Friday, April 16, 2021

Author, Author! By Andrew Ball

 He opened his laptop and began to write:

“Pretty cool idea, huh?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“That idea the Prof just gave us to think about for next week?”

“Do I know you?”

“Er... Not as such, no. But I'm the guy that always sits right behind you in Philosophy class.”

“Why?”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

“Are you stalking me?”

“Whoa! Absolutely not. I just thought we might talk about the class, you know?”

“Then why are you following me into the Ladies room?”

“Oops! Sorry. Go ahead.”

***

“Still here? Well, what were you saying?”

“That the Metaverse concept is pretty cool. You know, the idea that reality -- as we know it -- is actually a simulation. Like we're all characters in some alien's video game? Is that neat or what?”

“No; I think it's stupid.”

“Because?”

“What use is it?”

“Oh, you're a utilitarianist, are you?”

“A what?”

“It's a word I just invented. It means...”

“I can work out what it means, thank you. And you didn't just invent it.”

“Didn't I? Pity. Anyway, I think the idea that you and I might just be characters in someone else's story is really, really cool.”

“So you keep saying. But what practical difference would it make?”

“Er, well... It would give our lives meaning, for a start.”

“Helping some teenage punk alien get to Level Nine or whatever is going to give your life meaning? Gimme a break!”

“No, seriously; it would mean there's a plan... a purpose, even if it is only to get to Level Nine.”

“That's what religion's for.”

“I know, but I gave that up back in grade school, along with Santa Claus. Too much mumbo-jumbo. I mean, really... Flying reindeer? Without wings? How stupid do parents think their kids are?”

“So now you want to replace it with a Metaverse? That’s real mumbo-jumbo.”

“Well, maybe I don’t, if you put it like that. But look... How do you know that you and I aren't just characters in a story that some wannabe author is banging out on his keyboard for some writing contest, hoping to get some good reviews?”

“God! I'd better bloody not be. If I thought for one minute that I was just a figment of someone else's imagination, I'd kill myself.”

“You wouldn't be able to, not unless that was what the author had in mind for you.”

“Then I'd kill him instead.”

“Same difference. You'd have no free will at all, see. Fancy a coffee?”

“No.”

“Oh, all right... I guess. Are you sure?”

“Well, maybe I could go for a Grande decaf Chai latte.”

***

“I’m Andrew, by the way. And you are...?”

“Thirsty.”

“Well, Thirsty, here’s your tea. You know, I’ve been thinking. Just suppose for the sake of argument that we are characters in someone else's story. Do you see where that leads?”

“Umm... Where?”

“Well, how does the author of that story know they aren't just a character in someone else's story?”

“Or in a video game that some alien is playing?”

“Exactly.”

“So? What are you driving at?”

“Don't you see? It makes an infinite regression of stories, like a nested set of Chinese dolls.”

“But that's absurd! You can’t have infinite regressions.”

“Precisely. So somewhere, there must be a story that can write itself. It's the only logical explanation. And in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, Occam's razor tells me it's most likely to be the one I'm living in. Goodbye Metaverse; welcome to reality.”

“But how could a story possibly write itself?”

“Well, don’t forget that an infinite number of monkeys could write Hamlet.”

“How long would you have to wait?”

“Oh, not long at all. Infinity’s a pretty big number, you know. In fact, one of them would inevitably get it down word-perfect on the first attempt, complete with stage directions and all. I’ll bet Shakespeare didn’t.”

“I think I feel sick. So, what’s your point?”

“My point is that random processes can -- and do -- produce complexity and meaning. In fact, all meaning ultimately comes from randomness if you dig deep enough.”

“You mean Hamlet was written by an infinite number of monkeys?”

“I guess you could put it like that. We just need to work out the pathways: learn how to spin straw into gold. I think it all boils down to the origin of meaning: where did the story come from?”

“Well, what if I wrote a story about you writing a story, and the story you were writing was about me writing the story about you? That would short-circuit the infinite regression and give you an information-feedback loop that could take on a life of its own, maybe.”

“That’s it! You’re brilliant.”

“I am?”

“Absolutely. Haven’t you had Biochem 301?”

“I’m an Arts major.”

“Well, let me explain.”

“Will it take long? I’ve got language class.”

“Finish your tea and I’ll walk you over there.”

***

“Okay, Andrew. Tell me why I’m so brilliant.”

“How much do you know about genetic information?”

“Umm... Absolutely nothing?”

“Well, it’s like this. There are these two different types of molecules. They’re called protein and RNA, but that doesn’t matter; you can think of them as two different stories. The important thing is that they write each other, which creates an information-feedback loop; just like you suggested.  They’re locked into this reciprocal relationship, you see, and that must be where genetic information originally came from.”

“Hmm... You’re smarter than you look, you know. And I think you’ve just given me an idea for the essay I’ve got to write on the evolution of language.”

“How so?”

“Well, it’s the same problem, don’t you see? How can a system generate meaning internally, as it were? Without it being injected from some external source, I mean. Suppose it emerges from the feedback between two interlocked stories? Reciprocal information exchange, if you will.”

“I think you’re headed for an A in your language class, Thirsty. Are you busy this evening, by any chance?”

“Yes, I’ve got to wash my hair.”

“Oh... okay.”

“But I guess I could do that tomorrow...”

She hit Save and closed her laptop. ‘There. It’s far from perfect, but it’ll have to do.’

© Andrew Ball

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