The basic myths we live by – eg that we are in the darkness but striving for light – can strike us as the truest thing we can say, but how could we prove they are correct? What would we appeal to if we wanted to show they were correct? They’re the deepest thing we live by. Related to myths are elevating rhetorical speech: “the arc of history bends towards justice” or “I will always love you.” They’re true, but the person who doesn’t see it doesn’t need an argument – they need a conversion.
Whenever we argue against a position and show that it is wrong it also has something true about it. It’s not just annihilated. It is helping us. It is another way of looking at things or another way of things revealing themselves. And that makes sense because if two things are going to be opposed they have a lot in common – North can be the opposite of South because they are both directions – it can’t be the opposite of broccoli. In fact the word “contradiction” – to speak against – shows us that, because it contains the word “against”, which has a double meaning. “Against” means both against as in a fight — Germany fought against the US – and against as in touching – the board was up against the fence. As Heidegger writes in The Parmenides Lecture: “How else could an opposition hold sway here unless they both shared, though in a concealed way, the same essential dimension?” [47-8]
I have a theory that stories about the multiverse never work as stories. That’s because a story is always about a protagonist trying to do something and succeeding or failing, and if you take either the multiverse or effective time travel seriously, you can’t tell such a story.
Take 1984. Winston Smith tries to find love in a totalitarian world. He and his girlfriend are captured and forced to betray each other. At then end, he loves Big Brother.
Imagine it is a multiverse story. If you tell it seriously, it is also the case that he and his lover never meet. That he is not in a totalitarian universe. That his name is not Winston Smith. That he tried to find love and succeeded. That he overthrew Big Brother. That he and Big Brother became lovers. That life never evolved on Earth. There are infinite numbers of possibilities. And therefore, no story.
There are two options. You could believe in the Multiverse and just tell one story. That supports my claim because it is just 1984, but written by somebody who believes in the multiverse.
The other option is you make your story Winston Smith coming to learn that the Multiverse theory is true. Perhaps he has a special screen, as in the show Devs. Or a special machine for jumping from universe to universe as in the movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once”.
There are two problems with this.
The first is: that’s not the multiverse theory. That’s a speculative story about a single universe which is divided into islands, and where you can see some of the other islands and even travel among them. If there’s causal interaction, it’s not a different universe. (I’m not sure what’s going to happen in Devs — it might be the actual multiverse theory, in which case — second problem).
Second problem: The story of somebody discovering that the multiverse theory is true is just an essay masquerading as a story.
Again, consider 1984. Winston comes across a screen that lets him know in another universe Big Brother never won. (This is sort of the plot of “Man in the High Castle” but Dick is not a multiverse guy, he’s a hippie neo-Platonist.).
That seems like a story set in the multiverse? But it isn’t. Because to tell the story multiversely, you need to spend time on the Winston who comes across a screen that doesn’t teach him the multiverse theory. He must come across infinite screens in all the infinite universes that teach him all sorts of false theories that are similar and dissimilar to the multiverse theory in countless ways.
“Guy discovers he lives in the multiverse” and “guy who unsuccessfully fights totalitarianism in the name of love” are both not multiverse stories, unless you include all the other possibilities. And if you include all the other possibilities you have no story.
I suspect that this is true about stories where the protagonist goes back in time and changes the past as well.
Is there a philosophical consequence to this? That the multiverse theory (and David Lewis’s modal realism) are false?
I think: yes. But at the very least multiverse belief causes us to give up a lot of our everyday assumptions about what it is to act, and what a meaningful decision is and a meaningful story. Stories that blur or hide this fact are misleading. Not on purpose. I think people get swept along by the intellectual excitement and they like telling stories, and lose their footing.
But if you find stories like that dissatisfying or vaguely like a cheat, don’t feel bad. You’re right.
We don’t like confusion
The world is a mixture of confusing and not confusing
We seek to avoid confusion
Some of the confusion can be dissipated by thinking about it clearly.
Not all, but some.
There are two classes of things to think about. Things that are still confusing. And things that are no longer confusing. This is a spectrum. But you can say there are areas of life that have been reduced to well-defined games and puzzles and areas of life that are not yet that clearly defined. In the first area, the job is to win the game or solve the puzzle. In the second area either you could say there is no job and no game, or that the job or the game is to invent a game – to transform confusion into a well-defined, solvable puzzle.
So the members of the human race who are engaged in cognitive projects splits up roughly into two teams, depending upon which task they are shouldering. One team is of those working to manipulate that which has already been clarified. The other is that team which is still seeking to understand the still confused. They are not adversaries but collaborators although sometimes (see below) they may get adversarial. This btw is a confusion it is easy to fall into – the white and black players in chess from one point of view are adversaries, but if you take a step back you can see they are co-operating in the shared enterprise of playing chess.
Anyway, two groups.
We can call the first: the puzzle solvers, and the second the confusion peerers.
These two approaches end up expressing themselves in different ways.
At worse this can lead to mutual miscomprehension or even contempt.
The way of looking at things and the tools of intellectual management and interpersonal human relationship for someone who manipulates the already clarified is different when compared to that of the person who is preoccupied with peering into confusion.
To give an example: the confusion-peerer will always look to a fellow person’s error and ascribe it to mistaking what is confusing for what is clear. In contrast, the puzzle-solver, the person who looks at the already-clarified will think that those who make mistakes have simply failed to calculate correctly, to solve the puzzle correctly. So while to the confusion-peerers the fundamental human error is lack of imagination, for the manipulators the fundamental human error is carelessness or laziness.
Ideally these two groups will both recognize that they are engaged in the same joint human enterprise and suspicion is unnecessary. Rather a spirit of natural goodwill and co-operation ought to come naturally as it does to those engaged in collaborating on an important worthwhile task.
However as civilization becomes more complicated the extremes of each group are ever further from each other.
So it is important to always try and clarify the evolving situation in a way that will be comprehensible by BOTH parties.
And in general as the human civilization becomes more ramified and specialized the jobs of communicator and bridge builders will become ever more critical.
My writing is from both sides of the human divide – it is simultaneously a clarification of the nature of the confusion-non-confusion relationship and an imagination of the depth of gap between the confusion and the non-confusion. How confusing that gap is! That there could be two and not one!
At its extreme imaginative discourse is rhapsodizing.
At its extreme manipulative discourse is inhuman data flow.
One could argue that they are the same in being non-linguistic states of being: but one is high and one is low.
Chapter One: The Puzzle Box
Hernando and Jane are scientists and co-workers. Hernando is in his twenties and has thick lustrous black hair. Jane is in her fifties and has thinning red hair. Their job is to put experimental subjects in a series of more and more difficult puzzle boxes and chart their progress. Puzzle Box 1 is solved by recognizing a pattern in red and blue levers. Puzzle Box 5 is solved by making friends with a fawn and making it eat out of your hands. Puzzle Box 8 is solved by standing firm in the face of cruel and unfair accusation. Hernando says that he and Jane are in a puzzle box and the solution to it is on the tip of his tongue. Sometimes he thinks the solution is to announce that he has figured out he is in a puzzle box to their boss Beatrice. Jane says she is undecided on the question of whether they are actually in a puzzle box, but she is confident that if they are simply saying so to Beatrice is not the solution.
Chapter Two: The Tea
Wai-hong has taught himself not to think about something that happened to him three years ago when he still lived with his mother and that was very painful. Right now we are peeking in on him drinking a cup of hot tea after his roommates have gone to sleep. The steam is rising from the surface of the water and we can see his face through the steam. We wonder whether the anxiety that he feels as he struggles not to remember what happened at his mother’s house is worse or better than remembering it. We conclude, correctly, that good and bad are rather ambiguous terms and that there is certainly a dimension along which the anxiety is not worse than the memory.
Chapter Three: What Tamar Did at Swarthmore
Desmond is preparing to tell Tamar that he can’t continue their relationship because he learned what she did at Swarthmore, and he cannot have a relationship with a bad person. He tells her. She cries, she hugs him, they start to kiss, he pushes her away. She says, first that what she did at Swarthmore doesn’t make her a bad person. Desmond argues that it does. Finally Tamar says that it doesn’t make any sense — why can’t Desmond make love with somebody who is a bad person? Desmond says he is afraid that he will become bad. Tamar says if making love with her can make him into a bad person, maybe he is one already, and he should face his fear of being a bad person, rather than withdrawing from life. He continues the relationship and this morning Tamar suggested they both try to seduce the new graduate student, Tella, because if they don’t it will always be between them (them being Desmond and Tamar) — the question of what it would have been liked if they shared their bed with Tella. Desmond is sure that he would have wondered about Tella even if he had never met Tamar, and therefore that when she, Tamar, said that his fear of becoming bad was misplaced, she was right, since either he had been bad all along, or he was not bad now. He is pulling on his socks and squeezing his feet into his shoes and deciding it is time to leave Tamar and put out feelers for work at another college. Any place on the Eastern seaboard would be fine. Possibly even Swarthmore.
Was the question they asked me on my exam and immediately I was in danger.
And I was tormented with guilt because:
It was a danger I had placed myself in. With eyes open
They asked me — do you want the questioners whose questions can be evaded
The ones who if you say — I don’t know — I don’t care — will say “Don’t worry about it.”
Or the other kind. And I had said “Choice Two! For me, Eric — I choose choice Two!”
And now here I was being asked about my favorite Francophone poets.
And the answers were coming thick in my ears like gunk like goo like pus like tinnitus
Bomba De Joon. Harichandra Harapatchasarisson. Loud Joe.
Oomfalla, the Intravenous. Lai Baw. Ungracious Pete.
So many suggestions for my favorite Francophone poets
But were they Francophone? Were they favorite? Were they my? Were they poets?
I didn’t know. And they weren’t even the worst.
What if my favorite francophone poet was my own liver
Churning within me, unknown, unsensed, irresolute, gristly, monstrous, composite prime
Or a path with the rain coming down and I’m running down it
Running. Running. My foot is slipping beneath me. My knee is slipping from its socket.
My jaw hits the mud. I’m crying. I’m dying.
I’m dying. I think I am a piece of the Francophone Poet.
Or it is Lai Baw but he is multiple. He is so many poets.
Some Francophone. Some not.
Some mine. Some not.
Some favorite, some the opposite. Quite.
In a few minutes they will come out of the room
The Examiners, and tell me if I have passed their test.
If I will go with the ones who sit in fine chairs and eat cafes
And whose chins are elected to high office, and whose bodies,
Don’t even mention it, the sort of care they will receive
At graduation ceremonies, while others will be bleeding in the gas station bathroom of the mind
Waiting for the pursuer to give up, hoping the pursuer will not use the bathroom,
Hoping the pursuer will not find me in the stall, standing on the toilet so as not to be seen
But on the floor, undeniable, a drop or two of blood
I checked into a hotel and there were two maids, one, Denise turned out the light and danced, one, Polly turned on the light and played the guitar. When I checked out the manager asked me if I knew who they were? No, I said. They were the gods Dionysus and Apollo.
The manager asked me if I knew what turning the light off was. I said: is it concealing? And he asked me: do you know what turn on the light was? And I said: is it revealing? And he said, no, or Not Really. Because in my hotel the fact that lights turn on and off at all is a symbol, and both turning the light on and turning it off conceal and reveal equally, or, rather, they are a symbol.
And he asked: do you know what the hotel is? And I said: it is my life? And he said yes. And he asked: do you know who I am? And I said: are you my creator? And he said: no. I am not your creator. You are not my creation. But the relationship between you and me symbolizes something.
What is it that it symbolizes, I asked him?
He said: the relationship between you and me is not here to symbolize something, but the word “symbol” is here to communicate from me to you something about the relationship of me and you.
Do you want to try it again?
I woke up from my dream. Polly was turning the light on and off. Denise was dancing. Each moment of her dance seemed to separate her from the stream of time into an image, and to separate me from the stream of time into an image. It seemed to, but it didn’t, because the vibrations of her guitar knit them together with my heartbeat into a single stream of experience. My skin prickled and my hair stood on end.
I pulled the curtain aside. Although it was nighttime the flashes of lightning lit up the city below brighter than day. In the pelting rain and wind the people were running through the streets without umbrellas and without hats. It was too far away for me to understand what they were feeling and my eyes overflowed with tears and my throat spasmed in sobs. I closed my eyes and sank to my knees, taking one of Polly’s hands in my left and one of Denise’s in my right.
When I stood up I felt strong.
I was strong.
Blind and confused and wounded, I grew from strength to strength.
Human beings are on an island in the vastness of empty space.
The human brain is a small organ in a large body.
Maybe. But..what counts as “vast”? What counts as “large”?
When we make a map we make the quantities in the map represent quantities in the world. It is up to us how to do it. Space does not come with a metric. There are many possible metrics.
If we take as the metric complexity, each human brain has as many neurons as there are stars as are in the milky way galaxy, and each neuron has 100,000 synapses. Factor in the feedback loops which we have not even begun to comprehend and the human brain is by far the most complex object we know about.
Map not bare size but complexity and the known universe is a fringe around the Earth.
The body is a fringe around the brain. Froth on the wave.
Look at our lives through the complexity map, because the complexity of the brain is much more important to our lives than the brute size of Saturn.
Even the brain of a cicada is more important than Saturn.
(Not to knock Saturn).
It is from that vast terra incognita that the destructions and creations issue forth. The ones that we dodge and parry like bullfighters.
The ward of the wind.