writing

Bob walks home.

3D man near red question mark

Bob, walking home from the train station, saw a slogan in bright red spray paint on the wall of the underpass.

“The way to defeat fascism is to ban it,” the scarlet letters proclaimed.

Damn right, thought Bob, continuing on his way.

Further down the tunnel was another red slogan,

“The way to spread the values of liberalism is to force people to accept them.”

Hmmmm, thought Bob, scratching his head, I guess that’s right. After all, people don’t know what’s good for them do they?

Emerging from the mouth of the underpass, blinking as the bright spring sunshine stung his maladjusted eyes, Bob saw through tears the final slogan in letters black on the white concrete of the wall before him.

“The way to understand irony is to take it literally.”

Oh, thought Bob.

Advertisements

Free will and dualism

immanuel-kant
I’ve been planning to write about free will for years but it’s never quite happened. I have, on more than one occasion, planned large scholarly articles….and then failed to write them. The form and content of those potential articles is probably lost forever, oh well. Free will is a huge subject, one of the most written about and argued about subjects in all of philosophy. That’s why every time I start planning to write about it the range of arguments I want to discuss quickly expands, the project becomes bloated, and I slink back to my day job as an evolutionary biologist. Well, maybe it’s because I’m currently between day jobs, but I figure if I don’t start by writing something short and sweet and posting it on my blog (which exists for this very purpose, after all) I might never write anything about it at all. I think that would be a shame (for me, at least), so here goes.

As one of the most popular and controversial subjects in philosophy, and one of those that people have the strongest intuitions about, it’s unsurprising a lot of arguments about free will are somewhat (dare I say it) incoherent. Actually, “incoherent” is a very common word utilised in these arguments themselves, typically directed by proponents of one view towards those of another. I’m going to continue this venerable tradition (mostly because it’s fun)  – there are plenty of incoherent arguments both for and against the existence of free will. If I keep writing about this subject, I might get around to reviewing many of them, but I’m going to start by putting some of my own cards on the table at the outset. I believe that Kant, who probably didn’t believe in free will in the metaphysical sense and who famously considered compatibilism (the claim that free will can exist in a deterministic universe) a “wretched subterfuge”, nonetheless refuted the majority of arguments against the existence of free will. This includes many modern arguments. When a philosopher who died in 1804 can be considered to have refuted arguments still being made in 2016, this is an example of what I like to call “proactive refutation”. How did he accomplish this? Simply by asserting that we “cannot act except under the idea of freedom”. For Kant, all actions (or inactions) result from choosing to act (or not to). This includes making the choice to believe that we have no free will – unless you have been somehow coerced (by another agent) into making this choice, you have made it freely.

There is, of course, a sizeable literature devoted to this claim of Kant’s, and there have been many attempts to refute it, but I think that most of them fail. This is going to be a short piece and I want to get to why I think denying the existence of free will is fundamentally dualistic, but before I do I better try to explain what (I think) Kant is on about. There are complicated arguments about coercion etc – e.g. when one is forced to do something is one free to do otherwise, and if not can one be said to be “acting” in the Kantian sense – but let’s leave those aside for now. I think the most important thing about what Kant is saying is that “freedom” and “autonomy of the will” are part of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the manifest image”. This means that these concepts are part of the level of reality on which humans have evolved to act and on which (in one of Sellars’ examples) we perceive and interact with objects like tables rather than clouds of loosely interacting subatomic particles with a whole lot of empty space between them. Daniel Dennett has developed this line of argument in considerable detail, but the punch line is that arguments from physics (e.g. arguments about determinism) are irrelevant to discussions regarding the existence of free will. Now, most of the arguments from physics against the existence of free will are incoherent (told you!) anyway and wouldn’t demonstrate the non-existence of free will even if they were relevant, but they aren’t. They also aren’t really even arguments from physics, more like arguments from pseudophysics, but that line of argument can wait.

So, a striking majority of arguments against free will are refuted simply by a recognition of the fact that there are many “levels of description” when it comes to reality and that free will is relevant to (and exists on) only some of them. This simple argument takes care of a lot of modern arguments from neuroscience as well as those from physics, but I want to dwell on the former a little longer. To me it seems quite ironic that many people who deny the existence of free will on the basis of evidence from neuroscience accuse those who persist in believing in it of being closet dualists. For me quite the opposite is true  – not that those who deny free will based on neuroscience have a considered belief in dualism that they are hiding, but that their intuitions are guided by (vestigial) dualist notions.

Dan Dennett has caricatured these arguments as “my brain made me do it” and lamented the naïve (in his view) attempts at philosophy perpetrated by certain scientists who have advocated this position. I don’t always agree with Dennett (I’m sure he’ll be devastated to hear this), but I do wish that those who consistently lampoon his positions (“Dan doesn’t believe in consciousness!”) would actually take the time to understand them first. Another way of caricaturing the argument from neuroscience is as “the self is an illusion, therefore free will doesn’t exist”. This is incoherent (am I over doing it yet?). Sure, the self isn’t what it might naïvely appear to be (which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or that it is acausal, but I won’t get into that) but acknowledging that simple fact and then using it to justify doing away with free will is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

If you are a monist, you are committed to the idea that everything is, at some deep level, made of the same stuff. This stuff might be vibrations, subatomic particles, atoms, whatever you want. To me, that’s all physicalism. It’s not “materialism”, because matter is not fundamental, but no matter (ha!) how far “down” you go it’s still physicalism (vibrations in fields are physical). Anyway, unless you are absurdly reductionist, you agree that there are entities at some range of levels above your chosen fundamental level. If you have any respect for biology, you acknowledge that at some number of levels above the fundamental you find entities like proteins, cells, and ultimately organisms. Which level is the “causal level”? The position people take on free will often hinges on their answer to this question. A very influential position of the past (famously illustrated by Laplace’s Demon, an intuition pump so potent it is still guiding people’s thoughts today) is that, since the only really real stuff is atoms moving in a void, the atom is the important level for causal analysis. Many neuroscientists seem to think that the cell (specifically the neuron, or perhaps the neuronal network) is the relevant level. The problem isn’t the preferred answer though, it’s the question. It’s meaningless (incoherent?). There is no level of causal primacy. There is no prime mover. This is taking the worst of theological thinking and the worst of reductionist thinking and mashing them together to create a Frankenstein’s Monster of an intuition pump that refuses to die. Forget that question forever if you want to be able to think clearly about the evolution of the universe, including the organisms present within it, all the way “up” to the level of the consciousness that at least some of those organisms possess.

If you don’t believe in free will, you are not just committed to a hard form of epiphenomenalism (the incoherent notion that consciousness is entirely acausal), you are also a (vestigial) dualist. Why? Because you are suggesting that the “you” which is your “self” is causally disconnected from the “you” that is your neurons (and all the rest of your physiology). What would that mean? If you are a physical monist, you must believe that the experience you are having, your sentience, awareness, meta-consciousness and self, is realised due to activity in your brain. You also can’t be an idealist (in the Berkeleyan sense) – you must believe there is an actual reality out there that your brain evolved to allow you to interact with. So, you believe that signals are coming in via your sense organs and ultimately are “transduced” into your awareness. All this is happening in your brain. Consciousness is just an (integrated) form of awareness (actually it’s an affordance-seeking predictive engine of awareness, but anyway). The “self” is something you are (or can be) aware of. So, do signals come in, get integrated and go into your awareness, but then find the neuronal blind alley in which meta-consciousness hides? Can signals go in to this blind alley but not come out? Is the neuronal substrate of your consciousness somehow causally isolated from the rest of your brain? Hmmmm, sounds a lot like vestigial dualism to me  – it’s a recasting of the “problem of interaction” that has long been used as an argument against dualism (how does the soul/consciousness “stuff” interact with the physical stuff?).

Okay, I’m going to stop there. I know I haven’t addressed a lot of arguments that people use to try and refute free will (e.g. some of those glossed over above, as well as arguments from phenomenology and more), but this is enough for now. Ultimately, a lot of the arguing about free will is arguing about the definition of the term itself. There are plenty of people, who I have a great deal of respect for, who are basically compatibilists but who nonetheless claim that there is no such thing as “free will”. I prefer to concentrate on the common ground in such cases, in so far as the real goal of discussion and debate is inching slightly closer to whatever truth of the matter might be accessible. However, arguing semantics can sometimes be very productive too, as long as all parties involved in the debate understand the level on which the debate is taking place. I myself am essentially a fallibilist and this means that I’m not all that attached to any particular way of saying things because ultimately they are all wrong. I’m not a relativist though, which means that some ways of saying things are more right than others, so now that I’ve made a start in my writings about free will you can expect to hear more from me on this subject in the future.

P.S. That’s Kant at the top. He’s on my side, really he is.

Final interview

ancient

It’s forbidden in their world you see. Not for ethical reasons, but because of the risk of overpopulation. If nobody dies…

They haven’t solved the problem of overpopulation?

They have not. Resources remain finite. Space remains finite. Overcrowding…

So they haven’t mastered simulation? World building?

No. Their simulation technology is not sufficiently advanced for people to live full-time within simulated worlds. One reason for that is the amount of power running simulations of such complexity requires. And issues with failsafe technology. But they are really not so different to us in some ways either, you know. Their scientists also have to contend with irrational red tape blocking certain types of research, so they’re not as advanced as they might be. Arbitrary ideologically motivated rules are equally stifling in all worlds.

Indeed. Let’s return to the subject…

Immortality? Yes, they have achieved it. They can stop ageing, prevent all disease, prevent death by trauma. But their own age limit is capped at 120. Once they reach that limit, they are humanely euthanised.

Is there any resistance to that?

I don’t believe so. The date of their death is set at the moment of their birth, so they live their entire lives with that knowledge and have plenty of time to come to terms with it. They are instilled with a keen understanding of social contract theory – make certain sacrifices to enjoy certain privileges. The price of having a life free of the fear of sudden, unexpected death is expected death. Anyway, although it’s strictly prohibited for them to create immortals in their own world, that law doesn’t extend to other worlds.

Such as our world.

Correct. Ours and perhaps others, I don’t know.

How they do it? How do they beat death?

I don’t know, I’ve already told you that. If I knew I wouldn’t be dying, would I? I’ve spent my life trying to understand it and all I’ve managed to do is shorten it.

Your life?

Yes.

You’re dying because of your research?

Yes. You can’t make too many mistakes when you are experimenting on yourself. Studying death is an efficient way to cause it.

What have you done to yourself?

Many things. Mostly protein engineering and tampering with gene expression. Now it’s all out of balance. I’m poisoning myself with the products of my own mutant genes. I’ve accomplished one thing though in my attempts to emulate their achievements.

What’s that?

An accurate prediction of the hour of my own death.

Oh…

I’m on the clock now, that’s why I agreed to this interview. People should know. People must know.

When will you die?

Tonight. Perhaps tomorrow morning.

Are you sure? You look healthy enough to me.

My pancreas and liver are producing enzymes in toxic quantities, poisoning themselves and my other organs. I’m digesting my own muscle mass. Already my kidneys are beginning to clog with cellular debris. It’s a chain reaction in a system far from equilibrium. My organs will begin to fail tonight sometime between 10 PM and 12 AM.

Can’t you do anything?

No.

I see. I’m sorry. Surely…

No, there is nothing. But people must know. Someone must find him.

Who?

The immortal living in our world. Their experiment.

There’s only one?

To my knowledge, yes. They may have other experiments, other treatment groups, in other worlds. In ours there is just one. They watch him. They’ve been watching him for thousands of years.

Thousands?

Yes. He is ancient.

Why have they done this?

To see. To see how one immortal would live, alone in a world of mortals. To see what influence he would have on their evolution. Our evolution. The evolution of our culture, our knowledge, our consciousness, of humanity itself. Would he hide? Would he take control of his world’s destiny? Would he make himself into a god?

Well… he has hidden. That’s the answer to their question…right?

I thought that too. I thought he was a coward, thought he had influenced nothing, changed nothing.

And now?

Now I know.

Know what?

He has changed everything.

***

Early this morning, prominent scientist Dr. Michael Bosnich died of multiple organ failure, apparently as the result of experiments conducted on himself in an attempt to end the process of aging. Sources close to Dr. Bosnich say that as his body failed, so too did his mind and his final hours were spent in raving delusion, asserting fantasies such as the existence of parallel worlds, immortals, and advanced beings conducting experiments on the evolution of humanity. His family asks that members of the public respect their privacy at this time and remember Dr. Bosnich as a great scientist who made important contributions to the field of genomic disease research. In keeping with their wishes, we have decided to withhold publication of the transcript of his final interview.

Painting: William Blake – The ancient of days

Marguerite (excerpt from Noise)

many-worlds-head-625x350

*Click*

“Dr. West?” Marguerite West looked up from the leather bound notebook she had been writing in, closing it and putting down her pen as she did so. The creative engine which had been fuelling the transcription of her thoughts receded from her awareness and was replaced by the form of her colleague Dr. James. The short, fit, balding man was standing before her desk rubbing the greying stubble that textured his chin. He had let himself into her office without knocking, an act consistent with the level of respect he and the other members of the all-male faculty of the Philosophy Department had been showing their new colleague in the fortnight since her appointment.

“Yes, Dr. James? Do come in.” She flashed her slightly too large, perfectly white teeth at the intruder in a genuine, if slightly mocking, smile.

“Ah…” Clinton James averted his eyes from the green irises, red lips, pale skin, and dark hair of his junior colleague, allowing them to come to rest momentarily on one of the grotesque expressionist nudes that decorated her office. He frowned and turned back to the desk, failing to maintain eye contact.

“How can I help?” Marguerite’s eyes were still smiling.

“Listen, I’ve just read your abstract, er…” he glanced at the sheet of paper in his hand, “’Integrating the Bayesian Brain with the Many-worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics’…” he paused, “… and, to be honest Dr. West, I’m not sure if it’s not absolute nonsense.”

“I see,” the corners of Marguerite’s mouth began creeping towards her ears again and for a moment James was reminded of the Joker. Why did this insufferable young woman smile so damn much?

“Ah… perhaps it was intended as a joke?

“Not at all.”

“Right. Well, you see, we are not particularly enamoured of the Everettian interpretation of Quantum Mechanics here, Miss….sorry…Dr., West.”

“Oh?” Marguerite ran her tongue over her incisors. It was an entirely unconscious action, but she noticed Dr. James noticing it. The man flinched and she smirked inwardly.

“Please, Dr. West, this is serious,” perhaps not so inwardly, “the Department has a reputation to uphold and this is a major international conference.”

“Indeed.”

“What’s more, it’s your first public talk as a member of faculty and we were thinking perhaps something closer to your recognised area of expertise…”

“For example?” The terseness of her sentences was at odds with the tone of her voice, which was gentle and good humoured, and the smile that still split her features. This incongruity made James even more uncomfortable.

“Well, perhaps de Beauvoir’s continued relevance…” he ventured before being interrupted by a snort that his young colleague had only half attempted to stifle.

“So…because I’m a woman I should lecture on feminism?” Although her facial expression remained unchanged, West’s voice had acquired a slight edge.

“Ah, no, not necessarily…” Dr. Clinton James, 52 year old tenured lecturer, university squash champion, rock climber, philosophical advisor to politicians and the nation’s economic elite, felt like a 12 year old boy in front of this woman, twenty years his junior. He trailed off and fell silent.

“What exactly is your issue with Everett, Dr. James?”

“Well, we’re none of us physicists, of course, and we haven’t had a genuine philosopher of physics in the Department since Dr. Costlan left…”

“And what was his opinion of Many-worlds?”

“He liked to say that it was ‘not even wrong’, Dr. West, and I’m afraid that judgement has held sway here ever since.”

Marguerite was beaming again, “Well, you should be.”

“Sorry? Should be…?”

“Afraid. Intransigence founded on ignorance is not a good look for a Philosophy Department, Dr. James.” Marguerite settled back comfortably in her chair, reversing the crossing of her legs, her eyes sparkling. James, once again quite unable to meet her gaze, turned, said something to the nearest wall, and exited West’s office as abruptly as he’d entered. Even before the door shut behind him Marguerite had picked up the thread of her thoughts and resumed writing at a feverish pace.

*Click*

Sensory Deprivation

This is a dark short story about the origins of consciousness during the development of the brain. It’s probably not suitable for children….

sensory-deprivation

We wanted to investigate consciousness. How it’s formed. How the sense of self develops in response to environmental stimuli. It was science. The purest kind. Blue sky. A quest for knowledge, pure and simple. Was our research unethical? Many seem to think so. I’ll let you be the judge.

The first thing you need to know is that these babies were not going to be born otherwise. Their parents didn’t want them. We had an arrangement with several major abortion clinics. We met with the mothers, explained our research. Offered them good money. We never pressured anyone. Is it unethical to put a newborn baby into a sensory deprivation tank? I don’t know….well, maybe I know now but I didn’t know then. Anyway, I still don’t know if it’s more unethical than preventing them from being born at all. I mean…any life is better than no life right? That’s what the beefeaters say; I’m a vegetarian. Anyway, that’s not why I’m here you know? No one really cares about those babies. It’s the clones…

What? Fair enough. I’ll explain.

People want to know where it comes from. Consciousness. The self. Does the brain create it, or just “download” it? Is it something that forms in response to complex environmental and social cues or is it “out there”, waiting for a brain that can support it? A lot of people believe that. Like it’s the soul, immortal. The Eternal Oneness, or whatever.

So how do you test that? Well, one way is to keep brains isolated as they develop and see what happens. Simple. The best kind of science. But not so simple really….you need treatment groups, controls. Need to test the effect of genetics, different environments. You need a lot of brains, a lot of treatment groups. So…we got a lot of babies. It wasn’t hard. Nobody wants kids any more. Too expensive. Too restricting. Too much responsibility. Not that they want to stop making them of course. You tell me who’s unethical….

Well, sure, maybe they just haven’t worked out how it happens. Wouldn’t surprise me. It’s not as if they teach biology in schools any more….

Yeah, you’re right, I wouldn’t want to bring a child into this world either. Not after we’ve screwed it up so much. Damn it’s hot…you’d think they’d have air-conditioning in these cells…

Yeah, right. So we got a lot of bubs. All sorts of racial combinations, different social backgrounds. We divided them into treatment groups….

Well, you can’t have just one brain in each treatment group. Don’t you know anything about statistics? You need multiples. Replicates. So yeah, that’s where the clones came in. That’s why I’m here talking to you in a room with no windows…I guess that’s appropriate somehow. Sensory deprivation. Only my room reeks of piss and shit. My own, thank God. I don’t know how you

It’s an expression.

“Playing God,” they said. Whatever, we gave those clones an opportunity. We gave all our babies a shot at life.

Yeah, so some of them got no sensory input. Seven years floating in total silence, absolute darkness. Pitch black. Some of them had a little light, a little sound. All the way up to ones with full-blown family lives. AI families of course – they all had to be in the same tanks. Controlled environments. But for some of them we simulated touch, human contact, the whole shebang. There was a whole range of sensory treatment groups from nothing all the way up. A smooth range of variables. 30 points on the treatment curve, 12 different genetic and socioeconomic combinations at each point, one natural kid and two clones for each combo. 1080 kids. It was beautiful. The greatest experiment ever conducted on the origins of consciousness in the developing brain….

The results? How the fuck should I know!? Seven years mate. Seven. Years. We were just opening the first tanks when the boys in blue kicked down the doors. Farkin’ heroes. I don’t even know what they’ve done with my children. My babies…

Destroyed? And I’m the one in prison…

When in doubt, try gospel: the virtues of interpretation

2013_Blind-Willie-Johnson

I am a big fan of Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation,” and I’ve written pieces espousing similar positions in the past (e.g. https://tnwjackson.wordpress.com/2015/03/11/can-i-just-dig-it-please/). On the other hand, I’m also a big fan of interpretation – contradiction is the spice of life (What? That isn’t how that saying goes? Whatever, smarty pants.).

I’m a scientist, an atheist and a lover of gospel music (amongst other things). The constant bickering between “science” and “religion” (as if either of those things is a single entity) that pollutes so many information streams today (Ack! Memetic warfare!) is often boring at best. “Religion” has indeed been associated with its share of atrocities (not quite as many as “humans”) throughout cultural history, but it has also been associated with much of lasting value. If you can’t see the “good” in something because you’re blinded by the “bad”, here’s an easy 4-step process:

  1. Read the Wiki entry on the “nirvana fallacy” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirvana_fallacy
  2. Have an icy cold shower.
  3. Read Alan Watts’ The Book.
  4. Have a piping hot shower.

Will that help? No idea, but it probably won’t do you any harm (be sure to get warm before you start step 3).

Anyway, I dig gospel. Gospel and the blues are very closely related, so closely related that the song I’m about to discuss can be found on compilations of music from either genre. Whether you’re religious or an atheist, unless you’re an idiot (no offence, idiots!), then you’ll probably agree that the “African American” originators of these musics were having a seriously rough time, and perhaps that the music was a “coping mechanism” – a way to focus on something other than how incomprehensibly awful the way one group of humans treats another can be.

I know what you’re thinking (I can see the future, too) – “how does this relate to you, atheist middle class white boy of 2016!?” Well, hush for a second and I’ll tell you. On the surface, gospel songs might appear to be about God, but really (like most songs), they’re about the “human experience”. Check out these lyrics:

“I said no, don’t worry,

no, please don’t worry,

no, don’t worry,

see what the Lord has done.

Just keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

see what the Lord has done.”

What on Earth was Blind Willie Johnson (in my chosen version of the song) on about? Well, you’d have to ask him (good luck), but for me “keep your lamp trimmed and burning” means “pay attention”. A lamp is like a torch (https://tnwjackson.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/a-metaphor/), it’s a piece of technology designed to augment our senses, to help us see in the dark. He’s saying keep your eyes open, keep your senses sharp (trim that lamp, in case it burns itself out) and keep your awareness projecting outward. The “dark” could be the confusion we all experience sometimes in everyday life, in which our attention is constantly attracted by the “wrong” things; the “lamp” is your awareness, or a thinking tool that augments it, something that can help you see through the BS and focus on how absolutely glorious the world really is (“see what the Lord* has done”), despite everything.

OK, so maybe you think my middle class white boy interpretation is facile. That’s fine. It’s always up to us to choose which things to pay attention to and which things to ignore (and what a “superpower” that truly is). Regardless, it’s nothing more or less than my interpretation, anyway. For the good stuff, proceed directly to the source:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjHl-57_I0g

 

* “see what evolution has done” had too many syllables, I guess.

 

Billy and the daemons.

Later that “day” in hyper-dimensional space, Billy bumped into Laplace’s Daemon, who was looking dejected.

“Hey, LD, what’s up?” Billy asked, cheerfully.

“Oh, hi Billy,” the daemon rumbled. His voice, almost subsonic, sounded hollow. “I’m feeling a bit low, to tell the truth.”

“Cheer up LD, what’s wrong?”

“I feel pretty useless, Billy.”

“Oh come on.”

“I’m not good at anything…”

“That’s nonsense LD! You know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe! That’s pretty awesome!”

“I thought so too, but now I don’t know…”

“What happened?”

“I failed to predict the outcome of the US presidential election…”

“Oh, bummer…but you’ve predicted a lot of other stuff correctly, right?”

“Well, not as such, no…”

“But…I thought prediction was your whole thing LD?”

“So did I…but I’ve never actually tried to predict anything before now.”

“Wow – isn’t that what you were created for?”

“I guess not. I guess I was created as an intuition pump like some smart arse philosophers have claimed…oh man, this sucks – I was so determined to try,” the daemon let out an almighty sigh. “Ha! ‘Determined’!” he suddenly shouted, slapping his daemonic thigh ironically.

“What’s an intuition pump LD?” chirped Billy, his ears ringing. He’d missed the joke but was always excited to learn new things.

“It means I was created just to convince people that prediction was possible in principle. You know, to show people how obvious and logical determinism is and how incoherent the idea that puny creatures like them could have ‘Free Will’ is,” the daemon made little bunny ears with his daemonic fingers as he pronounced the words “Free Will”, “…but I never really thought to test my powers.” He paused, shaking his daemonic head, “I mean, it was so obvious!”

Suddenly, Tegmark’s Daemon appeared in a puff of mathematics.

“Hi TD!” chirped Billy, whose irrepressible chirping was starting to get on the daemonic nerves of Laplace’s Daemon.

“Hi Billy! Hi LD – I hear you’ve had a spot of bother bit of predicting the future old chap,” said the newcomer.

“Bloody hell,” growled the older daemon, “everybody knows… I’ll be a laughing stock at the next meeting of the Council of Daemons.”

“Cheer up mate,” replied TD, trying to console his friend, “it’s not your fault. You just don’t know anything about quantum indeterminacy, that’s all.”

“What’s that?” asked LD, without enthusiasm.

“Would you like me to show you?”

“Not really…”

“Yes!” exclaimed Billy, who knew it was rude to interrupt when daemons were talking to each other but was unable to contain his excitement.

“Excellent!” said Tegmark’s Daemon, ruffling Billy’s hair affectionately before opening his daemonic mouth and spewing forth a huge jumble of equations. While he explained them to his eager young student, Laplace’s Daemon picked his daemonic teeth disinterestedly with his daemonic claws.

Some “time” later, when Tegmark’s Daemon had finished his daemonic explanation, he turned to his fellow daemon and said, “So now you know, LD – it’s a bit harder to predict the future than you thought, because you have to analyse all possible universes and work out which one you’re in! You couldn’t possibly have known…”

“Whatever,” grunted the downcast daemon, brusquely interrupting his younger colleague.

Tegmark’s Daemon shrugged his daemonic shoulders, “OK chaps, I’m off then,” he said, and promptly disappeared in another puff of mathematics.

“Fucking precocious upstart,” muttered Laplace’s Daemon, alone with Billy once more.

“I feel bad for you LD,” said Billy, “but you have to admit, that was pretty cool!” The boy was beaming in the afterglow of the brief encounter with his favourite daemon – Tegmark’s.

“Piss off, kid.”

“Aw, don’t be sore LD. What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know…probably start a psychic hotline.”

 

 

 

Art: William Blake’s “The Number of the Beast is 666”

A metaphor.

We are all in a dark room.

We all have torches.

Torches are tools for seeing.

*

All our torches are fundamentally the same, but they have different batteries.

Batteries are tools for thinking.

Our choice of batteries affects the brightness of our torches.

*

The beams of our torches can be focussed or diffuse.

The more we focus our beam the brighter it becomes.

The brighter the beam, the more clearly we see what we are looking at.

The more clearly we see what we looking at, the less we see everything else.

The more diffuse our beam, the more we see.

The more we see, the less clearly we see it.

*

The room is crowded.

We can’t see beyond the width of our torch beam.

We can’t see anyone else’s torch beam.

We often bump into each other.

Bumping into each other is an unfortunate accident.

*

The room’s darkness is not absolute.

If we switch our torches off our eyes can adjust.

If we let our eyes adjust we can see everything, dimly.

*

Get the best batteries you can.

Vary the width of your beam constantly.

Switch off your torch for a while every single day.

 

 

 

Hominids and ursids (aka “Not so fast!”)

I’m a bit obsessed with music. Anyone who knows me knows this. Strangely though (at least it’s strange to me), a lot of people seem to think I’m primarily obsessed with just one kind of music. People say things like “I know you’re mostly a classical guy, but…”; “You’re a jazz snob, but…”; “It’s not prog, like what you usually listen to, but…”; “You really only like virtuoso musicians…”; “You just have a prejudice against electronic music…”. Actually, I like all these things (including electronic music) and much else besides. Or, more accurately, there’s a “me” that likes each of them. Like everybody, I experience myriad different states of consciousness – some types of music “match” some of them, other types match others.

One kind of music I really like is “folky singer songwriter stuff”. This isn’t really a genre (what’s a genre?), but in my mind it includes artists like Bert Jansch, Roy Harper, Karen Dalton, Nick Drake, Bill Fay, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, Jack Carty (check him out! https://soundcloud.com/jack-carty/lay-low) and many others. The other day, someone gave me the Boy & Bear album “Harlequin Dream”. Just now, I listened to the track “A Moment’s Grace”. Wow. It blew me away and made me happy to be alive in a world full of so much beauty. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s not the first time I’ve heard Boy & Bear. They’re pretty famous here in Australia. I don’t really keep up with current music (I’m generally too busy exploring the art form’s history), but even I’ve been exposed to them before. The thing is, last time their music didn’t do anything for me. The “me” who heard it then wasn’t the “me” who listened to it today.

I don’t trust my initial reaction to a piece of art unless it’s positive. An artwork is an experience catalyst and any one piece of art has the potential to catalyse a wide range of experiences – different ones in different people, but also different ones in the same person at different moments. All of these experiences have a legitimacy that is absolute, but that doesn’t extend beyond the experience itself. I don’t mean to get all philosophical on you, but what I mean is that if you have a good experience listening to/looking at/reading a piece of art, nothing anyone else says about that piece of art can change the fact that it catalysed a good experience for you. If somebody makes fun of you for liking a piece of music, that just means they haven’t had the same experience as you (or they think they’ve “grown out of it”) and that they think their experience trumps yours. They’re wrong. The legitimacy of your experience is unassailable. Its legitimacy is limited to itself, however. What that means is that if a piece of art fails to catalyse a good experience for you, or catalyses a bad one, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything intrinsic about the artwork itself. It doesn’t mean the art isn’t “good”, it just means it didn’t work for you this time. Try it again at some other time (or don’t, just don’t imagine that you’ve “understood” the work and found it wanting).

The principle of the unassailable, but bounded, legitimacy of experience applies to all of our experiences, not just the art-related ones. Fundamentally, our experiences can’t tell us directly about anything except themselves. This is a disconcerting fact and I’m going to avoid wading off into the philosophical deep end by getting back to the point…

Not so fast! Don’t be so quick to judge – what bores you today might enthral you tomorrow. The incredible diversity of possible experiences available to us is what makes our lives potentially so rich. Don’t be so hasty to give it up.

 

 

Aramis, Part 1 (A Sessile* story)

This story contains graphic imagery and language.

Late at night in a large office at the top of a sixty storey building labelled “Technopharm” in huge neon letters Aramis Blake sat staring into space, his fingers typing on the bare surface of the desk in front of him. A dozen precisely placed invisible speakers filled the air with Brahms, the dense contrapuntal texture and developing variation of the quintet for piano and strings sharpening Blake’s focus as numbers flew before his eyes. He was balancing the Technopharm accounts. It had taken just two years for his business to go from start-up to billion-dollar enterprise, exceeding even his own expectations. He’d discovered the technology during the final year of his doctorate and saw its potential immediately – the ability to induce chemical brain states purely through electrical stimulation, without the need for “drugs”. The research program had been languishing due to a lack of funding and an excess of red tape stretched across its path by legislative bodies in the back pocket of big pharma. Its developers were looking at several years of expensive clinical trials before the medical application of their invention would be approved. They couldn’t afford it. They would have to shut the project down; another potentially paradigm-shifting medical technology ground into the dust by pharmaceutical companies desperate to keep their share of the drug market. Blake had seen straight away what the technogeek developers, their near-sighted eyes already brimming with tears for their death of their baby, were incapable of imagining – the recreational potential of the tech. It started with electro-psychedelics, -stimulants and -opiates, but it wasn’t long before the military took an interest and NocBlok, a nociception-blocking implant, made Blake an instant billionaire.

Glancing up from the spread sheet Aramis Blake’s eyes came to rest on the bas-relief on the wall opposite his desk; The Exaltation of the Flower, an Ancient Greek sculpture depicting two women exchanging gifts of flowers or mushrooms. Usually this image identifying his path with that of the ancients brought him solace but tonight he felt the need to look on something more dramatic. He considered his options and then chose to replace the relief with Picasso’s Guernica, his field of view filling with the contorted and screaming faces of the horse and humans as soon as he made the selection. Increasing the volume of the music he relaxed in the assault to his senses as the horse, the bull, the broken sword and bodies and Brahms’ exquisitely organised chaos of counterpoint merged for a moment into an intoxicating gesamtkunstwerk. Sighing with abstract emotion Blake jacked into the security feed; the Technopharm offices that occupied the top two floors of the building were empty except for his own and the laboratory down the hall where Bruno Skachkov tinkered with his miniatures at all hours of the night. Fascinated as always by the tireless industry of the tattooed Russian homunculus, Blake watched him at his work, zooming in as Skachkov inserted a tiny handmade microchip into the back of a figurine no more than seven centimetres tall. As soon as the microchip was in place the figurine, an immaculately detailed demon with wings, hoofs and its mouth sewn shut, started to move, turning to face Skachkov and genuflecting before its creator. Chuckling to himself, Blake returned his attention to his company’s finances.

There are no clocks in the Technopharm offices – the rotation of the Earth is precise enough a metronome for Aramis Blake. Shorter periods of time are measured by the duration of favourite pieces of music.

The Brahms had finished and the air was thick with Bruch when the music was suddenly muted by a notification from the security feed flagging an event in the building’s lobby – someone had attempted to gain access to the private elevator servicing the Technopharm offices. Video from security cameras downstairs revealed the marble-floored lobby, decorated in the old style with statues, prints of artworks and projected advertisements for companies that occupied the various floors. Standing by the elevators were two men, an odd couple: one small and wiry with the face of a weasel and the other a muscle-bound behemoth looking like he’d stepped out of Norse legend. Establishing vidphone contact, Aramis addressed them politely.

“How can I be of assistance, gentlemen?”

“Blake?” the little man snapped, his voice reedy and high-pitched.

“This is Dr Aramis Blake, yes. To whom am I speaking?”

“You’ll find it’s in your best interest to let us up there Blake, we have an important message for you,” said the man. A notification appeared in front of Blake’s eyes and he switched feeds, replacing the weasel-faced man with Skachkov’s stony visage. Saying nothing, Blake nodded and the Russian broke the transmission.

Switching back to the lobby feed Aramis addressed the strangers, “Of course gentlemen, come on up,” and entered the eight digit code giving them access to the elevator. Moments later they stood in front of his desk. He hadn’t risen as they entered the room and now the smaller man snapped his fingers,

“Sid,” he grunted, pointing at Blake. The giant shoved the hardwood desk aside, picked Aramis up as if he were a child and deposited him on his feet facing his accomplice. Blake was not a small man, considerably taller and heavier than the leering thug who now slouched against the repositioned desk investigating his crooked yellow teeth with a toothpick, but the man behind towered over them both and seemed almost as wide as he was tall. Blake addressed the little mustelid-featured man,

“Welcome to Technopharm. I’m sure you understand that it’s most unusual for me to accept visitors, particularly at such an hour and without an appointment. How may I help you?”

“Listen, Blake, listen good alright,” the man spat, his toothpick descending to the floor in a shower of spittle. “You’re going to back off from the pharmaceuticals market alright mate? Take whatever money you’ve earned and fuck off back to wherever you came from. Today was Technopharm’s last day of business.”

“Ah,” Blake’s voice was steady, “I’m afraid that’s not possible, gentlemen. Please tell your employers, whoever they may be, that it’s only business, I’m sure they’ll understand. They really shouldn’t get so worked up about it.”

“Right. Well this is only business too mate, I’m sure you understand,” Blake’s arms were pinioned from behind and his hand forced onto the desk. Feeling Sid’s strength Blake relaxed, knowing there was no point fighting. The weasel-faced man reached his hand into a jacket pocket and drew it out brandishing something that looked like an antique soldering iron, its metal end already glowing red. As he burnt a hole in Blake’s hand the CEO of Technopharm impassively maintained eye contact, not flinching even as the hot wand passed clear through his hand and began to burn to desk beneath it. The torturer’s excitement turned to frustration and he raised the wand towards his victim’s unflinching eyes. “I heard you was a tough guy Blake, I love tough guys. I could spend all night burning off little pieces of your body mate, burning your eyes out, burning your fucking balls off, but I’m here for results first and fun second. So tell you what mate. After I’m finished with you how about I head over to fifty one View Street and say hi to your woman and kid eh? How about I go make your little bitch my little bitch? Whadoya reckon, eh tough nuts?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“No?”

“I’ll do as you ask.”

“’Course you farken will, mate. ‘Course you will. All you tough guys go soft for your bloody cows. Let him go, big man. All right then, before we go we need to get some of this equipment of yours. The programs you use, the hardware, all your research materials, where’s it at?”

“Everything you need is in the laboratory down the hall.”

“Alright, let’s go then you macho prick.”

Bruno Skachkov crouched barefoot on the floor beside the entrance to the darkened laboratory, listening intently for sounds from Blake’s office down the hall. In his right hand he absent-mindedly shuffled his three-inch knuckle knife from finger to finger. At the sound of footsteps and a sneering voice in the hall every muscle in his body tensed. The twin curves of his weapon’s handle nestled snugly under index and middle fingers; the short blade sticking out from in between was almost as broad as long. Automatic lights came on as the doors next to him slid open soundlessly and a gargantuan slab of muscle topped with hay-blond hair stepped through. Bruno didn’t wait for him to turn – he leapt, grabbing a handful of hair with his left hand and, perching his bare feet on his victim’s hips like a monkey, he drove the little blade in his other hand into the man’s throat again and again, severing the giant jugular with the first thrust but not stopping until the giant was horizontal and lying in a steadily spreading sticky pool of himself. The weasel tried to turn but collided with Blake who wrapped his arm like a python around the wiry little man’s neck. Struggles turned to spasms and then the feet twitched a moment before movement ceased altogether and another body fell limp to the floor. Aramis Blake turned to Bruno Skachkov,

“Clean this mess up. I’m going to get Persephone.”

*

They’d met in prison. Blake was in on a six-month sentence for distribution of an unlicensed delivery mechanism for a controlled substance on the London campus of PanGlobal University. He’d been eighteen months into his doctorate and had seen an opportunity to make some easy cash. The drug war had been dying a slow death over the previous decade but cops with nothing better to do were still looking for ways to make easy drug-related busts. Blake had been selling a stimulant that improved concentration– a performance enhancing molecular cocktail that was legal but banned for use by students during the examination period. It was also only approved for use in pill or vaporiser form, both of which had a relatively short half-life compared to the skin patches Blake was selling. The transparent delivery patches, undetectable once they’d been applied, slowly released the drug over several hours – perfect for tedious exams. It wasn’t much of a crime and Blake didn’t even need the money thanks to his inheritance, he just liked making money.

After letting slip to a guard that he was a PhD student at PGU he’d found himself sharing a cell with a man that looked like a chimpanzee someone had shaved and then painted all over – another inmate had called Skachkov a “technicolour sock full of walnuts” and lost his two front teeth for his wit. When they’d got to know each other a bit Blake asked about the significance of the huge cobra tattoo on the Russian’s head, its hood spread across the back of his skull. Skachkov had said it was because he was “just like Buddha under the Bodhi tree until some unlucky prick disturbs my meditations”. Blake didn’t point out that Buddha had been under a mucalinda tree when the cobra had sheltered him. Bruno was inside for assault – five years for biting off the ear of a policeman who’d come to arrest him in connection with a crime for which they’d had no evidence against him. The real crime, of which he freely admitted his guilt to his cellmate, was manufacturing miniature robotic assassins for use in remote hits on major corporate figures. He never knew who hired him and the money wasn’t as much as it should have been but he did it for access to the materials and equipment with which to indulge his passions for artificial intelligence, robotics, and miniaturisation. At first Blake didn’t believe the little thug capable of such technical work, but when he saw what Skachkov could do in the prison workshop he was quickly converted into a believer.

They shared a cell for the full six months and became close allies. Their e-brains were disabled as part of prison policy and Blake gradually replaced Skachkov’s collection of smutty pinups with prints of great works of art. The Russian grew to respect the Englishman for his intellect and ambition and agreed to join him in whatever business venture he had going when they were both back on the outside. For a year after his release Blake hadn’t known what use he could put his new comrade to, hadn’t known until he’d come across the technology for electrostimulation of brain chemistry and founded Technopharm – it was Skachkov who’d taken the researcher’s technology and put it into tiny handheld units connected to a comfortable electrode array that could be slipped on and off like a swimming cap; it was Skachkov who provided the necessary muscle to deal with big pharma’s scare tactics.

*

Blake went down to the basement and got into his late model Porsche 911. A torque addict, he would avoid getting a grid vehicle until they finally outlawed freewheelers completely – he didn’t even use his Porsche’s autodrive function except in zones where manual control was illegal. Putting his foot down and darting between computer-controlled cars he was at the apartment block on View Street within eight minutes of leaving the Technopharm building. It was a nice block but the lobby was big and facelessly modern, advertisements for expensive perfumes and jewellery and exotic holidays flashed at him from every wall. He took the elevator to level five and knocked on the door to number 51. After a minute or so a woman’s voice came over the intercom,

“No way Aramis, it’s late and it’s not your day to see her. You can’t keep messing around with the schedule like this, it upsets her and it upsets me.”

“Open the door, Apollonia, this is important, I need to talk to you.”

“She’s asleep.”

“We both know that’s a lie.”

“Forget it. I’m not going to argue about this. Come back on Sunday. Good night, Aramis.”

Blake sighed deeply and then took an access card out of his wallet and held it against the card reader. When he heard the lock slide he turned the handle and pushed his way into the richly appointed apartment.

“You bastard,” yelled his ex, “this is my apartment!”

“No, Apollonia, this is my apartment,” Blake didn’t raise his voice but his tone was cold, “you just live here with my daughter.”

Your daughter? Our daughter, arsehole.”

Aramis walked into the living room and saw the Technopharm unit sitting on the arm of the comfortable leather chair. “Still using, eh?”

“Your products, dealer. You think I don’t take advantage of my lifetime supply?”

“I know you do. I’m going upstairs.”

“The hell you are!” as she grabbed at him he jabbed her hip with a tiny auto-injector hidden in his palm. The drug was a fast-acting tranquiliser and she immediately slumped into his arms. It would wear off in under a minute so he took her to the chair and slid the electrode cap on over her hair. He loaded an opioid program and set the timer to thirty minutes – he’d be long gone by then. He looked down at her as the program started and she began to squirm lethargically and sigh with pleasure, her eyes open but unseeing. She was in a nightgown of fine black silk; her hair was golden, her skin smooth and tanned, her eyes startling electric blue, she was beautiful and he missed her. They’d been planning to marry but his prison stint had put an end to that – she’d left him when he got arrested and when he got out she wouldn’t talk to him. Their daughter was born while he was inside. Even when he had become rich in the way she and he used to dream about, even when he showered her with gifts and installed her in one of the most expensive apartment blocks in the city, Apollonia wouldn’t consider taking him back. She allowed him to see Persephone because she knew she couldn’t fight his legal team.

He went upstairs and into his daughter’s room. The little girl was dancing on the bed conducting music he couldn’t hear. Twirling in his direction she saw him and her face lit up, her blue eyes sparkling. “Daddy!” she squealed, running along the bed and launching into his arms. He squeezed her tightly then put her down on the ground and crouched next to her,

“How is my munchkin genius?”

“I’m well Daddy, good and well, always good, always well,” she nodded at him sagely before her expression suddenly changed, her eyes full of concern. “Daddy you’re hurt! What happened to your hand? It’s got a black hole in it!”

“It’s nothing baby, I’ll have it patched up as soon as I get a chance.”

“Oh. You should be more careful daddy, nothing escapes from a black hole you know.”

“I know, you better watch out you don’t get sucked in!” He made a mock lunge towards her and she giggled and squirmed away.

“Oh, oh! Look at this daddy,” she grabbed something from the floor and brandished it triumphantly in front of his eyes, “look at this!” It was an antique toy older than Blake himself, which he’d found through an online dealer of esoterica. She pulled the string protruding from the plastic yellow bunny rabbit’s back and little plastic hands moved back and forth in front of little plastic eyes as the tinkly music box played Brahms’ Lullaby. Persephone giggled and swayed to the music.

“It’s lovely isn’t it sweetheart?”

“Yes Daddy but look at this, look at this!” she dropped the bunny and ran over to a small keyboard in the corner and started to pick out Brahms’ melody.

“Wonderful sweetheart, Johannes couldn’t have played it any better himself,” she beamed at him, “but we have to go now OK? Bring your keyboard, bring whatever you like.”

“Where are we going Daddy?”

“We’re going to my place. We’re not coming back here for a while so make sure you pack all your favourite things.”

End of Part 1.

*All Sessile stories contain concepts created by the author in collaboration with Joha Coludar