Philosophical Razors and the Instability of the Stillness

Life in the Stillness is plagued by uncertainty. When the Earth itself is unstable, so is everything built upon it, including knowledge. The incomprehensibility of various “deadciv artifacts” mentioned throughout the text, most notably the obelisks, renders it quite clear that much human ingenuity and understanding have been lost through the ages in Jemisin’s world. However, there is one universal text which seems to endure, guiding humanity season through season: the stonelore. A ubiquitous doctrine, the stonelore seems so completely integrated into the structure of Stillness society that it would collapse were it removed. Yet certain characters, particularly Syenite, are at points made to question this venerated collection of documents–both its completeness and its validity (Note: I began this post before it was revealed that Damaya, Syenite, and Essun are the same person. However, I believe it may be helpful to maintain the distinctions, as our protagonist faces different questions in different times of her life).

In such an unstable society, where truth can crumble like stone and hierarchical organizations such as the Fulcrum can closely guard secrets, it seems it would be extremely useful for individuals to have a working understanding of philosophical razors as a mechanism for finding truth in their world. In class, we discussed Amos Nur’s use of the most famous: Occam’s razor (Nur, Amos, and Dawn Burgess. Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God. Princeton University Press, 2008). Also known as the principle of parsimony, it states that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily,” or in practice, “the simplest solution tends to be the right one.” While Nur uses the principle to guide scientific study, Jemisin allows her more efficient, rational characters to employ it–for example, when Ykka relays the story of how the comm in Castrima figured out the old inherited geode city. When they saw that the mechanisms started working once an orogene entered, she immediately leaped to the simplest conclusion with the data available: the city is powered by orogeny (Jemisin 2015, 342). Figuring this out quickly and efficiently allowed the members of the comm to survive.

Essun demonstrated a propensity for this type of rational thought from an early age. When Binof visits Damaya with questions of “A place. With a shape. Sort of” (305), Damaya actually knows what she is talking about. This is because when realized that “Main’s walls and corridors aren’t wide enough to account for all the space the building occupies,” Damaya applied Occam’s Razor, and accepted the simplest conclusion: “there must be a huge empty chamber within” (306). This intuition that simple yet unexpected answers may underly the convoluted Yumenescene society liberates Damaya/Syenite from the bondage other orogenes face. Alabaster later helps Syenite reach another important, simple conclusion: some of the stonelore is damaged or missing because societies shape the text to fit their values.

However, as Michee first tackled in her post, “Occam’s Principle Analysis,” Occam’s razor’s emphasis on simplicity has its limitations. One definitive failure of the principle comes with the revelation of the true nature of the node maintainers. The principle of parsimony would have one conclude, as Syenite did, that the node maintainers are simply orogenes who have been trained as such. The more complicated, counter-intuitive reality that Alabaster reveals is that node maintainers are actually individuals who have been given “a lesion…that severs the rogga’s self control completely, while still allowing its instinctive use” (141). This horrifying lesson in the boundless cruelty of contemporary Stillness practice with orogenes teaches Syenite a crucial lesson: do not let Occam’s razor blind you to the full extent of oppression.

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