The mechanized aliens who transported me from Earth to my new planet were once biological. They were four-legged and used their mouthparts as hands, in a way that they say would remind us of shrimp. Nowadays, they are shy about their former appearance and I’ve never seen an image of their original look.
At some point, they had to invent ways to transfer all of their conscious processes into computer-like machinery. The details of this are way over the head of current human science, but my friend Yith, the alien who replanted himself into a human body and became my, um, travelling companion, gave out a few clues over dinner one night.
We were at a fancy dinner event with a man who is the ceremonial leader of our province of Korabaas, along with his wife Saraa, who is a professor at the local university. The man’s title is ‘modibbei,’ which is a variant of a title used in many parts of Central Africa to mean ‘learned one.’ The majority of people in Korabaas (the tsKorabaatse) are of Central African origin. To celebrate a triumphant moment, the modibbei served us all out a little champagne, even those of us who are teens. The dialogue takes up from there.
Oh – glossary of our local English. ‘Sey’ = ‘he or she.’ ‘Seir’ = ‘his or hers.’ ‘Sem’ = him or her. Like ‘they,’ ‘their’ and ‘them’ in proper slack-ass English.
** ** **
“To wish you good luck in the Qodra,” the moddibei said, “my only bottle of sQodravtse sparkling white wine – champagne from the mysteries beyond our borders.To the success of your trip, toasted in this elixir.”
We each got a proper flute of it. Apparently there was quite a royal glassware collection tucked away someplace. The gentle snap of the fizz threw faint alfalfa honey up at my lips even before they met this loving wallop of one flavour after another, green grape to sugar-apple to something that almost wanted to become a blackcurrant but hovered on the edge and changed back to gooseberry.
“I love watching your eyes when you’re having something you really like,” Yith said. “It’s like a movie. First sip, five scenes, different drama in each one, all done in one loooong take, and cut! Set up for second sip!”
“This is gonna be one of my favourite films ever,” I said. “You should watch some of yours.”
“I will, don’t worry. But watching you is more fun.”
“Yes, but now I’m all self-conscious; the movie won’t be the same! I’m in a Dauw-Lewrou room now.”
“Ah so,” the moddibei broke in, “you claim to be naïve (I had indeed told him I was still green in sDiyyanantse culture) and yet you speak with knowledge about my predecessor and his room.”
He had a point. Even apart from schoolwork, I was soaking up the culture of my new land at a rapid pace. I guess anyone would. I probably don’t even sound like myself any more when I speak English. That planet is gone, baby. The Dauw-Lewrou Room is a simple philosophical thought experiment that was suggested by one of the first moddibeis of Korabaas, who took the made-up name Dauw Lewrou. The name means ‘on the moon’ in tsKorabaatse. He knew perfectly well that he wasn’t on the moon, so I think he intended the name as a pioneering post-ironic jest.
According to legend, his ‘room’ was originally a corral, but he changed it to a room to make it more sDiyyanantse-friendly. The room’s main feature was that it had nothing in it whatsoever, just a hallway entering in the middle of one end, and an identical hallway leaving from the middle of the other end.
In the rest of the room, everything to the left of the entrance hall’s opening portal was identical to everything on the right. There was nothing to distinguish the two sides of the room. The experimenter would then instruct a number of people to run into the room, run over and touch the side wall of their choice, and run out the exit hall. When they got out, they could try to answer a question they weren’t prepared for – why they had chosen one wall versus the other? Underlying this procedure was the question of whether at least some of the people doing this would make the choice of left vs. right entirely by a simple exertion of free will.
Medieval Earth people had contemplated a somewhat similar problem called Buridan’s Ass, apparently a satire of the philosophy of Jean Buridan from the University of Paris in the 1300s AD. The donkey in question was supposed to be equally starved and thirsty, and placed midway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. It would not be able to decide which of the two equal temptations to turn its head to first, so it would die, in place, of thirst and starvation.
Dauw Lewrou’s room was considerably more complicated than this. He thought it likely that a person would always be able to choose between left and right on seir first pass through the room. Some people might have a prior policy of preferring left or right in such cases. Others might be influenced by other prior circumstances, like being left-handed and preferring to pivot on their right foot. And some might be influenced by momentary circumstance. As the Book of Power recapped it: “For example, sey may happen to arrive in the room on a particular foot, and may use that foot to pivot toward the wall opposite it. Or sey may arrive in the room with one shoe slippery or differentially worn, or with a dust mote in one eye, and may base seir departure from the middle on one of these tiny physical vagaries.” Still, Dauw-Lewrou proposed that at least some people, if you tested enough, would arrive in the room without significant influence from any of these factors, and would have to make an arbitrary choice. They would discover that they have a faculty capable of doing that. Free will, you could call it, or the faculty of arbitration.
On the person’s second pass through the room, though, questions of self-reinforcement would come in. In that situation, the runner remembers seir previous choice and has to decide to go with it or against it. Let’s say, in the first pass, sey chose to go left. Sey has now probably lost seir freedom to just choose right vs. left and has to meta-decide whether to go with ‘left like last time’ or ‘right unlike last time.’ The decision may then jump up to the next meta-level: ‘should I have a constant policy about this and if I do, should it be for variety, consistency, or a feeling of randomness?’
And yet another level may come in: ‘do I need to think about all this?’ In zen terms, the person has lost seir pure ‘beginner’s mind’ and has become all complicated about the whole thing. This tends to slow sem down and make sem awkward, perhaps even slightly annoyed. If sey gets around the problem, let’s say, by making a meta-decision always to go left, seir freedom in the room has been given up completely from that
point onward. Can sey ever get seir pure free choice back? It seems very difficult to do. It may still be operating on one of the meta-levels, but you can’t see it in the room.
If you do statistics on people who are trying to make random choices – let’s say in picking numbers between one and ten – you find out that they cannot succeed. Mathematical randomness eludes them; they always have a bias. But could a master philosopher or a mystic achieve this? No one knows.
So here I was with Yith watching me, and having to decide how to react to my second sip of sQodravtse champagne. Should I react like I react, however that would be, or should I react for him in some way, like exaggerating the variety of reactions per sip? Should I
try not to show a reaction? My spontaneity was lost – the champagne movie was over.
Meanwhile Yith was grinning away. “Yes, he knows all about your predecessor, moddibei,”
he said. “And Marrik, I can have just as much fun watching your Dauw-Lewrou movie. You think too much.”
“He’s right about that last bit,” I said to the moddibei. “I think Dauw-Lewrou built that blasted room just for me to get lost in. Now I have no idea what to do when I take my next sip. Poker face? Clown face? Humphrey Bogart sucking it in with man-of-the-world wisdom?”
I sipped anyways and made a wince of pain and pleasure. “I mostly just tasted my own thoughts, but the wine underneath them was great.”
“We won’t watch any more,” the moddibei chuckled. “You can vacillate in peace.”
Yith gave me a big kiss on the cheek right there. Even Saraa reached around from two seats away and ruffled my hair.
You just never know where your charisma is going to lie.
Next post: Part 2, on alien decisions and their autistic reverberations.