Watching (Living in the worlds where you are not)


There was a theme I wanted to talk about today, and old favorite of mine, and old favorite of everybody’s I think. Maybe it’s a moral puzzle. People call it the Good Samaritan idea, but that it’s not really the way I view it.

I guess it’s the other side of audience, the idea of watching. Watching is weird. It’s a very strange thing actually.

When we watch, we’re not real, are we? How could we be, if the things we’re watching are real? One of them has to not be: I don’t think it matters which. But in order to watch, we are, and what we watch is not; or what we watch is, and we are not.

Psychiatrists call this suspension of disbelief. You either see the people in the theater or you are immersed in what’s in the screen. Either one is real, or the other–not both.

Of course there is only one world. And now I need a word.


Deriatives, I guess? Derivatives of the world.

There is only one world: the one where we sit in the theater, where the movie is made — but there is a derivative world, within the real one, where the movie is real. It doesn’t physically exist; it’s only in the minds of those following along with the story. Yet such a world has to exist, in some sense, just not the physical one. Otherwise there would be no story. And no reason to watch.

There’s a different derivative world (probably a lot of them, depending on how good the movie is) going on in the theater. The dramas of our social interaction, which are more real than what goes on in the screen, but still not completely real: derivatives of the physical world, not part of it.

You can test that these worlds are of a different kind, if you don’t believe me, by watching how quickly they change, how easily, and how invisibly. Should we suddenly decide that we really don’t like this guy, would anyone watching be able to tell? Would they see it? Would they smell it, hear it, feel it or taste it? Probably not. It’s a concrete change, in the world, that’s observable only to one person. Unobservable to anyone else. That’s a derivative world.

And so when we watch, anything, we need to either enter a derivative world not equal to the one that has us it, unless of course we’re watching ourselves–we enter a derivative world where we are not, in order to watch. And that’s weird! It’s kind of confusing isn’t it? It’s not a question of whether you should be watching; it’s not a question of whether you belong in that world; you’re not there, it doesn’t matter.

But how does morality work? In a world where we don’t exist, what are our obligations?


Derivative worlds, each just like a piece of code. I mean, I admit, in all of this discussion– and I think this is important to say–that I am very object-oriented. I think it’s because I like to agree with people, and I see what we can all agree on. The stuff like “There are two fists” and “Cher has hair.”

This has to be the starting point, when we try to reason. I hope that’s clear. Everything has to start with the physical. Gah, something that’s probably so meaningless to almost everyone but so important to me! Here is the world, unchangeable other than the ways that it is changeable, infinitely complicated, massive; not understood–so barely and poorly understood. Not subject to any opinion held by anyone anywhere. Such a big sky. Such an enormously big sky, and static.

So I also am object-oriented here in the sense that any derivative world we live in should inherit this physical world, am I right? Sometimes it’s going to be pretty far away; but let’s be aware of how far away it is.  If I’m writing a story, and I want to write it well, I’ll bring that physical world with me, or invent a new one, and those rules will apply in that narrative world. When the hero hefts his tea, does it steam? Some people have told me that this is the essence of good writing. I think they went to school for it. “How real does it feel?”

Often we import our physical world–if we want to. Depends on what kind of derivative world we’re building. Maybe you have ideas that don’t belong in this world at all, that break all the rules or have no physical description, even. But, still, they, thought of in a skull that in this physical world, and hopefully written on a piece of paper in this physical world, are connected to this physical world. I wouldn’t call this connection importing the physical world. It’s more like … nesting.

And this is where my choice of the word derivative makes a lot of sense.* The derivative world is not a part of that function that is the physical world–that universal single equation we’ll someday write down, maybe, right?– that equation that is the universe? U?

A derivative world is not part of that equation, but it cannot escape it.

It is determined by it, but it is not a part of that function. There is no point on that imaginary line U that you could pull out and say “here is a story I made up about a fun-loving nun who communicated with people by dropping squids on them.” That does not occur on the U graph–even if you say she had a hovercraft instead of a magic wimple, or lost the squids–but the idea’s occurrence to you does.

Or would: if this idea occurs to you, I can guarantee there will be a point on the graph of the physical universe to represent that it did. But no points for Sister.

And that makes it part of a derivative world, where YOU are the differentiator. You are in some sense a variable, slicing through this function, and you are not just one: you are an entire infinite set of them.

I’m trying to say that you have options.


But that function can’t be escaped. Now I like to have another such function too. I believe it is more fundamental: maaaaaybnghehhgngnlgnlgnl — can’t support that, back up, hold on, back up. Ok.


I do believe in another universal equation, that we’ll maybe someday write down. I don’t know how, and I just accept that about myself. There are some places my brain just cannot– it’s like territory where there is air that I just can’t breathe–

but that’s logic. Logic is a universe too. The way truth works. That’s what logic means. And it’s complicated. And part of why it is complicated is all these derivative worlds.

Wait! Did I misspeak or what? Part of what simplifies logic is all these derivative worlds. Which I believe function according to one logic, sufficiently complex to govern them all.

This has been my perspective on the Good Samaritan idea. Not the bible story so much as the Observation Puzzle that comes out it, of stories like it (no need to watch any of these to get the idea, so I didn’t make them links).

“Onlookers jeer as man is beaten, stripped and robbed in Baltimore” (2012)

“Two transgender women were beaten abroad an Atlanta commuter train as fellow passengers shouted at the victims” (2014)

“Mom beaten as toddler tries to intervene [and several other people watch or film]: Salem police seek assailant” (2014)

“Video depicts bystanders watching while Elyria man is assaulted.” (2015)

“Woman Beaten, Dies in Leap as Watchers Cheer” (2015)

“Philly man mercilessly beats woman for 20 min in street; video of bystanders’ behaviors shocks cops” (2016)

“Bystanders laugh at man beaten to a pulp in chilling video (2015)”

“Woman is horrifically beaten on a Philadelpia street in board daylight as a crowd of people stand by and do NOTHING” (2015)

So you see I’m not just waxing my beard here. However watching works, it’s a problem we have difficulty understanding, and the consequences of our inability to understand are very real. We have a hard time reconciling our take on it — i.e. “not my problem”– with the emotional reaction we have when other people watch us and don’t help.

Imagine collapsing in the middle of a Bed, Bath, and Beyond on a Sunday afternoon in August**, and then just lying there as people stepped over you. I’m guessing you will sense a disconnect with the well-reasoned “not my problem” approach laid out above.*** If you had a way to locate all of the people who had stepped over you that day later, what would you want to say to them?

I think in most of these articles, in a lot of them, I try to paint a picture of a mental maneuver. It’s one way to become more intelligent, to increase you arsenal of mental maneuvers, to better align your mental model with reality, which makes you happier. The mental maneuvers in this one is importing versus nesting.

*Hold on, I have to weigh the pros and cons of clarity. You didn’t know I did that, did you.

**Picked August for the image of lots of freshman dorm room linen purchasers.

***Your disconnect is not my problem.

Shoutout to the lady who came running out of her apartment in half-dressed to stop a couple that was fighting in the street.

And please do bear with me—no time to write well, but trust me, if I stop it will only get worse later.

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