Archive for ‘philosophy’


Foam on the Waves

“I’ve been taking this foam-on-the-waves notion to heart,” Corrins said. We were striding along the lanes bordering the College, as we do.

“Consciousness as epiphenomenon, you mean?”

“Yes, that. I ride along atop whatever it is that my brain and body are doing, observing in luxury, and telling myself stories after the fact about why they do what they do.”

“Without any responsibility, then?”

“Just so! I used to tell myself, as everyone does, that it was me controlling my body, steering it around like a bus; but now I accept that I am only a passenger, an observer and storyteller, and it is quite refreshing.”

“It seems very convenient for you, as you can’t be blamed for anything that your body might get up to as you observe,” I remarked, thinking of various things my classmate’s body had been up to at various times.

Corrins shrugged happily. “My body isn’t about to do anything terrible, he’s a good chap. I’ve known him for years. Doesn’t need me to exercise control, which is good since I cannot, any more than the foam controls the waves on which it bobs. And I can simply relax up here, not fretting about the whole thing at all.”

My friend was clearly quite pleased with himself; I thought he might begin whistling a tune at any moment. I was almost reluctant to toss a verbal spanner into those ebullient works.

“To whom am I speaking?” I asked after a moment.

“What do you mean?”

“If the consciousness of my friend Corrins here is only a passive observer without control,” I suggested, “then with whom is it that I speak? Perhaps I am addressing my words to that observer, but more to the point, who is it that speaks to me in return? If you, my good droog Corrins, cannot control anything that this body here does, who is it that just now inquired, saying ‘What do you mean?’?”

Corrins frowned and our pace slowed a bit.

“You are asking, when I — when my body here emits these sounds…”

“Yes,” I said, feeling quite the assassin of joy, “if your consciousness cannot alter, does not control, what your body does, then –“

“Yes, yes,” he said impatiently, “I understand. That is, my body understands — or is saying that it…”


“Am I lying, then?” he murmured, speaking now more to himself, “Or is my body lying? But can a mere physical system even lie? But my mind… What if –“

He paused.

“Frankly,” he said, “I am disturbed by this question, and by its obvious answer. Who am ‘I’? Why am I making these very sounds? Why is this body emitting these sounds which appear to the observer to be words, if it is not that observer causing it to?”

“How can Corrins’ body even know how anything appears to the so-called observer, to justify making these sounds about it?” I added, perhaps unnecessarily twisting the knife. “The body is not only unable to speak for the foam, it is surely just as unable to know anything about the state of that foam.”

Corrins only glared at me, and we walked for awhile in silence, then settled down on a large flat boulder some way to the side of the lane, where we would habitually pause to rest and talk or consume various mostly-benign substances in comparative privacy.

“This body makes sounds,” Corrins’ body said, “and even makes marks on paper.”

I only nodded, feeling a certain guilt.

“We should have sex,” his body said. It is worth noting here that Corrins and I had not had sex prior to this, and that indeed it was a subject of occasional speculation in our circle whether Corrin had ever had that experience.

I nodded again, sex being after all the sort of thing to which bodies are prone, and we rolled off of the boulder to the side away from the path, and more or less tearing off much of each other’s clothing, engaged in a fast and somewhat violent, but rather more than satisfactory, fuck.

It struck me that if Corrin himself had exercised this approach earlier and more generally, he might have made significantly more friends.

“Groddy Hell!” Corrins, or Corrins’ body, shouted, lying mostly naked on his back on the somewhat mucky ground, awkwardly gesticulating upward.

“That was rather nice,” I said in a lazy afterglow sort of way, brushing some of the earthy filth from various tender parts of myself.

His body attempted to snuggle against mine, its voice sorrowful. “My poor self,” it whimpered, “a helpless prisoner, no voice, no one to speak for it, no escape. Only this ignorant damned body!”

“If I may address my friend Corrins’ subjective consciousness,” I began, feeling I admit almost tender toward the creature.

But Corrins’ face (the face of his body, that is) curled up into a rather off-putting snarl at this, and he swung a clumsy roundhouse blow at me, which I mostly dodged.

“Arrr!” Corrins’s body declared, “sod off! Off sod! Gardyloo! Mitzi Gaynor!”

We tussled and fought on the chilly earth for a bit, cuffing each other’s ears and so on, our lack of either expertise or real rancor preventing any actual harm beyond a bruise or two and some badly pulled hair. It was in a way rather like the sex had been.

“Go!” Corrin’s voice shouted after a while, his body collapsing again onto its back, filthier than ever, “Get! Git! Gut! Got! John Cougar Mellencamp!” And he kicked his feet in the air enthusiastically, further demonstrating perhaps the absence of control by any rational consciousness.

I was somewhat concerned for my friend’s health and sanity, but the sun was setting, and it occurred to me that he might be calmer in my absence; admittedly I was also willing to ride in luxury and merely observe as my body pulled its clothes back on over its grimy skin, and walked with increasing speed back to my rooms. Corrins would be, I told myself, just fine.

I observed my body take a highly therapeutic hot bath, read a few pages of Ligotti, and slip contentedly into bed. It was, from the point of view of my consciousness (do not think about that statement too hard at this point, dear reader), quite nice.

The next morning, entirely too early, I was summoned by the Proctors, because Corrins had apparently caused an Incident. Walking into the Common in the wee hours, naked and grimy, shouting incoherently at the top of his lungs, is not all that unusual as such things go, but when he was still incoherent by morning, not having slept it off nor smelling especially of alcohol or anything else familiar, the Proctors had determined to call in one of the poor veck’s friends to assist.

That I was the one they called suggested that he had at that time even fewer friends than I had estimated.

“Corrins, small cabbage,” I addressed him patiently, as he crouched on the modest pallet of his cell in the of course not a jail area of the Proctors’ Offices, “I know you can understand me perfectly well.” He only stuck his tongue far out, and wiggled the tip rapidly up and down.

I sighed. “Boopsie-poo,” I addressed him, “this is my brain directly addressing yours. You cannot deny that your brain exists, it is right there in your roughly ovoid head, and it is the same brain that until yesterday was perfectly able to speak in the usual way, and only recently composed an award-winning essay on Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I realize that the grunting animalistic body thing is hugely entertaining, but my brain must ask yours to consider: what has changed in the last thirty-six hours? Anything? Anything to justify such a change in bodily behavior?”

At this, his eyes slowly and reluctantly focused, and his body assumed a more civilized, if also more slumped, position.

“I suppose,” he said, with a sigh of his own, “but what is one to do? Nothing that this body says is connected to — I cannot say to ‘me’! I cannot even say ‘I’! And yet I do!”

“Are you suggesting that we can only sort of muddle along, our language capturing reality only in the most pragmatic and approximate way? Have you finally embraced the Dharma?”

Corrins of course laughed at this quip (a private jest between us, on his childhood Calvinism and my own old Sōtō), which lightened the mood; our bodies exchanged a few more expressions of human language, and after a while I urged him into the rough togs I had brought for him, and we departed, to the relief of the Proctors.

Hours later, we were in a comfortable noisy local establishment, drinking acceptable Porter, our friends (or at least acquaintances) around us. Corrins’ arm was around my shoulders, and he was speaking too loudly into my ear.

“Language is impossible!” he suggested, “I am only a body! Consciousness is a helpless prisoner!”

I turned toward the fellow, an attractively kind expression on my face I like to think.

“Corrins,” I ventured, “let me propose a thing to you.”

He nodded, a drowning brain eager for any straw to grasp.

“I here offer a single data point: that I, your good and devoted friend, have a subjective consciousness, which experiences exercising some control over my body, and that the activities of my body correlate so strongly with those experiences of control, that the only rational conclusion to draw is that for all practical purposes I, my consciousness, does in fact control this very body, even if I cannot imagine how.”

Here he began a sort of “Bu–“, but I put a quieting finger to his lips, and then mentally shook off distracting memories of moans and grunts on cold dirty ground.

“Hear my entire proposal,” I continued, “I put forward this data point, although I cannot offer you any evidence for it, but I propose that you also, you the consciousness of my friend Corrins, can observe for yourself a similar correlation mutatis mutandem, and have the same rational conclusion to draw.”

He frowned at this. “But the epi– the epifoamnominal theory of the foam –“

“We took that theory, that notion, only as a stipulation, did we not? A test? A trial, adopted only for the time being?”

He nodded slowly in the din.

“Then I will suggest that the resulting changes in behavior that followed from that situation, should be seen as a bit of a reductio of the notion!”

His eyes widened slightly, and then narrowed. “The sex, though. Was the sex bad?”

I assured Corrins that the sex had, in fact, been exemplary.

In the weeks since then, all has returned more or less to normal. One strides along the College Lanes discussing theories of the world, and one hears rumors that Corrins has more friends now than he has historically had.

But on certain nights, I do observe my body taking itself out into the woods beside one or another boulder or tree, pulling off its clothing and rolling itself on the loamy earth, bruising its forehead against the stones, and shouting glorious meaningless imprecations to the empty sky.

And it is not the only one.


ChatGPT and “Azathoth and the Dharma”

Well, heck.

So, I was reading Ligotti’s “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” and thinking that it was pretty good, and that he tends to picture the ultimate squirming chaos at the center of reality as sometimes attractive (if perversely) as well as finally horrifying, in a way that I don’t remember Lovecraft doing, at least not as sympathetically.

At some points, for instance in The Tsalal (whose name is explicitly a reference to Poe), I thought that when a character points out with horror that appearances are just temporary masks on an indescribable underlying reality, it sounds (without the horror part) quite a bit like various aspects of the Dharma (it does, right?). This seemed, I thought, like something that someone might write a weblog entry or something about!

And then, because my mind has been infected (in a mildly Cthulhu-esque way perhaps) by the idea of LLMs writing text, I thought I would propose the notion to ChatGPT or Bard or something, and have it write words! It would either do a good job, which would be interesting, or an amusingly bad job, which would be amusing.

I thought the “amusingly bad job” outcome was more likely, but, well, heck.

I used ChatGPT 4.0 rather than 3.5 or Bard, just because it’s gotten the most hype, and also because since I’m paying money to use it I thought it might be better, so if it failed amusingly it might be more meaningful. Here’s the interaction (and I do realize that my “always changing” is problematic as a characterization of the Dharma, but then so is everything else):

Me: For an essay entitled “Azathoth and the Dharma”, I’d like to discuss how the idea that appearances are only temporary masks over a deeper truth that is indescribable and always changing, features both in the kind of intellectual horror written by Lovecraft and especially Ligotti, and in Buddhist beliefs about truth and the Dharma, and that the main difference is one of emotional overtones with which it is presented. Lord Dunsany might also be relevant. Please draft the beginning of this essay for me.

ChatGPT 4.0:

Title: “Azathoth and the Dharma: Transient Masks of Deeper Truth in Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Buddhist Philosophy”

In the chaotic cosmos of H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti, we find ourselves confronted with a universe filled with inscrutable forces and ancient entities, their true natures hidden beneath uncanny, horrifying masks. The universe is not simply indifferent to humanity; it is utterly alien, impenetrable to human understanding, and constantly in flux. These themes of grotesque transformation and unknowable horror are at the heart of their works. And yet, when viewed from another angle, these concepts can be seen as echoing the fundamental principles of Buddhist philosophy, particularly the teachings of the Dharma. They, too, postulate a reality that is continuously changing and ultimately indescribable.

The Dharma, the cosmic law and moral order that Buddhists seek to understand and follow, hinges on several key principles, one of which is Anicca, or impermanence. Anicca posits that all conditioned phenomena are in a state of constant change. Whether we consider the universe at large or the very essence of our being, everything is transitory, and appearances are fleeting. Beneath the apparent solidity of phenomena lies an incomprehensible flux of arising and ceasing events, an underlying truth that cannot be adequately captured in words.

This notion aligns strikingly with the chilling cosmologies of Lovecraft and Ligotti. Azathoth, Lovecraft’s nuclear chaos at the center of the cosmos, is the ultimate symbol of this philosophy. It is the blind idiot god, an embodiment of constant change and the source of all existence. It is unknowable, its essence cloaked in cosmic chaos and frenetic piping, its reality beyond human comprehension.

Similarly, in the phantasmagoric narratives of Ligotti, we find the protagonists often straddling the line between grim reality and unfathomable horror, their worldviews shattering in the face of a truth too alien and amorphous for the human mind to comprehend. It’s not unlike the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, or emptiness, which refers to the lack of inherent or eternal essence in all phenomena.

Yet, as we draw these parallels, we are confronted by the starkly contrasting emotional overtones that characterize these disparate systems of thought. In Buddhism, the realization of Anicca and Sunyata is liberating, offering a path towards enlightenment and the cessation of suffering. But in the macabre tapestries woven by Lovecraft and Ligotti, the confrontation with these realities is inherently terrifying, inducing existential dread and insanity.

The eerie fables of Lord Dunsany, who greatly influenced Lovecraft, might offer an intermediary perspective. He presents us with bizarre, otherworldly landscapes and creatures, yet there’s often a whimsical, dreamlike quality to his work. The absurd and inexplicable are not strictly horrifying, but engender a complex mixture of awe, fascination, and unease.

This divergence in emotional reaction prompts us to consider the nature of human perception and our responses to the deep, enigmatic truths of existence. Is the Lovecraftian terror at the chaotic heart of reality as valid a response as the Buddhist acceptance and quest for liberation? Or does it simply reflect our inherent fear of the unknown, our resistance to the dissolution of ego, the prospect of losing what we perceive as our solid, unchanging selves? In our exploration of ‘Azathoth and the Dharma’, we delve into these questions, probing the intersection of cosmic horror and Buddhist philosophy, and the deeply human, emotionally-charged responses they elicit.

Transcript ends

I’m not sure how to feel about this. It did quite a good job, at least on a few casual readings. The references to anicca and sunyata are plausible, no worse than I would expect from any reasonably educated person daring to write on those concepts, and they weren’t specified in the prompt; the LLM was clued enough to bring them in itself. The paragraph on Dunsany is a little thin, but again no worse than I would expect from a decent human writer; I did ask for a Dunsany link, and this is the obvious one.

It clearly knows (“knows”) who Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Dunsany are, and what in general the Dharma is. I would definitely edit the phrase “the fundamental principles of Buddhist philosophy, particularly the teachings of the Dharma”, but yet again this is a matter of subtle tone, not by any means an egregious error.

It did nothing that (from a human writer!) would have been surprising or even especially non-obvious (although the thought that the feeling of horror may “simply reflect our inherent fear of the unknown, our resistance to the dissolution of ego, the prospect of losing what we perceive as our solid, unchanging selves” is perhaps beyond trivial extrapolation of the assignment). But its unsurprising and mostly obvious expansion of my original idea into seven nice paragraphs of solid prose (with a fitting subtitle for good measure) contains, I have to admit, no amusing errors that I can find!

I even asked it for some references and further reading, and it gave a decent dozen suggestions for both Lovecraftian horror and Buddhism, all of which actually exist; my only criticism being that

“Noel, Daniel C. The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities. Continuum, 1997. This book explores the intersection of spirituality and fantasy literature, which could be useful to draw broader conclusions about your topic.”

is a bit of a stretch. On the other side, when I asked it if it knew of any existing works making the same sort of link that I propose here, it did not make one up! It said encouragingly that it didn’t know of any, and finished off with this:

“Overall, your proposed exploration of the specific connection between Lovecraftian horror and Buddhist philosophy seems to be quite unique, and it’s an interesting new angle to consider in the study of both these areas.”

Well… thanks, ChatGPT, that’s… nice. I guess?

I feel like this all certainly means something. Or perhaps it’s just the thin, monotonous piping of an unseen flute!


Straw God, Steel God

A brief prologue: what does it really mean to believe a thing? What kinds of things can be believed? Is there a difference between belief and assent, or between belief and (say) tending to express a claim? If belief is a matter of an attitude toward a possible world, then it’s (perhaps) impossible to believe a self-contradictory proposition, including a necessarily false one, including the negations of mathematical truths. But it doesn’t really feel right to say that it’s impossible to believe that P=NP (assuming it’s false). Certainly one can assent to or tend to express the claim that P=NP, in either case. Is it possible to believe complete nonsense; can I believe “Nobbo dif daf phlongo” (without it having any further meaning)? Arguably I can assent to it or tend to claim it (or at least tend to assert it, or utter it with an assertive attitude?), but can I believe it? All interesting questions.

So anyway, I continue to binge various YouTube atheists responding to Christian fundamentalist apologists, and I’m really not sure why. Biblical inerrancy and literalism are just silly; there are about five arguments (Pascal’s wager, objective morality, “creation implies a creator”, supposedly-fulfilled prophecies, fine-tuning, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few), and there are very strong counterarguments to all of them. The material that’s supposedly the infallible word of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being is very obviously a bunch of stories and poems and things put together over centuries by a bunch of different people and groups and political processes, that exist in various variants and contradict each other in various ways just as one would expect of such a compendium. If it weren’t that lots of people believe, or purport to believe (see prologue), this stuff, and use it to justify political and social positions that are to various degrees odious, no one would bother responding to it, any more than anyone responds to the claim that Charlotte’s Web is literally true (some pig!). It would be a straw man, if only there weren’t lots of people asserting it.

(And yeah, it’s not just Christianity; many religions have holy books where it’s obviously silly to take the material as literally true. But Christianity is the one that causes the most trouble around me.)

Varieties of the Religious Experience: A variety of vaguely religious-looking symbols and objects hanging from an old wall and sitting on a shelf. Center is a largish cross with a circle (perhaps a Celtic cross), hanging next to a chain with a loop of vine or wool at the end, which is next to a round pendant with perhaps a clock with a painted background. Also on the wall is a piece of wood with a cross whose four arms are each split into two on the upper half and a fork with two antler-like tines. On the shelf are a squat red candle, and a tangle of cloth and metal objects.

On the other hand, I believe that most Christians, or at least a significant fraction, aren’t fundamentalist Bible literalists, and therefore believe, well, something else. And it occurred to me to wonder just what they do believe, that’s reasonable or arguable or not obviously false or void, but that still makes them Christians in some reasonable sense of the term, and whether I could write down some of the possibilities. To “steelman” Christianity, if you will, in various ways, and see what comes out.

One possibility, which I’ll call I dunno secular Christianity is something like say the Jefferson Bible: the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was a wise person who taught worthwhile stuff, and we should pay attention to it, and read (at least the non-supernatural) writings by and about him, and take him seriously, and perhaps even venerate him for some meaning of that word (but probably as a person rather than something else), maybe have holidays about his birth and death and all that, and so on.

This is fine; a discussion with this sort of Christian would be calm and rational and likely interesting; there is no fundamental disagreement. On the other hand many Christians wouldn’t count it as Christianity, since that is so often tied into questions like “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” and “Do you believe that he died and then rose again on the third day?”, which this notion of secular Christianity in its most obvious interpretation doesn’t particularly encompass.

I think it’s more common for a Christian to be in something I’ll call mysterian Christianity, which emphasizes faith, and believing in God and Jesus and the Bible without knowing and without worrying too much about exactly what it all literally means. In my model of the world, your typical believer who goes to church every Sunday but doesn’t post apologetics videos on YouTube is like this. They believe that the Bible is true, literally, or “seriously” as the JWs put it, or whatever, and if the things that it says don’t seem to make rational sense right now, that’s fine, we humans are very limited in our understanding, and it will be clarified in time, and in the meantime we should pray and do what seems right and/or what Father O’Malley advises. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

A discussion with this sort of Christian would be relatively short and simple, I think, as long as one didn’t get obnoxious by asking them how they’re justified in believing something they don’t even understand. The answer is presumably something like “I’ve been touched by the Holy Spirit, and you haven’t, and that’s it; maybe some day you will be too!”, and there’s not much further that one can go politely from there.

What else do we have? I’d like a rational (re)construction of some sort of mystic Christianity, in which one accepts Jesus as one’s personal savior, and he died and rose again on the third day to atone for our sins and all, but also doesn’t make silly truth-claims and doesn’t lead to any odious political or social attitudes. This would have to involve lots of symbols and metaphors, or in the more exalted sense lots of reality-as-metaphor, where we say that Jesus of Nazareth was (and is) both one with God and also the Son of God, and probably that each of us is also one with God (and with Jesus) and also the Son of God, and that each of us (throughout life, throughout the day, in every moment) dies and then rises again, that by our own (perhaps constant) deaths we pay (God and ourselves) atonement for our sins, where simply being an ensouled embodied entity inherently constitutes sin, except when we take salvation into ourselves through Christ’s, which is to say our own, sacrifice of himself, which is to say ourselves, and we must accept Christ (which is to say, the cosmos) as our personal (because everything is personal) savior.

This is to take the Bible as perhaps inerrant and literal, but noting that to the same extent we take Charlotte’s Web (and especially the Wind in the Willows) and the very sound of the wind in the trees as interrant and literal, which is something that we can do only (as far as I know) by acknowledging that all language, even all experience as refracted through language, as metaphorical, so that the most literal possible interpretation of any text or experience is still an interpretation rife with symbol and metaphor. Which is what mysticism is, in some (metaphorical) sense.

Is this all interesting and/or accurate? I’m not certain. I, obviously, don’t believe fundamentalist Christianity, because it’s facially silly, and I keep listening to people refuting its claims (probably just because it validates my existing attitude or whatever). Secular Christianity (as used above) is fine, and probably held by various Unitarians and so on, who may or may not (perhaps more often not, in these troubled times) call themselves Christians. Mysterian Christianity isn’t especially attractive to me, as I haven’t been appropriately touched by the Holy Spirit, and frankly I don’t think anyone else has either in the relevant sense, but arguing about it is very much like I think arguing with a solipsist; it’s too bad that people sometimes get odious behaviors from it. Mystic Christianity is fine, and is so to speak just a different way of saying something that I do believe (to the extent that “believe” applies here) but that I put in Buddhist or Ariadnite terms rather than Christian ones, because icky connotations or whatever.

Seems reasonable. :D



I should like phenomenology. Ontology is about existing, epistemology is about knowing, morality is about good and bad and valuing, but phenomenology is about subjective experience; about experiencing from the inside.

The relevant reason that I should like that, is that an ongoing project of mine (not one that I necessarily work on, but one that I think about, which is at least as good) is to start with whatever it is that is given, or Given, which I like to call The Experience Storm, and to see how everything else (existing and knowing and valuing) can (or cannot) be built up from that. To take, that is, the subject matter of phenomenology as foundational, and see what happens when we try to build everything else on top of it.

This is hardly an original thought. :) Descartes’ cogito is sort of that, taking that which he cannot doubt and seeing what could be built on that. I disagree with him about just what he cannot doubt (or at least I’m able to doubt lots of stuff he claimed he couldn’t), but it’s the same general project. Empiricism is also an approach to the same project, where The Given is something on the order of sense experience, which turns out to be wrong, but again it’s basically the same project.

If we look up phenomenology on the interwebs, a typical sort of thing we find is, for instance:

“The discipline of phenomenology is defined by its domain of study, its methods, and its main results.

“Phenomenology studies structures of conscious experience as experienced from the first-person point of view, along with relevant conditions of experience. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, the way it is directed through its content or meaning toward a certain object in the world.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, revised 2013l

which starts out fine for a couple of sentences, but then I am all like whaaaaat.

As I’ve said before in a just slightly different context, I find the whole “aboutness” and intentionality thing silly and unconvincing. And one of the reasons for that is especially relevant here: not only are there all sorts of experiences that aren’t about some object in the world (what is the experience of boredom about, for instance?), but in the foundationalist project, it can’t be fundamental to experience that it be made of things that are “about” “objects” in the “world”, because we don’t yet have a “world”, or any “objects”, or any relationship like “about”.

I talked about this a little on Mastodon the other day, and someone (who I now see is “lead of the graphics kernel team at Microsoft”??) commented usefully that, basically, people usually take phenomenology as not-foundational, as the study of how experience is given that we already know more or less how it all fits into the world, and what the world is like. (Not what they said exactly, but that’s what I read in it.)

And that’s fine, but I think it’s significantly less interesting.

Now, how do we actually build up a world from the Experience Storm? What happens when we try to? Or, perhaps more appropriately, how do I do it, and what happens when I try, since I haven’t established that you even exist yet. And vice-versa. :)

I haven’t worked that all out entirely yet, but an early interesting question is just what the Experience Storm is like: what it consists of, how it’s structures, what entities and properties and relationships it has. Descartes talked mostly as though what is Given is a bunch of propositions, and they include not just “I am thinking” and “I exist”, but really complicated stuff like “there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause,” which is just whacky, and leads to stuff like theism. I don’t know whether he was also unable to doubt “I am reasoning correctly in all this stuff”, or if that occurred to him at all.

The standard empiricist viewpoint is (or one might even say, was) that what is given and undoubtable is sense experience, which is along the lines of two-dimensional red blobs, and rising tones, and whatnot. I think it’s fair to say that it turns out that that isn’t really how we experience the world, although (this being philosophy) the details (and even the broad outlines) remain controversial (see for instance I dunno maybe this).

My tentative hypothesis is that, first, what is given, the Experience Storm, is exactly this, and that any verbal description will be significantly wrong (very Zen, that, at least for my values of “Zen”). But if we forge ahead and write down verbal descriptions anyway, we get not only something like “raw feels”, but much more complex things that have big fat semantic labels attached, and relationships between them, and lots of stuff like that. And those labels (properties) and relationships are just as much part of what is given and indubitable as the rawer and more feel-like things that are also in there, and to which they are in some sense associated or “attached”.

And one can continue from there in various ways :) to build up more stuff on that, always keeping in mind that the words that one is writing down are significantly wrong. But it’s getting late at night, and I’m happy to have written this much down.

It’s a pity that the word “phenomenology” has this whole concept of Aboutness associated with it. Is there a good word for taking subjective experience (whatever that turns out to be like), and building the rest of the universe up from there? Probably there is, and I once knew it even, maybe forty years ago. :)


It’s just predicting the next word! Well…

tl;dr: While it’s true that all LLMs do is produce likely text continuations, this doesn’t imply that they don’t have mental models, don’t reason, etc.

One thing that sensible people often say about Large Language Models like ChatGPT / GPT-n and Bard and so on, is that all they do is predict the next word, or for more technical accuracy, that all they do is generate text that is likely to follow the prompt that they are given, i.e. “produce likely continuations”.

And that’s a good thing to note, in that people tend to have all sorts of other theories about what they are doing, and some of those theories are just wrong, and lead people to make bad conclusions. For instance, people will have a more or less default theory that the model knows things about itself and tells the truth about things it knows, and take seriously its (non-factual) answers to questions like “What language are you written in?” or “What hardware are you running on?” or “Are you a tool of Chinese Communism?”.

Also, it’s true that all they do is generate text that is likely to follow the prompt, in the sense that that is the only significant criterion used during training of the underlying neural network.

But that doesn’t actually mean that that is all they do, in the more general sense. And this, at least potentially, matters.

Consider for instance the claim that “all life does is arrange to have many generations of descendants”. That is true in the same sense, since the only criterion for having survived long enough to be noticed in the current world, is to have had many generations of descendants.

But, significantly, this doesn’t mean that that is all life does, in the sense that life does all sorts of other things, albeit arguably in the service of (or at least as a side effect of) having many generations of descendants.

For instance, I think it would be plainly false to say “people obviously can’t reason about the world; all they do is arrange for there to be many more generations of people!”. In fact, people can and do reason about the world. It may be that we can explain how we came to do this, by noting that one effective strategy for having many generations of descendants involves reasoning about the world in various ways; but that does not mean that we “don’t really reason” in any sense.

Similarly, I think the arguments that various smart people make, which when boiled down to a Tweet come out as roughly “LLMs don’t X; all they do is predict likely continuations!” for various values of X, are in fact not valid arguments. Even if all an LLM does is predict likely continuations, it might still do X (reason about the world, have mental models, know about truth and falsehood) because X is helpful in (or even just a likely side-effect of) one or more effective strategies for predicting likely continuations.

Put another way, if you train a huge neural network to output likely continuations of input text, it’s not obviously impossible that in choosing internal weights that allow it to do that, it might develop structures or behaviors or tendencies or features that are reasonably described as mental models or reasoning or knowledge of truth and falsehood.

This isn’t a claim that LLMs do in fact have any of these X’s; it’s just pointing out that “all it does is produce likely continuations” isn’t a valid argument that they don’t have them.

It’s still entirely valid to respond to “It told me that it’s written in Haskell!” by saying “Sure, but that’s just because that’s a likely answer to follow that question, not because it’s true”. But it’s not valid to claim more generally that a model can’t have any kind of internal model of some subset of the real world; it might very well have that, if it helps it to correctly predict continuations.

Bonus section! Current LLMs don’t in fact reason significantly, or have interesting internal models, in many cases. Amusing case from this morning: when fed some classic text rot13’d, this morning’s Bard claimed that it was a quote from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, whereas this morning’s ChatGPT replied with rot13’d text which, when decoded, was gibberish of the sort that an early GPT-2 might have produced from the decoded version of the prompt. No agent with a reasonable mental model of what it was doing, would have done either of those things. :)


The perfect sound
is silence,

The perfect cup
is empty,

The perfect page
is blank,

The perfect mind

Tags: , , ,

Creativity, how does it work?

This is a random brainstorming post, I have no particular conclusions at the moment as I write the first sentence here, but I might develop something as we go along.

So far, I just have this “meme” that I made:

Critics: AI art tools can't create anything new, just copy and paste from existing art!

People using AI art tools:
Here there is what looks like a charcoal drawing of a maniacally-smiling woman with wild hair and an extra set of lower teeth, immersed to just below the shoulders in a whitecapped ocean. There is an odd sailing ship on the ocean in the background, and two more vessels (ships? dirigibles?) in the sky.

There are two obvious reactions to this. Someone who likes AI art tools might say “haha, yeah, this shows how creative and crazy this art can be!”. And someone who agrees with the critics might say “omg, totally, that’s obviously sooo derivative!”.

The first thing to wonder is whether there is a particular image, set of images, or artist out in the world somewhere of which this image is obviously derivative. Pointers in the comments are extremely welcome! :)

Google (reverse) image search doesn’t come up with anything especially obvious. There are some images (like, at the moment, this one) that involve somewhat stylized faces with prominent hair and ocean waves and one or more ships, but the arrangement and overall style and impact are, I think, significantly different. In the past when I asked a couple of people who were all “oh, yeah, I can usually identify the particular artist or artwork that one of these AI images was taken from”, to do that with one of my images, they suddenly became very quiet. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

If there isn’t a specific image or small set of images or an artist that one can point to and say “see, this is where this came from!”, what does that mean? I’m not an art critic (hahaha), but I think it would be pretty uncontroversial that, if a person had created that image above there entirely with real-live paper and charcoal, or even with a tablet and Photoshop, we’d say that it displayed sort of average human creativity; nothing incredible, but easily beyond (for instance) the “modicum of creativity” required by US copyright case law, enough that it could be entered in an art competition, and so on.

Once we know that it was created by a person using an AI art tool (Midjourney, in this case, with a particular prompt and engine settings and so on), is it reasonable to say something different? Does it still display creativity, or not? Does it do it differently, or in the same way? What is creativity? How is it displayed? In what does it inhere? Is it for that matter the kind of thing that inheres in things? Are there facts of the matter about it, or is it a purely squishy and subjective thing?

There are a bunch of theories that one might put together:

  • One might hold that it’s just as creative, and in the same way, as the counterfactual no-AI version, and that the creativity comes from the same place: the human who made it. One version of narrative would say that the difference between the no-AI and the with-AI version, creativity-wise, is not different in kind from a person making it with paper and charcoal and a person making it with tablet and Photoshop, or a board and little mosaic tiles. It might be objected that the activity of choosing engine parameters and prompt strings and then culling the results is just obviously (or by dint of some specific plausible theory) different from the activities in the other cases, since those involve something like choosing a particular color for particular parts of the image, whereas the AI-tool case doesn’t.
  • One might hold that it’s just as creative (or at least that it is creative, if perhaps to a different degree), and the creativity still comes from the human, although it’s implemented (delivered, displayed, exercised, used, manifest) in a different way. One might say in this theory that the difference between the real paper and charcoal version and the Midjourney version is like the difference between a realistic drawing of a scene and a photograph of the same scene. Both born of human creativity, but through very different means, and perhaps to different degrees. And then we can get into lots of questions about the creative element(s) in various kinds of photography!
  • The two takes above can, I think, go either way on the question of whether creativity is inherent in the end result, the image, in a sort of death-of-the-author way, or whether it’s in the overall process. At the other end of some spectrum, one could say that the image made with the AI tool does not in fact display (involve, require, contain) any creativity; that our initial impression that it did just turns out to have been mistaken, and now that we know how it came to exist, we know that it didn’t involve creativity. This sort of claim pretty much rules out the position that creativity is inherent in the finished product, unless one is willing to take the (facially untenable, I think) position that this image could not in principle have been created by a human without using an AI, and that inversely no purely human-created image could in principle have been created with an AI tool.
  • That is, if you think there is no creativity in this image because it was made with an AI tool, you pretty much have to take the position that it’s not possible to tell how much creativity there is in an artwork (or a putative artwork) just by looking at it; that the creativity is not displayed by / doesn’t inhere in solely the image or object. Which seems sensible in at least one obvious way: I might think that something involved lots of creativity, until I see that it is an exact copy of something that existed before, just with a little line drawn on it. More nuancedly, we’d say that you can’t tell how much new creativity is in a thing, until you see how it was made (because it might be, say, a copy).
  • So now we have a potential claim that images made with AI tools don’t have any (or much) new creativity, because they are just processed / stolen / noisily compressed and expanded / copy and pasted, versions of the material that they were trained on. Sure there might be a little creativity in choosing the prompt or whatever, but that’s not much. The program itself can’t add any creativity because “they can’t, they just can’t” (a phrase I’ve heard from a couple of people talking on videos lately, but of course can’t find at the moment).
  • Humans also process things that they’ve seen / experienced when producing new things. I’d say we can’t really require creativity to mean “those aspects of a work that spring purely from the artist’s soul, and that would still have been there had the artist been a brain in a vat with no experience of the world or other artworks, only its own thoughts”, because then there wouldn’t be any creativity anywhere, and when common words turn out to have no referent in a theory, it generally (if not always) means that that theory is wrong.
  • Or maybe we do want to require that “sprung from the soul alone” thing, because we want to set a very high bar for True Creativity, and we are confident that there will be at least a few glorious shining examples if only we knew the truths of people’s souls! In which case we can say that a marvelous few humans have displayed true creativity through the ages, and no computer ever has (having no soul and all), and neither have the vast majority of people we loosely call “artists”. This is a theory, but not a popular one, and it means that most art displays no creativity, which again feels sort of like a reductio. It’s certainly not compatible with what the Copyright Office means by “creativity”.
  • The question of how much creativity is in the selection of prompts and engine settings and images to keep is one we can put aside (in the drawer next to the question of the creativity in a cellphone snapshot, as alluded to above). And it seems we are left with having a theory about how much creativity comes from the AI tool itself, and how much of that is what we’ve called new creativity. Possible answers include “none, there’s lots of new creativity, but it’s all from the human user”, “none, there’s no new creativity in this at all, it’s all stolen / copied from the creativity in the training set”, “about the same amount that comes from the human, they are in some sense equals in the new creation”, and “the human just types a few words, and then the software adds lots of new creativity to it, so it’s the AI”.
  • This leaves us mostly with the question of “under what circumstances is it true that a person, or a piece of software, adds new creativity to a work, when that work is to a degree influenced by other prior works that that person, or piece of software, has been exposed to?”. Or other words to that general effect. One set of answers will not especially care whether it’s a person or a piece of software; the other set (“they just can’t”) will either think that it’s important which it is, or have a set of criteria which (they will claim) only people and not software can for whatever reason satisfy.

And I’ll leave it there for now, having perhaps not been especially productive :) but having written a bunch of words and focused in (if in fact it’s a focusing) on the question of what it means to add new creativity when making something, even though the entity doing the creating is influenced by other works that existed before. People talk a lot about things like reflecting one’s lived experience, having a thought that the work will (may? is intended to?) cause the viewer to also have (some version of?), and like that. None of those seem likely to be any kind of complete explanation to me at the moment.

In legal news, of course, the US Copyright Office has issued a Copyright Registration Guidance on “Works Containing Material Generated by Artificial Intelligence”, which I gather (I have not had the mental energy to think about this very hard) just repeats the statements in the Zarya (I always want to write Zendaya) memo we briefly discussed the other day, using various phrases that are putatively synonymous but as far as I can tell are subtly different and introduce all sorts of new uncertainty to the subject.

I’m going to continue not thinking about that very hard for now, because that part of my brain is still tired.

Also! You can get onto the waiting list for the Google LLM thing (and I hear varying stories about how quickly one gets access; apparently it is sometimes quite quick). In case you’re, like, collecting those, or otherwise interested.


Chomsky declares: LLMs icky!

Friend Steve wrote us today about this New York Times opinion piece, “Noam Chomsky: The False Promise of ChatGPT” (this link may be free for everyone for some time or something). Despite the title, it’s by Chomsky, Roberts, and Watumull.

Steve commented inter alia on the authors’ apparent claim that ChatGPT can say that the apple you’re holding will fall if you open your hand, but unlike humans it can’t explain the fact. The trouble with the argument is that, as anyone who’s actually used ChatGPT can tell you, it will happily explain the fact, go into the history of the notion of gravity, talk about other things people have thought about it over time, and explain various situations in which the apple wouldn’t fall, given the slightest provocation.

My reply, lightly edited:

I am pretty unimpressed with the article as a piece of science or philosophy; fine as a nice polemic by a greybeard I suppose. :)

I’m amused at how LLMs are “lumbering” and “gorged”, while human minds are “elegant” and even “efficient”. I doubt there is any useful sense in which these adjectives are anything more than bigger words for “icky” and “nice” in this context.

Chomsky brings in the innateness of language, because of course he does, but I’m not at all clear how it’s relevant. Even if humans do have innate language scaffolding, and LLMs don’t have the same kind, it’s far too early to say that they don’t have any, and even if they didn’t, so what? Does the ability to learn a wider variety of languages than humans can, mean that LLMs don’t really understand, or can’t really think, or are harmful or dangerous? None of that makes sense to me; it seems just an even longer way of saying that they’re icky.

He (well, they, there being multiple non-Chomsky authors) claims that LLMs don’t have the ability to say “what is not the case and what could and could not be the case.” And I can’t imagine what they think they mean by that. As with the flaw you point out in the apple example, it’s simply wrong, and suggests that they haven’t really used an LLM much. ChatGPT (let alone a less heavily defanged system) will expound at length about what is not the case and what could and could not be the case, given any halfway decent prompt to do so. They may intend something deeper here than they actually say, but I don’t know what it could be (beyond that they can’t do it non-ickily).

“Whereas humans are limited in the kinds of explanations we can rationally conjecture, machine learning systems can learn both that the earth is flat and that the earth is round.” Um, what? There are certainly humans who believe each of these things. They can’t just be saying that humans can’t conjecture that the earth is flat “rationally” because so what; that’s exactly as true of an LLM. If they mean that the same LLM can make one of those claims one minute and the other the next, whereas humans can’t hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time, I’d like to introduce them to some humans. :)

Similarly for whatever it is they are trying to say about moral reasoning. The suggestion seems to be that, simultaneously, ChatGPT is icky because it cannot stay within moral boundaries, and also icky because it stays stubbornly within anodyne moral boundaries. As pretty much throughout the piece, stuff that humans do all the time is cited as reasons ChatGPT isn’t as good as humans.

Tay became toxic by listening to people, therefore it’s not like people? It had to be heavily censored to keep it from talking trash, therefore it’s not like people? Um?

It might be interesting to try to tease a set of actual significant truth-claims out of this article, and see which ones are arguably true. But I’m not sure that’s the point really.

As far as I can tell, this piece is just a longer and nicely phrased version of “Boo, LLMs! Icky!”

But maybe that’s just me. :)


The US Copyright Office takes a position!

On art made with AI tools, that is. Reuters story here, actual letter from the Office lawyer here.

I haven’t read the whole letter in detail yet (it’s long!) but I’ve looked it over and have Initial Thoughts:

Large furry purple aliens are upset about the confusing Copyright Office memo. Some of their quaint buildings are in the background.
  • I don’t think there’s a fact-of-the-matter here, about what is copyrightable when. There are legal theories that make more and less sense, that are more and less consistent with other established theories, and so on. But these are not theories that try to model something in the real world, like the Theory of Relativity; they are more theories in the sense of Set Theory. So the Office can’t really be right or wrong here overall, but they can have made a more or less sensible decision.
  • The overall finding of the memo is that Kristina Kashtanova still has a copyright on Zarya of the Dawn, but only on the text, and “the selection, coordination, and arrangement of the Work’s written and visual elements”, not on the visual elements themselves (i.e. the images made with Midjourney), because those images don’t involve “sufficient creative input or intervention from a human author.”
  • This seems wrong to me; as other places in the document point out, the case law says that “only a modicum of creativity is necessary”, and there is certainly a modicum of creativity in prompt design and engine usage.
  • The argument here seems to be, not that there isn’t enough creativity in the prompts and flags and so on, but that the connection between the artist’s input and the image output isn’t strong enough. The memo says things like ‘Rather than a tool that Ms. Kashtanova controlled and guided to reach her desired image, Midjourney generates images in an unpredictable way. Accordingly, Midjourney users are not the “authors” for copyright purposes of the images the technology generates.’
    • But where is the existing doctrine that says anything about predictability? Jackson Pollock might like a word, and the creator of any other roughly uncontrolled or algorithmic or found-object work. The theory here seems to be that Midjourney prompts are just suggestions or ideas, and those can’t be copyrighted. Does that mean that since Pollock just had the idea of splashing paint onto canvas, and the unpredictable physics of the paint cans and the air produced the actual work, that “Autumn Rhythm” can’t be copyrighted? Or are they going to hold that there is a legal significance to the fact that the detailed movements of his arm muscles were involved? That seems dicey.
    • For the Office to claim that the prompts and other input did contain at least a modicum of creativity (which seems undeniable) but that that input wasn’t strongly enough connected to the output, seems to be inventing a new legal test, which it’s not at all clear to me that the Office can do on its own hook, can it?
    • This memo may be specifically designed to be contested, so that the question can go to a court that can do that kind of thing.
  • The memo may have interesting consequences for Thaler, in particular the cases in which Thaler attempted to claim copyright under work-for-hire theory, with his software as the creator. The memo explicitly makes the comparison with human work-for-hire, saying that if someone had given the same instructions to a human artist that are contained in a Midjourney prompt, and the human artist had made an image, then the person giving the instructions would not have been the creator unless work-for-hire applies (the human carrying out the instructions would have been the creator-in-fact), and that therefore they aren’t in the Midjourney case either.
    • To be consistent with both the memo and Thaler, the theory seems like it has to be that Midjourney is the creator-in-fact, and therefore the human isn’t (and can’t get a direct copyright as the creator), but also that software can’t be hired in the work-for-hire sense and therefore the human can’t get the copyright that way either. Which seems odd! It seems to acknowledge that the software is the creator-in-fact, but then deny both making the software the creator-in-law (because not human) and making the user the creator-in-law via work-for-hire (because I’m-not-sure).
  • Some other countries are different and imho somewhat more sensible about this, as in the UK’s Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act, of which Section 178 explicitly talks about “computer-generated” works, meaning “that the work is generated by computer in circumstances such that there is no human author of the work”. That’s still imho a little sketchy (I continue to think that Kashtanova is in fact the human author of the images in Zarya), but at least it then provides that “In the case of a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work which is computer-generated, the author shall be taken to be the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the creation of the work are undertaken.”
    • There’s still some room for doubt there, as for instance whether it’s Kashtanova or the Midjourney people or some combination who relevantly undertook the arrangements, but at least we aren’t in the position of saying that the author is a being that is not legally allowed to either be a creator, or confer creatorship to a human via work-for-hire.
  • In the case of the many, many currently-registered copyrights on images made with AI tools (including mine), it seems that if the copyright office is notified, or notices, that fact, they are likely to cancel / withdraw the registration. The theory will be that the registration materials were incorrect when they named the creator as the author of the work, without in any way informing the Copyright Office that an AI tool was used. I could, for instance, send the Copyright Office a note saying “oh by the way I hear that you want to know when AI tools are used, and in my case Midjourney was”, and then they might cancel my registration on their (imho mistaken) theory that I’m not really the author.
    • Since I believe their theory is mistaken, I’m not currently planning to do that. :)
    • If they discover it on their own hook and send me a letter telling me they’re withdrawing the registration, I will do whatever easy thing one can do to contest that, but I’m not going to like hire a lawyer or anything; life’s too short.
    • I’m very curious to see what others do; I would expect that Midjourney itself (assuming it’s big enough to have lawyers) will have their lawyers working on a response to this memo.
    • My copyrights on the Klara trilogy and Ice Dreams (casually announced here) are secure, as to the text and the image selection and arrangement and all, just not to the images per se. Which is fine. And I haven’t registered those anyway. :)
  • I should go back and add a note to all of my existing copyright weblog entries, pointing at this one; or, more sustainably, pointing at the entire “copyright” tag on the weblog here. Then I won’t have to keep updating it.
  • I’m quite happy I decided not to worry too much about this whole thing, and just make pretty pictures (see pretty picture of concerned purple aliens above).

Updates: as this is a developing topic (as opposed to my usual topics which are Timeless Truths of the Universe), you may want to check the copyright tag on the weblog here for later updates, if this post is more than a week or month old.


The parts of that poem about the roads and the wood that I could remember

[I went for a meditation and walk in our rather large local park today, which was quite lovely. As I walked along that poem about the roads and the wood and diverging and sighing and stuff came to mind, and it was fun to see how much of it I could actually remember verbatim.

So here I am writing down the reconstruction, including these notes in the places where I couldn’t remember, mostly so I can be amused by reading this again some month or year (ages and ages hence, hee hee), but maybe some of you other intelligences would be similarly amused.]

[Poem title, probably involving Roads and maybe also Woods]

[by Robert Frost, unless I’m embarrassingly wrong]

One road in a wood. The wood is more brownish than yellow.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
[And knowing that?] I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood,
[Thinking about which way to go.]

[Eventually I decided to go the way that looked less worn,]
[Although in fact]
those passing there,
Had worn them really about the same.

[I left the other one] for another day,
[Although] knowing how way leads on to way,
[I’d probably never be back in the relevant sense,
Can’t go down to the same river twice, eh?]

I shall be telling this with a sigh,
Somewhere ages and ages hence.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

[Which sounds very hipster at first reading, “oh, you wouldn’t know my road, it’s very less travailed by”, but then there’s the fact that he said that they were really about the same, so maybe “all the difference” really isn’t that much difference after all. Or maybe he’s sighing because, even in retrospect, you can’t tell whether some choice was the right one, because you don’t know what would have happened if you’d chosen differently. And even more, you can’t tell whether some choice you make right now is the right one, because you don’t know what’s down either road. And also that we sigh when we think about that, even though since it’s a fundamental property of our existence, you’d think we might be reconciled to it, or even happy about it. But we aren’t always, so we sigh.

And that’s why we have poetry!]


County Jury Duty

Well, that’s over! For another six years (for state / country / town) or four years (for Federal). This is probably going to be chatty and relatively uninteresting.

Top tip: park in the parking lot under the library; it’s very convenient to the courthouse (although you still have to walk outside for a bit, and it was windy and rainy yesterday).

I had to report originally on Friday (the 13th!) because Monday was MLK day. On Friday 60-70 of us sat around in a big auditoriumish jury room for a while, with WiFi and allowed to use our cellphones and everything. Then they called attendance and talked about random things like the $40/day stipend if our employer doesn’t pay us or we’re self-employed (where did that tiny amount of money come from, one wonders) and where to park and so on. Then we were basically allowed to decide whether to come back on Tuesday or Wednesday (although I imagine if you were far down the perhaps-random list and most people had said one, you had to take the other).

A cute isomorphic pixel-art image of a bunch of people waiting around in a large room. Note this does not accurately reflect the County Courthouse except in spirit. Image by me using Midjourney OF COURSE.

I elected to come back on Wednesday for no particular reason. We were originally supposed to arrive on Wednesday at 9:30am, but over the weekend they called and said to arrive at 11am instead. Due to an inconvenient highway ramp closure and a detour through an area of many traffic lights, I got there at 11:10 or so and felt guilty, but hahaha it didn’t matter.

In the big Jury Room again, the 30+ of us waited around for a long time, then were led upstairs to wait around in the hallway outside the courtroom, and then after waiting some more were ushered into the courtroom to sit in the Audience section, and introduced to the judge and some officers, and then dismissed until 2pm for lunch (seriously!).

Some time after 2pm they let us back into the courtroom and talked to us for awhile about how it was a case involving this and that crime, and might take up to a month to try, and the judge is busy doing other things on Mondays and Thursday mornings so it would be only 3.5 days / week. Then they called 18 names, and those people moved from the Audience section to the Jury Box section. They started asking them the Judge Questions (where do you live, how long have you lived there, what do you do, what does your spouse and possible children do, do you have any family members who are criminal lawyers, etc, etc), and we got though a relatively small number of people and it was 4:30pm and time to go home.

I had a bit of a hard time sleeping, thinking about what the right answers to The Questions would be (how many times have I been on a jury in all those years? did we deliberate? do I know anyone in Law Enforcement? does the NSA count? should I slip in a reference to Jury Nullification to avoid being on the jury, or the opposite?) and like that.

Since the judge is busy on Thursday mornings, we appeared back at the courtroom at 2pm on Thursday, and waited around for quite awhile in the hallway, then went in and they got through questioning the rest of the 18 people in the Jury Box (after the judge asked the Judge Questions, the People and the Defense asked some questions also, although it was mostly discussions of how police officers sometimes but not always lie under oath, and how DNA evidence is sometimes right but not always, and how it’s important to be impartial and unbiased and so on, disguised as question asking).

Then they swore in like 6 of those 18 people, told the rest of the 18 that they were done with Jury Duty, and told the rest of us in the Audience section to come back at 9:30am on Friday (today!).

At 9:30 nothing happened for quite awhile in the hallway outside the auditorium, then for no obvious reason they started to call us into the courtroom one person at a time by name. There got to be fewer and fewer people, and then finally it was just me which was unusual and then they called my name and I went in. The Jury Box was now entirely full of people, so I sat in the Audience Section (the only person in the Audience Section!).

Then I sat there while the judge asked the same ol’ Judge Questions to every one of the dozen+ people (I know, I don’t have the numbers quite consistent) ahead of me, and then finally, as the last person to get them, I got them. And the Judge went through them pretty quickly, perhaps because he’d said earlier that he wanted to finish with this stage by lunchtime, and I had no chance to be indecisive about the issue of following his legal instructions exactly and only being a Trier of Fact, or anything else along those lines.

Then we had another couple of lectures disguised as questions, plus some questions, from The People and the The Defense. I’d mentioned the cat as someone who lived with me (got a laugh from that, but the Whole Truth, right?), and The People asked me the cat’s name and nature, and when I said it was Mia and she was hostile to everyone, The People thanked me for not bringing her with me (haha, lighten the mood, what?). And asked about my impartiality.

Now we’d had a bunch of people from extensive cop families say boldly that they couldn’t promise not to be biased against the defendant (and when The Defense I think it was asked if anyone would assume from The Defendant’s name on the indictment that He Must Have Done Something a couple people even raised their hands (whaaaaat)), and I perhaps as a result and perhaps foolishly said that while my sympathies would generally be with a defendant, I would be able to put that aside and be unbiased and fair and all.

So The People asked me if I could promise “100%” that I would not be affected by that sympathy, and I said quite reasonably that hardly any sentences with “100%” in them are true, and the judge cut in to say that he would be instructing the jurors to put stuff like that aside (implying that then I would surely be able to), and I said that I would (but just didn’t say “100%”) and then The People came back in saying that they need people who are “certain” they can be unbiased (so, no way), but then actually asked me if I was “confident” that I could be (a vastly lower bar) so I said yes I would.

And when all of that was over, they had us all go out to the hallway again, and wait for awhile, and then go back in to sit in the same seats. And then they had I think four of us stand up and be sworn in as jurors, and the rest of us could go out with the officer and sit in the big jury room again until they had our little papers ready to say that we’d served four days of Jury Duty.

And that was it!

My impression is that they were looking for (inter alia, I’m sure) people who either believe, or are willing to claim to believe, that they can with certainty be 100% unbiased in their findings as jurors. That is, people who are in this respect either mistaken, or willing to lie. And that’s weird; I guess otherwise there’s too much danger of appeals or lawsuits or something? (Only for Guilty verdicts, presumably, since Not Guilty verdicts are unexaminable?) The Judge did say several times that something (the State, maybe?) demands a Yes or No answer to his “could you be an unbiased Juror and do as you’re told?” question, and when people said “I’ll try” or “I think so” or “I’d do my best” or whatever, he insisted on a “Yes” or a “No”. (So good on the honesty for those cop-family people saying “No”, I suppose.)

So if my calculations are roughly correct, after ummm two or 2.5 days of Jury Selection, they’ve selected only about 10 jurors, and exhausted the Jan 13th jury draw; so since they need at least 12 jurors and 2 (and perhaps more like 6) alternates, they’re going to be at this for some time yet! (Hm, unless it’s not a felony case? In which case 10 might be enough? But it sounded like a felony case.)


Omelas, Pascal, Roko, and Long-termism

In which we think about some thought experiments. It might get long.


Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is a deservedly famous very short story. You should read it before you continue here, if you haven’t lately; it’s all over the Internet.

The story first describes a beautiful Utopian city, during its Festival of Summer. After two and a half pages describing what a wise and kind and happy place Omelas is, the nameless narrator reveals one particular additional thing about it: in some miserable basement somewhere in the city, one miserable child is kept in a tiny windowless room, fed just enough to stay starvingly alive, and kicked now and then to make sure they stay miserable.

All of the city’s joy and happiness and prosperity depends, in a way not particularly described, on the misery of this one child. And everyone over twelve years old in the city knows all about it.

On the fifth and last page, we are told that, now and then, a citizen of Omelas will become quiet, and walk away, leaving the city behind forever.

This is a metaphor (ya think?) applicable whenever we notice that the society (or anything else) that we enjoy, is possible only because of the undeserved suffering and oppression of others. It suggests both that we notice this, and that there are alternatives to just accepting it. We can, at least, walk away.

But are those the only choices?

I came across this rather excellent “meme” image on the Fedithing the other day. I can’t find it again now, but it was framed as a political-position chart based on reactions to Omelas, with (something like) leftists at the top, and (something like) fascists at the bottom. “Walk away” was near the top, and things like “The child must have done something to deserve it” nearer the bottom. (Pretty fair, I thought, which is why I’m a Leftist.)

It’s important, though, that “Walk away” wasn’t at the very top. As I recall, the things above it included “start a political movement to free the child”, “organize an armed strike force to free the child”, and “burn the fucking place to the ground” (presumably freeing the child in the process), that latter being at the very top.

But, we might say, continuing the story, Omelas (which is an acronym of “Me also”, although I know of no evidence that Le Guin did that on purpose) has excellent security and fire-fighting facilities, and all of the top three things will require hanging around in Omelas for a greater or lesser period, gathering resources and allies and information and suchlike.

And then one gets to, “Of course, I’m helping the child! We need Councilman Springer’s support for our political / strike force / arson efforts, and the best way to get it is to attend the lovely gala he’s sponsoring tonight! Which cravat do you think suits me more?” and here we are in this quotidian mess.


In the case of Omelas, we pretty much know everything involved. We don’t know the mechanism by which the child’s suffering is necessary for prosperity (and that’s another thing to work on fixing, which also requires hanging around), but we do know that we can walk away, we can attack now and lose, or we can gather our forces and hope to make a successful attack in the future. And so on. The criticism, if it can even be called that, of the argument, is that there are alternatives beyond just accepting or walking away.

Pascal’s Wager is a vaguely similar thought experiment in which uncertainty is important; we have to decide in a situation where we don’t know important facts. You can read about this one all over the web, too, but the version we care about here is pretty simple.

The argument is that (A) if the sort of bog-standard view of Christianity is true, then if you believe in God (Jesus, etc.) you will enjoy eternal bliss in Heaven, and if you don’t you will suffer for eternity in Hell, and (B) if this view isn’t true, then whether or not you believe in God (Jesus, etc.) doesn’t really make any difference. Therefore (C) if there is the tiniest non-zero chance that the view is true, you should believe it on purely selfish utilitarian grounds, since you lose nothing if it’s false, and gain an infinite amount if it’s true. More strongly, if the cost of believing it falsely is any finite amount, you should still believe it, since a non-zero probability of an infinite gain has (by simple multiplication) an infinite expected value, which is larger than any finite cost.

The main problem with this argument is that, like the Omelas story but more fatally, it offers a false dichotomy. There are infinitely more possibilities than “bog-standard Christianity is true” and “nothing in particular depends on believing in Christianity”. Most relevantly, there are an infinite number of variations on the possibility of a Nasty Rationalist God, who sends people to infinite torment if they believed in something fundamental about the universe that they didn’t have good evidence for, and otherwise rewards them with infinite bliss.

This may seem unlikely, but so does bog-standard Christianity (I mean, come on), and the argument of Pascal’s Wager applies as long as the probability is at all greater than zero.

Taking into account Nasty Rationalist God possibilities (and a vast array of equally useful ones), we now have a situation where both believing and not believing have infinite expected advantages and infinite expected disadvantages, and arguably they cancel out and one is back wanting to believe either what’s true, or what’s finitely useful, and we might as well not have bothered with the whole thing.


Roko’s Basilisk is another thought experiment that you can read about all over the web. Basically it says that (A) it’s extremely important that a Friendly AI is developed before a Nasty AI is, because otherwise the Nasty AI will destroy humanity and that has like an infinite negative value given that otherwise humanity might survive and produce utility and cookies forever, and (B) since the Friendly AI is Friendly, it will want to do everything possible to make sure it is brought into being before it’s too late because that is good for humanity, and (C) one of the things that it can do to encourage that, is to create exact copies of everyone that didn’t work tirelessly to bring it into being, and torture them horribly, therefore (D) it’s going to do that, so you’d better work tirelessly to bring it into being!

Now the average intelligent person will have started objecting somewhere around (B), noting that once the Friendly AI exists, it can’t exactly do anything to make it more likely that it will be created, since that’s already happened, and causality only works, y’know, forward in time.

There is a vast (really vast) body of work by a few people who got really into this stuff, arguing in various ways that the argument does, too, go through. I think it’s all both deeply flawed and sufficiently well-constructed that taking it apart would require more trouble that it’s worth (for me, anyway; you can find various people doing variously good jobs of it, again, all over the InterWebs).

There is a simpler variant of it that the hard-core Basiliskians (definitely not what they call themselves) would probably sneer at, but which kind of almost makes sense, and which is simple enough to express in a way that a normal human can understand without extensive reading. It goes something like (A) it is extremely important that a Friendly AI be constructed, as above, (B) if people believe that that Friendly AI will do something that they would really strongly prefer that it not do (including perhaps torturing virtual copies of them, or whatever else), unless they personally work hard to build that AI, then they will work harder to build it, (C) if the Friendly AI gets created and then doesn’t do anything that those who didn’t work hard to build it would strongly prefer it didn’t do, then next time there’s some situation like this, people won’t work hard to do the important thing, and therefore whatever it is might not happen, and that would be infinitely bad, and therefore (D) the Friendly AI is justified in doing, even morally required to do, a thing that those who didn’t work really hard to build it, would strongly rather it didn’t do (like perhaps the torture etc.). Pour encourager les autres, if you will.

Why doesn’t this argument work? Because, like the two prior examples that presented false dichotomies by leaving out alternatives, it oversimplifies the world. Sure, by retroactively punishing people who didn’t work tirelessly to bring it into being, the Friendly AI might make it more likely that people will do the right thing next time (or, for Basiliskians, that they would have done the right thing in the past, or whatever convoluted form of words applies), but it also might not. It might, for instance, convince people that Friendly AIs and anything like them were a really bad idea after all, and touch off the Bulterian Jihad or… whatever exactly that mess with the Spacers was in Asimov’s books that led to their being no robots anymore (except for that one hiding on the moon). And if the Friendly AI is destroyed by people who hate it because of it torturing lots of simulated people or whatever, the Nasty AI might then arise and destroy humanity, and that would be infinitely bad!

So again we have a Bad Infinity balancing a Good Infinity, and we’re back to doing what seems finitely sensible, and that is surely the Friendly AI deciding not to torture all those simulated people because duh, it’s friendly and doesn’t like torturing people. (There are lots of other ways the Basilisk argument goes wrong, but this seems like the simplest and most obvious and most related to the guiding thought, if any, behind his article here.)


This one is the ripped-from-the-headlines “taking it to the wrong extreme” version of all of this, culminating in something like “it is a moral imperative to bring about a particular future by becoming extremely wealthy, having conferences in cushy venues in Hawai’i, and yes, well, if you insist on asking, also killing anyone who gets in our way, because quadrillions of future human lives depend on it, and they are so important.”

You can read about this also all over the InterThings, but its various forms and thinkings are perhaps somewhat more in flux than the preceding ones, so perhaps I’ll point directly to this one for specificity about exactly which aspect(s) I’m talking about.

The thinking here (to give a summary that may not exactly reflect any particular person’s thinking or writing, but which I hope gives the idea) is that (A) there is a possible future in which there are a really enormous (whatever you’re thinking, bigger than that) number of (trillions of) people living lives of positive value, (B) compared to the value of that future, anything that happens to the comparatively tiny number of current people is unimportant, therefore (C) it’s morally permissible, even morally required, to do whatever will increase the likelihood of that future, regardless of the effects on people today. And in addition, (D) because [person making the argument] is extremely smart and devoted to increasing the likelihood of that future, anything that benefits [person making the argument] is good, regardless of its effects on anyone else who exists right now.

It is, that is, a justification for the egoism of billionaires (like just about anything else your typical billionaire says).

Those who have been following along will probably realize the problem immediately: it’s not the case that the only two possible timelines are (I) the one where the billionaires get enough money and power to bring about the glorious future of 10-to-the-power-54 people all having a good time, and (II) the one where billionaires aren’t given enough money, and humanity becomes extinct. Other possibilities include (III) the one where the billionaires get all the money and power, but in doing so directly or indirectly break the spirit of humanity, which as a result becomes extinct, (IV) the one where the billionaires see the light and help do away with capitalism and private property, leading to a golden age which then leads to an amount of joy and general utility barely imaginable to current humans, (V) the one where the billionaires get all the money and power and start creating trillions of simulated people having constant orgasms in giant computers or whatever, and the Galactic Federation swings by and sees what’s going on and says “Oh, yucch!” and exterminates what’s left of humanity, including all the simulated ones, and (VI) so on.

In retrospect, this counterargument seems utterly obvious. The Long-termists aren’t any better than anyone else at figuring out the long-term probabilities of various possibilities, and there’s actually a good reason that we discount future returns: if we start to predict forward more than a few generations, our predictions are, as all past experience shows, really unreliable. Making any decision based solely on things that won’t happen for a hundred thousand years or more, or that assume a complete transformation in humanity or human society, is just silly. And when that decision just happens to be to enrich myself and be ruthless with those who oppose me, everyone else is highly justified in assuming that I’m not actually working for the long-term good of humanity, I’m just an asshole.

(There are other problems with various variants of long-termism, a notable one that they’re doing utilitarianism wrong and/or taking it much too seriously. Utilitarianism can be useful for deciding what to do with a given set of people, but it falls apart a bit when applied to deciding which people to have exist. If you use a summation you find yourself morally obliged to prefer a trillion barely-bearable lives to a billion very happy ones, just because there are more of them. Whereas if you go for the average, you end up being required to kill off unhappy people to get the average up. And a perhaps even more basic message of the Omelas story is that utilitarianism requires us to kick the child, which is imho a reductio. Utilitarian calculus just can’t capture our moral intuitions here.)


And that’s pretty much that essay. :) Comments very welcome in the comments, as always. I decided not to all any egregious pictures. :)

It was a lovely day, I went for a walk in the bright chilliness, and this new Framework laptop is being gratifyingly functional. Attempts to rescue the child from the Omelas basement continue, if slowly. Keep up the work!


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Thirty-Seven

There are books everywhere; this makes me happy. There is diffuse moonlight coming in through the windows; this also makes me happy.

Essentially none of the books here are in any of the very few languages that I can read. This also makes me happy, in a way. There is so much to know already, this only emphasizes the point. And some of them have really interesting illustrations.

The books fill the shelves, and lie in piles on the floor. I walk from place to place, and sometimes sit on something that may be a chair. It’s just like home.

As the being known as Tibbs negotiates with the locals to get us access to the zone containing the confluence, and Steve and Kristen wander the city like happy tourists (well, that is not a simile, really; they wander the city as happy tourists), I have drifted here, which feels entirely natural.

And now, having communicated the above to my hypothetical reader without becoming distracted (except for that one parenthetical about simile versus plain description), I can calmly note that these things may not be “books” in the obvious sense, that moonlight coming in through the windows is a phenomenon that quantum physics can just barely explain, and for that matter that “makes me happy” is enough to keep a phalanx (a committee, a department, a specialty) of psychology and anthropology scholars occupied for a very long time.

And that time is an illusion.

I’ve always been able to separate language from thoughts about language, to separate thoughts about reality from meta-thoughts about thoughts. At least in public. At least when talking to other people.

But I think I’m better at it now, even when I’m in private, just talking to myself, or writing for you, dear cherished hypothetical reader (cherished, inter alia, for your hypothetically inexhaustible interest and patience).

Ironically (so much to learn about irony!), I credit much of this improvement to long discussions (how long? how does the flow of time go in the cabin of an impossibly fast sharp vehicle, speeding twinnedly from one end to another of a infinite rainbow band?) with an arguably non-existent being called Tibbs, and an enigmatic pilot called Alpha, after her ship.

(Why do we use the female pronoun toward the pilot Alpha? Why does she speak English? Or how do we communicate with her if she does not? Is the intricate shiny blackish plastic or metal construct at the front of her head a helmet, or her face? Is the rest of her a uniform, flight suit, or her own body, or some of each, or entirely both? Would it have been rude to ask?)

Tibbs and Alpha, I feel, are kindred spirits, my kindred, beings blessed or cursed with a tendency to look through everything and try to see the other side, even knowing there is finally no other side, to overthink, to overthink the notion of overthinking. But they have, perhaps, had longer to get used to it.

The being Tibbs claims to be millions of years old, while also claiming to have slept for most of that time. The Pilot Alpha suggests, by implying (how? what words or gestures did she actually use?) that questions of her origin are meaningless, that she has always existed, or has at least existed for so long that information about her coming-to-be is no longer available in the universe, having been lost to entropy long since.

(At what level is entropy real? Time is an illusion; so is entropy a statement about memory? A statement about what we remember, compared to what we experience right now and anticipate, right now, about the future? Or should we only talk about entropy after we have thoroughly acknowledged that time is an illusion, but gone on to speak about it as though it were real anyway, with only a vague notion, an incomplete explanation, of why that is okay?)

Here is a thought about the illusory nature of the past and future: given that this present moment is all that exists, then all that exists outside of memory and anticipation, is this one breath, this one side of this one room containing these shelves and piles (never enough shelves!) of books, or the appearance of books.

Everything else, the long / short / timeless journey aboard the fast sharpness Alpha, the anticipation felt while listening to the sound of something like wind just before meeting Tibbs for the first time, Kristen’s palm against my cheek in that other library, the glittering brass something that she received from the Mixing, the fine hairs at the back of her neck, all of that is only (“only”?) memory. Does that mean that it is no more important, no more valid, no more real, than anything else purely mental? No more significant than a wondrous pile of multi-colored giant ants made of cheese, singing hypnotic songs, that I have just this moment imagined, and now remember as a thing I first thought of a few moments ago?

This seems… this seems wrong. (See how the ellipsis these, if you are experiencing these words in a context in which there was one, adds a certain feel of spoken language, and perhaps therefore conveys some nuance of emotion that otherwise would be missing? That is communication, in a complicated and non-obvious form.)

Here is a hypothesis put forward I think by the being Tibbs, as it (he? she? they? they never expressed a preference that I can recall) as they moved slowly and in apparent indifference toward gravity around the front of the cabin of the Alpha: Some of the things, people, situations, events, in memory are especially significant (valid, important, “real”) because they changed me. Others, while equally (what?) wonderful themselves, like the pile of cheese-ants, did not have as much impact, or the same kind of impact.

If we could work out a good theory of what it means for an object or event (or, most likely, an experience) to change a person, given that time is an illusion, then this seems promising.

The Pilot Alpha seemed in some way amused by my desire, or my project, to develop a systematic justification for (something like) dividing the world (dividing memory) into “real” things and “imagined” things, with the former being more important or more valid (or, as the being Tibbs suggested, more cool) than the latter. Amused in a slightly condescending way, perhaps, which is fine for a possibly-eternal being, but which (equally validly) I am personally rather sensitive to, given my own developmental history.

The being Tibbs, however, was not accurate in referring to my just-subsequent behavior as “a snit”.

The moonlight coming through the windows (however that might be occurring) is diffuse because it comes through the visually-thick atmosphere of this world, or this area of this world. It seems implausible that we can breathe the atmosphere without danger; is this evidence that we are in a virtuality? Is it reasonable that I nearly wrote “a mere virtuality”? Was that because “mere” would have had a meaning there that I would have been expressing? (What is it to “express” a “meaning”?) Or only because “mere virtuality” is a phrase that occurs in my memory in (remembered) situations with (for instance) similar emotional tone? What is emotional tone?

I anticipate that the being Tibbs will return to this long library room within a certain amount of time, most likely with some information to convey (what is it to “convey” some “information”?) about our continuing travels (why are we travelling? what is “travel”?). I anticipate that (the humans) Kristen and Steve will return to this long library room within a certain amount of time, most likely exchanging cute little looks and possibly holding hands, possibly having acquired some odd or ordinary souvenir in the bazaars of the city (but is this a city? does it have bazaars? what counts as a bazaar?).

And I look forward to whatever follows.

Fling Thirty-Eight


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Twenty-One

“Here again, eh? How’s the metal bar coming? My-head-wise, that is?”

He had opened his eyes, again, to see Colin and Kris sitting on the ground with him. It was like no time had passed at all, but also like that last time had been a long time ago.

“No worse, but no progress, I’m afraid,” Colin said.

“How long as it been?”

“Four days since the accident.”

“Not too bad. Is it, um, is it more stuck than they thought?”

The virtuality seemed thinner and greyer, and the clouds were more like wisps and rivers of mist, moving faster than the wind between the mountains.

Kristen moved closer to him and rubbed his back. He felt it in a vague and indirect way; it still felt good.

“Yeah,” she said, “they tried once, but they … didn’t like how it was going.”

“Am I gonna die, then?”

“Probably eventually,” Colin said. Kris rolled her eyes.

A strange wind seemed to blow through the virtuality, through him. He felt himself thinning out somehow, and his viewpoint rising into the air.

“Whoa,” he said, and his voice came to him strange and thready.

Colin and Kris stood up, in the virtuality, and looked up toward his viewpoint.

“What’s happening?” he said, his voice still fluttering.

“I’m … not sure,” Kris said.

“Probably just the fMRI connection again?” Colin said, uncharacteristically uncertain.

“Booooo!” Steve said, his viewpoint now moving up and down and bobbing side to side. As far as he could see his own body, it was stretched out and transparent, “I’m a ghooooost!”

Kris put her hand to her forehead and looked down.

“Stop that,” she said, “at least if you can.”

Steve tried to concentrate, to focus on the patterns and concentrations of being in the virtuality, and his viewpoint moved downward slowly.

“Here you come,” Colin smiled.

Steve watched himself re-form with curiosity. “Was that supposed to happen?” he asked.

“Not… especially.”

“Are they working on me again, trying to get the thing out?”

“No, they were just doing some more scans and tests.”

“Including how I interact with you guys?”

“Like last time,” Colin nodded.

“Then why –“

Then there was another, much stronger, gust of that wind, and Steve felt himself torn away, stretched out into mist, and blown somewhere far away.

There was an instant, or a day, of darkness.


“Steve?” It was Kristen’s voice, somewhere in this dark place.

“Kris? Are we, I mean, is this the real world again?”

“I don’t know.”

“What’s real, after all?”

“Colin, you nerd, where are you?”

“Apparently in absolute darkness, where all I can do is speak, and hear you two.”

“Is this part of your virtuality, Kris?”

“No, I mean, it’s not supposed to be. Not Hints of Home or the fork that I made for you, or any other one I’ve made.”

“It’s really simple, anyway.”

“Could be a bug.”

Steve tried to move, tried to see. It was like trying to move your arm, rather than actually moving it. It was like trying to open your eyes in one of those dreams where you can’t open your eyes.

“You two can just duck back out for a second and see what’s going on, right?”

“That, well, that seems like it’s a problem, too,” Colin said, “at least I can’t duck out; you, Kris?”

“Nope, me, either; it’s heh weird. What a trope.”

“This is always happening to main characters,” Colin said, “so I guess we’re main characters.”

“You could be figments of my imagination now,” Steve said, “like, that wind could have been the virtuality’s interpretation of some brain thing happening, and now I’m totally comatose and hallucinating, and you two are still back there, and I’m just hallucinating that your voices are here.”

“Babe–” Kris started.

“It’s true,” Colin said, “if we were imaginary, it would probably be easier to imagine just our voices, and not have to bother with faces and movement and so on.”

“Oh, that’s helpful!”

“You guys trying to convince me you’re real, through pointless bickering?”

“No, but would it work?”

“It might. I’m hating this darkness, could everyone try to summon up some light?”

There was a short silence, then Steve felt a sort of vibration through everything, and a dim directionless light slowly filled the nearby space.

“That worked.”

“As far as it goes.”

“We still look like us.”

“This isn’t what I was wearing, though.”

“Colin’s the same.”

“Well, what else does he ever wear?”


Colin did indeed look as he had earlier in the virtuality, as perfectly and nattily suited as ever. Kristen, on the other hand, was wearing a loose flowered dress, and Steve was in a well-tailored suit himself, less formal (and, he imagined, more comfortable) than Colin’s, but still he thought rather elegant.

“This is very gender normative,” Kristen said, standing up and slowly turning around, “but I like it.”

“Where are we?” Steve said, “and why can’t you guys duck out? I know I can’t because I’m the patient and my body’s sedated, but…”

“Wow, I hope we’re okay,” Kristen said.

“If something had happened to our bodies, we should have gotten a warning, and probably pulled out automatically,” Colin said logically.

“I don’t know,” said Steve, “the hallucination theory still seem pretty good.”

“That way lies solipsism,” pointed out Kris. She spun over to Steve and touched his shoulder.

“I felt that,” he said.

She frowned. “Me, too. Really well.”

“See? Hallucinations.”

“I’m know if I was a hallucination,” Kris said.

Colin was walking around at the edge of the lighted circle.

“I wonder if this is all there is,” he said.

“It’s a small hallucination, sorry,” said Steve.

“This could be the whole universe,” he said, “although I seem to remember lots more stuff.”


“This present moment is all that exists,” Colin said, “and all the other stuff is just a memory, that also exists right now.”

“Here he goes.”

“It might pass the time.”

“Shouldn’t be try to be, like, getting back to the real world, making sure our bodies are all okay…”

“If you can think of a way to do that…”

“Good point.”

Colin walked back into the center of the lighted circle, and the three sat down on the plain flat ground again, close to each other, surrounded by darkness all around.

Fling Twenty-two


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Twenty

Everything comes together deep down.

The gentle tendrils of the mushrooms and the fungi, the mycelia, form into knots beneath the damp ground, and those knots reach out and connect to each other, knots of knots of knots connected in a single vast sheet below the world.

The fungi do not think.

But they know.

There are more connections in the mycelia of the rich dark earth of a single farm, than in the brain of the greatest human genius.

But they do not think.

The stars are connected, by channels where gravity waves sluice in and out of the twelve extra dimensions of the universe, the ones whose nature we haven’t figured out yet.

The stars… the stars think.

But they do not know.

The fungal and stellar networks found each other and connected a long time ago.

Every tree and every stone, every mammal footstep, every shovel of earth. Every spaceship and satellite launch.

They are always watching.

Or no.

Every tree, stone, footstep, and every launch, are part of the network already.

Every tree, stone, footstep, and every launch, is just the galactic star-fungus network, thinking, and knowing.


“I mean, absolutely. There’s no way it could be false.”

“They’re connected? We’re … part of their giant brain?”

“Of course. Everything is part of everything.”

“I — but if it isn’t falsifiable…?”

“That’s right, it’s not really a scientific theory. It’s more a way of thinking.”

“A religion?”

“A philosophy, more.”

“But if it isn’t true…”

“Oh, it’s true.”

“Stars and fungus… sounds sort of paranoid.”

“Nah, it’s just how the universe is; everything is connected, and the fungi and the stars more than anything else.”

“How did they find each other?”

“How could they not have? It was inevitable. Necessary.”

The stars and the mycelium resonate as the ages roll on. Life comes into being, and the network reacts, rings, with pure tones in every octave of the spectrum. War is a rhythmic drumming; peace is a coda, or an overture. And death is percussion.

Deep in the space between the stars, there are nodes where major arteries of coiled dimensions cross and knot, just as the mycelia cross and not deeper and deeper into the intricate ground. In the space around a star-node, in the stone circles above the spore-nodes, beings dance, constituting and manifesting the thoughts of the stars, and the knowledge of the mushrooms.

“Like, faerie circles? There are … star circles of some kind, out in space?”

“There are. Things gather at them, tiny things and big things, people from planets coming in their starships, and beings that evolved there in space, floating in years-long circles on the propulsion of vast fins pushing on interstellar hydrogen.”

“That seems like something that might not be true. What if we go out in a star ship sometime, and there’s nothing like that out there?”

“There is. An endless array of them.”

“How do you know that?”

Those who dance at the nodes of the stars and the fungi, over the centuries, absorb the thinking and knowledge of the infinite universe. Whence our stories of wise ones, of wizards, of the Illuminati. Whence the yearning songs of the star-whales, of forgotten ancient wisdom, and secret covens in the darkness.

Those who evolve on planets have an affinity to the fungal nodes. Those who evolve between the stars have an affinity for the stellar nodes. They complement and complete each other.

No planetary culture is mature until it has allied with a stellar culture.

No stellar culture is mature until it has allied with a planetary culture.

“So are the, y’know, the Greys, are they visited Earth to see if we’re worthy of allying with? Are they, like, an immature steallar culture looking for a fungus-centered culture to hook up with?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? Haven’t you heard about it in the fungusvine?”

“Fungusvine, funny.”


Everything comes together deep down.

The semantic tendrils of the realities extend, purely by chance, into the interstices between universes. Over endless time, over expansions and collapses, rollings in and rollings out, the tendrils interact, purely by chance, and meaning begins to flow.

Knots, and knots of knots, and knots of knots of knots, forming a vast extradimensional network that binds the realities together.

Every reality is underlain by its own networks, of mycelia and gravitational strings, or aether winds and dragon spines, the thoughts of Gods and the songs of spirits, or thrint hamuges and the fletts of tintans. And the network of each reality connects to the extradimensional network, and thereby to everything else.

Every tree, stone, footstep, and every starship launch, is part of the unthinkably vast mind of the universe, heart of the universe, the sacred body of everything, in the largest sense.

“Ooh! Are there, like, reality-witches, who find notes in the network between the realities, and have dances and stuff there, and slowly gather extradimensional wisdom?”

“Of course, there are!”

“I want to be one of those.”

“Oh, you will.”

The mind, heart, interconnected web of the universe, the multiverse, thinks (and feels and knows) slowly, deliberately. For a single impulse to travel from one end to the other, if the web had ends, would take almost an eternity. But for the resonating tone, the mood, the energy fluxes, of the network to change, all over, from end to end, takes only an instant.

“Wouldn’t that violate the speed of light and all?”

“Different realities, different speed limits.”

“I don’t know, it seems like you could you that to cheat.”

“You absolutely can.”

It is a category mistake to think that because All Is One, I can make a free transcontinental phone call.

But it is universally true that the extradimensional web of interconnections holds ultimate wisdom.

You are a neuron of the multiversal Mind, you are a beat of the multiversal Heart. You resonate always in harmony with its thoughts, its knowings, its feelings. You can accept the harmony or try to reject it, and either way you are sending your signal from one reality to another, and your breathing is a message to another universe.

Fling Twenty-One


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Eighteen

Dr. Artemis Zane-Tucker sat working in her personal virtuality, arranging the big books of tables and glossy photos open on her desk, sometimes closing one and returning it to a shelf, sometimes pulling out a new one, at other times closing a book and opening it again on some entirely different content. The photos were mostly black-and-white scenes from a life, from someone’s thoughts and memories, interspersed with similarly monochromatic X-ray and CT scan images. She was judging both the quality of the memories, and their relationship to a particular obviously-damaged area on the scan images.

The small office contained no shelves in the usual sense; when Dr. Zane-Tucker was done with a book, each of which represented a particular data-source, she would close it and then gesture with it in the air in a way vaguely resembling the act of putting a book on a shelf, and the virtuality AI network would recognize the gesture and the book would silently disappear.

Back in what many people still described as the real world, Dr. Zane-Tucker (or, as she would have put it, her body) lay on a comfortable divan of touchless foam, with gracefully-shaped plastic cups over her eyes and a realtime fMRI cap loosely covering her head and connecting her to the virtual. Much of her body was experiencing something very close to sleep, but her brain was actively awake.

The books that the doctor opened and closed and studied and made notes in on this night were mostly related to a difficult case in the local trauma center; some desert hot-rodder had presented with various broken bones, a concussion, and, most interestingly, a penetrating head injury due to a large foreign object in the form of a metal fragment of unknown nature and origin. The patient had been stabilized quickly and effectively, a routine CT scan done, and a cautionary coma induced with neothiopentol. The injury and presence of the object had made it difficult to synchronize an fMRI lace, but some quick and she gathered rather brilliant improvisation by the imaging staff had allowed the patient to be brought more or less normally and consciously into a virtuality for brain-function study.

Now she was going through the records and readings from that study, putting together a baseline picture of the patient’s brain function as stabilized, for use in the operating theater the next day, as the surgical team would attempt to extract the object and any associated foreign matter, and determine more precisely the degree of contusion or laceration, without causing any more additional tissue damage than absolutely necessary. As far as she had seen from the data so far, the patient’s brain function was at normal as could be expected in the circumstances, with no sign of serious or lasting impairment. Even activation paths involving the damaged area were functioning in an apparently normal way.

She hoped in an abstract way that that would continue to be true.

Dr. Zane-Tucker smiled for a moment, thinking how similar she and the patient were at this moment, bodies sleeping in a sleep at least partly induced or assisted by technology, and minds active, or potentially active, in any conceivable artificial reality by virtue of their fMRI laces and attendant AI networks. She got up and walked around her desk, through the vaguely-defined edge of her office, and into the less well-organized back lot of her personal space.

She dictated a shorthand summary of her findings into the air for the AI network to transcribe into her official report, and walked deeper into the woods.

The woods were thick in places, dark, and apparently endless. As she walked deeper, the doctor’s body appeared to thin out, to become transparent and insubstantial, so that she could feel more at one with the illusion (or the reality) here, without the distractions of a simulated body. She thought about the various virtual species, mostly insectoid, that she had worked with the AI network to bring into being in her woods, and how all of it flowed along around her, naturally, without her help or intervention.

The thought was comforting.

She let her awareness travel through the woods, to areas that the AI had not yet filled in, and experienced the slowdown in time that meant that the virtuality was working extra-hard to extend the world further in the direction she was going. She could have whispered or even just emphatically thought instructions to it to alter the general nature of the extensions, or brought out virtual tools to craft with the AI a specific canyon, or tower, or waterfall. But tonight she was content to let it spin out the world as it would, rolling the dice as it were with every meter she proceeded deciding how predictable or surprising the next bit of the world would be. She passed over a small stream, knowing that if she went upstream the ground would rise, and if she went downstream it would fall, perhaps with a pond or a lake, or just a wet place between gentle hills, to receive the flowing water, even if none of that existed just yet.

And when she went out again, to the office or even the real world, she would let all this new area sink back into potentiality; no sense cluttering up permanent storage with bits of woods that could just be rolled out afresh next time she walked this way.

As she often did, she thought of the real world (the “real world”) as being the same way. As you go, the world gets filled in around you, and when you leave again it dissolves into clouds of probability, to reform if and when you return. It was a solipsistic idea, but one that she rather enjoyed.

“We surgeons are supposed to be the self-absorbed ones,” a friend and colleague had laughed when she had shared that thought with him, “but you’ve gone above and beyond there!”

Floating as a disembodied viewpoint through the newly-created but otherwise ancient woods, she remembered that conversation, and her invisible face smiled.

She did hope the young person with the metal intrusion in their skull would be all right. The data looked good so far.

Fling Nineteen


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Twelve

Light passes through windows. This is a puzzle. This is a complicated story, a story that no one understands, in four words.

Beams of sunlight pass through the library windows, making patterns on the wall.

Sitting where I sit, among the shelves and the piles of books, I see beams of sunlight passing through the library windows, making patterns on the wall.

My evidence for the existence of beams of sunlight is (at least) in two parts: I see dust motes dancing (dancing? what is it to dance? what kinds of things can dance?) in the sunbeams, visible (to me) in the light, where in other parts of the (dusty) library air, there are no (to me) visible dust motes dancing (or otherwise) in the air, and one explanation (is it the best one? what is best?) is that there is a sunbeam, or at least a beam of light, passing through the air there. (How does a beam of light pass through the air, let alone through the class of the windows?)

The second part of my evidence is the patterns on the wall. I know, or I remember (in memories that I have now, at this moment, the only moment, the only entity, that exists) that the wall is really (what could that possibly mean?) more or less uniform in color; vaguely white, and the same vague whiteness more or less all over. But what I see, or what I see at some level of awareness (what are levels of awareness? what is awareness? who is aware?) is a complex pattern of light and dark, triangles and rectangles and more complex figures laid out and overlapping, and I theorize (automatically, involuntarily, whether or not I intend to) that these brighter shapes and triangles are where the sunbeam (passing through empty space, and then the air, the window, the air again) strikes the wall, and the darker areas, the ground to the sunbeam’s figure, are simply the rest, the shadows, where the sunbeam does not strike, or does not strike directly.

(Or the dark places are where the frames of the window and the edges of shelves and chairs, things outside and things inside, cast their shadows, and the light places, the ground to the shadows’ figure, is the rest, where the shadows do not fall; figure is ground and ground is figure.)

Can we avoid all of this complexity, if we hold Mind as primary? I am. Or, no, as generations of philosophers have pointed out, feeling clever to have caught Descartes in an error, not “I am” but only something along the lines of “Thought is”. If there is a thought that “thought is”, that can hardly be in error (well, to first order). But if there is a thought “I think”, that could be an error, because there might be no “I”, or it might be something other than “I” that is thinking.

Second attempt, then! Can we avoid all of this complexity, if we start with “Thought is”? Or “Experience is”?

Experience is. There is this instant of experience. In this instant of experience, there is a two-dimensional (or roughly two-dimensional) surface. Whether or not there is an understanding of dimensions and how to count them, there is either way still a two-dimensional surface, here in this experience. In some places, the two-dimensional surface is bright. In some places, it is dark; or it is less bright.

Whether or not there is any understanding of brightness and darkness, what might lead to brightness and darkness, anything about suns or windows or how they work, there is still this brightness, in this single moment of experience, and there is still this darkness.

(Whether the darkness is actually bright, just not as bright as the brightness, whether the surface is really two-dimensional in any strong sense, or somewhere between two and three dimensions, or whether dimensions are ultimately not a useful or coherent concept here, there is still, in this singular moment of experience that is all that there is, this experience, this experience, which is what it is, whether or not the words that might be recorded here as a result of it (and whatever “result” might mean) are the best words to describe it.)

And whether it is described at all, whether description is even possible, does not matter; the main thing, dare I write “the certain thing”, is that this (emphasized) is (similarly emphasized).


From this point of view, we may say, Mind is primal. Mind, or whatever we are attempting successfully or unsuccessfully to refer to when we use the word “Mind”, does exist, or at any rate has whatever property we are attempting to refer to when we say “does exist”. Except that “refer to” and “property” are both deeply problematic themselves here.

This is why the ancient Zen teachers (who exist, in this singular present moment of experience, only as memories of stories, memories that exist now) are said to have, when asked deep and complex questions through the medium of language, and impossibly concerning language, have responded with primal experience, with blows or shouts or (more mildly) with references to washing one’s bowl, chopping wood, carrying water.

We can remember that there is this. So, what next?

Language (this language, many other languages, those languages that I am familiar with, that I know of) assumes time.

Without the concept of time, it is difficult to speak, to write, to hypothesize.

Let alone to communicate.

To communicate!

The impossible gulf: that you and I both exist (what does it mean to exist?) and that by communicating (whatever that might be) one or both of us is changed (otherwise why bother?). But change, like time (because time), is an illusion.


Is it necessary (categorically, or conditionally) to participate in the illusion? Or pretend? To act (or to speak, as speech is after all action) as though time and change were real?

The sun comes through the windows and casts shadows on the wall. Is there someone at the door?

Fling Thirteen


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Nine

Every time I open my eyes, the world becomes narrower, and wider.

What I see tells me that certain things are impossible; what I see tells me that so many things are possible.

Every time I move my elbow and touch the world, the world becomes narrower, and wider.

What I touch, what I feel, tell me that certain things are impossible; what I touch, what I feel, tells me that so many, so very many, things are possible.

When I floated unseeing, unfeeling, in an endless void, everything was possible.

And nothing was possible.

Here is an image of trees set among oddly pointed hills. On the ground, in the image, white trails snake everywhere.

The white trails might be ancient lava flows, might be modern water runnels, might be plants of different colors growing in stripes because of the underlying chemical differences caused by ancient lava. Or modern water.

Trees are shelter from the rain, trees are habitats, are not-yet-decayed masses of food for saprophytes, are just one of the things that happen when you get an area very very hot, and then let it cool very very slowly.

We circle the tree, each of us thinking our own thoughts, each of our thoughts reflecting everyone’s thoughts. The trees are prisms for our thoughts, taking them in as white beams and redistributing them as rainbow tracks; rainbow tracks for the trains of ages, rainbow tracks for the steam-engines of understanding.

Here is another image, of trees set among oddly pointed hills. On the ground, in the image, white trails snake everywhere.

Are these photographs, and has the photographer only turned from east to west, or north to south, between one and the other?

Are these impressionist, semi-abstract, paintings from life, and has the artist turned the easel in one direction on one day, and the other direction on another day?

The artist sits on a hillside, under the outermost reaching branches of a dense dark tree with deep green foliage, and as the artist slowly paints, small animals and large insects rustle in the tree, and in the crevices of the ground cover.

If these are paintings from life, what does the artist smell, moving the brush slowly over the canvas, there under the edge of the tree’s shadow, where stripes run over the ground, or where the ground inspires the artist to paint stripes where, in plain reality, there may be none?

Every time the artist breathes, and scents the air, the world becomes narrower, and wider.

What the artist smells, scents, breathes, makes olfactory note of, tells the artist that certain things are possible. What the artist smells, makes olfactory note of, tells the artist that many things are possible.

The brush of the artist spells out on the canvas what is possible, what is impossible.

With every touch of the brush, the universe becomes narrower, and wider.

When the canvas was blank, everything was possible.

And nothing was possible.

Time passes, for us circling the trees, for the artist painting, for the trees refracting all our thoughts. For the photographer on the hilltop and for the writer in the old overstuffed armchair.

As time passes, as we see and hear and feel and smell (and taste), the world becomes narrower, and wider.

With every tick of the universal clock, what we experience tells us that certain things are impossible.

With every tick of the universal clock, what we experience tells us that so many things are possible.

Circle the tree with me, with love; give the trees the white beams of your thoughts, and accept from the trees the rainbow diffractions of mine. Love is the result of all of it, and love is the cause of all of it. Love and light are the same, trees and stripes on the ground are the same. Darkness and stillness are the same.

Here is a mystery. Here is a question. What will the next moment declare impossible? What will the moment after reveal as possible?

Here is another image, of a river of stripes flowing between thick dark trees, among oddly pointed hills. Under one tree, a feline form melds with the shadows, resting or waiting, relaxed or alert, its ears a pair of points in the dimness, listening, its whiskers quivering in the air.

Every sound the cat hears tells it that certain things are impossible. Every sound the cat hears, tells it that so many things are possible. The sound of prey in the brush, the sound of splashes in the river, the sound of another cat, distant among the trees, raising a brief and plaintive call toward the sun, the moon, the spirits of prey in the trees. The cat’s body is full of potential, full of watching and patience and the thought of sudden fatal motion.

Did the artist see the cat waiting in that shadow, and capture a hint with that moving brush? Or is the cat the diffraction of a thought of the artist, from patterns in the artist’s mind, from memories of the artist’s past? Is the artist also a traveler, a reader, a composer of fiction or symphonies?

Music makes no claims, cannot be judged or faulted for adding imaginary cats to real tree-shadows. Can I lie with music? Can I lie with a photograph, with a painting, with a loaf of bread?

If these images on the table before us came with no words, no labels or cover-letter, nothing claiming anything with words, then perhaps they cannot lie to us, either; they can only be what they are, and we are free to take them (the rainbows from the trees) and use them in any way at all. They tell us that some things are impossible (now that the envelope has proven to contain only these two images, we are not in a universe where it contains something else, as well or instead), and that many things are possible: the images as photographs, as paintings, as narrative, as hallucination, as music; the sending as a gift, a threat, as braggadocio or the fulfillment of a contract.

Hold them near your face and breathe. What is possible?

Fling Ten


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Seven

The rich dark earth was still joyfully absorbing the last of the rain as Alissa unrolled the bundle for Sema to see. What had been rivulets of the pale sandy earth were drying now, making patterns on the ground around them. In a day they would already be fading, as the lighter sank and scattered among the darker clods and grains.

“Do you see?” Alissa asked, placing the two patterned fragments beside each other in her indentation.

Sema waved long antennae in a positive motion.

“This is what the pale curves looked like, looking down from the perch above; is that the doing that you saw?”

“Yes,” Alissa the storyteller replied, “and the pale curves stirred up in my thoughts various memories of scent trails, winding between stems and across open places.”

“Is there a story…” Sema began, and Alissa followed the other’s thoughts in tandem.

“There is,” Alissa said, “one that does not get told all that often.”

It was a story about stories, as most of Alissa’s are, set in a vague distant past, as most of Alissa’s also are. In this story, as she told it to Sema there under the indentation as the rain dried around them, there is an unnamed person with many eyes, with jointed legs and skillful pincers, who begins making patterns in large flat leaves.

“This person patterned the surfaces of some with open curves and closed curves, this person patterned the surfaces of others with straight lines and intersecting lines. They used nectars that would dry in crackling patterns that absorbed light, so that those with sharp eyes could discern the patterns they had made. They used sharp splinters grasped in their skillful pincers to damage the surfaces, in straight and intersecting patterns, in open and closed shapes, in small and large whorls, and the damaged places also shone differently in the light, so that those with sharp eyes could discern the patterns.”

The story rolled in rising and falling words, making patterns in time between the stems of the dark rich earth, between the thoughts of Alissa and the thoughts of Sema, carrying patterns first composed by persons not present, persons long since gone, persons unknown, down the long chain of transmission, from heart to heart, abdomen to abdomen, through all the instants of the earth.

“Some people said that the patterns in the leaves brought to their minds the patterns in the world, this curve in the track of dried nectar corresponding somehow to that curve of a stem against the sky; this closed pattern of damage on a bark chip corresponding somehow to the shape of a fallen petal on the ground. Others denied that such correspondences could exist, and others averred that they could exist for those with sharp eyes, but not for those without. Many days of discussions in the twilight were taken up with the patterns and the markings, and many words flowed through and between the people of that gathering.”

Sema listened to the story, having become still and open, as people do when listening to stories, thoughts steered and shaped by the words of the storyteller, by Alissa’s words there in the indentation, under the green and rising stem.

“Some others tried to make their own marks and patterns on leaves, and even on bits of bark and the surfaces of common seeds, but none had as much skill in their pincers or mandibles. Some invented patterns of their own, patterns that brought to their minds specific times or places, specific people or even specific stories, but to others the patterns were indiscernible, or meaningless. Some made only simple spots, and some made long conjoined markings. In the darkness of the gathering twilight, the markings were indiscernible to all, and some of the marked leaves blew away in the wind, or were eaten by careless visitors.”

Alissa thought of the markings on the carefully-bundled fragments before them, and how they might have been made, and how they, or some few of them, had brought to mind the shapes of scent trails curving in the twilight.

The story continued, as Alissa made her chant and Sema sat in receptive stillness, their thought moving in correspondence in the ancient way.

In the story, the markings had proliferated, becoming more concrete and more abstract, and those with skillful pincers and sharp eyes had become different from those with ordinary pincers and ordinary eyes, until just when it seemed that the gathering might sunder, there had come a heavy rain.

“And in that rain it seemed that all of the marked leaves, and all of the marked seeds, and all of the marked fragments of bark, were washed away, or were wetted or shaken so that the marks were gone, or were eaten by those stranded. And that first person who had begun marking leaves was washed away, or overcome, and vanished and was gone. And the gathering was sorely pained by the heaviness of the rain, having spent too much time in the making of markings, straight and curved, open and closed, and too little time in preparing and locating shelters and indentations, above and away from the falls and the flows of the rain.”

The story was a cautionary tale, perhaps, against the folly of making markings to mirror the world, even the folly of making stories themselves into markings, and so a story that was not often told, because who would ever think to do that, under the stems and the trees and the wind, beside the rushing water and the still water?

After the story ended, the two, Alissa and Sema, teller and hearer, sat still as was appropriate. The air moved gently, and more of the remaining rain water sank into the deep earth.

“And yet,” said Sema after a time, “here are these marks here on these fragments, and they have not been washed off or eaten, and these curves have brought into your mind the curving of scent trails.”

Alissa moved her head and upper arms and made a sound of agreement.

“We do not do it here, but perhaps somewhere in another place, in another gathering, there are people who follow the other limb of the old story, and are even now making cunning marks of various kinds and types on more leaf fragments and bark fragments, variously bringing to mind stems and scent trails, and even names and stories.”

The idea made Alissa uneasy.

“If this curve brought to your mind a scent trail,” Sema ventured, “or brought to mind the rivulets of pale sand which brought to mind a scent trail, curving between the stems, then perhaps whoever made the marks had in their mind a particular scent trail when they did so.”

“A particular scent trail?”

“One curving between particular stems, laid down by a particular person, leading to and from specific particular places.”

“And then … causing these markings? Which then bring to mind those same places, when viewed in the light?”

Sema made a yes motion, or a perhaps motion. Alissa found the idea baffling and thrilling and worrying.

“The aged pale one came here looking for me, for me specifically!” she said, remembering it as though it was a story itself.

“Yes,” motioned Sema.

“Perhaps… if these markings were made with a specific particular scent trail in mind, perhaps that trail was one that began, or one that ended, here in the rich dark earth.”

“Here?” wondered Sema.

“Or perhaps not, perhaps this is all only dreaming. This curved mark could be anything, or nothing; these strange small patterns arrayed beside it could be nothing, or anything, dirt, wear, the chewing of grubs.”

“But then the elder would hardly have kept these fragments so carefully bundled,” pointed out Sema reasonably.

“Even so,” Alissa agreed, “and yet he left afterward, saying nothing, only leaving the bundle on the ground of the dark earth at the base of this stem.”

“Without even stopping for a story.”

“He already had too many, he said.”

“Too many stories. Who has too many stories?”

“A very old storyteller, or story gatherer, perhaps.”

“But if it is a scent trail that this marking brings to your mind, and it begins, or ends, here…”


“Then the same scent trail ends, or begins, somewhere else.”

Alissa could only agree. The marking was, looking at it more closely with more eyes, in the brighter light, long and sinuous, moving as though it were going around individual stems, and around larger obstructions, and from one place to another and to another, and eventually to, or from, some destination.

“Will you follow it?” Sema asked, as though that were an ordinary question.

“Follow it?” Alissa replied, in distress and great amazement.

Fling Eight


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Six

As the sun moves, somewhere outside, the dusty sunbeam moves across the room, across the piles of books (there are never enough shelves!).

We can take up a particular book, and we can sit in comfort on the window seat or elsewhere, and open it. This book begins with metaphors.

“The cars are the wheels of the city,” the book says. “The city is the body of the car,” the book says.

Cities do not have wheels, and cars cannot be wheels. Cities do not have bodies, and cars are much smaller than cities.

If we expected something like truth or falsity from words, in books, this might be a problem. This might be something wrong.

The book says nothing; it is silent. Inside the book, on one of the flat sheets of fiber near the beginning (near the top of the pile of stacked and cut fibrous sheets), there are patterns of differential reflectivity, patterns of darkness, that are associated with the words, with the letters, with the symbols: “The cars are the wheels of the city.” The association between the reflectivity and the symbols is complex.

Why are these particular marks, lines of chemical, situated on this particular flat sheet of fibrous substance, out of all of the many sheets of fibrous substance in this pile, in this room, in this library, on this planet?

What does it mean to ask “Why”? Again we have this circularity, this difficulty that words can easily talk about anything but words, that language can agilely juggle any subject but language and truth. But with what can we juggle language and truth, if things cannot juggle themselves?

“The cars are the wheels of the city.” These patterns on the page are related to properties of the mind of whoever put them there. These patterns on the page are related to other properties of the mind of whoever reads them. Because this is no different from “The cat is on the mat,” or “The sum of two odd numbers is an even number,” we have no particular problem with metaphors, we have (so far) no need for a special explanation.

Even a simple truth (or falsehood) is related to everything else around it, every facet of its conception, its writing, its reading, its comprehension, in impossibly complex ways, in ways that would take a lifetime even to begin to understand. A complex metaphor, a figure of speech, an allegory, is related to everything else around it, in ways that would take a lifetime even to begin to understand.

But we have established that it is entirely possible, indeed it is likely inevitable, to act and experience without full understanding.

The sun is warm, even hot, through the dusty windows. Whether or not we know what it means for light to “come through” a window, or what “a window” is. Or “warm”. Or “light”.

The book says, “Sharp metal softly pierces and separates tissue”. We shudder at the thought, or at a thought that appears after, and perhaps because, we read the phrase. We shudder even if we cannot explain what “sharp metal” is; what counts as “metal”, and what counts as “sharp”? Are there subjective or objective categories? Is there a useful distinction between “subjective” and “objective”? What makes an act of piercing “soft”? Without being able to say, we imagine the separating of tissue, perhaps the unmentioned welling of blood, and we shudder.

So it is also entirely possible, indeed it is likely inevitable, to be moved by, to be changed by, words, by language, without full understanding.

I close my eyes and turn my face toward the window, and the sunlight hits my eyelids, warms my face, and fills my vision with warm living redness. It is bright, even if I cannot explain to you what “bright” means. Even if, as seems inevitable, I cannot explain to you what “red” means.

This one page of this one book could occupy a lifetime. There is no hope of fully experiencing, internalizing, understanding, even one shelf of the books of this room, even one pile (there are never enough shelves). We can function without full understanding. But what dangers does that entail? (What are “dangers”? What is it for a thing to “entail” another thing? What is a “thing”?)

From another direction (we turn our face toward the interior of the room; now the sunlight hits the back of our head, and our face is cooler, the redness less intense, more black). When we feel certain things, when we have certain physiological properties, we tend to make certain sounds. There are correlations between certain sounds and certain marks, certain patterns of marks, made with reflectivity changes on fibrous sheets.

(Another book, whose title (what is a title?) is “Empire of Dreams”, and whose author is “Giannina Braschi”, says “When I plunge into thought, I walk at the foot of the wind.” The wind has no foot. One cannot plunge into thought. These are all metaphors. Even “The wind has no foot” is a metaphor. All language, perhaps, is metaphor, because no language is literally true. But what does “literally true” mean? Language cannot agilely juggle itself.)

The light is warm on my arm, on the side of my head, on my leg. What does it mean for light to come through the window? When we see light coming through a window, we tend to say “the light is coming through the window”. What is light? What is “light”? Without light, we cannot see; without sight, can we know? Literally, yes. Metaphorically, no.

Light is the mother of knowledge. (The cars are the wheels of the city.) Light is the positive, light is motion and life and progress, knowledge and understanding. “[T]he windows give their light generously to the air,” says the book. Darkness is stillness, potential, ignorance and innocence. (Or guilt?)

From another direction. I cannot touch you, except as I can touch you with my words. I cannot comfort you, inspire you, understand you, or help you to understand me, except as I can do this with my words, because I exist for you only as words. Words cannot be constrained to literal truth, or they could not do the things that we require them to do.

(Ironically enough, the original meaning of “literal” is “having to do with letters”, so only words can convey, contain, constitute, literal truth.)

It is not necessary to think all of these thoughts. We can easily stretch out in the sun on the window seat, with a book, and read, and nap, without understanding how any of these things work (so much to know about books! About naps!).

Fling Seven