War and/or Peace (2/8)

by Eliezer Yudkowsky11 min read31st Jan 200965 comments



(Part 2 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

..."So the question then is - now what?"

The Lord Pilot jumped up, then, his face flushed.  "Put up shields.  Now.  We don't gain anything by leaving them down.  This is madness!"

"No," said the Ship's Confessor in professional tones, "not madness."

The Pilot slammed his fists on the table.  "We're all going to die!"

"They're not as technologically advanced as us," Akon said.  "Suppose the Babyeaters do decide that we need to be exterminated.  Suppose they open fire.  Suppose they kill us.  Suppose they follow the starline we opened and find the Huygens system.  Then what?"

The Master nodded.  "Even with surprise on their side... no.  They can't actually wipe out the human species.  Not unless they're a lot smarter than they seem to be, and it looks to me like, on average, they're actually a bit dumber than us."  The Master glanced at the Xenopsychologist, who waved her hand in a maybe-gesture.

"But if we leave the ship's shields down," Akon said, "we preserve whatever chance we have of a peaceful resolution to this."

"Peace," said the Lady Sensory, in a peculiar flat tone.

Akon looked at her.

"You want peace with the Babyeaters?"

"Of course -" said Akon, then stopped short.

The Lady Sensory looked around the table.  "And the Babyeater children?  What about them?"

The Master of Fandom spoke, his voice uncertain.  "You can't impose human standards on -"

With a blur of motion and a sharp crack, the Lady Sensory slapped him.

The Ship's Confessor grabbed her arm.  "No."

The Lady Sensory stared at the Ship's Confessor.

"No," the Confessor repeated.  "No violence.  Only argument.  Violence doesn't distinguish truth from falsehood, my Lady."

The Lady Sensory slowly lowered her hand, but not her eyes.

"But..." said the Master.  "But, my Lady, if they want to be eaten -"

"They don't," said the Xenopsychologist.  "Of course they don't.  They run from their parents when the terrible winnowing comes.  The Babyeater children aren't emotionally mature - I mean they don't have their adult emotional state yet.  Evolution would take care of anyone who wanted to get eaten.  And they're still learning, still making mistakes, so they don't yet have the instinct to exterminate violators of the group code.  It's a simpler time for them.  They play, they explore, they try out new ideas.  They're..." and the Xenopsychologist stopped.  "Damn," she said, and turned her head away from the table, covering her face with her hands.  "Excuse me."  Her voice was unsteady.  "They're a lot like human children, really."

"And if they were human children," said the Lady Sensory into the silence, "do you think that, just because the Babyeater species wanted to eat human children, that would make it right for them to do it?"

"No," said the Lord Pilot.

"Then what difference does it make?" said the Lady Sensory.

"No difference at all," said the Lord Pilot.

Akon looked back and forth between the two of them, and saw what was coming, and somehow couldn't speak.

"We have to save them," said the Lady Sensory.  "We have to stop this.  No matter what it takes.  We can't let this go on."

Couldn't say that one word -

The Lord Pilot nodded.  "Destroy their ship.  Preserve our advantage of surprise.  Go back, tell the world, create an overwhelming human army... and pour into the Babyeater starline network.  And rescue the children."

"No," Akon said.


"I know," said the Lord Pilot.  "A lot of Babyeaters will die at first, but they're killing ten times more children than their whole adult population, every year -"

"And then what?" said the Master of Fandom.  "What happens when the children grow up?"

The Lord Pilot fell silent.

The Master of Fandom completed the question.  "Are you going to wipe out their whole race, because their existence is too horrible to be allowed to go on?  I read their stories, and I didn't understand them, but -"  The Master of Fandom swallowed.  "They're not... evil.  Don't you understand?  They're not.  Are you going to punish me, because I don't want to punish them?"

"We could..." said the Lord Pilot.  "Um.  We could modify their genes so that they only gave birth to a single child at a time."

"No," said the Xenopsychologist.  "They would grow up loathing themselves for being unable to eat babies.  Horrors in their own eyes.  It would be kinder just to kill them."

"Stop," said Akon.  His voice wasn't strong, wasn't loud, but everyone in the room looked at him.  "Stop.  We are not going to fire on their ship."

"Why not?" said the Lord Pilot.  "They -"

"They haven't raised shields," said Akon.

"Because they know it won't make a difference!" shouted the Pilot.

"They didn't fire on us!" shouted Akon.  Then he stopped, lowered his voice.  "They didn't fire on us.  Even after they knew that we didn't eat babies.  I am not going to fire on them.  I refuse to do it."

"You think they're innocent?" demanded the Lady Sensory.  "What if it was human children that were being eaten?"

Akon stared out a viewscreen, showing in subdued fires a computer-generated graphic of the nova debris.  He just felt exhausted, now.  "I never understood the Prisoner's Dilemma until this day.  Do you cooperate when you really do want the highest payoff?  When it doesn't even seem fair for both of you to cooperate?  When it seems right to defect even if the other player doesn't?  That's the payoff matrix of the true Prisoner's Dilemma.  But all the rest of the logic - everything about what happens if you both think that way, and both defect - is the same.  Do we want to live in a universe of cooperation or defection?"

"But -" said the Lord Pilot.

"They know," Akon said, "that they can't wipe us out.  And they can guess what we could do to them.  Their choice isn't to fire on us and try to invade afterward!  Their choice is to fire on us and run from this star system, hoping that no other ships follow.  It's their whole species at stake, against just this one ship.  And they still haven't fired."

"They won't fire on us," said the Xenopsychologist, "until they decide that we've defected from the norm.  It would go against their sense of... honor, I could call it, but it's much stronger than the human version -"

"No," Akon said.  "Not that much stronger."  He looked around, in the silence.  "The Babyeater society has been at peace for centuries.  So too with human society.  Do you want to fire the opening shot that brings war back into the universe?  Send us back to the darkness-before-dawn that we only know from reading history books, because the holos are too horrible to watch?  Are you really going to press the button, knowing that?"

The Lord Pilot took a deep breath.  "I will.  You will not remain commander of the Impossible, my lord, if the greater conference votes no confidence against you.  And they will, my lord, for the sake of the children."

"What," said the Master, "are you going to do with the children?"

"We, um, have to do something," said the Ship's Engineer, speaking up for the first time.  "I've been, um, looking into what Babyeater science knows about their brain mechanisms.  It's really quite fascinating, they mix electrical and mechanical interactions, not the same way our own brain pumps ions, but -"

"Get to the point," said Akon.  "Immediately."

"The children don't die right away," said the Engineer.  "The brain is this nugget of hard crystal, that's really resistant to, um, the digestive mechanisms, much more so than the rest of the body.  So the child's brain is in, um, probably quite a lot of pain, since the whole body has been amputated, and in a state of sensory deprivation, and then the processing slowly gets degraded, and I think the whole process gets completed about a month after -"

The Lady Sensory threw up.  A few seconds later, so did the Xenopsychologist and the Master.

"If human society permits this to go on," said the Lord Pilot, his voice very soft, "I will resign from human society, and I will have friends, and we will visit the Babyeater starline network with an army.  You'll have to kill me to stop me."

"And me," said the Lady Sensory through tears.

Akon rose from his chair, and leaned forward; a dominating move that he had learned in classrooms, very long ago when he was first studying to be an Administrator.  But most in humanity's promotion-conscious society would not risk direct defiance of an Administrator.  In a hundred years he'd never had his authority really tested, until now...  "I will not permit you to fire on the alien ship.  Humanity will not be first to defect in the Prisoner's Dilemma."

The Lord Pilot stood up, and Akon realized, with a sudden jolt, that the Pilot was four inches taller; the thought had never occurred to him before.  The Pilot didn't lean forward, not knowing the trick, or not caring.  The Pilot's eyes were narrow, surrounding facial muscles tensed and tight.

"Get out of my way," said the Lord Pilot.

Akon opened his mouth, but no words came out.

"It is time," said the Lord Pilot, "to see this calamity to its end."  Spoken in Archaic English: the words uttered by Thomas Clarkson in 1785, at the beginning of the end of slavery.  "I have set my will against this disaster; I will break it, or it will break me."  Ira Howard in 2014.  "I will not share my universe with this shadow," and that was the Lord Pilot, in an anger hotter than the nova's ashes.  "Help me if you will, or step aside if you lack decisiveness; but do not make yourself my obstacle, or I will burn you down, and any that stand with you -"


Every head in the room jerked toward the source of the voice.  Akon had been an Administrator for a hundred years, and a Lord Administrator for twenty.  He had studied all the classic texts, and watched holos of famous crisis situations; nearly all the accumulated knowledge of the Administrative Field was at his beck and call; and he'd never dreamed that a word could be spoken with such absolute force.

The Ship's Confessor lowered his voice.  "My Lord Pilot.  I will not permit you to declare your crusade, when you have not said what you are crusading for.  It is not enough to say that you do not like the way things are.  You must say how you will change them, and to what.  You must think all the way to your end.  Will you wipe out the Babyeater race entirely?  Keep their remnants under human rule forever, in despair under our law?  You have not even faced your hard choices, only congratulated yourself on demanding that something be done.  I judge that a violation of sanity, my lord."

The Lord Pilot stood rigid.  "What -" his voice broke.  "What do you suggest we do?"

"Sit down," said the Ship's Confessor, "keep thinking.  My Lord Pilot, my Lady Sensory, you are premature.  It is too early for humanity to divide over this issue, when we have known about it for less than twenty-four hours.  Some rules do not change, whether it is money at stake, or the fate of an intelligent species.  We should only, at this stage, be discussing the issue in all its aspects, as thoroughly as possible; we should not even be placing solutions on the table, as yet, to polarize us into camps.  You know that, my lords, my ladies, and it does not change."

"And after that?" said the Master of Fandom suddenly.  "Then it's okay to split humanity?  You wouldn't object?"

The featureless blur concealed within the Confessor's Hood turned to face the Master, and spoke; and those present thought they heard a grim smile, in that voice.  "Oh," said the Confessor, "that would be interfering in politics.  I am charged with guarding sanity, not morality.  If you want to stay together, do not split.  If you want peace, do not start wars.  If you want to avoid genocide, do not wipe out an alien species.  But if these are not your highest values, then you may well end up sacrificing them.  What you are willing to trade off, may end up traded away - be you warned!  But if that is acceptable to you, then so be it.  The Order of Silent Confessors exists in the hope that, so long as humanity is sane, it can make choices in accordance with its true desires.  Thus there is our Order dedicated only to that, and sworn not to interfere in politics.  So you will spend more time discussing this scenario, my lords, my ladies, and only then generate solutions.  And then... you will decide."

"Excuse me," said the Lady Sensory.  The Lord Pilot made to speak, and Sensory raised her voice.  "Excuse me, my lords.  The alien ship has just sent us a new transmission.  Two megabytes of text."

"Translate and publish," ordered Akon.

They all glanced down and aside, waiting for the file to come up.

It began:


Akon looked away, wincing.  He hadn't tried to read much of the alien corpus, and hadn't gotten the knack of reading the "translations" by that damned program.

"Would someone," Akon said, "please tell me - tell the conference - what this says?

There was a long, stretched moment of silence.

Then the Xenopsychologist made a muffled noise that could have been a bark of incredulity, or just a sad laugh.  "Stars beyond," said the Xenopsychologist, "they're trying to persuade us to eat our own children."

"Using," said the Lord Programmer, "what they assert to be arguments from universal principles, rather than appeals to mere instincts that might differ from star to star."

"Such as what, exactly?" said the Ship's Confessor.

Akon gave the Confessor an odd look, then quickly glanced away, lest the Confessor catch him at it.  No, the Confessor couldn't be carefully maintaining an open mind about that.  It was just curiosity over what particular failures of reasoning the aliens might exhibit.

"Let me search," said the Lord Programmer.  He was silent for a time.  "Ah, here's an example.  They point out that by producing many offspring, and winnowing among them, they apply greater selection pressures to their children than we do.  So if we started producing hundreds of babies per couple and then eating almost all of them - I do emphasize that this is their suggestion, not mine - evolution would proceed faster for us, and we would survive longer in the universe.  Evolution and survival are universals, so the argument should convince anyone."  He gave a sad chuckle.  "Anyone here feel convinced?"

"Out of curiosity," said the Lord Pilot, "have they ever tried to produce even more babies - say, thousands instead of hundreds - so they could speed up their evolution even more?"

"It ought to be easily within their current capabilities of bioengineering," said the Xenopsychologist, "and yet they haven't done it.  Still, I don't think we should make the suggestion.""

"Agreed," said Akon.

"But humanity uses gamete selection," said the Lady Sensory.  "We aren't evolving any slower.  If anything, choosing among millions of sperm and hundreds of eggs gives us much stronger selection pressures."

The Xenopsychologist furrowed her brow.  "I'm not sure we sent them that information in so many words... or they may have just not gotten that far into what we sent them..."

"Um, it wouldn't be trivial for them to understand," said the Ship's Engineer.  "They don't have separate DNA and proteins, just crystal patterns tiling themselves.  The two parents intertwine and stay that way for, um, days, nucleating portions of supercooled liquid from their own bodies to construct the babies.  The whole, um, baby, is constructed together by both parents.  They don't have separate gametes they could select on."

"But," said the Lady Sensory, "couldn't we maybe convince them, to work out some equivalent of gamete selection and try that instead -"

"My lady," said the Xenopsychologist.  Her voice, now, was somewhat exasperated.  "They aren't really doing this for the sake of evolution.  They were eating babies millions of years before they knew what evolution was."

"Huh, this is interesting," said the Lord Programmer.  "There's another section here where they construct their arguments using appeals to historical human authorities."

Akon raised his eyebrows.  "And who, exactly, do they quote in support?"

"Hold on," said the Lord Programmer.  "This has been run through the translator twice, English to Babyeater to English, so I need to write a program to retrieve the original text..."  He was silent a few moments.  "I see.  The argument starts by pointing out how eating your children is proof of sacrifice and loyalty to the tribe, then they quote human authorities on the virtue of sacrifice and loyalty.  And ancient environmentalist arguments about population control, plus... oh, dear.  I don't think they've realized that Adolf Hitler is a bad guy."

"They wouldn't," said the Xenopsychologist.  "Humans put Hitler in charge of a country, so we must have considered him a preeminent legalist of his age.  And it wouldn't occur to the Babyeaters that Adolf Hitler might be regarded by humans as a bad guy just because he turned segments of his society into lampshades - they have a custom against that nowadays, but they don't really see it as evil.  If Hitler thought that gays had defected against the norm, and tried to exterminate them, that looks to a Babyeater like an honest mistake -"  The Xenopsychologist looked around the table.  "All right, I'll stop there.  But the Babyeaters don't look back on their history and see obvious villains in positions of power - certainly not after the dawn of science.  Any politician who got to the point of being labeled "bad" would be killed and eaten.  The Babyeaters don't seem to have had humanity's coordination problems.  Or they're just more rational voters.  Take your pick."

Akon was resting his head in his hands.  "You know," Akon said, "I thought about composing a message like this to the Babyeaters.  It was a stupid thought, but I kept turning it over in my mind.  Trying to think about how I might persuade them that eating babies was... not a good thing."

The Xenopsychologist grimaced.  "The aliens seem to be even more given to rationalization than we are - which is maybe why their society isn't so rigid as to actually fall apart - but I don't think you could twist them far enough around to believe that eating babies was not a babyeating thing."

"And by the same token," Akon said, "I don't think they're particularly likely to persuade us that eating babies is good."  He sighed.  "Should we just mark the message as spam?"

"One of us should read it, at least," said the Ship's Confessor.  "They composed their argument honestly and in all good will.  Humanity also has epistemic standards of honor to uphold."

"Yes," said the Master.  "I don't quite understand the Babyeater standards of literature, my lord, but I can tell that this text conforms to their style of... not exactly poetry, but... they tried to make it aesthetic as well as persuasive."  The Master's eyes flickered, back and forth.  "I think they even made some parts constant in the total number of light pulses per argumentative unit, like human prosody, hoping that our translator would turn it into a human poem.  And... as near as I can judge such things, this took a lot of effort.  I wouldn't be surprised to find that everyone on that ship was staying up all night working on it."

"Babyeaters don't sleep," said the Engineer sotto vocce.

"Anyway," said the Master.  "If we don't fire on the alien ship - I mean, if this work is ever carried back to the Babyeater civilization - I suspect the aliens will consider this one of their great historical works of literature, like Hamlet or Fate/stay night -"

The Lady Sensory cleared her throat.  She was pale, and trembling.

With a sudden black premonition of doom like a training session in Unrestrained Pessimism, Akon guessed what she would say.

The Lady Sensory said, in an unsteady voice, "My lords, a third ship has jumped into this system.  Not Babyeater, not human."

To be continued...