps Ally and Bella are restrained from birth and end up together in some way not requiring any choice from either one of them. They may choose to reject each other but be physically forced into some bodily actions. In this case, freedom of the libertarian kind is still present.

The Skyward String

For better or worse, which of those four options and how much free will (libertarian, compatibilist, or none) is in play doesn’t really change the question of what it means for the string to be going upwards. The one important difference is that if the strings actually indicate an unavoidable fate, they must be indicating a possible fate. A clear case would be if we all have birthmarks on our chests with the year we die. You could not have the year 1999 birthmarked in this way because obviously you live past 1999. However, even the oddest options still have their possibility open for question.

The first response in the image suggests an alien. This is a pretty straightforward way about it. If fate demands possibility, this string would also demand contact with aliens within the lifespan of the person. (The prompt says “you,” so I’ll say your lifespan.) There’s nothing too outlandish here; there’s a lot of space in the universe, so some other sapient lifeforms being around isn’t out of the question.

The next suggestions are of celestial beings, interesting for being inanimate objects. (Well, unless a really wacky mode of panpsychism is right.) While objectophilia is certainly a thing, it is, to my knowledge, relatively unexplored. Moreover, this poses problems for the idea of a soul mate. Presuming being a soul mate requires a soul, this option is just off the table unless one of those wacky modes of panpsychism is right.

(What’s panpsychism? It’s the theory that everything is perceiving, thinking, experiencing, or otherwise of the same kind of thing a mind is. If you put the basic proto-psychic particles in the right shape, like a brain, you get robust consciousness. I’ve yet to see any literature discussing whether the moon could be conscious, though many physicalist (i.e. everything is physical) definitions of consciousness have to deal with the implication that solar systems or galaxies fit the definition. You would probably have trouble unbuckling Orion’s belt either way.)

The pilot option only makes me question what “beyond the sky” means in the original prompt. It might just mean past the point of visibility, in which case, sure, a pilot works. If it means beyond the Earth’s atmosphere (and pilots merely fly in the sky), then of course a pilot is not an option. Of course, if your lover is a pilot, they will likely be on the ground at some point, giving you a hint that way. If your lover is some faraway celestial body, your string will have some sort of regular rotation, sometimes pointing into the sky, and other times the ground.

Finally I have my original reaction: a dead person. As noted, with some of the freedom options, one of the lovers dying before fate can have its way is an option. Even if Ally and Bella choose to live as long as they can, Bella might be killed in a fatal accident. Say the strings appear when you hit puberty. Unfortunately, fatal accidents do not care about age, so Bella might be hit by a bus while Ally is only five, and then when Ally hits puberty, her string points skyward because it’s unclear which other way it would. Perhaps it points towards Bella’s corpse, though it’s not clear Bella is  her corpse. If Bella survives death, then either she is spatially related to Ally or she is not. If she is, then the string just points in the right direction — that we talk about the afterlife (or at least Heaven) being upward led me to assume skyward string indicated a dead lover, though any direction is in the realm of possibility. If she’s not spatially related, or if she does not survive death, then no direction makes sense, so Ally would be able to conclude her lover is not dead in such a way that she is not spatially related to her. (Or the strings have a special caveat for dead lovers.)

WP: Red Strings Extending Past the Sky (feat. Free Will)

WP: Twin Pain

From the writing-prompt-s tumblr:

You live in an alternate world where twins — fraternal and identical — can feel each other’s physical pain. You are an only child with no siblings. One day, suddenly, you feel a burning pain in your chest.

This prompt brings up a few problems. The first is of identity: what makes a pain yours? The next is an epistemic problem brought up by tumblr user askmissbernadette:

It’s called heartburn, learn to eat slower you hooligans

In a case where you may or may not have a long-lost twin, under what circumstances can you figure out whether or not you do? And if you can figure out that you do, how can you figure out that you can?


Let’s set aside your circumstances in the prompt and only consider the more usual case in this world of a pair of twins who feel each other’s physical pain. To feel someone else’s pain can take a variety of forms, particularly when the limitations of reality are lifted. Five levels are apparent:

  1. On the tamest end we have real-world recognition-based empathy. For example, if you see someone hurt, you recognize the hurt and are hurt in recognition of their pain.
  2. Next, also from the real-world, we have the sort of empathy where in response to seeing someone else having a feeling, you feel something mirroring that feeling. Of course, this is based on your perception of the feeling.
  3. A non-real level, when someone else feels a pain and it causes you to feel a pain through some mechanism. Maybe it’s magic. Maybe it’s really weird laws of physics. Perhaps a device that records their pain, sends a radio signal to a device
  4. A further non-real level, most easily explained by example. Say Ally and Bella are twins in the WP world. Ally gets hit by a hammer in her stomach and feels a pain in her stomach. At the same time, Bella feels a pain with all of the same properties in her own stomach.
  5. On the farthest level, we have the same pain in Ally and Bella. That is, Bella doesn’t feel the pain in her stomach — she feels the pain in Ally’s stomach. Within this type, she may have her own experience of the pain or, somehow, there is only one experience, though they both experience it.

Whether there are actually two options in 5 is itself another question, though. Is there more to pain than just the experience? The options are either there is some abstract entity of pain that is instantiated in the experiences, and thus one pain can be experienced multiple times or by multiple people or else there is only the experience. Perhaps, though, experiences can be repeated, within or across people. If, however, every experience is unique, then one pain can only be instantiated in two experiences if it’s itself some separate thing.

Are experiences unique? I argue they are. Our experiences do not come in neat, discrete parts, but rather messy wholes. When I see the glass on my desk, I don’t just see the glass. I’m seeing a bunch of things while feeling and hearing and smelling other things. Even with regard to the glass itself, it has a certain focus in my vision at a certain distance, and, most fleetingly, at a certain time. Moreover, I recognize it as a glass because of a certain cultural context. Rather than just seeing a clear cylinder with some color in it, I recognize it as a thing to pick up and drink from if I’m thirsty. My experience of it right now is as something not to drink from at this moment, but probably in a few minutes. Likewise, each pain and every other experience comes with a complex context that cannot be repeated.

If there are abstract entities, perhaps pain is one of them. In this case, if Ally gets hit in the stomach, the stomach pain entity is called upon to spawn itself in Ally. The same stomach pain entity is also called upon to spawn itself in Bella.

If instead pain is just the experience, we get the odd case of Ally getting hit in the stomach and Bella feeling that same pain. Here the difference from 4 is most evident. If 4 is the case, then Bella would feel pain in her own stomach. If 5 is the case, then Bella feels pain in Ally‘s stomach since the experience is of a pain in Ally’s stomach.

Of course, the prompt has you feeling pain in your own chest, so if 5 is the identity involved, you have no reason to suspect you have a twin. If 4 is, then we have to ask how the properties transfer. The most evident property of pain is its ouchiness. That is, pain feels painful. But if Ally feels a pain in her chest that’s six inches from her right side but also in her heart, but Bella’ heart is eight inches from her right side, does she feel the pain six inches from her right side or in her heart?

Epistemology of Pain-Twins

Let’s assume the fourth level is the one involved here, and you feel a pain in your chest. Can you figure out if a twin explains the pain, and if not, can you figure out if you have a long-lost twin?

As askmissbernadette brings up, you might just have heartburn. Now, this assumes you have that kind of pain. Even if you’re not familiar with heartburn, you can probably imagine a difference between simple heartburn and being shot in the chest. Likewise, you can imagine a difference between heartburn and being poked in the chest. If the pain is heartburn-like, odds are probably better you have heartburn than you have a long-lost twin, especially if you haven’t noticed unexplained pains up until this point in your life. If not, maybe there’s something. If you happen to have access to doctors and medical tests, that can further your knowledge of the odds either way. If some known, not-super-rare explanation can explain the pain, it’s again probably more likely that than a mystery twin. If not, you might have some reason to be suspect, though the point remains if you’ve made it more than ten years without noticing anything off, you’re probably fine.

This epistemic point undermines the prompt a bit. Little kids get hurt a lot. Unless they’re living unusually safe lives, they run into things, fall, scrape their knees, and generally exploit how quickly they heal. But if you’re nine years old and start feeling a bleeding pain in your knee while sitting in class or feel like you just ran into a wall while watching television, that’s when you’re going to figure it out.

Say your twin and you both managed to avert this. Can you find each other given the pain sharing? If I were that curious, I’d stab myself with a pen in Morse code to send a message. What if my twin isn’t in a context to understand Morse code? Well, some form of rudimentary message sending might be possible. Making obvious intentional pains would draw attention, if there are such things. Doing something like bashing your arm into a tree would generally be unambiguous enough. Getting a responding pain would be a pretty solid clue, though the question would remain why nothing was noticeable earlier.

Perhaps they were in a very long coma (this is fiction, after all) and after over a decade (or more) have finally woken up. Chest pain may be the first pain they experience upon waking up. Unless they immediately back into a coma, though, they will experience more pains. So while the chest pain alone will not put you on good grounding to conclude you have a twin, the series of pains thereafter that do not match your activities will.


WP: Twin Pain