Recently I was pondering why people like stories. Is it that they create a sense of imminent danger with swift resolution? Is it because they allow us to create recognizable patterns and watch them play out predictably? Perhaps they allow us to sense connection with other human beings who are also trapped in these exotic ghost-driven meat machines with a vague sense of purpose?
Those questions have produced lots of theories based mostly on neuroscience – exploring the brains patterning, empathy centers and chemical components. That’s all well and good, (well, actually it’s super duper fascinating) but I’m interested in something more specific. Why do you love stories? Why do you seek out the stories you do? Why do I?
In an attempt to explore this question, I was strangely reminded of a late-night conversation I had many years ago in a dorm room revolving around another question: What would you do if you could do anything?
If that seems like the exact kind of question a tipsy, naive, faux-philosophical freshman might ask, it’s because it is. However, to understand the question, you have to get rid of any assumed parameters. This isn’t about what job you want. This isn’t about what you would do with a million dollars. This isn’t what you want to be when you grow up. All these questions contain assumptions about economy, society and culture as well as even deeper assumptions of chemical properties, mathematics and physics.
If I remember right, that late-night dorm conversation devolved into imagining where the best hiding place might be if the zombie apocalypse happened. But I think the question merits a revisit.
At first glace the question seems nonsensical or cliche, but I think how you answer it reveals something about yourself and about how you like to experience story. The question could be asked another way: If you could live in any story, what story would you live in?
This will inevitably be an incomplete journey, as the thought experiment is, by definition, boundless. But lets take a walk and see where we end up!
So, you walk into a Denny’s and the greasy teenager behind the counter says, “By the by, I’m the master of the universe and you can do whatever you want now, boop!” You’re a little weirded out by this, but you order fries and a root beer and sit down at a booth by the window. You do feel a bit different, but this couldn’t be…could it? You look across the street and see a school bus. You blink your eyes and turn the bus blue. Then pink. Then green.
Then you have a total existential meltdown, eat some fries and start down this very scary path:
Question: If you could do anything, what would you do? [italics added for emphasis]
First step: Self-alteration
Assumptions: The Universe remains unchanged.
Initially, my first thought is: “What super power do I want to have?” Flight would be awesome, if a little cliche. Invisibility would be terrible, because my retinas would be invisible too, meaning light couldn’t land anywhere in my eye, meaning I’d be blind. Maybe just a floating pair of eyes? Morbid.
Maybe it would be fun to go back to elementary school with all the knowledge I have now, though that would probably be an intensely lonely and frustrating existence. I would likely fulfill my fantasies of being a wunderkind in a couple of days and spend years frustrated with my peers. I don’t even want to touch the issue of sexuality.
We could even tone it back a bit, maybe just alter my appearance, intellect or charisma so I can achieve whatever life goals I might have more easily. I find this route tedious and boring. Mostly because it so quickly slides into self-deprecation, which is something we could all do with a little less of. This also includes things like staying the same age forever. Ugh, snore.
If I really want to get crazy, I could start imagining altering the chemicals in my brain to make myself happier. This seems like a scary rabbit hole, because if I just alter my brain so I feel happy, successful, at peace and accomplished, then I wouldn’t need powers anymore. This is really shades of Philip K. Dick, but I could just tell my brain not to worry about the my powers anymore and spend the rest of my life happy. Anyway, I don’t really need to tell stories or make friends or have ambition because I could program my brain to be happy without it.
Whoa. That got a little dark. Let’s move on before we just become euphoric vegetables.
What’s next: Altering other people
Assumptions: The Universe remains unchanged
This one starts with that old gem, “I want world peace,” the go-to answer for any conscientious school child or pageant contestant. Even though the sentiment is clear, the complexity of what “world peace” might mean is staggering. Does that mean creating enough resources and evenly distributing them? What about religious beliefs, do you make everyone have the same ethical and moral framework so they won’t fight? That seems a little presumptuous. What about national or social disputes, do you make everyone content? Again, that feels unfair.
You could always make someone fall in love with you. This feels even more petty than changing yourself to be more attractive to others. Could you live with yourself if you knew your “loving” relationship was just manufactured by your mystical powers?
On the other hand, it would be super cute to make other people fall in love. I could be a denizen of cupid and make grumpy people fall in love! For some reason this feels reasonable, but designing what “world peace” would constitute feels morally reprehensible.
Oh! Wouldn’t it be awesome to go into a crazy nightclub and immediately make everyone sober, alert and aware of everything around them? That might be super mean, but it would be hilarious to watch.
Or! You could set up a system whereby people who were unconsciously rude would be immediately struck with a full life-story of the person they just upset. “Hey watch it asshole!” Poof! “Aw…I didn’t know you built Lego villages when you were younger. I did too!”
Changing other people is a tricky subject. I’d want to enact either small changes or changes that complexify, rather than simplify, others’ world views. This also begs the question, how do we uphold a moral code when we have the ability to do anything? More on that later…
Let’s move on to something devoid of typical moral reasoning:
Lets try: Altering materials on earth
Assumption: The people of the universe remain unchanged
Finally, released from the quagmire of human relationships and into the playground of material!
Imagine building a house from nothing! I can be my own architect, contractor and interior designer! Find a little piece of land and build whatever I want on it? I could build a space ladder. I could dig a superdeep borehole. I could construct a gigantic fortress. Or a labyrinth. Or Yggdrasil, the World Tree! Okay, I’m entertained for several decades.
What about taking one material and turning it into another material? All concrete is now balloons. Poof! Everything blue is now orange. Poof! All cellphones are now Furbys. Poof!
Along that same vein, I could go join a circus in a small part of the world and advertise as an alchemist! Dopey people would pay me to turn their plants or furniture or baby carriages into gold, and even though reasonable people would think I was just another cheaty charlatan, I could just actually turn their stuff into gold! The story of the “real-life alchemist” would be relegated to the back page of some terrible tabloid, but everyone who visited would actually become rich. Hah! Classic.
Or I could create new materials. I could finally bring Flubber to life, or…or…wait. Whoa, it’s actually hard to think of what new materials could do. The creation of new materials is usually a means to an end, but if I could do anything, I could just create the ends automatically. I wouldn’t need to create lots of graphene to build a space ladder, I could just create an awesome space ladder!
So far, I would spend the most time crafting things. People are complicated, but material is easy.
Speaking of time, how would that work?
So, what about Altering the flow of time
Assumption: The Universe follows a linear path from past to future
As I’ve moved through this, I’ve made some assumptions about how time flows. So let’s address that.
Once the teenage master of the universe gave me powers, I really should suspend the state of the universe as my very first order of business. Maybe there’s some cosmic filing system where I can “save” states so I can access them again? This is unimaginative language, but a computer-based system is the best reference point for talking about this.
So the first thing I should do is save a copy of the universe wherein I haven’t used my powers at all yet. That way, if I ever feel inclined at the end of this eternity of infinite play, I could go back to the moment I got my powers, use my powers to cancel my powers and live my life as normal.
But before that! Let’s go back in time!
I’m not much of a historian, but even I would love going back to watch how they actually built the pyramids, or figure out what was going on with all this Jesus stuff, or see if asteroid Theia really hit the earth to create the moon.
Maybe this is just me, but I would also love to trace the origins of words. See when a word was used for the first time. Or I could even find the first word that was ever used, period!
The past is fun, but moving forward? Here’s where our “saved states” come in handy.
It would be all well and good to simply observe, unobtrusively, the past. But if you wanted to interact with anyone, the future you came from would immediately vanish into the aether. Any interaction you had in the past, no matter how small, would change the future. Which could be a whole game unto itself!
You could try changing small (or big) things and see what difference they might make. If I picked an apple from a tree in Massachusetts on March 4th, 1781, would that make any difference today? Would I still exist?
What if I kicked a rock across a field on Pangaea? That wouldn’t make a difference, would it?
What about just freezing time?
Let’s try freezing time without tweaking much physics. Check it out: I freeze time. I blink my eyes. I unfreeze time. The universe explodes. Why? Because if I don’t change basic physical laws, velocity still equals distance over time. If I blink my eyes, the velocity of that movement would be one centimeter divided by zero. Zero. Because I stopped time. So when time moves again, there would have been a physical interaction that created infinite force. Thus, the universe explodes.
Okay, fiddle-faddle, wibble-wibble poof! Now that doesn’t happen. Now I can freeze time, walk around and…well, do what exactly? Look at people frozen in time? This isn’t as much fun as I thought.
Let’s try moving forward in time!
I spend a lot of time imagining what the future might be like. I’d start at my preliminary state in the Denny’s, become invisible, immortal and all that jazz, then speed time up and just watch the world change. Does the Internet of Things actually take off? Will Left Shark become a new cultural icon and run for president? Do we actually create an Artificial Super Intelligence?
This is fun, but it becomes a bit tedious. I could simply create all these things myself. I’m still hardwired to the narrative of humans living on earth. Which makes sense considering I come from Earth, am a human and concern myself with the goings on of other humans.
Can I break out of the human story? What would that look like?
Da dada dada DA DA!
When we return to Journey to the Center of the Zero-Parameter Thought Experiment we’ll explore such things as
– Designed Scenarios
– Life outside Humans
– Laws outside Physics
– The terrifying “Random Seed Generator!”
– What the hell all this has to do with stories!
All that and more in Part number 2, coming…later.