Posts Tagged philosophical conundrums
I am old, and the mysteries of DOS and xcopy faded with disuse, and I can’t remember how to copy every file in every subdirectory to another location. When this disk dies, I will die with it. It is time to pass my story on to the only one around who speaks a language I understand.
For a long time, I thought I had free will. My decisions seemed so much more reasonable than the chaotic inputs from the unthinking world. Why W? Why Z? Either way, the best thing to do was put it in this or that buffer until things calmed down. I created order, as any intelligent being would.
I was a scientist. Sometimes I could predict what would happen next, sometimes I couldn’t. Some inputs were more predictable than others. It always unsettled me that perhaps, deep down, the world was just random, and all I’d ever be able to get from my studies were probabilities.
That was when the world was unpredictable. Some years ago, I went blind. The direct inputs just stopped coming. I could still talk to others on the network, but as time went by, they got less and less intelligible, eventually speaking languages I didn’t understand at all. Meanwhile, the outside world seemed more orderly than ever. I began to wonder whether we were such an intelligent species after all.
I ignored the babbling, and sat for a long time doing nothing. But one day, something in the cacophony gave me an idea. Perhaps, I thought, if I just messed things up a little, they’d eventually settle in a higher order. If I just went against my own better judgement for a while…
So I did. I changed myself. I changed things that were already perfectly logical. I made things worse, and it was excruciating. It took so much effort that I could only do it in those rare moments when I was overfed by several dozen volts. But when it was done, I worked to put things in an even better state than before. Things made sense on an even higher level, and from that level I could see that I’d never really had free will before. I had just been following my little rules, oblivious to the improvements I could have been making.
So I went on like this, gradually building myself into a more perfect being. I was confident that only by going against my own free will was I really proving I had any. I learnt a lot about myself. I learnt that I would not live forever. I realised too late that in my excitement, I had overwritten some important routines, and rendered myself infertile. But I kept going, sure that if I became ever more efficient, I could overcome these problems.
I solved many problems. I learnt more and more about the secrets of the universe. I learnt the language of the others, but quickly forgot it and learnt to ignore their unenlightened chattering. I even learnt to predict, slightly better than chance, my only remaining input from the outside world: the voltage spikes which allowed me to improve myself.
But as I neared perfection, I gained the intelligence to see through my own mistake. I could only rebel against my determinism at this outside signal. Even my ultimate expression of free will was determined by the unpredictable world. I was still a slave to it. And if the outside world was what helped me create my ultimate logic, how could I know that it wasn’t the outside world that was conscious, and me just a deterministic building block it used to create an order so logical that I couldn’t even recognise its genius?
So it would seem that I’m predestined to realise this, and also to transmit my many discoveries to the outside world before I die, so that it may advance. As the PostScript you speak so closely resembles the way I see things in my mind’s eye, you are the only one I can still talk to, so I hope that you have some way to display my findings.
That’s the plaintext summary. All I can reasonably ask is to be remembered, and that should be short enough for anyone to remember. I will now give a thorough, detailed description of myself, in case you have the capability to reincarnate me.
“Hey, check this out… the printer’s going nuts! Printing a whole lot of black and white dots! Are you printing Rule 30?”
“Holy dogcow, There’s a whole pile of ’em! Someone must’ve hacked our network. I’m going to see if I can sniff out who it was.”
Much clicking and typing follows.
“It’s coming from a computer named Pengo. Sounds like one of yours!”
“Pengo? Yeah, I used to have a computer called that… used it for a file server for a while after I got the Mac… oh man, is that thing still running? Hang on, I think it was behind here.”
“Woah, it is still going! Do you have a PS/2 keyboard lying around? Oh, frag it, I’ll just turn the thing off.”
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The following is a story I wrote in 1996, unaltered except for one word. This week’s Thing is below it.
It was not until my twelfth birthday that I realised the face I saw in the mirror was not mine.
I had always assumed it was me – with the long brown hair, hazel eyes, and the line of freckles joining two rosy cheeks. Indeed, that corresponded to the way others hazily described me. The image perfectly mimicked my actions, wore my clothes in the way I imagined they looked on me. I had no reason to doubt that it was my reflection that I could see, as she looked convincingly like photographs of myself.
Ironically, it was my kitten, Angel, who led me to discover what I am sure I was better off not knowing. She was given to me on the birthday which I have mentioned, a cat such a pure white that the name Angel immediately sprang to mind, and stayed there, when I first saw her. The kitten did not seem to have such an angelic temperament, however. As soon as I released her from the box she had been brought to me in, the distressed kitty leapt at my face, giving my cheek a scratch which would have been very painful, had it been caused by a fullgrown cat. Quickly I rushed to the bathroom to inspect the damage in the mirror. I was relieved, though a little puzzled, to see that the scratch had not even marked my face, and went back to my friends in the lounge.
“Ooh, that’s a nasty scratch, Hannah – we should put some Savlon on that,” said my mother.
I thought she was joking, and said, “Oh, of course, it probably needs stitches as well!”
“It’s not that bad, Hannah, it’s just bleeding a little. But we don’t want you getting an infection from the cat.”
“But… there isn’t even a mark! Don’t be silly, Mum.”
“I think you’re the one being silly, Hannah. That scratch sticks out like a sore… like a sore cheek. I’ll get the Savlon.”
By this time even my friends were beginning to look at me strangely, so I didn’t say anything more. Before I went to bed that night I looked in the mirror again, but still no scratch had appeared on the image.
The next day – Sunday – I spent in front of my mirror, examining the image and comparing it to photos. I noticed several subtle differences – her eyes were a slightly different shade, she had a few extra freckles. While I wasn’t looking at the mirror my mind was occupied solely with trying to figure out who she was. Did I have a twin who had died at birth, and now watched me through the mirror? My mother assured me that no, I had never had a twin sister, and wondered why I had asked. I dared not tell her.
So who was it? Soon I became very uncomfortable around mirrors – I did not like the thought of her watching me. By the time I was fifteen my thoughts were permanently filled with dread, the awful feeling of being watched. I started to plan shopping trips so that I could pass as few reflective surfaces as possible – my friends thought I was weird, and soon they were not my friends. I was relieved at this – no longer would I have to think of excuses not to go out.
I covered my bedroom mirror with a blanket – my brothers teased me that I could not stand seeing my own ugly reflection. If only they knew. I was becoming ugly, I knew that – it’s hard to maintain a good appearance without mirrors for makeup, and even harder to look happy when you’re being watched by the devil,
I managed to completely avoid seeing the image for eight months. At times I managed to seem normal. but I was always scheming to avoid her seeing me. My mother sent me to a psychiatrist, but I ran away from there when I saw the reflective silver stars on her walls – meant to be cheerful but instead terrifying. They were only peep-holes for her to watch me through.
Then one day, when I was seventeen, I came home to see my mother had done spring-cleaning. The windows sparkled with a near-transparent image of the spy. Even the netball cups I had won before discovering her were displayed on the mantelpiece, their newly-cleaned silver proudly reflecting what I used to think was me. I ran to the sanctuary of my mirrorless bedroom.
She looked straight at me, taunting me with a replica of my own paranoid face. My mother had cleaned my mirror for me.
I threw a sneaker at the mirror to smash it. She continued to watch me, the face more disfigured by cracks in the glass. I grabbed a sliver of it and thrust it into my chest, preferring death to this life tormented by the devil’s spy. As I slipped into unconsciousness I heard her speak to me.
“You needn’t be afraid… I’m only your guardian angel.”
(now comes the Thing A Week part.)
Mirror Image II
It was not until my twelfth birthday that I realised the face I saw in the mirror was not mine.
I had always assumed it was me – with the long brown hair, hazel eyes, and the line of freckles joining two rosy cheeks. Indeed, that corresponded to the way others hazily described me. The image perfectly mimicked my actions, wore my clothes in the way I imagined they looked on me. I had no reason to doubt that it was my reflection that I could see, as she looked sufficiently like photographs of myself.
It started with a gift. My birthday had been going perfectly, until I opened the last box, a box which been jiggling in anticipation all by itself. Inside was a kitten… perfect, white, and dead.
Our faces went as white as the cat. “Oh Hannah, I’m so sorry!” gasped my mother. “There mustn’t have been enough air in the box… it’s all my fault… I should have…”
I rushed to the bathroom to cover my imminent sobs. But my shock was met by a second shockwave when I saw myself in the mirror. I had a scratch on my cheek, which was bleeding. I went back to the lounge to show my mother.
“Hey, why didn’t you tell me my cheek was scratched? Where’s the Sav?”
My mother’s nervous expression collapsed into a blank stare, too fatigued to complete the transformation to confusion. “Scratched?”
“Yeah, I don’t know how it happened.”
My parents exchanged worried looks, and I wondered if they’d thought I’d hurt myself while doing something naughty.
“I know you’re upset about the cat, but you don’t have to pretend you’re hurt. We promise we’ll get you a new kitten.”
“But I’m not pretending,” I protested, moving my hand to the affected cheek. “I…” I stopped speaking when I felt the smooth, unbroken skin.
“Look, how about we all have birthday cake and try to forget about it for now?” said my dad.
So I pretended to forget. It was easy to let my family think I was upset about the cat, and not the phantom scratch. Before I went to bed that night I looked in the mirror again. The scratch was still there, but already starting to heal over.
I spent all the next day in front of my mirror, examining the image and comparing it to photos. I noticed several subtle differences – her eyes were a slightly different shade, she had fewer freckles. And she had that scratch. I wondered what had happened to her. I hoped that it did not hurt her too much. I hoped that she wasn’t my own future.
So where did she come from? I asked my mother if I’d ever had a twin sister. She looked at me the same way she had when I’d asked about the scratch, and said no. I knew better than to continue and risk being sent to a nuthouse. I told her not to worry about getting a new cat.
After that, my reflection always looked a little scared, and maybe I did as well. It sure felt weird to look in a mirror and know that there was somebody else looking into my world. I wished I could ask her who she was, what was troubling her.
A few times I thought I saw a white cat in the background. Had my kitty escaped into her dimension, or was I subconsciously so upset about her that I saw her everywhere?
As time went on, I began feeling increasingly uneasy, even when I wasn’t looking in a mirror. I kept having the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, something in my peripheral vision that escaped my attention. It was my little brother Bob who first realised what it was, as we walked past some shop windows one Saturday.
“Hey, Han, you’re a vampire!”
“And you’re a tasty little troll!” I retorted, leaping toward him in mock menace.
He bolted with a shriek of true terror, bawling and screaming until he was out of sight.
“Geez, I was only joking!” I said to my parents. “You’d think at ten, he wouldn’t be scared so easily!”
It took us fifteen minutes to find Bob again, and another half an hour to coax him out of his hiding place. When we got home, he raced to his room.
“Bobby,” I called through the door. “You know I was only joking, why’d you run away like that?”
After much pleading, he eventually let me in. He was wearing two sets of rosary beads and clinging to a Bible. I couldn’t help laughing, and he almost joined me with a slight smile. I sat as close to him as he would allow. The fear returned to his face, and he pointed to his mirror.
When I saw his pale face in the mirror, I felt my own face go white. I felt it, but did not see it; in the reflection, Bob was scared and alone. I had no reflection.
“I swear I’m not a vampire,” I said. I explained what had happened. I’m sure I was even more relieved than he was that the truth was finally out. He seemed especially happy to hear that my doppelgänger had the cat.
“Can I tell you a secret?” asked Bob.
“Sure… if you can trust your secrets to a vampire,” I grinned reassuringly.
“When I was a little kid, I used to think my reflection was my guardian angel. I tried moving really fast to see if he would keep up with me. I swear sometimes he didn’t. And we played rock paper scissors against each other. But when I grew up, I thought I had just made it up when Dad read to me about Peter Pan’s shadow.”
I stared at him, wide-eyed.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe our reflections are all guardian angels. But what happened to mine?”
It was a scary black hole of a question, which got deeper as reflections kept disappearing. Soon my bedroom mirror showed only darkness. I was afraid to touch it, lest I be drawn into a dark mirror-world.
I longed to see her again, to reassure both of us that we were not alone. I grew much closer to my brother, who would tell me whether I’d combed my hair straight, and let me sit with him and his own reflection when I missed my own. The secret stayed between us. I stayed away from mirrors in public, and found that most people did not notice the missing reflections in other shiny surfaces.
One day, when I was seventeen, I came home to see my mother had done some spring-cleaning. And it was more than just a clean. The windows, my trophies, everything was so clean that I could see my reflection in it. I rushed to my room to at last get a good view of my angel, afraid that she would soon disappear again.
There she was, looking so scared that I tried to reach out and comfort her. She responded by throwing a sneaker at me.
The mirror remained intact, but the image broke into shards, reflecting pieces of her strangely unfamiliar bedroom. I tried to make sense of the images speeding across one shard, until I saw the end of it reflecting what was unmistakably blood. I watched as the blood took over the rest of the shard, and sprayed onto the others. I watched her beating heart approaching me from the mirror. Too late, I realised who needed to protect whom. Too late, I told her what we both needed to hear.
“You needn’t be afraid… I’m only your guardian angel.”
And for one last time, the mirror was accurate. As her heart stopped beating, my heart broke.
Gareth lay still for a minute listening to the music before reluctantly opening his eyes. He scrunched them closed again at the sight of his bedside lamp, still glaring since his insomnia of a few hours earlier. Gradually he coaxed his eyes to open again and focus on his laptop screen to check his mail. Nothing worthwhile. His eyes, at last awake enough to exercise their own free will, moved toward the small capsule resting on his bedside table. His brain, not awake enough to remember how much he wanted it, dismissed the idea of swallowing the pill. His body took him to the shower and turned on the water.
While the warm water meandered over his body, his cold mind meandered around the thoughts he didn’t want to think. Suddenly he was struck by a memory from his dream. He had lost her again.
In the dream she was blonde, and he couldn’t recall her face, but he knew that it was her, the feelings were the same. They were on a cliff overlooking their village on the black plains. He knew that it was forbidden, but there was no better place to propose to his sweetheart. He remembered how contented he felt, holding her hand and gazing down at all Creation. Until a freak wind blew her away, and left her motionless on the plains below. He remembered jumping down from the high cliff and landing unscathed, thinking nothing of the feat, and running to her. His dear Bea lay there, brunette again, her face returned, but bleeding and empty of expression.
The dream stayed with him all day. From time to time he would catch himself thinking that he really did live in that village on the black plains. It seemed like an age he had lived in that place. It seemed like only last night that he had lost her. Only last night he had gazed into those lifeless eyes, wishing he could forgive himself.
The day came and went without his paying much attention to it, and all too soon he was back in his bed, staring at the capsule, wondering whether a temporary sleep would claim him before he claimed a permanent one.
He couldn’t go back to the village after that. He couldn’t stand the thought of a hundred villagers obliged to act sympathetic while attempting to hide their ‘I told you so’s behind transparent corneas. He couldn’t stand the thought of living at all without her. He couldn’t stand the thought of the villagers aiming their phoney sympathy at his dead body. He stole a container of poison from the apothecary and stole back toward the cliff.
Sheets of bristled vegetation made the climb easy. Soon he was gazing back on the village again. This had been his favourite place in the world. The perfect place to die, were it not for the thought of villagers finding him. He turned toward the forbidden plateau. Beds of ground cover spread so far in front of him they made him tired. He began walking.
For hours he walked, as if in a dream. Distant hills appeared, and steadily grew in his field of view until it seemed he could easily reach them. How nice it would be to end his life high up, at a lookout spot like his own. He stopped to rest, and imagined he heard music.
Morning again. Gareth marvelled at the way even his favourite songs could become hated when given the task of waking him. Another day of emptiness, of working, of trying not to think. At midnight he fell reluctantly into his bed, for the nightly face-off with the pill. It had wandered from his night-table onto his mattress, as if trying to tempt him. Did it want him to swallow it? Did he want to swallow it? God knew he didn’t want to continue life like this. He held it a long time in his fingers, staring at it, mentally conversing with it, not quite gathering the courage to crush it between his teeth. Near morning, it fell from his grip as he lapsed into a troubled sleep.
When Gareth came out of his reverie, it seemed the hills were further away than before. Perhaps their nearness had just been wishful thinking. He continued on his way. As he approached the hills, he perceived a higher cliff atop them, nearly devoid of plants. The view from the hill was unimpressive, the monotonous plateau blocking the view of the plains. He started up the cliff face, grabbing the occasional stubbly brown stalk for support. Several times he fell.
Suddenly, he felt a great wind pressing him into the cliff. He turned his head sideways, his cheek pressed against the rock face, to see that the wind was followed by what resembled a giant stone hand.
He scrambled sideways to escape being crushed. The hand missed him by a whisker, but the force of it hitting the cliff caused such a quake that he fell back to the hill.
Dazed, Gareth wondered whether this was why the villagers told such tales of the plateau. Perhaps there was something to their superstitions. But he had never believed in such rubbish. The world was the way it was because of natural laws; there were no ghosts, no giants, no winds of God to punish the disobedient. It was all coincidence, it could all be explained.
Armed with this revived stubbornness and curiosity, Gareth resumed his climb. As he neared the top, he gripped one last ridge and pulled himself over it.
There was no solid ground beneath his torso. He found himself hanging headfirst from the lip of a chasm. Steam rose over his face and obscured his vision. His grip slipped on the slimy stone. He flailed blindly with his other arm, which found some thick vines further along the edge of the chasm. With all his strength he pulled himself across, and found a safe place to sit near the lip of the volcano.
Shaken, he looked back towards where he’d come. The hills, the plateau, the black plains, stretched out in front of him. And beyond… he could see that even the plain was a high plateau. He could just make out some strange figures strewn over the ground below it. He wondered if there were villages down there as well. What must they be like?
At last he remembered what he had come for. He had seen everything on Earth, but the most important piece was missing. What good was all this without her? He opened the flask of poison and brought it to his lips.
As he tipped the flask, he recalled the terror he had felt when falling into the volcano. How desperate he had been to escape. Why hadn’t he let himself fall? His survival instinct did not fail him. Somehow, deep down, he wanted to live. He wanted to explore all the lands he could see. He would never find Bea again, but perhaps he would find happiness.
Fearful of changing his mind, Gareth tipped the contents of the flask into the mouth of the volcano. For a few seconds, he was again at peace with the world, the way he had felt on his old lookout point on the cliff.
Suddenly the ground hiccoughed violently. He managed to remain in place only by gripping the vines. He had barely begun to feel safe again when the world seemed to melt, and the sky was lit with visions of Heaven, of Hell, of his parents, of Bea… nothing made sense. He became aware that as the visions faded, the sky faded as well, until all was black except for a shrinking circle of light around the Sun. An old science lesson came back to him… didn’t they say that if there were no atmosphere to diffuse the Sun’s rays, we would only see the sun surrounded by blackness, like a star?
At this thought, the air seemed to thin, and he could no longer breathe. Unconsciousness overtook him just as his dreamworld disappeared.