It hasn’t stopped me yet

Suppose we posit, for the sake of argument, that our reality (like the fictional universes we have visited in recent posts) is simply a metaphysical roll of the dice. Suppose there were multiple equally valid realities?

We all have the subjective feeling that this particular plane of existence is real. But what if we knew this “reality” to be an illusion? Would that knowledge change our understanding, our philosophy of life, our goals for the future?

To what extent can an expanded metaphysical knowledge of reality influence our day to day life? Perhaps the answer is not at all.

After all, we all know that we will eventually die. That doesn’t seem to stop anybody from living their life.

I don’t know about you, but it hasn’t stopped me yet. 🙂

Five centuries dinner party

I was watching a series of lectures today related to Leonardo DaVinci. This year is the 500th anniversary of the great man’s death, so there are a lot of DaVinci related events going on these days.

DaVinci’s life spanned the turn of the year 1500AD, and that got me thinking about other influential thinkers who were born in one century and died in the next. 1600AD gives us William Shakespeare for one. For 1700AD we have Bach and Newton, among others.

1800AD was particularly rich, yielding Goethe, Gauss and Austen to name just a few. When I think of 1900AD I mainly think of Albert Einstein, but that’s just me.

Imagine a dinner party with Leonardo DaVinci, William Shakespeare, Johann Sebastian Bach, Jane Austen and Albert Einstein. We would definitely want to throw in a universal translator, and presumably some excellent bottles of wine.

I would love to be a fly on the wall for that gathering!

The world revealed as an illusion, part 3

Imagine you are a child of eleven. You are reading a wondrous book, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.

Following the adventures of Schmendrick the magician, you are at the climactic scene. He and his companions, one of whom is a woman named Molly Grue, are faced off against evil King Haggard, who has harnessed the evil power of a giant red bull (which is perhaps a demon) to kill the last unicorn on earth.

It seems that all is lost, that the very last unicorn will tragically disappear from the world. And then something miraculous happens.

Out of the ocean, thousands of unicorns stream ashore to join the battle against the evil king, like a vast wave of mystical salvation. Your eleven year old self is caught up in the wonder, the sheer majesty of this moment.

And then, for one paragraph only, the book takes a strange little detour, before continuing on to its conclusion. This paragraph, your very first taste of metafiction, stays with you forever:

“For Molly Grue, the world hung motionless in that glass moment. As though she were standing on a higher tower than King Haggard’s, she looked down on a pale paring of land where a toy man and woman stared with their knitted eyes at a clay bull and a tiny ivory unicorn. Abandoned playthings – there was another doll, too, half-buried; and a sandcastle with a stick king propped up in one tilted turret. The tide would take it all in a moment, and nothing would be left but the flaccid birds of the beach, hopping in circles.”

The world revealed as an illusion, part 2

For me, a canonical example in literature of the world revealed as an illusion comes in Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when Prospero cuts short a play within the play by declaring:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

What is so lovely about this speech is that he is not merely referring to the performers in the play he is watching. He also refers to “the great globe”, which is not only his own fictional world, but the name of the actual theater where Shakespeare’s plays were performed.

With these words, the speech jumps not only out of the play within the play, but out of the fictional world of The Tempest itself, and into our own reality outside the play.

Which makes the closing lines far more powerful: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

Those final words end up serving as a reminder that life itself is a kind of waking dream, which will one day end, and that the audience members themselves are ephemeral creatures. It just doesn’t get any more meta than that.

The world revealed as an illusion, part 1

There is a certain literary trope which I love (when it’s done well). It is the moment in certain works of fiction when the author slyly reveals to the reader/viewer that everything they have been reading or watching is actually an illusion.

This is a very “meta” rhetorical device, because of course it is all an illusion. We know quite well that we are watching a play or a movie, or reading a book.

So this device should not work. Yet it does work, but only when it is done well, by a skilled creator. Tomorrow I will describe some of my favorite examples.

Another superintelligence problem

If we want to represent superintelligence in fiction, is there any good way to do it? I know that many have tried, but so far I haven’t encountered a result that felt completely satisfactory to me.

One of my favorite attempts was Frank Herbert’s representation of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood in the Dune trilogy. I was especially struck by their ability to hold entire conversations amongst themselves, while they are simultaneously speaking with unenhanced humans, without the latter even suspecting the existence of this higher level of conversation.

There is something about such a double consciousness that strikes me as very human, even though it is far beyond the powers of actual humans. I think it is this quality that I am looking for: Some quality of mind that is far beyond the capability of actual people, but that nonetheless resonates with readers/viewers as something distinctly human.

Does anyone out there have other examples of superhuman intelligence in fiction that manage to convey this dual quality?

The superintelligence problem

Today I read an article in the NY Times about Klotho. It’s a hormone that has been shown to cause mice to live longer and become effectively smarter in various ways.

And that got me wondering. What would happen should some runaway virus suddenly cause every human on the planet to become much more intelligent?

Which got me thinking about the entire question of intelligence. What does it really mean that we are “intelligent”? Is intelligence a linear scale that can keep going up without limit?

It’s a tricky question partly because “intelligence” is such an elusive quality. We might say that we are more intelligent than, say, a dog or an octopus. But the truth is that we are differently intelligent than a dog or an octopus.

Dogs can use their brains to easily do things — like follow a cold trail or recognize one scent among many — that are far beyond human capabilities. We aren’t even sure how dogs are able to do such things, let alone duplicate those capabilities.

An octopus can perform quite independent tasks with each of its eight tentacles, all working simultaneously on different subtasks to solve complex problems together like a very high functioning team. No individual human can do that.

So it’s not just a matter of “more intelligent”, but rather a matter of “more intelligent in the way that a human is already intelligent”. But even that restricted definition is complicated.

Do we mean better at math? Better at languages? Better at reading subtle changes in facial or bodily expression to precisely infer the emotional state of other humans?

What would we become if we were to become twice as good at these things? Or ten times as good? Would we still be essentially human, or would we become something else entirely — something that nobody today would recognize?