(This is a portion of a longer work in progress. Despite appearances, it is not primarily about whether the world "really is" a simulation.)
Adam, Ursula, & Yorick arriving; Emilia, Iachimo, Orsino, already in conversation.
Adam: Sorry we’re late.
Emilia: What held you up?
Ursula: We got into a dispute. “La querelle des anciens et des modernes.”
Adam: I don’t even speak French.
Yorick: And, importantly! We stopped to get food.
Emilia: Ice cream! Fries!
Yorick: The sweet and the savory.
Ursula: We remembered you like to dip the one in the other.
Adam: De gustibus non est disputandum.
Orsino: A dispute? Who won?
Ursula: De gustibus non est disputandum.
Adam: Yorick had to moderate.
Yorick: It’s not that kind of argument.
Adam: What Yorick means is, “Whereof one cannot speak…”
It’s the same dispute as always. I can tell you and I wasn’t even
there. Adam started quoting the Republic, which as usual he’s toting
around, along with Kierkegaard I see; and Ursula rejoined with Lacan, or
Zizek, or Judith Butler, or Contrapoints, or whatever flavor of the
week it is. Each endlessly outflanking the other, Plato with priority,
Lacan with meta-games. It’s a Turing machine computing an undecidable
algorithm. If you ask Adam, it’s an endlessly debatable argument which
if it could, per impossible, be concluded would yield the victory to
Adam (of course), but the outcome is at the vanishing point -- the
impossible final station of an infinitely long train of thought. If you
ask Ursula, it’s an endless debate premised on the fact that victory per
se is impossible but posited as real; it’s the elusive “object of
desire” or whatnot. A MacGuffin.
Emilia: Uh huh. The difference being...?
Adam: You say potato, I say pomme de terre.
Ursula: Actually, I say freedom fries.
Orsino: Garbage in, garbage out.
Emilia: Also, what did you say it was? A McWhat?
MacGuffin. It’s an Ursula thing, I picked it up from her. Like, a
placeholder for an actual thing, a thing the attention is focused upon,
but whose whole function is just to hold the attention. Or --
It’s from Lacan, via Hitchcock. Secret plans, the Ring of Power, the
Body of Christ. Hey, who’s reading Nineteen Eighty-Four?
Emilia: I just finished. Re-reading it, actually. Third or fourth time.
Ursula: I’m reading a very strange novel, The Invention of Morel by Bioy Casares.
Yorick: An intriguing book. And Orwell is indispensable.
Adam: “Slavery is Freedom.” So I guess “Freedom fries” is….
Beer in the fridge; wine on the counter. Coffee on the stove. The
kettle should still be hot; there’s lots of tea in the drawer there.
Yorick: The sour and the bitter! What were you talking about?
Emilia: Ooh, you’ll like this. They think we’re living in The Matrix.
Iachimo: I didn’t say that. I said, if simulation is possible, it’s overwhelmingly likely that we’re living in one.
Emilia: Speak for yourself.
Ursula: A simulation. Like the holodeck?
Adam: We have come too late. Obviously the moderns have won the quarrel before we arrived.
Orsino: The holodeck, right.
Yorick: And what makes you say that?
Orsino: And what makes you so sure we’re not?
Emilia: I didn’t say that.
Orsino: It was something about your eye-rolling.
Because: if simulation is possible at all, the inhabitants of
simulations must vastly, astronomically, outnumber the inhabitants of
the real world. Assume that computing power and rendering technology
sufficient to simulate something like our world exists. If simulation is
put into effect at all, it can presumably be implemented any number of
times. There’s only one real world, but there could be an arbitrarily
large number of simulations -- potentially billions.
Adam: Oh ye gods. Out of the modern encyclopedia, into the postmodern paper shredder.
Ursula: If you can’t beat ’em --
Fine, I’ll simulate your game. First of all, strictly speaking,
“billions” is extremely modest compared to what “arbitrarily large”
Emilia: I was saying that, in at least one way -- a
really simple way -- “simulation” is obviously possible: I can draw a
picture. Here: a stick figure. And it’s recognizable as a picture, which
means that in a way it simulates whatever it shows.
Iachimo: Not very high-resolution.
Emilia: I admit. Not the point.
But “simulation” is not the same as representation; it’s actually
important that simulation be potentially not recognizable “as a
picture.” In a simulation -- at least, as we’re using the term -- the
“picture” is supposed to be indistinguishable from the “real thing.”
Or at a minimum, I take it, indistinguishable below some (arbitrary)
degree of scrutiny. The birds came and pecked at Zeuxis’ grapes, but
they didn’t actually get fed.
Emilia: What grapes? Whose?
Zeuxis’ -- famous in antiquity for his skill as a painter; Pliny gives
a story that his painting of grapes fooled even the birds --
Ursula: And he was fooled by this other artist --
-- who painted a curtain on the wall of his room. Zeuxis goes to see
Parrhasius’ new painting; Parrhasius points to the wall. Zeuxis says,
“fine, pull the curtain, let’s see what you got.” Zizek has a whole
thing about it: Zeuxis’ illusion makes you mistake the painting for the
real thing; but Parrhasius’ illusion makes you think that what you see
conceals a reality.
Orsino: Your eye-rolling is not subtle.
Emilia: That’s what you think.
Orsino: You’re simulating subtlety, then. Not very high-resolution.
Look, I’m a painter, and the way I see it is: two ancient painters
create convincing pictures; one paints fruit. Another paints drapery.
I’m pretty sure it’s your friend Zizek who’s simulating here, if he’s
pretending this is some deep point.
Orsino: It wasn’t me, it was Ursula!
The point is not that one painting is more tricky than another. The
point is that there is an illusion of concealment when in fact there is
nothing to be concealed.
Adam: Well, now: This would constitute
one sort of “reality test.” If Zeuxis had been able to draw aside the
painted curtain, or if the birds who pecked at his painted grapes had
gone away nourished, now that would have been a simulation.
Emilia: Birds that eat paint? Anyway, that’s not the holodeck, that’s a replicator.
You were acknowledging that your stick-figure is low resolution. It
doesn’t resemble a human figure except schematically; you can tell what
it “stands for,” but anyone mistaking it for an actual human being
(even, say, seen from a great distance) would be, to put it mildly, an
outlier. Zeuxis’ grapes, on the other hand, are extremely realistic; but
even their realism has a limit. They don’t, for instance, taste good;
or you can’t smell them. There’s a limit of scrutiny -- some test that
would make the difference discernible.
Yorick: There is also
the comparison to sculpture and perspective. Adam will recall a
discussion of large statuary -- from the ground , everything appears
correctly proportioned; but in fact the head -- much farther away from
the viewer on the ground than the feet -- is oversized. The closeness of
simulation, if this is the appropriate word, rests in part upon the
closeness of the viewer.
Adam: Yes. That’s in Plato, in the Sophist.
In the context of which the question arises: how to distinguish
between these arts that are bound to falsify in some manner, and the art
that is simply that of showing how things are.
Adam: Now in Zeuxis’ case, we can turn the painting around & see the back of the canvas --
Emilia: It would have been a board, or pottery or something, if it was ancient Greek.
Adam: -- or we try to pick a grape, or we notice that the birds get sick or stay hungry.
Iachimo: Sure. What you mean is, it’s falsifiable, in theory.
But: discernible by whom, is the question. To us, who can see that the
birds go away hungry, Zeuxis’ painting does not simulate grapes. But if
the birds don’t notice at the time, or don’t register this because they
just peck and nibble because that’s what they do, maybe it does.
Orsino: Birds are actually way smarter than that.
Too smart for Hathaway. She’s always trying to catch them. She would
love me to paint something that would lure the birds in like that.
Adam: Where is Hathaway, anyhow?
Orsino: Curled up on Emilia’s bed, I think.
Ursula: She usually comes and greets Yorick.
But it seems to me you mean something further. If Zeuxis had painted
birds as well, and the painted birds had pecked at the painted
Emilia: Then Hathaway would pounce on them.
I think I see. If Emilia’s stick figure could come to life and move
about in the plane of the paper, it would not know it was only in a
drawing -- or so says the simulation scenario. The stick figure would have no way of
conceiving anything beyond, and so it couldn’t tell the difference
between its paper “world” and the real one. It couldn’t even notice the
difference. Neither would the birds.
Emilia: Why should the birds -- the painted birds -- “notice” anything at all? Why can’t they just be an animation?
Adam: Aside from the fact that an animation would not really satisfy Hathaway’s appetite.
In that case it’s not any different from a drawing -- I mean, really;
an animation just is lots of drawings, right? -- arranged in an order
and the order moved through quickly. But we’re imagining some sort of
different art form. It might involve a sort of animation, but it’s
obviously not just more powerful, but different in kind, because we’re
stipulating that it simulates experience from the inside. The birds are
(we’re saying) going to behave like real birds, all other things being
equal, within the plane of the painting.
whether it is “different in kind” or just in degree from animation
remains to be seen. Thought itself might be a kind of animation.
Animate means “ensoul.” To think about things is to put soul into
them. Aristotle says “soul is in some manner all things.”
Iachimo: Well, that’s not what I meant, exactly --
The real question -- well, let’s say a further question -- is: even
if we imagine the birds as having “come to life” within the painting --
whatever account we give of experience -- why should we think that they
would be “unable to distinguish” painted from real grapes, except in the
sense that they cannot actually encounter real grapes at all -- and so
cannot possibly try to distinguish them? It’s not that the painted
grapes fool the birds; the birds have no standard by which to be fooled
or not. The issue seems to have no occasion to arise.
We are stipulating that (in some importantly relevant sense) the
painted grapes are to the painted birds what real grapes are to real
birds; and that the paper world is to the stick figure what our world is
Yorick: So the reasoning rests on there being an analogy
between the painted world and the real one; certain relationships
Orsino: I’m not sure about “constant,” but
yes there’s an analogy. Sort of like there’s an analogy between Flatland
Iachimo: And a disanalogy. In fact, more than one of each.
But a stipulation is just what it is. I may not be able to visualize
four or more dimensions, but I can follow the analogy, and the
mathematics can be made rigorous: there’s a well-defined meaning to
adding another variable in a systematic way, the way you do when you add
a new axis to a grid system. But no one knows how many new axes are
being added when you try to add digestion to painted birds. You’re
starting from an imagined effect, and then imagining working backwards,
assuming you can get there from here by some rigorous process that you
Iachimo: “Digestion” actually assumes too
much. It might be one of the disanalogies, something that is not
preserved if you do the transformation operation (assuming of course
that the issue is analogous to adding a dimension or two, or twelve, or a
hundred). After all, certain properties get lost in higher
number systems; you can’t assume that (a x b) = (b x a) with
quaternions, for instance; with octonions you can’t assume that (a x b) x
c = a x (b x c), either.
Yorick: But in both cases, there is
something that it means to multiply; that is, the term multiply has a meaning, and (a x b) is a real operation. In the
case of the imagined painting, all that we can stipulate as being
(hypothetically) preserved is the formal relation: grapes are to birds
as painted grapes are to painted birds. The content of any one half of
the relation (“grapes:birds” meaning “birds digest grapes”) may not
Emilia: You are losing me.
Yorick: We may say
that the real birds pecked at Zeuxis’ painted grapes in order to eat them, or to
digest them; but this “in order to” seems ambiguous; does it mean the
same thing in both cases?
Iachimo: Their digesting the grapes is
entailed by their eating them (if they can eat them), but is that their
intention -- to the extent that they have intentions?
Emilia: Well, if Zeuxis had added birds, he would have painted them eating grapes, not digesting them.
I think that Emilia is right to wonder what the difference here is
from mere animation. “If a stick figure were to come alive,” is as much
to say, “if by magic….” And to imagine, by analogy with the stick
figure, that we might somehow be “in a simulation” is precisely the same
thing: you’re suggesting that we are “drawn.” It only works by
stipulating a degree of “artistry” we do not actually have any
experience of and cannot really imagine.
Ursula: “Any sufficiently advanced technology…”
Emilia: Arthur C. Clarke, right?
We’re projecting a technology, yes. But it’s not an unreasonable
projection. If you showed anyone in the Middle Ages, or the 19th century
even, any common example of technology today, they would be amazed.
Yes, yes, I know the argument: We extrapolate from one set of
circumstances (ours) and speculatively fast-forward: “well, since we can
do this, why couldn’t a “greater technology” do that?” This gives us
license to imagine anything we like, and call it technology. It’s fine
for science fiction -- though even there it’s pretty thin if that’s all
there is -- but it’s hardly science. And when someone says, that’s
magical thinking, you just invoke Clarke’s (ahem) “Law” and say it’s
bound to look like magic if it’s “advanced” enough. This sort of
argument is irrefutable on its own turf.
Iachimo: But there are
plenty of good reasons for it. Prognostication, reasoning by analogy,
and so on are legitimate ways of reasoning. We do try to guess what will
come by forecasting “if current trends continue.” Why? Because a lot of
the time, trends have continued. That’s what a trend is!
But you are also projecting something radically different. The
holodeck, or whatever, is orders of magnitude beyond current videogames,
even in VR. Let alone painting. And the notion that we are in a
simulation -- without knowing it, no less -- is further still. You’re
really talking about something like a technological singularity, some (imagined)
moment when AI makes this great leap forward, leaves us in the dust, and
then decides to spin a little world on a hard drive somewhere, that
includes things like us -- for some reason --? ...
have been such things as radical breaks in culture and technology, and
they do, in retrospect, make one historical epoch seem utterly different
from another. Why not the singularity?
Ursula: I’m simply
saying there seems to be a tension between arguing that you can
extrapolate from current trends and saying “one day things could be so
different you can’t possibly imagine.”
Emilia: Let alone saying that this day has actually already come, and we just don’t know it.
Though now that I think of it -- hearing you say that, Emilia -- Nietzsche more or less said something
like this already. The death of God lifts everything that comes
thereafter to a higher plane than all history hitherto. And the ones to
whom the death of God is announced can’t grasp it, even though they are
living in the aftermath and even though “they have done it themselves.”
Actually, something pretty similar was announced by Jesus: the advent
of the kingdom of God. Nietzsche is -- as so often -- parodying
Iachimo: First of all: There may be “tension,” but
that’s completely subjective. The radical break follows from the
projection of trends, and there’s nothing absurd or even inconsistent
about it -- even the degree to which it could be said to be surprising
is purely a matter of the expectations you are prepared to countenance.
You start to fill up a basin with water. “If current trends continue,
this basin -- currently pretty much empty -- will be completely full in x
number of minutes.” There’s absolutely zero “tension” here in anything
but your perspective. Second: we may or may not be talking about the
singularity. The AI after a singularity may decide to run simulations;
but so could an advanced human or alien civilization. The notion of the
simulated universe is completely separable from the singularity.
Ursula: I only meant that the technological break is effectively unimaginable.
Adam: And “subjective” is not a slur.
Orsino: I don’t think you mean “slur.” You just mean “bad thing.”
You know, I’m not at all sure that it’s true that a Scholastic
philosopher or a statesman from the Alexandrian empire or a Vedic seer
would be “unable to imagine” contemporary technology, or understand it
if it were described to them.
Orsino: They might be impressed, no doubt.
Adam: But -- positively?
Yorick: Perhaps they would be amused.
Iachimo: It would at least take some work to get them up to speed. To put it mildly.
But finding it inconceivable is a very different thing. In fact,
Clarke’s “Law”, to even be meaningful, depends upon the effects of
technology being conceivable: precisely as magic. As for ordinary
prognostication and so on; if science and even everyday planning deploy
such premises, philosophy obviously can do so. But philosophy also needs
to be able to turn around and critique its premises. We can stipulate
whatever we like; we also need to ask, “what makes this stipulation at
all plausible?” Or even, “What are we doing when we stipulate?” Clarke’s
Law is a way -- one way -- of doing this.
Adam: I think it does involve a
degree of hand-waving, and in a sense relies upon the very “magic” it
invokes; it stipulates that there could be some way to produce X effect,
which we then agree to call “technology” instead, so that we are not
violating certain rules of -- what? Methodological naturalism, or
Yorick: But in itself that’s all right -- stipulation
is a perfectly legitimate move. It’s even a kind of enchantment. It
needn’t bind us irrevocably -- that would be a darker magic, a sort with
which, to be sure, some forms of argument do flirt. But arguments about
the possibility of the singularity, or whether we are simulated, or
that our experience might be totally modelable, predictable,
controllable -- even without our knowledge -- are all admissible. Plato,
as you know, used myths. We can reasonably stipulate any of these
scenarios; we just should admit that this is what we are doing. And
then, of course, we see where we can go from there.
Ursula: In any case, ruling them out requires more work than I have ever seen done.
But confidently predicting them or assuming their inevitability also
requires a great deal more than “Well, who’s to say that someday there
Iachimo: Again, the singularity is distinct from
the simulation scenario. And both of those are distinct from the idea
that our mental processes are totally modelable, let alone controllable.
Actually I don’t know about that. The very idea of having conscious
inhabitants of a simulation implies either that they are put there from
the outside -- either willingly, like holodeck gamers, or unwittingly,
like Matrix inhabitants -- or that they are themselves programs, which
would imply that some forms of consciousness can be modeled. I mean, if
we are simulated, then by definition, our mental processes are the
running of algorithms or something. They’re nothing but the model.
Well, a model might conceivably be irreducibly probabilistic, for
instance. But I take it that part of what you mean, Iachimo, is -- first
-- that you can have modelability without controllability, and second,
that you can have both of those without simulation.
But also: simulation without perfect modelability, except in the sense
that the entire simulation might be the model. That’s one reason to run a
simulation, after all: to see what happens. You see what the model
predicts by seeing what it does with certain inputs and parameters.
Because its whole output is a prediction: not about the simulation, but
about the real world, if -- on the assumption that -- the world is as
Orsino: Here’s a thought: the notion of our universe
being simulated is an end-run around Fermi’s question about
extraterrestrial life -- you know, “where is everyone?” -- but in a
different way than the so-called “great filter”. Rather than assume that
there is some probable technological moment that most civilizations
don’t survive -- the singularity in some arguments is one such
bottleneck -- thus making it overwhelmingly likely that they never reach
the point of interstellar communication (or travel), this argument
assumes that probably billions of civilizations have arrived at
extraordinary technology “indistinguishable from magic”, and that we are
indeed “in contact” with one of them, because we are its creature.
Seems fine as an explanation, except of course it leaves everything
completely the same. Which is the same problem with all these scenarios.
What is the practical upshot?
Ursula: Not only does the
simulation scenario have no practical upshot, it cannot. It’s exactly
the brain-in-a-vat scenario, to which there is an objection so obvious
to me that I am baffled to find that it is so rarely noted. The degree
of skepticism required here undermines too much to then ground the
suggestion it wants to make. It doesn’t just undermine our confidence in
whether we are sitting in a room or taking a walk in the sunshine. Why
should there be such things as “brains,” or “vats,” and why would our
experience depend even partially upon anything remotely analogous to a
brain? Every reason you think that “having experience” requires a
“brain,” whatever that would be, is undermined, along with every reason
for thinking anything else, if you suppose that you could be wrong about
everything and be getting your experience “fed” to you. So OK, suppose
we are “simulated;” in that case, what makes us believe there “really
are” such things as computers, or programming, or simulations -- things
we only “have evidence for” in our experience? This objection comes in
well before we even begin to speculate on what would constrain such a
simulation -- i.e., whether the simulation would need to be a “good”
one, “really” emulating the real world. The scenario undermines itself.
Hilary Putnam actually does address this objection, in a way. He
argues that in the brain-in-vat scenario, the words “brain” and “vat”
and so on cannot mean the same in “envatted” language as in
non-envatted. He too argues that the scenario undermines itself.
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think the scenario is meaningless. Its
lack of testability notwithstanding -- or rather, precisely by virtue of
this -- it is a mark of today’s form of anxiety.
not every version of the scenario is as radically skeptical as that.
The simulation argument was made very popular by Nick Bostrom, and
Bostrom explicitly extrapolates from current technology to a future
technology capable of arbitrarily-precise simulation, because he is not
positing an imaginary abstract “civilization,” but our own -- or at
least one like our own -- in the future. This argument speculates upon
the possibility of our own descendants running simulations of their own
past. So there’s no need to explain the existence of computers or
programming or the notion of simulation in the simulation -- this is
itself part of the explanation.
Iachimo: Bostrom also does not
argue that we are in a simulation; he concludes that either (post)-human
civilization will not reach technical capability for such simulation,
or will have no interest in it, or we are overwhelmingly likely to
inhabit a simulation, since if such simulations are done at all, their
“inhabitants” will vastly outnumber “real” people. Which is pretty much
what I was saying earlier.
Emilia: Wait… Bostrom argues that
our descendants will probably simulate us, so probably they already
have, so probably we are simulated. Why does this feel like a
Iachimo: The difference between this and
time-travel is that no one is going back in time to father their own
grandfather. Or kill them. They are simulating a past era-- which may or
may not include simulations of actual historical figures from their own
Orsino: Or, rather: if they can, then they will; so: either they will, so they did; or they couldn’t, so they didn’t.
Emilia: Yeah. So again, the upshot? How would we ever decide?
Actually there are physicists who also consider the simulation
hypothesis and think there could be tests. We might look for telltale
Orsino: Although a “glitch” is a very our-world way of thinking of it.
-- or it could simply be that the simulation scenario accounts for
what we observe about the physical universe in the most parsimonious
Ursula: It is hard to see how inserting a whole extra layer between us and reality should be considered parsimonious.
In a certain sense, explanation itself is unparsimonious. Were the
phenomena not doing just fine by themselves? Why are they in need of an
“explanation”? Because the question has arisen. That’s all. Is it things
that need the explanation, or us? And what is this “need?” What is this
“arising” of the question?
Orsino: If information really is the
fundamental thing -- like John Wheeler thought, for instance -- then
everything is effectively describable in zeros and ones. Now that’s
Adam: Parsimony is the inverse of Clarke’s Law.
Clarke’s Law says you can have whatever assumption you want if it says
the password “technology.” Ockham says, you are entitled only to those
conclusions that can pass through the checkpoint and pronounce the
Yorick: Just as with stipulations and
assumptions, philosophy can employ any number of filters. Parsimony is a
time-honored one. And it too can be suspended.
deployed it against “universals,” which are, in some measure, the
medieval scholastic analogue of the Platonic Forms -- I’m hedging here
because it’s complicated -- but the Forms obviously play a role (to put
it mildly) in the parable of the Cave, which is one of the earliest
“simulation” scenarios we know.
Emilia: I know the parable -- it’s a story of deception, but is it a simulation?
Ursula: Don’t get Adam started.
Adam: Listen: Picture men dwelling in a sort of subterranean cavern....
Ursula: Too late.
... having their legs and necks fettered… able to look forward only,
and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads. Picture the light
of a fire burning behind them…. See also, then, men carrying implements
of all kinds, human images, and shapes of animals as well…. Would these
prisoners have seen anything, except the shadows cast from the fire on
the wall of the cave in front of them?
Iachimo: What is the
relevance here? I understand that there’s an antiquarian interest, but
is there any actual applicability to the simulation scenario as framed
under contemporary understanding?
Adam: The point is, that the
prisoners don’t just get “fooled” by the shadow-puppeteers. They inhabit
a world completely constructed in order to make utterly opaque the
nature of their actual world.
Yorick: Say, perhaps, maximally opaque.
Adam: But Plato isn’t giving us a political
parable -- at least not in any simple way; there’s no key to the
allegory given for who the prisoners are, who the jailers, and so on. If
one of the prisoners is freed, they might ascend up past the fire, make
their way above ground, and have to very slowly acclimate their eyes to
the daylight. They would see actual things and know for the first time
the difference between things and shadows, and realize how insubstantial
had been their previous experience. And they would be just as
disoriented if they return down into the cave, at least at first -- and
at a loss to communicate what they had come to know.
Orsino: Just like the Square in Flatland who cannot explain Space to his fellow 2-d shapes.
Emilia: How does the prisoner get free?
Plato doesn’t say here. Again, it’s not a close allegory; it’s not as
if someone breaks in and unlocks the chains. He just imagines, “if one
of these prisoners was to be freed…” Though later he does say that the
freed prisoner might return and try to liberate others -- probably to no
avail. But in other places Plato does say that one way we ascend from
our illusions to better and more apt contemplation is via eros -- love.
At first, we love what we can see -- beautiful bodies, mostly -- but
eventually we come to love beauty per se -- or at least, we can.
Ursula: And “Beauty itself” is somehow “more real” than, you know, these awkward flesh-and-blood bodies.
Adam: That’s a caricature.
Of course. The real point of the parable is that the deception is not
carried out with technology at all. It’s just the soup of ideology you
are soaking in all the time. Groupthink, the laws, the media --
Emilia: And who’s responsible for that? Everyone.
Iachimo: I mean, taken literally, the simulation scenario does say that information is more real than meat-space.
Orsino: But that's also a caricature. And also, presumably the simulation is playing on computers in someone’s real space.
I’m trying to redirect our conversation back to the genuine, real
hypothesis that this is actually the case -- not some metaphorical
illustration of a metaphysical point, but an actual example of actual
metaphysics. You would think that philosophers would be, you know,
Emilia: Yes but in this example we can’t really
think what the inventors of the simulation are like -- unless we just
fondly imagine they’re our great-great-great-grandchildren -- because
who knows what the post-singularity AI is trying to do --
Iachimo: Again, the singularity is a separate question --
And again again, the simulation scenario is so completely acidic in
its skepticism that it not only is without consequence, it actively
undercuts its own premises.
Yorick: Actually -- with corrigible
and moderate parsimony and judiciously revisable assumptions, we can
perhaps get further than this easy refutation of self-undermining. It
would be intriguing and perhaps worthwhile to try. A contradiction like
that is sometimes the sign of something interesting waiting to be seen.
Iachimo: Right. OK. So, well, to start with, for instance: a simulation, if it exists, exists to some purpose.
Why do we get to assume this? I mean unless we are using Bostrom’s
argument that it’s probably our descendants, we were saying that we
can’t know anything outside the simulation. So why should we assume
there’s a reason for it?
Yorick: Isn’t any simulation an artifice, and any artifice (by definition), made?
Right. It doesn’t happen by accident, but because someone brings it
about. So there are (or would be, per hypothesis) makers -- entities of
some kind, we know nothing about them except that they are entities --
who construct the simulation.
Adam: Yes. I see where you are
going. The structure of what you are calling “entities” by itself allows
us to say something further.
Emilia: Like what?
Iachimo: They have will, motives, intention. Or something analogous.
Emilia: Why? If you’re saying that’s somehow inherent in being a mind or something, Buddhism might disagree with you.
It doesn’t have to do with being an entity; it has to do with the
nature of the artificial. Because we said the simulation is an artifice,
and no one makes an artifice for no reason.
Orsino: I think the
line is blurry here. A beaver dam is made; a bower bird nest is made; a
spider web is made; a honeycomb is made; a chrysalis is made. And I’m
not sure whether “intention” functions here.
Iachimo: There’s some end that is being sought in all these cases though.
Adam: Iachimo, have I misjudged you? Are you really a teleologist?
Not in any way. I mean, I’m not saying the caterpillar or the bees are
thinking. I’m just saying that the behavior is one of expenditure of
energy, and this means it’s got a reason; otherwise it would have been
Adam: Ah. For one, golden instant…
Orsino: So, the makers of the simulation could I suppose be just “doing what comes naturally,” like a beaver.
Iachimo: Just like us.
We could suspend this question (for the moment); but a different one
arises: What about other cases -- say, a reflection? A reflection
“simulates” in a sense, and (presumably) utterly without intention. I
don’t mean the special case in which someone places a mirror in order to
reflect, but the general case of any reflection (or indeed any
imagistic duplication) at all. An echo, a reflection, a chance camera
obscura. Even a shadow...
Adam: But in that case, every feature
of the reflection has some original, with a one-to-one correspondence.
So if (and wow am I ever stipulating) there was some intention in the
reflection, there would be some in the real world, and if not, not. What
I mean is: we are claiming that a simulation happens with intention.
Your counter-example of the mirror seems to contradict this -- here’s a
naturally occurring simulation, that “just happens.” But in that case
there is no seeming. The lake reflects the mountain but neither the
mountain nor the lake knows it. And without seeming there can’t be
Yorick: Yes -- so it seems. Are we saying then that seeming and intention -- purpose -- are related?
Emilia: Sometimes I just make designs on the paper for no reason. Just bored.
Iachimo: But that’s all we need. Even a distracted doodle does have a reason, even if it is “killing time.”
Ursula: Kant: art as purposeful purposelessness.
Obviously this doesn’t mean the reason for the simulation must be to
model the world. But the mere fact of the simulation having been made
for reasons has ramifications.
Yorick: Yes. We had been saying
that we cannot assume anything about the “real world” from a simulation;
but no matter how far removed from us, how unlike us, the “real world”
or “base reality” is from our simulation, the structure of reasons
Adam: At least as an assumption. We could deny it; but
if we do, we really do undercut our capacity to reason about the
simulation-scenario. And about anything else, too.
if you have “reasons for” doing anything, motives, then you have
projects, or aims. There’s something you are trying to do.
Orsino: Again, I’m not sure the caterpillar is “trying” to make a cocoon. Or to change into a butterfly.
Yorick: Let’s go methodically here. What is involved or implied in having an aim?
Want, or desire. There must be a state of affairs that obtains, and
another state of affairs that can be imagined or foreseen that does not
Orsino: Situations in possibility-space.
Adam: Desire, yes. Again, Plato would say: eros.
We’re on a very abstract level; we don’t know anything about what the
aims of our “entities” are, but we can say that as aims, they have a
structure: Some such non-actual state is construed as possible, and
following from such-and-such steps or process: there is a path from here
(the state that obtains) to there (the state that doesn’t, at least not
Adam: Which means --
Orsino: To be in time.
But -- even setting aside my reservations about what counts as an
“intention” -- obviously time within the simulation may bear no
resemblance to time outside it.
Adam: We can make no
assumptions about the way what we are calling “time” works beyond the
cave, pardon me, the simulation. But the structure of an aim implies a
distance between point m and point n in what you called “possibility
space.” That distance has to be traversed -- that traversal is the
carrying out of the project, if successful (and if not successful, it’s
the traversal to some other point). So there is always some gap.
Right. And crossing that gap, however we describe it, requires an
effort, an expenditure. Which is also the case in any of the situations
you mentioned, Orsino -- the beaver dam or the wasps’ nest or whatever.
But why say it is always the case? Why can’t the accomplishment, this
“crossing the gap” you are talking about, just happen?
Adam: Do you mean “immediately”?
Orsino: Because an aim that was “automatically” attained, immediately, wouldn’t be an aim.
Ursula: Right. It would just be a, what, a manifestation or something.
Adam: I mean, really we can’t even think what it “would be.” It would be an event without a temporal structure, outside time.
Emilia: I don’t see that.
Adam: Imagine you could do anything. What would you do?
Anything. I’d… I don’t know. For the sake of your argument, which I
assume is leading somewhere, OK, I’ll draw a stick figure and have it
come to life.
Adam: But why draw him?
Emilia: Them. Because -- Oh I think I see. Why not just “make them appear.”
Adam: Because remember, you can do anything. Moreover -- why do you want this stick figure to come to life?
Emilia: Because it would be cool!
Yes, but -- assuming you have broken down and analyzed what you mean
by “cool” here -- you mean it would give you such-&-such
satisfactions, and so on -- it would be delightful to have the little
creature dance on the paper, whatever. But then those aspirations are
what you want, and since you are able to do anything, in Adam’s thought
experiment, you can just have that delight -- that exact satisfaction
-- without the dancing stick ballerina.
Emilia: They do tango.
But OK, I get it: even drawing them means I’m “trying to do something,”
in your language. So I have to work against some resistance, not just
with paper and pencil but with the very fact that they’re not there and I
want to bring them about. OK., go on.
Iachimo: So to act and
accomplish -- or even attempt -- an end, means to make effort. To
expend. Which implies that there is something to expend, something akin
to power, energy --
Adam: Dunamis, in Aristotle. Among others.
And that energy has to be finite. Again, because if you have infinite
energy to accomplish your aim, you make no actual expenditure.
I think that, more precisely, we must say that there is energy, on the
expenditure of which there are constraints. The constraints could be
quantitative, or circumstantial, or both: i.e., there could be only a
finite amount of energy available at all; or, there could be practical
and/or theoretical restrictions on the way energy (even if potentially
infinite) can be deployed: thus, a finite amount available at any
Iachimo: All right, yes. But it’s the finitude itself,
the limitation, that’s important: otherwise, there would be no projects,
because whatever was “wished for” would be instantaneously realizable,
which is again effectively the same as having no ends at all.
In other words: the constructors of the simulation are not omnipotent.
Anymore than Emilia is in drawing the stick dancer.
Ursula: Careful! Adam is maneuvering us into existentialism-territory. The pathos of finitude.
Adam: Actually, I was thinking of the demiurge. Not the one in Plato -- the one in the gnostic writings. Ialdabaoth --
Orsino: Sounds like a Lovecraftian cousin of Yog Sothoth.
Adam: -- who thinks he is omnipotent but is mistaken. He is a bit Lovecraftian, at that.
Emilia: OK, but I thought we already knew we are talking about an advanced civilization, and not gods.
Not “gods” -- God. The gods of the Greeks, for instance, are not
omnipotent. Nor is Loveraft's Cthulhu. No matter how “beyond comprehension” they
Iachimo: So theorizing energy or power, and the
limits on how it can be channeled, establishes one analogy between us
and any real-world maker of simulations. Which undercuts the “how do we
know anything” objection that Ursula was raising.
Right. Not having infinite energy available would be a problem any
theory of simulation has to deal with. No matter how much technological
progress has been made. It’s a limit on how much progress can be made.
Obviously, to completely render a simulation of the universe requires
exactly as much information as the entire universe. So there are always
going to be limits to what can be rendered, and the granularity of the
Iachimo: A lot of those limits can be dealt with by
selective rendering; you only show what you need.
Orsino: Right. So the tea in the
drawer isn’t shown until you open the drawer.
Iachimo: Or the taste of the tea, until you sip it --
Adam: You are
redescribing Berkeley for the 21st century. You find that the tree /
don’t continue to be, / unless you’re about in the quad.
-- which saves a huge amount of computation and memory, because you
don’t have to keep all the objects in the drawer -- or the tree in the
quad -- when no one is looking.
Ursula: It is not just Berkeley -- the entire account of secondary qualities would say this. The tea has no taste, until you sip it.
Iachimo: Yes, yes, and the tree falling unheard in the forest makes so sound. Look, this isn't an epistemological puzzle, it's an experimentally and probabilistically grounded metaphysical speculation.
Ursula: Are you sure you can tell the difference?
Adam: Can you? Because I doubt if there is one, under modern philosophical assumptions.
Orsino: Well, something has to be
kept in memory when no one is looking, because otherwise the simulation
doesn’t know what to render when the drawer gets opened -- tea boxes, or silverware, or painted birds, or what.
If I’m following, you could just give me the subjective impression that
everything “is the same” as last time I looked, even if it wasn’t. Or
make it not matter that everything is not the same. Does the question of
whether it’s “really the same” even arise then?
Yorick: That is a beautiful question, at this juncture.
It “mattering” is just another way of saying that there are limits on
what counts as this artifice. If being “the same” doesn’t matter at all,
then there is no reason to enact the project at all, because not doing
it matters just as much as doing it: not at all.
Emilia: In Nineteen Eighty-Four, there’s a way of dealing with that -- doublethink.
In The Invention of Morel, this novel I’m reading now, the narrator
winds up trying to insert himself into the record of the past -- a sort
of projected recording of holograms. An imagined technology, but very
specific. The falsification of history is sort of the opposite from what
it is in Orwell -- the protagonist longs for it. But it is also a kind
Emilia: Under doublethink, the past is both consistent with what I remember, and not -- because I revise my own memories.
Yes. Everyone in Oceania internalizes the simulation. It’s extremely
Lacanian -- even before we get to the surveillance of the Big Other.
What might Orwell have done with modern technology? It would have been
better than The Matrix, by far.
Iachimo: As for giving you a
subjective impression; that might be one way of doing it, but possibly
not the most efficient way. If consistency is important enough to
simulate the subjective feeling of it, it might be simpler just to give
you consistency (depending on the energy costs ) -- unless there’s some
overriding reason not to. That would get into trying to fathom the
motives of the entities, which we can’t do.
Yorick: Perhaps not the concrete motives -- but must not motive per se be oriented towards the Good -- ?
But to Orsino’s point, storing the memory of what to show you when you
open the drawer is still way cheaper than rendering it when no one is
Adam: Cheaper, yes, but finitely cheaper -- there is
still a cost. Which I thought was part of Orsino’s point too. It takes
some amount of energy or effort to simulate the tree or the tea boxes or the silverware -- or its taste --
and that’s energy that is then not available to do something else.
Because there is not an infinite amount of energy.
Orsino: Right, yes.
But infinity is a very strange concept here. A simulation, per
hypothesis, is the manifestation of some deployment of (what we are
calling) “energy” -- the energy of the real world. We have a capacity
to intuit infinity in some fashion: the decimal sequence of an
irrational number, for instance, we say will be an infinite string of
digits with no discernible order. Many such numbers (in fact, an
infinite number of them), all different, can be produced by well-defined
mathematical procedures. Of course, we cannot produce even one such
string -- by definition, its calculation would consume the available
energy of the universe and still be no closer to being “finished.” But
we can see that somehow the structure of these quantities is implicit in
the order of things: in the proportion of the diagonal of the square to
its side, for instance, or the diameter of a circle to its
circumference. A simulation as we have described, with finite
(available) energy, cannot render such an infinity either. But then how
is it we have deduced the notion of the infinite?
right, now I know Adam is setting a trap. This is, as Adam knows very
well, the same line of thought that Descartes follows when he deduces
the existence of God. “Nothing in our experience shows us infinity, but
we have this idea, so it must have been put there.” Are you trying to
seduce everyone down the Cartesian path?
Adam: Hardly. You’re the modern, not moi.
Ursula: Obviously I’m not a Cartesian.
Adam: That’s what you think.
Iachimo: Like I said, an uncomputable Turing machine problem. They’ll oscillate like this forever.
Adam: Seriously: where do we get this notion of forever?
Orsino: Some would claim we don’t. We have a notion of “do this again,” or of “if x do y.”
Emilia: “Some would claim” is a phrase known, I believe, as “weasel words.”
Adam: I’m sorry -- are you saying we don’t have a notion of “forever”?
I’m not, but the weasels are. Not a coherent one. Again, we can say
the word. But we can’t actually express what it would mean. It’s like
the decimal expression of pi, or the square root of two, as you were
saying. We know that if we keep calculating, we keep generating digits.
And we can make rules for dealing consistently, mathematically, with
certain uses of infinity, which is the more abstract version of
“forever,” if you like. But even those rules break down sometimes -- you
get paradoxes like being able to carve a sphere up and rearrange the
pieces into two spheres of each the same volume as the original sphere
-- which is one reason the weasels -- some weasels -- deny that infinity
Yorick: Poor Euclid. His beautiful proof of the infinity of primes, shredded by an enchantment of weasels.
Orsino: I think they’re just called a pack.
Emilia: I like “enchantment” better.
Ursula: Do the weasels deny infinity, or do the weasels just say that “some would deny it”?
Adam: Or do some weasels say that some weasels say....? We are courting an -- ahem -- infinite regress.
Orsino: It sounds as if the weasel-language is a kind of stipulation.
Weasel words are the opposite of stipulation. They supply the
wiggle-room needed for, you know, weaseling out of anything once the
implications have become too uncomfortable.
Orsino: I’ve no
doubt that there are abuses of rhetoric and plausible denial. But -- ahem --
some would call this an unfair attack on nuance.
imagine the weasels might. Despite my love of Euclid -- who can of
course fend for himself -- and despite, yes, an abhorrence of bad
argument, my sympathy in this case is with the rear-guard of vagueness.
Do we suppose that everything can be put into words?
in this case it seems that if we can deny that we have a notion of
infinity, we can also affirm it -- in words both times -- and we are
back to Iachimo’s Turing machine trying to calculate whether or not a
question has an answer. And I claim, at least, that you can step aside
and see that while the machine will not ever get an answer, you can see
that there is no answer on the terms provided, which is effectively to
answer the question.
Adam: And this matters
because it means you can see something that is excluded by the rigorous
step-by-step logic; you are seeing -- it seems to me -- something that
is not yielded by the algorithm. And therefore not simulated.
Emilia: Yeah you definitely lost me.
I think Adam’s argument here is that a computer running on binary
(zeroes and ones) has to go in discrete steps, which can sometimes just
yield indecision (because it oscillates). But if you look at the
algorithm, you can see that it oscillates.
Adam: Which the algorithm itself cannot see.
If I am not mistaken you are working here with some kind of sloppy
amalgam of Godel’s theorem and Turing, and trying to show, what, that
consciousness cannot be an algorithm itself. Or that AI is impossible.
It’s a completely misguided argument.
Adam: Spoken in an admirably un-weasely dialect!
It’s been pretty thoroughly taken apart. You can’t prove that AI is
impossible that way, and you can’t prove that human consciousness is
unmodelable that way either.
Adam: You may have mistaken my
point. I’m not trying to prove that artificial intelligence is
impossible. Certainly not that it cannot pass the Turing test, which is
in any case an empirical question, the significance of which can be
disputed whether or not it ever comes to pass. The point, rather, is
that whether or not -- and to what extent -- human consciousness can be modeled by algorithms is different from whether it is an algorithm or a
collection thereof. And this is not just a nyah-nyah, am-not
counter-assertion, because it gets corroborative evidence -- not
conclusive proof but corroboration -- from the fact that the mind can
always see that there is a true but indemonstrable or unprovable
assertion in whatever system of algorithms the machine runs on -- or
rather, that the machine is.
Iachimo: But in fact, the mind
can’t “always see” such a statement. To actually construct such an
unprovable (or undisprovable) statement gets very difficult very fast.
You may be able to do it for a few iterations, but the complexity of the
systems you are trying to outflank grows, and eventually -- pretty
quickly -- you come to a point where you can’t. And at that point, the
AI is effectively capable of everything the human mind is capable of.
The question at issue is different. Remember Zeuxis’ grapes. We said
that there is always some test that shows that the grapes are not real.
You can turn the painting around to see the back. If you try to pluck a
grape from the vine, you fail. You can’t press them into wine, or pair
them with cheese. But suppose you could. Suppose that whatever you tried
to do with Zeuxis’ grapes, that you can do with our grapes, you could.
You could even take a seed from one, plant it in “painted” earth, and
grow a painted vine. In that case, Zeuxis’ grapes would be effectively
the same as grapes per se -- as long as you were in that world. Or say
the seeds would grow vines even in our natural earth. In this case, the
only thing distinguishing Zeuxis’ grapes from grapes, would be that they
had been originally “painted,” by whatever technology. And if we picked
them and put them side by side with real grapes, there would be no
litmus test we could perform. That, at least, is the hypothesis. But of
course, we will have only ever performed some limited number of tests,
so we can’t predict with confidence that there is no way that would
discriminate, no test that Zeuxis’ grapes would fail for grapeness. What
Godel’s theorem, and the extension via Turing machines, shows, is that
for algorithms running on formal languages, there is always such a test.
It doesn’t matter if you can find one or not; it is formally proven
that one exists. And that, that proof, is what can be seen, even though
the computer cannot act upon that knowledge.
Iachimo: Again, no.
There is a limit to any algorithmic systematization, yes. But that
doesn’t demonstrate a difference between a human mind and a computer.
You are presuming that difference. The situation isn’t one of a
difference between two grapes, which we know in principle we could
distinguish even if we have not and maybe never will discover the test
-- which would be significant enough. The difference is between two
grapes that may or may not be distinguishable in principle, have never
been distinguished practically, and probably never will be.
Emilia: Can someone please explain to me why we are going on about grapes again?
Ursula: Because birds eat grapes, and weasels eat birds. And presumably painted weasels eat painted birds.
Yorick: Yes, and apparently painted minds can conceive only of a painted infinite.
Orsino: Because, “some say,” there is no other. Or no other worth conceiving.
Ursula: Sour grapes.
Adam: Is it I who am assuming that the mind is not like a program, or you who are assuming it is like one?
I think the question is important, Emilia, because if the mind is an
algorithm -- or more reasonably, a self-modifying suite of algorithms --
then it can be simulated.
Yorick: It is even more than that. If
the mind is not distinguishable from a suite of algorithms, then in
principle it cannot be shown that the mind is not a simulation -- in the
sense we’ve been talking about here.
Iachimo: Yes, that’s it exactly. Though I’m surprised to hear you say it.
Adam: That makes two of us.
Emilia: One of you is merely simulating.
Yorick: Conversely, if it could be shown that the mind is not algorithmic --
It is undecidable. In this, at least, I completely agree with Iachimo,
that there is no way to definitely show the mind is not an algorithm.
Even the mind’s anxiety that it could be an algorithm is possibly
Yorick: And yet. It is agreed, in principle,
there is always something that any given set of algorithms cannot do.
This is usually rendered by some analogue of “this proposition is
undecidable, or unaffirmable, via algorithm-suite such-&-such.”
Whatever the ins and outs of constructing any specific such statement
for any specific set of algorithms or formal language, it is not
controversial that in principle such a statement -- a string of symbols,
self-referential and indemonstrable in a given language -- is always
This means -- it seems to me -- that there is
actually a sort of “test,” between the artificial or simulated “minds”
that would be suites of algorithms, and mind per se -- what the Greeks
called nous -- whether or not such a test can be “practically”
performed; it is precisely describable. And it might be worth mentioning
that the Greeks themselves had the word noesis for the contemplation
engaged in by nous, but also a word -- a different word -- for the
faculty that does algorithmic reasoning, discursive argument, and so on.
The latter is called dianoia.
Emilia: But the Greeks didn’t know about computer science or --
Orsino: Or did they? Maybe they’d been taught by the Atlanteans --
No, Emilia, certainly not in those terms. Nonetheless, they knew to
distinguish between these two sorts of faculties. Which is interesting,
Adam: Aristotle divides dianoia into tekhne and phronesis -- technique and practical know-how --
Which distinction is itself a rather dianoetic move. I am certainly
simplifying; the details are not unimportant (though I always forget --
is it God, or the devil, who is in the details?), but the details should
not bar the way. Of course, Adam might also point out (not incorrectly)
some other nuance missing in what I am saying. There is a sense in
which almost everything we have been doing this evening, as we have been
talking, would have been described as dianoia, whether it was technical
or informal. Dianoia can describe the test that distinguishes it from
noesis. Can it discover it in every case? No. But the discernment per se
is both possible and real.
Iachimo: It seems pretty hand-wavy to me.
We have been saying that there is no infinite dunamis available -- or,
as Adam rightly specified, rather that energy is available under finite
conditions. The stick dancer Emilia draws cannot be brought to life
instantly, but must precisely be drawn first. There is always a
momentary gap, however slender, between vision and accomplishment -- to
will is not the same as to immediately bring about.
In the Book of Genesis, when God declares “Let there be…,” and
everything follows, it’s structured narratively as -- well, as
following; but the Rabbis and the Church Fathers alike are very clear
that the divine intention and the coming-into-being are identical. The
Biblical God creates from outside of time. Well, this is not explicit in
the Biblical text, but --
Yorick: Though when Genesis says,
“there was evening, there was morning: the first day,” it seems to be
using the language of temporality to imply the beginning of temporality.
Obviously we are here up against one sort of limit of thinking.
Iachimo: Seriously, when people say “limits of thinking,” they are starting to sound desperate.
Adam: You say “desperate.” I say --
Perhaps “urgent”? In any case it is premature to despair; but a tight
corner can be the occasion for a certain resourcefulness. We have
frequently had recourse to stipulation during our talk tonight. It bears
notice that to stipulate is very like what it would mean to do
something at will. -- in just the way you were pointing out Emilia
cannot do, even with the magic pencil. In a sense, it is as close to
God’s “Let there be…” as we come.
Iachimo: It’s not immediate,
it’s not “without effort.” At most, it’s a move in a complex
“technology” that is so practiced and routine that it can look without
Orsino: There are, you know, neurological and physiological expenditures to everything, even just saying “Let x equal....”
Adam: What the bones and sinews and neurons do and what the mind does are not necessarily analogues.
We’ve also said that time is indicated by the fact that any project
has an aim; Emilia must draw the dancer one limb at a time, and Zeuxis
must mix his paint first, and the paint must dry. But there is also a
kind of reasoning we have been depending upon -- and the mathematics
underlying computer code employs it formally -- which does seem to route
itself outside of time.
Emilia: What do you mean?
When we were thinking carefully about what is involved in the notion
of a project, for example, we said that a project is undertaken for
reasons, and this led us to say that anyone who undertakes a project is
structured by time. How did we conclude this?
Emilia: We said
that there must be two “states,” one that is actually occurring and one
that we imagine, and we have an aim, we’re trying to get from one to
another. And since we’re trying, the states don’t completely coincide,
so they must be separate.
Iachimo: It’s just what a project
means. There’s not something magical here. The notion of time is
entailed in the idea of an aim. It’s just a matter of valid reasoning --
Adam: And what do you mean by valid?
Look -- if we’re really going to question whether there can be valid
reasoning, then obviously we can’t have a conversation at all. We have
to be able to start. I’m perfectly willing to go full-on skeptic with
you, but that’s not a very interesting conversation, and besides it’s a
cop-out. Especially from you.
Adam: No, no -- I’m not playing the skeptic here. I literally just mean: what counts as a valid conclusion?
Iachimo: What follows from your definitions and the rules of your system.
Adam: Which is exactly what a formal language and an algorithm is. And we’ve already said that no such formal system --
Iachimo: Oh God, just turn off the simulation already.
The more interesting question is one step earlier -- at least. What do
we mean by “following from”? You said -- quite rightly -- that what is
valid is what follows from ones definitions and rules. And of course it
is well known that reasoning may be perfectly valid and still give rise
to erroneous conclusions, if the premises are false --
Orsino: Garbage in ....
-- which is one reason, perhaps, to not be satisfied with dianoia. But
whether or not p or q is true, it is certainly true that if, if p then
q, and p, then: q.
Emilia: Sorry. I’m trying to, um, follow.
You don’t have a magic pencil that will make your stick figure live, so
long as you use your left hand, and draw it with a top hat. And maybe
you never would draw a stick figure in a top hat -- maybe you find them
offensively phallic -- or maybe you are so bad with your left hand that
you would give up. But if you had such a magic pencil, and, using your
left hand, you drew a stick figure with a top hat, then it would come
Adam: Well improvised. I am impressed.
Emilia: I’m left-handed, so I’m satisfied. But could it be a beret?
The crucial thing to notice is this word “then.” It sounds like a
temporal word, a word about time. But q -- “the stick figure lives” --
follows immediately from the combination of “if I use this magic pencil
with my left hand to draw a figure with a top hat, then the figure will
live” plus “I draw said figure with this pencil this way.” It is, as was
said, entailed by it. But this entailment is a remarkable thing. We
spent so much time saying that nothing follows immediately, without any
gap at all -- how is it possible for something to follow instantaneously
and without question, so long as our chain of “if”s is lined up in
Iachimo: I don’t think you can take time out of the rational deductive process like that. Do you know the hat puzzle?
Ursula: Top hats, or berets?
There are lots of variations but one of the simplest forms is: You
have three people, shown three hats: we’ll say, two blue ones and a red
Orsino: They could be berets and a top hat!
It’d be distracting -- the point is there’s no way to differentiate
them except by sight, so they can’t feel different to wear, and you
can’t be able to tell by feeling them.
Ursula: We will stipulate: the difference is indiscernible except by sight.
OK, fine. So, there are berets and top hats. Any number of each. There
are three people -- usually they’re like prisoners, and the stakes are
someone gets to go free or someone gets executed, but that’s just flavor
-- and the overseer says: I’m going to put a hat on each of you, either
kind, you don’t know which. When your blindfold comes off, you must
raise your hand if and only if you see a top hat on someone else -- no
other communication allowed. Then guess your own -- or rather, don’t
guess. Deduce. (That’s why the stakes are important -- to eliminate
Iachimo: So the blindfolds come
off. All three raise their hands. For a long pause no one speaks, but
finally one of them says: Top hat. How do they know? And -- for you who
are not in the room but only hearing about it afterwards -- what are all
three of the hats?
Orsino: Um… wait… Yes. All three of the hats must be top hats.
Because think: if no one raises their hand, everyone at once knows
there are no top hats, so the answer is berets all around. And this also
applies to one or two berets. If there are two berets, then the top hat
wearer doesn’t raise his hand but the others do, so the top hat wearer
knows immediately. Similarly: if it’s you, me, and Yorick, and I see
you wearing a top hat and Yorick wearing a beret and you each raise your
hands, then I know you aren’t raising your hand because of Yorick so it
must be because of me. And you can know the same thing -- I’m raising
my hand because I see your top hat. That means both you and I can guess
“top hat” immediately. But this isn’t what happens in the story --
there’s this long pause. So this means that no one is able to guess
immediately, which means no one sees a beret. And the first one who
figures out what the long pause means announces.
Adam: You know,
I like a brain teaser too, but this is just another algorithm. We may
as well be doing sudoku. It’s diverting, but it’s not serious.
Yorick: No, there is actually a deeper point here.
There are rational processes of entailment that inherently involve
time. The if-then chains of premise-conclusion unfold as a temporal
Yorick: At least some, and at least seemingly. And, if the instance Iachimo just showed us is indicative, they involve not just inference, but inference of, and about, what is known in common. Not simply what can be deduced, but what is deduced based upon, or regarding, what other people have deduced, and deduced about what I have deduced.
Orsino: Some weasels know that some weasels know that some weasels....
Adam: It really is an infinite regress.
Iachimo: But it's not. A conclusion does get drawn, because you can see --
Ursula: You know -- I hate to dismay you with your own
strange bedfellows. I know how you regard psychoanalysis -- an
unscientific melange of self-validating pseudo-evidence --
Iachimo: What can I say? Sometimes weasel shit is just bullshit.
Emilia: And some would say, quelquefois une pomme de terre n’est pas un pipe.
Orsino: Now that’s too subtle.
-- what I was going to say is, pretty much this very same example is
used by Lacan. It’s not hats, but that’s the gist. In fact Lacan goes
even further in noting that there are a couple of moments of hesitation
-- he imagines all three of the, um, contestants? hesitating and then
answering simultaneously, and there’s a rhythm as they see each others’
hesitation and realization. So there’s a feedback loop, and taking note
of the regard of the other, and so on, all of which makes the same point
you are making: sometimes logic has to unfold in time.
But does this really complicate the point about entailment? Another way
of thinking might just say: the hesitation is empirical data upon which
the rational reflection goes to work. So yes there’s a feedback loop as
the reflection itself turns into more data -- this seems really not
unlike a programmer saying, Oh! You constructed an unsolvable sentence
for program X, clever you, now I must make program X-prime. Whatever is
actually entailed still follows.
Adam: Just to be advocatus
diaboli for a moment: in Descartes’ correspondence with Mersenne, it is
said that it’s needful to go over a valid chain of reasoning very
quickly, so that it all passes in a single glance. This is the
importance of geometrical-style proofs. So they do seem to conflate
rapidity with instantaneousness.
Iachimo: Like an animation!
Ursula: I warned you Adam was leading up to Descartes.
Lewis Carroll has a dialogue between Achilles and the Tortoise, in
which the Tortoise makes Achilles insert sub-premise after sub-premise,
so the field constantly expands before the expected but never-arising
conclusion. So the argument gets longer and longer.
Iachimo: Can you summarize?
The shtick is simple: he gives two premises A & B and a conclusion
Z; and the conclusion does follow validly. But the tortoise insists
upon needing a further premise C, to wit: “from premises A & B,
conclusion Z follows”. Then he refuses to accept it, so we get a new
premise, “D,” “from premises A, B, & C, conclusion Z follows,” and
Yorick: Yes, it’s a bit of fun with our esteemed Euclid.
But the point Carroll illustrates -- or, let us say, at least one point,
it’s best to be prudent with Carroll -- is that one can see that what
follows; the whole point of the joke is that once you have suspended
that, the infinite regress follows, and there’s no getting out of it.
Or, as was said a moment ago by Iachimo, if you reject certain
assumptions about what counts as reasoning, then a conversation becomes
impossible -- even if it looks like it still goes on (as Achilles and
the Tortoise look like they are conversing, but really after the third
iteration they are just oscillating, as was said earlier about Ursula
Yorick: But then -- what is this seeing-that- ?
Iachimo: You have a lot of faith in intuition, it seems.
OK, so I said whatever is entailed still follows. But really, is
entailment just immediacy? It looks to me like just an aspect of
definition, or rules. It’s not that the answer “four” immediately
follows from 2+2. Four is just another way of saying “2+2.”
Actually, it wouldn’t “just follow” from “2+2”. You need also to
include an account of what 2 is, what addition is, and so on. Which
would amount to a description of all the rules of “saying,” so that
then, yes, in those rules, “2+2” and “4” could be different ways of
saying the same thing.
Adam: First of all: the proof that 1+1=2 famously occurs on page 362 of Principia Mathematica by Russell and Whitehead.
Emilia: You just looked that up.
I happen to have memorized it, for just such an occasion as this. I used a mnemonic: 360 -- the number of degrees in a circle -- plus two, the sum which is in question. The
point being, there’s quite a lot of required description of rules if you
want to claim that “2” is “just another way of saying” “1+1” under
these rules. More importantly, No. It’s not. “2” is a finite cardinal
number, 4 is a finite cardinal number, 2+2, or any addition, is an
operation with finite cardinal numbers. It’s like claiming -- this is
inexact, but -- that “Sing the song they play at the beginning of the
world series” is the same as “O say can you see--?”
Ursula: Not only are you mixing your Use and your Mention, you are mixing your Use/Mention with your Input/Output.
Iachimo: “Vice” in quotes, versa out. Or is it the other way around?
Adam: You say refuse, I say refuse.
Orsino: Frege is oscillating in his grave.
I think the 2+2 example is right. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston
writes in his diary something like, Freedom is the freedom to say that
2+2=4, grant that and everything else follows.
Iachimo: I get very wary when people get their philosophy from novels.
Yorick: Go on.
Emilia: Well, Winston feels like he can just see that 2+2=4. That it’s immediately obvious.
Iachimo: As Adam has just pointed out, it’s actually not obvious. Three hundred and sixty pages worth of not-obvious.
Ursula: In Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien also claims it is not obvious.
Iachimo: That herring is red-by-association.
A weasel’s favorite kind. The point is that Emilia is right, Winston
does think that 2+2=4 is a clear instance of reality, a thing he can
depend on and point to no matter what. We might be inclined to think
that the truths of mathematics are the same inside or outside a
simulation. Descartes at least initially denies this. Orwell is trying
to imagine the consequences of being able to to consistently deny it.
Well -- no, not consistently. Because doublethink doesn’t care about
consistency. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party has this ambition of
making reality into this completely mutable thing. Or of talking as if
it is -- which for them is the same thing. So they construct Newspeak,
this language of fewer and fewer words with every new edition of the dictionary, that can only phrase “orthodox”
thoughts; and they make a point of “controlling the past” -- it’s really
like the simulation, in a way.
Adam: Or a parody of it.
Emilia: It's like in the simulation, there’s no need to “remember” anything because, as we was saying, the
program can just give me the sense of “remembering” --
fact, there is a good deal of research into memory, false memory,
so-called “recovered” memory, that indicates such things could be done.
-- and any, I guess you would say glitches, are manageable by
doublethink. It really is like the simulation without all the hardware
Iachimo: -- hmmm. With just software, as it were.
Ursula: A reboot stamping on a human face, forever.
Emilia: I’m not sure if I can even find that funny.
Adam: Again, I ask: this “forever” of which you speak …
Iachimo: Ugh. Or that.
Adam: It’s not meant to be.
Orsino: Use doublethink.
Our friend Emilia is onto something important. The analogy is actually
closer. When O’Brien explains to Winston the truth of the Party’s
vision of the future, and famously tells him to picture “a boot stamping
on a human face, forever” -- why does it have to be “forever?” Because
this is the gratification of desire the Party imagines for itself. It’s
important because the Party will not be satisfied just to have everyone
think Ingsoc. There must be resistance -- heretics.
Iachimo: Sure. Dictatorships need scapegoats.
No, it’s more than that. O’Brien says: the object of power is power,
and power is the taking apart of human minds and putting them back
together again in forms of one’s own choosing; it’s an incredibly
frightening part of the book. It’s as though the whole point of setting
up the dystopia is just to be a dystopia.
Yorick: Yes. The
heretics are there, in Oceania, not to distract from the failures of the
Party, or to be blamed for them; the heretics must be there to be
Adam: Now that I think of it, it’s actually a parody of Nietzsche. “Man is something to be overcome.”
Does this contradict what we have been saying thus far? The Party runs
its simulation (as we can call it) for the sake of this perpetual
brutalization, the human face forever stamped on by the boot. It is not
good; but is it an end, an aim, in the sense we’ve been using the term?
Emilia: O’Brien calls it an endless “pressing on the nerve of power.”
Adam: It’s as if Orwell was trying to write an account of the tyrant that made it possible to imagine them as satisfied.
Orsino: Um… yeah. Why wouldn’t they be?
Ursula: Adam is itching to mention that Plato in the Republic says that the life of the tyrant is clearly and inherently unsatisfactory.
Yorick: But Orwell’s account leaves something out, or -- to read more carefully or more generously -- just implicit.
Iachimo: We are quite a way from the simulation argument here though.
Less distant than you may think. There is certainly a resonance -- Emilia is
correct -- between the indefinitely malleable world of Party orthodoxy
and the simulation. And we have hit upon it in the place where some
awareness of the non-negotiable structure of the world impinges on this
alleged malleability. O’Brien tells Winston that “Goldstein’s lies” --
the inspiration for the “Brotherhood,” the alleged secret society who
may or may not really be trying to defeat the Party -- will always be
there to be refuted. Remember how we said that a simulation is made for a
purpose. In Orwell’s Oceania, this purpose is “power,” as previously
described. This purpose makes us recoil -- it is clearly not good. But
in the science-fiction scenarios of the simulation, does anything
entitle us to assume that the aims of a simulation would be what we
would recognize as “good”?
Iachimo: Presumably they would be
what the designers consider good, but I don’t see why those would
coincide with ours in any way.
Orsino: Certainly not in the case
of the singularity. The whole point of the notion of the singularity is
that we cannot relate at all to the AI.
Adam: Again, these are just transpositions of Nietzsche’s transposition of Christianity. A revaluation of all values.
Ursula: Or -- closer to Orwell’s thinking -- of Marx.
Nonetheless, inherent in the notion of any aim, any project, any
purpose at all, there is some shadow of the Good. The desirable as such.
Orsino: Now there’s a MacGuffin.
Iachimo: Why should we think there is any such thing?
Adam: Well, it is not a thing, so you need not.
Nonetheless, you were willing at least provisionally to credit the
notion that the grammar of an artefact per se entails aim, temporality,
energy, and finitude. And -- though we never said this expressly until
later -- this exercise itself rested upon entailment itself, clearly.
Adam: This wish to know, in Aristotle, is treated as a basic motive; so too, the desire for happiness.
Ursula: Nietzsche mocks both of these premises.
Yes, and to interesting effect. But he cannot convincingly replace
them wholesale. He can show how sometimes the drive for knowledge is
routed through other projects; he can ask “why not, rather, untruth?”
But presumably to this question he wants an answer. And in Nietzsche,
eudaimonia is modulated into the “joy” that “wants eternity -- deep
Ursula: But this is also, for Nietzsche, the will to power, “and nothing else besides.”
Indeed. In fact Orwell, as we have already said, shows us a world in
which Nietzsche’s will to power is expressly ascendant.
Orwell has O’Brien say clearly that the Party must have its crimethink
to punish, and it always will; the boot coming down on the human face
forever -- O’Brien makes sure to emphasize: “it is forever.”
I can see how one would think this expressly Nietzschean, but it is a
mistake. The notion of Nietzsche as an idolater of strength is a crass
Adam: Certainly; but the authentic Nietzsche does insist that strength qua strength wants resistance for itself to overcome.
The torture chambers of the Ministry of Love are a monstrosity:
irresistible “strength” (of a sort) against weakness. Nietzsche would
have had nothing but disdain for this. For him, strength seeks to match
itself against strength.
Yorick: Of course the form in which it
is presented is starkly satirical (though one would not say, funny); but
this is where Orwell shows that he understands even as he exaggerates.
This is also where Winston’s insistence that 2+2=4 is crucial. If the
freedom to speak the truth is granted, everything else follows. But this
depends on there being a truth, a way things are. One needs, for the
sake of this horrible unmaking-and-remaking, an endless supply of minds
that can initially tell the difference between truth and lies, in order
to destroy this capacity.
Iachimo: Seems inherently unstable;
but again, it’s a work of fiction, so -- I’m not sure why we should
derive philosophical conclusions from it.
Ursula: A work of fiction is itself a simulation; one stipulates certain premises -- that is what setting is, for instance.
Emilia: And there’s just as much point as considering a completely unverifiable thought-experiment.
But it’s true that the instability is a real implication, and is often
unremarked. The tyrant really is, underneath it all, miserable --
Emilia: Winston actually tries to say to O’Brien
that it’s impossible, that something in human nature won’t let it
happen; but O’Brien denies that there is any such thing as human nature.
And whether the Party will be forever satisfied by stamping its boot
down isn’t really addressed.
Yorick: It is true that there is
something potentially unstable here -- even if it were possible to
imagine that this vision of Hell remains indefinitely diverting to the
members of the inner Party, there needs to be enough contact with
reality that the torturers can break their victims, and enough that
there are victims to break. This is why the Party needs the myth of
Goldstein -- to lure real people, real victims. Orwell’s nightmare
hinges on the possibility, or at least the conceit, of parlaying this
minimal contact with the truth into the occasion for destroying the mind
and soul by destroying that contact. But at least in Winston’s case --
which is paradigmatic -- it cannot do so without also increasing this
Adam: How so?
Yorick: Winston’s torture is a
kind of parody of initiation, into the horrible mysteries of the
Ministry of Love; his destruction involves breaking him, but breaking
him with something like the truth. Even as his capacity to think clearly
about it is dismantled, Winston has to be slowly shown the actual
mechanism of the Party. O’Brien’s revelations to him are not all
fictions. The speech declaring that “the object of power is power” is
accurate as a description of the Party’s self-understanding. As a
program, of course, we were just saying it is unstable -- we might go
further and call it nonsense, which is just what O’Brien says of
Goldstein’s book Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. But
Winston’s destruction is only compelling to the reader because we share
Winston’s capacity to perceive truth --
Emilia: Winston doesn’t
always see the truth. He is sure he will never give in; he thinks
O’Brien is on his side, he “knows” it --
Yorick: Yes. Orwell is a
far subtler artist than he is sometimes given credit for. Perhaps we
are to understand that doublethink has already got hold of Winston from
the very beginning. Or mere garden-variety capacity for error or
self-deception -- which is arguably what doublethink takes to a parodic
extreme. But Winston’s fall can only move us, and serve as a warning, if
we think that his acceptance of 2+2=5 is a catastrophe; and if we are
appalled, alongside him, at the account of the ne plus ultra of
systematic sadism that O’Brien reveals. It gets its force from being a
Iachimo: It seems to me you are making a
great deal out of this boot-on-the-face speech. It’s obvious that it has
a purely functional role. It’s exactly like a mustache-twirling
supervillain explaining his evil plan to the trapped James-Bondish hero
dangling over a pit of molten metal. The villain chortles, “You’ll never
stop me now!”
Emilia: Winston is nothing like James Bond. And O’Brien is not at all like Goldfinger or Dr. No. or whoever.
Ursula: More to the point, not every victim will have to be unmade like Winston.
In the world of the novel, that is certainly true. We do not see
Julia’s “treatment,” though O’Brien tells Winston it was “perfect” and
later Julia acknowledges to Winston that she betrayed him. Doubtless
every victim’s torture is tailor-made for them, to dreadful specificity.
O’Brien even refers to this at certain points. But that is the very
point. As O’Brien is addressing Winston, Orwell is addressing the
reader. Winston Smith is Winston; but he is also Everyman. This is why
his initiation has to also be an exposition. It is as if Winston is led
out from the cave -- but in order to make more horribly excruciating his
compelled return. Others might be tortured in other ways; but they must
be ensnared in ways that bear some resemblance to each other: some
connection to truth.
Adam: Why, though? Aristotle points out
that there are falsehoods which are incompatible not just with truth but
with each other. One might be a heretic in the Party’s eyes and still
be woefully wrong. Presumably previous servants of the revolution were
devotees of the Party at some point before they were denounced and
condemned in show trials.
Orsino: If nothing else, their
confessions must be wrenched from them -- they first know themselves to
be innocent, and then guilty.
Emilia: Actually, another
character who’s been arrested, who Winston encounters in the Ministry of
Love denies this. Winston asks him if he is innocent, and he says “Of
course not! They arrested me!” It is already unthinkable for him that
the Thought Police could make a mistake -- the arrest fully demonstrates
the guilt. But it isn’t just that Winston has to believe and obey Big
Brother; to satisfy the Party, he has to love him. It’s the worst scene
in the book -- the betrayal.
Yorick: Yes, and here we come to
the other essential link between all we were saying earlier, and the
parallel Emilia indicated, between the reality-warping of doublethink
and the simulation scenario. Any project, we said, is motivated by some
kind of desire. And, as Adam pointed out, in Plato this desire is
expressly named: eros.
Orsino: But we also said, explicitly: we
cannot say anything about the content of the aims that motivate the
makers of the simulation.
Ursula: Orwell’s novel points out
that this is already clear in 1948, when the book was published. What
could be less relatable than the apotheosis of sadism? Except of course
that this looks, in another way, all too familiar. A kind of shadow or
negative image of our usual assumptions.
Emilia: Which is obviously why Orwell wrote it at all.
In fact, as was alluded to earlier, it was clear to Descartes, whose
entire thought-experiment -- a kind of auto-initiation, its own ascent
from the Cave -- depends upon a crucial moment when it must be seriously
considered not merely that he is mistaken about everything but that he
is actively and maliciously deceived. What could motivate Descartes’
evil genius? If we pause for a moment on this question we will see that
this is simply the inversion of the God Descartes later discovers --
Ursula was adverting to this a bit ago, or suspecting me of doing so -- a
God Who is infinite and therefore cannot be deduced, and Who is good,
and therefore would not deceive.
Iachimo: Talk about bad arguments.
It is remarkable, how bad are the arguments that do not persuade us. I
sometimes think that the philosopher is, at minimum, one who is
unpersuaded by arguments she thinks to be quite good.
Emilia: Descartes is the "I think therefore I am" guy, right?
Orsino: That’s right.
So there’s this moment in Nineteen Eighty-Four that seems obviously a
response to, or an inversion of, that. Winston asks if Big Brother
exists; O’Brien says, of course he does. But Winston wants to know
specifically: “Does he exist the way I exist?” And O’Brien says: “You do
Ursula: But of course Winston doesn’t exist! He’s
a fictional character! Which is, actually, the deep anxiety that the
simulation scenario provokes. Reading fiction itself is an exercise in
Yorick: Orwell is of course not making a clever
metafictional move, but you are probably more right than you know. When
people have strongly numinous or strangely supernatural experiences, we
often say things like, “it was as if I was in a story.”
Iachimo: Mm-hmm. When people are amused, or sad, or scared, they make strange noises too.
Ursula: Not to mention in orgasm.
Adam: Talk about bad arguments.
It’s actually all quite relevant. Emilia highlighted for us that the
climax of Winston’s undoing is not when O’Brien effectively bullies him
into uncertainty about whether 2+2=4; it is when he betrays Julia. In
this scene -- possibly the most memorable in the novel, or the most
chilling -- Winston is confronted with something he cannot withstand; in
his case it is rats. It is often unappreciated that Orwell has laid the
preparations for this scene with extreme patience chapters before.
Winston is irrationally afraid of rats, though in fact the rats he is
confronted with are quite frightening -- starved and ravenous as they
are -- even for those readers who are not thus phobic.
This scene has always struck me as the eruption of the Real -- the
indigestible kernel, the thing that cannot be assimilated.
Adam: It’s not Lacanian at all. It’s too contrived -- the whole institution of the Ministry, the torture apparatus --
Ursula: The Real isn’t the same as the natural.
Emilia said that O’Brien’s rejoinder to Winston -- “You do not exist”
-- is an inversion of Descartes. It seems to me that the scene with the
rats -- I do not know whether Orwell intended it so consciously -- is a
point-for-point recreation and inversion of Plato’s parable of the Cave.
Orwell even specifies that Winston can tell he is in a room far
underground, “as deep down as it was possible to go.” This comes at the
very end of Winston’s imprisonment. He and his lover Julia were arrested
months before; he has not seen her since. Bit by bit he has accepted
everything in Party doctrine, which ultimately amounts to nothing beyond
the absolute omnipotence of the Party. Absolute: down to (explicitly)
2+2=5 -- if they say so.
Ursula: It’s like -- Adam was saying it a bit ago -- the same as Berkelean idealism.
Emilia: The Party says, “Everything exists in the mind, so control the mind and you control everything.”
It is a parody of Berkeley, to be sure. Winston has to train himself
in believing this. Orwell gives a telling description: Winston
cultivates an agile capacity to dance between logical acuity and
effective obliviousness to error. “Stupidity was as necessary as
intelligence, and as difficult to attain.”
Adam: More than Berkeley, it’s really a sort of parody of Socratic ignorance.
But all of that is intellectual -- dianoetic. What comes next is more
fundamental. Winston is strapped, completely immobile. Here: “upright in
a chair, so tightly that he could move nothing, not even his head. A
sort of pad gripped his head from behind, forcing him to look straight
in front.” You will recall from Adam’s reading of Plato earlier that
this is precisely the condition of the Cave’s prisoners. But in
Winston’s case, he is compelled to see not an image, but something --
yes, as Ursula was saying -- very real. The contraption O’Brien reveals
is horrible -- a cage holding starved and vicious rats, connected by a
tunnel to a mask fitted to Winston’s face. All that separates him from
them is a small door which O’Brien can open with one finger. The rats
fill up his vision -- O’Brien casually remarks that they may in fact
devour Winston’s eyes.
Ursula: It really is the most awful moment in the whole book.
Emilia: But what makes it awful isn’t the rats, it’s what they make Winston say --
Yes. Winston is of course reduced to, bargaining, begging, screaming
-- filled with an animal terror, as any of us would be. He is
desperately trying to understand what O’Brien wants from him -- and then
he realizes. There is something he must do, must say -- and as he says
it, he wants it, because it must not happen to him, so it must happen to
someone else, someone specific.
Emilia: “Do it to Julia.”
Orsino: Why? Why does he have to mean it?
Iachimo: It’s just desperation. Totally human.
If you have ever been bullied or threatened you understand. There’s
such a relief if attention turns elsewhere, and any chance to turn it
elsewhere, you seize on --
Ursula: And you might even do
anything to feel momentarily aligned with the one who is wielding the
threat. To switch the frame.
Yorick: It is of course a ghastly
moment of betrayal. It is one of the moments in the novel that no one
ever forgets; terrible, heartbreaking -- as close to Sophocles as
anything I know.
Adam: Pity, and terror.
why? Because Orwell has invoked a very primitive impulse in us -- the
sacrificial. Winston interposes Julia between himself and the rats. It
is very explicit, that he must put her body there.
Iachimo: But she’s not even there! You just said, Winston hasn’t seen her since --
Correct. And this is the fascinating thing about the inversion of the
cave. Between himself and the real rats, Winston puts the absent Julia,
the idea of Julia; but he puts her there, by his own terror-motivated desire. And he does escape; not only is O’Brien satisfied,
but in Winston’s delirium he experiences himself falling backwards,
through the earth, the oceans, into outer space, light-years away.
Adam: “Away from all suns… through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?”
Yes, Nietzsche again. Again, I cannot say whether Orwell intended the
resonance consciously. But it is worth noting that until the very end,
he intended the book to be named The Last Man In Europe.
Iachimo: Why is that relevant?
Adam: In Zarathustra, there’s this character, the last man -- men, actually --
I see what you are driving at. Winston’s escape from the cave is a
fall not an ascent, and it happens by disfiguring eros instead of
following it. Instead of going from the body of the beloved to beauty
itself to immortality and the Good, ever more real, the Party drives
Winston mad by making him betray -- making him blaspheme, as it were --
We initially said that we do not know anything about the motives of
the (hypothetical) makers of the simulation. Then we said that there
must remain some structural analogue between us and them. Motive as such
remains knowable -- but the content of motive, any particular motive, might be unknown or
unknowable. This, too, turns out to have been not so new a notion. Not
only Orwell imagines this negative image of the Good; we could point to
many other instances -- Milton, for instance --
Adam: “Evil, be thou my good.”
Iachimo: And on and on, sure. Are we doing literary criticism or are we doing philosophy here?
Ursula: What’s the difference?
Are you serious? You’re serious. Look, we’ve been talking about a book
published in the ’40s, a book that is OK but, frankly, vastly
overrated. It’s reputation as important is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I
know that students are still assigned it -- I had to read it in high
school too -- but so what? It’s just not that good. And it’s certainly
been a poor predictor of political trends, and even the one thing that
everyone remembers about the book -- the telescreen -- this surveillance
technology would be amazingly inefficient. What it has to do with the
simulation hypothesis, or even the singularity (which is at least
related), I challenge you to explain.
Orsino: It’s true that Orwell’s vision can be relevantly contrasted with Huxley’s in Brave New World --
Adam: Which is itself a quaint and dated exercise -- not Huxley, but the project of comparing them.
I don’t even understand how you would say this. We’re so clearly
living under surveillance all the time -- every single move tracked.
Edward Snowden --
Orsino: Actually, Huxley aside, Emilia is
right. I mean, this is something I do know something about. There’s no
question but that the data you generate is kept and trawled for all
kinds of purposes.
Ursula: Commercial purposes.
Orsino: That, but not solely. At no time did any of us consent to this. And there are plenty of reasons to be concerned --
Which raises the question, again, of energy and storage and
duplication. Obviously not all of the information taken in is of
interest for any given purpose. Most of it, in fact, is useless. So it’s
a question of the plausibility and efficiency of keeping -- and
analyzing -- all this data. Otherwise you just wind up with a
duplication of everything, which, again, is energetically impossible: it
takes exactly as much information as there is in the universe to
duplicate the universe perfectly, so you have to decide what to keep and
what to throw out. There’s Orsino’s kitchen drawer again.
In fact Orwell’s vision has been criticized for just the reason
Iachimmo mentions; as surveillance goes it would be exceedingly
Orsino: Well, unless you used software -- something Orwell did not foresee --
Not the point, at all. Read your Bentham; read your Foucault for God’s
sake. You don’t need to actually scrutinize every little action. You
just need to disperse everywhere the sense that every action is
scrutinizable. That’s what the Panoption does.
Iachimo: In any
case, whatever might be the literary merits of Orwell, or Huxley -- or
Milton -- there’s obviously a difference between this sort of artistic
appreciation and interpretation, and asking the actual questions about
the nature of reality.
Emilia: But these books aren’t just entertainments. They’re explorations of the same questions.
It is worth noting that Plato never presents the sort of
straightforward investigation of “the actual questions” such as you
describe. The only things we have from Plato’s hand -- aside from some
letters whose authenticity is disputed -- are dialogues, dramatic works
of fiction. Some of them are more historically plausible than others --
there is disagreement about this as well, of course -- but in none of
these does Plato ever tell us straightforwardly “here is the question,
and here is what I think about it.” In this respect, philosophy as the
famous series of footnotes is much closer to literary criticism than,
say, parliamentary debate or scientific investigation.
But obviously one can talk about the quality of Plato’s writing rather
than the ideas discussed (whether they are Plato’s own or not). Or
about how well the writing serves the argument.
Adam: Yes --
but only corrigibly, only tentatively. Because to speak about this with
absolute confidence would presuppose that we know what Plato’s argument
Ursula: What makes us so sure Plato knew “what his argument
was”? If Freud or Nietzsche show us anything, they show us that people
are not always the best judges of their own intentions.
Orsino: Marx, too.
Iachimo: Or they just make mistakes. Even “great philosophers” can argue really badly sometimes.
Ursula: In any case, the point is that reading Orwell or Milton is not different in kind.
Orwell’s book is a long excursus on certain possible outcomes of
certain ideas. It is put forward as a narrative; and there may be
insights that can only be arrived at narratively, presented in ways that
show matters -- “conclusions,” to speak analogically -- without
expressly arguing for (or against) them. As Emilia intuited in bringing
up the novel in the first place, this excursus winds up inevitably
touching upon -- recapitulating, rediscovering, or anticipating --
themes as old as Plato, or as current as artificial intelligence.
Philosophy is so inexhaustible, it is bound to look, in a certain sense,
extremely redundant. Themes like trust, freedom, knowledge, nature,
illusion, power, love.
Adam: In the Symposium, Diotima says --
Socrates says that Diotima says -- that the only people who are rightly
called lovers are those who love the good and want it forever. Even
though we usually say that those who love other human beings, especially
their bodies, are lovers. So according to Plato, our ordinary
experience of motive is in fact inadequate -- what we call “eros” is
Yorick: According to Diotima according to Socrates
according to Plato. I try usually not to be pedantic, but I just
insisted that the author of dialogue does not argue anything in his own
Iachimo: Fine; then how would you ever know what the point of the dialogue is?
Emilia: Maybe it’s just to put ideas in play against each other. For the sake of the art.
Maybe it’s a way of weighing them without overcommitting. The author
is themself finding out what they think in the process of writing it.
Iachimo: Or maybe it’s all an act of narcissism. “Look how many hats I can wear!”
Emilia: Berets! Top hats! Weasel fur!
Ursula: “I contain multitudes.”
There are usually clues. Arguments that seem to go nowhere but have
some obvious conclusion that doesn’t get said. Or a mistake that’s
clearly made, but not commented upon.
Ursula: It doesn’t matter.
The dialogues are here, they’re part of the conversation. We have to
critique them. To find their blind spots in order to know -- at least
partly -- our own.
Yorick: The illustration you gave of how
logical implication unfolds in time -- we did not really resolve whether
this is inevitably compromising to the question of entailment as being
immediate or not. I will confine myself to noting that here too Plato
has preceded us. The Timaeus speaks of the cosmos as a moving image of
eternity; but one could also say this of a dialogue, even such as our
Ursula: Hegel might say this about history itself.
In any case: Plato did not write treatises, but even less did he write
proofs. Whatever an argument or a syllogism might be, a conversation
unfolds in time. The order in which things occur matters; a conversation
is neither commutative nor associative. And in such a context, there is
undeniable feedback; each observation is also an intervention.
Adam: Hegel, and Heisenberg!
And so as one thing leads to another, everything , whether logical or
haphazard, has its rationale. It may be an ironclad if-then, or “mere”
rhetoric, or seemingly irrelevant -- along the lines of “that reminds
me...;” but it connects. Heeding this is called following the argument
wherever it leads.
Iachimo: But then what distinguishes “following the argument” from changing, or avoiding, the subject?
Adam: Good faith.
Yorick: Friendship amongst us; and purity of heart in each of us.
Ursula: “The starry heavens above me, the moral law within…”
Emilia: I’m surprised you didn’t say the grace of God.
Yorick: “Whereof one cannot speak…”
Orsino: “Purity of heart.” Some would say there’s no such thing.
Adam: Again -- it’s not a thing, so the weasels need not worry.
Ursula: A heart pure of what, is the question.
Emilia: Or how to purify it.
Adam: The how part is easy: “Will one thing!”
Ursula: Now we’re on to Kierkegaard, buckle yourselves in.
Listen: “The eternal, with its “Obey at once!”, must not be a sudden
shock that merely confuses the temporal; it should be of assistance to
Iachimo: What does that even mean?
Kierkegaard’s saying that there is something urgent that always demands
attention. You could say it’s the same question as Socrates’ -- how
should I live?
Ursula: Lenin: “What is to be done?”
A matter that has to be pursued regardless of how one answers the
simulation question, for instance. In fact we could even say that the
simulation has no bearing whatsoever upon it.
Iachimo: It seems strange to say that the reality-status of our entire universe would be of no interest.
Adam: The universe’s status is not in question at all. A simulation runs, if at all, in the universe.
Iachimo: Fine. Everything we can access.
Again, you’ve proven too much. If the claim affects “everything we can
access,” then you just put a minus sign in front of everything. The
practical upshot is precisely nil. Except of course that this nihil
itself is unsettling -- is, indeed, the Unsettling itself -- das
Orsino: But we just went through and said we can reach certain conclusions --
Iachimo: -- in which case, there is some access, some point of contact -- at least a rational one --
This disjuncture between the so-called “practical upshot” and the
ostensibly theoretical is of great significance. Ursula is not mistaken
here, though doubtless we could and should press the question of
emphasis. For one thing, “practically,” no amount of good faith can
guarantee -- as your prophets of suspicion (Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and
so on, but also Jeremiah for instance) would insist, no amount of “good
faith” will guarantee that we do not deceive ourselves, and so that we
do not avoid the argument rather than follow it. And so, “practically,”
we must be willing -- this is friendship -- not only to assume good
faith, but to be called on a perceived lapse. Now, what is this little
gap? What would suffice to bridge it? Or again, what is this “point of
contact”? Is it in fact a point, in as it were the mathematical sense --
infinitesimal, tangential, all but unreal and yet indispensable? This
question is rediscovered over and over again: Kierkegaard’s instant.
Descartes’ cogito. Socratic ignorance. The Upanishads’ tat tvam asi.
Iachimo: Which means --?
Adam: “That art thou.” It’s an identification of the self with the absolute reality.
Ursula: “You’re it!”
Emilia: As in -- “tag!” --?
Iachimo: Huh. “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Orsino: Is it like turn-taking in a conversation? The way the function of “speaker” moves around?
Michel Serres has a whole thing about pseudo-objects. Like the soccer
ball -- it’s an attractor of always-shifting focus, a sort of furtive
figure-ground interface. Passed from player to player.
Emilia: Like the Macintosh you were mentioning earlier. A center of attention.
Emilia: You know, when Hathaway stares out the window, I would swear she’s seeing something, but I can never see what it is.
Orsino: Speaking of whom --
Yorick: Hello, little one.
Ursula: I think this gap you speak of functions in humor too. When Emilia said earlier, she was not sure she could find a joke funny, there was half-smile on her face.
Emilia: You're right. A pained one.
Ursula: Because there is a kind of funny that depends upon not finding something almost-not-funny.
And of course turn-taking, like everything in dialogue, depends upon
certain informal rules -- aesthetic norms, social norms; partly
communicating content, partly signalling in context. Telling the truth;
not taking up too much time; arguing in good faith; digging in or
agreeing to disagree….
Emilia: Speaking of time --
Yorick: We should go. The body’s call for sleep -- is that changing the subject, or following the logos?
Adam: Dreams. The original simulation.
Orsino: Let’s meet again next week?
Emilia: There are so many things to chase down.
Orsino: Don’t worry. I took notes.
Ursula: I would really like to talk about this other novel I’ve been reading -- The Invention of Morel.
I’d like to think a bit about the way infinity works in Descartes and
Levinas. Also, this whole notion of “what we can access” -- this just
reeks of Heidegger. Which might surprise you, Iachimo.
I want to ask whether you are saying that all of these mean the same
thing -- Kierkegaard, the Upanishads, and whatever --?
Yorick: “Some would say,” obviously not. Others would ask: in what sense, “the same”? That seems to be an open question.
Iachimo: Also, there’s some other work ’ve been doing in the lab that might be interesting.
Orsino: Isn’t there a demonstration next week?
Emilia: There is -- I’m going. But come afterwards. If I’m not here, I’ve been arrested; come find me.
Ursula: Stay out of the Ministry of Love.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Feel free to bring fries & ice
cream again. Unless I’m in jail, drinks will be provided.
Adam: Then please don’t get arrested.
Yorick: Savory, sweet, sour and bitter. All the points of the compass
will be accounted for -- insofar as this is possible. Till then!