Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sci-Fi Thought Experiment

A kind of hominid on a planet like ours has evolved with a head that is tilted at a 90ยบ angle, so that the chin of the skull fuses with the top of the chest; the survival of the species is miraculous and a result of an astoundingly high mean intelligence. Forward motion induces vertigo for these creatures' being unable to set their eyes on a point in the middle distance, as we do; they survived for ages in sheer cliff dwellings, are excellent climbers, and have developed a civilization that ingeniously accommodates their apparent biological deformity. Unable to look up at the sky or out at their larger surroundings without great difficulty, they have constructed enormous cities with tiny architectural footprints; these towers are built to resemble the cliffs that sheltered the species in the early days of its history.

To compensate with technology for the cruel genetic hand that nature somehow dealt them, these creatures have devised a video monitor system that affixes to their clothing with a special apparatus; it displays an image directly under the earth-pointed face of its wearer. The image is of the area directly in front of the creature, and so mimics what we understand to be normal human sight. Rapid forward motion, however—whether from running or piloting a vehicle—is experienced as psychically akin to falling, because falling is the only visual analogue available to them for it. Genetic memory therefore makes long-distance travel terrifying, and the new technology has inspired a genre of fiction that mythologizes horizontal motion, and plumbs the psychological depths of the minds of those so unfortunate as to undergo it. In these works, which are intelligible to us as poetry, a full-speed run may tear a rip in the fabric of reality, and pilots spontaneously catch fire, and walking around on the ground outside a village may cause it to collapse into a sudden abyss. Speed as such is a cultural wellspring of dread and provides a context in which daring and fear alike are made manifest.

Philosophical metaphors for knowledge are primarily tactile; an idea is trustworthy like a good foothold is trustworthy. Knowledge is always only ever partial, one-sided, decidedly practical; claiming to "see" something (such pretension!) invokes a fallacy, one described with reference to the enormous, intractable blind spot that has prevented the best and most courageous representatives of past generations from realizing that a predator was threatening from above. The controversial fallacy, which would invalidate so much discourse, has come under attack in the recent literature; some think the idea of the horizon, visible for those who don the apparatus, is a dangerous, poetic lie; some think it is an absolute revelation, a gift given by sight that helps to explain the immutability of the mathematics that allowed for the species' architectural achievements. Is visual knowledge possible, and if so, what is its nature? This question will preoccupy generations of thinkers.

Since eye-contact is not possible without engaging in unusual contortions, speakers will indicate the intended recipients of a given remark by clasping the recipient's forearms with one or both hands. Signing with one's fingers while touching an interlocutor's arm is a way of emphasizing and accenting one's remarks, or of adding a second layer of meaning, creating a harmony.

The primary metaphors for wisdom identify with physical and psychological elements that enable a safe, slow descent from a great height. The language of violence issues in the terms of quakes and dreadful free falls; the language of love invokes hiddenness, darkness, stability. Fire travels upward and so is manageable from the perspective of those above it and irrelevant to those below; what comes down from the sky, however—whether hail or rain or lightning—is impossible to avoid when out in the open, and therefore a source of much anxiety. Surprise, misfortune, and calamity are expressed in figurative phrases that refer to an event in, or caused by, the sky.

Early religiosity, the species' primitive animism, cherished the buried and heavy and unmoving; rushing water, wind, and birds of prey were gods in constant need of appeasement. In the developing monotheistic mode, God's presence is the gravity that allows hands and grips to work in sync to establish one's firm position on a rock face. Theodicy commonly refers to the impossibility of the growth of crops without rain; therefore good requires evil in an inscrutable relation of apparent dependence but (believed in, hoped for) truer overcoming. Prayer is believed to affect gravity and move the earth.

Conservative voices condemn the New Technology, which permits an unprecedented engagement with the terrors of some other hominid's mode of travel—forward motion. Progressives hail it as a way forward and some even have the audacity to suggest that communities be built on a wider and shorter plan, which would reduce the risk of a fall to the death, but would require dependence on the New Technology in order to be at all feasible. Political reality is otherwise, well, complicated.

Our imagined hominid friends—80% of them—believe in an afterlife. The less reflective ones hope for an enormous mountain full of golden tunnels; the creative ones hope for perfected bodies with heads that pivot, unfused, as do their deft, calloused hands; the pious ones yearn for an unprecedented revelation and mystical union with something like the earth (but not identical with it; the earth is, of course, just a metaphor, with a limited range of use); the sensitive ones imagine that by some miracle, all hands will be clasped in an unbroken circle; the peculiar ones imagine a flight into the air, the sight of it all, and then a disappearance into darkness. The fullness of time—their parousia, their eschaton—is the consummation of lived time, in their theology; it is an unforeseeable disclosure, a perspective on the full length of their history from the sky, great and terrible, which they are only accustomed to viewing when plummeting headfirst into death. It is the arrival of the truth they still believe to be impossible by their own lights, the gaze of an eye that would fix their world in place, and make it real, as they cannot wholeheartedly believe it to be.


  1. I'm a raccoon and what is this?

  2. I love procrastination posts. Also, it is Thursday there and Wednesday here. OK, speaking of procrastinating, back to studying! Thanks for that study break!

  3. Freddy - it's nothing. But I would direct you to Muffins B. if you are interested in sci-fi.

    Leanna - Thanks for your comment! I am always happy to help my friends procrastinate, provided you're not putting off an escape from a burning building or getting the rest of the way across the street or etc.

    Natasha - Thank you. I don't take the words of my poet friends lightly. Perhaps I may see you in a few weeks?