Lullaby for the Damned – pt 3

Part 1
Part 2

Five

Mandatory.

Jon Three Three Seven Gardner was growing weary of the word. Everything now was mandatory. Exercise was mandatory. Sleep hours were mandatory. Study time was mandatory. Nutrition was mandatory. Even recreation was mandatory.

It was during post-shift mandatory recreation time with the off-crew that Jeet-G again met Sarah Four One Huber. She was playing something that looked like a cross between backgammon and the game with the stones and the divot-riddled wooden board whose name he could never recall.

“Mancala,” she smiled, her eyes still fixed towards the board.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You were wondering what games this reminded you of. You got backgammon and were wondering about the other one. It’s called mancala, and it originates from Northern Africa.” She moved a black token from one pile to another. “This game you see here is related. We edited it out, but it used to be extremely popular.” Her opponent remained silent. Continue reading “Lullaby for the Damned – pt 3”

Lullaby for the Damned – pt 2

Three

As he nibbled on his lab-grown food bar, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner silently recounted all he had learned in the past three “days” since he had awoken inside a plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin. He organized his thoughts into three categories: outrageous, implausible, and incomprehensible. It was outrageous, for example, that he had been abducted from the life he knew into mandatory labor in a bizarre facility that as near has he could tell, had no exits. It was implausible that the world that he thought he knew to be real had effectively ended in 2012 and that all that remained of human consciousness now ran inside a simulation best spoken of using familiar metaphors rather than technical definitions. It was incomprehensible that from outside the simulation, time was as visible and manipulable as length, width, and depth, and that a fifth dimension was observable.

In his old life as Andrew Culligan, Jeet-G (which is the name he had taken to calling himself thanks to the insistence of his new supervisor that there never was an Andrew Culligan) had viewed the progression of his life and the events he witnessed in serial format, one thing neatly following the last, one step at a time. By his understanding, the future was governed by probability, the past was ruled by certainty, and the thin divide separating them was the inscrutable razor’s edge of the present, where All Things Dwell. All else was either memory or expectation. Phantoms. Imps, sometimes. Jeet-G recalled in his life that never was instances where his memory lied to him. Songs he heard again years later bore new, minor lyrics changes. There in the canteen, eating food as dull and gray as the facility itself, he quietly recited the chorus to Michael Jackson’s 1982 classic hit Billie Jean: “Bille Jean is not my lover; she’s just a girl who says that I am the one, but the kid is not my son.” But, he discovered with some surprise, that his recollection was false, that the lyric is “claims”, not “says” and the notion still sat poorly with him. It was an edit, according to his orientation. There were many thousands of these edits, some great, some small, most of a trifling or petty nature. Some were more serious, more personal. On the second “day” he was informed that when workers like him were culled, in-simulation parents would frequently remember a child that had never existed, and thanks to the incomplete and often hurried nature of the editing process, bits of residue from the cull’s former existence often lingered: a toy that shouldn’t logically exist, oddly framed family photographs, kids’ movies among the VHS collection. Jeet couldn’t help but wonder if James and Ellen Culligan were wrestling with the discomfort of knowing they had a child who was simply no longer a part of the fabric of their world.

Someone entered the cantina. Jeet-G had still yet to acclimate to his new appearance, so everyone else he encountered-and there were surprisingly few others-still looked to him as if they had walked off the set of a cheap 1980s science fiction thriller. The alien creature raised a hand in greeting. “Hey. You must be the new guy. Can I join you?”

The casual greeting made the encounter even more surreal. Jeet-G had carefully listened to his own speech during his downtime and he had been discomfited by what issued from his organs of communication. It wasn’t English. It wasn’t, in point of order, any language he had ever heard uttered before. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t even properly uttered. There was a spoken component to it, but maybe a tenth of the meaning was passed by mechanically agitating the surrounding air. The rest of it he found himself unable to place, unaware as he was of the nature of his new physiology and anatomy. Neither was he at all certain what he should call this new “language” he now “spoke”. Nevertheless, speak it he did, and with what he perceived to be a native accent. “Sure. They call me Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. I’ve been trying out Jeet-G for short.” He thought about smiling, then realized he was too glum to muster the necessary sentiment. “I’d shake hands, but I have no idea what’s even real anymore, let alone what the custom around here is.”

“I’m Sarah Four One Huber.” She had no discernible secondary sex characteristics as far as Jeet-G could tell. He wondered if telling males from females would be covered later in the orientation. “How are you adjusting?”

“Adjusting? I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to be adjusting to.” He wasn’t sure if he was glum or still alarmed, and his ambivalence was evident.

“What department do they have you in?” She had sat opposite him and was unfolding a modest square of cloth that appeared to be woven from metal thread. “I’m in thoracic anatomy.”

“What’s that?”

“Mostly I make adjustments to ribcage design, heart structure, lung capacity, that sort of thing. Haven’t you gotten your work assignment yet?”

“No, not yet.” He wondered what she meant by adjustments to anatomy. “Sorry, did you say ‘heart structure’?”

Her voice rose half an octave in excitement, “yeah, after the event, they needed bigger livers for all the extra toxins, and the liver uses a lot of blood.” She held out her hands, extending fingers no bigger around than soda straws to illustrate her point. “So I helped move the heart under the sternum, rotate it, increase valve diameter, alter the shape of the right atrium, and I even helped with the arterial brachiation and the composition of the pericardium.”

Jeet-G returned a blank look. “I don’t get it.”

She slowed the pace of her speaking, now concerned that he was either a little dimwitted or just knew little about human anatomy. “The pericardium is the membrane around the heart. It…”

He hid his irritation at the condescension well enough that she didn’t catch on. “No, I mean, I don’t get it as in I’m not sure what you mean when you say you adjusted anatomy. Do you… I mean, how do you…” He was confused as to the extent of his confusion.

“Oh, you haven’t gotten to that part of the orientation yet. Oh, I’m sorry. I understand why you must be puzzled.” She leaned over conspiratorially. “We edit them.”

“You edit who?”

“Them. The humans.” She cocked her head a bit. “Well, I suppose strictly speaking, ‘we’ humans, since they’re just us, only we’re out here and they’re in there. Also, they’ve been edited a lot.” She took a bite of the dull food. “I mean, we have too. These bodies have been tailored for this environment just like theirs have.”

He looked down at his still-bizarre appearance. “We have?”

She sat up in surprise. “Of course we have. Low gravity, therefore thin limbs and severely reduced physical strength. Clean environment, therefore small kidneys. Low fat diet, so not much liver. Short digestive tract. Low light, big eyes with dilated pupils. You know, all made to fit the environment.”

That almost made sense to him, but he still had no idea where exactly he was. She said it was a low gravity environment, so he began to suspect he was on some space station somewhere.

The truth, as he would eventually discover, was far more bizarre.

Four

“Greetings Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. I see you have met one of your co-workers. Sarah Four One Huber is also a new arrival, much like yourself. She has proven invaluable in arresting the septicemia problem we had in 2013.”

“It’s 2017.”

“Yes?”

“You said she’s a ‘new arrival’ so how can she have fixed a problem in 2013? Correct my math if I’m wrong, but that was four years ago.”

“You aren’t wrong.” The voice still seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. “But I want you to remember what we said about the nature of time.” Jeet-G sighed as deeply as he was able with his tiny new lungs. “Time proceeds here at the same pace it does there, but we are able to witness and access the entire sweep of history—past, present, and future—on the other side of the veil. We’re in 2017 just like they are. The main difference is that we can see the events of 1912, of 23,000 BC, of the dawn of life on Earth if it suits the mission’s needs. Here, take a look.” Jeet-G rocked back on his brittle heels as a gently-spinning globe filled the orientation room. “This is the Earth about four million years ago.”

Jeet-G caught his balance. “You mean it’s a, uh, a map. A globe. Or maybe a really good hologram. It’s not the Earth.”

“No, it’s the actual planet. It’s in read-only right now, so you can’t alter anything, but that’s the real deal.”

Jeet-G reached out to touch the sphere, but his hand passed right through it. “Come on, it’s a projection. It’s not there.”

“How do you know you’re not the projection?”

“Point taken.”

“If it helps, think of it this way: relative to each other, you’re both projections.”

“That doesn’t help.”

The disembodied voice sounded amused. “You know how like in Star Trek they sometimes talk about the Enterprise being out of phase with a part of subspace or something like that?”

“I’m more of a Star Wars guy. I watched a season or two of Deep Space Nine during the original run, but I never really got into it.”

“Funny you should mention that. Rene Auberjonois is an edit.”

“A what?”

“He died in 1981. Pancreatic cancer. Where The Buffalo Roam was his last performance, and we brought him back.”

“You do that? Bring people back to life? Why?”

“Second-string actors, mostly. Sometimes politicians. Rob Ford is one we’re working on right now. Our most infamous edit is Nelson Mandela. In fact, that one’s what the inhabitants have named our visible edits after.”

“Visible?”

“Most of what we do is ordinary monitoring. But there’s a threat somewhere on the other side of the veil. We’re not sure what it is or where’s it’s from, but here, look at this.” The projection of the planet shimmered as the surface rapidly shifted to form more recognizable continental forms. The changes then slowed, and within the course of what Jeet-G estimated to be a couple of weeks, cities went dark, huge patches of land went from green and fertile to scorched and glowing. Lakes dried, satellites fell from orbit, and the axial tilt of the planet went what Jeet-G could only describe to himself as “all wobbly.”

“What the shit is that?”

“That the shit, is what we’re trying desperately to stop. That is why we planted you in there, that is why we harvested you, and that is why we need your help. What you see before you is a mere three years from now. Unless we can stop it.”

Jeet-G was a-gawp. “How? What? What is that? How do we stop it?”

“That’s part of the problem. We think it’s probably a rogue human on the other side of the veil, someone who’s figured out the nature of things and is either intentionally or accidentally messing with the controls that only we here on this side are supposed to have.” The voice grew melancholy, afraid. “But we don’t know for sure. And we barely even know where to look. We’re still trying to narrow it down by continent. We think it’s probably somewhere in North America, since most of our hits are in the United States.”

“Hits?”

“People reporting systematic memory lapses, errors in recollection, that sort of thing.”

“What?”

“If you want to find someone robust against our editing work, you have to introduce a wide variety of edits, some blatant like the reshoot we did of the Zapruder Film, some subtle like we did for the Volkswagen logo. The big, blatant, obvious ones are to gather a large sample batch, and the smaller ones are to refine our inquiry.”

“I… I still don’t follow. You make changes to the fabric of reality with these edits just to see who notices? How can anyone notice? What you’re describing is impossible.”

“Memory is not reality. Remember that we are experiencing time the same as they are. We can change their entire history, move continents around, change the very structure of their brains even. It will have always been the case, for example, that the Coca-Cola logo has had a small hyphen between the words, but for some, the memory of a tilde will remain. That memory-mismatch frisson shows up here.” A HUD appeared near the globe, much like ones he recalled from the real-time strategy video games he enjoyed. “We track it, try new edits to cull the sample numbers. Eventually we’ll find the culprit and eliminate him from the timeline.”

“Eliminate?”

“That’s the hope anyway. If the Earth goes, we’re all out of a job. Plus, most of us, perhaps all of us still have pretty strong sentimental ties to the reality of our birth. You can even visit the woman who was your wife if you’re so inclined. Not that I’d recommend it, of course.”

Jeet-G folded his arms and snorted. “This is bullshit. Exceptionally well-crafted bullshit, but bullshit all the same.”

“John Three Three Seven Gardner, it does not matter if it is bullshit. You have been drafted to perform a task. If you prove unwilling or unable to perform this task, you will be replaced with someone who can and will.”

“Really? So you can send me back?”

“No.”

“So then what would happen to me?”

The voice was silent for several seconds. As Jeet-G began to wonder if it had left, it abruptly returned. “We lack the resources to support unemployed laborers. You would be recycled.” Jeet-G swallowed the lump that formed in his narrow throat. “That’s enough of that talk for now. Let us return to the test editing procedure. Please be seated at the terminal.”

Jeet-G dutifully sat on the rigid surface, silently pledging to take a modicum of revenge for his abduction.

Against the “Post-Truth” Narrative

In 2004, I was 19, conservative, and a partisan for blogging in the then-raging bloggers vs journalists rivalry.

The incident that would eventually end Dan Rather’s career at CBS seemed to me the model of how bloggers would improve the news. A news organization is a relatively bounded thing with finite resources, even if it isn’t systematically biased. With the Internet, you only needed one person anywhere in the world with the skills or alertness (or both) to catch an error, and this could be communicated to everyone. It seemed obvious that this new, distributed feedback system would make news more accurate than ever before.

Moreover, it seemed obvious that there would be no place for the news organization in the new world. Who needed professional journalists when you had citizen journalists, with a wider range of qualifications? Foreign correspondents could be replaced by bridge bloggers, like Iraq the Model, who liveblogged the first free Iraqi elections.

I participated myself, rounding up blog posts and articles on the war, the economy, and the new media debate, and adding my own commentary. I imagined myself as a member of a new community which would eventually include varying contributions from most citizens in most countries of the world. Those contributions would add up to a well-oiled distributed feedback system that caught errors at a faster rate than they were made.

Time has not been kind to that vision.

Continue reading “Against the “Post-Truth” Narrative”

Duplicity and the Ordinary Work of the Politician

Consider the butcher. He spends a lot of time killing animals. Do those who find this morally questionable tend to call butchers personally to account? I’ve not heard of that—though it may happen—but I do know that many direct their energy to education of those who demand meat.

Consider, say, a fireman on an old train. His job involved setting fire to a bunch of coal, thus soiling the skies. Did people blame him for this air pollution? Or did they think: “Hey, that’s just his job. It’s the result of the choices of many people that we have trains.”

In these examples and others I can think of, we tend to hold individuals less accountable for actions that are inextricably bound up with the successful completion of job-related tasks. A classic example is that of the soldier following orders; yes, we often tend to think a soldier should listen to his conscience, but we also often leave way for the explanation that the soldier accepts the moral authority of his superiors.

Sometimes, commentators inveigh against politicians—against practically all of them, as a class—on moral grounds, as in this example from several years back:

I challenge anyone to argue that the behavior of any of the major candidates…is admirable. Everyone knows that each serious candidate trims, waffles, is duplicitous, has his or her finger in the winds blown by polls, and wants to be President not because of any burning itch to help fellow human beings but because the job comes with all the trappings, and much of the power, of royalty.

I see two distinct complaints there: that politicians play games with words, and that politicians act from self-interest. Economists and wise liberals in general should dismiss the latter complaint out of hand; there’s often nothing wrong with acting largely out of self-interest. That would leave us with the first complaint, that politicians are tricksters.

What if it’s the case that we live in a world where there are some serious interpersonal conflicts that cannot be resolved via honest back-and-forth discussion to mutual agreement? For the means to bring about the necessary resolutions, then, we would have second-best choices such as violence and duplicity. I venture to guess that many of us would choose duplicity over violence as a means of resolving a dispute.

If those sorts of conflicts sometimes crop up, and if “politician” is the occupation of one who resolves such conflicts under a division of labor, then, well, it’s just a job, not a mark of moral inferiority. Can a commentator rightly challenge politicians to avoid duplicity when it seems needless or counterproductive? Sure, without a doubt. But one should also recognize that it’s intrinsic to much of their work.

Tending the Liberal Garden

Featured image is The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles, by Vincent van Gogh – repr from artbook, Public Domain 

Pluralism

Adam rightfully calls our attention to the “tragic liberalism” of Jacob Levy. This style of liberalism is tragic because the legitimate values of the polity are incommensurable, plural, and inconsistently applied due to the inevitable diversity of the political body. These features lead to “irresolvable tensions.” These tensions are tragic not only because they are a constant, Sisyphean feature of the human experience, but because all attempts to navigate the tensions invariably hurt the legitimate interests of real human beings. We live in a world of trade-offs.

To take a frequent example Adam and I have used, the individualist concerned with liberation will desire to impose a certain level of uniformity on the populace for the sake of the disadvantaged members of society. A closed society like that of the Amish will face interference from without aimed at liberating those individuals perceived either as oppressed or at least as insufficiently capable of making and acting on informed decisions about their membership in the community. But this imperils the very existence of those sorts of communities, which individuals have genuine reasons to value that have nothing to do with the desire to dominate others. And a universalist imposition will hamper the discovery potential of a more federalist approach that affords such communities wider latitude. Both partisans in a political dialogue about how much to interfere in such communities are reasonable.

Continue reading “Tending the Liberal Garden”

Lullaby for the Damned – pt 1

One

Through the thinning fog of a quickly dissolving dream lurched a gentle voice modulated by the throaty growl of an intercom on the verge of dying. “Up and at ’em, sailor. Time and tide wait for no man.” A pair of gritty eyelids lifted to reveal the inside of a plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin.

Old instincts took hold. “I’m up, I’m up. What time is it?”

“A fine jest, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. It is time to wake. Orientation begins now.”

“Orientation?” The gray box was featureless but for the slab that served as a bed. “Where am I? What orientation? Who are you?” The figure in the bed fought back a wave of dizziness as he sat up. “Where are you? I can barely see a thing in here.”

“Your vision will acclimate soon. It isn’t uncommon for recent culls to have difficulty adjusting to the different focal depth. As for where you are, that’s all part of the orientation. Please follow the illuminated path.” A trail of softly-glowing lights blinked to attention on the floor of the gray box, leading out of the room’s rectangular egress and down a hallway as featureless and grim as the rest of the environs.

“My name is Andrew.” He awkwardly gained his feet, then braced himself against the cool wall as another bout of dizziness washed over him. “Andrew Culligan. What orientation? What’s going on? How did I get here?” He struggled to remember where he had been before he woke here in the gray room gently suffused with pale light of indeterminate origin. Fragmented images of kissing his six year old daughter goodnight, of rubbing his wife’s tired shoulders, of stealing downstairs to sneak a gob of ice cream Dr. Aronsen had warned him against eating else that incipient diabetes flare into a full-blown case. None of these memories seemed particularly real, more like impressions, as if he were recounting the scenes from a television program he’d fallen asleep in front of the night before.

“Your memories of being Andrew Culligan will fade soon enough.” The voice broke momentarily as a muffled cluster of electric pops and clicks took its place. “Use the handrail to your right if you have trouble keeping steady.”

He was indeed unsteady on his feet. The handrail helped somewhat, but the rhythm his footsteps wanted to make was ungainly. His knees rose too high, as if pinioned to children’s toy party balloons filled with helium. His breath came short and fast, and despite feeling light on his feet, he felt as if he were moving too slowly, a maggot burrowing through honey. “I feel funny. Why does it smell like I fell in a copper mine?”

“Your body still remembers life on the other side. What you see, what you hear, what you feel, what you smell: these are artifacts, file fragments, little bits left over from before you were culled. Think of it like the aftertaste of a spicy meal or the lingering perfume that stuck with you after you kissed Jennifer Sudlowsky in the sixth grade.”

The name—that name shot clean through him. In him swelled first surprise, then confusion, then anger. He stopped dead in his tracks, refusing to cooperate until he got some answers. “Look, asshole. I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m not taking another step until you tell me where the hell I am and how the hell I got here.”

The radio crackle shut off entirely. The monochrome hallway seemed impossibly quiet, as if its featureless surfaces drank ambient noise. When the voice returned, it was perfectly clear, too clear, clearer than the sound of Andrew’s own voice in his head. “Your name is Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. There is no Andrew Culligan anymore. In a sense, there never was an Andrew Culligan. You have been selected to be removed from the other side in order to work here. Think of yourself as a software engineer of sorts, or a debugger if you like.”

He spun around, trying in vain to find the source of the voice that seemed to speak directly into his ear from inches away. “I’m no software engineer. I’m a middle school English Composition teacher. What do you mean ‘there never was an Andrew Culligan?’ I am Andrew Culligan. Who do you think you are telling me I don’t exist?”

“It’s important you keep moving, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. All will be explained to you, but you’re standing in the middle of a hallway right now. Orientation for new culls like yourself take place in the Orientation Center. Come join me here. And prepare to be amazed.” The voice fell silent.

“My name is Andrew Culligan,” he grumbled as he resumed his awkward plod along the path of softly glowing light. Tinnitus swelled and subsided as he proceeded, but it was nothing worse than what he’d suffered over the past few years in traffic, in the teachers’ lounge, at home watching one generic sitcom after another, or taking his daughter to play on the puke-green jungle gym the homeowners’ association behind his house stubbornly refused to replace despite visible surface rust on the swing-set shackles. If anything, the ringing in his ears was an old friend coming by to assure him that despite the odd surroundings, everything would turn out just fine.

If only that were true.

Two

The orientation room was a half-cylinder five meters in radius by two and a half meters tall. A pearl-white flush-mounted display dominated the former Andrew Culligan’s peripheral vision. “Welcome to your orientation, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner.” An image Andrew Culligan recognized well appeared on the display before him, rendered in uncannily-perfect three dimensions. It was him, or rather the him that greeted him in the mirror each morning before he groggily dragged a comb through his hair and a razor across his chin. “This was you.” The figure began to slowly rotate counterclockwise. It was dressed simply, as Andrew often did in a checkered shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway to the elbows and a battered yet serviceable pair of khakis. “More precisely, this was you before you were culled.” Another image appeared next to the one he knew as his own skin and bones. This one he also recognized, but more from the movies and television shows he favored. It was shorter, perhaps five feet tall, impossibly thin, and sporting a head shaped like an upside-down egg featuring enormous ink-black, lidless eyes.

“What’s with the space alien?” Andrew mentally added that properly speaking, this was a Gray, not to be confused with a Green or reptilian, the other faction vying to dominate human affairs. Andrew found himself tempted to giggle at his little flight of half-remembered conspiracy nut fancy, circumstances notwithstanding.

“And this is you now, after your culling.” Unlike the familiar human figure, this image did not rotate, but rather moved in tandem with Andrew’s gestures. It took him a moment and some hand-waving to notice that he was gazing into an unfamiliar reflection. “The Andrew Culligan you thought you were was implanted into a simulation of sorts, one that contains what you think of as the world. It’s probably more accurate to say that it contains the human experience, and we here are…” the voice paused, as if searching for the right word, “think of us as a team of troubleshooters and maintenance technicians. We find and fix errors in the simulation, and we have withdrawn you to help us.”

For the first time since he awoke in that plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin, Andrew gazed down at himself. He noted with dim curiosity that he wasn’t panicked to discover that he was indeed a painfully thin, gray-skinned biped. He reached up to touch his ovoid skull and squeezed his big eyes shut only to discover that instead of proper eyelids, a pair of glassy nictitating membranes slid over his cartoonishly-large corneas. He turned his hands over and over, trying to figure out why he had only three fingers and why he hadn’t started screaming himself hoarse in a wordless shriek of denial. “This is some kind of magic trick or something.” It had to be a prank, Andrew Culligan thought. “I don’t find this funny.” It was easily the most elaborate prank he’d ever heard of. “Can I go home now, please?”

“You are home, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. Look here.” The images in the display were replaced with a large, ornate book by a classic vertical wipe fade, the sort of movie transition Andrew remembered fondly from the films he grew up with in the 1980s. “Think of your life story as a book.” The book in the display opened to about the middle. “Inside the story, you get to read one word at a time, front to back, top to bottom, left to right.” A glowing pointer appeared, highlighting one word at a time. Andrew noted that the words detailed the night his daughter was born, from the meticulous notes he kept on the timing of his wife’s contractions to the guilty hour and a half he dozed off while she was in labor. “Inside the story, you can’t see the book.” The book closed and began to rotate. “But from here, we can see the whole book, take it off the shelf, flip between the pages, even remove it entirely from the library. That’s what we did with you.”

“You pulled my life story out of the library?”

“So to speak, yes. But we also put it in there in the first place. Part of our duties is to generate new workers. It’s especially important now, for reasons we’ll cover later in the orientation. The way we do it is to put blank books into the library and once they’ve been written to a useful extent, to pull them back out again for duty.”

“This makes literally no sense to me.” Andrew’s voice was dull. Psychologists call it “flat affect” and it is a common symptom of emotional trauma.

“Tell me, John Three Three Seven Gardner, how many dimensions are there?”

“Hold on a damn minute. Why do you keep calling me that stupid name? I told you, my name is Andrew Culligan, even if I look like I just stepped out of an episode of the X-Files at the moment.”

“It’s your name. It’s sort of a file name, if you like. When we seed the simulation with a template, the form is based on an archetype generated by the principal researchers. You are based on a pastiche of Jon Ellis and Robert Gardner. You were seeded in Region 337. Therefore, you are Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. The name Andrew Culligan never existed, at least not after we pulled your book out of the library, so to speak.”

“What do you mean ‘never existed?'”

“I mean just that. You were never born. Your father never impregnated your mother in June of 1976. You didn’t grow up in Battle Creek, Michigan. You didn’t attend college at UW-Madison, you didn’t marry Lisa Pinehurst, you didn’t have a daughter named Chelsea. None of it happened. Not in the current version of the simulation you know as Earth, anyway.”

“What is happening?” Jon Three Three Seven Gardner fell to his knees.

“What is happening? What is happening is this: there was an extinction-level event in 2012. What remains of humanity is preserved in a simulation. The simulation is facing a severe threat from within. If the threat is not contained, the system will collapse in 2020. You have been recruited to help us identify and resolve the threat.”

The words were falling on deaf ears. Jon Three Three Seven Gardner had fallen unconscious. The owner of the voice conducting orientation clucked in pity. “We will talk more later, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. For now, get some rest.”

In Praise of Partiality in Science

We all grow up with an image of science as a pillar of truth and nothing but truth. This ideal is so deeply embedded in us, that the very idea that scientists should take responsibility for the normative aspects of their work is anathema. Of all the things I have written here on Sweet Talk, my series on this subject provoked the most ferocious responses by far.

But science itself is far more than just truth. Elizabeth Anderson thoroughly dismantles the notion that it is. Our very ability to discern the whole truth, according to her, depends heavily on what we would call normative values, rather than value-neutral considerations. The whole truth is not a representation of “every fact about the phenomenon being studied.” If it were, it would “end up burying the significant truths in a mass of irrelevant and trivial detail.”

Theoretical inquiry does not just seek any random truth. It seeks answers to questions. What counts as a significant truth is any truth that bears on the answer to the question being posed. The whole truth consists of all the truths that bear on the answer, or, more feasibly, it consists of a representative enough sample of such truths that the addition of the rest would not make the answer turn out differently.

Anderson’s whole truth can only be determined by honing in on what is significant, an inherently value-laden concept. And that significance is determined by the questions we ask, which are based on our interests. Continue reading “In Praise of Partiality in Science”